Melmotte (David Suchet) staring at us, shutting us out by a sliding door (The Way We Live Now, 2001)
Gwendolen Harleth (Romola Garai) hitting a bull’s eye, thinking she’s winning (Daniel Deronda, 2002)
Dear Friends and readers,
I carry on writing about Andrew Davies’s film adaptations (see also Davies’s Six Austen Movies). Tonight I’ve chosen his brilliantly dark renditions of Anthony Trollope’s saturnine satiric novel about what he saw as the emerging modern world, The Way We Live Now (BBC/WBGH, directed by David Yates, produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark) and George Eliot’s equally dark and daring assault on modernism, but from a realistic/idealistic standpoint, Daniel Deronda (BBC/WBGH, directed by Tom Hooper, produced by Louie Marks). TWWLN was published 1874-75, Daniel Deronda 1876. I treat them as a pair in one blog because Davies makes them resemble one another in mood, a kind of glittering gothicism, filmic techniques, both using driving music and ending plangently, somberly. They were also completed a year apart.
I have written about Davies’s film adaptation of Trollope’s The Way We Live Now before: a detailed comparison each of the 4 parts of the film compared to what is found in Trollope’s novel. There I showed how the film designer and costumer used the original illustrations by Lionel Fawkes, many of which may be found on my website. The most striking are the railway station, the women’s costumes, Lowestaff and Melmotte’s collapse in Parliament.
Here I will concentrate on the filmic techniques that make the mini-series a masterpiece of the adaptation kind.
The Way We Live Now is 4 episodes of 75 minutes each. The filmic idiom or grammar of TV has changed utterly since the Simon Raven’s Pallisers and the older series (1974) might seem more tame than this new ones. Both point out the political relevance of Trollope’s fables, yet Raven’s Pallisers is a commentary, frequently departing in hinge-points as well as themes from Trollope’s roman fleuve while Davies, although changing the dialogues in Trollope to become more humanely persuasive, psychologically penetrating, feminist and candid, nonetheless is the more faithful to literal events and thematic inferences.
I’d say Raven interprets and gives us a personal reading of a Trollope text; Davies exposes and argues with it. We can see this in latter procedure in two key scenes of TWWLN. Davies takes a striking sceen from the novel, where Roger Carbury (Douglas Hodge), the older and moral friend of Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy) argues with Paul upon meeting Paul at a seaside resort and beachfront (Lowestaff) with Mrs Hurtle (Mirando Otto), whom Roger assumes is Paul’s mistress.
Trollope has Roger accuse Paul of indiscretion, infidelity to Hetta Carbury (whom Roger loves and Paul claims to love), and (probably) fornication (though this word is not used), and Paul simply deny all this, saying he is accompanying this friend and that’s all. By contrast, Davies gives Paul sudden cruel and insightful words saying that the older man’s love for the young girl, Hetta, is disgusting, puts him off; Roger is infantilizing Hetta and attempting to own her (and by extension himself). The reader of Trollope knows he has many such couples: the older man yearning for the younger woman and only with intense reluctance giving her up (“Mary Gresley,” An Old Man’s Love come to mind). Davies is exposing Trollope’s own predilections in this novel and his blindness to male hegemonic tyrannies. There is an analogous contrast between Trollope’s depiction of a scene between Mrs Hurtle and Hetta (Paloma Baeza) where Davies substitutes a modern definition of good and honorable behavior not based on virginity and sexual abstinence for a woman; Davies critiques Trollope’s exemplary fables of females under control.
What’s striking is in both cases Davies reveals he’s been reading a lot of Trollope and thinking alertly, perceptively, humanely from a contemporary and psychological/social standpoint about it. Raven knows Trollope just as well but he does not see into Trollope’s limitations, but rather produces his own analogous ones.
Unlike Raven, Davies also confronts Trollope’s antisemitism head on. He gets away with showing the strong antisemitism of the 19th century English upper classes then (and perhaps nwo) by making the individuals who are antisemitic just awful, snobs, phonies. He daringly presents the Jewish characters as lacking upper class manners, and being crooks too (e.g, Melmotte’s clerk, Croll [Alun Cordoner].
Davies does have Trollope’s portrait of Breghert as noble and great-hearted and focuses on this strongly.
To turn to Davies’s TTWLN as a whole: he sustains evenly the complicated satiric mood and plangent sympathy for the humane and self-destructive obtuse and even prejudiced narrow characters, e.g., Anne-Marie Duff as the fool Georgiana Longestaffe who treats the noble Jewish banker, Breghert as a subhuman convenience:
The withering disdain and funny mockery of the hopeless selfish, complacent, and bossy (of his sister’s honor!) Sir Felix Carbury (Matthew MacFayden brilliant in the part) is one of the continual delights of the mini-series
When last scene, a remittance man, drinking and playing cards, and getting up to follow yet another woman into a back room somewhere in Europe, we see he has gotten his just deserts and yet is living much as he would were he had stayed in England. It’s a very Fieldingesque scene.
The tragedy is great, due in large part to the direction and acting of Suchet. I really entered into Melmotte’s case as someone who is suffering from the hidden injuries of class. Suchet took a stance of intense desire to be fitted in and defiance and mockery of the moral hollowness and stupidity of all around him: this defiance connects to the American heroes of the 1930s and 40s movies, but the popular films lack this self-mockery and derision of normative values; they are taken seriously even if from a traumatized standpoint. Melmotte’s trauma is drowned in gleeful laughter and alcohol. His clown outfit derides the world he is the joker of.
Suchet makes a brilliant use of his hands. They are ever there in front of him and us, gesturing, fleshy hooks pulling on us, holding our attention, distracting us.
He is brilliantly supported by Shirley Henderson as his neurotic half-crazed because utterly isolated daughter, Marie; and Helen Schlesinger as his wry self-seeking (she reminded me of Austen’s Lady Bertram) wife, also alone, whose reply to much that she says is the appropriate “domage!” The series ends on Marie staring at and shutting us out with the same sliding doors her father had used.
How prophetic it felt to watch Melmotte boast of his cheating and chichanery and watch everyone adulate him. The campaign speech resonated in 2009 (when recently in the US bankers have literally gotten away with stealing taxpayers money outright) the way it could not have in 2001 (or even Trollope’s age).
In Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies (Manchester University Press, 2005, pp. 177-85), she shows how the use of camera shots, mise-en-scene, music, and decoupage all work to undermine the complacency and nostalgia of film adaptations in this film so that we have an appropriate richly glittering grotesque variant on the genre.
Davies creates a film not just analogously appropriate to Trollope’s book (which I wrote about in my Trollope on the ‘Net and “Partly Told in Letters”), but one which comments on and refuses to function the way many other costume dramas do to anesthetize us at the same time as it absorbs, amuses, and presents much beauty before us. For my part I loved the waltzing and though the way Davies used dancing to present romance showed his experience of Austen’s books.
I probably can’t begin to do justice to Davies’s Daniel Deronda: if I say it suggestively comes up to the book in complexity and feeling filmically even if the kind of verbal content available to a book (debates over nationalism, Judaism, music, careers, psychological inwardness) cannot be reproduced, the reader will see my problem here. I will again concentrate on visual and oral filmic techniques, mise-en-scene, shots and acting. If the reader would like a comparative analysis of events in the story and themes, there’s “Reflections on the BBC Daniel Deronda: A Symposium,” George Eliot-George Henry Lewes Studies, 44-45 (2003):106-22, which alas are mostly done from a literal fidelity perspective and complain really this is not a verbal text but a film (e.g., “Michael Alpert, “A Missed Opportunity), but are detailed in areas I cannot try for here.
I’ll begin with the film’s ending: it took me a while to calm down. I wept so — not quite as much as when I finished Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala’s The Remains of the Day (from Ishiguro’s book), but coming close. It was the line given romola Garai as Gwendolen that put me “over the top:” “You must live out the life that is in you, and I must live out mine.” It was a semi-joyous grief instead of ravaging in the way of The Remains of the Day, which the ending’s thematic inferences and gestures nonetheless reminded me of.
I don’t know if the line is in Eliot — it sounds more like Henry James, but it spoke home to me as validating self-acceptance and living with what we became and can do. Perfectly equipped failures Nafisi says are everywhere in James; a world where success is an indice of collusion with the sinister (here embodied in the sick Grandcourt group, from Grandcourt (Hugh Bonneville) and Lush (David Bamber) to Lydia Glasher (Greta Scacchi). As we saw in his Middlemarch, Davies has a real feel for Eliot’s compassionate psychology and interest in political history; here we see his ability to make alive amoral unsympathetic unadmirable characters (like Melmotte too), which also is seen in this final scene with Romolo Garai as Gwendolen in a meadow with her mother (Amanda Root, very troubled) with that quivering smile of hers on her nervous face.
Strange beauty: here like Davies’s The Way We Live Now, we have gothic images of dark places and unknown haunted people, scary. The kind realism and romance of Daniel’s Meyrick friends are given less room and even they are made strained, more enduring and frustrated than contented:
Instead the emphasis is on precisely what critics in earlier generations said was the problem part of the novel: not just the Jewish part, but the most harsh sardonic aspects of the Grandcourt, Lush, and Lydia Glasher.
The mini-series creates images of dark strange beauty to match the high romance and sadism of the Deronda and Grandcourt stories. Davies does not attempt realism in the dialogue but resonant language: death is, for example, “going into the darkness. There is a heavy use of browns. For the English half of the story (realism is what it might be called, nostalgia sites are closer to the truth) we get these bright pictures of hunting, men in red suits, the green landscape of houses — the same house used for Norland Park in Davies 2008 Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is Rylands here.
The use of neolithic stones is original (though Stonehenge does turn up fleetingly in the same Davies S&S) and utterly appropriate for the scene of Gwendolen’s meeting with Lydia. Scacchi is a glaring ghost and in the background her outcast children; the non-diegetic music which accompanies this is just what I’ve heard so many times in the BBC gothic Shades of Darkness ghost series. The scene is a dark interlude in the parade of arrow-shooting, revealing how this frivolous superficial game is a play-display-parade of barbaric practices then and now in history.
The opening and closing paratexts with their wide angled shots are memorable and remarkable: glittering water, the casino, the wheel, close ups of hands with jewels on the table (the same wheel of fortune turns up in The Way We Live Now). A flowing river and water (as in Dickens) is used throughout the mini-series: Deronda is seen doing masculine things (rowing), but also he finds Mirah about to drown herself in the Thames,
and Gwendolen rids herself of her incubus, Grandcourt in the waters of Genoa.
Hugh Bonneville was scarily sadistic. We actually watch him tease and torment one dog while feeding another (I hope when the scene was over the poor dog was fed). Gwendolen loathes her attraction to Grandcourt at the same time as she cannot resist his wealth, glamour, seeming savior-faire, this worldly complicity and preening
They both love rough riding horses. Yet The sadism of their sex as suggested goes on between them when it is real off-stage in their bedroom is clearly horrible to her by her behavior before and aft. He insists on taking his rights and as she goes into the bedroom, all abjection, I don’t like to think of what he does to her.
I think Davies takes Eliot’s brilliant characterizations taken further in the area of sex and loneliness (why people want to be identified in nationalistic groups). Gwendolen likes to bully and her mother is vulnerable to her bullying; she herself is though susceptible to being controlled by people more ruthless than her, like Grandcourt, and when push truly comes to shove (in bed) she does much worse in the sexual arena. The Kind (to her mother) bully is bullied fiercely.
The parallels between her and Daniel are somewhat different than Eliot’s novel. Davies emphasizes the literal story: Daniel has been deprived of a real father and his mother. Davies gives Contessa Maria Alcharisi (Barbara Hersey) a full feminist statement which is backed up when we see what marriage does to Gwendolen; at the same time we see how lonely Daniel is so that the kindness of his guardian, Hugo Mallinger (Edward Fox) is not enough. He feels insecure without certainty.
Hugh Dancy was just wonderful in this film, so good and at the same time believable. I do love such kind good characters (like Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson in Davies’s Bleak House, a film for another blog).
The film opposes several worlds: the decency of the lower to middle middle class Meyricks (good art and decent feeling); the snobbery and ambition of the Arrowpoints into which Herr Klesmer (Alun Corduner) marries. This love story is a little lost from view; in the novel it has the line of two people who almost lost out on this precious life of sharing together. The traditional Jewish ritual life of the Cohens who take in Mirah’s dying brother, Mordecai Lapidoth (Daniel Evans) who contrasts to Daniel’s mother, for he contracted TB and his dying out of his hard work and loyalty to his family. And finally the power of Sir Hugo Mallinger who is a good man but part of a milieu where we find cruelty, exploitation and infliction of torment of of the Grandcourts, Glashers and Lushes. As with The Way We Live Now, the different sets of characters and worlds are a simulacrum of the later Victorian world out of which ours emerged.
Davies makes the parallels meaningful: Gwendolen is a slave to Grandcourt just as Deronda’s mother is talking of how she refused slavery of wife-, mother-, daughter-hood.
Further powerful performances here include Nicolas Grace memorable as Vandernoodt, so too Alun Cordoner; Jodhi May is perfect in these deeply felt depressed disquieted parts (she was Sarah Lennox in the Aristocrats taken from Stella Tillyard’s book.)
Along with these fine actors, there are the felt resonant lines, for example, Deronda to Gwendolen: “Why you gamble and then lose [deliberately]? and then Gwendolen’s recognition: “Yes.” At the close, her final line: “I shall be better for having known you [Daniel].” This is very like Esther Summerson’s function in Bleak House, book and film.
I don’t want to omit some Davies: motifs, the young vulnerable man seeking his identity, this time Stephen Dakar is im Deronda; joke words like “domage,” the use of Edward Fox as Sir Hugo as a kind of Lord Brooke (from Middlemarch). The figure on a cobb or seashore seen grieving from the back as he/she looks at the sea.
To conclude, in mood, type and style, Daniel Deronda is very like The Way We Live Now. Each film invents its own world, but I can imagine characters from The Way We Live Now stepping out and walking into Daniel Deronda. Look at the expression of the ordinary heroes and heroines of both, the hard ivory white colors of their costumes, the way they hold their bodies tight:
Both hard guarded faces in an anonymous corrupt environment they both seek to and do escape from at the close of the films. And both films have many references to this wide corrupt world in visuals, words, and what happens, our world which I for one turn from too — to such films.
I would say, though, that Davies so takes over both texts and the filmic techniques are themselves so striking and meaningful that these films trump their source texts to become his rather than an adaptation of an Anthony Trollope text or a woman’s novel about history/social life in the way of Middlemarch.