Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

‘The City & The City’ (2018)

By Chris Rogers, Apr 30 2018 05:04PM

China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City & The City is an outstanding depiction of the structures, conventions and customs that comprise a modern city, as well as a solid police procedural. I have read the book several times and referenced it repeatedly in my architectural writing, lectures and tours, and yet was cautious when I heard it was being brought to the small screen by the BBC. The actual plot – intricate but conventional – appeared to present few difficulties, but the adaptation would also have to address a key conceit: the studious 'unseeing' of the other city required by citizens of both Besźel and Ul Qoma. The real surprise of the resulting serial, which has just finished its broadcast run, is that the former is more of a failure than the latter, yet in truth the entire enterprise must be regarded as misjudged from the outset.

In the narrow context of that difficult social custom, then, so disarmingly simple to describe in prose yet presenting obvious challenges when rendering it visually, early signs were promising.

Beginning, as the book does, in down-at-heel Besźel, the home of protagonist Borlú (David Morrissey), we encounter a place rendered in sepia tones. The more prosperous Ul Qoma, when it appears, is in metallic blues and reds. Explained in publicity material (though not, revealingly, in the screenplay) as the result of competing street lighting systems, this is a straight lift from the novel. What is new is that everything in Besźel is crisp and in focus, whilst everything in Ul Qoma – which, of course, Borlú and thus the audience in these first-person scenes is required to unsee – is smeared and blurred. It’s an ingenious device that is deployed sparingly at first and enhanced by occasional subtlety, such as when a Ul Qoman child’s fidget spinner lands at Borlú’s feet but he is unable to return or even look at it.

But it soon becomes apparent that the truly intimate separation of the two cities described in the book, whereby alternating buildings in the same terrace or two people at a single table can be in Besźel and Ul Qoma respectively, has been radically simplified for television. Ellen E. Jones, previewing for the Guardian, described this as like “two maps, one placed on top of the other, then held up to the light”, but such delicacy is absent here.

Yes, the differences of alphabet, vocabulary (a linguist was actually employed to formulate Illitan, the language of Ul Qoma, using the real-world Georgian alphabet as a base), food and clothes given in the book are all picked out, but they are segregated behind a straightforward linear border, depicted most obviously in a shot of cars driving either side of a wide road, the one stream in the one city, the other in the other, even if a momentary lane-jumper causing concern also borrows from the original.

This is a disappointment. Perhaps the production felt that a more nuanced approach would confuse the prospective audience, despite the obvious appetite for complexity amongst speculative fiction adherents, or perhaps it was founded in the same budgetary restrictions that prevented filming in Eastern Europe (Manchester and Liverpool substitute, on the whole successfully). Regardless, it does betray a certain lack of creativity. For example, even the way in which citizens walk and carry themselves varies between cities, something which attains crucial import at the climax of the novel, yet it does not appear to have occurred to the makers to employ as extras two groups of trained dancers or movement artists who, suitably costumed in the colours of the two cities and properly rehearsed, could walk ‘through’ – without seeming to notice – each other.

In fact not only is the split less shaded than it should have been, extra emphasis has been added to the idea of a physical boundary by clumsily laboured parallels with East Germany before the collapse of Communism and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Thus posters and unrelenting public address system announcements injunct “When in Besźel, see Besźel”, passengers on a train suddenly shut their eyes en masse to avoid The Other and even Morrissey is required to theatrically frown and rub his forehead almost every time he ‘unsees’, as though he has been caught in possession of samizdat. And then there is the crude portrayal of Breach. Truly unseen in the novel, and far more effective a threat as a result, it is depicted as a Staasi-like secret police force with yet more posters warning that its operatives “look like you”, its activities recalling Nazi-era scientists behind the scenes and other characters signing off conversations with the warning “Be safe”. Admittedly their appearance when they take Borlú at the end of episode three is somewhat effective, but even here they loom hammily out of the night as if in an Expressionist film rather than emerge instantly from the crowd, always ‘there’ but never seen.

The serial fails to honour its own rules, too, in a way that surely insults the viewer. In a scene that, done properly, could have been a perfect representation of the novel, Borlú and his aide Corwi talk on mobile phones, each in separate cities and each framed in separate shots. As their conversation climaxes the camera pulls back to reveal that they are sitting on the same bench, allowing Corwi to leave a wrapped parcel containing a gun that Borlú then picks up – that is Breach, more blatant that any seen or avoided so far, yet an act that passed entirely unnoticed by the supposedly omniscient watchers in order that the story can advance.

That scene does not come from the novel, and nor do many, many others. Its detective protagonist needed neither a missing wife nor a Difficult Last Case, but writer Tony Grisoni unaccountably lumbers Borlú with both, themselves shown mostly in torpid flashbacks by director Tom Shankland. Much of the remainder of Miéville’s work suffers conflation, inversion and distortion. It is especially depressing to find the construction of Borlú as a convincingly flawed hero so lacking that he cannot, in this version of the story, be permitted to shoot a killer dead without immediate provocation.

Changing the sex of Dhatt, Borlú’s opposite number in UI Qoma, from male to female works better than I had expected thanks to Maria Schrader’s world-weary playing, though retaining Dhatt’s wife and thus making that character gay probably says more about the straining-to-please mores of today than any flaws in Miéville’s writing. It is, though, bitterly ironic that in seeking to improve the representation of women in these ways (Borlú has two girlfriends in the book but neither speaks) the only decent female character of the novel, Corwi, has been destroyed thanks to an excruciating performance by Mandeep Dhillon as kind of 'gor blimey cockney' and the decision to centre the manifestation of Breach with her.

It is commendable that an adaptation was commissioned, but hugely disheartening that the outcome is so confused and confusing and burdened with so many additional complications that add nothing and indeed take much away.

The City & The City, a Mammoth Screen production for BBC Two, is available on iPlayer until the end of May

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