‘There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’, Walter Benjamin famously wrote. Supper for Civilised Girls by Ella Robertson proves that this idea is very much alive and kicking today. Set in the most private of private schools, two girls battle it out in disturbing ways to win a much coveted scholarship. With stylish filming, a killer soundtrack and unexpected twists, this short brings up important and uncomfortable questions about power, ambition and sacrifice.
The film opens with Millie (Holland Bailey) and Francesca (Hiral Varsani), two schoolgirls on their way to meet the formidable Miss Kerswell (Anne Hayward) for an anxiety inducing dinner, after which the winner of the scholarship will be announced. As the true nature of the test becomes clear, the girls must make one fatal decision to make or break their chances of success.
Robertson’s choice of setting is suitably old and suitably cold to convey the themes of steely ambition and rigid institutional tradition. The atmosphere of intimidation and privilege is also successfully achieved thanks to the highly competent acting of all three women. Posed at the head of power like some ungodly collision of Anne Robinson and Alan Sugar, Hayward makes a brilliantly imposing schoolmistress.
Although initially the plot may seem a little too exaggerated and slightly too didactic, the subtlety of Millie’s character gives it the necessary edge to remain entertaining and surprising. Moreover, the theatrical setting demands to be taken seriously by the frightening gravity of the questions it raises about morality and power. The Etonian eccentricity of it all is reminiscent of some famously bizarre interview techniques apparently used by Oxbridge to catch unsuspecting applicants off guard. Given that these institutions Robertson seems to be referencing are responsible for spawning a disproportionate percentage of Britain’s politicians, we are encouraged to picture current leaders in the same position. Sadly, their decisions are all too easy to imagine.
Supper for Civilised Girls is a poignant, well-executed critique of power and those who wield it. ‘The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat’, quotes Robertson. This short film shows the dangers of racing ahead without stopping to think what you’re doing. Rats of the world: beware.
'Supper for Civilised Girls' was a film in consideration for Short Focus 2019.