Edinburgh Film Seminar: Dr Lucy Fife Donaldson

19 November 2019 @ 16:30 – 18:00
Project Room
50 George Square
Layers of style: Design and embodiment in The Americans
A free seminar by guest speaker Dr Lucy Fife Donaldson (University of St Andrews).
Set during the 1980s, The Americans (FX, 2013-2018) is a US drama series whose narrative combines cold-war spy thriller with family melodrama; a stylish evocation of spycraft in the period embedded within a substantive, emotionally complex serial drama. The principal characters, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (played by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys), occupy the dual roles of unremarkable US citizens (parents to two children and successful small business owners) and soviet KGB officers. Style is often aligned with surface, with artifice, construction, ephemerality. The mechanics of the Jennings’ work involves inhabiting different styles or disguises, and the design of the programme foregrounds the artifice of their work through surface changes of costume and make-up. Substance, on the other hand, is concerned with complexity, with materiality, thickness, solidity. 

The layered narrative of The Americans, as well as its historical/political grounding and multifaceted lead performances, delivers such weight and seriousness. In this talk I will seek to illuminate how the style, and stylishness, of the series is made material and dense, through attention to design. While the disguises necessitated by their work connects to the potential ephemerality of style, the design of the series, from décor to costuming and the all-important wig/make-up work, is central to rooting the series in a credible incarnation of the 1980s, and making material and tangible the emotional shades of the characterisation and narrative. 

Special attention will be paid to the intersection of design with Keri Russell’s performance, as her embodiment of Elizabeth Jennings – a key surface in the show’s design – enables a focused opportunity to track the materially meaningful qualities of style. Russell’s performance engages carefully with costume and make-up, to render her character through a meticulous layering of elements: ruthless violence, tender tactility, professional detachment, patriotic dedication, vulnerability and ferociousness. 

About the speaker 
Lucy Fife Donaldson is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of St. Andrews and her research focuses on the materiality of style and the body in popular film and television. She is the author of Texture in Film (Palgrave Macmillan: 2014), and a member of the Editorial Board of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticismhttps://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/film-studies/people/lfd2
All welcome.