Dear friends and readers,
As I wrote about 10 days ago, I have returned to my project and Austen movies book, and have determined to have a two part chapter on Andrew Davies Austen films. The first will be an interlude in Part Two, itself on the Sense and Sensibility films, “A Place of Refuge,” thus far 5 chapters. The interlude will be on Davies’s Austen films in the context of Davies’s oeuvre and it’ll be followed by the 6th and final chapter of the part: contextualizing Davies, Pivcevic and John Alexander’s 2008 JA’s S&S by the other S&S films and what I can discern of Pivcevic and Alexander’s work.
To do this I’ve been re-looking at all my notes, my blogs, re-watching some of the Davies’s films I had seen and watching a few lesser known new ones, especially those in a different genre, with a larger social vision, not romance films so much as politically and socially critical (or broadly aware) ones. I’m trying to see what really unites all these films. I find Cardwell’s division of Davies’s work into 1) films based on classic famous books and 2) films based on hardly known, semi- or popular classics obscures important qualities which the films share when you re-group them in other ways. My argument will be that Davies’s films are better seen as belonging to a genre, after that against their specific eponymous book, and only after that whether it’s a classic or non-classic book. It does matter if the book has a cult following; then he dare not alter the matter too much, but many classic books are not well remembered by the few readers who have read them anyway.
I also want to disagree with Sarah Cardwell’s book on Davies, or, to put it another way, qualify what she has to say by showing that Davies’s films are far darker and more pessimistic than she concedes, that they delve into the question of human and social evil, are sceptical, show a fascination with cruel sociopaths, and persistently present homoerotic couples and sex, as part of the subversion of the repressive unreal norms he finds so pernicious of enjoyment, happiness, fulfillment.
In my first blog on Davies this summer, I summarized what I had been watching since April and my findings on these, concentrating first on the romance visions (1983 Diana out of R. F. Delderfeld, 2007 Room with a View out of E. M. Forster. Then I had a brief excursis on Davies’s Tailor Panama where he is deliberately marginalized in the credits though it’s clear he wrote the script out of John LeCarre’s novel as it has all his trademarks, including a homoerotic couple at the center:
Finally I discerned a pattern that many of Davies’s films of social vision share with other of these Anglo- film adaptations: a young man of a lower class finds himself invited to become or forced to appear more upper class, is brought to a huge rich house where he is at first uncomfortable and then taken in, though only for a time. To Davies’s three I described there (Diana, Tailor of Panama, Line of Beauty), I want tonigh to add a few notes about on a remarkable chilling dark romance or highly erotic film, the 2009 Sleep with Me (adapted from Joanna Briscoe’s novel) and Davies’s remarkable trilogy of mini-series (4 parts each) Davies adapted from Michael Dobbs’s political thriller novels, House of Cards, To Play the King, The Final Cut.
Andrew Davies and his film-making team concoct a powerful chilling movie out of Joanna Briscoe’s poor novel. Brisoe equates contemporaneity with crudity in gesture; a deliberately hard demotic style is cultivated. She is in no danger of any accusation of oversensitivity in nuances — though her conception of her characters and her fable feels compelling at first: it seems a young couple are gradually infiltrated by a quietly menacing ghost who sends the husband emails about her abject life with her mother.
Davies’s Sleep with Me is another of this type he did with Elizabeth Janeway Howard’s Falling — and also his re-do of Shakespeare’s Othello.
What all these movies do is concentrate on some character who others would call evil or “sick” and dismiss them, and show them to be very dangerous, someone the healthy and vulnerable must keep away from, but someone who is ill, really emotionally ill. In the case of Sleep with Me Davies has forayed into the area of the gothic — which the book does — to come up with Sylvie (Anamaria Marinca), a scary, creeply kind of character who we are asked to believe murdered her brother when the brother was a baby out of jealousy and now lives a socially isolated life (in part) and preys on others to wreak and destroy their relationships.
It’s the ghostly and vampiric character of Sylvie that endows the film with its gothic mood and perspective.
One review rightly says that the film (and book too) delves into sexuality. Davies makes clear the most uncomfortable kinds of sexual experience people rarely admit to in front of themselves, much less talk about or enact even on stage.
For my part I found myself wondering (I’ll sound Victorian here) if this movie is not more unhealthy, far more than say The Piano Teacher. I wrote that that one was not pornographic and all that happened was justified as good insight into human character. I think I absolved that film of pornography because by the end I felt I had been given genuine ethical compass and help by the end of the film. At the end of Sleep with Me there was a justification of the cruelty and demand that we sympathize with the cruel person and respect the kind of sex she led others into (the type that can form dependency) that made me feel if this isn’t pornographic (it wasn’t, it was inhibited in the presentation), Sleep with Me did justify the basis of pornography, infliction of violence and cruelty by saying it’s just the result of someone’s emotional illness and so therefore somehow okay plus nothing we can do anything about. That may be true. If so, the world’s a dangerous place — gothic in fact.
Jodhi May had decided for this one (apparently), as Lelia, a young woman living with a black partner, Richard (Adrian Lester), she needed to appear young, and she had lost a lot of weight for this one. I almost didn’t recognize her at moments … well, only almost.
I was startled at House of Cards: it’s a fantasy, really over the top theatrics; the victim at the end is the reporter, Mattie, played wonderfully well by Susannah Harker. What was superb about this film was Davies’ connection with the Iago/Richard III/Macbeth Francis Urquhart played inimitably, unforgettably by Ian Richardson — and also with the victims: either the pathos of the alcoholic blackmailed weakling O’Neill, the man who can’t cope with the world (every family has one says the prime minister) and Davies’s insight that it’s because the man is a genuinely good and feelingful person he can’t make it, and Mattie Storin the girl who is led by the allurement and glamor of power to her destruction.
For me it’s particularly telling to see Davies insist that Mattie related to FU as her “Daddy”
for this queasy incestuous motif is one Davies’s insists on, builds up in his 1996 BBC Emma
In the case of the first book, Dobbs had killed off the villain-hero, Richard III-Macbeth type (in Davies) Francis Urquhart and let Mattie live triumphant (so good wins out). Davies reversed that and so left room for more sequels. Upon the success of the first mini-series, Dobbs wrote two more novels, doubtless with Davies’s in mind (the way Helen Fielding went on to write another Bridget Jones Diary book after the success of the Davies’ film).
All three (To Play the King and The Final Cut too) are right in Trollope’s vein of high politics exposed. They are yet braver because Trollope eschews all particular comment and refuses to present a clear case for liberal or reformist measures; indeed his rhetorical statements by the narrator are often pro-landlord, adamently pro-capitalist. Not Davies. He exposes the hypocrisy and nonsense of berating people for not doing hard work: there are no jobs to do hard work for. The series anticipates his South Riding in this way; the social engagement of South Riding resembles that of his Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. All these movies come together in themes, perspective, character types.
To Play the King is very pessimistic and yet we have an ideal king in the center. We see how easy it is to sneer and decry people who are “lazy” instead of showing that there the way to make useful work is spend money through taxes on social services, communities, and agencies to build an make better lives for those without power.
A feature in the second DVD for To Play the King shows the ludicrous response at the time by some pro-Royalist people: they were indignant that Davies dared to allude to Charles and Diana, and imbecillically leaped on a single line in the three mini-series to argue indignantly Davies had implied Charles regularly had prostitutes in his quarters. It shows their bad sordid dreams for it’s a real stretch of that line.
The third mini-series, Final Cut, is an astonishingly brave film. Like Trollope’s political books in the Pallisers, each one of the three books brings out another level or area of critique of the savagely unjust violent war we live in. Each novel and set of films seems to open another area of misery and corruption inflicted on people — so here in the last series, Final Cut, what’s exposed is the murderous personal ambition that fires all the lies and violence in colonialized areas. The realities behind the Falklands war is exposed absolutely.
We see many things Orwellian: how the rule of law is invoked when what is happening is brutal violence repressing the poor so that the natural resources of the place (Cyprus) may be milked by the rich in the UK and lucky in Cyprus. Among many small exposes, we see that the freedom of information act offers information as long as it does not give away what individuals did the horrors. So it keeps powerful individuals in the army and powerful gov’ts protected.
Davies beats out LeCarre for the clarity with which the political perspective is worked out and made insistent upon us.
Wonderfully witty and funny is Thatcher’s funeral. Davies was attacked for staging her funeral. It seems she was not dead yet. This is a satirist’s drive: Swift would imagine people dead who had not died and it made them nervous. As with To Play the King what was attacked openly showed idiots who didn’t get the point at all, not those who understood what was being exposed. How dare Davies not be respectful in the depiction of the funeral. It’s funny the stupidity of what people seize upon. Apparently the Thatcher funeral was not in the original book by Dobbs and he insisted on having his name taken off the credits if the film-makers went through with this. They did.
The technique of all three mini-series is to startle you. So Francis throws Mattie Storin off the roof, picks her up and hurls and with a loud thud she splatters all over a car. The body guard thug, Cordor (alluding to Cawdor in Shakespeare’s Macbeth), probable lover and sidekick of Elizabeth Urquhart (Diane Fletcher), Francis’s wife, blows up those who are going to inform the public that Francis killed Mattie — sudden firebomb cars. The Final Cut opens with Francis shooting his dog dead. It’s chilling. Of course the theme is he’s going to be killed or destroyed from old age. The series ended on a Hamlet note. Elizabeth, now emerging as a cool Lady Macbeth with a hired killer-thug, sees that Urquhart is a liability; has killed too, so instead of murdering those who know he murdered peasants in Cyprus ruthlessly and without cause, are not done away with. Urquhart is. And what happens? Makepeace (Paul Freeman) who had tried to act morally is put in charge, but we feel no longer will. He has the thugs working for him now.
A parallel is an incident the mini-series opens up with: thugs hitting the prime minster’s car. They are simply gunned down. When a cabinet minister asks for clarification in the report, he’s told more details can be had but the interpretation, that criminals in road rage were responsible and understandably kill, will remain the same.
So letting formation out does not help because power structuring remains the same.
Flaws: it’s all so individualized and we are made to believe only a few of these mafia type thugs kill We see British officers not wanting to murder children, wanting to do the right thing. So one could say see it’st he bad eggs that do this, not the nature of the nest and what happens to all the eggs in it.
Also again a woman is put at the center for a semi-sexual interest. It begins to be a cliche by the third time. Sex though is depicted so naturalistically I had to avert my eyes. Especially between older people. On the other hand by continually bringing back Mattie Storner’s story and death Davies makes us fear FU. We also have Nikolas Grace as a variant on the dependent aide — he’s a quiet gay type — the vulnerable male type from Nicholas Farrell as the King’s aide to Charles Collingride, the kind man:
For the woman viewer and feminist reader it’s telling that all three films must have a scapegoat at the center who is either a woman the villain seduces & murders (or has murdered) or a gay (vulnerable male as a substitute.
I did find myself getting anxious for some of the characters in each program: Mattie and John (William Chubb), Makepeace, the Greek girl who is seeking to know who killed her brothers and where they are buried, lest FU (what a joke) kill them too. After all he has gotten away with much before. The power of fiction comes from our caring about the characters and I do in Davies’s films.
To conclude: My days are adventures in following Andrew Davies. I was startled at the trilogy House of Cards/ToPlay the King/Final Cut. Great dark satire relevant to today because inbetween these he did the utopian Middlemarch. I can’t think of more different text-films. Today I’m reading another hard satire on wide ranges of society, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (Wilson) and am about to watch the movie for a second time.
My next Davies’ film blog will be on briefly on a few films again, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Wilson’s novel as well as Davies’s film. And then I’ll move onto Sarah Water’s Tipping the Velvet and Affinity, Victorian lesbian novels – and Davies’s films once again (perhaps with his 2006 The Chatterley Affair).