Channel 4’s ‘National Treasure’, which reached its conclusion on 11th October, offered a masterclass in the ways that drama can, if it is good enough, expose and explore some bleak truths in a far more profound and revealing way than its more workaday rival the documentary.
While technically, at least, this was a work of fiction, the unflinching gaze it cast on the reality of rape - its impact, roots, drivers, many manifestations and the power and entitlement underpinning its perpetration created here a tour de force stomach-churning in its honesty, breathtaking in its subtlety and complexity, and utterly bleak in the desolation left by its appropriate and depressingly inevitable conclusion. For this was, first and foremost a work of truth, grounded in a grim reality to which women contacting rape crisis centres bear witness daily.
The truth laid bare by this drama extended far beyond the inevitability with which Paul Finchley got away with rape. His victims having been humiliated in court, their credibility destroyed, it was but a short hop for this serial abuser to reach freedom and the beginning of an almost immediate rehabilitation. National Treasure anatomised rape culture in forensic detail, laying out for our scrutiny the attitudes and behaviours that feed it and allow it to thrive. Paul knows that, paradoxically, to admit to having slept with Rebecca Thornton will enhance his credibility while damaging hers, that her motives for visiting his trailer are far less likely to stand up to scrutiny than his own admission of infidelity and sexual gratification as a cover for rape.
Paul is a narcissist and liar whose status and self-serving and delusional mindset allow him (as his wife Marie perceptively observes: “There are layers of you, aren’t there?”) to occupy several (morally contradictory) dimensions at the same time, and to make (and to a large extent apparently believe) his claim that ‘I’m a good man’. He is never able to do this by himself however, or to see being a good man as an end in itself. In private, as in his working life, he needs an audience – principally his wife Marie and daughter Dee, to offer the proof and reassurance that this is so – to be the mirror reflecting back the image of himself that he chooses to believe and wants others to share and reinforce. The portrayal of this perpetrator as a complex human – for Paul is charismatic and funny, liked by his loyal friends and loved by many fans, is likewise a useful challenge to the persistent image of rapists as exceptional or wholly evil maniacs. It is helpful to see his charisma and plausibility, even as he employs them to conjur an image of himself as a weak and feckless adulterer finally, as the primary tools he employs to tip the balance in his favour and secure his acquittal. His crocodile tears at the testimony of the women he has raped are disturbing. They may indicate that in the moment of the trial at least, he inhabits the layer or dimension in which he is able to access some empathy or humanity. It may equally however, be a cynical facsimile of empathy called up by a career performer for the benefit of the jury. Such uncertainties and obscurity enhance rather than hamper the drama and its messages, and offer a space for us to reflect on the possibilities, and to think uncomfortable thoughts.
The court scenes in this drama demonstrated as other have done before them, the harrowing ordeal that rape complainers experience as they seek justice. And yet there was far more here. The fan letter post-dating Paul’s rape which destroyed Rebecca’s credibility spoke to the great difficulty many survivors have in identifying and naming what has happened to them as rape, and the urge to reframe and normalise events as they are unable to confront and process the violence they have experienced. Her inability to recall the letter suggests the impact on memory and blanking out of significant periods of time that trauma can induce, the mind’s efforts to protect itself leaving gaps for a rapist’s defence to exploit. Similarly, the casting of the more self-assured Christina as a money-grabbing liar reflects the way that women can be stereotyped as mendacious and calculating deceivers with ulterior motives for making false allegations. The revelation that she has made arrangements to sell her story to a newspaper after the trial only comes after Christina is made to recount in humiliating detail the acts and parts of her body involved in the offences perpetrated upon her. In her tears at being shown a photograph of her fifteen year old self we see the cracking of a toughness wrought by the intervening years. There is something in the insistence by the defence barrister on forcing these explicit responses from Christina that seems bent on humiliating and undermining her by making her appear complicit and promiscuous: a certain kind of woman, more likely to have consented, and less likely therefore to have been raped. Christina was a child when she was raped by Paul.
The delusion (willed or unconscious) and the refusal of so many bystanders to acknowledge or confront these crimes is one of the most interesting aspects of National Treasure. The many years of turning a blind eye to Paul’s philandering have been no preparation for or help to Marie in confronting the possibility that he may be something far worse than an unfaithful husband. The confessional aspect of their relationship, which allows her to some extent to cope with his infidelity and offers him absolution until the next time plays out the Victorian patriarchal model which positions women as the guardians of morality within households and relationships. It also suggests that Paul is in the habit of carrying out his infidelities ‘in plain sight’ suggesting uncomfortable overtones of Savile and the willing blindness of those who surrounded him, for this ‘transparency’ is something he capitalises on later. And yet, Marie discovers, she was far from being privy to all of his activities, just as that final, darkest ‘layer’ suggested by Marie remains largely hidden to almost everyone except his victims and, via dramatic irony, to us the viewers, until close to the end.
And while Marie’s ‘I choose to believe him’ undergoes a complete reversal as events unfold, in spite of the fact that she can never be certain, her faith lies ultimately with the survivors of Paul’s assaults, his partner Karl colludes with and supports Paul’s version of events even though he has witnessed evidence which proves his friend a rapist. Realising that the public guilt and conviction of his friend would have an impact on him too, he allows lies and expediency, the pull of self-interest, and the male bond between them to trump truth and justice.
In Paul’s white face bellowing for the departed Marie at the end of National Treasure, we sense the moral void at the centre of this rapist. In the absence of the guarantor of the sense of himself he can live with, only the howling, bankrupt husk that fiction obscures remains. The hollow desperation of this final scene echoes the earlier silent screaming in the shower which suggested that Paul’s sense of horror at exposure extends far beyond the self-consciousness he feels about his naked body.
National Treasure also makes vital connections between the use of pornography and exploitation of women in prostitution and sexual violence. It identifies in a way many others have not that rape is at one end of a spectrum of violence in which every objectifying glance, opportunistic grope and exploitative transaction has played its part. The culture these factors define is a framework which protects collusive men, and controls the women they exert and maintain power over and assault, hurting and damaging them, and seriously inhibiting their chances of receiving justice.
National Treasure is a thoughtful, subtle, insightful and honest representation of the painful and devastating truths to which thousands of survivors bear witness, endure, and struggle to live beyond every day. Paul Finchley’s acquittal may have been a surprise to many, as the outrage and indignation evident among some Twitter users afterwards showed, but to anyone who has survived a rape or worked in a rape crisis centre, it told a familiar story.