Archive for January 16th, 2010

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 …”


Read Full Post »