The actor Bob Hoskins died this week and while that is sad news indeed, it did remind me – and plenty of other people I suspect – about the closing scene of his breakthrough film The Long Good Friday.
In the film Hoskins played snarling, barrel-chested London gangster Harold Shand. He’s a complex character, willing to shove a broken bottle in someone’s face to solve an argument, but also proud of his record of keeping the peace in London’s gangland and with ambitions to redevelop his old stomping ground. He’s a social climber, a proud Englishman, a loyal leader.
The film is fast-paced and deals with Harold’s attempts to keep his empire intact after a brush with the IRA leads to violent clashes. In the final scene, Harold thinks he has managed to solve the crisis, though his mafia connections have pulled out of the deal. Undeterred (“mafia? I’ve shit ’em”) he ends up getting into what he thinks is his chauffeur driven car. Only it’s not his car, not his driver. It’s a unknown driver and a young Pierce Brosnan, IRA foot soldier, pointing a gun at his head.
There’s no dialogue from now till the end of the film. Instead the camera focuses on Harold’s face as he is driven away (with occasional cutaways to Brosnan and his big gun). We watch as Harold goes through a number of emotional states – rage, fear, despair, resignation, defiance. There’s more ‘said’ in those final moments than most films have over 90 minutes.
So what’s this got to do with writing? A lot, I’d argue.
Yes, it’s a case of show not tell. But it’s more than that it’s about using an absence of something to convey powerful meaning. This is a character who has spent the whole film talking his way in and out of situations, negotiating, insulting, ordering. But at the end he is rendered speechless. He has nothing to say and that means we know he has reached the end of his course. He’s done. There’s nothing more to be added.
It’s this use of absence, of not filling in the blanks, of saying something by leaving it out and letting the reader fathom what’s going on, that great short story writers (I’m immediately thinking Hemingway and Carver) do so well.
So thanks Bob. You may have left an empty gap, but that emptiness is full of meaning.