TITLE:

 

AUTHOR:

 

FORM:

SP

PAGES:

105

GENRE:

Drama

BUDGET:

 

LOCALE:

England; France; U.S.A.

CIRCA:

19th Century

DATE:

2/23/12

READER:

CAM

 

LOGLINE:

   After seeing her mother die from an undiagnosed tumor, Elizabeth Blackwell sets out to become the first female physician, battling sexism and rigid gender roles in the process.

 

POINT

SCORE

OVERVIEW

Voice

8

GLOBAL NOTE

 

This is a compelling and easy-to-follow biopic, a simple and important story that is mostly well-told. The script provides a strong, flesh-and-blood protagonist with a strong context and palpable dramatic need. Elizabeth Blackwell is intensely female and yet more than holds her own in a male-dominated profession and world culture. In many ways she fits in the pantheon of seminal Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte heroines and thus is poised to compete in the marketplace as such. To enhance the script’s viability even further, however, the script needs to be structurally reassessed so as to provide as varied and comprehensive a portrait of Elizabeth as possible and ensure that plot points don’t feel rushed, and Elizabeth’s impact on the world around her needs to be shown and detailed, rather than alluded to via dialogue.   

Format

9

Story

8

Structure

7

Theme

9

Tone

8

Premise/ Concept

9

Plot Points

8

Pacing

7

Conflict

9

Characterization

8

Dialogue

8

Cast - ability

9

Marketability

8

Commerciality

8

Salability

8

TOTAL POINTS

 131/160

 

 COMMENTS:

 

This is a largely engaging, successful and viable script that feels convincing of the period, yet modern at the same time. Issues of women’s equality are still timely and relevant in 2012 and have cross-cultural cachet. Elizabeth’s Dream may not feature blockbuster tentpole subject matter or scream high-concept commerciality, but it is commercially viable for several important reasons.

First off, Elizabeth Blackwell is a clearly-definable protagonist with a vivid dramatic need and external goal: to become in effect America’s first female doctor. She is not a slight, meandering character in need of tangible drive—an affliction that affects the great majority of spec scripts. Rather, she is a woman on a mission, and the fact that this mission is personal—Elizabeth lost her mother Hannah to a tumor because for years Hannah was too embarrassed to visit a male doctor—gives the story much greater emotional resonance and accessibility.

Elizabeth’s Dream is also very easy to pitch: an ahead-of-her-time 19th-century woman battles prejudice, narrow-mindedness, sexism and even misogyny in her quest to become America’s first practicing female physician. That logline (or one to that effect) conveys a protagonist + goal, dramatic context, subject matter and sense of time and place.

Those are all the ingredients needed to outline what type of story is intended and what an audience member can generally expect. These are essential qualities in shopping a script around to production entities and management companies because they speak to the need to be able to talk about a script in narrative shorthand and be able to program and brand it. Offhand, Elizabeth’s Dream would seem highly compatible with an outfit like Focus Features, which caters to female-skewing period pieces like Vanity Fair, Pride & Prejudice, Lust, Caution, The Other Boleyn Girl, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Jane Eyre.

 

Another key asset is that Elizabeth Blackwell’s story organically positions her as an underdog and taps into all of the tenets that have become ingrained in the archetypal underdog story. Elizabeth is one woman, alone on a quest that no one else believes in. She is pelted by obstacle after obstacle that keeps her from achieving her goal, but she never gives up. Over the decades she perseveres, her sheer willpower being constantly tested. That she is willing to give up any semblance of a normal life and must sacrifice her true love makes Elizabeth eminently admirable and quasi-tragic as a protagonist. Her need to succeed no matter what the cost is at once the source of her greatest strength but also her Achilles heel.

To fully maximize the script’s potential, the structure needs to be amended to show more varied chapters of Elizabeth’s life, rather than merely iterations of the same pursuit over and over again, and Elizabeth’s impact on history and the world around her ought to be presented in much more dramatic detail.  

 

 

Structure

The script’s structure is solid and well-developed from the standpoint of having three distinct acts with clear act breaks, as well as having a palpable inciting incident, midpoint and sufficiently arresting resolution. 

The first act (the Setup) is the strongest. It economically establishes Elizabeth’s Ordinary World by opening with Elizabeth reading Jane Eyre while being goaded by her mother Hannah to come attend a social engagement. That Elizabeth has to hide what she is reading and then later defend it against the charge of being “impossibly romantic”—not to mention that even the act of a woman reading is depicted as being frowned upon—immediately illustrates the tug-of-war Elizabeth is caught in…between being the woman she endeavors to be and being the woman that her society says she must be. There is a push-pull dynamic here that is immediately evident.

Another economical detail that demonstrates Elizabeth’s self-awareness of the disparity between the role she is told to play and who she actually is, is the simple act of Elizabeth pulling up her skirt and showing her knees to run down the stairs before letting it fall and striding out “feminine and dignified” on page 2. Visual moments like this that simply but effectively reveal character and narrative context—i.e. the rules of Elizabeth’s world—are hugely expressive and engaging and ought to be multiplied as much as possible.

After introducing the pressures Elizabeth feels from Aunt Barbara and, to a lesser extent, Hannah, to get on with Frederick Wheeldon, the script introduces Hannah’s ailment on page 10. After hearing Hannah refuse to see a doctor—just as she has refused to see one for months—because she will not let a man touch her, Elizabeth has that eureka moment: “There are no women doctors. I should go to Medical School.” This statement is perhaps a little neat and abrupt, but it is logical and it is motivated. Planting the seed before Hannah dies (rather than introducing directly after) allows the idea to build, so that when Hannah does indeed die on page 13, Elizabeth can totally commit to the journey.

The second half of Act I throws Elizabeth into the world of medicine or, rather, the fringes, as she fights to make her way in. The rapid-fire succession of Elizabeth literally and figuratively getting every door slammed in her face again reminds the audience that this will be an uphill underdog battle for the ages. The first act break of Elizabeth getting admitted to Geneva College in New York on a lark effectively spins the story into a new direction.

Act II (Conflict) piles on the obstacles, exactly as it should. Elizabeth faces constant hazing, biased treatment and prejudice, despite being the best in her class. She is then denied letters of recommendation upon graduation and thus denied work anywhere in the United States. She faces similar treatment in Paris, being able to find work only as a midwife. These are all valid and tangible obstacles that resonate onscreen. The one pitfall is that they are all external and they all come from the same source. They thus run the risk of becoming repetitive and feeling one-note.

It is important in an underdog story not to turn the underdog into a martyr, because a martyr is an almost intangible archetype for the average audience member; it is not relatable. To be truly transcendental and engaging, rather than merely a product of narrative circumstance, it’s important to give an underdog some internal, self-generated conflict and obstacles so that the character is not solely a victim of external and, in this case historical, circumstances. Elizabeth, at times, feels one-note. This is not to say that she is not sympathetic, believable or engaging, because she is all three, but she is essentially presented as a strong-willed woman who will stop at nothing and this is precisely what she remains throughout the narrative. She achieves her external goals, but her internal character arc seems incomplete. This is discussed in more detail in the character section below.

The midpoint—with Elizabeth damaging and eventually losing her eye (and thus her initial dream of becoming a surgeon) is strong. It definitively shifts the second half of Act II into a new gear and forces Elizabeth to regroup and abandon Hippolyte. The act then becomes about Elizabeth trying to open her own general medical practice, and again the obstacles presented evoke what has come before. The element here that distinguishes and stands out is Emily’s appearance and helping of Elizabeth. This reunion thematically and structurally harks back to the more family-oriented Act I, in some ways bringing Elizabeth’s heretofore distinct professional and personal life together. This reunion would carry more dramatic weight, however, if Emily and Elizabeth were estranged, and if their surface personalities were much more distinct and at odds with each other.

Act III (Resolution) feels more than a little rushed, and essentially presents Elizabeth’s story as having ended after her opening her New York Infirmary for Women in the 1850s. The script skips over the next thirty years entirely and orients all of Act III around the reunion of Elizabeth and Hippolyte. This reunion is a tender and dramatic moment, but it should not supersede all of Elizabeth’s other life experiences and achievements.

We learn only of the impact Elizabeth has had through a couple of indirect, terse dialogue exchanges with incidental characters, like the scene between Elizabeth and a nameless patient on page 94 where we learn of the “school” Elizabeth opened. Elizabeth’s life, as presented, feels incomplete and somewhat enigmatic, rather than a full (if selective) portrait. Creating a structured, two-hour narrative encapsulation of a real figure’s life is always a tremendous challenge. In this case, it feels like there is much more that could be done and much more that could be explored. Chief amongst this is Elizabeth’s relationship with her adopted daughter Kitty. This is discussed further below.

 

Character

Elizabeth

It would be wise to give Elizabeth more internal flaws and obstacles-of-her-own makings for the sake of variety if nothing else. One idea would be to make Elizabeth less on-the-surface Austen-esque—meaning strong-willed and outgoing and more reserved and perhaps even socially awkward. This could be attributed to her childhood spent with a governess and private tutors, resulting in her isolation from all but her family.

Another aspect worth exploring might be characterizing Elizabeth as having a strong, forceful and potentially alienating personality, particularly in regards to other women. It is widely reported that Elizabeth was often acerbic and vehement in her critique of others, yet this element of characterization is entirely glossed over in the script. It would be effective to devise a scenario where Elizabeth gets into a debate with another woman over being a doctor and career professional versus being a wife and mother. Perhaps Elizabeth—whether intentionally or inadvertently—evinces contempt for the latter and must learn through an interaction with another woman that the issue that all women should be concerned with is not merely career opportunities but the freedom to be whatever one wants to be, whether that is a wife and mother, high-powered career woman or both.

Having such a moment would provide a bolder and fuller commentary on issues of women’s equality and present a better-rounded portrait of Elizabeth as a flesh-and-blood woman with her own flaws, rather than an infallible saint.  

 

Emily

Emily is an appealing character—described as “bubbly”—and the fact that she repeatedly comes to her sister’s defense and, later, helps her fix up the property that is to become Elizabeth’s practice makes her genuinely appealing and likable. As a character, however, Emily feels almost like a carbon copy of Elizabeth. There is nothing distinctive about her that sets her apart. We are given no sense of her own goals and dreams (though she does tell Elizabeth that she wants to become a doctor like her, we have no idea where this is really coming from), and she seems to act less like an independent character and more like a narrative device for Elizabeth. By resolution, Emily is still by Elizabeth’s side but we have no idea what the last thirty odd years have been like for her. Why did she never marry? Is she happy, did she become a doctor, etcetera…these are all questions that ought to be addressed so as to provide a full portrait.

 

Kitty

As is, Kitty is presented with no context. We are told that she is Elizabeth’s adopted daughter, but we never learn how this came to be. For Elizabeth to have adopted a daughter after spending the entire first act railing against traditional notions of womanhood like parenting is a fascinating and hugely important event. We ought to see how this came to be and we ought to be given a much fuller and richer insight into the nature and history of their relationship.

 

Tone

The tone is uniformly sound, but save for Hippolyte the great majority of the male characters are close to becoming caricatures. It is entirely conceivable that the men of Elizabeth’s time were all close-minded, condescending and sexist, but for the sake of crafting a nuanced fictional narrative, anything that can be done to give all of the male characters more dimensions ought to be done. They don’t have to be likable; they just have to feel real.

In summary, this is a compelling and easy-to-follow biopic, a simple and important story that is mostly well-told. The script provides a strong, flesh-and-blood protagonist with a strong context and palpable dramatic need. Elizabeth Blackwell is intensely female and yet more than holds her own in a male-dominated profession and world culture. In many ways she fits in the pantheon of seminal Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte heroines and thus is poised to compete in the marketplace as such. To enhance the script’s viability even further, however, the script needs to be structurally reassessed so as to provide as varied and comprehensive a portrait of Elizabeth as possible and ensure that plot points don’t feel rushed, and Elizabeth’s impact on the world around her needs to be shown and detailed, rather than alluded to via dialogue.