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GIRLS NIGHT

THE GOODBYE GIRLS
Girls’ Night is a film about friendship. And, with Julie Walters and Brenda Blethyn starring in their first movie together, the laughs are plentiful. But the story has another, sadder theme - one that films, let alone comedies, rarely deal with. By Jo Nicholas.

Jackie and Dawn are two friends from the North of England, played by two of Britain's top actresses, both Oscar-nominated, albeit 10 years apart. Julie Walters, who plays Jackie, got the nod for Educating Rita in 1983; and Brenda Blethyn (Dawn) was 1997's nominee - plus Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival - for Secrets and Lies. Appearing together in Girls' Night, they got a standing ovation at Sundance in January 1998.

"When knocking-off time does come, they go home to humdrum lives"

Jackie and Dawn work for minimal wages, tethered to a bench in an electronics factory, inserting bits and pieces into printed-circuit boards, wearing anti-static uniforms provided free by a benevolent Japanese employer (except for Jackie, ever the rebel, who refuses to wear hers), with an electronic ‘target’ glimmering over their heads to remind them how many circuit-boards they have to finish before knocking-off time.

When knocking-off time does come, they go home to humdrum lives: Dawn to a contented if dull existence with husband Steve (George Costigan); Jackie to a battlefield of silent aggression with Dave (Philip Jackson). On Friday nights, they go out to the bingo.

Then, one night, while Jackie is engaged in her sporadic affair with the manager of the local bingo hall, Dawn wins the national jackpot, a huge prize of £100,000. And, as she has always promised she would, she splits her winnings with Jackie. Their lives seem finally to have taken a turn for the better.

In Jackie’s case, ‘better’ means loading the furniture onto a truck, leaving Dave and moving in "for a couple of days, until I find a place of my own" with the bingo manager, who is less than delighted with the arrangement. For Dawn, it means beginning to think about buying Steve a new car for his driving school and maybe doing up the bathroom.

"I wrote Girls’ Night in memory of my dear friend Denise" writer Kay Mellor

But Girls' Night is not just a comedy. Shortly after picking up her cheque, Dawn discovers that the breast cancer she thought she had beaten has re-emerged in her brain. And, after a few miserable weeks of medication and radiation treatment, with the inevitable nausea and hair loss, she decides she would rather die with some dignity than spend her final days in painful but hopeless treatment, "lying on a tin tray while a bloody machine shoots X-rays into my head".

"I wrote Girls’ Night in memory of my dear friend Denise [to whom the film is dedicated], who died at a young age," says writer Kay Mellor. "It helped me understand how she could accept death so gracefully, when everything in me was raging at the injustice of it all."

What Jackie - who does indeed rage briefly at the injustice of it all - does is to go out and buy two tickets for a holiday in Las Vegas, the one place that Dawn has always wanted to go, and gives her an hour to get ready for the airport. And so the two friends take off for the gambling capital of the world, the city of off-the-peg dreams, which provides Dawn with the chance to escape into the fantasy world on offer.

It's a film that doesn't shy away from either of the 'C' words: comedy or cancer. But there are no cheap laughs - well, maybe a couple at the expense of Julio Iglesias - and the central theme of the disease, those who suffer from it and those who love them, is treated with intense respect.

"It’s a film that speaks about the unspeakable," director Nick Hurran

"It’s a film that speaks about the unspeakable," says director Nick Hurran, most of whose previous experience (in both the feature Remember Me and his extensive television work) has been with romantic comedies, and who reckons that that is at least one of the reasons he was Mellor’s first choice. "It speaks about the horrible emotions you go through - the hope, and then the reality of the disease.

"It’s a subject that was treated with great respect by all of us," continues Hurran. "I have lost three people to cancer personally. I know that Julie has experienced it. And I know that Brenda has experienced it. There were particular scenes where I knew we had to use three cameras, because the emotions involved meant we were only going to get one hit at it."

One such scene is set in Las Vegas: the one where Dawn accepts that the holiday is over and it's time to go home (the other is Jackie's funeral oration, which can be guaranteed to draw tears from the most hardened of movie-goers). But Vegas gives Dawn the lift she needs - and helps lend Girls' Night its special tone.

"Going there is quite surreal." Hurran on Las Vegas

"You can utterly lose yourself in Las Vegas," says Hurran, who shot two-thirds of the film in Rawtenstall, a few scenes in Manchester and the rest in Vegas. "Going there is quite surreal. We’d been through all this emotional turmoil but, when we were there, it was like the problems had just gone away - which is what we were after in the film. Dawn is allowed to live again."

In the desert gambling mecca, Dawn and Jackie meet up with Cody (Kris Kristofferson), a gentle, straight-talking Nevada cowboy who shows them the desert, and with whom Dawn appears to be about to have a holiday romance. But it is Jackie who establishes a bond with Cody, one which will eventually help her move on from Dawn’s death.

For Hurran, the casting of Kristofferson in the role completed a process that was little short of ideal. "It’s just such an utter dream cast," he says. "I’d worked with Brenda a couple of times before. Brenda hadn’t worked with Julie but had always wanted to. And Kris Kristofferson I always had in mind. My belief is, you always ask. So we sent it out to him, and he came back very quickly and said yes."

The whole notion of the trip to Vegas is close - almost too close - to Mellor’s experience, and Girls’ Night is a film which, even now, she finds hard to watch. "Her best friend died of cancer," explains Hurran. "She used to visit her every day in hospital and they would play ‘Fantasy Holidays’, imagining the holidays they would have when she ‘got better’. For Kay, Girls’ Night is the holiday they never had. Not surprisingly, she finds it almost impossible to watch any of the film without becoming very emotional."

"I was very keen for the film to be a celebration," Nick Hurran

But the director is adamant that the film is not a downer - that it is about how to get the most out of life, which is perhaps the only way to deal with death. "I was very keen for the film to be a celebration," he says. "I know it is a harrowing subject, but I didn’t want it to descend into sadness. The area I usually work in is romantic comedy, so this was really a challenge for me, but also something I was overjoyed to be asked to do. The important thing in a film like this is to treat comedy and tragedy exactly the same - to look for the truth in the situation. So often in English comedy, truth isn’t the first choice.

"Both Brenda and Julie," he continues, "knew exactly what they wanted in the film, where they were coming from. They were utterly professional, almost like sisters from the word go. This is not a piece that I think anybody entered into lightly. I was very keen that it should not be sentimentalised, and there is a very fine line between that and getting the most out of the dramatic situation. Both Brenda and Julie are utter masters at knowing where that line lies."

Girls’ Night received its premiere on the opening night of the Leeds International Film Festival, not far from where it was shot, then went on to Birmingham, then Sundance, then Berlin, where it screened in Competition.

"They broke into a standing ovation." Hurran on Sundance audience

The Sundance audience, says Hurran, "laughed louder than I’d ever heard any audience and wept uncontrollably. Then, as the credits rolled, there was a silence like I’ve never heard before. Finally, as we got up to walk to the front of the screening theatre - the Library, a 600-seater which is one of the biggest in Sundance - they broke into a standing ovation."

That, to Hurran, was the final proof that the film had worked on the two levels which he had set out to achieve: as a comedy about two female friends fighting adversity; and as a tragedy about losing one’s best friend to cancer.

"The comedy and the tragedy are both there," he says by way of conclusion. "You don’t need to work it."

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"It’s a film that speaks about the unspeakable, about the horrible emotions you go through - the hope, and then the reality of the disease"
Director Nick Hurran

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"There were particular scenes where I knew we had to use three cameras, because the emotions involved meant we were only going to get one hit at it"
Director Nick Hurran

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"I wrote Girls’ Night in memory of my dear friend, who died at a young age. It helped me understand how she could accept death so gracefully, when everything in me was raging at the injustice of it all"
Writer Kay Mellor

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"I was very keen that it should not be sentimentalised, and there is a very fine line between that and getting the most out of the dramatic situation."
Director Nick Hurran

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