Archive for February, 2012

Season 1: the cast in characteristic poses and outfits

Dear friends and readers,

This is the second of two descriptive blogs on the 1st season of Downton Abbey. In the first (episodes 1-3) I suggested some basic paradigms (Austen, Trollope, Upstairs Downstairs), filmic techniques (computer enhanced photography, using rich colors continually, nothing bleached out), and perspectives (male, politically reactionary).

Gwen (Rose Leslie) tells Lady Sybil (Jessican Brown Findlay) that she didn’t get the job (the POV, shot and conversation repeated over and over in episodes 4-5)

I wish I could say in this one (episodes 4-7), why it has become so addictive and a widening sociological event by the time the 2nd season ended. I can’t because identification and bonding won’t do since the character types had become abberant. Viewers mocked and complained, yet watched on. What I did notice by the end of season 1 was how much was piled in (how many stories); how a strict adherence to parallelism between the events of upstairs and downstairs was observed; and how we were made to feel for those were hurt, angry, resentful, frightened, strained

Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) her son, told they will be excluded if Cora’s baby is a boy (Episode 7);

a strong adherence to soap opera aesthetics; and, finally, how the moral lessons are continually on the side of kindness, generosity of spirit, loyalty to a friend, and community. These characters are all in it together, including the nasty characters: this is so totally out of whack with what we are told should be our norms for success that it’s startling. Xmas every day in Downton Abbey.

The ceaselessly concerned Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Cora, Lady Grantham, his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) (Episode 6)

There needs more time and distance to understand the appeal of this particular costume drama. So for now I’ll just survey some patterns for Episodes 4 and 5; discuss Episode 6 generally; and through Episode 7 (a pivotal climax) show how the series is put together. Thematically truth telling on behalf of someone else was at the core of 6. Aesthetically parallelism and recursiveness is at the core of 7.

Episodes 4 & 5

Anna Smith (Joanne Froggart): a pursed grim self-contained presence

I expect everyone will remember how Anna fell in love with Mr Bates (Brendon Coylen). This is another instance of the antidotal nature of the program. I remember Bridget Jones. Emotional fuckwits is what she meets all the time. Men who pretend to commit. People who take advantage. Mr Bates is not an emotional fuckwit. Score 1 for him, an aging disabled Mark Darcy.

How Gwen worked so intensely to get a job, was rejected continually until Lady Sybil stepped in to use her automatic influence with a contractor. That Gwen was not taken is alas par for the course for our world too. She does not have connections.

We learn in both stories that you cannot do or get what you want simply by willing it or hard work.

Then how Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) began to realize it was Edith (Laura Carmichael) who spread the story of the death of the Turkish ambassador’s son in Lady Mary’s bed — and got back. It’s telling how often the POV of the program is that of Lady Mary — this is a heroine’s text. Michelle Dockery was the abject governess in Sandy Welch’s Turn of the Screw with Dan Stevens the psychiatrist who fails to rescue her from psychiatric prison: it’s a take on James’s story where we see it’s in the interest of the employer to imprison her. Sandy Welch’s deeply felt traumatic sites are given shallower life here.

An early encounter

Finally, how the spiteful lady’s maid, Miss Obrien (Sarah, Siobhan Finneran, denied the respect of a title and the friendship of anyone calling her by her first name) and the lying mocking footman (no coincidence he is made gay) Thomas (Rob James-Collier) did all they could to blacken Mr Bates (they are the bullies in the playground picking on the nice person who they hate because he is nice). All these are the easy cliches, pernicious in some of their implications that enable the mini-series to move along swiftly. They are so expected.

So I’ll remind all of how Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) had another chance at romance and turned it down to remain an independent housekeeper, a story neither peculiar nor cliched. The real flaw of this mini-series is too many stories are woven in without enough time. It gives each one a kind of cut quality and shallowness. We never see Mrs Hughes’s romance up close, it’s only suggested from afar. I wanted much more of it. A great deal of this kind of thing is done, and we are left to root, understand what happened from our own particular memories.

Mrs Hughes walking away from her second chance at love

They were not allowed to film in Highclere, only shoot it from afar. This disconnect between the beautiful rooms and house and gardens began to be felt. (In the 1995 Pride and Prejudice by Andrew Davies, the BBC crew, film-makers and actors really did shoot in and around the house that stood for Longbourne.) The film-makers did all they could to make up for this by filming in beautiful grounds and presenting intimate scenes through far zoom shots.

Again Lady Sybil and Gwen

I did wish we were not asked to forgive Maggie Smith as Lady Violet, Dowager Grantham all the time. This is what we are continually asked to do in Trollope: forgive the old woman with the reactionary views — only in Trollope he has the courage to show her spite. Instead of a show about who gets the prize for roses and didn’t for years; in Trollope characters are at risk for not marrying a good person or not inheriting a desperately needed amount of money due to the Aunt Stanburies (Anna Massey in He Knew He Was Right) of the world. Maggie Smith can act and she managed to give the thread of her finally giving someone else a ribbon he deserved real moving generosity. Why we are to celebrate what she should have done in the first place and not think about previous years doesn’t bear questioning. People do care about little things when the big things they cannot have are placed beyond them.

So Edith is the jealous bad sister — not so bad as Mrs O’Brien and Thomas for she is needled by her sister and justifiably longs for a male companion herself. Here we did have some raw stuff. The second sister in a family would be expected to wait on the eldest. She is goaded into it too. Daisy as the nervous naive housemaid who is lured into telling also makes sense.

As I said in my first blog, I just wish the nasty person wasn’t the person who is real life was powerless and female (Sarah Obrien). Sex would certainly be seething in such a household. This group is in fact remarkably innocent that way. Thomas is shown going after Daisy, the scullery maid, lower cook (Sophie McShera); if he were homosexual he would be after William (Thomas Howe) and try to bully him into a catamite position is a function of the unacnkowledged pastoral nature of this piece.

Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nicol) protects her position as cook, and is hard upon Daisy but no one does anything about this. This is felt real life. Mr Carson as the kind male butler (parallel to Lord Grantham); and avuncular-father substitute to Lady Mary, is by contrast improbable.

Still the mystery remains why this caught on. On US PBS TV the 7 episodes were cut, and in the usual crude ways:

From I should have been a blogger (anibundel):

In America, where this was not expected to be a hit, PBS recut it to be a four-part mini series that were 80odd minutes each. If you do the math, that means the original showing in America lost abut an episode’s worth. For example, the American version cut the snuffbox affair, and only concentrated on Carson noting that the wine count was off. There were a bunch of those little story-lines truncated towards the beginning in order to make space for the story-lines towards the end. Mrs Patmore’s blindness was stretched to be established back in the third episode so that the fourth episode would only show her heading out to London, again, because they needed the room.

Season two, because of the massive hit status, PBS has brought over uncut.

Episode 6

Lady Sybil and her Irish chauffeur, Tom Bransome (Allen Leech) at the suffragette rally

I was drawn in and grated upon by this Episode. Let me treat the worst first so as to get it over: the depiction of leftism was shameful: the left were represented as stupid thugs at a rally; they of course hurt Lady Sybil (it was an early 20th century low key version of Burke on Marie Antoinette I suppose) who was of course rescued by the man who will now rescue the family: Matthew Crawford. The sop was the “good” socialist Irish man, Bransome, who of course was against these thugs and absolutely loyal to Lord Grantham, tender over Lady Sybil, and almost lost his job. He was not sacked because of the sense and civility and of the upper class family.

The workers perspective has not been in US movies since the 1950s. The very purpose of the blacklist was to make sure no more would we get any sympathetic depiction of strikes. And it took. Only on Broadway do you get something different once in a while. The only ones I know of from movies that are pre-WW2 movies (e.g., Talk of the Town). It’s always how inconvenienced are the rich, how thuggish and violent (a no no) the poor. The rich want the “country” to carry on, these sullen badly accented grim sullen types are unpatriotic. Or absurd.

It was the way the 1926 strike was presented in the original Upstairs Downstairs with the saving grace that at least the aristocrats were shown to be drones. Matthew of course is a hard-working lawyer. Sybil is naive, poor innocent dear — her feminism in an earlier episode consisted of putting on Middle Eastern harem dress. She gets larger issues all wrong (how like a woman). Heart in the right place. She is still rooting for Gwen whose quest for employment as a secretary is getting nowhere.

OTOH, the lowest person in the house and a woman comes up trumps — a counterweight to Obrien. Daisy at long last comes up trumps. Our evil pair (Obrien and Thomas) outright lie about Mr Bates: he has been stealing lord Grantham’s wine, was seen taking the key, they say. They enlist the naive worshipful (of Thomas) Daisy to lie with and for them.

Daisy finds herself lying, sandwiched in

Over the course of the hour she finally sees the sterling virtue — I don’t mean to make fun here — decency of William who never lies.

It’s the never lying I was drawn to. William too is to be depended upon; he really cares for the horses he cares for, for others, and for his mother (dying, ill yes, but good woman she would not want to worry him or disturb him in his job so tells Mrs Crawley she must not tell William, and of course Mrs Crawley would not dream of doing so now). It was a moving turn as we watch Daisy gradually see who and what is valuable in human beings as such.

Daisy realizing what William is

When Mr Carson finds out that Thomas and O’Brien have lied, why does he not fire them? he has the power. Mr Hudson (Gordon Jackson) was in charge of the staff; he would fire them. And to keep Cora so sympathetic, we are not as yet shown any deep relationship between her and O’Brien. Wouldn’t want to sully Cora, the lord’s lady. But if there is no intense relationship, O’Brien lacks all power base.

Daisy’s story parallels Lady Mary as well as Mr Bates. Lady Mary finally is brought to admit how much she likes, nay loves Matthew Crawford. This is done far too quickly and is not really developed sufficiently for the six programs, but their scene together is superb. Dan Stevens is finally allowed to have a keen witty hard look in his eye, strong wary intelligence and (like Wm) clear integrity and at the end of the scene he asks her to marry him.

First proposal scene

Edith’s anonymous letter has reached the Turkish embassy. Mrs O’Brien and Thomas blackening Mr Bates parallels Edith blackening Lady Mary. In one Maggie Smith’s witty moments when told this she asks if anyone ever visits it. Perhaps one or two persons go to the Turkish embassy? This gives Cora a chance to tell the truth and defend her role in placing the dead young man back in his bed and covering the incident up to the Dowager. So Cora too is a parallel instance to Daisy’s.

Mr Bates will not defend himself as that would be to attack Thomas and be like him. This is carrying things too far Anna feels (and so we are to feel). Then sudden revelation: he used to be an alcoholic and thief; he was in jail. Why this was dragged in I don’t know — to make a point about how once in jail does not mean your character is forever that. It can be read that way, but it was too sudden; unprepared for (though explained why he was loathe to come forward) and not given enough detail to make us enter into whatever happened to

If so, Brendan Coyle has been made the site of the most radical aspects of the show’s humanity thus far him, and that this might just be semi-meant is reinforced by his not being handsome. He does not fit any kind of macho ideal, — and neither does Matthew Crawley or William Mason for real either.

Episode 7

Anna: “You’ll be fine.” POV: Mrs Patmore on the hospital bed

Mrs Patmore waiting, facing what will be her physical ordeal: for me the most moving moment in the season

The pro-active linchpin characters of this episode are women. First, Anna who stands by Mrs Patmore before Lord Grantham (Mrs Patmore could be fired for disabling cataracts); Anna takes Mrs Patmore to London and braves huge institutions to find out the truth about Mr Bates’s past. A secondary parallel is found in Lady Sybil who at the last engineers the job for Gwen. The bad remorseless witch of this piece is Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond comes in for this thankless role — she was calculating brothel-madam in Fanny Hill) while at long last Sarah Obrien is humanized.

Anna waiting

The motif is waiting. We see many characters waiting.

This was an extraordinarily chock-full episode. The decision had been made to have another season and so the story-line had to be fixed so it would look forward to further development yet satisfy for a full year. There were many threads to bring back, & new directions to take. Were this a novel it’d be four Victorian volumes in itself.

We see how much piled in, how much is contrived, and how the themes made parallel mirror our own preoccupations. What really drives the characters wild is fear of being sacked (fired) or simply erased and made invisible (the Crawleys are to be pushed out if Cora Lady Grantham gives birth to a son).

It opens with a zoom shot from on high of what looks like a museum. Mrs Hughes is hurrying the maids because the Granthams will be back from London shortly. Hurry up girls, get the set ready.

Mr Carson arrives with the Granthams and Mrs Hughes asks, How was London? Cora, Lady Grantham, asks her how she has been doing — for all the world as if they were neighbors. Mrs H as usual makes the best of her life. Lord Grantham has the murder of the archduke on his mind (he is the bell that rings the coming war) while Cora frets over coming garden party Mrs Hughes must manage.

Downstairs: Mrs Hughes tells Carson Mrs Patmore worse than when you left, much worse; Mr Bates status hanging in there but something must be done about Mrs Patmore, although Mrs Hughes doesn’t want the poor woman sacked and we see suffering Daisy.

Upstairs: Bomb falls: Cora, Lady Grantham pregnant. We are to surmise they had a good time in London. Physician arrives.

Lady Rosamund and Lady Mary (many far shots in this episode)

Switch to London park where Lady Rosamund giving Lady Mary bad advice not to take Matthew Crawley now that’s he’s not sure to be heir. So now Episode 6 cancelled: at the close of that it looked like Mary
and Matthew were a pair, and scene was moving and maybe they will but
another season has made Fellowes prefer not to give us this coda.

This is followed by (unexpectedly) reappearance of Lord Nadier who visits Lady Mary and tells her that his wedding plans are not going very well: they’ve decided to call it off. He has come to reveal to her it was her sister’s letter that gave away what happened when Pamuk died; he did not want her to think he is the source of these stories.

Downstairs: Mrs Hughes now suggests to Mr Carson that Lady Mary could throw Matthew over now. Parallel to Lady Rosamund.

Upstairs and Duchess’ house: Duchess tells Cora that her maid is about to hand in notice and she must look for another; nothing worse than losing one’s maid says Cora. An exposure her superciliousness: we are to react to this as ironic.

Lord Grantham walking across green landscape near castle (computer generated scene) tells Matthew he will make provision for him if it’s a boy and Matthew gets pushed out. Matthew ever the martyr:i t’s fine, he understands. No Mary has said nothing. And then Grantham asks for the name of Crawley’s cook.

Downstairs: Mrs Patmore doing badlyl; Daisy tries to help; Thomas needles William.

Mrs Crawley now bitter, but Matthew (names allegorical as well as from Vanity Fair) insists it is generous the offer of the house; again tells his mother that Mary has said nothing. Moseley (valet and butler who now loves Anna from afar) comes in with a message for the cook. Cook called upstairs. Told Lord Grantham needs her services. Mrs Bird “I’m surprised Lord Grantham knows that I exist sir’ — this is the best line in the hour.

Downstairs ugly happenings. Carson tells Lord Grantham that Obrien (we are told) was at her usual foul work in London, made a friend, a lady’s maid, and Carson has a letter which Mr Bates refuses to say is false: “He wishes he could” say so.

And again Rosamond, his lordship’s sister, in London tells Mary to wait until child is born. Like some kind of chorus of crows.

Switch back: Lord Grantham finds it hard to believe letter about Bates
stealing regimental silver; petty thievery; at last Carson says he wouldn’t put anything past Thomas or Miss O’Brien (It does not make probably sense the pair would not be fired)

Maggie Smith at center

Female family conclave as they wait for dinner (Laura Ashley fashions): Edith about to offer Mary pragmatic advice not to accept as Rosemary did (so another cross against Edith), but Duchess Violet says if you accept him now he will love you to the end of his days. and you could change your mind afterward. It’s the second that Lady Mary doesn’t have the strength for.

Then just the two older women: Duchess to Cora, her maid is leaving to get married, “so selfish” says Cora (back to ironic exposure but not pointed, not well done really); she will put an ad in for her mother-in-law. Then on Matthew, Duchess Violet says: she “knows those men of the high moral ground”; if Lady Mary doesn’t accept him when he’s poor, he won’t want her when he’ll be rich …” Cora: I know it’s a boy which is an answer which supports Lady Mary.

One has to see that the underlying amoral thrust of the show is on the side of Lady Mary not taking the man she supposedly loves. So here we have materialism and prestige as trumping values. And if only the duchess Violet is for Mary saying yes now,it’s because she thinks Mary could change her mind if it’s a boy. She should do it to grab him not because she means it.

Now a dialogue downstairs about coming war — to match concern upstairs of Lord Grantham.

Grantham sends for Mrs Patmore and Anna. Embarrassing scene; the two women so craven and we are not to be appalled at it all.

Scene supports present day arrangement of thoroughly inegalitarian society in the US. Perhaps this is the most reactionary moment of the hour. The kindly Lord sending the old women to London for her eyes.

Mrs Bird brought in and we are encouraged to laugh at the pair of the cooks fighting for position. It trivializes them too.

Matthew very angry at Mary — powerful scene under tree – he is getting more and more raw and irritated by all that has happened to him. Now this is the best scene in the hour, bar none. She defends herself by saying she could have followed her grandmother’s advice and pretended to take him:

He: “To make that work you’d have to be a good liar. Are you are good liar?”
She: “Well, not good enough to try.”

Lord Grantham to Mr Bates: “How could you not think they’d not be discovered at once and keep them in your house?” So we learn what Mr Bates is accused of. A swift way of telling a story, telling the chief characters’ reactions, & showing story not credible. Shot of Mr Bates listening: Then Grantham’s voice: “But you only served 2 years – all very puzzling” Absurd: Mr Bates holds his ground for his right to be a crook.

Something awry here. Not thought out. Do they want to bring in people in prison? one of many peculiar permutations we’ll see take over the series in season 2.

Downstairs parallel: Anna telling Mr Bates “Sorry I don’t believe it.” That odd use of sorry I’ve seen so often: the person prefaces something they are about to say or do with an apology and in fact such words mean they are not sorry at all and are said aggressively as here.

We are supposed to enjoy the catty scene between Mrs Bird and Mrs
Patmore. I don’t.

Back to Matthew and Mrs Crawley: she is very sad: “I thought Mary was
made of better stuff. He, like all these noble males, “Don’t speak
against her” Straight from soap operas of the 1950s. Now why did we
need to have two scenes of the Crawleys. Think a bit: others are
equally idealistic, but it’s not so obvious since they are not being
sacked. In effect Crawleys being sacked.

That Fellowes sees it this way confirmed by next scene where Obrien comes in upon her lady to hear Lord Grantham suggest “Sack Obrien!” Grantham blames her for Mr Bates’s troubles – in fact it’s another evil woman.

Then Thomas and Obrien in their usual bitter smoking scene. Mrs
Patmore trying to hint to Daisy to ruin not poison the food — a comic
parallel to Obrien’s sudden inspiration to have Cora slip on soap.

Gwen’s story now has to be knotted together: so new character, a phone
businessman who can’t find men with aptitude, and cannot find
secretary. Sybil there to leap on it; Edith’s suitor come to take her

The most touching scene in the movie: Anna and Mrs Patmore come to
London; they walk to small hospital bed, and Mrs Patmore loses her
nerve. Anna: “Well what did you think they were just going to make
magic passes over your eyes.” This is indeed what people wish
operations were like.

Now Anna’s sleuthing, brave little lady goes to to prison gates.

We see Daisy ruining the food — this is the parallel plot to Mrs
OBrien and Cora.

Anna hears “an odd business” and given address of Mrs Bates, the mother.

Lady Mary to Edith: is it true (parallel plot)? Female conclave scene
where (foolish) Edith eager to be asked by her suitor and Cora not so
sure Edith likes him. Edith tells mother she will soon be asked.
They are waiting for dinner; Crawleys to come as Mrs Bird in the DA
kitchen. So we see expectant for dinner: Duchess Violet tells Mrs
Crawley it was Rosamund, her daughter, who swayed Mary away.

We are to realize it was Mary who swayed Mary.

Mosley catches Thomas trying to pry; actually not stealing but looking
for O’Brien to discover whether she’s been sacked and a new person

Now Mathew telling Granham that Mary has not taken him. Grantham “I
don’t seem to be much good at making booys”, which Matthew gives a
parallel humble stance: “Any more than I am building my life on
shifting sands.” Granthan: “I should be very proud to have [you] as
son in law

Thomas tells O’brien about advertisement and Obrien angry; they are about to sit down to soup; Daisy goofed as good soup was sent upstairs
and this soaped stuff downstairs. Mrs Bird forgives her: “there are
worse sins than loyalty.” This is the explicit theme scene:
Loyalty a central value of series — so now becomes a joke by whole
downstairs to defuse it?

Lady Sybil now with phone businessman asking why Miss Dawson never
heard back about interview. She pushes for it and achieves it; for
Lady Gwen. Good businessman’s mother was in “service” we see. Joke:
“Papa now can’t go into library.” As ever Grantham makes no fuss.

Interwoven: Anna told by Mr Bates’s mother about bad Mrs Bates is. Mr Carson doesn’t know how to use phone — cell phone in mind — joking. Now we hear Mr Bates was an angry young man, he felt he ruined Vera’s life (she stole silver). Thomas volunteering for hospital force (territorial): seeking out of house life and not to die either.

Lord Grantham told by Carson that now Thomas seen stealing by Moseley
(actually looking at letters for Cora, Lady Grantham on OBrien’s behalf), Lord Grantham just “hates this sort of thing” – firing someone (Romney loves it — so here’s as sop; not everyone who is powerful and rich is a Romney. And why do we not see Lord Grantham exercising his patronage? Too real)

Mrs Patmore with glasses is back. Comic scenes of Mr Carson coping with newfangled phone. Lower class people are the clowns.

Obrien comes upon Duchess and Cora and thinks this is it. Anna goes to tell Lord Grantham about Mr Bates — so a parallel set up between Mr Bates and Mrs Obrien, only the good Bates will not defend himself and the bad Obrien will get back. Notice how we did not hear Mrs Bates tell the story at length; and we don’t hear Anna talk and in the next we don’t hear Grantham spell it out. Clever epitomizing based on conventions.

In her tub: the rich lady so secure, luxuriates

Cora just luxuriating in bath, the soap, Obrien looking at mirror: “This is not who you are” and goes to pull soap out of the way; hears
Cora slip, too late.

And now aftermath: Lord Grantham at window, the sorrowful noble Bates to him, “doctor is gone,” says Grantham “Lady mary with mother; who is recovering from miscarriage.” Grantham settles Bates’s fate swiftly; “The good news is you won’t be leaving Downton and I need some good news today.” Moving only the real lord would not have these kinds of equal feelings for an heir and a butler.

Downstairs camera on OBrien who looks very black and dark; What is
everyone so sour about Thomas wants to know “they’re no bigger than a
hamster at that stage,” and he insults William once again, and the fight between him and Wm ensues. This is the coda the viewer is supposed to have been waiting for. Not really, it just feels fitting.

Of course the bad guy gets beat up (that’s Thomas rolling on the ground) — lower class people are the rough ones

Then garden party with all having codas: Thomas has his place; Daisy
and Wm becoming friends; two cooks getting along. Someone on the phone; Bransom runs to Sybil with news of Gwen – he has special relationship with Sybil we see. Mrs Hughes: “be careful or you’ll end up wit no job and a broken heart.” How efficiently it’s all done. Mary describes to Edith’s suitor that Edith was laughing at “some old bore” and that’s all that’s needed for this weak man, hurt and goes off. So Edith lost her beau, Edith hurt and sees Mary sneering and knows Mary did it: tit for tat. Cora so sweet to Obrian and Duchess runs over about new maid for herself. Obrien feels very bad now. Anna and Mr Bates. Mosley looks to Anna and Mr Bates tells him she does have someone special (him). So they will be a pair next season.

It’s not acceptable

Bur more length is needed here: Matthew tells Mary everything has changed and it’s all over. Another powerful scene. Mary wants to know “would he have stayed had she accepted him.” He says “of course” (shades of Austen’s Wentworth from Persuasion).She: “So I’ve ruined everything” He: “You’ve shown me I’ve been living in a dream and it’s time to return to real life … wish me luck with it, and God knows I wish the best for you …” Good man.

Rosamund heard justifying herself to her mother, Duchess Violet: “I
have to say what I think.” Duchess: “Why, no body else does?”

Carson comforting Lady Mary — he has done this before. Father-daughter. Why Grantham kept apart I’m not sure.

Duchess again telling Mrs Crawley says it was not her who kept Mary
from him; Mrs Crawley then concedes: “To be perfectly honest I wonder
if Matthew isn’t making the same mistake right now.” This is a program
against high ethical behavior as standard to hold others to. That
would be good if the ethical standards were so tough; they are not.

And finally our chief male and female holding hands and then telegram
from Carson. One top male to another. He is about to speak and calls
all to come forward. Camera settles on each pair or individual we are
familiar with and then : Lord Grantham: “WW1 has begun, that we are
at war wit Germany.”


Anna unobtrusive

My interest in doing this is I’ve been writing a book on costume dramas in effect (the Austen ones) and long loved the form. Only lately has it been acceptable in film studies as a genre to study seriously — its association with women (soap opera aesthetics and types), TV, and the support of the establishment an chariness with respect to unconventional sexuality elements here. I’ve been watching two lately too: masterpieces, Welch’s Our Mutual Friend and Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s <em>The City of Your Final Destination from Peter Cameron’s book.

So I had a very recent basis of comparison. I demonstrated to myself how many more stories are told per say 10 minute period in DA than either Welch’s or the M-I-J film, comically more and how more obvious the dialogues (the occasional crudity here partly a result of this time frame). Episode 7 was again about loyalty (we are to admire personal loyalty above all, though at the same time not blame those who are ambivalent when it asks too much, e.g., Lady Mary is actually justified (so the modern analogy is soothing; you don’t have to be loyal to your friends if money and position means you need to give a close association up. And between Mrs Bird and Daisy this is made explicit. Mrs Bird forgives Daisy for her loyalty; the dialogue is so explicit. Nothing like this on OMF and Final Destination

More interesting is how each scene is DA is doing something in the plot. Not one scene no matter how moving say or well done is not there to give us some piece of information in a couple of the stories at once; no lingering, no scenes there so to speak for themselves, no psychology allowed to work itself out. It’s quite ingenious, showing an alert sophistication (comparable to Altman’s Gosford Park also written by Julian Fellowes) This I think is the real crux of the issue; this contrived reality leads to the dumbed down feeling it leaves one with and jarring effects as the ambivalence of the form’s adherences are put before one with little smoothing over. For those who carry on despising the form, the mini-series then confirms all their prejudices against it.

I am not sure I will go through Season 2 the way I have Season 1.


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Don Giovanni — the costuming was effective

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight Jim and I began our third season of opera and ballet at the West End Cinema, Georgetown, DC. It was here we saw Fiennes’ Coriolanus this past Saturday. I’ve not been writing about these (how much can I write?) but we have seen some marvelous productions — better than the Met a couple, and not so swamped before and afterwards in hype. You are left alone to enjoy your opera. Most memorable was La Scala’s iconoclastic Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Peter Mattie as the Don, Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna, and Bryn Terfel as Leporello (“opening night” 2011-12 it was dubbed). We haven’t been as lucky with ballets — though Cesare Pugni’s Esmeralda (from Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame) from Bolshoi Ballet, Moscow had some stunningly visually gorgeous moments, and Maria Aleandrova as the gypsy girl danced movingly.

Tonight was Puccini’s Il Trittico from London’s Royal Opera House, and while Jim said he preferred the Castleton version we saw last summer, I enjoyed these three equally. I do love being close up, and thought Ermonela Jaho singing Suor Angelica made breath-takingly beautiful sound (she gave it her all emotionally and was clearly shaking when she came out for her bows). Lucio Gallo was a powerful murderous dark Michele in Il Tabarro and a funny uninhibited Gianni Schicchi, and his ensemble cast amusingly typed. Each time I hear Lauretta’s O mio babbino caro I remember Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movies and find it so odd that such a poignant lyric can exist happily in the midst of this hard comedy.

Gentle reader, let me take this opportunity to say Jim and I will have a time away for a few days: we are off to the South Central 18th century regional conference on landscapes and vistas at Asheville, N. Carolina, where I’ll give my paper on Ann Radcliffe’s landscapes.

Check out Emerging Pictures for various theaters around the US. An early review.


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… blood streams through the firmament … Marlowe (Doctor Faustus)

Caius Marcius, called Coriolanus (Fiennes) waiting for suppliants

Dear friends and readers,

Do what you have to do to see this film. Maybe it’s not worth a plane ride, but if it’s a longish trip by car (4 hours is not too much to drive) or bus, don’t hesitate. Don’t miss it. We left our house (in Alexandria, Va) at around 3:15 (short car ride, short walk, 25 minutes by train, 10+ minute walk) for a 4:50 show. Good thing we arrived by 4:15 or so. By 4:30 the show was sold out. As we walked out at around 7, the next show was sold out.

I suppose my reader knows the play’s story; if not, here’s a synopsis. This, so I can cut immediately to what makes the film so riveting and important: the acting and how Shakespeare’s core story was made a parable for our times combined with the directing in the context of its mise-en-scene. It seemed to me to break with conventions of such films.

I’ve just read Stephen Greenblatt’s review in the NYRB (59:4, March 8, 2012, 4, 6) It’s unfair to Fiennes. How irresistible it is to ridicule, especially when a character role demands no humor from the actor — though Fiennes managed a moment here and there, as when in exile we see him like today’s homeless people, sitting in front of his tent, looking cold, hungry, slightly puzzled, staring at his stuff.

Fiennes’s directing (the blocking) and acting were (as they say) pitch perfect, uncannily so. I’ve seen him as good before and unlike many other actors he can take on many types (from the bullying dense duke of The Duchess, to the sensitive diplomat of Constant Gardener [the film is dedicated to Simon Channing-Williams who directed CG], to Heathcliff, to the neurotic, yes seeming tall, thin and tortured in an early Prime Suspect). Here he actually managed to project sensitivity now and again amid the crazed militarism of Caius Marcius. The towering fits of rage where he spits out intense hatred and scorn for ordinary people and most of his peers are brought on by something in him that is a nervous wreck, neurotic,but not intimations of Hamlet because there is something dark in his eyes, obtuse, and he is edginess itself. Fiennes may have meant to evoke Marlon Brando in Apocalypse; he was Kurtz looking out at the world and his reasons for refusing to condescend to ask for votes, to taken on the role of suppliant had also to do with an appalled horror at the world he lived in, his own values somehow, not just patrician disgust. (In Tinker Tailor Colin Firth also channeled as they say Brando, but as in The Godfather.) So Shakespeare’s basically conservative message was altered to fit our era, especially perhaps this year, say since 9/14/08, the real year the world changed: when Lehman Bros came near default and the economic and political systems we endure began to be laid bare before us. If there was some music from Apocalyse Now I didn’t hear it. The film had sequences of no-music in the background a lot.

I haven’t seen Vanessa Redgrave in so great a part, one worthy, giving room for abilities in years. (The Merchant-Ivories didn’t.) It’s hard for older women to find great parts. If possible, she was even better than Fiennes. Utterly plausible. Not some scold, not a domineering termagant, but sure of herself with her son. The best scene in the movie was a longish one of her rubbing his really woundered body all over with her hands, binding his wounds with gauze, all around his body, his arms lovingly, as he places himself intimately within the folds of her body. This is followed by a silent one of him lying looking in pain but resting in bed, with Virginia (Jessica Chastain) coming up to him, and gingerly lying down alongside him. This actress does seem to have been chosen because she looks like young actresses all do recently: super-skinny yet large breasted, curvy thickish lips, a jutting kind of face: the way Julia Roberts looked when young, and Cate Blanchet is attempting to keep up nowadays. Chastain can weep, look as if she’d like to escape all this, and has a scene gathering her boys’ toys — naturally a plastic sub-machine gun and other implements of death by his bed. Redgrave (bless her), like Emma Thompson, has not gone super-thin; she still has her regal body, smooth if aging face. Her smiles gave me the creeps, but I think she is not blamed for what happens. One danger of this play is it may be read simply as see what mothers do. No. Fiennes was his own man, the product that belongs to the world around him.

The scene all will remember is the one from which this promotional (and therefore decorous) still I found on line (above) is taken:

Scene mostly from Act 5, Sc 2, lines 23-190: Fiennes as Coriolanus, Redgrave as Volumnia, Gerard Butler soft focus, arms folded, as Aufidius

but this framed picture moment is not characteristic of it. Characteristic are medium shots of her pacing back and forth a bit, standing with her daughter-in-law, Virginia (Jessica Chastain), their woman, Valeria, and the son, now kneeling,

now rising, with a couple of individual moments for the boy (given lines not in Shakespeare), and the wife (she comes up to him, tries caresses, tears (the lines are his in the play, abridged):

As we all know the family wins, Volumnia the pyrrhic victor, and thus causes his destruction, though in the film we do not know that until he returns to Aufidius after signing the treaty, and Aufidius works up a rage in Coriolanus (“boy! boy” Aufidius jeers, rightly at Coriolanus), and then orders the men ringed round him to beat and knife Caius Marcius to death, himself, Aufidius, coming in for the last deep thrust as he, Aufidius, appears at the same time to be making love to the by then dying maimed, again bleeding man. The last moment of the film is Fiennes dead, thrown and kicked onto a steel kind of shield, ready for the garbage.

Menenius (Brian Cox, chain-smoking) is pulled from this scene. (He is there in Shakespeare) to give him a separate suppliant moment. Like Alec Guiness and Gary Oldman (as George Smiley), Cox worked wonders of myriad responses by taking off and cleaning his glasses and putting them back on his face.

Menenius is persuaded by the parliamentary men to try to persuade Coriolanus from further destruction of Rome. This gives the film-makers another chance to allow us to watch someone walk across a land- or city-scape at length, bridges, checkpoints, wasteland, to where he is confronted (a repeating scene in the film) by a group of men standing in phalanx form, holding weapons at the ready, grim. A truck or fleet of fancy cars stands ready and the person is driven to the scene where he must beg, negotiate, whatever. (No wonder Coriolanus hates it — and this we are to feel too.) He is broken by Coriolanus adament refusal to recognize he is even there. (This is not filmed — as it would not work to see it; it would show the man to be the “boy” is he accused of being at the film’s end.

Alas, some of his speeches were cut, others re-arranged. You could not really have that long allegory of society as a human body with the people as its stomach; it would not have fitted the created world, rhythms of the speeches at all, but others were lost that have saturnine subtle political meaning. (I’ve wondered at times how was that Coriolanus done in the 1940s in Paris that caused it’s said a riot.) He, like Volumnia, is the one who urges Coriolanus to the marketplace, the reasoner (it seems), moderate even. (I seem to recall one testimony from the Irangate hearings where someone said “there are no moderates” [in Reagan's or was it Iran's gov't?].) Probably what’s brought in here is the heartbreak of Cassius when Brutus rejects him. Menenius’s world is smashed as Rome is now smashed. Whatever happens now he is personally a loser too. He kills himself by slitting his wrist veins sitting over a filthy dump near a bridge over waters that look polluted.

Most of the other roles were small, not demanding much. Characters as reporters, as heads of gov’t, as important people in the mob — though there I felt there was something of the spirit of the presentation of mobs in say the 1939 Tale of Two Cities. The people are hungry for bread, have no jobs, but they are so easily swayed (as in Shakespeare’s play). They are often played by non-white people, Middle Eastern, Southasian, Spanish looking: Lubna Azabal as Tamora, and Ashraf Baroum as Cassius given names. It takes little to move them to feel for Caius Marcius, and then so little for the two tribunes (Paul Jesson, James Nesbitt) “of the people” to rouse their envy, fear, spite, resentment. I noted the brief presence of a favorite actress (of mine) from recent BBC film adaptations as an anchor woman (Tanya Moodie).

As important was the text (sometimes cleverly moved around by the screenplay writer, John Logan) and settings and costumes. Much of Shakespeare’s central speeches survived, the central plot-design; it’s Shakespeare’s play all right. A transposition (faithful) film. Brilliantly updated. The scenes are are contemporary world of harsh ruthless military dictatorships and parliaments filled with corrupt — utterly out for themselves — insinuating skilful manipulating suited men. The war-torn streets with steel and cement huge buildings in cement cities, and gorgeous mansions set in green landscapes, along side cardboard towns, brick tenements, wretched deteriorating streets, ancient dilapidated stores, tent markets, everywhere at a sudden flowing with people, many wretched, dressed in modern style rags — I thought perhaps we were seeing the streets of the middle east (say Syria, Egypt today, Yemen) or more closely South and Latin America as we used to see them on TV after some decent gov’t was overthrown by a civil war (fomented in part by the US), but Jim thought they were generic. At any rate many were shown to us as if we were watching them on TV film, a news show, with a voice broadcasting at us, and a band of letters underneath.

As with the destruction of the OWS movement, each time there is a confrontation — most of these occur in the first phase of the film, the police come out in full steel paramilitary riot gear and beat the hell out of the people; we see these cage barbed-wire walls set up that have to be broken through; the debris in the streets from last time is what people stumble over.

Street battles: civilians the “collateral damage”

Much of the action that is reported in Shakespeare’s play (by messenger type speeches) is acted out in front of us. Coriolanus, Aufidius, most of the fighting men are seen in camouflage most of the time. For ceremonies Jim says the costume designed resorted to British ceremonial mititary gear for the soldiers, of course suits for politicians.

All this is significant; it breaks with conventions; to some the opening terrifically violent sequence, and the controlled violence which punctuates the latter 3/4s of the film might detract. It’s hard to watch. Really up close shooting people through the head. But I think it matters and it was right to put before this world seen on TV or Youtubes and read about on the Net by its mostly white middle class audience I saw the film with — people living in or not far from an expensive area of DC, calm peaceful areas (so it seems) of Virginia and Maryland who had come by bus and train and walking.

I hope the film reaches far more people, for the film targets people of many types and countries. I don’t make a habit of seeing Shakespeare film adaptations so don’t know how it fits in to this sub-genre recently, but I do go, watch them on TV, through Netflix, certainly go to the theaters in my area and used to go in NYC most of the time a Shakespeare play was staged, and I have read Coriolanus a couple of times. Jim & I saw the RSC perform it as Kennedy Center a few years ago where Timothy West delivered a extraordinary — memorable — performance as Menenius. Izzy reminds me we 3 saw an abridged version at the DC fringe festival two years ago – but I have only vague memories. Still, this is the best Shakespearean film adaptation I’ve seen in a long time because like Shakespeare it speaks home to us today.

As Marlowe said (Shakespeare grieved at the death of this gifted man),
blood streams through the firmament not since 9/11/01 (that was retaliation) but maybe more patently and obviously, inflicted on its immediate early US audience’s own streets since 9/14/08.


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Opening shots of Episode 1 — a train rushing through the countryside (much made of new machines in Edwardian era)

Dear Friends and readers,

Only one year behind! I’m so often decades behind (I fell in love with the Poldark mini-series and books 2 years ago), that to be 10 to 15 years late is nothing (I’m just now mesmerized by Prime Suspect). Sir Toby Belch (Shakespeare’s Twelth Night) said to be up betimes (past midnight near dawn) is to be up early, so I say to be belated by one year is to be on time. To be accurate, I’ve blogged twice about the mini-series already, once in response to Ebert who apparently identifies with Mr Carson, the butler (Think of me as the dead or absent maid) and once in response to the first episode of the second season this time where I or someone like me might figure in the Downton imaginary (Downton Abbey as Amos ‘n Andy). These though were personal; tonight while not forgetting that all art is propaganda (Orwell), and remaining sincere and frank, I mean to be generally descriptive.

Episode 1

Among the first shots of Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Duchess

I began by capturing four long far shot stills, the opening of the train rushing through forest and countryside, past stream in the gloaming of the evening, the first shot of the Dowager Duchess (quite like a portrait) and Robert Crawley, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and present duchess, Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) seen walking against the green sward as Mr Carson (Jim Carter) walks up to them to give them the message from a telegraph:

I enjoyed it the way I often do costume drama, mini-series rhythm I should say emphatically — so when I am critical it should be understand I am evaluating. (I don’t understand how it reduces enjoyment to understand what we are taking in.)

It had all the familiar motives and plot-devices of the type, too much so. The story was Pride and Prejudice: Lord (Hugh Bonneville — very good insofar as he could be) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern made too coy — she simpered – she was playing a stupid or not very bright woman and that’s how she did it) had no sons so the entail goes to another relative.

As episode opens, this near heir has died on the Titanic and now the eldest Grantham daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) who was engaged to him is free. She couldn’t give a damn and does not want to wear mourning. The second daughter, plainer, clearly did like this now dead heir and cousin, Lady Edith her name (Laura Carmichael), at any rate resents Lady Mary’s indifference to his demise. Now the estate and money to support it (which comes from Cora, Lady Grantham’s portion) will go to a third cousin, once removed. Lord and Lady have 3 daughters to marry (5 was perhaps too obvious and cost more) and now it’s not so easy. Lord Grantham will not fight the entail as it’s useless he and his lawyer, Murray think.

Much Trollope here — though the name Crawley signals Thackeray’s presence (as in Vanity Fair). Cora — from Trollope’s Pallisers — was married by Lord Grantham for her money and he grew to love her as the years passed. A little dialogue of reminiscence tells us that (like Lady Glencora McClusky), this American Cora’s dowry was enormous. Fellowes is also remembering Palliser’s heir, Lord Silverbridge’s marriage to an American young woman, an Isobel (a popular name in the 1880ss). The situation by Trollope delved into and developed at much much great length (at least 7 long novels)i is presented shallowly, superficially here. In the first three episodes allusions to Trollope make it clear Trollope’s novels are an important source: “it was just like a Trollope novel!” says one character in Episode 3. And as with Austen’s P&P, Fellowes just makes is a shallow sketchy paradigm. Cora was not a common Edwardian name — though Isobel (Mrs Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton) was and the first name of the American heiress just referred to).

A neighborhood hunting club run from Grantham (from episode 3)

The larger encompassing structure is patently Upstairs/Downstairs, only so much more luxurious. The castle is Highclere in Hampshire. The servants up early, serving like crazy, the kind of imitative pattern, the important butler, Mr Carson (Jim Carter replacing Gordon Jackson as Mr Hudson) who cares intensely about the family and decorum; a housekeeper, Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan replacing Angela Baddeley as Mrs Bridges who though was also cook). So it went. I note the hero, exemplary & dominating male in the first season of the 1970s UD was the butler; now it’s the rich Lord Grantham.

Some of it very well done. The shots wonderful. Not so much the dialogue which needed more work and the actors more rehearsal. Viewers can pour what they want into these paradigms, come away with what lessons they want. For example, the servants’ rooms so bare, the space they exist in not theirs at all (and this is made explicit more than once); they get up early and have to rush about cleaning, serving the family. The cliches make it broad and easy to take in. Buyt Maggie Smith as dowager did not ham it up and delivered with quiet pizzazz whatever bon mots were going.

As in the 1970s a chief maid, Rose (Jean Marsh, one of the people who conceived of the original series) was central so here Anna Smith (Joanne Froggart) and her side-kick, Gwen (Rose Leslie). To them are added a scullery maid, Daisy (Sophie McShera) there to be bullied by Mrs Patmore, cook (Leslie Nicol). An extra “good” footman, here naive (as he was not in the 1970s) William Mason (Thomas Howes). Everyone given second names — as they were not at first in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs.

There were new elements and they were striking and effective. For example, the story of a disabled man: the new valet, Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) who the servants are put off by and two, Sarah O’Brien, Lady Grantham’s lady’s maid ((Siobhan Finneram) conspire to blacken, even trip up (done by a sleaze of a footman, Thomas Barrow played by Rob James-Collier) and insist is not keeping up his end.

So two sets of scenes placed in the plot-design swirl around this: we see how Lord Grantham does the right thing, nearly firing this his ex-bat man who desperately needs a job, at the last moment says, no, he stays. Now this was touching and progress: we are to feel for the disabled and see how he’s given a hard time by his society. But the way the program avoids real toughness was here too. To limp is an easy disability to feel sorry for. Nothing non-conformist here. He was even a Vet (Boer War). Who went after him: the mean servants so it’s the lower orders with the apparently careless unfeeling Cora backing them up. Still we did feel the lack of flexibility towards someone disabled, and it was done with quiet tact.

Another: the highest person in the episode was a Duke of Crowborough (played by Charlie Fox [easy to confuse with Lord Evelyn Napier, played by Brendan Patricks]. Crowborough who has heard the heir of the family has died and rushes over to put his bid in for the hand of Lady Mary. Straight out of Trollope this character with the important except that he was a total lout and shit, not just vacillating over his place in the hierarchy. He decamps hastily when once he learns Lady Mary not to inherit. This does suggest a sort of attack on hierarchy. Against this Grantham has a noble soul. Napier is also regardless of other people’s feelings (an important value in this mini-series). Crowborough takes Lady Mary for a walk in the house to the servants’ quarters upstairs and to the side of the house. She was made nervous and uncomfortable by this; she is aware they are people and this is their at least temporary private area, if bare, cold, stigmatized. The whole sequence very believable. Crowborough couldn’t care less about perhaps barging in. These people have no dignity, no humanity like his to him. He also couldn’t care less about the landscape — didn’t want to go outside for a walk. A bad sign. The name is allegorical too (a crow, referring both to the instrument and the bird — such birds are intelligent by the way).

A third: open homosexuality. We discover the shit footman, Thomas is a previous lover of this Duke’s — not just homoerotic as in Trollope. The scene is humanly speaking between two ugly people. Duke trying to take advantage, and Thomas then countering with a blackmail attempt. Duke grabs his letters back and throws them in fire. No evidence. It does move too quickly and crudely — one of the flaws of this first season.

Blackmail was a problem for gay men. These are both nasty cold mean people and that has nothing to do with their gayness — but it should be acknowledged that to the popular audience the film-makers are clearly reaching for this could be an anti-gay person sequence. I think it’s really partly progress. At least this alternative sexuality is visible. We see the young men kiss and homosexuality becomes another form of sex going on. This is something we would not have seen even in the 1990s even – and certainly not on TV.

And of course I like Matthew Crawley, Dan Stevens (a favorite with me since the 2008 S&S and his role in Line of Beauty and the good psychiatrist in latest Turn of the Screw) and Mrs Crawley, his mother who despite her misgivings leaps at the chance of this inheritance and a place in county society, complete with house and servants. The new heir and his mother are first seen in a middle class flat in Manchester. He a lawyer (gasp! works for a living — Trollope stuff there).

Telling perhaps the typology? in that 2009 Turn of the Screw, Michelle Dockery was the imprisoned and exploited governess, with Stevens as her failed savior. Will these roles be repeated in this permutation? Stay tuned.

Conventional in these sorts of things the person I found I could bond easiest with was Anna. I liked Mr Bates too. A kind of sub-couple to Lord and Lady Grantham and this is new too — if the servants were made primary at first in Upstairs Downstairs, there was no equivalent of the Bellamys and the son, while prone to get maids pregnant, was sensitive, intelligent, no lout. I can see that parallels stories will be developed throughout the series. I found myself interested by Edith and Daisy.

Julian Fellowes wrote the originating script for Altman’s Gosford Park; Fellowes will be the one continual presence throughout the episodes. He must have written them as a group before they began shooting because I can see this is not a matter of new stories for each episode, with the series evolving as it moves on in the way of the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs; from inception this has some over-arching pattern.

Episode 2: comic idealism; a celebration of community

Anna and Gwen talking earnestly to one another in their attic room

I like the second episode better than the first — though I begin to see how much of this mini-series is unreal or exaggerated. It was funnier than Episode 1 and all about the individuals in the house — developing them as individuals.

What was so good was the feeling generated. It reminded me in feeling
and ideals of the two recent Cranfords — Jim Carter and Brendon Coyle were in those too. They were (as this mini-series is apparently going to be) a celebration of community. In that it opposes itself to much we find ourselves surrounded by today, as did those Cranfords. This message is much more explicit than anything in the older Upstairs Downstairs (much the subtler series) and probably functions as an antidote to our world today. This is a series where we learn we cannot go it alone. So, what’s not to like? That this socialistic message is got up withni the aesthetics of simplified justified hierarchies?

Against that which easily may be read as justifying conformity and coercion to bow to the group will, I’d say the note is tolerance more than giving up individual wants or desires. Were it the later, the tone would be more melancholy. We see the characters tolerate one another — and with kindness sometimes too, and even dignity. Comfort there, and Bonneville as Lord Grantham makes this explicit in his speeches just in case we didn’t get the message.

Matthew Crawley bicycles to work

Living in the US, I don’t get to see these film adaptations regularly, or we get only a select group of them so I can’t tell whether this outlook is found in other of these concoctions (combinations of books and themes and plot-designs and characters) since say 2005 or 6. I did see it adumbrated in the 1999 Aristocrats mini-series which was really a kind of Little Women in luxurious-rich neoclassic taste 18th century guise.

I concede that I don’t know enough about medical operations and suspect what we saw Dr Clarkson (David Robb) perform with the help of Mrs Crawley — save a young villager’s life — was much simplified; a number of the problems the lower class characters had were too easily solved by the active benignity of the upper class ones. It was rather like a child’s fiction, built to create little parables: Lord Grantham just dismisses the blackmailer; Matthew Crawley gets a new job as a lawyer in the town so easily; Mrs Crawley has the training of an expert nurse, but the number of instances of kindness, of giving in to accepting the “other” was genuinely appealing. How Mr Carter’s past (low class, low status wandering family) was accepted by Mrs Hughes and Mr Bates forgave Mr Carter. Crawley learning to make his butler feel useful — that was a bit much to take. We are to be grateful when the privileged allow us to serve them hand-and-foot. Still, the point made was we all need to be useful, to be appreciated. Not much allowed in 2012. I melted. And they were careful not to allow the dowager duchess (the type straight out of Trollope – obtuse, snobbish, carelessly making life hard for others yet we are to like her) is not allowed to do any real harm or inflict any real hurt. The other characters stop her in time.

Small personal delights: Daisy, the young scrubmaid under the thumb of the hard-worked cook is so sweet and when (usually sneering) Thomas danced with her, it was touching. She is of course showing her youth in preferring the manipulative hypocritical Thomas to the good- hearted innocent William. Daisy. I wanted to name my older daughter Marguerite & call her Daisy. My mother was horrified. It was to my mother a low class name — whoever imagines the US is class-free lives in a thick fog of delusion. I’ve been sorry I didn’t call her Daisy but maybe it would’ve been a stigma. And Mrs Crawley’s first name is Isobel. So is my younger daughter — my father said it had a regal ring to his ears (!). I do like the name Anna too — even considered it in dreams of a third daughter. I’m watching out for any Alices or Lauras or Veronicas :)

None of these negates my knowledge of my mother-in-law’s experience as a lower governess in a great house where the last feeling that was dominant was good-fellowship according to my mother-in-law. To be in service was to be in servitude. A reality check from Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant: a maid collecting water from pump. perhaps helped by groom. One of many laborious tasks carried out by servants of the era:

Someone who could keep this size-staff was unusually well-off in Victorian times; note how each person is made to hold the implements of his or her work, his or her insignia:

One girl remembered her first job as a “tweeny” as “hell:”

But I did not suffer at the hands of my emloyees, but at the hands of fellow servants. There was far more class distinction and bullying and misery below stairs than can be told in a letter.

It’s worth repeating my mother-in-law had a nervous breakdown at the end of a year and one-half and after World War Two a 5 and 1/2 full time day job in Woolworth’s was riches (a salary!), freedom (time you controlled once the job was done), private space compared to what she had known. See also Another Maggie Smith.

Downton Abbey is escapist fairy tale.

Taken on its own terms, they are not spending enough time on the shots. This second episode the actors appeared to be much more rehearsed, but I discovered the movie does not lend itself to spontaneous snaps. You have to be alert to capture a perfect one and I got hardly any. In the case of Ang Lee say or Joe Wright you can snap any time any way and it comes out lovely, graceful, or pointed in meaning in a satisfying way. Not here. I did get one of Penelope Wilton meeting for the first time with Lord Grantham They shake hands: both are exemplars of the good people doing their best — fitting in and so on.

The first meeting of the two branches of the Crawleys (Penelope Wilton’s open face is perfect)

Episode 3: rape slid over

Lady Mary as very pretty seen by the men at the hunt

True to Trollope’s attitudes we have an ambiguous rape slid over in this one. This one was more melodramatic again and there were a few story lines which are going to be spun out over at least this season.

Lady Mary is emerging as heroine: I suppose it’s easier and inevitable than make the 2nd, Lady Emily or 3rd Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), the heroine. Lady Mary is taken in (I allude to Austen’s Mary Crawford who says marriage is a “take in”) by the handsome rakish Turkish aristocratic type, Kemal Pamuk (I can’t find the name or actor in the list on IMDB), brought along by Napier, another Trollope male type (Fellowes may also reads Napier who was a conservative political historian and politician). Lady Mary (Trollope again) did not fall in love with Napier (unlike John Grey from Can You Forgive Her? not very worthy) but instead goes for the “wild” man (I am alluing now to an opposition between types of men as Trollope suggests young women see them in Can You Forgive her?). We are to believe women want males who punish them.

Downton Abbey is made by men (directors all and producers almost all men). So it’s not surprise that when the Turkish guy with no connections that the young woman of the house hardly knows sneaks his way into the her room and forces her down on the bed, she just melts.

Things go awry though — and if the rape is not presented accurately — there is poetic justice. Pamuk blackmails his way into her room. Thomas tried to force sex on this, lout No 2, who did not yield but himself coerced Thomas (lower status, more vulnerable) to let him into Lady Mary’s room after threatening to expose Thomas as a gay male. After a rough-housing scene with Lady Mary, Pamuk appears to drop dead after fucking or nearly fucking Lady Mary (we are to believe she began to want this bullying treatment). A real scene might have had an attempted rape and he die. Then he would have deserved it. I wondered if in an earlier script it was not) and next thing she is running frantically because what if he is found in her room? Her reputation!!! to make a long story short (not done truly comically because they didn’t have the nerve), she, her mother and Anna drag the corpse to his room to be found therein the morning.

So Lady Mary is set up for blackmail, exposure, and shame.

Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley begins to look like decency itself. Alas, for reasons I don’t get except Lady Mary is pretty (but so is Edith), Matthew prefers Mary to Edith These are a very conventional group of characters. Edith likes Matthew Crawley and takes him round to churches. It’s clear he is hankering after Lady Mary though he enjoys the tour. I wish for her to meet an archaeologist and go on digs. I liked the moments of their tour around the village and its churches.

An unusual moment for Edith thus far: she invites Matthew to come with her and is reaching out; most of the time she is presented as sullen and too eager for a man

The full secondary story here was of Mr Bates buying himself an iron frame and trying to make himself walk in a non-limping (non-crippled) way using it, but only torturing himself and ending up with a much wounded leg was touching. His physical weakness parallels the young man who died suddenly. But (part of the series good feeling) everyone who learns of this cares and is kind to him. Lord Grantham wants to help him. Finally he succumbs to Mrs Hughes’s insistent kindness; she gets him to reveal his leg to her. The closing scene of the episode is him throwing the ugly device away. The moral: he has to learn to accept himself.

Mrs Hughes and Mr Bates on the edge of the Downton estate

But remember in the real world he would have been fired probably unless Lord Grantham really felt for him as a batman in the Boer war. I wondered if in the original script more was made of this WW1 experience.

Then there’s a third story set afoot and done with intelligent quiet irony: Gwen, the lower maid, aspires to be a secretary, to leave “service.” The other servants (especially Miss Obriend) ask if she’s above them, the Duchess thinks it’s nicer in a great house than job for long hours in a dark office. This is supposed to be funny. I liked how Lady Sybil felt for Gwen. Most houses were arduous repressive hard work and humbling — the typewriter Gwen has saved up for and practices on at night is like telegraph, we saw at the opening of the first episode, a sign of this dawn of the modern era.

Her story is given the usual false turn we see daily when she is told by Mr Bates she can change her life completely. Mr Bates tell her this, but we see she doesn’t believe it. Doesn’t know how to reach anyone, and she is told the space she lives in is not hers, not to practice typiing on or keep her machine in. She’s allowed to on sufferance. It is her property, that is what is recognized.

Gwen’s typewriter

I noted all the intimate scenes of master/mistresses and servants: talking, advising. The (good) servants are the fount of wisdom in this mini-series. Good thing we have some less nice people among the servants too — though it’s pernicious that the worst people in the house are Thomas, a homosexual footman (whom Mrs Patmore describes as “troubled”) and Mrs O’Brien, the lady’s maid, dressed in witch-like black with an ugly hat (so too does Edith have bad hats — see the Hats of Downton Abbey). A piece of misogyny (recalling daytime soap operas) where a lower class woman, is the worse person around.

This is from a later episode in Season 2 where Miss OBrien had been humanized: she warns Mr Bates

But again see the underlying jarring values of this series: steadily anti-bullying, anti-exploitation of others in just about every area shown, and steadily idealizing the wealthy and powerful. Only the two bad guys (Thomas and OBrien) are mocking bullies and they are rendered harmless by the goodness of the Granthams who stay above the fray and instinctively make the right decisions. If you believe all this, I’ve a bridge I could let you have dead cheap …


To conclude, Downton Abbey (Highcleere mansion) in Trollope is Gatherum Castle (Sudeley castle).

Trollopians will remember that Lady Glen and Plantagenet dislike the gigantic Gatherum with necessary huge staff intensely; it’s a huge barn, un-home-y, a task to operate. They open it up when he becames Prime Minister because it is big enough to entertain rich & powerful people in large groups, to have parties, balls, golf and arrow-shooting going on all at once. It can function as a hotel. At the same time, Plantagenet as Duke of Omnium finds he is forced to spend money making it look fashionable for others; the renovations strike him as ruining the gardens, absurd. He hides out in it.

Lady Glen as Duchess becomes a hostess (and of course he does not like
that). She is in collusion with her housekeeper, a French cook (often drunk) and doesn’t know all the staff anymore. Some of the funniest ironic sequences are of the Duke wandering about in the landscape (he is an idealized character) and the Duchess managing her hotel.

We see the purpose of such a house is politicking, to show how
powerful & influential you are. And here we have another lacunae in
DA: not only is it understaffed, it has no use. Lord Grantham were he real would be politicking, using his influence; there would be scores of men not just showing up (inexplicably) for a hunt, but for a hunt as part of many days’ networking. We get nothing whatever of this. Fellowes sticks strictly to domestic life. And that is not real. Even rich people don’t throw their money away. The house was a central of power through patronage.

By contrast, Altman’s Gosford Park was smaller, the equivalent of Matching Priory, the place the Pallisers called home. Matching is big enough to politick in too (you have small groups of more intimate friends). The Palliser film-makers used Sudely Castle for both: they photographed it so that it would look smaller for Matching Priory, & showed its full extent from another angle for Gatherum.

Trollope himself never misses a chance to satirize in a kind of
saturnine way what Gatherum is. In Dr Thorne (the 3rd Barsetshire novel) Frank Gresham is made miserable there, snubbed the first time we go there — with him. Fellowes erased this.

Lord and Lady Grantham greeted by staff (Elizabeth McGovern another of the many actresses who starve themselves to be so frail)

Next Downton Abbey blog: Season 1, Episodes 4-6


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Brunnhilde (Deborah Voight) and Siegfried (Jay Hunter Morris)

Dear friends and readers,

Well, we saw this opera yesterday — all 5 hours and 50 minutes of it.
Some of that was intermission — 2 of about 25 minutes each. A few
scattered thoughts and notes:

I just was overwhelmed — totally won over — when the death of
Siegfried sequence began. It became at once magnificent and yet I burst into tears. The culmination effect could be really felt. Its large simplifications worked. I loved Voight’s performance as the strong selfish woman betrayed. And Jay Hunter is just so appealing. He reminds me of Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival — reading about Siegfried even if I know that Wagner was this rebel, on the barricades and have read Shaw on the Ring, the part always seemed Nazi, stupid, militarist, but Hunter pulls off a gay innocent and lovingly noble Parzival so well-meaning my heart goes out to him. Several of the singers, in fact all who had major roles with some nuance did it intelligently and at this close a number of threads and major characters over the four operas were metaphorically brought back.

Over supper we found ourselves trying to remember the other 3 operas & saying perhaps it was justified to have all 4 in a row. Jim said Wagner had created these operas over 30 years. Wagner began with writing an opera on Siegfried’s death and with so many deaths in these operas, he thought he ought to explain how the death had come about and so wrote an opera on Siegfried; then he felt he needed to account for Brunnhilde, and before you know it, he needed a prologue. When he’d finished these librettos, he wrote the music moving forward, from first to last.

But nevertheless, and until then I occasionally fell asleep. To me Wagner music was beautiful until then, most of the time endlessly flowing concert music with the characters’ presences, stories, and songs forming an accompaniment. In previous or traditional operas the music is the accompaniment. But until it became so resonant and seemed to capture depths of sublime tragedy, it was simply background and the psychology and story and dramatic techniques of Wagner as librettist don’t hold me. His idea of a blocked staging is to have two characters stand there and sing at length at one another. The story seems something a 10 year old could read in an action-adventure book. Lord of the Rings is a book for older adolescents. I’m not alone in my dissatisfaction, but admit mine is not based on the music but the piece considered as a play or mythic story told through opera.

In a movie — which this was — costume is of enormous significance in conveying character and meaning. I’d forgotten Wendy Bryn Harmer (Gutrune here) was also the young woman who was sold in Das Rheingold (very painful that, the way she was so abject): most of the images of women are wholly masculinist dreams and their outfits showed this. Actually I didn’t like the costumes of the men much either. Jim called it all rags and rocks. I remember thinking Wotan’s lock of hair over his eye plastered down absurd. This time Siegfried’s costume felt just (I had neutral response) and so too Gunther, Hagan, Gunther but Brunnhilde’s dress looked like schlock from Klein’s — it was probably chosen to de-emphasize Deborah Voigt’s age: she hasn’t a young woman’s body any more so they made her breasts very flat. Wendy Bryn Harmer’s steel bra over a nightgown was just what a man might ludicrously find covers all symbolic grounds (strong and aggressive as well as sexy), but it was indicative of most of the images of women in these plays, not thought through. In one interview LePage said he didn’t want the “heavy German” imagery, but yet wanted to be traditional. So the costumers didn’t know what to do with the Germanic tribal imagery but didn’t think how it reads and although they want to get rid of it and they could have nothing to substitute.

A few years ago we saw a production of Das Rheingold by Francesca Zambello where the all the characters were in 1920s outfits from movies (rather like people on a cruise) and it worked very well. Actors do better when an audience is full and responds intelligently to the play.

Then mise-en-scene and shots. The machine just didn’t cut it. (See Izzy’s blog on undulating planks accompanying the beautiful music, Deborah Voight and Jay Hunter.) We were to think the world was coming to an end and it was more like a suttee. It’s a light and sound show; after all a staged opera is not a movie and Gelb has to give up the idea having computer and being movie-like is dragging opera into the 21st century. The opera as movie is still being staged and that cannot be upstaged. We need to see sets which included grand houses, inside and out, forests, mountains, huge slabs of lighted-steel are no symbolic substitute.

To some particulars: the Rhine maidens. I noticed the first opera had them sliding all the way down & in the interview we were “treated” to the fear they had of this, and how one of them had to be coaxed even with a harness. They did go from top to bottom. This time they went maybe less than 2/3s and no harness. Jim said that if you paid attention they would slide down one plank and climb up another consistently. Each of them. So he guessed one plank had been greased to slide down easily. We never did see the whole of their bodies until they came for bows. I didn’t like that we were supposed to be amused at the Rhine maidens’ fear in one of the interview films. I read somewhere Deborah Voight was almost badly hurt by that machine. And there were stunt men and women where possible. Why should they risk anything either is my feeling.

When interviewed, Eric Owens (a great Alberic, the angry and therefore evil dwarf) said he would have to go to the gym before May (when all four operas are done in a row — to get in you must buy for all four and there is a very high ticket put on this).

There is no illusion on these sets that what is happening mirrors some reality off-stage and the occasional effective large artificial simulacrum (like the iron horse below) was rare.

An irony horse was pulled along by Siegfried with some unexplained ropes helping from the curtain

As to how the opera functions in our world as performance and DVD, Jim reminded me that though Wagner has been coopted by the fascists backed by military fleets of people with deadly weapons, he was originally a man on the barricades. Shaw pointed out Gotterdammerung is an allegory on a world gone wrong which needs replacement. All authority figures ought to be made deeply suspect and a number who came here regularly have killed themselves. We should see what is happening as anti-capitalist fable (as Shaw said). But I felt in this (and other productions I’ve seen) we are invited to contemplate the spectacle of enviably powerful characters inflicting pain and misery on one another with no haven or reform in sight. We are asked to study the religion and respect it. We are to luxuriate in the gods’ silly quarrels. No community worth the word in sight. It’s a police state with a powerful machine to back it up and make its prisons:

The amassing of the male chorus around Hagden (Hans Peter-Konig) does resemble the ruthless use of brutal policing in most states on the globe.

I did like how when all were taking their bows, Jay Hunter shook the hand of the prompter. A telling customary omission: I had never seen anyone do that before. So clever Deborah Voigt followed suit. Hunter presents himself as the country boy with Texas accent far more than he probably is, and it is part of his act to shake the prompter’s hand. There is someone just under the stage, crouched, ready to help any and all actors enact their lines.

I should acknowledge that Izzy was deeply engaged throughout by the music and opera in front of us as really (though less visibly) was Jim.


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Mother (Deidre LaWan Starnes)

Dear friends and readers,

Jim and I saw a well done moving production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding tonight at the Source Theater and I write to urge all those within driving distance of DC to come and see it. As translated by Tanya Ronder and directed by Shirley Serotsky, and acted, danced, and sung very well, the play becomes a theatrical experience of a mix of half-comically, half-tragically perceived human experience and passion. We begin with thwarted lovers, a brother-in-law to be, Leonardo (Dylan Myers) and the Bride (Victoria Reinsel); switch to the happy family group looking forward to a marriage. We experience the phases of a wedding ceremony and marriage (anticipation, dressing, dancing, feasting, the young couple prepares to leave), and the Bride seems to be reconciling herself thoroughly to her Groom (Mark Halperin)

only to inexplicably change her mind offstage and run off with Leonardo


which action leads to high quarreling between all the hitherto merry and cheerful participants, a blood duel between the Groom and Leonardo offstage, their deaths and burial in shallowly-dug graves covered with red rose-leaves.

It was the combination of curious symmetries, the prop like dropping black curtains, a loggia, Death as a man in a thirties suit and hat playing a guitar, all the exquisitely right flowers placed perfectly, the music itself, a graceful translation, and powerful tragic & erotic pantomimes combined with comic gaiety and antics.

It is a play which brings women to the forefront. The men’s violence occurs off-stage; the Mother of the grrom is a much stronger more important figure than the Father of the Bride (Will Cook). Perhaps it’s that a wedding is so centrally fixed on the bridal princess.

The reviews are not as positive or favorable as they ought to be.

The U Street Corridor is alive with restaurants, small shops, movies, people walking. We enjoyed ourselves wandering through there. I also am drawn to the long winding mural on the wall of the M station: it’s filled with colorful depictions of people performing all sorts of instruments, singing, acting, in 20th century archetypal garbs.


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Hilen Mirren as Jane Tennison, around the time of Inner Circles and Errors of Judgement (1995-96), promotional or posed shot.

Dear friends and readers,

Another blog on the brilliant and uncloying Prime Suspect. I’ve just finished watching Prime Suspect Season 5 (Errors of Judgement) and 6 (The Last Witness). Although 7 years apart, the perspectives and dominating themes were continuous and developed further those of Season 1, 2 & 3 (“Walking Wounded”),and 4 (Scent of Darkness and Lost Child, and Inner Circles).

A feature accompanied the 6th. Mirren herself is interviewed and denies that she psychoanalyses or thinks about her character inwardly from any abstract point of view: she “plays” them. Not all actors think out what they do. She does have a conception of the series as a whole, what unites it. Prime Suspect evolves from a script each time, and each one aims to be “relevant,” “serious” and “exciting.” She is “aware” they are “edgy,” that her character and each story has a “dark edge” and this quality makes them different from other films focusing on women detectives.

Its director, Tom Hooper (yes, he did The King’s Speech and Daniel Deronda talked of the “immigrant problem” and how British people don’t have real understanding of immigrants.

They both wanted to help change that and also picture image the real today world of England — and the series throughout does just that. We are not in the mythic green and pleasant world of the southeast or west favored by tourists, but England’s cities and town’s typical streets.


As “The Street” (Steven Mackintosh) bullying and terrifying a reluctant young male member, Michael (Ray Emmet Brown) into murdering another young man in a peculiarly degrading way

Having just finished watching a great film adaptation (of Charles Dicken’s novel) by Sandy Welch, Our Mutual Friend, which also stars Steven Mackintosh, I’ll start with Errors of Judgement since I am filled with admiration for Mackintosh’s brilliance and intelligence as an actor. He’s just superb at wild killing anger :) and makes this mini-series electrifyingly chilling.

Like Inner Circles, this is one omitted from Netflix. Jane has been re-assigned to another city, a very poor place up north and is a community officer investigating community crime, here specifically a drug ring. The center is Stephen Mackintosh as The Street, a frightening psychopath who beats, tortures, kills and Jane Tennison must somehow nab him as well as prove he has committed fearfully cruel acts to local people. We are in poor, bad alleys, watching women without husbands and no income, young boys growing up as their sons who are taken in by and become vicious through first emulation and then fear of “the Street.” Mackintosh’s is a symbolic name.

It left me trembling; the last ten minutes or so I was in a fever of anxiety lest The Street maim Jane in the way we have watched him maim all others who cross his path. I knew it wasn’t likely and The Street couldn’t kill her (as there were two more seasons) yet there I was intensely anxious.

The Errors of Judgement are Jane’s for having been fooled to think her superior officer, DSC Ballinger (John McArdle) was trying to capture The Street, and for having had an affair with him, and that Ballinger was working with, not against her. What distinguishes this one (each has a distinguished target, set of issues and world portrayed) and then next is police and gov’t corruption. DSC Ballinger is in collusion with the Street and it takes Jane nearly to the end to see that it is he.

This links these two to the other episodes (patterns are emerging) in that at the end DSC Ballinger gets back in his car and heads back to the office. Nothing is done, and if he has much less authority over the people he bosses, and it becomes harder for him to function, that’s the worst he’ll know. Again and gain in these programs a powerful corrupt person is left standing, unpunished, gets in a nice car and rides off. That was the close of Inner Circle and Season 3 (the one about the boys who are molested by the very person running the boys’s shelter, he protected by those supposed also supposed to protect and help the boys to better lives). In this case, Ballinger has allowed horrific murders to go on; his justification was that by doing this he could “contain crime,” control it. What a laugh. He’s doing no such thing.

He’s in effect upholding the order we see. So the other part of this episode that is its distinguishing characteristic is the poverty of everyone, the run down degenerate streets, the lack of jobs, how blacks are kept in the roles of thugs. Noreen Lafferty (Gabrielle Ready), the mother of the central pair of young people we are to care about, a white woman with presumably mulatto (to use the older word) children spends her existence on drugs. She has no future, no life, no hope. Janice (Marsha Thompson), her daughter, beautiful, good, is a waitress. When Tennison first comes she is to give pep talks to the students (who include these young people) and it is a useless endeavor, hypocritical. What do they want: law and order? because it’s safe, provides a minimum of peace for them to exist in.

This is what Ballinger only appears to give them. Offstage at any moment they may be tortured emotionally and destroyed by the man they sell drugs for. I had just watched DemocracyNow.org and couldn’t help seeing the parallels in our real world. Govts and their military flunkies and armed bands slaughtering people in streets far from those who watch TV, the reasons for this utterly misrepresented.

What the errors of judgement are also how to cope with the phenomena of poverty: young people give no future, no decent jobs, no education, a man who takes advantage of these people’s need to escape and for some money whom they all fear they won’t tell on him. Women as a specific group are marginalized in this program and yet provide its most poignant moment, e.g., when Noreen Lafferty finally takes her black son, Campbell Lafferty (Joseph Jacobs) from the prison where he has falsely confessed to a murder he did not commit. She is bringing him home in her car. Her son is brutally abducted from her by the Street and then murdered with a gun at point blank range by a friend of his (also black), his sister’s lover (Michael above) at the command of the Street. Michael is put in a pool area and watched by all as he runs frantically to escape the bullets. In the same pool area the Street had set fierce dogs on a previous victim he was displeased with and we listened to that young man torn to bits.

The actress’s face upon realizing her son had been taken was unforgettable. I don’t have a still of this, it moves too swiftly, only of a later moment when Janice, the sister, attempts to get Michael to confess to murdering her brother:

Is the horror and terror justified or just some titillation. I would say it is justified because it is embedded in the explicitly-explained story matter which asks you to connect what you are seeing to the drug trade in cities, to poverty engendered by political arrangements which keep a few very rich, to the criminals who are caught and we are encouraged by the media to blame. Michael rightly goes to jail, but nothing is changed or improved by that.

Ballinger (John McArdle) left in charge

The last scene is a still of the other police officers who know all the truths of their world watching Ballinger walk through their group to his car.

My one criticism of this mini-series is that the accents are done so expertly (North Yorkshire) that I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what was happening. It added to the reality of the experience, and my sense about how hard it is to understand this world, but many US viewers might not think to turn on the subtitles and grown tired of not quite understanding what’s happening.

I also surmised that between 1995 (Inner Circles) and this one the program-makers had had difficulty getting the usual cast to return, so necessity drew forth from the company this insightful turn north. My favorite line from “Inner Circles” (featuring the super-rich’s ideas about the poor in England) Jane’s “whatever happened to community policing?” Indeed: its disappearance and replacement by straight arrests and long prison sentences in the US has led to our present mass incarceration of black men (and their dienfranchisement).


Jasmine (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) in her work clothes

Last Witness is another mini-series focusing on, opening with a horrifyingly bruised body of a young woman, this time Serbian, twice tortured: cigarette burns all over her body. So again the vulnerable person’s mutilated corpse. Sometimes it is a man, then he’s young, a boy, poor or black or homosexual as in Story 3 or Inner Circles).

We then switch to an older woman having her body examined, bit by bit with the emphasis on reality of her skin. As it goes on, we realize this is Tennison submitting to an examination as part of a “interview” which is said to be there to help her keep up to the mark; it’s partly a pressure point to get her to retire. The emphasis on her body links her directly to that bruised body.

It’s Jane’s job to discover who she is and who killed her. To do this she discovers that the young woman had a sister now in hiding, Jasmine (above). She is presented as one of typical women immigrants at great risk from the Serbian Bosnian war. IN this episode Jane strides through see the upper rooms of restaurants, all luxury and then head downstairs to see where the people work in harsh impoverished conditions, filthy walls, low wages, demeaned.

The remarkable repeat images of “downstairs,” life from below, of this program, what I will remember best, is that of women in the hospital. Jane tries and fails to save the life of a second woman victim from Bosnia: her sister was tortured before killed, she is just shot through the head after she is found cleaning a toilet. The film is filled with women cleaning toilets, doing the most menial work in the bowels of modern buildings.

Mirren herself aging and now working for Mark Strong (DSC Larry Hall) who used to work for her. W see her bully men below her, threaten them too. Jane’s side-assistant, DC Lorna Greaves (Tanya Moodie) is a black woman I’ve now seen in recent films form the BBC — Tennison is pressuring her to leave her position since she spends too much time with her kids; the black assistant threatens to cry “discrimation” and really feels it is.

There are in the whole series many attempted firings of Jane, often at the opening of the program. Now it’s that Jane has completed 30 years; they are trying to get rid of her and she turns around and tries to get rid of Moodie as not committed to her job with her 2 children as not having enough level of commitment. Jane is depicted as perhaps jealous and all alone: she watches Lorna go down to her car where her man who is a house husband waits with her children, they kiss.

Tennison takes case from man when he cannot seem to stop papers from calling the dead girl a prostitute and using it as propaganda against asylum seekers and immigration. This is sensationalism Jane abhors.

Last Witness turns out – once again — to reveal at its close that powerful people have been covering up for the brutal sadistic murdering. This time the people are at the very top: people high in gov’t are content to protect Milan Lukic, a false name (the part played Oleg Menshikov) because he can at the same time feed them information about “terrorist’ and immigrant groups in the UK. At their behest knowingly Mark Strong takes Jane off the case towards the end of the story.

Lukic (Oleg Menshikov)

A mole. I was startled at how differently a mole was seen in this program; not only that Lukic was never called a mole. By no one. Surely the term was known to the writers. Avoding the term brought home to me how it trivializes the treachery which often allows the evils to go on, makes its somehow acceptable by the commonplace name. LeCarre’s stories (which have made the term famous) also displace the woman at the center so that we never hear her story from her lips — as we do in Prime Suspect most of the time.

Not only do we again have people in power colluding (a theme across all the films), again two important ones are women. One Lukic’s wife who is tricked into telling the truth by Jane Tennison when Tennison comes for an unofficial visit: the trick is to get the wife to defend her husband: her defense: he is supported by the highest people in gov’t.

Jane (Mirren), with Lorna (Moodie), defying DC Hall’s order to stay off the casem, confronting Mrs Lukic (Clare Holman)

The wonderful implication never stated is: so what? so what if these are supposedly numinous high ranking people. Does that mean they matter more than those who clean the world’s toilets?

The other is a police woman type played by Phoebe Nicholls who often takes on stereotypes as irritating women, crude and/or obtuse, narrow: Elizabeth Elliot in the 1995 Persuasion, Cordelia, super-religious in Brideshead. She is central for protecting him.

So, to the story: A woman Serbian who was tortured ten years ago, upon coming to England, she is murdered, found beaten, tortured at the bottom of a basement in a huge building site. So again we have the destroyed and maimed woman’s body, her real life existence a terror. Again the cigarette burns. The quest for DCI Tennison to find her sister who is in hiding has a comic motif. She is informed by a young black man who is the supervisor of the womens’ teams (and explains his low job by saying there is nothing else for him). Long sequences again of people who work downstairs in fancy places. Laundry maps. The real modern downstairs. Mostly brown people, paid poorly, they cannot afford a bus to the train daily. A black man who can get no better job.. At last Jane is enabled to track Jasmina down to her lair (poor apartment) where she comes up throught the floor. She fears similar torture and murder.

I was touched by their having a small black child in a child’s burka like scarf show Jane where the torture victim’s sister lives. Jane tells her to go back home. And she goes into a modern small make shift apartment and the sister comes up through the floor.

What motivates Jane to continue is that she promises Jasmine she will help and protect Jasmine if Jasmine will come out of hiding. Jasmine is then shot through the head (see above) while on her job.

The repeat motifs include an older woman’s body too: in previous episodes (Lost Child) Jane goes to find out if she’s pregnant and then has an abortion, this one early on has a long sequence of a doctor (this time a woman) is going over Tennison’s body, now aging — the words emphasize her age: have you been screened for breast cancer in last two years (we had her as checked before an abortion); do you smoke, drink, any pains. No no no. We see her smoking directly afterwards, drinking far more than 5 units.

The odd decent older boyfriend also recurs (Jane’s inner life kept more to the margins again in this mini-series): this time it’s Liam Cunningham and to me he’s as attractive as Stuart Wilson. He’s too busy for Jane, gets phone calls, she does not stay when someone else rings. He does accompany her to Bosnia; without him, she could not travel safely.

The bedroom scenes are kept away from us, darkened

Jane has defied everyone who tries to stop her. She breaks the law when she visits suspects; this time we see her break-up with her current boyfriend; but before that he agrees to go to the funeral of the sister in her place (women are not allowed at funerals of Bosnians still) and somehow this produces a crisis. Lukic is taken by some Bosnians who themselves are going to kill him. But before that can happen she manages to win out by tricking the wife and finding evidence of where a murdered body was buried, unearthing it and presenting it to her superiors.

The last witness is this body we look at. They can then not ignore her at least insofar as this particular murder is concerned. They put Lukic away.

But has Jane won? At the end of the piece we see her sitting there grim. She has seen justice done to the two sisters, one tortured to death, the other shot in the head while cleaning a toilet in the fancy hotels of the rich. But is anything changed at all? And Jane is aging …

Towards the program’s close Jane turns round to talk to someone


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Filmic rendition in Welch’s movie of the famous opening scenes of Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend: opening shot of movie; Lizzie (Keeley Hawes) at center; John Harmon (Steven Mackintosh) back from the dead and drowned the last

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past 10 weeks I’ve been listening to Mil Nicolson (Librivox) read aloud Dickens’s last complete great novel, Our Mutual Friend while in my car. Alas, I didn’t get very far: I was hardly in my car after the 1st week of December, and I was that awkward with the thumbnail drive and the ipod, I kept re-listening to what I had heard. I managed to get near Chapter 20. At the same time though I did read a number of essays on Dickens’s novel and found myself remembering my first reading of the novel while I was in my thirties, when I reached the point of the strained marriage
of Bella Wilfhur and John Rokesmith and Dickens’s presentation of Rokesmith’s way of educating Bella out of her materialism and prestige-oriented values. It seemed to me a reverse of Ibsen’s The Doll House: he was tyrant and she obdurate pupil. I was pulled along by the ferocious rivalry of Headstone (his deep injuried) and the nihilism, arrogance of that expert needle artist, Eugene Wrayburn. Finally the abject Lizzie despised at some level by both and all but Jenny Wren, her loving self-annhiliation.

So I sought quick entry into the novel by way of Sandy Welch’s masterpiece film, a transposition (faithful), Our Mutual Friend. And I found I got closer to the book than I might have done in the text had I been able to read at night. (I no longer can most of the time.) Welch is (as she often is) faithful to the plot-design, keeps all major characters (and invents no new ones), keeps all the hinge points (central plot turning points), famous lines (well what there is of fame). She respects Dickens — and her audience. I just loved this film and writ here about it to suggest it is a deeply humane way reading of the novel and present another case for the greatness of costume drama and mini-series.

Welch’s film is deeply melancholy, sad and opens where Dickens’s does: the river. I remember OMF as being highly unusual for Dickens for its central exploration of sexuality twisted and gone wrong and the conflict of Headstone and Wrayburn, but this far in the book (Chapter 8) the idea that what is driving the world into sickness is not that everyone is longing to love one another and be loved — which is Welch’s particular emphasis.

Dickens’s book had stayed with me: I still remembered the opening on the river between Liz and her bird of prey father after all these years. The 2nd chapter of the Veneerings is generalized out to depict the dysfunctional — unreal, utterly insincere lying — basis of social life and the goals of those who practice dinners. The 3rd chapter gives us some understanding of what we saw in Chapter 1, and we meet Eugene (a do nothing, this type embitters Dickens so, only here we are allowed to see how hard it is to do something and how it’s all wrapped up in money and performance) and then 4th, Lizzie who can’t read because it would offend her father and she can only hope “to influence” if she gives up her inner life.

Dark and bitter and lost. I miss the use of the narrators in Bleak House (Esther Summerson versus the saturnine voice) and the use of 3rd person free indirect discourse in Little Dorrit. We are at such a distance from these figures we listen to and see thus far.

Welch’s film worked for me as all was presented as deep grief from Lizzie’s horrified bewildered point of view. The settings were most of them of narrow spaces, no room to turn, dark too, scary as allowing people to come up behind you and destroy you. Or abject public spaces.

It’s a world based on the river. Everyone gets their living off the river and around it. Even dredging up corpses. People throw themselves into the river or are thrown there.

It’s a world of garbage dumps. Of people making their living scavenging. The Boffins for years have run a huge garbage dump.

Mr Boffin (Peter Vaughn) showing Mr Rokesmith (Steven Mackintosh’s second disguise, now hired as Boffin’s secretary) his house and environs

In the film after the river scene and the party salon choral scene:

Lady Tippins (Margaret Tyzack) in the center

we cut to the scene in the public tavern which comes out of the river: In both book and film we encounter the hard indifference of behavior Miss Abbey Potterson (Linda Bassett in the film) could enact before Lizzie Hexam when Lizzie refuses to separate herself form her father, disliked by Miss Potterson as much for his low status and what people therefore think of his possible horrible crimes as these crimes themselves: he seems to kill poor people, throw them in the river and then retrieves them for money.

Dickens’s descripion of The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters, like the use of caricature and abstraction, brings us right back to early Dickens. apparently there was such a pub; here is a later illustration by Sol Eytinge (From Victorian Web)

The house is alive, it’s a person or character in itself, a world built of meanings reflecting its significance in its surrounding by its physical characteristics. Stone had not illustrated it.

Part Two of the film veered off to Welch’s emphasis. She presented the characters are intensely eager to reach one another, to love, to be interdependent. Three love affairs in Dickens which I remember as fiercely devouring, finally selfish, are here presented under the aegis of intense need and hurt. Eugene Wrayburn intensely needs Lizzie to give his life a meaning and him meaningful action (to teach her and Jenny to read). David Morrissey delivers a brilliant performance as a half-mad anguished Bradley Headstone, intensely sexually repressed and hating anyone who is not (especially women): he wants to take over Lizzie to prove his self-worth and loathes Wrayburn for dismissing him, laughing at him.

Headstone (David Morrissey) in his school

Wrayburn stands for the world. It’s hard to see if he has any concern for Lizzie (Wrayburn seems to) but the performance is sympathetic. At least I think so.

Paul McGann as the louche drone who is finally reclaimed

The third affair shows us Rokesmith falling in love with Bella whose kindness to her father is made much of. He takes the father out to dinner, and shows him respect. They have a beautiful day doing things like going to a museum, dressing up, courtesy interchanges; she has bought the father a new outfit all at once (Dickens makes the point that this man never before had a new hat and trousers at the same time). He loves her and she is beginning to see the man who is hovering over her with the same intensities as Headstone and Wrayburn has a heart.

Father-daughter, Mr Wilfur (Peter Wight) and Bella (Anna Friel)

John and Bella

The movie is filled with shots of people hugging one another. Jenny Wren imagines herself being beaten and beating others, but she is all loving kindness to Lizzie whom she has taken in as a seamstress and she needs Lizzie as much as Lizzie needs her.

Lizzie and Jenny Wren (Katy Murphy) hugging together

Thus far the Boffins are loving; even Wegg is respectful, enjoying his cake while reading The Decline.

Regret, anger, grief, alienation from one another: the Lammles (Anthony Calf and Doon Madkichan shortly after marriage

Against this the Lammles are obviously a sick couple, full of hatred because they have married perversely; Lizzie’s brother does stand out as inexplicable in character compared to the others. He throws Lizzie off for not accepting Headstone: he seeks status as well as money, We do wonder why? There seems no reason to — the day out of Bella and her father is not at all connected to having status and money; it seems one can pull this off as long as one has a heart. The Lammles have one only for themselves.

Marcus Stone’s illustration


Lizzie’s brother, Charles (Paul Bailey), sent to school

A crucial moment in the book. Chapter 6, the scene where Lizzie comes home and tells her brother he must leave them to go to school full-time and stay away, and then the profoundly affecting/affective scene of Lizzie telling her father, his sudden (to me) unexpected murderous rage, taking his knife and stabbing the table, saying that if his son rejected him, he rejected the son totally and would smash (or some other word) that son, and Lizzie’s abject cringing horror.

The pictorialism of the scene remains in the mind: the outline of the girl cringing in horror more than terror for herself, the old man again a bird of prey at that table.

I took it that Lizzie is not afraid of her father, but we are to understand that though she insists to herself her father does not murder people, throw them in the river and then retrieve them to sell as corpses, at some level (not very deep) she believes it. And it could be he does.

At any rate she wants to separate her brother from him more to keep the brother from the moral contamination than even the shunning of the father that has begun as Rumor becomes explicit. She refuses to protect herself either from social isolation and pariah-dom and refuses to learn to read well and to teach herself because this would arouse the father’s jealousy and hatred and she no longer be able to influence him.

The complete self-sacrifice of this position is intolerable and the contradictions not improbable. If a girl were so electrified with moral horror, she’d not stay; if she had this kind of intelligence, how could she (like a Radcliffe heroine) refuse to acknowledge wrong-doing even to herself; if she refused to believe it, she’d probably be narrow, obtuse, filled with the usual family loyalty that is a species of hypocrisy (so I see it) and clan protection. By doing this Dickens does make such a scene. I would not call her an angel since her behavior is as morally imbecilic as the Radcliffe heroine of Udolpho faced with terror and refusing to run away because forsooth she has to be obedient to her aunt, some piety.

The brother is such a weasel and now I’m remembering this way he and we meet Bradley Headstone (whose second name refers to death, the graveyard, he’s a headstone, and also his great bodily strength — made of stone, his obtuseness). And that is the way Welch has the boy actor do the part in the film.

We see the breakup of families and how it happens and real internecine feeling.

The shunning by Gaffer by crowd or group mentality against his “pollution” as well as self-protection.

This is a novel and film for this decade — not thus far as to analysis of institutions but the way people are just turned into hideous poverty. I was watching DemocracyNow.Org last night and film of the Syrian people, desperately poor, being shot in the streets by their gov’t’s military forces, their home hovels. They have no access to the great wealth of their own country, it’s kept to the few, in this case including not only the elite of their country running it (1% indeed) but the US which gives millions to support that elite (ditto in Yemen, ditto Bahrain). And we need not go so far: the Tories are busy doing this all over England (impoverishing people, destroying jobs, social services, social institutions for public meeting) and the US gov’t here (billions for drones for surveillance, no money for people foreclosed or the least job).

The real trouble with the book is the picture is not attached to anything the way I have just attached it. Welch I think achieves this with her larger landscape pictures and use of choral commentaries (ironic, bitter) in the rich people salon and party scenes.

Did Dickens expect his readers to understand? or simply have an urge to rouse them against the conditions of their time? the problem is the readership is not Gaffer and Lizzie — they are not real people at any rate. I remember how Madame de Stael said the problem with writing novels is you have to appeal to readerships which don’t understand, will get offended, and get past conscious censorship too.

It appeals through inarticulated pictures and a dependence on the reader having the moral reaction which is comprehensive but the readers often do not :) For example, readers online complain of Stone’s illustrations as ugly or weird or not pleasing. They are spot on — and a product of collaboration between Dickens and Stone. I’ve put a few of them into our albums.

Mr Wegg wants some of his body parts back; Mr Venus (Timothy Spall) charges

Mr Venus’s shop in the pictures scarcely captures the morbidity of the bodies. They are done in both the caricature and idyllic style. Headstone writhing on the floor is the latter:


Peter Vaughn as Mr Boffin asking Wregg to become his reader

Crazed madness of Wregg (Kenneth Cranham) before Boffin’s new mansion

The dwarf is a disabled figure who turns up as an evil grotesque in Dickens — and again it’s bodily and again dwarves are often shown to be twisted people where they are blamed for having poison in them, not that their emotional state is a reaction to how they’ve been treated, which is much more the reality. A powerful black singer (Eric Owen) turned the anti-semitic portrait of a dwarf in Wagner’s Ring into a figure that resonated with justified resentment in a recent Met HD production, and the stance seems to have resonated in many heart and ear. I have never read The Old Curiosity Shop. I can’t think of any dwarves this morning. We have to try to remember disfigured characters perhaps to find an equivalent in realistic fiction.

I remember feeling for Jenny Wren who takes Lizzie in. I understood how she could come to love-hate her clinging devouring father.

Dickens’s Mr Boffin seems to me a male type that has disappeared. Literary types do disappear when whatever social reality that gave rise to them goes. He’s the male simpleton, usually or almost always working class. Such men were used in the Shirley Temple movies. I suggest they come from the strong culture of deference which at once deprived most males of higher education and taught them they would be punished hard if they did not appear happy and complacent and even ignorant of the terms of their lot. The type may be seen (paradoxically perhaps but neutralizing the archetype) in Walt Disney’s Snow White’s 7 dwarves. Dickens does improve this by suggesting Mr Boffin is socially insecure, sensitive, avoiding class hurts. Why else go to Silas Wegg? Mr Boffin feels he’s least likely to be despised, and his tiny sums of money appreciated. So there’s a little insight …


Lizzie as Madonna saving the beaten Wrayburn

In Sandy Welch’s film, we have the uncommon case of a male novel turned into a woman’s film — for all the characteristics of women’s films are here, plus distinguishing elements of Welch’s art. Among these both are this peculiar emphasis on the large landscape as a scene of intimacy. We have one here: in the story Eugene Wrayburn as been in effect stalking Lizzie, trying to get her to come live with him outside marriage. He does it tenderly as if he cannot resist and needs her, but he will not marry her as beneath him. She our ideal woman of course knows it’s unthinkable for him to marry her so flees him, but does stubbornly hold out when he finds her out through bribing Jenny Wren’s father — Lizzie has been working as a seamstress for Jenny who took her in when her father died.

But his stalking her is just one stalking; he is stalked in turn, by Bradley Headstone who tells himself his intentions are all honorable. He wants to marry her. That means in reality crush her spirit utterly. He despises her as he daughter of the lowest of the low, a grave snatcher, perhaps a murderer, who drew bodies from the filth of the Thames. He would control and bend her to his will, with an iron mind. This is honor? This is marriage Victorian style yes. Bradley stalks Lizzie too but he also stalks Eugene who drives him mad by his mockery. Wrayburn won’t acknowledge Headstone is there and gets a thrill out of this stalking.

Wrayburn is a sick man, as sick as so many of the people in this novel are.

Unfortunately Welch softens Wrayburn as many do. What she does do — is make the film about people reaching out to one another, prevented from succeeding by the norms of the private property system, prestige, social performance. The madness of dysfunctional behavior if we were to consider what might make good people happy is pictured for us repeatedly in the landscapes. There are astonishing moments of a crippled man named Wegg dancing in the screen against garbage dumps, against rich houses. Most of the scenes are of garbage dumps, broken down places. Others are of the river, wet, stodgy, dangerous, glittering. Some are the corridors of the city, pictured as narrow labyrinth prisons (like a Renaissance painting). Only nature has beauty. Only there are people together intimately because away from the social group.

The colors are so rich. The film much reminds me of her Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, North and South in this use of landscape. Here, for example, is Lizzie reversing what her father did. Her father drew dead bodies from the river which he perhaps killed, and he sold them to doctors or anyone who would take them Ah ha another parallel for today: the animal torture business, people kidnap and enslave animals for experiments and if you protest for real, you can be imprisoned as an eco-terrorist. It also shows the ruthlessness of the medical industry then too.

She is going to save Eugene Wrayburn. She has found him smashed up on the wet grasslands (!?) just outside London, done in by Headstone who he Wrayburn did egg on to this.

It’s deeply felt and the book provides the depth behind the vignettes, each story fully played out with details and thought. I loved the music too, slow, rhythmic like a swaying boat in a river.


In the feature Pam Ferris likened Mrs Boffin to a working class woman today who wins the lottery; she is better than that for she has a very good heart, and unlike Mr Boffin is never corrupted into even seeming mean
Some contemporary analogues and characters in other novels by Dickens:

Some of the description of Mr Podsnap (hardly there at all in the film) put me in mind of Newt Gringich, lines about his solid sliminess (words to this effect). He is not the lout the American politician is. Otherwise his narrow hypocrisy and obnoxiousness is probably an accurate rendition of a Victorian type still partly with us.

Miss Podsnap (not in the film) reminded me of Flora in Little Dorrit: made nervous and unsure of herself by never having been allowed to live or have any independence. I wonder if this type is found elsewhere in Dickens. If she reflects Dickens’s wife’s character, then considering he understood that, his leaving her feels worse. OTOH, I was not sure in either Flora or this Georgiana’s case I’m not reading sympathy into the character rather than derision.

IN the book, Riderhood comes to snitch on Hexam in order to get the award and both Lightwood and Wrayburn return to the Hexam residence. The picture of Lizzie weeping by the fire, her loneliness, her desperate circumstances is moving. She is this still picture of abjection and loss. We are not allowed to see inside her hardly at all in this book.

Rokesmith and the Wilburs are brought in very late: almost an afterthought, something that came to Dickens later. Yet a central group. By contrast, in the film adaptation the supposed murder of Harman comes first, and the character of Harmon to Rokesmith brought in very early. I’ve put a still of Steven Mackintosh talking to Bella after they are married on our website page. He’s a brilliant actor and really best at fierceness, anger and I think has just the right amount of intense sternness towards Bella for the part Dickens meant. I just wish his bitterness had been directed elsewhere or Bella had not been made into this shallow type; Welch changes that a lot, and makes Bella have a warm good heart which very quickly learns to be better once she leaves the Wilbur mother (a misogynist bully figure to my mind).

The surroundings are so oozy and ugly and eerie in the book, but then London was not nice place for most people and Wrayburn’s words about the desperate street life he saw Paris (people picking up garbage to make ends meet) probably I assume reflects what Dickens saw and wants us to realize are the real cities too.


As I watched the first hour or so of the fourth and last part (thus half of it) of Sandy Welch’s OMF, it set me thinking more about Dickens’s OMF. The last part of Welch’s OMF moves very slowly: we have a longish sequence of each of our sets of characters waking: everyone getting up to face the day and what they see: Mortimer Lightwood gets up and Eugene not there; we see the desperate houses by the water, Jenny out anxious and deeply resentful but worried about her father; Wegg vowing vengeance — and we see the misery of the workers at the garbage dump (especially symbolic this); Bella looking at John in bed; Mrs Noddy sad in her splendid loneliness; the Lammles smoking nearby as they prepared to enter to offer themselves as replacements for the real friends the Noddys had (the crippled disabled boy is gone as well as Bella): Mr Riderhood finding Headstone bloodied in the grass near his house. Again when a series of climactic events where Mortimer discovers Wrayburn near death with Lizzie; Jenny’s father dredged up from river where he drowned; John outted as John Harmon finally, the Lammles refused, Headstone back in the school where LIzzie’s vicious brother now says he will have nothing to do with Headstone we get another such sequence.

One does not have time for this in the recent (by Andrew Davies) Bleak House and Little Dorrit films, or most Dickens films I’ve seen. Welch is registering a peculiarity about OMF, one which Christine Edzards tried to pull out of Little Dorrit by removing the idiosyncratic grotesques and concentrating just on two central figures as if the story were seen from their consciousness (Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham). It’s set up as a mystery with complicated plot, but that’s not what the text really lends itself to. It’s more a series of dramatic picturse linked through allegory. I noticed for the first time that the Podsnaps are totally omitted from Welch’s film, and how sidelined Mr Twemlow is. That’s in line with Edzards’s film. Mr Twemlow is a comic repeat of decency, only comically puzzled and the Podsnaps another set of grotesques, more hateful in their effect than the Lammles who are at some level (especially in Part 4 of Welch’s film) pathetic, as contemptible in our eyes as they ought to be in their own and the world’s were the world’s values humane. (At the end of the Part 4 the Lammles hook on to another innocent couple to live off them.)

I’ve been very moved by Welch’s film; I love how the characters finally come together — the sudden wild violence of Steven Mackintosh as “our mutual friend” — for he has provided the wherewithal to support Bella, by extension Bella’s father, the Boffins. On Welch’s account it’s John Harmon who is the Dickens figure in this novel, the alter ego, not the more dramatically riveting Wrayburn or Headstone.

All three are Dickens in a sense (Wrayburn what he rejected but impulses in him), but Harmon stands for what is good — as does Arthur Clenham, what is right. Seeing the book this way turns it on a pivot for me and makes it if not easier to get into and engage with at least growing out of a central vision underlying the later books. This time he’s simply made a quieter book.


The green and lovely gardens surrounding the house John Harmon can provide the Boffins and Bella and his child with; we see Jenny and Sloppy join them in a picnic scene

Lammles forever playacting, forever to be humiliated hangers-on

When I came to the end of the film I was very moved. This is one of the great — of many great film adaptations done by the BBC or British TV — and occasionally by commercial groups for movie-houses. The idyllic ending for some had been prepared for in Part 3 when they reached out to one another (Bella and John’s beautifully unadorned marriage with just the father behind them walking in the park); the lousy ending for others by their egoism (the Lammles with their opulent wedding and now cold mean life). Welch had filled out Dickens’s characters with her projection of human need. I can only hope the new spirit abroad of making travesties which assume the audience has not read and would not even like the book fall down on the reality the audience they seek really is not keen on this genre for real – not done with depth of emotion and seriously conceived interaction between era, text, film.

The film also ends with yet another stalking sequence: now the fierce hateful Riderhood stalks Bradley Headstone. We do feel very much for Headstone: this man is a rat, a snake; David Bradley the actor who did the part looks like the actor who did Wegg: Kenneth Cranham. Both are older thin man with heads that can be made up to look skull-like.

Headstone says he never had a friend and when it’s clear that Riderhood (David Bradley — have I done justice to his performance) is going to suck him dry, he’ll starve. He walks away and Riderhood follows and of course what happens is the lonely desperate hurt man (whom no one would know any more than the people at the end of the film will know Lizzie) turns on Riderhood and takes him down to drowning with him.

So the antepenultimate scene of the film is the filthy scary greasy polluted waterways with bodies seen floating in it. Where we began. (The pipeline so touted that Obama did reject would take filthy oil down the center of the US to be exported; not to get any jobs for anyone in the US, and it would pollute). Have people heard of fracking? OMF is about 19th century fracking.

The penultimate scene is a montage partly scene from Mortimer Lightwood’s point of view — he is the only unpaired presence:

Mortimer Lightwood (Dominic Mafham looking down at Eugene in bed)

where we see Sloppy taken in by Jenny and they become a couple interspersed with Rokesmith and Bella and baby and the Boffins on a blanket. Mr Wifur seems forgotten here. (So too Lizzie’s brother but then he wanted to be.) We hear Eugene talk of how he might go abroad with Lizzie but Lightwood would miss him. The perspective on this scene is Lightwood as outsider but needing these people too. Wrayburn wants to go abroad for the wrong reasons: he’s ashamed. He should not be he’s told. Rokesmith rowing and his face seen.

I loved the last scene. After all Podsnap might have been in the social scenes: if the fat nasty man so gussied up is him. Well he and Lady Tippins and everyone are sneering at a party at Wrayburn for marrying this waterman’s daughter. They are disgusted. Why Lightwood stays with these people is beyond me — but it’s what makes us see them. Lightwood appeals to Twemlow and Twenlow has his great moment: they are shits, and what’s most their point of view is stupid and ugly. It’s articulated very generally: anyone who lives in accordance with what he or she thinks is the imagined respect of society is a fool for in a way there is no such thing. “Society’ is a shallow mirror we make up with our own minds, and anyway (to be particular) Wrayburn never cared for these people any way.

A curious contradiction: we are to grieve for Headstone for not having any friends but at the same time see that false friends and the world’s admiration is not worth the loss of your soul. The camera ends on Twemlow and Lightwood.

I liked that ending very much though I’m not sure it was Dickens’s emphasis. It seems to me to speak to 21st century people and come out of a particular perpsective often seen in the finest costume dramas made by women and a few men too.

Eugene and Lizzie’s hands holding tight to one another

In Welch’s film, the pair are never shown in close conversation — except one scene half suggestive itself where he is trying to get her to come and live with him. Even then it’s seen from
afar. It’s all vignettes. When Wrayburn talks, it’s to Mortimore
Lightwood; when Lizzie talks it’s to her brother, father, Abby, Jenny Wren, and except to her brother, it’s all reactive. We see Bella visit her but hear no conversation. In the book is it that we are made aware of how different in class and education they are?

Welch’s is quite different from Davies’s presentation of Amy Dorrit and Clenham: Davies fills in the relationhips, and in Dickens’s book while the scenes between Amy and Arthur are not dramatized, they are told in the third person indirect mode. (Too much is made of showing and not telling, until the 20th century the scene described was as common as the one dramatized.)

This film and book certainly made my spirits soar and validated what I know to be the correct view but one it needs strength to hold to because there are too many Lady Tippins and Podsnaps and Lammles about, to say nothing of their instruments and the hateful complicit angry people serving them too.


At work in the garbage dumps of the film’s world — out of which money is to be made; the actor here when he pulls off his mask turns out to be Sloppy (Martin Hancock), the disabled young man Mrs Higden took in

Finally, we come back to the river. It is the case that in the 19th century the Thames River was (relatively speaking, say compared to today) stuffed with corpses. The vision that Our Mutual Friend projects is not a fantasy nightmare. Many ways to look at this, but I’ll content myself with being literary and say it’s another instance of how the gothic genre is as real, and can actually tell us more about what’s important in life than books which adhere to what’s called “realism” (Trollope is called realistic).

Unfortunately, we have no photos of people dredging the Thames for corpses or dropping them in, but I did see a reproduction which has something of the same meaning as Our Mutual Friend‘s real life symbols: at the Museum of Modern Art there’s a show on of murals by Diego Rivera (see just below for the LRB column by Hal Foster on this) and one includes “Frozen Assets:”

Our modern more decorous version of corpses at least here in the US (outside the US until very recently it was rare for the armies of capitalism to attack citizens outright — now drones are okay too inside the US) does not include soaked human bodies floating in or underneath our waterways as a usual thing. For dead bodies we must go to the streets where they are dragged off to the side, or better yet, hospitals (yes hospitals) where if the person is brought back, it’s with a huge bill. In a way what a black joke is there: the body brought back is priced (chattel slavery priced people too)

Anyway Hal Foster describes the Rivera mural impeccably:

“Frozen Assets is an inspired montage: Rivera based the vault on those he had toured in Wall Street and the hangar on the interior of the Municipal Pier on East 25th Street, while his skyline combines a few downtown banks with several new buildings in midtown, including the Chrysler, Empire State, McGraw-Hill, Daily News and Rockefeller Center (the last three of which were designed by Rockefeller favourite Raymond Hood). The allegory of this literal exposé is explicit: the building boom that gave us the great skyscraper city depended on the cheap labour represented by the subway drones and the sleeping bodies as much as on the stashed assets. In this not-so-divine comedy, the pier is a grey purgatory and the vault a brown hell, as much prison as bank (in this faecal cavern, Rivera almost suggests the anal sadism that Freud associated with money). Only the skyscrapers have any vitality, but their animation is fetishistic; indeed, Frozen Assets depicts a fetishisation of capital on a metropolitan scale, in which urban liveliness counts far more than the actual livelihood of working men and women; unlike the labouring bodies in the other murals, they are the real ‘frozen assets’ here.

Diego Rivera, Frozen Assets (1930)

It may be not be realized but today again aging people in the US fear nursing homes the way the poor in Dickenss’s time feared the poor- and work-house

Another death scene: Lizzie caring for Mrs Betty Higden (Edna Dore), Welch’s interpretation emphasizes the loving care, but the words are the terror Dickens gives the old woman

I understand there is a film adaptation of Edwin Drood “in the works”. I hope so for I’d like to see a good film adaptation in the tradition of the older ones like this of that last book. There is enough there to figure out an ending Dickens probably meant.


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