Review: We’ll Take Manhattan, BBC4

Karen Gillan's first big post-Who role gave her nothing to work with, says Jack Seale

We’ll Take Manhattan didn’t skimp when it came to hyping up the story being told. “In 1962,” said a comically overblown opening caption, “there was no such thing as youth culture. But then David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton went to New York.”


Surely we were in for an inspirational, invigorating and – with Karen Gillan as Shrimpton, in her first major role outside Doctor Who – sexy ride. And surely, at a feature-length 90 minutes, We’ll Take Manhattan would tell us how and why Bailey’s pictures of Shrimpton in Manhattan for Vogue magazine turned fashion photography upside-down.

At first, Aneurin Barnard as Bailey was indeed an intoxicating bad-boy hero, with his leather jacket, his unstoppable cheekiness, his bold and beautiful features, his suspiciously prescient hair. We had a right old laugh with him as he shouted his way through a Vogue editorial meeting, laying down his vision for the upcoming New York shoot despite only having turned up from obscurity five minutes ago. 

“You want anything remotely near the 20th century, possessed of actual, functioning sexual equipment, she’s your girl,” he said of Shrimpton. “It’s her, or you can stuff it.” Well played, Dave.

The early scenes of Shrimpton’s youth as a stifled, conservative farm girl weren’t so arresting, but when she and Bailey arrived in Manhattan, they were apparently destined to change the fashion world for ever, smash the old guard, invent youth culture and write all the songs for the Beatles’ first album. Let’s go!

In fact, it was here where the film showed itself to be all flash and no development. Endless shouting matches between Barnard and Helen McCrory as Lady Clare Rendelsham, the aristocratic Vogue veteran who wanted to strangle Bailey’s innovation, culminated in a sappingly on-the-nose speech from Barnard that made you start thinking Lady C was right and Bailey should be fired.

Since we knew Bailey and Shrimpton will win, the drama had to come from somewhere deeper than a spat between the swingers and the stiffs. What was driving each side? We never found out. Bailey arrived and left as a cartoon barrow-boy charmer, whose total refusal to compromise was the only apparent clue to his artistic genius. 

It was almost as if the way he got everything right all the time was a fluke, when a glance at the real “Young Idea Goes West” Vogue shots tells you it can’t have been. Why did Bailey photograph Shrimpton behind a chain-link fence, for instance? Because: “IT’S SYM-BOLLICK!” 

It might be that Bailey lets his work do the talking in real life, but for a drama based on dialogue that’s a big problem, and We’ll Take Manhattan didn’t solve it. That Shrimpton and Bailey were lovers should be a gift, but it added nothing because Shrimpton was written as a complete blank. Bailey just bellowed over her.

With the accents also wearing out before the hour mark – Gillan’s careful “would you mind awfully?” RP and Barnard’s impersonation of someone doing a Michael Caine impersonation – it was tempting to turn the sound down and just look at their lovely faces.

The visuals were where We’ll Take Manhattan scored a few wins. The dead script didn’t bring to life the impact of what Bailey and Shrimpton were doing, but when the actual shoots took place, the evocation of Bailey’s eye, and Shrimpton’s offhand command of the lens, was occasionally stunning.

Certainly it helped that Gillan’s green, ginger and ivory face is so exquisite, you could gaze at it for a month. Yet it still takes some skill to replicate those quarter-seconds of magic that happen when a master photographer is at work, when a girl standing awkwardly in a studio or on a street suddenly becomes an image that will be studied for decades.

The scene where Shrimpton was photographed by the Thames with the dipping sun behind her, and a last shot of her staring down the camera that burnt briefly through the final cut to black, were pictures worthy of We’ll Take Manhattan’s subject matter – although we were really now watching a film about Gillan, not Shrimpton. Gillan was arguably far too beautiful for the role. The slight oddness of Shrimpton’s looks was lost, lowering the stakes of the battle she and Bailey fought – as played by Gillan, she could have posed just as well for the pristine shots the Vogue elders wanted as for Bailey’s edgier compositions – and making a mockery of Lady C’s endless talk of her not being good-looking.


More frustratingly, we know from The Girl Who Waited that Gillan can do more. She can act, but here she was playing a photograph, not a person. We’ll Take Manhattan struggled to give us more than two dimensions.