Archive for December, 2009

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.

Marie accosted by hired police and detectives

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.

Mrs Hurtle (Miranda Otto) in front of a sea-filled sky

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.

I can’t see this kind of thing when I watch film adaptations of Eliot or Gaskell because I don’t know the original works as well. I can see them for Austen and Trollope.

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].

Melmotte consulting Croll

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:

Georgiana (Anne-Marie Duff) hysterical at her selfish father while the mother (Joanna David) silently complicit sits passive

Jim Carter plays Breghert (this is from another production)

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

Macfayden as the unshameable Sir Felix in front of Douglas Hodge as Roger Carbury

Cheryl Campbell as Lady Carbury’s relieved by David Bradley as Mr Broun

Leave Sir Felix to him

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.

Her strained face

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.

Marie nervously aggressively accosting Sir Felix, a reversal of what we usually find in these films

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.

Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury waltzing


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:

Mrs Meyrick (Celia Imrie)

Mrs Davilow (Amanda Root), Gwendolen’s mother

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.

Jodhi May as the suicidal lost singer, Mirah

Greta Scacchi, the ghastly monumental Lydia, an angry vengeful revenant

David Bamber, the cravenly sycophantic Lush, like Grandcourt’s dogs, nothing is too punitive or mortifying for him to serve as

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,

Daniel saving Mirah, they look into one another’s faces deeply

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.

Edward Fox as the well-meaning Sir Hugo who by keeping secrets from Daniel left him frightened

The aging princess mother, brittle, distanced

Daniel amid other Jewish men

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:

Hetta Carbury reading

Daniel Deronda walking along the quai in Genoa

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.


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Lydgate laughing at Keepsake album as “beautifully idiotic” (Middlemarch)

Molly and Squire Hamley reading one of Roger’s letters from Africa (Wives and Daughters)

Dear Friends and readers,

As I wrote a few days ago I’ve been watching Andrew Davies’s film adaptations for a couple of weeks now as my background work towards writing about his film adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, for now specifically his 2008 Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (with Anne Pivcevic as his producer). This is a second blog meant for me to work out my thoughts and keep a record on what I’ve watched thus far.

I began with an early adaptation of a Dickens story, and will tonight go on to two 1990s adaptations. I am also grouping them by putting together those with a similar theme, mood, or filmic techniques. Davies learned and developed his craft in more conventional as well as different sophisticated and cunning ways) as he went along, and was allowed to be more daring after each success.

To write about more than one movie at a time is not that easy to do since one of many things I’ve been so impressed by is his enormous variety, and bold willingness to experiment as well as how prolific, perceptive (of his original texts) and intertextual (with other films) his work is. Still, I’ll try. Like many writers, I write to make sense of what I’ve discovered. To coin an E.M. Forster line, I can tell what I think when I see what I’ve said.

So for this blog I’ll cover two of his 1990s film adaptations: the 1994 BBC/WBGH Middlemarch (director Anthony Page, producer Louis Marks) and the 1999 BBC/WBGH Wives and Daughters (director Nicholas Renton, producer, producer Sue Birtwistle). They are both adaptations of masterpiece 19th century novels by women, are transpositions, and the emphasis is on dramatic characters and content so they are naturalistic in feel.

Much has been written about Davies’s Middlemarch and there are a large number of intelligent pages devoted to comparing the film to George Eliot’s book in “Middlemarch on TV: A Symposium,” George Eliot — George Henry Lewes Studies, 26-27 (1994):36-81.

So what can I add here? it’s very great, moving, sombre, psychologically subtle as well as naturalistic. The colors throughout are muted: browns, greens, tans, the color of the natural world and ordinary buildings. Davies and his team stick to continuity in the manner of 1970s-80s film adaptations, much is conveyed through words in fully developed carefully nuanced dramatic scenes; the storyline and symbols feel controlled — there is some voice over and flashbacks with dreams, but this is kept to a minimum. This is a stately production, quiet sober melodious music, the paratext is the title carved in stone:

As people have remarked, the central figure is no longer Dorothea Brooke (Juliet Aubrey), but instead Tertius Lydgate (Douglas Hodge), even if she is still a core force in the film’s drama and a linking figure. Davies makes Casaubon (played so movingly by Patrick Malahide) a sympathetic figure, a weak and intense man and makes a parallel between Casaubon’s broken dreams and Lydgate’s explicit. Casaubon’s affection for Dorothea is touching before the marriage and he is a poignant figure when told he is to die. Casaubon may be waspish, and he is utterly self-centered, short-tempered, all of which makes him very real; he is also sensitive, isolated, and wants his project to reach people. The most moving still in the whole movie is of Malahide from the back looking at the flowing river after he has been told by Lydgate, he could die of a heart attack at any time.

Davies also brings out his older man’s love for this young woman (a subject which Davies repeatedly returns to and makes far more emphatic than his sources do) and the vulnerability of the well-meaning ethical man (so Lydgate brings us back to Stephen Daker of A Very Peculiar Practice).

Davies displays great sympathy for Dorothea: she is innocent because her wealth has sheltered her. Her nature is not vain, and her impulse is to plain truth-telling: as with Lydgate Davies is developing a core type of heroine: Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea resembles Justine Waddell as Molly in gestures, words, body stance.

Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea

Strong truths about life are dramatized and given utterance. For example, “marriage: it can be a noose”
Dorothea’s uncle, Mr Brooke (Robert Hardy) warns.

Turning toa slightly sarky essay on this filmic Middlemarch in The Classic novel: from page to screen, ed Giddings and Sheen, Platt and MacKillop, Ian MacKillop and Alison Platt’s “‘Beholding in a magic panorama: television and the illustration of Middlemarch,” MacKillop and Platt point out the film goes for a larger and social perspective far more than an intimate delving (which George Eliot does in her book). I’d say this is also true of Davies 1998 Vanity Fair (A&E/BBC, Marc Munden, Gillian McNeill, which I’ll write about another time).

Opening montage takes us through town, elections, countryside

The film works the way a friend and scholar, Carlo Bitossi wrote about in some lecture notes he sent me: there is a genuine historical framing. One could say the film-makers have tried to use film to tell wider history.

This as opposed to Davies’ Jane Austen adaptations where intimacy is what is aimed at and which remain narrowly focused. I’d say this is true of Davies’ Wives and Daughters too. And I think the difference may be the result of the way George Eliot is respected as making a male’s kind of novel while Elizabeth Gaskell and Jane Austen remain in a enclosed female space to male minds. Paradoxically it’s often a woman character who brings out the world’s view, as here comically incisive Elizabeth Spriggs as Mrs Cadawaller.

MacKillop and Platt commend Davies Farebrother character and Simon Chandler’s performance as a man of unfufilled potential, simply there, but whose intelligence and decency shines out.

Farebrother gambling, slightly desperate

I’ll add this character anticipates Davies’ Dobbin (out of Vanity Fair) by as acted by Philip Glenister (both harking back to Davison’s comical version in Steven Dakar). They say in this in mini-series each part is conceived of separately as a unit.

There’s this good point they bring out: this adaptation (like other fine ones) makes alive what we often forget; the 80 familiar memories most people will trot out out of a possible 500 memories are significantly added to.

Davies has taken a novel which deliberately uses unhistoric or fictional small people whose contributions count as much as any historic ones (so it’s the same point as Graham Swift in his Waterlands), those not famous or in the light or whose contributions go askew: this means not just Dorothea and Lydgate, but Fred Vincy (Jonathan Firth) and Mary Garth and Farebrother too. The enemy of promise for Lydgate is Rosemary Vincy but as played by Trevyn McDowell, she has a life she wants to live too. How painful it was to me to see how she didn’t value this man and his gradual realization he wasn’t valued.

Finally, they suggest that the BBC surrounded the production with paraphernalia intended to show how difficult it was to adapt is significant: the film-makers took their attempt to move back in time and history seriously. This is part of what can be characterized as this movie’s attempt to be another medium in which to convey history. Prof Bitossi’s lectures show just how difficult it is, how factious or fiction-making most of the visuals one has to put together to make a picture of. It becomes a time capsule where modern technologies recreate (and to a large extent) misrepresent what we are seeing literally. The philosophical problems here are too complicated for me to go into here.


Davies offered a characteristically insightful interview on his conceptions for Wives and Daughters. I want to highlight what he said about Molly Gibson:

It’s a pretty close run between her and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice for the most appealing heroine in English literature. I’m the father of a daughter, and Molly brought out those feelings in me. You feel very protective towards her, even though she can stick up for herself. She’s not the prettiest girl in the story, and you sympathize with her when all these chaps look past her and see Cynthia and immediately stop paying her any attention.

Osborne Hamley:

He was the character who gave me the most problem with the script, because when I read the book, I thought: “My God! This is the first gay character in 19th-century literature!” Then I thought: “No, it couldn’t be.” You get the feeling when Osborne comes on that the revelation about him is going to be that he’s gay, because in the book he really is quite effeminate in his manner. He seems to be a caricature of a gay character. He’s always talking about the opera, he’s very good with older ladies, he has a very close relationship with his mother, he can’t stand his father. The secret French wife and the child seemed a bit unlikely to me, and so I tried to make him more Keatsian – not a drooping spirit, but a passionate, poetic character, who just had the bad luck to have a growing and fatal illness.

Tom Hollander as Osborne Hamley with loving mother (Penelope Wilton), literally made ill by repressed life with squire

And the modern appeal of the situation:

It’s about second families, isn’t it? In the book, of course, you’ve got second families because of people dying young. Nowadays, it’s because of divorce and remarriage. But the problems are the same, aren’t they?

Family group: Roger Hamley, Molly, Mr Gibson, Mrs Gibson, Cynthia.

My VHS Cassette version is 4 parts, 75 minutes each. I admired what I did last time: the performances and script; and I noticed again the story had been rearranged so as to make the Hamley story as and more important than the Gibson one. Also that Osborne Hamley (Tom Hollander) had been made a central figure, not somewhat to the side, with Cynthia (Keeley Hawes) similarly emerging more dominant.

As this is a later Davies and he is freer with his source and uses more bold techniques, I saw more into the film as a Davies’ film. The last part of W&D is more changed from the book than the earlier parts — it is after all unfinished and Davies takes more open liberties than with Middlemarch. Not only is Preston made sympathetic, but as Gaskell didn’t get to finish the book, Davies choses his own ending and alters matter coming up to it to fit.

The film is a richly pastoral, indeed Arcadian environment, with richly colored flowers and much dark greenery. The houses of the wealthy are ornate; there is much scientific equipment to be seen, books, botanizing in the Hamley as well as Gibson household. When we are in Africa, we move to a burnt-orange, yellow and brown palette, but there too intense beauty is caught. All this is fascinating and well-done.

To turn to particulars, Davies develops further his depiction of the father and daughter as intensely loving and interdependent, this really revelatory of Davies’ preoccupations and presentation of him self in his work. IN the film Mr Gibson believes Molly’s story, accepts her refusal to tell it all and immediately guesses the real culprit is Cynthia – – it is so painful in the book where at first he does not believe Molly. IN the film Molly is not quite as ill (in the book she seems to come close to dying), and in the film Mr Gibson is using the illness that to try to keep Roger and Molly apart. It is in the film more emphatically than the book Lady Harriet (Rosamund Pike) to the rescue, Osborne dies, and Molly and Roger (Anthony Howell) marry: we are spared the wedding and instead have that appropriate ending in Africa. All along Davies has alluded to Molly’s interest in science (which to be fair is important in Gaskell’s novel), the growth of new enlightened attitudes in medicine and respect for science, and this is the age of women travelers. Much of the proto-feminism of Molly’s remarks are in Gaskell, not made up; the dialogues we hear are often in the book.

Davies also builds up Preston’s (Iain Glenn) relationship with Cynthia, and shows sympathy for Preston in insisting on his point of view: he loved her, thought she loved him, is intensely enamoured of her sexually, won’t let go. This is very like Davies 2002 Dr Zhivago (Granada/WBGH, Giacomo Campiotti, Anne Pivcevic, to be discussed in another blog) where the same interaction of feeling and sentiment informs Davies’ conception of Lara (who like Cynthia at first loves and then turns to hatred) and Komarovksy (Sam Neill was more subtle about showing this, but then he’s the older man). (This emphasis and perspective is a development out of Elizabeth Gaskell, but one could read Gaskell’s text quite another way — as sheerly hostile to Preston as a cold unscrupulous cruel ambitious man.)

Preston as first seen grimly riding his horse

The sexuality of a man (Preston’s) gripped by a woman is repeated in Davies’s portrait of Mr Gibson’s (Bill Patterson) marriage to Mrs. Gibson (aka Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, Francesca Annis)

Mrs Gibson is made one of the obtuse unchangeable horrors of life: a continual liar, deceitful, obtuse to all but her ugly way of seeing the world (not just utterly materialistic but everyone and thing is measured by rank – it is a misogynistic stereotype), but now the sex complicates it as it’s brought out.

But here is a more comic moment of this filmic monster, Mrs Gibson

This is very much a woman’s film, showing a woman’s world and it is at the intimate level of reality such things are experienced as destroying life. And they do, in the home which is hard for many women to escape still.

Wives and Daughters is also over-wrought with emotion (something made by the film-makers partly because of this association with the matter with women’s novels), and in that falsifying. In this sense the 1994 Middlemarch is the truer to actual life film: more sombre. The feel of Middlemarch 1994 captures our dream of quiet realities, as in the Bulstrode story

Mr and Mrs Bulstrode (Peter Jeffreys and Rosemary Martin disturbed and estranged from one another by a lower class guest)

Bulstrode now under considerable stress since he does not see his way to getting rid of his old business partner who knows of his corruption and dishonesty

The over-wroughtness of Wives & Daughters reminded me of what Cardwell and others argue: women’s books are treated differently than men’s. I can see the macho-male attitude towards women’s books in Davies’s interviews for the press, not Davies so much but Davies keeping up with the honcho-type director he has to cope with and posture in front of.

It’s telling that in the interview with Nic Ransome Davies says he’s rejected from fully American projects, called “effete.” The periodical on masculinity in American typologies in popular movies especially is spot on and embodied in such people (who alas have power to make or not make movies). Every other paragraph has the word “fucking” in it; and it’s not just sprinkled in as “you knows” are (meaning “as it were”), it’s Davies keeping up with the macho-male self-presentation of Ransome. They outdo one another in talking of “babes” (beautiful actresses); nevertheless, the reader who is paying attention realizes Davies is talking of how this very macho culture precludes doing sensitive perceptive film-adaptations of better novels in the US cinemas — and tells one story of his own experience of rejection and its grounds.

Since Davies dwells more on the sister pairs of Molly and Cynthia than Gaskell and he makes Cynthia more sympathetic, the feel of this relationship is also homoerotic and deeply sympathetic to women as his portrayal of the Misses Browning (Barbara Flynn and Deborah Findley)

Still I’d say that Davies and Cardwell are wrong if it be that Davies really sees his Wives and Daughters as two steps back to his 1995 BBC/WBGH Pride and Prejudice— one must take all he says in public as also meant for his particular listener and not underrate W&D.

I found some of the dramatic scenes in the opening two parts of Moll Flanders uneven: Davies is having trouble with the allegorical and uncontrolled kind of unconscious writing that intermixes with realism in 18th century novels, especially in the earlier part of the century), have scenes which are total and/interesting failures, and the brilliance and memorabilty of the second 2 parts of Davies’s Moll Flanders is not from technique but the daring amoral matter and sudden move into deep depression and open self-destructive, self-hatred of the central character; that’s content.

So much more than Middlemarch, Davies creates from intertexuality in Wives & Daughters: in an interview with Nic Ransome ( “A Very polished practice: an interview with Andrew Davies,” The European English Messenger, 10:1 [2001]:34-41), Davies complains that the director made him move 2 steps back in his technological development. He had wanted to move beyond his 1996 Moll Flanders (Granada/WBGH David Attwood, David Lascelles, also to be discussed in another blog) to use ironies, visuals, and cinematic techniques of distancing montage, and artifice; this is an adaptation which is conventional, very like the 1995 Pride and Prejudice (BBC/WBGH, Simon Langton, Sue Birtwistle) he said.

Well, yes and no. I noticed the music echoed music in Brideshead Revisited and nostalgia was worked up, use of blurring, the mise-en-scene rich and ornate greens, and this was done especially in the sequence where Mrs Gibson went to London with Cynthia and we have a few minutes of the renewal of Mr Gibson and Mollys’ relationship. Davies is daring here — he again and again in his series broaches this area of the older man loving the young girl, here really a father and daughter. It reminded me of Sebastian and Charles Ryder sequences with a use of voice-over too as the father and daughter revel together at a picnic in a meadow, and eating before the fireplace alone.

The film also exhibits intertexuality with famous books: Squire Hamley (Michael Gambon is just brilliant) coming out with Osborne in his arms, and the use of “never” shows Lear and Cordelia are meant. Osborne’s death with the fly over him is naturalistic death. Strong secularism here, a lack of religious belief (also seen in Raven’s 194 BBC Pallisers). Davies turns to Austen for some of the bitterly ironic but subdued lines of Gibson to his wife. Brideshead Revisited techniques are seen in the build up of Roger and Molly’s romance, but also the use of dance from Austen, and the final “yes” scene is clearly James Joyce’s Ulysses’ Molly. Roger and Molly are modelled partly on Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price, but it’s clear Roger is another Steven Dakar — once again Steven Dakar is seen repeatedly in versions of heroes in Davies’ films from Yuri Zhivago to Arthur Clenham.

Partricia Stoneman’s essay (“Wives and Daughters on Television,” The Gaskell Society Journal, 14 [2000]:85-100) is limited because of her fidelity criteria; she has this idea of “what is true to the spirit” of the original, an unprovable notion which leaves us with impressionism: still, she is perceptive and does give details from the production. She praises the production as true to the spirit of Gaskell and the original book. But we cannot from her grasp what is literally used filmically front of us and what we are liking concretely that cannot be in the book.

Cardwell’s Andrew Davies includes a few remarks on this film. She singles out strong female protagonists but does not suffciently see the weak males which hold center of films: emotional men, needing ties — as from A Very Peculiar Practice on. Things to remember especially: he selects his novels, he involved in selection (p 115), and tendency to ensemble drama with several voices contributing to final perspective. He displays sympathetic irony and often with villains (Preston), p 115, he has tussles with the author or quarrels, repairs, changes because he really thinks he sees more deeply or can improve and make relevant, and in his ability with direct dialogue and human insight into feelings he does very well.

Cardwell does admit she doesn’t like romance and prefers irony or epic (a male preference is shaping this) so she downplays W&D and P&P in comparison to MF, the 2001 The Way We Live Now (BBC/WBGH, David Yates, Nigel Stafford-Clark, discussed in another blog), and Dr Zhivago.


To conclude, Middlemarch may be considered at its best a serious attempt to bring a literary masterpiece to life. The film-makers through all their techniques: mise-en-scenes, filming on doctored locations, costumes, paraphernalia, dialogue, the kinds of scenes chosen, e.g. Will Ladislaw (the beautiful Rufus Sewell) working on Brooke’s newspaper and trying to find a place in the modern world, and Lydgate’s attempt to practice modern medicine and his entanglements in local politics.

Bulstrode encounters his past in the meadow — with Caleb Garth (Clive Russell) as estate manager; Bulstrode and Garth have just been discussing how to modernize Bulstrode’s newly inherited estate

W&D is semi-original women’s film, allusive, rich in techniques and Davies character types and attitudes, intricate, psychological in a more penetrating and iconclastic way; it’s the same producer as the 1995 P&P and same script editor and the two film adaptations are alike –only this one more lyical.

Molly and Roger walking off together away from us at the close of Wives and Daughters.

My respect for Davies’ insight, complexity of vision, artistry has gone way up over these past three weeks, and it increases at each film adaptation by him I see.


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Denholm Elliot when first seen close up as the signalman

Veronica Quilligan when first seen in medium shot as Mally loading her donkey with seaweed

Dear Readers and friends,

Over the past couple of weeks now I’ve been watching movies where the screenplay (and often much else) is by Andrew Davies. I’m on my 12th film. This is part of my background studies for my projected book, working title, The Austen Movies. I’m going to have to put it down or away for a while while I work on three different papers (one at a time) so I thought I’d keep good records on my thoughts about them by writing a few blog-essay-reviews. The first one I saw, among Davies’s earliest films, and his first readily available film adaptation of an older text, is a dramatization in televisual terms of Dickens’s ghost enigmatic ghost story, “The Signalman.”

It’s superb, a perfectly realized filmic version. That it’s just 40 minutes suggests the lack of puffery (and commercialism). It has some revealing parallels with an 85 minute 1974 TV film adaptation of superb story by Trollope, “Malachi’s Cove” (which was released to cinemas in the UK, which I wrote about on my old blog, but apparently failed to retrieve). In both the use of landscape is cinematic and expressive: the small picture space is filled to overflowing with a cliff and wild sea in the one (Trollope’s story) and a train, gorge, deep chasm in the ground, and tiny signalman’s house (Dickens’s story) in the other. So I will compare these two to start with.

The story of “The Signalman” in a nutshell: a man comes over the high hill just as a train is coming out of a tunnel and sees at the bottom a figure looking puzzled: the signalman.

Bernard Lloyd as the visitor

The visitor climbs down and stays to talk with the signalman in his isolated tiny home; the signalman tells the visitor how he lives in dread (and we feel despair), and attributes his suffering state of mind to accidents that have been occurring just after he sees a gnome appear at the mouth of the tunnel. We see he has grown to live in intense anxiety because left alone all he has to do is ring a bell to warn a train and the need to make sure he does it right each time has come to prey on imagination. The visitor leaves, apparently contemplating telling this man’s “superiors” about his bad state of health; he does not, but returns the next day to see the man killed by a train just as he apparently is again haunted by the gnome.

The train

Many questions come to mind: who is this visitor and why did he come to this lone place? Was he sent by the company to spy on this man’s state of mental health? Is the signalman hallucinating, and providing himself with a rationale to commit suicide? Is he pursued by a malign mischievous ghost? Or has he himself become a creature subject to supernatural forces around him? We never know.

Well, the film astonished me. Perhaps I was startled to see something so televisually original this early, but since “Malachi’s Cove” is two years earlier and if not as original in feel, is equally astute in visuals and sound, that’s not quite so. It’s more that the film adapters under the influence of Dickens’s text display emotions we rarely see.

Basically it’s that Davies and the film-making team (which includes Lawrence Clark as director, Rosemay Hill as producer) do real justice to Dickens’s appreciation of how technology can place an individual in terrible isolation and how this isolation can wreak havoc on his (or her body and soul. Denhom Elliot plays the Signalman who shows his visitor how little he has to do but be there, how alone he is with his bell to ring, living in meagre circumstances; he also tells his visitor how he is an educated man who lost out. It’s so touching when he tells of how he sits and read math, but no one to talk to or appreciate or ask questions of, but he plugs on. (Such a character might have been found comfort in the Internet.) But now he subject to a spectre who signals him with a fiery light too late for him to save anyone.

Says the signalman in story and film: “surely this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?”

The really worrying elements of Dickens’s story are given visual and verbal presence in this film. There is the man who comes to visit (perhaps investigate really) and sees the Signalman die worries me. Is he part of the malevolent ghost apparatus (deriving from the universe or nature)? for why doesn’t he help more? how could just a passer-by want to come again?

And there is the signalman. We see him in half light and half-darkness. It’s more than he’s bound to his position or place: at the moment the train comes round we see a red flash, a bird flies high and away, as if scared, and the man utters: “I am simply a man.” Paradoxically this makes us wonder if he has become fused with the too powerful and scary vibrations of energy (terrifying and anonymous) coming from the huge train, which lead to its wrekage. It’s this sort of visual, sound (the bird fluttering, the train’s hoot, the dark clouds, breezes) and movement that projects a kind of psychic terror.

It’s important that the atmospherics are not overdone. The day for example above the hill is sunny to start with. The smashing of the signalman by the train is recorded or registered by the horror on the visitor’s face.

We don’t see the accident, only hear the train.

I’ve no doubt this story arose from Dickens’s own train accident, the terrors and pain of this experience (where Ellen Ternan was with him) are gotten across.

Anyone seeing this would easily understand why Davies would be approached to do more film adaptations. I also watched his early original (non-adapted) mini-series A Very Peculiar Practice (1983). I won’t be writing separately about this one (too long, at least 2 seasons, and complicated). Like Dickens, in A Very Peculiar Practice Davies uses strong caricature and grotesque presentation of characters/presences in an empathetic way too. More generally, its central hero, Stephen Dakar (as played by Peter Davison, who was also Campion) is central to understanding all Davies work as well as his progressive humanist stance, interest in social and psychological issues. Dakar is a vulnerable man doing the best he can in a difficult situation, the male as a beleaguered person, by no means a macho-male but a sensitive spirit looking for congenial companonship, integrity, a sane existence (and in this series on education, to do good).

Now for the comparison with “Malachi’s Cove” (this is retrieved from a draft of the lost blog): written and directed by Henry Herbert, this adaptation of Trollope’s brief masterpiece is also about a desperately poor and socially isolated character, this time a young girl, Mally (played by Veronica Quilligan) who makes a meagre living for herself and her grandfather, Malachi (Donald Pleasence who was also brilliant as Mr Harding in The Barchester Chronicles), in this film, a badly crippled sick alcoholic but still sane and well-meaning old man.

Mally (Veronica Quilligan) gathering seaweed-manure

I’ve wondered if the inspiration for this story is the series of moving lines in Shakespeare’s King Lear where Edgar imagines the manure-gatherers high on a cliff to persuade his father, Gloucester, to leap where there is no cliff. Gloucester wants to commit suicide and does leap; then Edgar persuades him he was miraculously saved. The sceptical ironies of this passage could be working themselves out at a distance in Trollope’s mind. Given full concrete visualization in a film, such verbal play disappears (if it is there in the original).

The story: Mally falls into a competition for the manure high on a cliff with the wild sea nearby; her opponent or rival, Bart, the son of another desperate family, is also attracted to her despite her poorly dressed state and how she is apparently an outcast, and feels herself despised by the community (she cannot get herself to go to church): he has seen her from afar. She both beats him out and saves his life; at first she is blamed by his family for almost killing him, but he tells the truth of what occurred and as the story ends, there seems to be some amelioration of their lives on the way in mutual help, companionship and perhaps love to come.

Herbert’s film somewhat softens the portrait of Mally’s grandfather. He is still basically the same hard-drinking half-crippled desperate and selfish clinging old man

Donald Pleasence as grandfather (“Dada”)

But Herbert has the grandfather also at great risk to himself perform the impossible feat of climbing down the rocks to hold onto the boy while Mally goes for help. This does not happen in Trollope’s text and has the effect of making the grandfather seem not an irresponsible leech, but rather a desperate father-hero to his granddaughter. So this alteration works to deepen relationship of the girl-grandfather pair. Early on in the story a flashback, a depiction of Molly’s bad dreams dwells on and recreates the drowning of her parents (implied but not dramatized in Trollope’s story). The grandfather and child have thus existed together near the rushing waters which drowned Mally’s mother and father. Frail and selfish, half-drunk as he may be, he has taken care of her all these years; he watches over her from afar.

Mally walking on the cliff

We see her visit their grave, so a theme of the film is how to the poor living close to nature there’s a fragile thin line between life and death. In this the film, Malachi’s Cove resembles Davies’s The Signalman, and might be a similar projection of a theme consonant with a 1970s perception of experience.

In Herbert’s film adaptation of Trollope, we continually hear the water rushing, sometimes loud and wild, sometimes soft. The non-diegetic music of the film is folk song, sung in high lilting fragile tones by a soprano. The figures are so tiny against the Cornwall coast (yes this is the era of Poldark, a several season film-adaptation of a cycle of historical novels set in Cornwall, later 17th century). How different this from the stereotyped “toffs and tiaras” that TV foists on Trollope as appropriate to his fiction (all wrong or so misleading in my view).

Molly first glimpsed on the shore below the cliffs

There’s an excellent several page analysis of Dickens’s text and Davies’ film, together with a reprint of the story in Sarah Cardwell’s excellent study, Andrew Davies. As far as I know the only lengthy analytic account of Trollope’s story is on my website.


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Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) drawing the house, self-consciously framed

Dear Reader,

Over the last few months I’ve made it my business gradually to see at least a few of the much praised anti-Thatcherite art films aired on the BBC in the 1980s. There is an intelligent useful selection of essays on these in Fires Were Started, ed. Lester Friedman. The outstanding best of the group I’ve seen has been Stephen Frears’s My Beautiful Laundrette, but alas I saw it too many months ago to write about it tonight. A supposedly fine deeply humane one by Mike Leigh, High Hopes, I fell asleep upon — though I loved and wrote a blog about his recent similar High Hopes

While like many people I was startled and initially impressed by Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman Contract, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I dislike its spirit; nonetheless, I’ve decided to write about it because it’s an intelligent costume drama (one of my special interests), and one set in the early part of the “long 18th century” (another).

First, off, it’s a striking movie for its use of seemingly scrupulously accurate mise-en-scene garden, pastoral, white and black for colors, extravagant alienating costumes, wigs, make-up, and location (Sudeley Castle and such like). Taken together the effect is bizarre and makes for a memorable experience. This film is sort of a parody of costume drama and it was made just as the form began a two decade popularity fling. Notice the date: 1982. One year after Brideshead Revisited ! And if I’m not mistaken, there were chords of music from Brideshead. The two together usher in the 1980s decade of superb British films on TV.

The center story line concerns an aristocratic woman, Mrs Herbert (Janet Suzman), bullied by her aristocratic husband. While the husband is away, she is to have his house and gardens drawn; and so she hires a draughtsman, Mr Neville (Anthony Higgins) to do the work. The monetary pay is modest; but with it he demands that she clear the gardens totally of people and things each day in precisely the way he wants and accede to his sexual demands when and where he wants each day and she do all he wants. After minor haggling, she agrees.

The atmosphere of embarrassment and coercion on the part of Mrs H, and triumphant enjoyment on the part of Mr N is typical of the sex scenes.

The central plot design and frequent scenes about drawing the later 17th century house function as a kind of commentary on how central landscapes are to these movies, and how people revel in imaging themselves dreaming and living in these. It’s a joke to have the central story a man drawing them. We watch him insist all the servants and visitors remove themselves from where his line or angle is so he can get just the right still or picture. The gardens are all formal; we see how formal is the house. Jokes which undercut the reality is to have everyone eating outside the house — the formal table is set up outside. It’s prophetic because these expensive eating scenes really begin to occur in great numbers in the 1990s.

A mystery-murder story is built in. The draughtsman can’t remove all signs of regular life and what he fails to remove turn out to be clues to who killed Mr Herbert — who early on and later is revealed to have been a brutal tyrant so lots of people have good reason to want to kill him, especially the wife. Only gradually do we learn he has been murdered and I never figured out how, only that the corpse was found in the gardens.

Mrs Talmann (Anne-Louise Lambert), Mrs Hebert’s sexually frustated daughter; behind her strange clothes signalling clues

At first there is a move to blame the draughtsman, but he manages to deny this. No one is in fact punished for this :), and the draughtsman comes back to resume his relationship with Mrs Herbert. Who owns the pictures is a question; they seem to be owned by Mr. Talmann (Hugh Fraser) the son-in-law, angry at his wife’s adultery (and possible pregnancy) by said draughtsman.

The film is also notable for providing viewers with photographs (in effect) of the period because of the shooting on location in real 17th century gardens kept up. There is at least one long article showing how acccurate the gardens are for the very wealthy of the era.


Someone wrote on C18-l:

Michel Baridon, arguably the greatest authority in contemp. France on gardens (history, politics of…) and also a specialist in 17th-18th.C English lit & civ (most regrettably, he passed away last May) wrote an article in Cahiers du Cinema shortly after the film came out, stressing the link between time (the contract) and space (the gardens and their statuary). Again, memory fails me as to which issue, but that info can in all likelihood be garnered through some search engine. The article is in French, the French title of the fim being “Meurtre dans un jardin anglais”

Partly Greenaway was so accurate in order to make us feel alienated. Wigs in full display, weird hats, heavy makeup, and patches. The opening scenes were filmed against a black-background to allure us in with a mysterious feel. The costumes are a mix of the styles of the 1690s and the 1780s. References are made to paintings by Canaletto and other painters unknown in England in 1694. The allegorical painting is fancifully interpreted by ignoring its title and text (the actual painting was made 50 years after 1690).

You might say Greenaway refused (so to speak) to be anachronistic. So often these costume drama and film adaptations movies somehow turn the historical characters into stories that deliberately resonate with our own. For example, the Pallisers’ way of treating their children (1974 BBC mini-series adapted from Anthony Trollope’s novels) is middle 20th century middle class people coping; Lady Glen even packs lunches for them on the way to Eton; she shops for their clothes with them, and the kinds of conflicts while partly found in Trollope’s books are ours. This kind of slide is familiar to anyone watching Austen films.

Greenaway is having none of this. On the other hand, his interest is (once again for those who’ve seen his other films) in love-hated sexual partnerships and kinky sex. The film is not stomach-turning or hard to watch in the way of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her lover, but still very hard and in its discreet way frank about non-traditional sexuality (I’ll call it).

She bows down before him to allow him to inflict anal intercourse on her

Don’t even think about it: I recall in The Cook, Michael Gambon (the brutal thief) was armed with a wooden stick

The dialogue also is not modern at all. I’d have to watch again to understand all that was going on; several times probably.

Greenaway is apparently sympathetic to women in this film. Mrs Herbert who hires the draughtsman to draw her husband’s house and gardens (not hers, note, his) looks ill and shattered after the encounters. She is bullied by her husband who is away having affairs. Her, Mrs Talmann’s daughter’s failed arranged marriage is also brought out and sympathized with: she too goes to bed with the draughtsman (who gets about) as she’s not only frustrated because her husband is impotent and the point of her marriage was to produce an heir for the estate. Her husband does not bully and control her but not for lack of trying. A sexy teasing tantalizing stylized dramatizing of these relationships is presented within an outline of criticism of the male hegemonic order.

Nevertheless, this is the part of the film I liked least and it’s what it is most famous for — the sexual contract. I feel that whatever the social critique presented, the scenes revel in pain inflicted on the women as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. This aspect of the film puts me in mind of Nabokov’s Lolita where an ironic narrator (villain protagonist) provides cover for Nabokov to let go his own fantasies. That it’s respected anyway shows the domination of male film critics and present male hegemony.

This is anachronistfc: it reflects Greenaway’s “sensibility.” Neville’s drawings are hard, dry, black and white and mean; they are commercial, and technically skillful and very much the style of the 1980s. Not at all that of the 17th or 18th centuries, although they too were technically skillful and commercial. There are other parts of the movie which refer to the 1980s, as has been pointed out.

There are some curious oddities or outright fantasy. Someone (Michael Feast is the actor) dressed up as an naked statue prances about — very sexy as we do see his penis. A point is made of having him posture his behind in front of the painter too.

There has been a lot written about the different symbolisms of gardens–political events, assertions of property and ownership, warfare, religion, poetry, ancient history, the subjugation of women (binding Nature’s tresses), exhortations to virtue, invitations to erotic encounters and much more. To say nothing of the symbolism of the different fruits: royalty, hospitality, lubricity for instance. The general applications are historial and contemporary both.

To conclude, the essay in Fires were Started is by Michael Walsh and called “Allegories of Thatcherism: The films of Peter Greenaway” Walsh confronts and admits to the sadism of Greenaway’s films. His method’s psychoanalytical & he did not persuade me there’s any anti-Thatcherism in this film — unless the mockery and send up of the commodified lush shows of costume drama can be read this way. But that’s not particular enough. I find my own blog review of Miles Forman’s Valmont as anti-Thatcherite a lot more convincing.

It’s a film about costume drama. I’d love to know more about its intertexuality: what other specific films are quoted and alluded to, imitated, parodied. I’m also interested in how sexuality is presented in modern films as opposed to how it’s treated in the older historical books. Again and again movies set in the 18th century set about to explore sexuality as if the 18th century was a sexuallly free age. This not to criticize the films, but to understand them and our own ideals and understanding of sex (as made for high-quality film popular consumption) as opposed to what’s found in 18th century books dramatizing and delving sexuality.

Did I enjoy the film? Not very much. I didn’t finish it so never will find out who killed the husband (if this is told) and how everyone seems to end up as the film stops. The artificiality and parody was cold, and deliberately prevented me from experiencing deeply felt emotions the way I am often induced to do when I usually watch these movies. It anticipates some of the recent modern costume dramas which are more like action-adventure films, popular in feel and so deliberately diminish the elegiac feeling of the genre.

Finally, I suppose The Draughtsman’s Contract is absurd (its description in various online websites), but only obviously so in comparison to so many movies. A couple of minutes’ thought show so many movies are absurd (and even silly), sheer dream visions.

There are still many picturesque moments in the film; this one is silver-grey green under a parasol


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Claude Lorraine (1600-72), Landscape with Psyche (aka The Enchanted Castle)

Dear Friends,

I seem never to tire of writing papers on the gothic in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. I’ve had a proposal accepted for the coming AGM at Portland, Oregon, to give a paper to be called “People that marry can never part: real and romantic gothicism in Northanger Abbey”. This one is to be on the usually neglected sources and full context of the novel: beyond Radcliffe, the French sources and a climate in which wife abuse was not openly recognized and thus tolerated.

Elinor Tilney (Catherine Walker) as terrified and bullied into throwing her friend, Catherine Morland out of the abbey (’07 Granada NA)

My previous ones were on the three Northanger Abbey films, and Northanger Abbey as female gothic.

I also chose Northanger Abbey as one of the three novels I read by Austen with others online where I mounted all the postings I wrote for each chapter plus included summaries of central criticism: A Reading of Northanger Abbey.

Even my just published essay on Jane Austen in French is 2/3s on Feneon’s translation of the novel as Catherine.

Whence the interest of this slender book? As one of Austen’s two posthumously published books, it contains some of her most mature writing: it’s witty, romantic in a elusive charming way and has her best hero (pace all the supposed romance of Darcy who is a grave character); is also ironic and shows the cruelties and hypocrisies of people, how they hurt one another all the time, casually; even one of the hypocrites is betrayed (Isabella). A sinister husband, an abject wife and daughter. The atmosphere and description are so suggestive, the allusions run deep, including on history and imaginative writing and the picturesques. It is both in and parodies a genre that strikes deeply into the human psyche. If you consider that mysteries are a form of gothic, you can see how ubiquitous and strong remains its appeal. I’m just now reading Susan Hill’s The Pure in Heart.. Much of the criticism is actually a joy to read: scintillating and eloquent like Judith Wilt in Ghosts of the Gothic and Secret Leaves, and Coral Ann Howells in Love, Mystery and Misery, who will say things like “You are at the very end of the mind’s dodges and the heart’s resources” and “In the midst of our terror, there is this impulse for self-surrender … ” Not to be outdone, see Mary Trouille.

Entering the Abbey (’07 Granada NA)

I am chuffed.


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Ensemble number

Dear Friends,

Last night Jim, Izzy, and I saw Signature’s production of Jerome Kern’s Showboat, a musical adapted from a novel by Edna Ferber. We enjoyed it very much — as did a number of people around us. But we noticed that the auditorium had by no means been sold out, not even near it. Then while we were walking up a flight of stairs to the garage where we had left our car, I got into conversation with one woman who said the Washington Post‘s review had damned it, and she said how wrong Peter Marks had been.

Well, now having read Marks’s review and talked about the musical, this production, and the original book with Jim and Izzy (who wrote a remarkable paper on several versions of Showboat), I write also to say Mr Marks is all wrong. The show is as original as Schaeffer’s redo of Les Miserables — where he returned to the original French version and instead of ersatz grief, loud declamations, noisy marching about the stage, and mawkish emotion. In Schaeffer’s production of Les Miserables the audience was permitted to grasp the quiet pathos of the characters’ situations against the frenetic ruthlessness of revolution.

So in Showboat Schaeffer has pared away over-production, stage business, and instead of the upbeat erstaz cheer of both the movie and Paper Mill production, he gives us a lyrically sad story.

Black choral number

In a sense I agree with Marks, but think that what he is seeing is the core center of Kern and Hammerstein’s musical. A pathetic ne’er-do-well, Gaylord Ravenel, weak, no ability to cope with life directly, marries and briefly tries to live high through gambling, and when that doesn’t work, runs away. Not only did Will Gartshore sing the part of Ravenal exquisitely well (what a resonant tenor), he played the part to show a self-deluded posturing man at the beginning, and a broken nervous one at the end. Stephanie Waters as Magnolia is definitely underwhelmed to see him turn up after a 20 year absence, not exactly thrilled. The deluded romantic girl has had some hard knocks and come through on her own.

The lovers when young (first half of play)

There was truth to emotion in the major romantic characters and some of the comic ones. Marks does admit that the exposure of Julie (Terry Burrell) as partly black is done openly for the first time, the whole of the painful dialogues and white ugliness put before us to see. But also when Julie turns up once more to sing Bill, instead of creamy nostalgia, we have another half-broken spirit who can scarcely contain her loss of spirit although she can emit beautiful sounds as she presents one source of her lost life: Bill. Ellie too becomes the strong one in her relationship with her song-and-dance partner (Bobbie Smith). Marks describes Smith’s performance very well: “a sense of the genial facade of a song and dance man and the deeper desperation that afflicts him through his thwarted dreams.” So too all the characters, but especially the males.

One is right to ask, what is going on here? What is the theme of this musical? Marks says blandly it’s reflecting the realities and myths (“changing currents”) of American life. But what are these? “To generalize is to be an idiot” says Blake. Not just the subordination of black people, but how women like black people form the backbone of American society. Cap’n Andy (Harry A. Winter) and his wife Parthy (Kimberly Schraf) were genuinely funny, but Parthy was not simply a misogynist dream of a sex-hating scold; she does come on stage on the Cotton Blossom to do Julie-Magnolia’s role and bows! She loves, pities and supports Magnolia in the second act. The condescending song given the Queenie’s husband was cut (it was actually added on for the movie), but Queenie’s (Delores King Williams) strength over her husband came out as strong as usual.

Jim suggested the problem for Hammerstein in writing his book was that the novel it depended on was first phase feminism. Perhaps. Edna Ferber’s novels feature strong female protagonists. He thought that Schaeffer had perhaps not meant to reveal this center of the musical; all the talk in the program was about the river, and how it flowed on, and stood for life &c&c, and the production gave us imagery of the river and the stage (which so bored Marks) was intended to be a sort of raft turning into places and back to a raft. (Shades of Huckleberry Finn). It was also clear justice was done to the black parts in the play and (has been done from the beginning) Joe’s part and great song:

VaShawn McIlwain as Joe

Terry Burrell as Julie was clearly the doppelganger for Magnolia. It was made explicit how she gave way (self-sacrificingly natch) each time for Magnolia. Both are deserted by their husbands.

Terry Burrell from another production

What they didn’t realize was this was first wave feminism. An exemplum about how women should be encouraged to be self-supporting because they can and must.

I do, though, think Schaeffer meant to bring out the deep undercurrent of melancholy, as for example through the effective use of “Mis’ry Comin’ Aroun'” (brought in through another scene). And this was spot on.

Really the production put me in mind of a good production Jim and I once saw of Aaron Copeland’s lyrical opera, The Tender Land. This is not a production that’s going to blow you off your seat, or exhilarate you to the highest thrills of your nerve-endings, but neither does it cheat you into eliding meretricious gaiety at its end (as most productions do through the character of Kim). In some ways I liked it better than the Paper Mill production we saw in this house on A&E years ago and I taped and I and my daughters would rewatch.

Julie from Paper Mill production (played by a white woman)

It leaves you to be touched and moved by the characters having weathered and aged or vanished (as Julie does). Izzy tells me in the book Gaylord Ravenel disappears somewhere after the middle, said to have died.

Perhaps it’s one of the truest to the book that’s been done, even if this was not what was aimed at. Don’t miss it if you live in the area. It’s full of cheering pleasure. Especially good is the play-within-a-play, the mockery of the melodramatic conventions which mirrors the story we are watching unfold before us.

I used to own a 2 disk CD of the music. It got scratched. I found myself wanting to rebuy the music to listen to in my car.


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