The Image

2024 Writing Award Sub-Category
Manuscript Type
Logline or Premise
The filming of a period biopic is dogged by arson, aggression, assault, historical controversy and ultimately murder. An insomniac costume maker navigates his way around an activist heir, looney writer, incompetent director, and creepy producer to recover his reputation and some rubies.
First 10 Pages

The Image

Dishonesty and equality were in fashion. I dislike fashion. It undermines style. Beauty was also in fashion, but then it always is, even if beholders have different eyes for it.

Those who watch the public mood for saleable trends had decided it was time for a biopic about a beautiful woman who had charmed the Victorian gossip columns while the cruelty of her relationships with powerful men were hidden behind closed doors.

It would be a period drama in the fading and hypocritical world of fin-de-siècle London. There would be corruption and high politics, hansom cabs, handsome cads and candlelit balls. It would twang the heartstrings of equality and shine a spotlight on dishonesty and it would be much like many other films.

The film would be called, “The Image.”

It would make money. It would have a high production value and a big wardrobe budget some of which would be paid to me, despite my reservations. I told myself that I didn’t have to watch the film when it was released and accepted the commission.

A half-tone photograph was propped on an easel under one of the white lights in my studio. This was the eponymous Image. In it, expanded to near life size, a curvy woman in a flowing gown is paused before the portico of a Mayfair mansion. A hulking man in evening dress is in the doorway behind her, preventing a younger man in shirtsleeves pursuing her down the steps. There is a look of anguish on the woman’s face, her hair is disordered and there is a dark patch on her cheek. The photographer’s chemical flash casts depth, shadows and a great deal of pathos on the moment, but provides no explanations.

The older man was a member of the cabinet and, twenty years later, the younger one would be too. At the time they were the heart of public life. The film is not about them. It is about the woman.

She was Evelyn Cantor, sometime companion of dukes and princes, gold digger and artists’ model. The contemporary news-sheets were full of tittle-tattle about her appearance, her appearances and her antics.

Growing up in Allerton, which might be in Liverpool or maybe Yorkshire and is not very salubrious, she was Marjorie Flint until, aged sixteen, she left a new-born with her mother and changed both her name and accent in a third-class carriage to London.

She was said to be the most beautiful woman of her age, although in my opinion, the photograph does not support that claim. Eyes of beholders, again. Or maybe dishonesty. Or perhaps beauty has its own fashions, and her particular looks were in the right place at the right time.

Fair commentators, who met Evelyn Cantor in life, called her waspish, grasping, and inarticulate. However, the filmscript had a theme and a modern message which were not compatible with these personality traits. Evelyn would consequently be played by a willowy actor with attitude and a social media following who would deliver brilliant lines foreshadowing Pankhurst. She would also, probably, have access to better makeup.

The film’s producer wanted the final shot of the film to recreate the scene in The Image. The action would be paused as Evelyn stumbled down the stairs while her powerful patrons struggled at the door. The technicolour would fade into browns and greys and The Image would form the backdrop as the final credits rose. No doubt there would be an emotive soundtrack.

That conceit needed a high level of care, involving perfection in everything visible, down to the bow on Evelyn’s silk slippers. Evelyn’s patrons had taken her to the best tailors of her time and the film company had done likewise for the actor. By which, I mean, employed me to copy and resize every detail of the clothes Evelyn Cantor was wearing in The Image. I am the kind of person you go to when you want more than mere visible perfection.

I stared and The Image and tried to see beyond it.

Have you ever tried to look at a photograph and see what is not there? Not the figures in the foreground or the architecture in the back. But the words which were being shouted or the temperature of the wind or the smell of the sewers. Or perhaps the bruises on concealed skin and the embroidery on the side of a gown which is not visible.

It is like trying to read the page rather than the print. Imagining the black lines of the letters as holes through which you would catch glimpses of movements in the darkness behind, if only someone would shine a light on them.

I’d been on my own too long and indulged in too much thinking. And too many allegorical musings. And too much research. The research, in particular, was causing more problems than it solved.

There were dozens of sketches and brown-tinged portraits of Evelyn Cantor in libraries and historical collections, and I had located, printed and pinned most of them to the exposed beams around me. I knew her body shape and the line of her shoulders and her measurements to an accuracy she never had. I’d also seen her disdainful glare and the dissatisfied curve of her lips so many times that they appeared in my dreams. When I had dreams. When I was able to sleep.

Of all the photographs of Evelyn Cantor, the one on my easel was the only one which wasn’t posed or staged. The Image had been taken, without permission, by the war journalist M P Spike in 1892. Spike had learnt to take action photos in the First Boer war and had returned to London to practice his skill in the more dangerous occupation of recording the ruling class at play. He went in and out of custody for eight years without taking the hint before a severe ‘accident’ around 1895 induced him to retire to Scotland with his remaining fingers. Most of his archive, and the unauthorised facts it contained, suffered a similar accident the following year and went up in smoke.

The Image somehow escaped the bonfire, falling through cracks, passing through hands and resurfacing in a series of auctions in the second half of the twentieth century. It brought a frozen millisecond of imperial England forward to the present day. A flash of light behind the page allowing us a glimpse of what was really going on in Hansard, the court reports and the words of the contemporary gossip columnists.

I’d stood an adjustable dummy either side of the easel. One was precisely Evelyn Cantor’s size. The other was the actor’s taller and thinner studio-approved, no doubt flattering, measurements. Beside them was a flip chart on which I’d listed the items Evelyn would have been wearing, including what could not be seen. If the actor was to be Evelyn Cantor, then she would need to feel like her, from underwear and corset to Swiss-waist belt. Think of it as the clothing version of method acting.

That, at least, was my method.

The sound of reluctant footsteps stopped on the landing outside my studio and was replaced by the heavy gasps and withheld curses of a fat lady gathering her breath. A lot of people who mount the five storeys to my studio pause before knocking. I usually find myself smiling during the hiatus. I like to think that steep wooden stairs make visitors interrupt my concentration only when they really have to.

“It’s not locked,” I yelled. The fact I didn’t come to the door would annoy Maeve Smith that little bit more.

Maeve liked hating me. Whenever she was put in charge of a film’s wardrobe, she would advise against appointing me but make sure it happened anyway. Then she would whine about how simple my task was and how disproportionate my fees were and how slow my delivery. It was her way of keeping a grip on power. In fairness, she never suggested the work was sloppy as she wasn’t entirely dishonest.

On this occasion, she’d given the assistant producer my name on the spurious basis that some of the later scenes in the film would be shot in my home town. I imagined her pitching the contract on the basis that this convenience outweighed the disadvantages of relying on me. It went without saying that she was planning to use my storage unit for her own purposes when the crew were in town.

Maeve trundled into the room with a bright pink face. From my perspective it was evidence of the effort she’d put into climbing the stairs and, as such, it suited her.

She’d gone for high gloss maroon leather ankle boots with a taper too narrow for her toes, some form of what is called ‘Harem’ trousers which ended too high and a cross-over, silk blouse in lavender with a wide V which hung away from her neck by virtue of her bust size. On top of this, presumably to stop the wind whistling through the chasms of her decolletage, she had slung a purple crepe scarf in the way American Jocks wear towels.

To a degree, all these things were in fashion. They were, definitely, all expensive. And they absolutely lacked style.

Maeve glowered and told me she shouldn’t have to check up on my progress, but had been forced to do so by my lack of updates.

“You should have finished weeks ago,” she said.

“I thought I’d do the work properly, instead,” I replied.

She stumbled forward with one arm held out, either to ward me off or to assist her balance on screaming feet, and stood in front of The Image. Her hands went to her hips. They were unfashionable; hammy and calloused with messy cuticles and fiercely trimmed nails. She wasn’t a fraud when it came to doing her job, only when talking about it.

I gave her long enough to save face before swinging over a wicker chair. She ignored it. I left her staring at the photo and the two mannequins while I made acidic tea in the galley under the eaves. I’d been through this ritual before and didn’t need to hover while she inspected.

“You’re done, aren’t you?” she said when I returned. “Why haven’t you asked for a fitting?”

I stood behind her so we had the same view, except that mine was fifteen inches higher and slightly restricted by her permanent wave. After a few moments, I shuffled around her and twisted the mannequin a few degrees. The movement brought us close enough to feel the heat from each other’s skin. She flinched.

“Look at the neck of the gown,” I said.

Maeve spent fully three minutes with her eyes flicking between the photo and the dress. That is a long time of silence.

“I can’t,” she said, eventually. “It depends on the necklace.”

Very few people would have said this. Most would not care. Those who did notice anything wrong with the gown’s neckline would struggle to say what it was. Of those who could see it, hardly anyone would comment on the necklace.

Because it doesn’t make sense. The cut and hang of a dress are completely independent of the necklace being worn with it. It should be possible to design them separately. Except, when you only have a single photo, it isn’t. The drop of necklace at that moment in time reflects all sorts of things about angle and orientation which also affect how the dress was hanging. In this photo, the neckline was too obscured and too grainy to know precisely how it would have looked in real life without also knowing how the necklace was sitting.

It’s all about the movement of the person. The direction their body is shifting. The bells in the distance making them strain their neck and the smell of horse manure making their shoulders arch. It’s about the things in the image which are not there, affecting the things which are. Perhaps like some cosmic particle whose existence you can only be inferred from the bother it causes other cosmic particles.

I waited for Maeve to tell me that it didn’t matter and that only she and I would ever know.

“We do have the necklace,” she said, instead. “Belongs to the Fortlon family. We’ve been allowed to borrow it for filming.”

Her tone made it an offer.

“I know,” I said. “I asked about it last week.”

I offered her a sheath of photos and illustrations which her sidekick had sent me. Her ‘Best Boy’, is it? Or is that just for camerapersons and the lighting maestro? Whatever the sidekick’s proper title, this one had signed herself ‘Claudine.’

The necklace in Claudine photos was a bouquet-shaped diamond spray arranged around three outlandishly large rubies: a central keystone and two supporting gems. There were over forty stones, although you only noticed the three in the centre in the same way you would focus on a strawberry and two raspberries rather than the sugar crystals on which they lay.

It didn’t take Maeve long to swear and head for the door in a panic. She didn’t say anything to me but we understood one another well: at least as far as the neck of a dead woman in 1892 was concerned.