The ‘House of Cards’ actress could finally headline a show that lets her great dramatic skillset shine, but this has to be her most unlikable role yet.
Hannah Fidell has had a penchant for pushing buttons from the very beginning of her career. Her big debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013 happened with A Teacher, a film that tracks an unraveling protagonist who begins a sexual affair with one of her students. Needless to say, to call such a subject matter “confronting” and “controversial” feels flippant.
Fidell’s feature attempts to unpack knotty emotional and ethical quandaries through a dubious premise. Regardless, although a beautifully shot film, just sitting through the full 75 minutes of A Teacher is a trying experience due to its topical sensitivities and emotional distress. So, how could anyone possibly handle an entire series’ worth of morally suspect indiscretions?
Perhaps that could be possible with the assistance of Kate Mara. Deadline has reported that the actress best-known on the small screen for House of Cards and American Horror Story: Murder House will headline a limited series based on A Teacher. Fidell will return to script, direct, and executive produce the show, which is in development at FX.
The basic plot of the serialized version of A Teacher remains the same as that of the film, with Mara taking on the titular role. That said, the very brief synopsis for this adaptation already expands on the bare-bones nature of its source material in a favorable way. The series evidently aims to actually examine the power imbalances that come into play within its central illicit relationship. Issues of “consent, abuse of power, [and] victimhood” will be addressed as the affair is unearthed and made known to the community at large.
Already, the potential of witnessing some form of accountability in the series makes me feel less wary about A Teacher. Unlike its film counterpart, the show promises some concrete form of engagement with the story’s difficult narrative. One of the biggest issues with Fidell’s original movie lies in its one-sided story, told from the elusive point-of-view of the teacher in question (depicted by a fearless Lindsay Burdge).
Although ostensibly a character study, the film doesn’t make audiences privy to any of the teacher’s motivations or backstory. This suppression of information theoretically mimics A Teacher‘s themes of secrecy and facilitates the movie’s self-destructive driving force. Yet, it is actualized in such a clinical fashion, rendering the movie’s emotional content moot. When we can’t understand where the teacher is coming from, we are only made to watch the train wreck of her bad decisions helplessly unfold. Thus, the story feels incomplete by the end.
But at the very least, A Teacher correctly posits that there’s nothing likable or aspirational about its protagonist. Rather, the film’s lack of definitive moral judgment on her allows her to simply exist in the mess of her life, and audiences are free to accept or reject her at their own will. This signals at what’s to come for Mara in the series adaptation. Still, even if we aren’t primed to root for her either, she is fully capable of handling the gravity of the character.
As a matter of fact, Mara excels at taking on thankless roles. In American Horror Story, she portrays Hayden McClaine, an over-the-top villainous disruption in the lives of the season’s principal characters, the Harmon family. Hayden was once caught up in a fling with patriarch Ben Harmon (who was once her college professor). She resurfaces in his life after their extended rendezvous results in pregnancy and becomes a literal embodiment of consequence that Ben would much rather eradicate. Audiences are inclined to feel this way, too, if not for Ben’s sake but his family’s. Mara plays Hayden’s unstable personality with demented vindictiveness, which lends a layer of unpredictability and formidability to her appearances throughout the season’s proceedings.
A few years later, Mara would then fill the shoes of the ruthless journalist Zoe Barnes in House of Cards, who is an equally frustrating character to grapple with. She is strong-willed and street-smart, willing to do anything to get a story, but she simultaneously perpetuates the tired trope of female journalists sleeping with their subjects for her big break.
Zoe is rarely positioned in a good enough light for audiences to empathize with her because she is not much of a character outside her job, and her behavior appears largely reactionary in a world of calculative smarts. She is notorious for making quickfire decisions to save her own skin until they inevitably backfire on her. However, to root for the shadiness of other House of Cards characters only to then turn around and condemn Zoe’s own efforts to get ahead presents a fascinating conundrum that’s tough to reconcile.
And for her part, Mara does a great job turning Zoe into someone who could feasibly be great and likable for her headstrong qualities and inherent perceptiveness. Unfortunately, the character relishes impulse far too much, which hurts her chances in the long game of unscrupulous politics in House of Cards.
Obviously, with A Teacher, the tables will turn for Mara, placing this particular unlikable character in a position of power for a change. The added bonus of time and narrative space allotted to fleshing out that kind of disagreeability on the small screen is a challenge becoming of the actress, as long as Fidell expands her original story with care. That first try with A Teacher fell short, but this limited series could be a do-over of note.
Related Topics: Casting