Archive for January, 2010

Lady Dedlock dead in her daughter, Esther Summerson’s arms (Bleak House, 2005)

Mr William Dorrit and his daughter, Amy, in the Marshalsea (Little Dorrit, 2008

Dear Friends and readers,

Here I am with yet another blog on two Andrew Davies’s films. This time I bring together his attempts to create individualized vast worlds in two films which could coherently include as much of Dickens’s huge casts, multi-plot threads, and striking episodes as the about 8 hour limit each had could hold.
The atmosphere of each is appropriate to its book and is mesmerizing. What is done is a mise-en-scene made up of a specific set of colors and kinds of scenes and places makes for the world of the film: for Bleak House it is glittering and sumptuous against abysmal wretched poverty with glittering colors.

I would characterize Bleak House as continually dark and hidden:

Jarndyce with Ada and Esther at dinner

Let us look at its first notes and the mise-en-scene struck: we open on a huge storm, thunder, darkness, rain, an anonymous inn:

A horse neighs as a carriage rides frantically up, we are caught up in its energy and beneath the wheels, looking up:

Terror is the note, and then a young woman hooded, unknown to us, coming with baggage rushes out so as to not to be left behind (it’s Esther on her way to meet her guardian):

By contrast, for Little Dorrit, we have a gray drab palate, relieved to some extent when we go to Venice, but even there the characteristic blues and greens of the lagoons are avoided, and we are instead kept to the streets and over-furnitured houses.

So, the opening of Little Dorrit is quiet: we are before a large locked door (the Marshalsea) where we can see all too clearly:

A child is born, and we see her surrounded by mist and grey light as well as two other children, the first child of the Marshalsea born there:

And fast forward sixteen years later to the grown Amy greeted by John Chivery as she walks quietly and calmly out on her errands:

Grey-white the sky, soft the atmosphere, and the central figure one of stability, bringing kindness; we may contrast this epitomizing still of Amy on her way to meet Mrs Clenham (Judy Parfitt) to the Jarndyce dinner at home (above):

At the same time there are many parallels between the films — the result of the same film-maker and novelist’s interaction.

The ambition to encompass so much makes for magnificence. Where both of these differ from many of Davies’s films is the stylization is not used to distance us and make us laugh, e.g., Davies’s masterly, perhaps his most characteristic film, the 1998 Vanity Fair. Instead stylization becomes a way of exaggerating inner human traits and drive them home more deeply to us. I had left Davies’s Vanity Fair out of the list of Davies’s film adaptations I said I would write about! I will do it here as the last of this series of blogs. (As to the 2008 Sense and Sensibility, which exploits further stylization for comedy that is for my book.)

I’ve not re-watched these with the care I did the previous films, nor do I know Dickens’s novels the way I do Anthony Trollope’s or George Eliot’s. This review comes out of the impression the films make and by dint of putting it in the context of the other blogs set them into or against Davies’s corpus.

So, I just loved this Bleak House. This is one of those Dickens novels where I love the heroine: I find Esther Summerson real, intelligent, and love her for her brand of melancholy goodness, and in this film Davies brought out how her character (Anna Maxwell Martin) parallels her mother’s, visually,

and through their traits and so gave Lady Dedlock (Gillian Armstrong) more suggestive compassionate depths than I find in Dickens’s character. Mother and daughter paradigms are not rare in this film:

Gillian Armstrong is played as a deep feeling frightened woman, grateful to her husband

The series of shots which comprise the deeply moving grieving sequence of Esther Summerson over her mother Lady Dedlock (from which I take the first still for this blog) in front of the barred gate by the grave were stunningly beautiful and typical of the colors and disposition of the figures in the landscape of this film. Here the film-makers used the rich dark colors and spread-wide dresses to make the circular final open embrace.

All the characters seemed to me brilliantly acted and filmed in scenes as gratifying epitomizing. To pick just a few: Sergeant George (Hugo Speer) has long been one of my favorite Dickens characters; his attitude towards lawyers and court rooms, towards truth and loyalty in human relationships, towards human obligations within relationships is precisely analogous to that of Antony Trollope’s Mr Harding (Mr Harding is one of my favorite Trollope characters). There are more parallels between Dickens and Trollope than people think (so too Trollope and Eliot).

I was stirred by the scene emphasizing his permanent caring for his friend, Phil (Michael Smiley) who certainly would be up shit’s creek without George (and in our world). I read in newspapers how modern parents give their children X amount of time to get a job or get out.

I had quite a weep-fest. I cried intensely (I didn’t think they could do it since I know the story and some of the characters so well), and specially over Joe’s death. Tears just spilled out of my eyes often.

I rejoiced at George’s trying to shot Smallweed for his spite; Philip Davis as Smallweed caught just how poisonous and destructive the small weeds in all communities are. What Smallweed would think mighty generous is actually what is seen as generous in our world.

Alun Armstrong was brilliant as the (to Dickens, not me) good and incisively perceptive Bucket — it’s an important part. Ada’s (Carey Mulligan’s) loyalty to Richard Carstairs (Patrick Kennedy) all the while he is gradually being tempted to greed and idleness and then sickened unto death by the leech Harold Skimpole was well done, particularly her anger and resentment against those whose criticism of Richard was well-meant. Those I expected to be acted as meaner were refreshingly humane: Timothy West as Sir Leicester Dedlock weeps for his wife, and is broken by her death (is last seen being helped along by Sergeant George who has been re-united with his mother, the Dedlock housekeeper).

The obviously evil man is evil, and Charles Dance was extraordinarily scary and powerful as the relentless Mr Tulkinghorn who will stop at no cruelty to protect the position and reputation of the Dedlock family group.

Imperturbable, never faltering when it comes to bullying, pressuring or erasing someone

I noticed for the first time too that the Guppy type male (Burn Gorman) who adores the heroine, Esther Summerson, but is overlooked as not manly enough by Dickens is given real dignity by Davies:

Burnham has a look in his eyes which reminds me of Rufus Sewell, feminine in its longing and unconventional beauty (a man as “une jolie laide)

Maxwell as Esther turning away from him

This representation of the sensitive male who the heroine rejects is a repeating motif in Dickens that Davies adapts filmically very well: in Little Dorrit we have John Chivery (Russell Tovey) as the faithful sensible kindly not intelligent male (a kind of secondary Arthur Clenham) and here Amy is sorrowful not to say yes:

Here the man stops at frustrated sorrow (John Chivery)

Amy is all pity that she cannot love him (note the greys in these reverse shot sequence stills)

This is a Dickens’s paradigm and might be seen as a forerunner of the obsessive Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend where sexual anxiety and concomitant possessive turns into hatred and burning desire to destroy the beloved (in a Sandy Welch film, played splendidly by David Morrisey).

I thought too that Davies is to be commended for not just ending when the mystery is solved, or bringing all the threads together then, but allowing the narrative two more parts so it ends in a lingering manner.

I’m struck by is how varied Davies is. In this Bleak House he returns to the strong drama of his Middlemarch, but reaches for far more theatricality, stylizations and flamboyance. The camera would move as if it were a gun being shot off from house to house (rich to poor, countryside to cityscape), leaving the viewer with a sense of shock at the ironic sudden juxtapositions.

At the same time Davies’s typical concerns (or quiet obsessions) are in evidence: one can see how he again develops the older man who longs for a young woman with loving care, here sympathetically in John Jarndyce. The pairs in his other movies done with deep emotion and exquisite tact (through having the male hesitate and be embarrassed and the girl sexually innocent or unknowing at first) include Causabon & Dorothea, Knightley & Emma, Komarofsky & Lara and now John Jarndyce & Esther. The hero we remember is not Alan Woodcourt, but John Jarndyce:

Perhaps these pairs are more common in literature than I had thought; after all men (as Austen said) have had the pens more than women and this is part of many a male wet-dream. It’s disguised as father-daughter pairs in much normalizing criticism.

The two movies are joined this way: you probably have to have read the book or something about it before you watch them. Perhaps the same holds true of his He Knew He Was Right. I am heterodox enough to assert that Davies’s films both make more sense of Dickens’s than Dickens does: he puts the different stories together in a clear concise pattern, and you can see how all the parts relate to one another as you go along (the relationship of the characters) and how all are needed for the explanatory denouement.


For Little Dorrit, I recommend the reader first read Judy’s Costume Drama blog for a well-observed and worded series of descriptions of Dickens’s characters as acted by the superb cast, and for myself attempt rather a brief comparison with the strikingly different 1988 Little Dorrit by Christine Edzard.

Edzard reconceived Dickens as a subject for film adaptation at the same time as her reconception enables her to allude to and imitate some of the best adaptations in the past. As opposed to Davies, she eliminates many of Dickens’s characters, keeping only those necessary for the central plot-design, and then she goes over the same set of events, first from Arthur Clennam’s (Derek Jacobi) point of view and then Amy Dorrit (Sarah Pickering — a weak actress, alas, perhaps the daughter of Donald who played Dolly Longestaffe in the 1974 BBC Pallisers). The two parts were suffused with the atmosphere of the two characters’ minds: melancholy, lonely, alienated for Arthur, self-contained, self-controlled, loving for Amy, and beyond that deeply disturbed in his inner self for a lack of anything permanent, a genuine support in his life.

The age difference between Arthur and Amy is kept up in this version, and Arthur looks out at a world from a distressed contained stance

She does at least have the look on her face of someone avoiding looking at a devastatingly ugly world

The 1988 film is a commentary type adaptation, with its bold departure (changing Dickens’s plot-design completely), elimination of grotesques and centering the drama subjectively first through the mind and experience and memories of Clennam as he remembers them (and then apparently through Little Dorrit, Sarah Pickering). Since it’s on a set (not location, that costs), there is a continual artifice so you know you are in a book. This is emphasized. Edzard built the sets carefully in a studio; they are like this vignette which was chosen for the cover for the DVD:

She has also changed the gender of the child from the familiar image from Lean’s film of Mr Micawber walking along hand-in-hand with the young David

The acting is superb and the way Jacobi talks and remembers his time at the office so far away (showing he saw nothing of the country, learned nothing of its people, which he regrets) is a sharp hard critique of capitalism as a way of life. It therefore fits into the anti-Thatcherite costume dramas of the era which I’ve reading about in Lester Friedman’s Fires Were Started ; another is Miles Forman’s Valmont, , an adaptation of an 18th century epistolary novel also belongs too, which is also playful and artificial like this one.

I noticed many careful intertextualities woven in: for example, when Arthur Clennam (Derek Jacobi) comes “home” to his mother, the scene of the house, his approach, the entry reminds me of the famous 1951 Christmas Carol with Alistair Sim. Other scenes recall David Leans’ Great Expectations and the David Copperfield.

Nonetheless, I think I preferred Davies. There was so much more life in it, and it made me like Little Dorrit far more than I have ever done before. As opposed to my sympathy for Esther Summerson, I hated “little Dorrit” as a 20 year old girl reading the book. Davies has first of all made her more human by calling her Amy most of the time, and he has eliminated the totally self-sacrificing self-erasing abjection by by having the actress (Claire Foy) look intensely mortified at her father’s shameless codging for money and distressed at his false valuing of the very hierarchies which would despise him. This transformation for me depends partly on Tim Courtney’s inimitable performance as Mr Dorrit. Davies’s young woman excercises self-controll with great trouble; she is humiliated by her position in life and her father

This Amy is also aware of the limitations of her brother and sister, and when she feels and acts for them, there is in her eye and theirs an awareness she should not be doing this and they are misbehaving (taking advantage of her) badly.

Here though we see how Fanny performs the way society wants her too, including the deliberate nonentity millionaire Mr Merdle

Emma Pierson as Fanny also realized how she can lean on Fanny, looks grateful, and turns to Fanny for companionship and mutual hair-improvement. She is more humanized as the series goes on and shows kindness for her husband, Sparkler (Sebastian Armesto, supposed to be very stupid but kindly).

I loved Matthew Macfayden as Arthur Clenham.

Here he’s the outsider by virtue of his decent full humane feelings which may be seen on his face and full body (filmed to look that way).

Macfayden is a chameleon of an actor: he can be the ne’er-do-well Felix Carbury, insouciant, louche, shallow, overbearing, utterly self-centered (Davies’s The Way We Live Now); the sexy brooding Darcy (2005 Joe Wright P&P). Here he was the gentle and lonely, determined and saddened, cut off young man who turns to Amy because she clearly provides loving friendship and simply lives with untouchable integrity.

On his way to court Pet Meagle — who learns what a bad mistake she made in rejecting him.

There was weakness in the depiction of the Meagles’ relationship with Tattycoram (Freema Agyeman) — they are not easy to present as their ambiguity and inadequacies are covered by intense hypocrisy. Here Davies falls into a movie stereotype and makes Miss Wade a narcissistic predatory lesbian chasing down a woebegone Tattycoram: this caricature is a misogynistic stereotype in movies (e.g, Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal was turned from a sympathetic delving into female sexuality into a punitive one, with heterosexual women again as frustrated stifled victims).

On the other hand, the depiction of Pet Meagles’s (Georgia King) foolish choice of the shallow selfish and therefore cruel because indifference Henry Gowan (Alex Wyndham) over Clennam was brilliant. The modern take here was that Pet had failed to imagine what marriage is like, and how dependent we are for daily comfort on caring and kindness. This marriage which will go on provides a realistic moment against which we can measure the more exaggeratedly conceived unhappiness of the Merdles.

When she has a baby after much misery and painful labor (which for once we are shown), we and she sees how little he cares for real for the child and is bored by the spectacle. Wishes it would be over soon. She was too sheltered by parents who live on the surface:

Just that look of half-anxious scared nervousness to show her vulnerability

Henry Gowan, the hard pursuit of what he wants; he’s a friend of Rigaud and would not be uncomfortable nor fleeced by Harold Skimpole who fits perfectly into this environment:

Nathaniel Parker does not overdo the part; I can see him as a high hanger-on in our world

I would say that Victorian/Edwardian films no matter what their specific content, function in our society to examine and express certain kinds of anxieties about sexualty in social life and the realities of family life (as opposed to the insistent pieties of security we are asked to pretend to believe in in public).

As for the poignant, fearful, maddened and violent grotesques, as Judy wrote, Alun Armstrong’s Flintwich is superlative, his body and head as twisted as his mind:

Affery (Sue Johnston) is the abused woman of that and our time:

As the head of the circumlocution office, Robert Hardy is just inimitable, supremely unreachable, dapper!

I wish I had words to express quite the devastation this man inflicts which in the film arouses a sense of laughter that is so ironic as to defy explication because we are amused instead of for the rest of our existence without hope. The use of crazed angles from afar visualized the confused distress one might feel were one subject to such a place. It’s done deliberately of course:

I noticed a new element in this film adaptation too: the paratexts at the opening of each episode which usually are bits from a previous episode summing up the previous one did not work this way — or not after the first set. From the third episode on, the bits chosen were not necessarily from the previous episode, but rather reminded us of a thread that we may have forgotten and is in the coming episode going to be developed or highlighted. This helped enormously in keeping track and reacting to the depths of the film.


To conclude, while the filmic techniques and mise-en-sceen vast tapestry created that I have tried (however inadequately) to suggest provides the emotional maelstroms that hit us, and Davies’s humanizing of the characters and bringing home to us in words that echo what we hear in our world are central to the effect of these films, I do think here it is Dickens’s larger vision which is still utterly relevant to the world we live in today intersecting with the actors standing there looking out at us, defensive, angry, not knowing what to say of this appalling mess are the true hot spots of these films.

And it hinges mostly on the two central actresses, the daughters. Look at their faces. Davies has made us feel the value of virtue’s quiet refusal to be coopted once again:

Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther

Claire Foy as Amy

In a sense in both films the heroines do carry it; it’s arguable that many of Davies’s films are also heroine’s texts in the 18th century tradition of men in drag in novels by men (Moll Flanders, Clarissa, Julie ou la Nouvelle Heloise &c&c) as outlined by Nancy Miller.

And now for the parents.

We have seen lots of parallels in the psychological relationships of both films. There are also many oddly alike moments or stills, and I feel that one could slip this Lady Dedlock far-shot still into Little Dorrit and the Mr Dorrit medium shot into Bleak House (say Sergeant George’s shooting school) and they’d fit right in:

I’d like to reread Little Dorrit and give Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clenham in it another try. I last read Bleak House when I was in my thirties (I’m now 63), and I listened to David Case reading it aloud four summers ago; I’ve not touched my Dickens Little Dorrit book since I was in my twenties and threw it across the floor in a fit of fury at Dickens’s insistence (as I took it) on a heroine who embodied a slave mentality (I allude to Malcolm X)


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Moll Flanders (Alex Kingston) accosting us, in an aggressive “who do you think you are?” to her audience in (prologue, Moll Flanders 1996).

Emily Trevelyan (Laura Fraser) accosting us, the audience to say, What would you have me to? give in to this madness, subject myself in such as a way as to acknowledge my husband’s idea (I an at risk for adultery) (He Knew He Was Right, Part 1, 2004)

Dear Friends and Readers,

I’ve taken quite a while to get to another blog on Andrew Davies’s brilliant film TV adaptations. Three weeks. Tonight I’m going to suggest Davies’s He Knew He Was Right can have so many different yet related moods and stories, and all hold together to form a coherent brightly entertaining and gravely neurotic sexual experience because he developed the use of the accosting single narrator first seen in his adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s early 18th century novel, Moll Flanders, into a series of accosting characters who also write letters using voice-over in his adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1869 novel, He Knew He Was Right.

An essay by Catherine N. Parke, “Adaptations of Defoe’s Moll Flanders” (in Robert Mayor’s 18th century Fiction on Screen) describes three movies made out of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, each one quite different. The oldest I know of (1965) is a sexy romp, Moll as sex kitten, and made around the time of Tony Richardon’s Tom Jones: 1965 Moll Flanders; it’s directed by Terence Young, and stars Kim Novak. In 1995 an action-adventure film was made where Moll is made into a conventional anti-racist feminist as imagined sentimentally by Pen Densham, the male director: she is a mother first, and especially loyal to one daughter; her close companion is a black male, Hibble (played by Morgan Freeman). This second film was also written by Densham, and starred Robin Wright (of Princess Bride fame) playing Moll.

Andrew Davies’s The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders (directed by David Attwood, produced by David Lascelles, WBGH/Granada) is the third recent film and the one closest to Defoe’s book, in effect a transposition. The 1965 film may be said to be a analogous adaptation (even if in costume) and the toher 1996 Moll Flanders, a commentary.

A curious thing Parke dwells on is the question why women don’t write about Defoe’s Moll Flanders, don’t make movies, don’t write no sequels. Parke finds that in writing about Moll highly respected women scholars are often somewhat hostile — and they are not class-bound anti-sex types. Moll is not a feminist figure; she is a man’s idea of a independent woman it seems. And yet so many such ideas and conceptions are taken over by women as we shall see, and in her learned book on 17th century women Patricia Crawford (Women’s Worlds in 17th Century England) sees Moll as a typical working or lower class women living on the margins in that society.

Davies and his team follows the storyline of the Defoe’s narrative, and the costume designer and production do all that they can to dress the characters in later 17th century costumes, set them in stagings that feel accurate to the specific era, while he combines naturalistic techniques with moralizing dialogue drawn from 17th century terms.

Early street scene: Moll doing an errand for one of the two brothers whose lover and wife she respectively becomes early in Defoe’s novel

Moll at the courtly later 17th century theatre, in a box with her second foppish husband

The production has been strongly praised, partly (I think) because the sexual scenes are really frank (these include open enactment of certain kinds of foreplay I’ve never seen on non-porn films before, especially in a serial for the BBC, even BBC 2), for the amoral apparently “modern” moving lessons about Moll’s struggle to survive and enjoy life in a corrupt greedy society, where she is educated to be ruthless, a liar, an performative egoist, and its strong use of undercurrents of sarky comedy (which appeal to reviewers who get kudos for being sarky).

What I want to emphasize is Davies’s original use in TV of a central character who steps outside of her role and talks to us. I’ve seen this in cinema before (e.e.,g Michael Caine’s Alfie), but never before as someone who aggressively turns to the audience and in effect accuses them of hypocrisy. “What would you do?” means “How could I have done any different” than this morally deplorable action or that? The first still in this blog comes from the Prologue to the movie, where from her abysmal prison cell (where she is made a show to outsiders who pay to see this) she turns on us by turns accusingly, defensively, scathingly.

This happens repeatedly in the film. It’s accompanied by the use of Moll as narrator, continuous voice-over from scene to scene, and intiator (as the camera moves into her meditative face) of flashbacks. Here she is turning to us after she has accepted Rowland (Colin Buchanan), the first brother in the family (who adopt her from the gypsies) as her lover, and is now preparing to accept a proposal of marriage from the second, Robin (Ian Driver).

Alex Kingston was superb in the role. We have again as is so common in Davies the strong woman and weak men. He is following the plot-line so that she become involved with her brother, here called Lemuel (Tom Ward) and goes to America where she meets her match, her mother (Diana Rigg),

but he goes well beyond that to show us a woman superb in energy:

The moral wife

Gazing at the rigging, the sea, the continent

She reaches a high point when she does fall in love, as in the book, with gentleman Jemmy (Daniel Craig)

The true lovers — who do not lie to one another any more than they have to

Then the turn downward comes when Moll and Jemmy must part (or they’d starve) and she runs away from incest (and three more children):

Here she is earlier, leaving behind first two (by Robin).

Defoe’s story gives Davies his opportunity to make Moll descend very slowly lower and lower. She meets and marries a rich banker (rendered with comic touchingness by James Fleet)

She is occasionally beautiful

They eat at one another (a la the Tom and Molly in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones), and lie a lot to one another but last quite a number of years. The loss of this man brings Moll into contact with a “mother” (madam in a boarding-house brothel) and gradually, she becomes a thief, takes a lesbian lover — whom she deserts when the lover is nabbed by the police:

She turns on us hysterically justifying herself, and then

flees from us and the camera.

Her friend will be hanged as the love affair was one where no pregnancy could ensue and so she can’t “plead her belly.” Moll moves into a deep depression which manifests itself as self-destruction and self-hatred; she finds she comes near murder, and talks to us nervously as she looks to reassure us she has not killed a girl child.

He has throughout done his “homework,” really read Defoe (including the moral tracts) and tried to weave in not only lines from other 18th century texts (appropriately for the film’s themes, from Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, epigrammatic satiric verse from Pope, and vigorous early 17th century sonnets), but what makes the movie is so powerful is this combination of having the heroine move down down down into a traumatized amoral state where she is half-mad and kicks against the pricks (quite literally) at the same time as she is continually accosting from different angles, either through breaking an apparent taboo or asserting her case is ours (even if it takes a costumed older form). A happy ending came swiftly and theatrically (with Moll just saved from the gallows while another friend is hung). It would have been better to make this feel more dream-like so we couldn’t be sure it really ended this way — after all, it’s continually shown to be a story.

In an insightful close reading of this movie, Sarah Cardwell treats these running commentary techniques, the satiric mocking paratexts, and uses of theater as instances of post-modernity in Davies, an undermining of nostalgic complacency in many film adaptations of high status older books and traditions of popular humor as in the Carry on films, comic seaside postcards and farce (see her Adaptation Revisited).


To move to the 2004 BBC/WBGH He Knew He Was Right (directed by Tom Vaughan, produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark), what fascinates me is how Davies crosses over from an 18th century somewhat crude picaresque text to a sophisticatedly developed psychological-realistic 19th century high status novel, and develops this into a way of turning complicated parallel plots and more than one set of traumatized characters into a distanced Victorianized picturesque design. In He Knew He Was Right far from using accosting narrators and defensive and ironic voice-overs to undercut and ironize the story, Davies makes them sheer distancing devices so that he may combine a traumatic tragedy rooted in sexual paranoia and mischievousness with a four comic stories, set in a beautiful Barchester-like Somerset (Trollope’s Exeter and Devonshire is called Somerset in the film). One of these stories forms a parallel to the main tragic story as comic neuroticism, and all satisfy our longing for some at least outwardly idyllic place.

Dorothy (Caroline Martin) arriving at Exeter, Aunt Stanbury’s lovely house near a cathedral, a step up and exciting adventure to meet new people from the stone cottage she was living in with her mother and sister

I have written a long chapter in my Trollope on the ‘Net on sexual anxiety and tragedy in He Knew He Was Right, and there are a number of powerful and entertaining explanatory essays on Trollope’s book.

This is not the place to go into such a book (see comment for other sources to read). It has apparently remained relatively unknown, has not caught on as a book one must read (the way the film adaptation of The Way We Live Now helped Trollope’s later darkly satiric book). It’s too long and has too many roots in Victorian art and assumptions.

But something must be said. First, Davies has understood the book thoroughly — I cannot know if his readings of other books (say Pasternak or Forster or Dickens) are accurate (as I do not know these other authors or their books well enough, and feel he is (despite what people say) not really on Jane Austen’s wavelength. He often teases when he discusses her work, but there is a consistent changing done: she is one of those authors he has “tussles” with. In Trollope’s book, he stays true to the Trollope’s depiction of his male’s behavior and reinforces what he takes to be the feminism of the book: it’s the partly male-centered sort he is comfortable with: the sane males are left or put in charge, with one in particular, here Stephen Campbell Moore as Hugh Stanbury (he even looks like Peter Townsend as Stephen Daker in A Very Peculiar Practice).

Hugh and Nora (Christine Cole) falling in love over a piano and songs

I argued in my paper for the Trollope conference that these novels are comfort romances for men, and Davies shows that.

To wit, he sees that the 5 stories are parallels to one another, from the level of prosaic-usual humanely understood romance between Hugh and Nora Rowley (Christina Cole), to the wild madness of the flirtatious money-seeking clergyman Mr Gibson (David Tennant) over whom Arabella (Fenella Woolgar) and Camillla French (Claudie Blakely) struggle nearly to the point of Camilla knifing Arabella. This story mirrors the ravaging of the marriage life of Louis (Oliver Dimsdale) and Emily Trevelyan: as the Rev Mr Gibson proves unable to cope with the passions of his women once he carelessly arouses their hopes, so Louis is unable to cope with his sexual anxiety over Emily’s flirting with the mischievous Colonel Osborne (inimitably done by Bill Nighy), and sensitivity to sexual shaming and imagined ridicule.

As Osborne, Nighy wedges himself between Louis and Emily and begins to induce her into semi-salacious flirting talk

Davies juxtaposes the frenzied behavior of Camilla when she sees she is losing out to the apparently meek Arabella with a later sudden outburst of Louis that his experience of love as jockeying for domination, sexual teasing and desolating loss, distrust is its reality. This utterance is denied by Hugh in a scene placed almost immediately but the dialogics here let the aware reader feel Hugh is simply lucky in his temperament and choice of a quietly pragmatic wife. Nora does almost take Glascock for his “smoothness” [pun alert] and money and estate, and if she had, Hugh would have accepted it the way we see his single sister, Priscilla (Amy Marston) make do with the dignity of her own mind as her central resource and small round of pleasures (reading, walking, a picnic) in life.

Priscilla and Emily talking of their choices in life

The inbetween only slightly bumpy stories are threaded in too: the suave ideal Mr Glascock (Raymond Coulthard) getting adjusted to the Americanism of Caroline Spaulding (Ann Louise Plowman); and the sweetly chivalrous Brooke Burgess (Matthew Goode) who with Dorothy Stanbury (Caroline Martin) defy yet give in to their apparently hide-bound, materialistic Aunt Stanbury (another brilliant performance by Anna Massey), who aging and lonely compromises too are a contast to the Trevelyan tragedy.

Aunt Stanbury realizing she was wrong when she reads Priscilla’s letter

Davies turns the older Rowleys marriage (Geraldine James and Geoffrey Palmer) and the Bozzles (Ron Cook and Patsy Palmer) and even the poor London curate Outhouse husband and wife (John Alderton and Lynn Farleigh) into further adjusted and adjusting male and female couples along a continuum by giving each of these characters distinct personalities. Bozzle is made less sordid and queasy because Mrs Bozzle has a much longer say and is quoted by Bozzle.

Mr Bozzle arguing a man has the right to kidnap his child

Mrs Bozzle denying it

I admit to being chuffed to see Davies’s reading as it is my reading of the novel in my book (chapter 2).

Davies must’ve chosen it himself and the choice gives insight into what Davies regards as Trollope’s strengths (psychological delving). He also loved the original Stone illustrations. Many are brought to life in the production, including the one-legged postman:

Stone’s illustration

2004 film

That Davies does this kind of close imitation, even for supposedly superfluous details (they contribute to the book’s atmosphere immeasurably), so often in this film suggests to me here he he was determined to return to transposition, to a more narrowly conceived apparently faithful film in order to please us with an old-fashioned charm. By comparison he used only a few countable vignettes and larger pictures from Fawkes’s original illustrations for mise-en-scenes and shots in his TWWLN, e.g., the train station, Lowestaff beach, Melmotte crash in parliament. In the more comic scenes, we are treated to lavish recreations of romance scenes; this one is like so many 1860s illustrations I’ve seen at the same time as about two people failing to understand one another, she needing him and him not being sure:

After this Arabella, mistakenly stops wearing her lovely chignon, thinking that it puts off Mr Gibson; it was not what put him off at all

The way Davies manages to revel in Victorianism, in older pictures, and to include all five and and add (by developing) more couples by having just about all the major characters step out and talk to us. Sometimes they accost us (a la Moll Flanders) and become defensive. In the second still at the top of this blog Emily turns around to us, abruptly answers us as if we had just accused her of being unreasonable in not acceding to Louis’s demands. At other times they explain themselves (Gibson when moving from one woman to another, when clearly making money is biggest motives), and at others comment on the story in ways that distance it. Paradoxically, this is probably the most important way of creating continuity because many of these same characters also write letters (and thus we hear them as voice-over narrators) and will begin to narrate a sequence as we move into a new dramatic scene. The result is a highly varied framing — rather like an epistolary novel with many different voices.

Colonel Osborne which turns into a voice over which becomes

Emily reading, then writing, and then turning to argue with us as she goes down the stairs to put her letter to Osborne in a tray to be taken outside the house

All, all of the major characters (except I think for Aunt Stanbury) at punctuated intervals turn to the audience, and accost us. I mentioned that before: they are defensive, or argumentative, or they project what is to come and comment on what has happened.

Mr Gibson is here accosting Mrs French (mother of the French girls, played so perfectly by Barbara Flynn). This comes after he has accosted us and before he goes off to defend himself before us again

I suggested yesterday or the day before that this has the effect of distancing us from the Victorianism of the material that Davies does stick to. Making it like a story unfolding at one remove.

But there are so many, it functions more strongly than that. My argument is this: most movies have an implied narrator so-to-speak, the man or woman behind the camera. While you may get segments which are subjectivized (we are looking at the events through the eyes or shoulder of a major character) or even many which are centered on one character’s experience, still that character does not know everything and is a character in the story too and we can ignore his or her ideas or perceptions if we want to. I’d call this the equivalent of both first and third person narration in a novel. So whether we are reading Emma and move away to the narrator or Jane Eyre or modern unreliable equivalent and can’t move away to the narrator, there is still an implied narrator outside the novel. We don’t always agree with Jane.

What happens in this film is the story becomes more hypothetical by having all this accosting of us. We are aware it could end differently and the character feels like he or she could chose otherwise. Rather like Six Characters in Search of an Author. They are all speaking in immediate time too. They don’t know what’s to come or how they are going to change (Louis and Emily) or what they are going to be forced to do (Mr Gibson, Dorothy) or chose to do (Hugh, Colonel Osborne). It has the effect of making them slightly comical, and putting their case before us as something we ought to debate. It becomes fun to watch them and in our minds object (though we don’t get to talk back). Now often the story contradicts what the character claims (this is true of Louis and Colonel Osborne and Mr Gibson — though he has a way of acknowledging the truth too) is so.

Louis talking at us, he thinks he’s reasoning with us

It becomes a way of reading Trollope. When Aunt Stanbury says after one of many instances where she gives in (for this one Dorothy need not marry Gibson), and they both agree that it’s better to be an old maid than marry him, to half-turn to us to say “she doesn’t know what all the fuss was about,” we have the action framed in a Trollopian way.

Dorothy in a proud moment

When we see Louis so wretched in Turin, and he turns to us and asks, how did this happen to me? we have a Trollopian frame.

He has recognized this is a novel stuffed full of letters. It is one of the prime texts I use for my lecture to the reform club, “Partly told in letters.”. This series shows how he is not wedded to recent technologies and fancy camera work and games because while he uses them in other of his movies at the time, in this he does not. The scenes here are short in the manner of post-1990s movies, but evoke the centering in dramatic scenes of the 1970s/80s kinds of serials, and he uses the same epitomizing techniques. He has no montage. No fancy shots. And voice-over for some of the many letters with others simply read aloud in front of others by the recipient.

Dorothy writing a letter: great care has been taken to imitate lyrical style absorbed illustrations of the era

Davies includes many scenes of characters writing letters and sometimes reading them aloud and occasional voice-overs too. Letters are written at the present moment and the character writing or reading doesn’t know the future. Trollope uses this like an epistolary novelist (I wrote about this in my paper, “partly Told In letters”). Well, these accosting narrators are like letters. They rivet us to present time and are a substitute for letters.

This return to older techniques together with a use of accosting narrators is daring, jarring in ways voice-over is not (as voice-over is done in a mesmerizing sonority) So in some romance scenes we can have these obsolete Victorian conventions spoken with great drama (as when Aunt Stanbury first rejects Dorothy as a candidate for Burgess’s hand so brutally Dorothy’s face hardens and yet she says nothing and even seems to accept this stance. The young people’s demand for freedom comes out both true to the time and relevant to our own. I loved how he also quoted many of the bleakest lines of Trollope (given to Dorothy about her lack of importance to anyone) straight.

There is loss. By staying with Victorianism, Davies gets away with not going that far into paranoia, distress, obsessions of Louis. Unlike Trollope, Davies avoids the hints that Louis was inadequate in bed and Emily bored — he has Emily refuse to go to bed with Louis early in the story, but there is no sense she has been bored, and there are two love scenes where they are drawn physically to one another. At no point is Davies’s Emily vituperative or taunting nor does his Louis call Emily a harlot. Trollope’s characters are and do both. Davies wanted us to like them more. He didn’t want the hero downright despised or mocked, and he didn’t want the heroine resented and feared.

The result is they are a bit too soft, and the breakup is not sufficiently motivated. When I read the reading and discussion of the novel on the old Trollope list (run by Elizabeth Thomson on Majordomo), the kinds of evasive readings produced there are offered as surface here. You can if you wish see this just as a struggle of pride, two people letting some small problem grow into a huge mountain.

Reveling in Victorian surface was one motive for the choice. For example, this postmodern scene of Hugh and Louis at the Turkish Bath. This is the moment where Louis first confess (mysteriously, unclearly) his sexual anxiety and dissatisfaction with his marriage to Hugh, his best and closest friend (who later finds Louis for Emily). Hugh is puzzled at this point. Note the lavish Victorian orientalism and homoeroticism. This is not the way baths were but the way we see them today, postmodern (as are many of the films’ stills):

The scenes in Exeter imitate in music, feel , mise-en-scene and some of the jokes of the 1984 Barchester Chronicles mini-series, at least in mise-en-scene and some of the jokes.

Aunt Stanbury and Dorothy watch Mr Gibson inbetween Arabella and Camilla French

So many stills emphasize domestic, town, social details from life at the time. Davies also imitates other films’ scenic ploys: when Lady Rowley visits Louis to reason with him, they meet in a pavilion-temple in the rain (recalling not just the 2005 Pride and Prejudice by Joseph Wright).

Another aim was to make us side with the women, empathize with them as subject creatures — even Aunt Stanbury who needs Dorothy and is dependent on her maid, Martha (Maggie Ollerenshaw) at one point pictured bringing a lamb roast in a basket to the Dorothy Stanbury at her mother’s house as a peace offering (as in one of the Stone vignettes).

At moments you’d think Davies was making a program to uphold John Stuart Mill. Louis’s inducing of Bozzle to kidnap little Louie from Emily is done super effectively and ends Part 2: Emily driving away from the Outhouses talks to her and us about how she is like a child, going to her mother, no place of her own in the world. The carriage stops, and a man comes forward. She thinks he’s a steward from the hotel. He’s not and then she realizes it too later; a policeman asks the frantic mother who stole her child, and when she says her husband, he says a husband has the control of his child.

From the kidnap sequence

This scene is reinforced by a scene of Marmaduke Rowley with a lawyer who says the law gives the custody of the child to the father. If Louis has not been violent, Emily has it seems no recourse to complaint. We see that Emily has no ability to escape the slightest whims and caprices of Louis, for he has not only the purse strings but can take and keep the child at will from her without at all accounting for what he is doing with the little boy.

The part of Colonel Osborne is hard because not quite credible and Bill Nighy carries it off: a mischief making enjoying making himself a reputation as a roue at no trouble to himself. His self-defense is almost believable and the character and vein also fits into Davies’s exploration of men and woman’s sexuality from the point of view of older men wanting young girls (we see this in House of Cards and the 1996 Emma); he also explores the sexualities between siblings unostentatiously in his movies too.

Davies’s filmic choices and those of his team (from dresses to music) come together to create a film which projects a real knowledge of Trollope’s texts and feel for them: from women watching at windows, playing cards, the piano, to the deep sanity of the narrator’s stance coming out in congenial comedy, vexed awry characters, cruel rejections and grave somehow inexorable (as Louis and Emily again and again return to clash) grave tragedy. The last scene of the film is Emily in black, mourning as a widow, walking down a path into a wood with her small son by her side.

It’s not uncommon for women’s films to end with a woman walking off with her child

And yet I found nothing, nothing intelligent any where on this movie. Gush, re-tellings of the stories, no serious article no even half serious full review. This is a measure of Trollope’s lack of a cult in comparison say to Eliot or Hardy or Dickens for this is a superior superior adaptation. I long to put everything down and write an article worthy of it — but who do I know? No one cares. In the meantime I must content myself with this blog.


So, to conclude Davies first broke with TV filmic conventions in Moll Flanders, most notably in his use of an accosting narrator. In the 1960s Alfie movie, Alfie remains a version of voice-over telling the story (like Cher in Clueless). But Alex Kingston as Moll doesn’t turn around to us to tell us the story; she doesn’t address us in voice-over which is within the narration. No, she takes the story as given to us by *someone else* and then defends herself and asks us what would we do? Once she runs away from us. One of the characters in Davies’s HKHWR flees us (more quietly) too: Emily.

When you have just one character, the effect is not to overturn the narrator and remains one note. When you have a whole bunch, it’s like you have a symphony of different voices (like an epistolary) novel and the pleasure is in the variety and being aware also there’s another silent narrator telling us the story they are helpless against.

In his HKHWR, Davies extended the use of the accosting single narrator in his Moll Flanders (very innovative in itself) to make a number of the principle characters in HKHWR also accosting narrators (they turn around to us to defend themselves, and accuse of) and connect that to voice-over narration, use of epistolary filmic techniques. This enabled him to distance the stories from us and thus combine stories of such different moods, at the same time as it continually added new perspectives and made the whole thing into one coherent pattern.

All this makes for enormous aesthetic enjoyment. It shows Davies real creativity with techniques of movie-making, and his boldness too.

Priscilla answering Aunt Stanbury (Trollope said the first was the heroine of the novel, both are single women)

Moll tries to pray, but ends up arguing with God (as if he were an unreasonable member of the audience): “but you don’t do that, do you, you lead us into temptation, and what do I see all around me …”


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The closest our ladies, Bichette and Quinquin (nicknames for one another in libretto) get

Dear Friends and readers,

Yesterday the Admiral (aka Jim), Izzy and I spent 5 wonderful hours listening to and watching the HD transmission of the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosencavalier and I feel compelled to make a few comments on it.

It was a deeply moving experience by the end. The Marshallin’s long aria at the end of the first act was deepened for me by knowing the words for the first time. I found myself remembering how Strauss wrote four of the most beautiful works in music: the four last songs. And the ending where the young couple actually gets this precious thing, a life they might enjoy together, and to experience youthful sex as two loving people, was uplifting — especially as undercut by the sublimity of the Marshallin’s letting go.

For me the truest theme of the opera is the tragedy of letting go (of whoever or whatever love or condtion someone has offered you when they no longer want to either offer it for real or pretend to). It is a tragedy but if you do not let go, you are in for far worse punishment. And that as an actress Renee Fleming (soprano) did to a T. She sang the songs beautifully but it was the meaning she endowed them with at a the same time that made me have to sit there holding tears in lest I really begin to cry. I saw the Admiral (Jim) on one side of me in this state of tears, so too Isabel on the other side — and other people in the audience too. There was clapping in the moviehouse for these and also Kristin Sigmundsson (base baritone) as Baron Ochs, who has a subtle and powerful aria (with a very low note at its close) at the close of the second opera. As I recall he’s saying, why shouldn’t he take what he can get (sex) when he can get it. This is a counterpoint to the Marshallin’s letting go — he has to be tricked out of taking what young people his money will buy him. So too in the third act the song-dialogue of Octavian, our Rose Cavalier, is a mocking parody of the sentiments about time and loss that are expressed in the Marshallin’s first opera.

I do have a small quarrel with the production. No director is listed so I assume the director is Nathaniel Merrill who is credited with “production” and Robert O’Hearn too as “set and costume designer.” It relates to the depiction of Octavian by Susan Graham (mezzo soprano, a part that harks back to Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro). She was beautiful as the young man falling in love at first sight in the beginning of Act 2 (handing the rose over) and again at the end, the young man allowed to choose to the young woman. But her part lacked depth and resonance and was bland. Why? This is the third production I’ve seen and all are so embarrassed about the sex so they present the opening scene between the two women in bed so innocently a third grader could watch. And blandly. Similarly when Ochs first lays eyes on Octavian dressed in women’s clothes and we are told in the words he is stunned by her beauty and wants to go to bed with her. Octavian is not allowed to make any sense as a character because of this insistent emasculation (I’ll call it for lack of a less gender-specific word).

The countess’s aria at the end of the first act makes sense (has a motivation) only if in the opening bedroom scene Octavian is weary of her. Her words (for the first time I could read them) are that he’s too clinging, and she’s suspicious. The woman acting this part should make it clear he’s partly pretending. Marie-Therese (the Marshallin’s name) is supposed to be an older woman going to bed with Octavian, an intensely handsome young man, and it’s made kinky because it’s a woman doing the part (so our attention is called to lesbian love-making as well as a lack of penis). We are supposed to be made aware of her as an older woman hankering after young flesh, and thus a parallel to Ochs.

Octavian is merely puzzled

If Graham had acted with real human emotion here, such as a little boredom and how he does this since she’s so rich and powerful and still beautiful for an older woman, the ending song makes sense. Also there should be some insistence on her beauty. I realize Susan Graham is not Rufus Sewell, but the text calls for her to be reacted to as if she had this kind of feminine masculine beauty. She’s supposed to be a stud, and (as they say) drop dead beautiful, equally so when dressed as a woman.

In the third act too, this same blandness plays a role of making the scene at the tavern where Ochs chases Octavian dressed as a woman have much less bite. The biter bit is the idea. I’m not saying the opera is dark; I am saying it’s about sex and is truthful and therefore has a real bite or sting.

The one performance that didn’t work at all was Sophie, done by Christine Schafer. She is supposed to be a classic real instance of the way young women were treated in the ancien regime; sold off to a rich old man. It was typical too to repress this girl in a convent. The story is told darkly in LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but it was common place in the Renaissance. Lots of women were sold off this way; I’ve come across it repeatedly

(Not totally a disgression: this paradigm carries on today: in our male hegemonic society’s it’s commmon and far from frown upon, actually a social cachay for an older man to leave his older wife and marry a young woman. Its reverse the older woman with the young man she buys and who is attracted to her as long as she’s not too old, seen in LaClos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses is frowned upon, and when the disparity in age is great, made a joke to ridicule the much younger man. This contrasts to what happens in politics where among powerful men like McCain, Gingrich, Dole, marrying a hugely-younger rich woman and dumping your aging sick wife is just fine.)

Now Sophie looked upset at the Baron and even disgusted, but she did not look intensely relieved at Octavian; she did not look at Graham as if Graham was (say) Colin Firth in P&P. The production was shy and thus the monstrous quality of the hard humor of Baron Ochs was lost. But I wondered if it was more than Schafer can or did not imagine sufficiently what how young girl brought up in an amoral and hypocritical environment would act. Here is a typical moment:

The title Strauss wanted to give this work was Baron Ochs, and Ochs is in all the acts; it is he who instigates the action. To his credit Sigmundsson did not do the part totally as a joke. He was willing to undergo the stigma the opera imposed on him, and I thought was applauded (even if not consciously) for his courage.

Fleming’s was paradoxically the most socially acceptable and she was brilliant at it; so too Ochs when on his own and not having to toy with women as women or women as young men. So we we are willing to watch older people being denied sex, either as a joke or serious loss. But not willing to watch the sexual appetite enacted for real in all its variety — and the production is clearly of for multi-orientation. Strauss was clearly centrally concerned with love and death — the Marshallin’s lines are about death. His Capriccio is set in the 18th century Ariadne auf Naxos the later 17th; it is typical of modern composers and film makers to turn back to the 18th century to delve sexual issues as their novels famously did; this was a franker age. Salome (the Bible by way of Oscar Wilde) shows his interest in death, insane jealousy in human existence.

I’ve had to go on a little at length in order to express my ideas so it seems that the critique is stronger than my praise. The production was very entertaining and some of the adult ideas that are central to the opera came across. For example, the price the Marshallin has had to pay and her reward. She partly identifies with Sophie, for she too was brought up (we are told) in a convent, and we assume married off quickly to the Field Marshall who she hardly ever sees — and shows no desire to see. There are no children mentioned. She has paid the price of not having a relationship such as she’s bestowed on Octavian and Sophie — well, the possibility of one. Her reward is great wealth, power, luxury, and the production lays this on thick. Fleming was interviewed twice, and the second time before the third act. She was in the dress from the first act, not the one from the third, which while sumptuous looked very uncomfortable. Her gloves were very tight over her skin. The last moment of the opera has her little black boy servant running into the tavern to pick up an exquisite white handkerchief she left behind. Presumably had she not obeyed her parents, she would not now have the compensation of the intense respect, awe, and courtesy with which everyone treats her. Perhaps a modern opera audience might understand this one from their own experience, not be offended by it, and it was there.

They were certainly up to the broad comedy of betrayal. One of the snitching easily-paid-off telltale servants of Ochs (a young man Jim and I saw at Wolf Trap this summer) had a salacious look on his face of mischief as well as a betraying one which I think drew attention to him — his stylized gestures were right too. When I say this I’m showing the singers are on their own really to act the roles.

Of course the production is 40 years old! 40 years ago was before Stonewall. Before a sea-change in attitudes towards sexuality, though one which clearly has not reached the secular ecumenicalness of Kinsey (and that’s 1950). The embarrassment at the material is touched upon in the intermission. Placido Domingo (our host) joked before the opera began and we saw Fleming and Graham laying in bed together before the curtain went up, “don’t they look happy [friendly?] in bed together?” and quickly changed the subject. Fleming touched upon the matter when she said she and Graham had been playing the parts together for decade and at one point they used to “kid” that they were the only two people who either of them “kissed.” Giggles and then change the subject.

It’s not that what’s wanted is an opera in drag or camp or Broadway-uped or anything like that. It should in fact stay set in the 18th century with the traditional lovely rooms and plain tavern.

The four principles in the closing scene at the tavern

The real problem here is one I see again and again in the Met operas I’ve seen. We’ve gone to six since last May and as produced operas they’ve been disappointing (I felt particularly dismayed at The Tales of Hoffman since we walked through a blizzard to see it — the Broadway director had the flimiest of conceptions and simply through the kitchen sink at it together with lots of semi-naked girls on stage).. They are most of the time not plays where the thought and meaning is expressed through music; most of the time they are musical concerts with people in costume. There are opera writers with librettists where an individual work drives the production to be a play: say Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. But most of the time perhaps the origin or nexus of opera in court masques controls what is presented by the writers and it’s put to modern performers and directors to make the thing into a play — for at its best that is what it is.

Joseph Kernan in his now classical (and in a fiftieth reprinting) Opera as Drama is right. Opera should be done as drama — the way for example, Sondheim’s A Little Night Music or Passion are done. And it does matter. As you are listening to the beautiful music, you would be more moved if it related directly to your inner life too. For me this production did do that with the Marshallin, but the opera could do far more. I’m for traditional staging and don’t think the opera needs to be restaged or put into another era. Strauss chose the 18th century because (as one sees in film adaptation) the 18th century is seen as a fictional terrain for exploring sexuality (its novels were open about sex and delved sex for the first time, as in Clarissa, La Nouvelle Heloise, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and many other novels).

Opera (and here the Met) needs to address the audience as thinking adults. As usually done (and I’ve now seen 6 of these type productions), only the most overt conservative aspects of opera (the materalism, the luxury, and old story lines, often misogynistic) come out. I know the Met could do better; much less well-heeled opera companies with much less gifted people (the Met pays big) do it. I read an article about the English Sadler’s Wells company the other day which argued they have tried; Glimmerglass has produced operas in this way; Castleton this past summer did in Britten’s Rape of Lucrece, though not so much in Britten’s Beggar’s Opera. Jonathan Miller regularly does such productions of operas.

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Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), The Cup of Tea (1879)

Again Cassatt, again her sister, Lydia, this time At the Tapestry Loom (1881) (we went to a wonderful show and lecture on her art at the National Women’s Museum of Art in DC this year)

Dear Readers and friends,

Over on Reveries under the Sign of Austen, meant to be a more personal and musing blog, I’ve written a personal account of how I and my family have experienced Christmas over the last few years, one intended to have some general application too. Here where I intend to write more impersonally and provide essay-like columns, I thought I’d list the books I’ve read this year that meant a lot to me — each set under the listserv community where I was led to read the book or posted about it. So it’s a celebration of listserv community life as well as an indication of what the different online communities do.

On Trollope19thCStudies at Yahoo, there were four:

I had read Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey before, but a long while back and it didn’t mean that much to me somehow. It just struck as more like Austen in tone and outlook than the other Bronte novels I’d read thus far.

This time Agnes Grey just stirred me deeply: AG is far more feminist than
either of her sisters’ books: it’s about a young woman’s attempt to become independent and fulfilled through the only respectable job offered to someone of her class: that of governess. That she fails is the result of her nobility of soul. I loved the acrid angry tone and the candour of the descriptions of social life as seen and experienced by the marginalized governess. She marries at the end: a gentle, aimable man as kind and egalitarian at heart as she; as much a reading person. It’s a quiet joy which she reverts to as a refuge.

Then I read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall for the first time. It’s a masterpiece about so much: the alcoholism so emphasized in the early and recent criticism is but a symptom of what makes Arthur Huntingdon a horror: the point is (like Richardson’s Lovelace) he was educated to become a tyrannical amoral horror, all his worst characteristics developed and his better ones ridiculed or ignored. And so he would make his son another like himself. It’s a novel of female sexual awakening too — and renunciation. The use of journals in the form of letters makes it about the deep past and since these are read by the man Helene Graham grows to love while still married, Gilbert Markham, it becomes his novel too. He is similar to the kind of man who appears at the close of Agnes Grey, only his male ego and pragmaticism and poetry of soul developed much more. I loved the movie adaptation by Nokes and Barron, and then I listened to it read aloud alternatively by David Case (oh a new voice for him I’d not heard before, softly lifting Northern burr) and Donada Peters as Helen.

Tara Fitzgerald and Helen Graham and Toby Stephens as Gilbert Markham

I now think Anne Bronte’s two novels superior to Wuthering Heights and all Charlotte’s novels with the exception of Jane Eyre and Villette.

The third was George Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career, one of the great political novels of 19th century England — philosophically, realistically, psychologically, autobiographically.

Finally, John Sutherland’s Life of Scott. I won’t read the novels in the somewhat naive way I did before. He put together the man who wrote the journals with the man in the novels.

On Eighteenth Century Worlds at Yahoo, largely due to the enthusiasm of my good friend, Clare, I reread Richardson’s Clarissa not once but twice — I am just finishing it once again. How can this possibly have been a revelation? A transformation. Well, it was. I feel for the first time I’ve begun to read it aright. It’s meant as a portrait of a rapist: Lovelace fits all the characteristics of rapists as gathered by sociologists and others: hatred, desire for revenge, huge egoism (cannot see outside himself), strong turn to violence. The very approval of Lovelace makes visible the substructure of approval for predatory male behavior as attractive that makes the common large percentage of rapes in our society possible — with impunity for the most part. For it is still hard to get a rape case to court where there is no aggravated assault with clear injuries to the woman, she is still on trial. An added-on letter for the 3rd edition shows Lovelace imagining himself with a gang of men raping and humiliating Anna, her mother and servant: Richardson makes the point even here a court case might go in favor of Lovelace.

Clary rushing out to meet the amiable Hickman: all unreserve and generosity — I imagine Davies could do justice to this character in a rewrite of the film

Along with the book I’ve read many film studies and studied a number of films adapted from novels heavily influenced by Richardson’s (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, La Religieuse, Valmont, La Vieille Maistresse) and films adapted from 18th century history to look at how sexuality is presented today, how history presented in these films. Modern films too: Lynn Ramsey’s Morvern Callar with Samantha Morton. Also feminist and sociological studies of rape and sexuality, most recently Michelle Fine, “Sexuality, Schooling, and Adolescent Females: The Missing Discourse of Desire,” Harvard Educational Review, 58:1 (1988):29-53. One book by Nancy Paxton (on colonialist books and rape and female sexuality) led me to reading and gathering colonialist novels and listening to novels (e.g., all of Raj Quartet) where female sexuality and rape are among the many significant central topics.

Paradise Road, adapted from Betty Jeffreys’ diaries of captured women in Japan

It’s been fun and deeply educational and I’m not finished yet.

And I must not forget reading Katherine Jones’s A Passionate Sisterhood: Women of the Wordsworth Circle; a complete decent edition of Elisabeth Vigee-LeBrun’s invigorating intelligent travel memoir of her life as an artist; Francoise Changernagor’s L’Allee du Roi, a deeply felt memoir-novel of the life of Francoise Maintenon (with the meditative 12th chapter); and Caroline Moorehead’s life of Lucie Dillon de la Tour du Pin, Dancing to the Precipice.. L’Allee du Roi I had read years ago, but it was like new to me; Moorehead on Mrs Delatour (a joke name) added a rich new set of memoirs and letters for me to delve eventually. I fell in love with Southey reading Jones’s book! And the poet, Sara Coleridge. Had it not been for people on the list, I would not have discovered the English translation of Vigee-Lebrun’s book on the Net is abridged, bowlderized, a shallow wholly inadequate version of this 2 volume set of meditations, character sketches, ruminations on a career and woman’s professional life.

Vigee-LeBrun’s watercolor pastel of Mont Blanc (found by Judy)

These experiences were also due largely to two new members, Penny and Catherine whose blog Versailles and more is on my blog roll.

For Women Writer through the Ages at Yahoo, the year began with Iris Origo’s The Last Attachment: The Story of Byron and Teresa Guiccioli, which I found so enlightening and irresistible I went on to her immortal (I think) diary of her experience of World War 2 in Northern Italy, War in Val d’Orcia, and Caroline Moorehead’s biography of her, Images and Shadows. I learned about a whole new Byron I had not met before — and I’ve read a good deal of his poetry, letters and biography, the Byron of his last years in Italy, the revolutionary, the man who was good husband material after all. Teresa has not been done justice to until now.

This was the year we stopped having formal elections on WWTTA, and it’s hard to remember all the books therefor. This was the year I read Ingeborg Bachmann’s poetry and her novel, Marina, but much as I was moved, I think last year’s summer reading of Christina Wolf’s startlingly original and deeply humane meditation on war as well as travel, Cassandra meant more to me. (Both choices and finds, thanks to Fran, for my knowledge of German letters is woefully inadequate.) Having said that, there are few texts that come near this (a translation of) Bachmann:

Every Day

War is no longer declared,
only continued. The monstrous
has become everyday. The hero
stays away from battle. The weak
have gone to the front.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its medal the pitiful star of hope above the heart.

The medal is awarded
when nothing more happens,
when the artillery falls silent,
when the enemy has grown invisible
and the shadow of eternal armament
covers the sky.
It is awarded
for desertion of the flag,
for bravery in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of unworthy secrets
and the disregard
of every command.

For the rest over the course of the year books by women I posted on to the list comforted and strengthened me. The one that most leaps to mind was Margaret Drabble’s Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. But also (and this personally) important to me were Suzy McKee Charnas’s My Father’s Ghost, and opening up another set of books, Nicola Beauman’s The Other Elizabeth Taylor

Our spring was spent watching women’s films (films by women and about them) and while no one stood out (and I disliked some of the plays) I learned a lot about the subgenre of women’s films: often have women in groups, emphasize women’s friendship, will usually have a lesbian (only recently presented sympathetically), and this fed into my love of Austen films. Yes I discovered Andrew Davies and was won over by him too. Indeed it’s been such a rich year watching films I can’t recall even the half of them but know how much solace and companionship and insight I’ve had — going nearly weekly with Izzy to the movies was part of this.

And I should not omit how much the weekly poetry day and putting pictures up by women frequently have told and uplifted me — for I loved the subgenres women have invented and fulfilled and what’s typical of their art, e.g., they are coloristic.

Nell Blaine (1922-96), Rooftops (1967)

An author who now means a lot to me I began to read this year on the train going to the Washington Area Print Group sessions on Fridays at the Library of Congress: Colm Toibin. I was gripped by his The South, about an Irish woman that flees Ireland for an unconventional existence in Spain, taught his Blackwater Lightship, and am now so moved by his Brooklyn (which I’m reading right now) I’m having trouble finishing it.

I finished it early this morning. It’s force is grimly powerful, and I’ve been trying to think why. I have read his The South (about a woman who escapes her family to go live in Spain and finds herself embedded eventually in another family group), Blackwater Lightship (about deep alienation within a family), and The Master, Henry James as a gay man, an outsider. After a while the books all do spin around the same concerns, and for me at least are gripping. I find I can’t put them down easily each time I start one up again. I get intensely emotionally involved.

For Booklyn I found I had to peek ahead to the last pages to make sure our heroine does what will eventually lead to some happiness for her, I was so anxious for her. I found I had to have enormous strength to get through so much did I worry for her because she seemed to be this good person, self-sacrificing and could be bullied into giving up what could make her life joyful. But then when I came to the end of the book I saw I had been mistaken. In fact she might have liked to stay in Ireland and not return to Brooklyn, that is, stay with her birth family group instead of the new one she had become a part of it. So right now I’m thinking the force of the book comes from this grim insight: what we think keeps people together is not their intangible feelings, but order itself, and their value for one another comes out of how chance has put someone near someone that fits his or her needs. And either you belong to the order or you don’t.

Now that’s the thing: sometimes you don’t and the reasons for this have little to do with your merit.

It casts a new curious light on life. Come to think of it, I really began to read him as a result of a reading and discussion of two fictional biographies of Henry James: most the 19thCentury Literature at Yahoo read David Lodges’s, which I thought poor and coarse; but Toibin is again stunning as James by virtue of his homosexuality is someone who is not wanted in the order unless he erases who he is, and so he spends his life in exile, unable to become part of any permanent order; the title, The Master, is ironic. Just about every essay I’ve come across by Toibin engages me (I read them in the NYRB and LRB). He loves to write as a woman in drag. Alas, that Sedgwick did not live to write about his books.

A. L. Coburn, Frontispiece for Henry James’s Ambassadors, vol 22 of the New York Edition of Novels and Tales (1922)

The above is a photograph touched up to suggest something of the nature of the novel’s perspective: displaced, quiet, alienated yet there and part of it, ambivalent to cultural prestige (a similar angle is seen in Andrew Davies’s He Knew He Was Right; Davies’s adaptation of Hollinghurst’s gay novel, The Line of Beauty, lays bare the truth in The Master, Brooklyn). Coburn did a number of these frontispieces which were something new and, as photographs, give us insight into period

I have tried to join in on Janeites, Austen-l, and French Literature at Yahoo, but haven’t had the energy. We had a beautiful Austen summer on Women Writers and are enjoying cross-postings on James Edward Austen-Leigh’s memoir of Jane and James Austen, her brother’s poems from Austen-l. For French Literature at Yahoo I really wanted to read with them A Very Long Engagement by Sebastian Japrisot (because I loved the film adaptation, Un long dimanche de fiancailles), but I haven’t been able to make the time.

And finally from teaching: my students led me to reread carefully and appreciate Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake for the first time; I just fell in love with Mira Nair’s film of the same name (a still from this film is now my picture across wordpress) and Mississippi Marsala.

How about you, gentle readers? any book or movie or picture or music you want to list as having meant a great deal to you this year. A new favorite? What say you?


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Sam Neill as Komarovksy and Keira Knightley as Lara; last scene together, the coach, she reluctantly driving away from Yuri (Dr Zhivago, 2001)

Rod Steiger as Komarovksy and Julie Christie as Lara, early scene together, elegant courtship (Dr Zhivago, 1965)

Dear Friends and readers,

It’s been more than a week since I last wrote a blog: Christmas, New Year’s and a trip to Philadelphia to attend the MLA conference have intervened. Still far from forgetting my project to watch as many Andrew Davies movies as I could in December, I remained more constant to my pleasure — for he has won me over. For example, while I was at the MLA the way I coped with the long nights was to watch the whole of Davies’s 2009 Little Dorrit. It got me through: it’s very long for one of these recent adaptations, 2 one-hour parts (the first and last), and 12 half-hour ones inbetween, each with a different set of differently mixed trailers reminding us of different threads in the various episodes as well as looking forward to what’s to come.

As of tonight, I’ve now watched 21 Davies movies and written three blogs here, and one on Reveries under the Sign of Austen! If my strength and memory (and ability to capture or find appropriate stills) holds out, I mean to 4 more blogs on Davies’s films: 1) this one comparing his and Anne Pivcevic’s Dr Zhivago to David Lean and Robert Bolt’s famous 1965 film; 2) one just on Anthony Trollope’s powerful but alas not well-known tragedy and farce about sexual anxiety in a modern world combined with a Barsetshire-like romance, He Knew He Was Right; 3) one bringing together Davies’s Bleak House and Little Dorrit (out of two enormous later Dickens’s novels); and 4) one on two recent acclaimed novels adapted, both about central gay/homosexual characters, adaptations of Sarah Walters’s Tipping the Velvet and Allan Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty.

Davies’s Dr Zhivago is a masterpiece of a film adaptation where he boldly seeks to improve on his famed predecessor’s film at the same time as interact intextually with it so as to broaden and deepen our understanding of the sexual explorations and political themes of the original book (and even improve on these). He joined with Anne Pivcevic for this project (as he has done since), and the two of them sought a director who would be willing to try to reconceive the movie. In the interview on the DVD they tell of not being able to find a British director who would openly discuss his or her views of Lean’s films.

Lean opened with an intertitle and musical overture

So they went for a relatively unknown Italian director, Giacomo Campiotti, who had done two art films, and in this interview claims he loved and knew the book well before taking the project on. If not, he read it intently before doing the movie, and came up with his own ideas for visualizing and dramatizing the book. Davies says it took a long day of persuading for Campiotti to accede to Davies’s ideas in the screenplay.

How nervy and bold Davies is: he will deliberately repeatedly choose a book for a film where a previous film has been hailed as an unbeatable great translation, and try — and sometimes succeed in — bettering it. He usually (as here) also has his film evoke and play upon scenes in the previous film. He sometimes seeks to replace the previous film in public memory. Examples here include his 1995 Pride and Prejudice (outdoing Fay Weldon’s 1979 admired feminist mini-series) and the 1998 Vanity Fair (turning the dark drama of the 1987 Baron mini-series into brilliant caricature and satire). More like his and Pivcevic’s Dr Zhivago is their 2008 Sense and Sensibility where they challenged the 1995 big winner by Ang Lee and Emma Thompson on its own melodramatic landscape grounds, primarily by including so much that was omitted in the earlier film and reconceiving the heroes yet further.

Opening scene of Davies’s film: the train has already passed; this is an invented scene of the child Yuri chasing down his father’s corpse in the snow

Lean opens on a long slow hieratic scene of Yuri’s father’s funeral from the child’s standpoint

Davies and Pivcevic’s 2001 Dr Zhivago is even an anti-Zhivago, anti-the previous film. Pasternak has a complicated political vision well beyond what is found in the 1965 film. I did love both films, and have written another blog (since this one) where I do justice to Lean’s strong graphic visual sense and memorability and treat the intertexutality more at length.

Here I will concentrate first on how Davies did improve or deepen the characters in some ways and the films in relation to the book.

For my birthday I got a cover-to-cover reading aloud of the whole of Pasternak’s book on CDs (by the actor, Philip Madoc), so I can then appreciate the book’s complexities. Pasternak meant (among other things) to characterize totalitarian dictatorships as such, to show us the cruelty, absurdity, moral stupidity and blindness of public marketplace life with its ruthless ambitions, and contrast this with personal feelings that nonetheless flourish as real motives for what is done rather than hypocritical platitudes. In 1965 his book was used by the establishment at large to celebrate capitalism. A feature presentation on the 1995 DVD of the 1965 film showed what was what was understood at Radio City in the first showing and politics around Pasternak’s refusal of the Nobel after his book was first published in Italian translation in 1958 and English in 1960.

War scene from 2001 Dr Zhivago

By contrast, the 2001 film is liberal and leftist, and, especially profoundly anti-war. War is intensely awful — not heroic, but filthy, cold, dangerous. A recent article in PLMA argues all films of war cannot escape at least making it alluring through excitement and aggression, but it’s clear this is not what is meant or felt here. When ordinary soldiers try to desert, they are shot, and shot quicker if they say we are fighting the wrong people, This is not our fight. We should be fighting our landlords not the Germans. What counts is not vile miserable death but cooks and people who serve the men. Zhivago and Lara are explicitly made heroic as medical people. What emerged from Davies’s film (not unexpectedly) is a valuing of humane individuals and a dislike of generalities and distrust of all institutions.

Lean and Bolt’s Dr Zhivago sets up a central contrast between personal life and how what you experience personally should be central, trump all that happens politically. The problem was the dialogue is stilted and absurd, and the three famous central actors (Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, and Rod Steiger) never seemed to lose their star identities and become the Russian characters. Davies openly talked of this stiltedness, the unwillingness of the 1965 film to present Lara’s sexual desires for Komarovsky and his glamorous world openly so she remains vague, almost (but caught himself) the wooden performance of Shariff in the first half; Sharif really comes into his own in the second when he can play Yuri as peasant, fugitive, and desperate support of others

Tonya and Yuri are in their ice-cottage, she pregnant, knowing he has another beloved in the nearby town.

Davies also refers tactfully to the two-dimensional if crackling villainy of Steiger’s Komarovsky. As Christie was not allowed to show a young woman’s confused desires this way, so the older man’s intense desire for a young girl and his vulnerabilities were kept from us in the earlier conventional interpretations.

Lara’s peasant husband turned revolutionary and then rigid Bolshevik, Pasha, in the 1965 film (a young Tim Courtney) was made into a naive and murderous fanatic which fit the anti-communist rhetoric of the film. The costumes are just unconvincing. Christie is a 1960s girl.

Sharif as elegant suave doctor

Christie and Sharif as themselves

Steiger as a 1940s kind of US gangster with girl-child, Christie

In Davies’ film Neill becomes obsessed with the younger woman after having a believable affair with her mother. Sam Neil’s performance given the new conception (far more rounded, believable, human) of Komarovsky was superior.

Neill as Komarovksy, a man with his own obsessions

He has a dog he’s fond of

Hans Matheson’s Yuri was moving because openly more emotional and sensitive; he was yet another of Davies’s hurt sensitive men and Matheson’s performance anticipates that of Dan Steevens as Edward Ferrars.

Mathesen as Yuri contemplative

The vulnerable Yuri, in need of support

Compare this steely one of Omar Sharif as Yuri

In the 2001 film Pasha (Kris Marshall) is made humane and understandable; we are shown how he is gradually led to distrust others, to retreat into himself; he is an instance of strong idealism under the experience of being an outcast and oppressed who is shocked by how the instruments of the upper class are willing to kill their fellows. As someone betrayed radically, he betrays himself:


the ruthless inhumanity of the czar’s militia and personal hurt and loss of Lara later turns this well-meaning young man into stone:

To be fair, Lean relied on larger political iconic scenes to get these kinds of meanings across:

Tim Courtney as Pasha turned Boshevik (with a new name) accusing Yuri in trumped-up court scene

I was surprized by the corniness and melodrama of Bolt’s screenplay. I have the highest regard for Bolt from studying and teaching his masterpiece play and film, A Man for All Seasons, a number of times. I suppose that he was led to stick to the original Victorian-type sentimental melodrama of the book when it came to dialogue. The characters who most dissolved into Pasternak’s were the allegorical ones who began and ended the film, Alec Guiness as Yuri’s brother, talking to Lara’s child (Rita Tushingham) so the whole film becomes a single flashback which at the close reverts to “present time.”

Also Geraldine Chaplin as Tonya, Yuri’s long-suffering patient wife.

I came closest to tears from Ralph Richardson’s touching performance as Tonya’s father, but unfortunately can find no shots of this fine actor. One problem with using stills I find on line is so few are of landscapes which are often so central to the experience of a film, few are of the older characters who are as important as the “glamorous stars.”

Among Davies’s many strengths is his ability to write naturalistic dialogue that both conveys the original sentiments of older books and also gives them a modern turn which speaks home to the modern reader’s own intimate memories. He did it here again. Tonya (Alexandra Maria Lara) was given a much smaller role, and placed within a deliberately normative setting:

An establishment shot for Tonya’s coming out party with Yuri as her escort

The two going in

Again the father (Bill Patterson) was a moving figure. Celia Imrie as Lara’s mother was made more believable and her attempted suicide spelt out.

Komarovksy in bed with Lara’s mother

Lara has become Komaroksky’s mistress and the mother is left out, bitter, the daughter, remorseless

An understandably bitter socialist co-worker of Lara, Olya Demina, played by Anne-Marie Duff was built up; it is she who takes Lara’s child at the close of the film.

Olya (Anne-Marie Duff) first seen as fellow seamtress; Lara (Knightley) coming in to work from the back

Olya (Anne Marie Duff) and Pasha (Kris Marshall) on the streets, fighting oppression together

Both films made a strong use of landscape. Lean’s uses are austere; he makes heavy use of long shots in this and the film’s catchy score were its central strengths. It was a pictorial epic and many of the vignettes spoke home allegorically. The frames are carefully composed and symbolic; the houses and furniture and mise-en-scene of all the places provides much meaning.

The first long shot, huddled group of individuals at a funeral who gradually become individuals to us

The idea was somehow to suggest eternal memory and these harsh suffering scenes something which recurs.

This last one of Yuri, Tonya, and family getting on the train rings out as everyone’s in war

Folk music plays a part here. I remembered them for decades afterwards and reviewing the film found them powerful all over again. I hummed the music for days once again.

Davies combined landscapes today with footage of the revolution at the time so the latter become more believable; he added flashbacks so as to embed memories into the dual kinds of footage. He has a character in the film taking photos at the time to explain why we have them now; this character becomes the vantage point through which the film switches to the 1914-17 footage. So the past really seems to bleed into the present film. At the same time Davies makes these killing scenes more realistic or intimate with dialogue mid-shot scenes of our characters caught up in these larger historical events.

The 2001 films also has beautiful music — soothing, tragic, classical in feel. And yes, close-ups and mid-shots where Lean had long shots:

Yuri mid-shot

Lara mid-shot

Davies does like to put his characters in erotic tub scenes

The 2001 film began with Yuri as a child (Sam MacLintock) overlooking his father’s corpse as a suicide; it ended with the same young boy actor playing Yuri and Tonya’s son running from the police after his father is buried. The conventions of TV are at play in this opening (families are the central interest of just about all TV programs, even modern variety shows) and in this conventional shot of Yuri as brave soldier:

At the same time, Davies’ film had less hope than Lean’s which ended with Guiness and the new child become an adult walking off. The 2001 film shows Lara first choosing to go off with Komarovsky knowingly, then sickening of him; she never gets near Yuri alive again, only approaches him in his casket and is then taken away by police to a prison camp the last scenes.

While I feel Davies picked this film not because of the book but the previous film, he did make me want to know more about Pasternak, and I pulled down from my shelves my old battered (and still unread) copy of Dr Zhivago. Looking through it, I could see Pasternak was not able to protect his book at all. He died two years after it was published in Italian for the first time, and until very recently, when a few scholars have made it their agenda to try to produce decent copies of the novel, it came out in debased forms, no translator mentioned, no care for the translation. He never made any money from that movie :). In the 1995 DVD Sharif provides the narrative for a feature which tells you the real Lara spent decades in a prison camp.

My first old copy is abridged and the translators not credited. It took a while for me to find a new edition with a decent cover illustration (no debasing comments glaring at you) to buy. When it came, I was relieved to find the translators are named and the text whole and unabridged; some criticism included and the poems at the back (attributed to Yuri) explained as Pasternak’s and properly edited.

Reading these poems Lara is blonde, but in the book she is dark-haired. I did feel in both movies the actresses chosen were chosen to be eye-candy for the males. The 1965 film is especially egregious in its masculinistic take on women’s sexuality. Neither (necessarily blonde) actress has the ability to project intense complicated trauma-like emotions. To be fair, Knightley was not quite up to doing the older Lara, but terrific as the young resentful confused child-woman allured by Komaroksky, then frantic to get rid of him, and finally wanting to kill him.

Reading some of these (not all use snow and winter, some are situated in other seasons), and looking into the matter a bit more, I realize Leans’s interpretation of the complaints against Pasternak’s poety at the time it was published is skewed. Pasternak was accused of “anti-socialability;” that’s very different from setting up an opposition (as Lean does with Davies following this) between the “personal life” and public life. “Anti-sociability” is the old accusation of average people against readers, writers, anyone who wants to spend time seriously and (alas) would become prevalent in movements where mass pyschology is made a standard.

Here is just one; this translated text is by Guilbert Guerney:

Encounter by Yuri Zhivago

The snow will bury roads,
Will cover the roofs deeply.
If I step out to stretch my legs
I will see you from the door.

Alone, in a fall coat,
No hat and no snow boots;
You are trying to be calm,
Nibbling your snow-wet lips.

The distant trees and fences
Recede into the murk.
You stand at the corner
Alone in the midst of the falling snow.

Water runs down your scarf,
Inside your sleeves, your collar,
And melted snow sparkles .
In dewdrops on your hair.

And a flaxen strand of it
Lights up your face, your scarf,
Your bravely erect figure,
That wretched coat of yours.

Snow melts upon your lashes.
Sadness is in your eyes.
And all of you seems fashioned
Out of a single piece.

It is as if your image
Were being etched forever
With burin and strong add
Upon my very heart.

Nor can your submissive features
Ever be burnished off.
And so, what does it matter
If the world is stonyhearted?

And so, this night is doubling itself
With all its murk and snow
And I cannot draw a line
Dividing you and me.

For who are we, and where from,
If after all these years
Gossip alone still lives on
While we no longer live?

I particularly like the last stanza and the use of snow; the wretched coat reminds me of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” which I read this year when I taught Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake.

The most popular promotional shots (iconic, guarded, silhouettes) show that the film-producers and distributors thought the film would attract by its central story of a lone poet and his idealistic love of two women (Tonya, his wife, Lara, his mistress), but rather the subversive story of Komarovsky with Lara as his hard mistress,

Keira Knightley as Lara, Sam Neill as Komarovsky

a touching love between two handsome open people,

Omar Sharif as Yuri, Julie Christie as Lara

and insistence on a conventionally virtuous woman, Tonya (who by the way survives to go to Paris in both films):

Geraldine Chapin again as Tonya

There is a section of informative perceptive pages on Davies’s and Pivcevic’s Dr Zhivago in Sarah Cardwell’s Andrew Davies (Manchester University Press, 2005, pp. 160-175) to which this blog is much indebted. The best place to grasp the aims of the Davies, Pivcevic and Campiotti team is to watch the feature on the 2001 DVD Dr Zhivago. It’s there you can see Davies means to improve on Pasternak too — has great faith in film as a high artistic medium. To understand the historical background and real people of the film’s story watch Sharif’s intelligent mini-documentary that accompanies the 1995 DVD of the 1965 Dr Zhivago: both films are serious attempts to make statements about history, present history through film. In addition, Kevin Brownlow’s David Lean: A biography of the director of Dr Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and Lawrence of Arabia has a thorough-going discussion of the filmic techniques and aims of Zhivago as one of Lean’s telling landscape films (as the subtitle of Brownlow’s book suggests).

As I rewatch both alternatively, in the end I can’t tell which film I prefer, only that Davies’s has strengths I really love (the psychology of the characters and dialogue) and Lean’s is a daring symbolic masterpiece. The inadequate depiction of Lara and her mother in the 1965 film shows how women at the time were allowed just about no subversive desire for real, especially as a girl, and the attempt seriously to present history through film in both cases is of real historical significance to film studies people.

For a blog on the novel, see Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago: an apolitical political novel for our times.


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