*This review contains spoilers*
Every so often, Television throws up productions that dwell in your mind long after the final credits. The beautiful Normal People and the powerful I May Destroy You were two such series. The new BBC mini-series A Teacher is the latest. This is more about how it handles the uncomfortable subject matter than the brilliance of the drama itself.
A Teacher tells the story of a predatory sexual relationship between an Austin, Texas, high school English Teacher, Claire (Kate Mara), and her seventeen-year-old student, Eric (Nick Robinson). The source is director Hannah Fidell’s own 2013 film of the same name.
The story is told through the eyes of the two main protagonists; from the development of the relationship to secret intimate encounters, the immediate aftermath of their relationship being revealed, and the subsequent fall-out explored over several months. The final episode takes place ten years later.
The unnerving nature of A Teacher is that you know what you are watching is wrong. However, with the way the story plays out, it doesn’t always feel that way.
The relationship begins with Eric requesting tutoring from his teacher to help boost his college chances. On the face of it, Claire is a young professional who is married to her childhood sweetheart. When Eric tries to kiss her in the second episode, Claire appears affronted and puts some temporary distance between them. As a viewer, you feel shocked at the stupidity of some of Claire’s rash actions; including accompanying Eric on a college tour, which results in them engaging in drinking games in a fraternity house. Yet, she seems lonely and with poor judgement rather than predatory.
When the relationship becomes sexual, the way the scenes are shot makes them feel intimate. The atmosphere is consensual and, on the face of it, not based on any form of sexual assault. The most aggressive sexual act is perpetrated by Eric as a result of jealousy after Claire calls her husband. This takes place while they are on a clandestine weekend away for Eric’s eighteenth birthday. That weekend plays out like they are in love.
Like Normal People, the series adopts the structure of short episodes, all under thirty minutes each, to tell the story across ten installments. In many ways, this is the core failing of the production. With Normal People, the short episodes were used to powerful effect to highlight key moments in the lives of the young protagonists. With A Teacher the short episodes serve to break the continuity of the story and, in some ways, diminish the powerful message. After watching the episode when they spend a weekend together you would be forgiven for siding with the relationship.
From episode six, we see lives unravel after Claire confides in a friend – a teaching colleague – about the relationship. Another error of judgement. The next three episodes focus on the aftermath, primarily from Eric’s perspective as he begins his college career. We now start to explore the impact of the relationship upon him. He is treated as a legend by the male fraternity while struggling to cope with the devastating emotional impact upon his confidence and his family. At the same time, we see Claire struggling to adapt to life after prison. Even then, there are some star-crossed lover aspects to the story. Both meet briefly in secret in a powerfully emotional scene focussed on Eric’s guilt over what happened to her. Somehow, the production makes you have empathy for both characters. It raises the question of why the director would choose to adopt this style.
Episode ten, set ten years later, brings us the dramatic conclusion and the twist in the tale of A Teacher. There is a chance meeting in Austin between Claire, now married with children, and Eric, who is home to visit his family. This final episode is filled with poignancy as we see Eric’s youngest brother at the age Eric was when the story started. We start to realise his youth was stolen from him. When Claire invites Eric to meet, ten years of trauma come spilling out over the lunch table. Eric unleashes his anger over how he now realises she was the abuser. He had carried years of guilt for no reason. Claire clings to the argument that he tried to kiss her first.
As a viewer, your feelings are one of guilt and stupidity. How did we not see through the facade of manipulation that Claire, the predator had engineered? How did we ever think that there was any equality in this relationship?
As a mini-series, A Teacher has enough quality to keep you watching. Mara and Robinson give powerful performances in the two lead roles. The downside is that, other than the subject matter, this is just a paint-by-numbers TV drama. Only when the relationship unravels do we see any real complexity in the characters. However, A Teacher ends on a powerful note which is what makes the series memorable. As the restaurant door slams and Eric returns to his shattered life, the reverberations echo through the viewer’s mind.
Ultimately, the series delivers the message that it sets out to on the nature of predatory relationships. The question is whether the message would be far more potent by trying to be less clever. The structure of the production risks viewers drawing incorrect conclusions, rather than understanding the true nature of predatory relationships. Is this a risk worth taking on such an important subject for a dramatic twist?
Words by Andrew Butcher
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