Magazine article The Spectator

Running out of Road

Magazine article The Spectator

Running out of Road

Article excerpt

The last really good tumbleweeds film I saw was Rovin' Tumbleweeds (1939), with Gene Autry, and before that Tumbling Tumbleweeds (1935), with Gene and Roy Rogers, and I feel vaguely I may have caught maybe a couple of other adjectivally accessorised tumbleweeds. But I'd never seen a film called jes' plain Tumbleweeds, and I have to say it has a wonderful freewheeling feel, both tumblin' and rovin'. That's all the more amazing considering its principal character, a happy-go-lucky southern firecracker of a gal, is played by York's own Janet McTeer in what may be the most southern performance by a British actress since Vivien Leigh. Where Leigh depended on the kindness of strangers, McTeer's character depends on the kindness of guys who are getting stranger and stranger every day. Miss McTeer is Oscar nominated and deservedly so: she melts into the role of Mary Jo Walker so completely that, from the moment we meet her, she's vivid, whole and utterly transfixing. The film may not make Janet McTeer a star, but Miss McTeer certainly makes Mary Jo a star.

As the film begins, she's breaking up with that week's loser, and he's breaking up the furniture. Minutes later, Mary Jo and her 12-year-old daughter Ava (Kimberly J. Brown) hit the road, heading west. It's the familiar meandering route of the poor and unlucky in search of romance, security, whatever. Meanwhile, all the smart savvy sonsofbitches are heading east, to New York, Washington, Atlanta, Miami. Mary Jo first hit the road at 17, she's been married four times, and she's already lived all over the south: she's going nowhere, but taking the scenic route.

Mary Jo is a recognisable type and quite a desirable one: sexy if shopworn, squeezed into dresses that reveal a little more than they ought, available to any guy who returns her smile. She's the waitress you always hope to find in a roadside diner just before the end of her shift. And she's the woman you always leave, for some other girl, in some other diner, somewhere down the road. Mary Jo's reached that stage where she's backtracking, circling round, running so short of new disastrous boyfriends that she's trying to hook up with old disastrous boyfriends. So she detours through Missouri in search of a former high-school sweetheart, but the hard-scrabble life on a dying farm has taken the shine off the dreamboat. Mary Jo spins the car around, floors it and hightails it out of there in a cloud of dust.

But, even in America, you eventually run out of road, as Mary Jo does in Starlight Beach, California, ocean's edge, as far as you can go. …

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