Paul T Davies reviews Kristin Scott Thomas in Alan Bennett’s The Hand Of God presented as part of the Talking Heads series now streaming on BBC iPlayer.
Talking Heads: The Hand of God.
Streaming now on BBC iPlayer
Lighter than a few of the later Talking Heads, I’d always considered The Hand of God to be the weakest of the series. This is for two main reasons, one being that Celia is a hugely snobbish, dislikeable character, and the other is that I have trouble buying the big denouement. (If you have never seen it, this review may/will contain spoilers.) However, Kristin Scott Thomas is so perfect as Celia, acting a little against type, that her snobbish, cool exterior begins to slip through her fingers like a priceless antique.
Celia sees her antiques shop as her special kingdom of the refined. She is scathing about customers who bring her pieces and claim how much they saw it being valued for on the Antiques Roadshow because Celia doesn’t even have a television. She does “good cottage furniture”, clocks, (because her late husband was in bomb disposal), and pots of the period, would never sell teddy bears, would never do side-lines like chutney and jams, studies her competitors like a hawk, and claims she is wise to customers performing the “oldest dodge in the world”. She spots old Miss Ventrice looking through her window, and, as she does throughout the whole monologue, lists the valuables she has taken off her and the beautiful cameo broach she is wearing and notes she is looking a bit frail. In no time, she is at Miss Ventrice’s sickbed, (which she casts an expert eye over), listing the treasures in every room and hoping to get her hands on a few pieces. Then a long-lost niece appears, gets the inheritance and gives Celia, in compensation for her time, a box full of “nick nacks”. Nice picture frame, ugly sketch in it. She sells it for a £100 to a young man and is delighted with that and the bonus that he will come back for the rectory table she hasn’t shifted for over a year. Of course, he has performed the oldest trick in the book on her, and the sketch is an early Michelangelo of the hand of God, worth millions.
I still find it hard to accept this would have been in a box in an old ladies country house, and that Celia, even if paintings are not her area, and she has never seen the beginning of the South Bank Show to recognise the finger, would not have suspected its value. However, Scott Thomas brilliantly presents a succession of smiles to convey Celia’s fall from snobbish grace. The condescending smile she gives to customers, the genuine joyful glee when she thinks she has sold the table and got an unexpected bonus with the picture frame, and the false, broken smile she gives to the camera when she reveals the millions she let pass through her shop. She pulls on the sleeves of her muted, cheaper looking jumper, and looks over to the jams and chutney’s she is now selling. Her shop is now busy with people wanting to have a look at her. It’s a beautifully crafted piece, wonderfully designed, and Jonathan Kent’s direction gradually mutes Celia as the final scene plays out. I misjudged it originally, and this version really makes the play shine. I just hope not all antique dealers are like Celia….
Other Talking Heads Reviews
Read our review for An Ordinary Woman
Read our review for The Shrine
Read our review for Soldiering On
Read our review for Her Big Chance
Read our review for The Outside Dog
Read our review for Bed Among The Lentils