Nick Guest (Dan Steevens), opening shot of hopeful young man dazzled by wealth, power (Line of Beauty, 2006)
Nan Astley (Rachel Stirling) and Florence Banner (Jodhi May), closing moments, seasoned real friendship, bravely going to introduce themselves to family (Tipping the Velvet, 2002)
Dear friends and readers,
that an important undercurrent in Davies’s films is a strong support for unconventional sexual life, which comes out in not only his openly GLBT films but those whose source books have a predominantly heterosexual bias. In his Moll Flanders (2010), the slyly comic-poignant point is made in an invented scene where Moll feels guilty that not she not help her good loving friend, Annie (Catherine Trowbridge) to escape the police (her usual “what could she do?” comes out less aggressively), and it’s her fault her friend cannot plead her belly: her friend is not pregnant too, for they pleased themselves, stayed lovers:
Will the injustices against non-heterosexual people never cease?
This blog covers more concisely (and with less stills than usual), Tipping the Velvet, The Line of Beauty, Fanny Hill, and Davies’s marvelous Room with A View (2007)
Davies’s Moll Flanders I’ve discussed already with his He Knew He Was Right
To begin with, Tipping the Velvet, adapted from a neo-Victorian lesbian novel. I’ve not read any of Sarah Walters’ books, and can see this one plays off a love of Victorian literature, only here the characters do things they never do in your average Mudie’s Library book. It was interesting to me how much freer the costume part of the film adaptation felt — as if the mise-en-scene itself was made to feel at another remove from the usual historical costume scene.
Some of the scenes did make me uncomfortable, or I wanted to look away. It wasn’t the lesbian sex (of which there was a lot and frank physical scenes), but rather some of the cruelty and rejection the women subjected one another to based on class and the heterosexual world inflicted on the gay women — partly out of a sheer disbelief.
Since I’ve been reading about how if we slightly redefine slavery as not permanent chattel status, we discover it’s alive and well in the 20th century (an important book with an argument that it’s fatuous and false to say slavery would have died in the US without a war as slavery is ever profitable), it was interesting to me to see the theme of women and the vulnerable and powerless turned into forms of slaves through prostitution, debt, having no one to turn to (there was no state help whatsoever).
Nevertheless, on the whole, Davies’s film was a sort of positive bildingsroman – the same conditions obtain in Bleak House and there there is no lightness about it whatsoever. No one dies bitterly; people just disappear or go their half-merry or desperate way. At the conclusion our heroine finds herself and ends up with the good kind loyal lover (Jodhi May, who seems to play this type), rather than the inconstant untrustworthy one (Keeley Hawes) who also had star billing:
or the downright bully and spirit-breaker, Anna Chancellor, as sapphic socialiite (she plays hard types typically; hard Miss Bingley from the 1995 P&P that was):
Some of my favorite actresses were in it: Sally Hawkins was a desperate thieving maid, Zena Blake:
I’ve noticed another pattern in Davies: repeatedly he has female producers and often female directors and producers. Also he likes the use of the sea (and how much melancholy and energy he got out of that in his 2008 Sense and Sensibility), the beach, and to show us when he can working class scenes.
A subplot concerned a socialist brother (played wonderfully by Hugh Bonneville) of one of our heroines giving speeches; a baby adopted when it has no one else; and finally older people wanting sex with the young (here a woman is the older powerful one).
It was the ending I liked. The scene of our heroines together now (Nan and Florence), holding hands on the beach and turning to visit our Nan’s childhood home. Seasoned, independent, supportive.
Here’s an article to show how women are usually represented in the media.
By contrast, Davies’s adaptation of Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize winner, Line of Beauty. is deeply bitter frequently. Davies’s Tipping the Velvet, despite some ravaging misery and exploitation, has on the whole an upward turn and readily ends happily. At the end of all three parts of Line of Beauty, there was a devastating parting, never brought on by Nick, but always the other person or people, who either claim they are realistic or simply dump him, however reluctantly with ease:
The difference is partly Tipping the Velvet is costume drama set in another century: this is ever finally fantasy and the level of probability we expect is lower. But it’s also due to a reality that lesbian couples simply aren’t recognized automatically as such and two women can set up housekeeping together infinitely more easily.
A central theme in Hollinghurst’s book which makes it over to Davies’s film is the life of the homosexual male is twisted and perverted by having to hide it, being subject to blackmail, and the reality that often the male who can pretend to be heterosexual or act out a bisexual life can get the world’s prizes so will scuttle his relationship with a man. This is the story of Clive in Forster’s Maurice; and an undertext story in Henry James. Raven in his masterpiece, Fielding Gray (a gay classic like Wilde’s Dorian Gray) takes this further showing how the blackmail aspect of life allows spite, rivalry and endless punishments wreaked on a gay man who wants to fulfill himself.
Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty descends from Henry James in the subgenre gay novel. Eva Sedgwick goes into this: one feature is the quietly or implicitly gay (closet) homosexual male. I had thought Fielding in Fielding Gray showed Raven’s allegiance with Henry Fielding (he’d probably despise Clarissa with distrust of women) with Gray an homage to Dorian, but now I see Fielding refers to a possibly homosexual man, Fielding in Forster’s Passage to India (which I”m listening to now as read by the golden voiced David Case, also a gay man), who however marries. His deepest relationship is with the Indian man accused of rape, Azziz, to whom Fielding remains loyal at possible real cost to himself. The “signal” allusion that this book belongs to this subgroup is Nick Guest begins the novel by being someone working on a graduate thesis on Henry James. He gives it up as the years wear on in the book. One difference — and it goes on hurting Nick right and left is Nick is openly gay.
To return to the film, after winning some awards, it dropped out of sight. I don’t wonder. Not only openly gay, the ending is courageous enough to have no false uplift. Within the film Nick himself wants to make a film of James’s Spoils of Poynton and finds the enough of the film-makers insist on changing the story so we don’t have a cheated old woman at the center to make the whole presentation utterly false to James’s novel.
The end of the filmic story was inherent and the very point in the beginning. It’s been very easy to drop Nick all along because it’s so easy to pick him up: he is shown to have no recourse and nothing he can give others when he wants to hold onto them (like the lover at the end of the first part). It was to be expected and the foreshadowing began in the second part. In the last part we see from the get-go he is increasingly used as an errand boy. He gives all as in this scene where he has been kind to the daughter, Catherine Ferrens, whom the mother to cater to her husband, neglects:
It didn’t distress me — it seems what would be and as I like tragic closes that seem right from the premises so I liked this close. It was not tragic since Nick is not a tragic hero, but more ironic — as 20th century works often are.
Lots of little incidents about many aspects of Nick’s life along the way contribute to the richness of this story: one about sexuality and women, is Nick’s close Muslim friend’s near marrying a rich heterosexual girl. Another is due to his connection with the Ferrens’ family he gets a job as an editor of a magazine which comes out with one rich issue before he’s ejected by the family. I mention this as part of what I called Hollinghurst (and before him) James’s gay awareness; an awareness of the so many indirect things that cannot be sustained as a result of being sexually and socially marginalized.
So, at the close our hero is thrown out of the palaces:
But not to worry one guy leaves him a building (it’s real and really owned, with real tenants in a good location) which may support him for the rest of his life.
Nick is expelled because his masters (so they have become), his apparently family and good connections have gotten embroiled in a scandal which exposes them as utter phonies, and the male honcho has to resign from parliament. His wife learns about his promiscuity. The daughter finally leaves.
So Nick Guest ends with a prize (a small part of the take — which in a poem by an American male poet I came across a while back is presented as the real American dreams) and a strong kick by those who have no other dog nearby to kick and know they can kick him with impunity.
And why can they kick him so easily; call him ugly names; why hasn’t he a family to turn to? Because he’s openly gay. It’s this sort of thing I was referring to when I said James has characters like this and uses them to make general meanings. It provides the bitter ending of Fielding Grey by Simon Raven – whose film adaptation of the Pallisers is shaped by his strong identification with outsiders, stronger than Trollope’s own as coming from a different really alienating experience
This film enabled me to I’ve picked up on another element in the typology of Austen males; three of the actors who have been chosen to play Edward Ferrars also have played successfully important star roles as gay men. Robin Ellis, Edward in 1971, was the closet gay man in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala Europeans; Hugh Grant in 1996 Clive in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala Maurice, and now Dan Steevens in 08 (a brilliant much more effective Edward), Nick Guest in Line of Beauty.
Nick as a name and narrator, the everyman, also has resonances from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time.
There have been articles about the use of sensitive, emotional typologies in leading males who are also conventionally sexy for Austen movies since the
1990s (most notably Colin Firth, Alan Rickman), but nothing about this reaction in movies to Austen’s undermining of macho maleness in her books. Nor about the use of Mark Strong (who plays torturers) for Mr Knightley.
To turn now to Davies’s adaptation of Forster’s Room with a View. I have read the novel this time though 30 years ago now. It links to James and Hollinghurst by its homoeroticism. I watched it last night and as in the case of Davies’s Dr Zhivago, find I am not that unusual in finding it superior to a much lauded previous film, Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s 1980s Room with a View.
Again Davies has boldly challenged a famous much-lauded movie and created a movie which is as a whole better even if the individual performances of Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala’s actors are inimitable. The older film is too drawn out, too self-indulgent, not enough happens because the inner life of homoeroticism is erased and we are left sorrow for Cecil Vyse but no sense of what he longed for as worth it, as rich as what the heterosexuals in the movie achieve by casting off repression — without giving up a love of great art and learning.
Without the absolutely famous-star cast, but a very effective set of actors, Davies presented a more concise version of Forster’s Edwardian novel. It’s a slight story really and much of inward meaning comes out of the strongly sexualized yet repressive atmosphere. By making everything happen much quicker, Davies brought home more effectively in some ways the homoerotic currents of the original story where the males express their sexuality far more freely than most books; at the same time he does justice to the central story where a gay man, Cecil, and our heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, almost make the mistake of marrying one another. Lucy faces up to the reality that she has fallen in love with a man from the lower classes (Mr Emerson’s son) and Cecil that he’s forcing himself to woo her, and preparing a life of estrangement from his own identity for himself.
As it happened, I listened to David Case read aloud Forster’s Passage to India just at the time I watched Davies’s film. I also came across a Guardian review which said Davies was “truer to the spirit” of Forster — without saying why. How discreet. (Cowardly.) Davies has scenes of homoerotic swimming and uses the male sensibility centrally as trembling, sensitive, inward, and just as important to the story’s end as the women’s fulfillment whereas Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala pur Lucy at the center and fore and shuffled off Cecil, Edward’s father, Mr Beebe to the margins at the end. He also genuinely brings home to us the pain of exclusion for fringe people:
Now this is true to the novel, but as with A Passage to India where Forster originally intended to include a description of the sexual assault Adela Quested endured and was pressured into dropping it, so in with A Room with a View there was a previous draft which was a much more conventional heroine’s text/story, which Forster discreetly and successfully changed. In the case of Passage to India, the earlier text was pro-feminist, women, about how the central heroine was raped; the one we have now is capable of being read as implicitly misogynistic (the false accusation in a courtroom).
Thus I think Davies’s changed ending is truer to Forster than Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala’s literally faithful one. In Davies’s film that happy ending with the two conventional heterosexual people at the window (in Forster and M/I/J) is changed. The emphasis becomes more explicitly that the heterosexual girl breaks off her engagement to marry a man of a definitely lower class who is sexually attractive to her and she to him, but they are not permitted to be happy forever. We fast forward past WW1 to discover he has been killed in WW1 and she turns to the Italian escort who gave the small group from the pension such a happy day in the country. It is generic romance and resembles the ending of the movie version of Secret Garden where Dicken is killed and Mary remarries, this time Colin so we are in the same genre of movie, but it seemed to me more appropriate, about how society makes people lose what is most valuable to them.
Last but not least (as they say) is Davies’s strongly woman-centered and frequently lesbian Fanny Hill. It is arguable that John Cleland’s text is a homosexual, not lesbian one, and is misogynistic. Davies has liberated the women from convention here instead of the men and written an implicitly feminist screenplay.
He has brought out the affinities of Cleveland’s plot-design — which he generally follows — with Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Marivaux’s La Vie de Marianne, not to omit Richardson’s Pamela: young girl detached from parents or orphaned, is taken up by corrupt people but her good nature wins out with luck and she ends the world’s winner.
In addition, the same continual direct address that we find in his Moll Flanders is repeated arguing defensively from a woman’s vulnerable standpoint. The story is presented with Fanny as our storyteller writing it down with the scenes framed by her confiding addresses:
He follows the “euphoric” tradition of Nancy Miller’s reading of these 18th century heroine’s texts: our heroine does descend to the streets at one point (and treated very badly indeed), but she is taken up by a very old man (Edward Hardwicke, who often does kindly parts: he was Doctor Watson in the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series), and this one is patient. And we are asked to believe that when he dies not only did he leave all his money and a huge estate to her, but his relatives let it stand and her early first love, Charles Standing (Alex Robertson) returns from the West Indies, in good health, finds her, most providentially as he pretends to be a robber of a coach; when she alights, they fall into one another’s arms:
and live rich as well as happily ever after.
Where is the proto-feminism (I’ll call it as it’s a period piece) and lesbianism? Early on quite unnecessarily Fanny Hill is brought to lose her virginity and like sex by having a semi-affair with a friendly gentle prostitute pushed on her, and we are shown far more of their sex than hers with the sweet Charles who is her first protector. We do see her with Mr H (Hugo Speer, the best performance in the film) having sex: he is hard on her, possessive and rigid, but he is genuinely passionate, involved, and that’s why he tries to take revenge and rejects her at one point:
But the explicitness is left to the prostitute who breaks her hymen.
Early in the film Davies also focuses on the ruthless animal brutality of an older man who tries to pay for Fanny when still a virgin; he is a horror of a human being in other ways in a later scene. We do see how little the so-called sexual power of women is worth.
In addition, the emphasis on the full realities of women’s lives comes out through Davies’s witty use of intertextuality: we were meant to remember the actresses who madams in this film were mothers and mentors in the Austen ones: Alison Steadman’s grating domineering Mrs Bennet becomes a hypocritical and somewhat vengeful first brother madam, ruthless; Samantha Bond’s sensible Mrs Weston becomes the political madam who hides her brothel with a milliner’s shop. Handy dandy, the same authority figure in different circumstances.
Admittedly, earlier in the day I saw this film I had read a deplorable romance tale by Eliza Haywood (early to mid-18th century romance writer, great on vacuous hectic salacious prose) called “The Lucky Rape,” about which the less said the better. I know Davies’s film could be turned into a kind of smirk smirk smirk. It lends itself to that. It is, however, true to say here that this line of emphasis tells us more about the coarse mind of the viewer than this film. In one scene we have Charles teaching Fanny the sonnet “Those who can do hurt and will do none” (Shakespeare Sonnet 91): it’s a deeply instinctively ethical point of view rarely articulated.
To conclude, like Ang Lee, the openness to unconventional sexuality, a wide humane liberality in Davies’s films has not been much noticed. He deflects attention by vaunting or claiming a frivolous pandering sexuality for his films. You can take them this way, but they are really much better and finer than this.