Jackie and Dawn are two friends from the North of England, played by two of Britain's
top actresses, both Oscar-nominated, albeit 10 years apart. Julie Walters, who plays
Jackie, got the nod for Educating Rita in 1983; and Brenda Blethyn (Dawn) was 1997's
nominee - plus Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival - for Secrets and Lies. Appearing
together in Girls' Night, they got a standing ovation at Sundance in January 1998.
"When knocking-off time does come, they go home to
Jackie and Dawn work for minimal wages, tethered to a bench in an electronics factory,
inserting bits and pieces into printed-circuit boards, wearing anti-static uniforms
provided free by a benevolent Japanese employer (except for Jackie, ever the rebel, who
refuses to wear hers), with an electronic ‘target’ glimmering over their heads
to remind them how many circuit-boards they have to finish before knocking-off time.
When knocking-off time does come, they go home to humdrum lives: Dawn to a contented if
dull existence with husband Steve (George Costigan); Jackie to a battlefield of silent
aggression with Dave (Philip Jackson). On Friday nights, they go out to the bingo.
Then, one night, while Jackie is engaged in her sporadic affair with the manager of the
local bingo hall, Dawn wins the national jackpot, a huge prize of £100,000. And, as she
has always promised she would, she splits her winnings with Jackie. Their lives seem
finally to have taken a turn for the better.
In Jackie’s case, ‘better’ means loading the furniture onto a truck,
leaving Dave and moving in "for a couple of days, until I find a place of my
own" with the bingo manager, who is less than delighted with the arrangement. For
Dawn, it means beginning to think about buying Steve a new car for his driving school and
maybe doing up the bathroom.
"I wrote Girls’ Night in memory of my dear friend
Denise" writer Kay Mellor
But Girls' Night is not just a comedy. Shortly after picking up her cheque, Dawn
discovers that the breast cancer she thought she had beaten has re-emerged in her brain.
And, after a few miserable weeks of medication and radiation treatment, with the
inevitable nausea and hair loss, she decides she would rather die with some dignity than
spend her final days in painful but hopeless treatment, "lying on a tin tray while a
bloody machine shoots X-rays into my head".
"I wrote Girls’ Night in memory of my dear friend Denise [to whom the film is
dedicated], who died at a young age," says writer Kay Mellor. "It helped me
understand how she could accept death so gracefully, when everything in me was raging at
the injustice of it all."
What Jackie - who does indeed rage briefly at the injustice of it all - does is to go
out and buy two tickets for a holiday in Las Vegas, the one place that Dawn has always
wanted to go, and gives her an hour to get ready for the airport. And so the two friends
take off for the gambling capital of the world, the city of off-the-peg dreams, which
provides Dawn with the chance to escape into the fantasy world on offer.
It's a film that doesn't shy away from either of the 'C' words: comedy or cancer. But
there are no cheap laughs - well, maybe a couple at the expense of Julio Iglesias - and
the central theme of the disease, those who suffer from it and those who love them, is
treated with intense respect.
"It’s a film that speaks about the
unspeakable," director Nick Hurran
"It’s a film that speaks about the unspeakable," says director Nick
Hurran, most of whose previous experience (in both the feature Remember Me and his
extensive television work) has been with romantic comedies, and who reckons that that is
at least one of the reasons he was Mellor’s first choice. "It speaks about the
horrible emotions you go through - the hope, and then the reality of the disease.
"It’s a subject that was treated with great respect by all of us,"
continues Hurran. "I have lost three people to cancer personally. I know that Julie
has experienced it. And I know that Brenda has experienced it. There were particular
scenes where I knew we had to use three cameras, because the emotions involved meant we
were only going to get one hit at it."
One such scene is set in Las Vegas: the one where Dawn accepts that the holiday is over
and it's time to go home (the other is Jackie's funeral oration, which can be guaranteed
to draw tears from the most hardened of movie-goers). But Vegas gives Dawn the lift she
needs - and helps lend Girls' Night its special tone.
"Going there is quite surreal." Hurran
on Las Vegas
"You can utterly lose yourself in Las Vegas," says Hurran, who shot
two-thirds of the film in Rawtenstall, a few scenes in Manchester and the rest in Vegas.
"Going there is quite surreal. We’d been through all this emotional turmoil but,
when we were there, it was like the problems had just gone away - which is what we were
after in the film. Dawn is allowed to live again."
In the desert gambling mecca, Dawn and Jackie meet up with Cody (Kris Kristofferson), a
gentle, straight-talking Nevada cowboy who shows them the desert, and with whom Dawn
appears to be about to have a holiday romance. But it is Jackie who establishes a bond
with Cody, one which will eventually help her move on from Dawn’s death.
For Hurran, the casting of Kristofferson in the role completed a process that was
little short of ideal. "It’s just such an utter dream cast," he says.
"I’d worked with Brenda a couple of times before. Brenda hadn’t worked with
Julie but had always wanted to. And Kris Kristofferson I always had in mind. My belief is,
you always ask. So we sent it out to him, and he came back very quickly and said
The whole notion of the trip to Vegas is close - almost too close - to Mellor’s
experience, and Girls’ Night is a film which, even now, she finds hard to watch.
"Her best friend died of cancer," explains Hurran. "She used to visit her
every day in hospital and they would play ‘Fantasy Holidays’, imagining the
holidays they would have when she ‘got better’. For Kay, Girls’ Night is
the holiday they never had. Not surprisingly, she finds it almost impossible to watch any
of the film without becoming very emotional."
"I was very keen for the film to be a
celebration," Nick Hurran
But the director is adamant that the film is not a downer - that it is about how to get
the most out of life, which is perhaps the only way to deal with death. "I was very
keen for the film to be a celebration," he says. "I know it is a harrowing
subject, but I didn’t want it to descend into sadness. The area I usually work in is
romantic comedy, so this was really a challenge for me, but also something I was overjoyed
to be asked to do. The important thing in a film like this is to treat comedy and tragedy
exactly the same - to look for the truth in the situation. So often in English comedy,
truth isn’t the first choice.
"Both Brenda and Julie," he continues, "knew exactly what they wanted in
the film, where they were coming from. They were utterly professional, almost like sisters
from the word go. This is not a piece that I think anybody entered into lightly. I was
very keen that it should not be sentimentalised, and there is a very fine line between
that and getting the most out of the dramatic situation. Both Brenda and Julie are utter
masters at knowing where that line lies."
Girls’ Night received its premiere on the opening night of the Leeds International
Film Festival, not far from where it was shot, then went on to Birmingham, then Sundance,
then Berlin, where it screened in Competition.
"They broke into a standing ovation." Hurran
on Sundance audience
The Sundance audience, says Hurran, "laughed louder than I’d ever heard any
audience and wept uncontrollably. Then, as the credits rolled, there was a silence like
I’ve never heard before. Finally, as we got up to walk to the front of the screening
theatre - the Library, a 600-seater which is one of the biggest in Sundance - they broke
into a standing ovation."
That, to Hurran, was the final proof that the film had worked on the two levels which
he had set out to achieve: as a comedy about two female friends fighting adversity; and as
a tragedy about losing one’s best friend to cancer.
"The comedy and the tragedy are both there," he says by way of conclusion.
"You don’t need to work it."