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Archive for the ‘Costume drama’ Category

[Note: this blog assumes knowledge Graham’s novels at least as far as Book 8 (The Angry Tide) and the final Book 12 (Bella), and is also interested the older 1975-78 and new 2015-16 mini-series as art]

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Ross (Aidan Turner) and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) after collapse of mine and death of Ted, a workman (Episode 8) — this proceeds the famous scene between Ross and Elizabeth where he forces sexual intercourse on her; its dialogue is close to the book:

ROSS (cont’d) Perhaps you could clarify something for me? George Warleggan —
ELIZABETH Yes?
ROSS A man I consider my greatest enemy. You — I’ve long considered my greatest friend. In which particular am I most adrift?
ELIZABETH It’s not as simple as that, Ross — you must understand my position — of course I’m happy and proud to think of you as my greatest friend —
ROSS Well, it was more than that, as I recall. Did you not tell me, barely twelve months ago, that you’d made a mistake in marrying Francis? That you realized quite soon? That it was always I you had loved?
ELIZABETH And do you think I would ever have said those words if I’d known what would happen to Francis?
ROSS And yet they cannot be unsaid. (Horsfield’s script, p 479; taken from Graham’s Warleggan, Bk 3, Ch 5, p 310-11)

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Ross and Demelza fiercely quarreling on the beach (Episode 9) — this follows a scene where Captain MacNeil (Herny Garrett) declines to force sexual intercourse on Demelza with these words (from Graham’s Warleggan)

Of course he [MacNeil] could still have his way if he chose. It was simple enough: you hit her [Demelza] just once on her obstinate little chin. But he was not that sort of a man. He slowly rolled the sleeve of the gown into a ball and mopped his hand. Then he dropped the material to the floor.
‘I like to think of myself as civilized,’ he said; ‘so I give you best, Mrs Poldark. I hope your husband appreciates such fidelity. In the peculiar circumstances I do not. I like a woman who makes up her mind and has the courage and grace to stick to it. I thought you were such a one. My mistake … ‘ He walked slowly to the door and gave her a last glance. ‘When admiration turns to contempt, it is time to go’ (Bk 3, Ch 8, p 346; Horsfield doesn’t have the nerve to have MacNeil go this far or have Tomlinson voice Demelza’s crying to die when MacNeil walks out the door)

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From the 1975-76 rendition: as will be seen, it’s done comically (Angharad Rees has hit Donald Douglas as MacNeil over the head) and in the light, thus the original mood is lost

Dear friends and readers,

These episodes include the second season’s two climactic episodes. Ross’s mine collapses and he begins to despair over a failing business (which kills people), and upon receiving Elizabeth’s letter declaring her intent to marry Warleggan, in a kind of half-mad state once again, Ross remorsely intrudes himself upon her and after a fierce quarrel forces sex on her. There is a kind of parallels: in a scene often overlooked when talking of the perhaps rape scene, when after having determined to take a revenge on Ross after he has hurt her so after all her hard work and devotion, Demelza decides to be sexually unfaithful with MacNeil, but finds she cannot get herself to act on such a motive. Both Ross and Demelza are very bleak in mood in these scenes. Horsfield follows the second of Demelza and MacNeil, with a scene on the beach as a setting (for a much later dialogue in Warleggan) where Ross and Demelza are again quarreling to the point of breaking up their marriage.

As those familiar with the books, the 1975-76 iteration with Robin Ellis and Jill Townsend as Ross and Elizabeth know, Ross’s aggressive assault on Elizabeth is one of the most debated scenes in all the Poldark novels. Did he rape her? if he forced himself on her, did she then give in? (thus to some making it not-rape) as after all he seems to have spent the night. In the second season, Horsfield adds what is in the book, afterwards for a time, Elizabeth (Heida Reed) is waiting for him to return to her and enable her to displace Demelza. It’s important because how we understand what happens shapes how we under the end of The Angry Tide, Elizabeth’s tragic childbirth (this time the child is Warleggan’s, a daughter); and it also shapes how we understand the very final scenes of the last book of the series (Bella), an almost confrontation (in dreams) of Ross with his son by Elizabeth, Valentine.

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One of the repeated images of Episode 9 is Elizabeth standing by the window, staring out, looking straight at the camera in mute intense desire, nearby Aunt Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) interjects truths Elizabeth finds grating

I thought a way out of this crucial impasse is provided by looking at the whole context of the debated scene, which includes a parallel scene, the ending of Warleggan, and the remarkable fact that for twenty years after Graham closed the book, he did not return to Demelza and Ross, but left them hanging there in an unresolved situation. I’m going to suggest Graham broke off, because he had gotten so deeply and realistically into a marriage he was wedded to emotionally (a version of his own, as he said more than once that Demelza resembled his wife) that was on the rocks. In the final scene of the book, although Demelza has taken Ross’s present, agreed not to leave him, they have not resolved the issue: how far does he love Elizabeth still? he says not at all, but she is not sure of this and feels she cannot forgive him or herself (that’s what she says, Warleggan, Bk 4, the last chapter 7, p 468). For what? not really for her attempted betrayal of him, but her betrayal of herself first in being abject before him, and then in struggling against the terms of the marriage while staying in it.

What most people don’t discuss is that just as at the end of her scene with MacNeil Demelza cries that she wants to die, so as Ross throws himself on Elizabeth he talks in a despairing way that suggests he sees a shadow of death near them (“There’s no tomorrow. It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows”). These are sex scenes suffused with bitter disappointment at life as well as themselves and what their marriage feels like under the grind of trying to lift themselves out of poverty.

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Turner’s expression is quite different when he looks down from his horse down, much less sure of himself

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Demelza on the other hand is able to think better of herself, hold her head up

It’s the great merit of these two episodes from the new Poldark that Horsfield stays so much closer to the book than the previous adaptation (scriptwriter was Jack Russell) so that a much harder look at the love and marriage of both Demelza and Ross, and a more frank appraisal of Elizabeth’s motives in marrying Warleggan and his too, as seen in Graham’s book, are possible. The plot points of the previous two episodes (6-7, Mourning for Francis; Fierce Struggle to Survive, Ambushed by an Informer, the Prevention Men and Scots soldiers) are that Elizabeth has shown herself to be unable to survive as a widow on her own; that while Wheal Grace has still not yielded copper to pay for the venture much less a profit, a mysterious benefactor (Caroline Penvenen) has covered Ross and Demelza’s debt so that Ross can carry on if he goes deeper into smuggling; and they are rescued from ambush by Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) setting a fire high on a cliff overlooking the bay, which persuades Caroline Dwight prefers his life, friends and work in Cornwall to new life in Bath among a rich clientele with her.

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Episode 8 (the equivalent for 8 and 9 is 15 in the 1975-76 series)

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Robin Ellis is now Judge Rev Dr Halse, gratified to see Ross hauled before him again until

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Ross produces an alibi concocted by Trencrom

The courtroom scene is part of a melange of quick juxtaposition and montage. We see George (Jack Farthing) repeatedly sending Tankard To Elizabeth at Trenwith with news that makes her anxious, creating situations she feels helpless against (sending workers to dig up her land to see if she has tin, and telling her they have the right to do that, pressuring her with visits, presents, and quiet menace that he is not calling in bills she owes him. (These are all additions to the book; in the book Elizabeth doesn’t need these prompts, and Jill Townsend in the part is not as vulnerable as Heida Reed; Townsend is presented as calculating as George, which mirrors Graham’s characters. We still watch George on and off with his boxing and sword-partner. Again this repeating scee not in the book; it’s filmic. Elizabeth repeatedly sends messages to Ross which either don’t get to him (Beatty Ednie as Prudie pockets them) or he too caught up with his mining, Agatha by her side reminding her the man she loves (Ross) has another family, another life, asking why George doesn’t help. These are matched by repeated scenes of Ross riding past Trenwith, stopping, looking in, but deciding against going to her:

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Elizabeth and Demelza have a couple of tense confrontations, where what is most memorable and repeated is Demelza’s taut white face doing chores

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and as she faces the woman she feels is waiting for her husband, wants to take him from her. And she expresses herself bitterly. More successful is the visit to her by Captain MacNeil.

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Garnett plays his part more quietly and intimately than Donald Douglas (where the part was conceived more broadly):

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I like both variants. It enriches the characters and fits or could predict Demelza’s later romance in The Four Swans.

The mining scenes of intense hard work are more desperate as Ross no longer has a delusions of copper but there is now hope of tin, and they decide to go forward without building proper scaffolds (too expensive), which all culminates (as in the book) the mine collapse and death of a newly invented character, Ted (replacing Jim).

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Dwight looking up and telling Ross Ted is gone

Another skein involves Dwight Enys too: Ted’s wife had given birth. Dwight and Verity (Ruby Bentall) are intended to offer a softer notes of melancholy. We also see Dwight practicing his profession — and at a loss emotionally, remembering Caroline in flashbacks. Verity visits; she attempts by her presence to alleviate Elizabeth and Agatha’s desperation, and brings her stepson (not entirely successful as the character is absurdly artificial in his brightness, patriotism and generosity to all) to Ross and Demelza. More moving is (in Episode 9 when Demelza tells Verity she no longer will do housework, no longer believes her marriage is based on love, is willing herself out. When one last attempt by Elizabeth does not produce Ross, she yields to Warleggan, with a combination of intense reluctance and relief, and the half-mad driven response of Ross (one very akin to the behavior he manifested the night baby Julia died when he did incite a riot) and Demelza’s fury.

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Demelza hanging out wash before she turns round to hit Ross with all her might when he returns from his night with Elizabeth. It’s important to read Horsfield’s explanation of Demelza’s sudden violence:

Demelza is hanging out linens to dry. All of them hers, including the new bodice – none of them Ross’s. Her face is open but impassive. It’s impossible to know what she’s thinking. She hears the sound of approaching hoof beats. Imperceptibly she stiffens. Presently Ross rides into the courtyard. His face is suffused with guilt. He dismounts. He walks over to Demelza. She looks him in the eye – and in that moment she knows – and fie knows she knows – what has happened between him and Elizabeth. He’s struggling now. Faced with this woman who has loved him unequivocally and unconditionally for so long, the enormity of what he s done begins to dawn on him.
ROSS Demelza — what can I say? It was something — I cannot explain — it had to be done — you must see I had no choice —
DEMELZA (calmly) Nor I.
Suddenly, and without warning, she socks him in the face, so violently that he is knocked off balance and staggers backward (p. 484)

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Episode 9

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Aunt Agatha ever there comes to stand for an older Poldark honor and when at the close of this episode George comes to take over Trenwith, she gathers Francis’s son, Geoffrey Charles to her, we know that there are forces who will not give in to him

This is culmination — except for Dwight and Caroline: he is seen early and mid-way in the episode yearning for her; she is glimpsed towards the end in London, accepting the honeymoon visit of George and Elizabeth Warleggan. Demelza decides to behave like a lady, do no work, stay with her child, Jeremy and go to the assembly ball at Sir Hugh Bodrugan’s. There are effective dance and courting and flirting scenes. There is nothing George will not stoop to: he now pushes Tankard to attract Demelza’s attention, find her room and rape her (another blackening addition to the book). We have the complex scene where MacNeil arrives and Demelza finds she cannot allow herself to have sex with anyone but Ross. There is comedy: after MacNeil leaves outside her door Brodrugan and Tankard toss a coin to see who will charge in, but (as in 1975) when they burst the door, she is gone. She is next seen down by the beach allowing her beautiful dress to soak and while seeming perhaps to look to drown, she stays by the edge of the waters. Ross accosts her but she will is too distrustful of herself, of him, deeply shaken by now. Before George makes his offer of a splendid school for Geoffrey Charles, London, beautiful clothes and Elizabeth succumbs, Elizabeth is shown in bed, with Dwight as a visitor recommending to Verity how to care for her.

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I suggest this is the first hint we have of Elizabeth’s pregnancy by Ross. She is not aware of it, as she tries to delay the marriage to George, but he will not hear of more than a month and he insists on a big wedding.

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The screen is suddenly flooded with light as she leans on him

She begins to experience his bullying slowly, and seems first aware of it when he takes her to Trenwith instead of Cardew.

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Geoffrey Charles is full grown, 21 in Stranger from the Sea, and if this series goes on, Horsfield will have prepared a basis for his character: dislike of George

One image was reversed; when in this new series Elizabeth accepts Warleggan he says, “let me take you out of your cage;” in Graham’s book when she accepts George and lets him push the marriage date up, it’s she who cries, not that she is out of a cage, but “God, I am in a cage! Lost for ever? why did Ross come? . . . God, I am in a cage. Lost for ever” (W III, 10, 367). I much prefer the book or Graham’s way of letting Elizabeth see her coming marriage. It’s not that Graham’s Elizabeth wants Ross especially but that she seeks liberty for herself and there is none, nor any security. In Graham’s book she already suspects she is pregnant. Where Graham’s Elizabeth is like Horsfield’s is in a growing hatred for Ross (for not having come to her after he trapped her with a baby). In Graham’s book, Jack Russell’s episode 15 and now this season it’s clear that Warleggan is marrying Elizabeth as much to triumph over and spite Ross far more than any love he might feel for Elizabeth: we have seen him exhibit little real affection: he’s abused, used, threatened, cajoled and now he will quietly bully.

I have always preferred to see Demelza as deeply in love with Ross and unable to distance herself or struggle against him. She does not strike him in the book or in the older mini-series. That’s probably anachronistic. But when she simply grieves I understood.

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In this earlier version Angharad Rees hid herself that night Ross went to Elizabeth, she grieves intensely, poignantly, crying that “it’s broken (that’s Mary Wimbush as Prudie, a warm loving Prudie, well-meaning, semi-comic figure)

But now having re-read some of Warleggan, Horsfield’s emphasis on the strained marriage near to breaking is truer to Graham’s book. They both still love but a great deal of hurt, of harm, has now been woven into their relationship and they are left with more disillusion to bear as they try to renew their love.

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She looks puzzled still, nervous as he tries to persuade her they can try again

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George and Elizabeth Warleggan on their way to London

I’ll conclude on how much I was moved by these two episodes. I found myself as and more fully absorbed than I used to be by the older Poldark series. Aidan Turner has now taken over the role of Ross: he is comfortable in it, and has his own perspective: that of the decent, eager, flawed, proud man, doing what he can, forced to compromise but holding onto his soul. Heis adamant about his values, a person apart. He made a terrible mistake going to Elizabeth after she wrote him her letter; we can almost blame her for writing it as provocative, but she too felt betrayed. No one has been a winner in their sad love affair, well no one with a valuable heart and mind. I don’t find Heida Reed as strong in her part: she seems unable to unbend to be the vulnerable susceptible woman Horsfield has conceived.

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From the new paratexts

Eleanor Tomlinson is a different Demelza from what I’ve envisaged: I can no longer identify my own experience of love and marriage with hers, but her stance is consistent, admirable, that of a woman who feels she has been trampled and whose advice and point of view Ross should take into account. I do identify when she says bitterly “proud,” to Ross’s accusation. She is as complex as Ross, and Tomlinson projects a depth we can’t get at quite. Not conventional (but then not brought up among the middle classes). She is defined by so many others she interacts with. The other actors contribute too, especially Luke Norris as Dwight Enys — wonderful as a deeply humane, emotional and intelligent man. Again I find Gabrielle Wilde not convincing as Caroline Penvenen, too supercilious, colder than Judy Geeson, though I realize she is supposed to be naive and narcissistic, young with much to learn, but probably I don’t see women the way Horsfield does.

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Some of the more minor roles are played pitch perfect: those which leap to mind: John Nettles as Ray Penvenen, Ruby Bentall as Verity (though my heart still stays with Norma Steader’s greater projection of the strength of generosity), Richard Hope as Pascoe, and of course Robin Ellis as Halse. Jack Farthing also plays the role of the vicious man convincingly. Such a person is not a monster; they are understandable and tolerated. He does love Elizabeth as she stands for the aristocracy in his eyes. This normalcy of his one of the bases of the way malicious people can operate with others.

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From the new paratexts

I can shut out the rest of the world as I watch: the music, the mise-en-scene, all of it has come together once again. The colors of the paratexts, pastoral without losing energy. I miss Kyle Soller.

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After all it is Graham’s idealized presences I love best.

Ellen

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The young Sonya and Natasha as we first see them on Natasha and her mother’s name day, Sonya revealing to Natasha how much she loves Nikolai (Episode 1)

Dear friends and readers,

I just loved this mini-series, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov (quietly marvelous); Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova and Joanna David as Sonya Alexandrovna (cousins, both perfect in the roles almost as envisaged by Tolstoy, only Pulman writes for Sonya far more depths of pain and rebellion within); my favorite actress from the 1970s BBCs series, Angela Downs as Marya Bolkonskaya, Alan Dobie slowly melting into a thoughtful conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky, her brother, and perhaps best of all, Frank Middlemas as an unforgettable scene-stealing General Kutusov against the steely-iron egoist Napoleon performed by David Swift. I could go on to name more (Sylvester Morand is a more sensitive Nikolai, brother to Natasha, but perfect as the conventional man, with Gary Watson superbly just your moral effective soldier, Denisov, understandably in love with Natasha). And must not omit the other central controlling creative presence, John Davies as director. There is still such snobbery about TV films that the recent anthology Tolstoy on Screen never discusses it.

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Pierre, young, nervous, puzzled as his father (not legally. and whom he hardly knows but has been all powerful and is enormously rich) lies dying in a nearby room (Episode 1)

It was after my first watch-through of this that I proposed on Trollope19thCStudies that we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace together. Of Tolstoy’s text as translated by the Mauds, and revised by Mandelkera realized: What is so entrancing is how carefully subtly done are all the scenes, how Tolstoy’s philosophical and political thought is gotten into the film by inventing further scenes that frame what’s in the book; how each hour is a unit in its own, with its own mood and juxtapositions fitted so perfectly.

My experience was at first it is hard to get into the story as Pulman is moving naturalistically and not attempting to rivet our attention at all costs. Very like his quietly opening magnificent I, Claudius, this War and Peace series grows on you (like Tolstoy’s book). After a while, you realize you are so involved with the characters and stories and themes. As with my blog on the first two War and Peace movies (going in chronological order of making), the 1955 King Vidor and 1966 Bondarchuk W&Ps, I won’t go over the book’s story line and characters but leave the reader to find a summary or read my first blog on Tolstoy’s novel — or (as I hope) the reader has, or is about to, read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I find the wikipedia page contains minimal cast lists and awards, and no break-down of episodes, no commentary, and there has as yet been not one essay in a published film journal (on-line or off), I’ll proceed episode by episode, 20 in all.

Episodes 1: Name-Day; and 2: Sounds of War

Uncannily (for I doubt Pulman read Tolstoy and his wife’s manuscripts as described by R.F. Christian in his book on the ms’s and sources of Tolstoy’s W&P), uncannily, Pulman reverses the scenes the novel opens with in the way they appeared in an early draft of the book.

The first episode in early drafts of W&P allow us to meet our central Rostov family: the fond weak naive count (Rupert Davies), uxorious over his calculatingly worldly wife, the Countess (Faith Brooke pitch perfect in this part); enjoying themselves by the spectacle now that they won it, all the while they are (clearly) overspending and being sluiced by everyone around them. In this the same limpet-clinger, Anna Mikhailovna (Anne Blake) greedy for money for her slowly emerging worldly son, Boris (Neil Stacy, aptly the same type in The Pallisers, Laurence Fitzgibbon, Phineas’s fair-weather friend). Episode 2 brings us to the first passages of Tolstoy’s novel, “What do you think of this man, Napoleon,” the fake patina of concern, the cant feeling of Anna Scherer (Barbara Young) in talk with the novel’s strongest site of mindless corruption for money and rank, Prince Vassily.

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Anna Scherer and Prince Vassily – the first moments of the novel realized (Episode 2)

Pierre comes in and his candor, intense interest in and sympathy for the “revolution” and Napoleon immediately makes him a pariah, laughing stock, but his equally sincere (if far more polished or cagey) friend, Andrei is there, and we see how bored this intelligent man is with his wife, but also how rough and hard to her. Pierre is as yet flotsam and jetsam and after promising not to go to the debauchery party of the novel’s slimy amoral drone aristocratic male semi-rake, Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker, fitting son for Vassily), Pierre goes and thrusts himself into the drunken feats and cruelty to a bear and police officer that ensue. And then the (for me the first time) the astonishing frank depiction of the fight between Vassily and Princess Katische (cousin to Pierre, stands to inherit a lot if he doesn’t) on the one hand to grasp the money, and Anna Mikhailovna on behalf of Pierre who she hopes will reward her well, over the dying man’s papers & will. The unscrupulous Anna is in fact responsible for Pierre becoming a rich man, a fact that empowers several sets of characters in the book. A fitting contrast to Andrei’s austere, old-fashioned patriarchal home, the rasping tyrannical father, old Prince Bolkonsky (Anthony Jacobs) making life miserable by enforcing geometry on his self-effacing deeply generous puritan of a daughter, Marya.

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From the first scene of Andrei and his sister, Marya, they capture the implicit depths of bonding and communication of this pair (Episode 2)

Andrei unburdening himself of his wife by setting off for the “heroism” and honor of war duty. Andrei will be disillusioned slowly. The different worlds of the upper classes, gender faultlines, feeding off war of “le monde” that form the novel.

And then our first battle: Episode 3: Skirmish at Schongraben

This is a remarkable hour. The BBC people had to film real people, crowds of them in formations, real animals, gotten real canons and shot out from them. They tried for historical accuracy with weaponry and uniforms. They burn down a real bridge they had built. The scenes of masses of men must be there. I wondered what park they were using :). They were not able to project and show the carnage Tolstoy’s language can do so efficiently but it enough was done to be suggestive. The whole hour was given over to these hard war scenes, and an anti-war bias of the film has begun. Frank Middlemass particularly believable, effective — as when they learn of a massacre of the whole army of General Mack, and Andrei appalled to see how little seriously many people take this.

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POV Kutusov hurrying out of his room to Mack to register his sense of the horror the man has known, from the back Andrei

It helps clarify the novel for someone reading this part of it. David Swift starts up the character of Napoleon quietly; Tolstoy begins with the man as nasty, as numinously strong in his manipulative letters, cunning and bold: Swift and Pulman’s Napoleon only gradually shows himself centrally egoistic. But note how we are now in a historical film. And at the close Nikolai’s first experience of battle: his shock at the real danger, at people actually wanting to kill him (though he had wanted to kill them and hadn’t thought about it); when they blow up the bridge it seems to him a game (not so to Denisov)

Episode 4: A letter and two proposals; 5: Austerlitz; 6: Reunions

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Now the spillages begin as well as clear structuring: as the scene opens the Count is weeping over a letter; it’s from Nikolai telling of how he was wounded, the family’s characteristic half-comical over-responses and mode of re-assuring themselves. The unvarnished sincere emotionalism is then contrasted to the worldly cunning which despoils lives: Vassily maneuvers Pierre into marrying his daughter, Helene (Fiona Gaunt, a thankless role), shown to be utterly hollow, embarrassingly sexy, and after wealth of a man she hardly knows and despises, but Pierre unable to extract himself (not for the last time).

The pain to come of this contrasts to the pain experienced when the plain Marya finds herself courted for the first time by Vassily for his son, Anatole.

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She cannot but welcome the possible escape

But the complex old man maneuvers the situation to leave Marya distraught over Anatole’s hypocrisy, and chasing of the French companion-semi-mistress, Mlle Bourienne. The old prince is saving Marya a lifetime of grief, but she is so hemmed in by him she can meet no one naturally. Contrasting close-ups of Pierre desperately pressured and allured and Marya in bed brooding

caughtbecauseattracted (Episode 4)

And again a full episode of war: Austerlitz pivotal in the book, for at its close Andrei seems to have been killed, and the Russians permanently defeated. Long war scenes which show incompetence, scores of people dying for nothing (the book shows this), Napoleon emerges multi-sided, powerful man with an attempt to explain (he’s not at all like the characters seeking true friends, he’d laugh), a man strongly controlled on battlefields and seeming enigmatic political performances.

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Nikolai maturing (Episode 5)

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One of many moments in the battle landscape (Episode 5)

By the end of Episode 5 all the characters are dispersed and then in 6, Reunion, they are brought back to where they started: grief as Andrei’s death is understood from uncertain letters; Nikolai’s home-coming to love; Pierre’s to cool indifference; Helene now having an affair with Dolokov (Donald Burton), a bright cunning amoral rakish and sadistic side-kick of Anatole’s; the death of the princess in childbirth just as Andrei does return. What’s plotted is a cyclical repetitive structuring, a return to the same character in the same situation but older, there’s been intervening experience

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Far shots, odd angles, landscapes each make a different statement: this is a courtyard modeled on typical Russian country mansions of the early 19th century (Episode 5)

I am impressed by how: how brilliantly and convincingly Pulman conveys Tolstoy’s depiction of nervous distress in a nuanced way so as to show it in public situations. The explorations of the miseries of these arranged marriages by showing someone marrying badly and how he’s engineered into it: Pierre with Helene. Pierre has a rich good nature and is thus taken advantage of by Vassily who forestalls his holding off by just pretending that Pierre has asked for Ellen’s hand. Yet Vassily does not succeed with Prince Bolkonsky: Vassily having garnered Pierre’s fortune into his family, makes a move on Maria, the homely Bolkonsky daughter, and ironically the ill-natured man are much better able to fend off this than the semi-trusting instinctive one: Anatole is precisely wrong for Maria who is fooled by him: he would have had an affair with the French governess before he left the mansion. Ironically we see how the foolishly aptly-worldly Andre’s wife, the little Princess does just fine with the hypocritical shits like Anatole and Vassily. Yet she’s become poor in health; she needs society, Andrei as her husband with brains, or her pregnancy will destroy her. Anthony Hopkins’s performance: young then and calibrated just right, with no embarrassment. People individually; in “le monde,” in war.

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Walking and Talking (Episode 7)

Episodes 7: New Beginnings; 8: A Beautiful Tale

The first ironically titled; the second (unusual for any book or film) uses a surge of idealism and hope first to undermine Andrei’s bitterness and losses. Andrei is pulled by Pierre’s visits from his retirement and meditatiom, meets and is “recalled to life” (a Dickensian phrase for a man come out of prison) by the intensity of Natasha’s youthful hopefulness and joy in all the sensuality and thoughts, plans of existence found in Natasha at a ball.

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Andrei asking Natasha to dance (Episode 8)

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The sun on his eyes (Episode 8)

Pulman, together with stunning performances by the actors, did justice to Tolstoy’s book. After Austerlitz, after a dual, a death from pregnancy, disease, we see a turn to meaninglessness as the good characters cannot get others to act seriously, usefully, lives not realized, gifts thrown away, the absurd lack of thought and also how the man given big honors knows this (Frank Middlemas as Kutusov got that across at this table). Pierre is driven by needling and insults from Doloknov at the same dinner party to duel with him as his wife’s lover and shoots to kill — an act of naivete (I bond with this aspect of Pierre.) Luckily Doloknov does not die as he in his apparent last breath tries to kill in turn, and then grieves over how his mother will miss him.

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Dolohkov, Nikolai, Denisov Laughing at Pierr, his POV (Episode 7)

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Pierre fleeing the scene of the duel (Episode 7)

Then we have the scene of Pierre shouting hysterically at his awful wife (the portrait in Tolstoy is misogynistic and Pulman keeps to it) to get out. He can’t stand the sight of her. She says oh yes, she can hardly wait, but he is going to pay.
 
Very moving were too long dialogues you’d never see today. The first Pierre on his way to his estate, in retreat from the corrupt society, meets with a Mason and they talk deeply about life’s meaning: whether one should believe in God or an afterlife and what if you don’t. He becomes a Mason. Pullman shows the ceremonies to be absurd (modeled on some performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute either Pulman or Davies saw. 
 
He visits Andrei and now we have another more enlightenment type discourse where Andrea is the atheistic view and more or less wins as probable and Andrei proposes another way to get through life – -you don’t need to believe in this overarching pattern at all. It seems more or less you muddle through. Don’t even try to do good – -which is what Pierre has been trying on his estate. We do get views of the peasants where are deeply class-ridden but the film means seriously
 
A wholly invented scene for Napoleon in council conveys Tolstoy’s views on history (how it works), philosophy (what is the meaning of life even) in ways relevant to politics today. It’s a relief for em to re-watch this film over and over.

Episode 9: Leave of Absence

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Natasha dancing to a folk violin played by her uncle

The title is utterly inadequate: this hour includes the beautiful renditon of the Rostovs’ Christmas embedded inside the family pathologies and tensions and misunderstandings of the Bolkonskys (the old prince’s biting cruelty to Andrey, the countess’s hysterical tirades at Nikolai, his at the stewards) and the desolation of Pierre as with over-voice he tells us of his life with whores/flunkies in his wife’s salon (the Masons have not helped). To me nothing comes near this rendition of War and Peace. From the point of view of moving the story forward, or about the character’s coming fates, the film “wasted” the whole hour. This was a splendid full scale elaboration of a Christmas interlude at the Rostovs in the country just after we are told their finances are in a wretched state – we’ve seen how Nikolai gambled away a huge sum in the previous episode. All the characters are in character: the dinner, the dancing, the hunt with another family; it was atmospheric, the idea Talleyrand’s about how sweet such lives were before the tumbrils began to roar through Paris. it is a high point in the novel too.

Episode 10: Madness

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Natasha trying to explain her vulnerability to such a seduction/attack.

In this episode as Pulman presents this supposedly nadir of Natasha’s young life, she succumbs to her nervous distress at having to wait for a year for a man to return to her and then decide if he wants her, the disdain of his family, and falls for anyone who says he values her. I know outwardly this kind of incident — the young girl eloping with a cad or looking at him so idiotically happens; in the book Tolstoy finds less explanation for it than Pullman in this BBC movie. Davies (BBC, 2015, Lily James as Natasha) has the Freudian erotic enthrallment paradigm in mind more (for Tolstoy that seems to be the whole matter). Sonya saves her and Pierre comforts her. Probably because I now know of the opera playing on Broadway with the title, Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, for the first time I took note of Pierre’s pointing to it as an omen. I didn’t note it much when I listened or read either. Especially the 2007 mini-series made for TV of W&P focuses precisely on this particular incident: that film turns the book into a soap opera heroine-centered Victorian melodrama (idiot girl fooled by vicious young man ends up punished but is comforted by good young man). Pulman’s shows how the same literal material can make a viewer/reader soar as these beautifully natured characters begin to recognize a life’s companion.

Since the characters have been given so much time to develop, the awakening relationship because of this incident between Pierre and Natasya is believable and touching. Beatrice Lehmann is superb as the aunt who rescues Natasha from eloping with the shit Kuragin male, Antoine (married to someone else) on Sonya’s say-so then castigates Natasha for “disgusting” (read sexual) behavior. Unlike Tolstoy’s or Davies, Pulman’s Andrei is hurt but also relieved — he was about to make another mistake, marry another girl far too young for him. Pierre is the site of consolation in the book and this mini-series. No one comes near him in moral understanding. Though he hasn’t got the strength of character to withstand the society around him when he confronts evil, and he certainly hasn’t the power to change much, he is getting better at it. The episode ends with him comforting Natasha

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It is not hard when experiencing this mini-series or reading the book to understand that this core is not the whole even to a limited extent what shapes the experience (which is the mistake of both the Vidor 1955 and the 2007 mini-series). The moment would not have the larger meaning it does without our exploration of the larger corrupt society, the worlds of Russia, the family lives, how so many types find different meaning and loss in their interactions, and how politics by military violence, the top pest males (Alexander I played by the quiet David Douglas is as selfish and uncomprehending of anything beyond himself as Napoleon in the film), and their imitators at all levels impinges on everything. In this scenario, Helene, Anna Mikhailovna, Anna Scherer, Countess Rostov, Katische are the female servants of this order. Those major characters resisting are Pierre, Natasha, Sonya, those upholding but with decent values Nikolai, Denisov, Count Rostov (though he’s been sluiced)

As Borodino is the pivotal moment for “the war” and larger history parts of the book, so Natasha’s enthrallment out of weakness, shame and her near-abduction incident is the pivotal climax for the “le monde” part of the novel. Pulman imitates this structure.

Tomorrow the second 10 episodes.

Ellen

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Ross (Aidan Turner) missing Francis (Episode 6, scripted Debbie Horsfield, directed by Charles Palmer)

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Verity (Ruby Bentall) missing Francis

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Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson, there is a also a close-up parallel to Verity)

‘The longer I live,’ Ross said, pulling his brows together painfully, ‘the more I distrust these distinctions between strong men and weak. Events do what they like with us, and such — such temporary freedom as we have only fosters an illusion. Look at Francis. Was there ever a sorrier or more useless end or one less deserved or dictated by himself, or more unfitted to the minimum decencies and dignity of a human being? … to miss help by the space of an hour … It is always what I have resented most in life: the wantonness, the useless waste, the sudden ends that make fools of us, that make nonsense of all our striving and contriving … (Graham, Warleggan, Bk 2, Ch 1; repeated by Horsfield)

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza accepting a gift of stockings from Ross, whose debts have been paid by an unknown benefactor (end of Episode 6)

He leads her to the bed. Tentatively, as if expecting her at any moment to deny him, Ross pushes up her skirts till they’re above her knees, till her legs are bare. She shivers involuntarily. She has not felt the touch of his hands like this for so long. Now, with infinite care, he puts on one of the stockings, gently rolling it up from her ankle until it slips just above her knee. Then, with the utmost delicacy and patience, he ties it with a garter. She is trembling. She has almost forgotten to breathe. Her face is so close to his now. She waits for him to pull back, to take the other stocking and put it on, but instead his hand begins to slide further up her thigh. He looks into her eyes, as if seeking her permission. Without a word, she consents. His mouth finds hers. They kiss hungrily. Eventually, reluctantly, they pull apart.

ROSS So you are not to be rid of me, my love.
DEMELZA So I am not to be rid of you, my love.

He pulls her towards him and they devour each other.

Dear friends and readers,

In my last blog on the new Poldark I concentrated on Debbie Horsfield’s scripts. For this I am continuing of 2 Poldark 4 & 5: to recall it: Ross decided to abandon Wheal Liesure as worthless, struggled to set up a yet new business with Francis (Kyle Soller) and Henshawe (John Hollingworth) as his partners based on the hope of copper in Wheal Grace. They are harassed and hounded by George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) and his mole Tankard (Sebastian Armesto), and lose Francis to accidental death. Caroline Penvenen (Gabriella Wilde) rejected Dwight Enys (Luke Norris) as insufficiently ambitious, and returned to London. Now I study the mini-series most frequent kind of pictures, the mise-en-scene and discover it mirrors our fraught era of a hard world where individuals struggle to survive, where the world intrudes, invades, exerts surveillance. The story line and scenes feel like an elaboration of the images, but the three and the script all come together seamlessly.

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Aidan Turner as Ross setting off to town

Watching a film is primarily a visual experience — moving pictures with sound. One way to understand a movie is what image is perpetually repeated in different versions. In an brilliant older film adaptation of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country (scripted Simon Grey, directed by Pat O’Connor), it was of the painter jumping on his scaffold or coming down and/or painting. Across the whole movie. In Emma Thompson and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility from Jane Austen it was Elinor (Emma Thompson) comforting Marianne (Kate Winslet) or them arguing half-bitterly. Well an image in the new Poldark almost nowhere to be found in the old is of (Aidan Turner as) Poldark seen from the back trudging wearily into town, intent on trying to do business, or defend himself, or cope with something (on the way to his banker or lawyer or buying things). Again and again it’s him the single figure from the back, and he’s small, contra mundi in effect. But he is not so much against the world as often it is accompanied or prefaced by bad news: someone has framed him, is out to get him, his mine collapsed. This is the image of the paratext of him from the back facing the ocean, i.e., the universe. The lone man.

This image of grim, stalwart determination of Ross confronting the world is a response to our time. It is a deeply sympathetic one since he is trying so hard and means so well. In the one instance I remember Robin Ellis as Ross filmed as coming into town — for the assizes where he was accused of inciting a riot, we see him from the side among people.

The images of Demelza and Ross making love are far and few between even in the first season; in the second they are even rarer; the one which ends episode 6 is found in Graham and both are there to signal an interlude of hope and the strength and joy it brings when Ross finds his bill strangely met (and he gives £600 to Elizabeth to try to make her both independent of Warleggan and tied by gratitude to him). The repeating images of Demelza in the new Poldark are of her doing housework, working in the fields, in her garden, over her wash, caring for her baby, aiding Turner, cooking for him, and only sometimes sitting down with him to eat and drink, bringing food and drink to the miners — far far more of them than anything sexual. This was not at all true of Angharad Rees as Demelza. In the earlier episode Prudie (Mary Wimbush) did much of the cooking, there were few baby or housework scenes. The 1970s Demelza went out to visit others more, flirted more with the predatory Lord Brodugan, with Captain MacNeil (Douglas David) had if brief or just preludes, there were far more frequent indications of, and love-making scenes (in the light).

I so loved Graham’s and the 1970s’ Ross and Demelza because they never bickered, no tension for real between them, she is presented as increasingly hurt at Ross’s reluctant slow moves towards Elizabeth: Ellis speaks an inward speech about how Demelza is deeply part of the rhythms of his existence (not in the book). I feel and bond with Rees as Demelza as she presents herself as finding her identity in Ross and giving in to him while he doesn’t consult her — that is Graham’s book’s view. The stocking scene in the book and 1970s is part of an erotic thread, more deeply touching (for me), but as interlude of freedom in 2016 it fits the new series’ conception.

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The new Demelza is as hard working and earnest as her Ross, she is there listening at home, involving and asserting herself far more in Ross’s business decisions (or trying to); when in town, she looks disheveled at times, weary, intent on her business, seeing Elizabeth so gussied up, she winces. I admire her, bond with her, understand she is tough and surviving but there is much less pleasure in her existence.

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Ross discussing the mine with Elizabeth (Heida Reed), the boy Geoffrey Charles on his lap

I found Episode 6 (which more or less corresponds to Episode 14 in the older Poldark series) very strong, and like another strong episode from the first season, 4 (early scenes of the marriage of Ross and Demelza, his confronting others, her avoiding others, the friendship with Verity, and that first family Christmas), very close to the book. In the Ross-Demelza-Elizabeth triangular story, the difference is the insertion George continually; in 4 to 5, he was buying out the company stock; in 6 and 7 he is either half-seducing, half-threatening Elizabeth (if she will become his mistress he hints, now Francis is gone, all debts will be forgotten, he will do all he can to help her), or he is undermining her will and confidence. In these scenes the outer world intrudes on, invades the house, no one is safe from a predatory hard society.

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George filling up the door space, the POV has him looming over the household women: when no one is there, he needles and insults Aunt Agather (Caroline Blakely) urging her to die, and manipulatively flatters Elizabeth’s foolish mother (Sally Dexter)

The images of Ross and Elizabeth at first distant (as in the visit to the mine above), show them physically grow closer each time he visits, until there is a seeming reversal when he becomes so engaged with smuggling he has little time for her (though when he shows up it’s all close-ups as they begin to acknowledge their continuing love). Again the world is difficult: yes, it’s illegal (and Demelza is angry at this turn of events to support the mining, at Trencrom’s gradual insertion of his goods into their house, Ross going out himself with the men), but if he doesn’t do this, how is he to get the money the world requires?

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Trencom (Richard McCabe) insinuating himself

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A woman can’t sweep her house in peace …

The older episode presented Caroline (Judy Geeson) and Enys (Richard Morant) as independent of all relatives (the uncle not seen much), all outside pressures except his own conscience leading him to care for patients (the 1970s Rosina is beaten by her father, her doll set on fire out of spite), but our modern pair have to contend with an aggressive uncle who (as in the book) invites Enys over to (very like Lady Catherine de Bourgh over Elizabeth Bennet) to try to intimidate and bully him out of marrying someone “so above him.”

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The angry uncle Ray Penvenen (John Nettles)

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Dwight dignified, holding his own, but hurt

No scene like the one above occurs in the 1970s — it is in the book, but unlike the book, this new pair seem never to forget obligations which continually get in the way; in the 1970s the main problem was Enys’s idealism; but here it’s also (as in the book) Caroline Penvenen’s ambition, sense of what is due her. The earlier pair are powerful over those they aid; here they are subjects themselves.

The older Elizabeth (Jill Townsend) was cool, ambitious, attracted to Ross sexually but not as soft and loving as Horsfield’s Elizabeth, not as vulnerable. Our new Elizabeth (Heida Reed) wants to be with Ross at Christmas, and it is Verity who tells her this would be intruding. The new Elizabeth goes to Cardew, Warleggan’s house, because she’s lonely after she has so virtuously kept herself apart; the 1970s characters are not afflicted with loneliness for society which gives them a hard time.

Final invasive presence — though very well-meaning, what can he do as a mere banker, subject to George as creditor, as owning a bill — is Richard Hope as Pascoe, reminding, warning, telling Ross he is working against himself in this way and that. But Ross insists on integrity insofar as he can. The elimination of the genial rascal father, Nathaniel Warleggan and turningthe uncle Cary (Pip Torrens) as a sheer bad guy is one of the episode’s flaws (it’s not realistic): in Graham Cary sneers at George for wanting this older widow when George could have younger prettier, richer, higher ranking, more fertile girls. In this series (not the 1970s and not the book), we are shown our debtors come to the creditors to pay the bill

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As to the interweaving art, this (like 4 in season 1) does not have the rapid juxtapositions of several stories; it allows scenes to develop more slowly: the briefer ones where we are reminded how the characters miss Francis are at least true to the book. Warleggan is about the effect of the deaths of individuals on lives left. Graham’s idea is each individual life matters: we should not throw away poor individuals, indebted people, lame people, and Francis with all his flaws was an important part of everyone’s life. I thought that was beautiful in the book and it’s in the 1970s and in Horsfield. What is added is a mirror of our times: the Trump era, in the UK years of left centrist capitalist and now hard Tory rule.

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A shot of swans might be Horsfield anticipating a book to come (Poldark 6: The Four Swans)

Episode 7 shows the same emphasis of a hard intrusive society which the characters must have courage to deal with as they can’t seem to do without it. The story and scenes correspond to some of the older Episode 15 (I will hold off on the summary until we get to the new episode 8 so the reader may compare the rape scenes), but since Horsfield has so many more episodes for the two books (in the 1970s it was strictly 4 episodes of 45 minutes a book; Horsfield has 5 episodes of 60 minutes a book) she expands the material significantly. As good as Episode 15 is, in comparison it is necessarily an outline and suggestive of the treacherous ambush, discovery of the informer (Charlie Kempthorne), Dwight’s failure to meet Caroline for their elopement at midnight because he must warn Ross and the men by lighting bonfires high on the mountain, so as to enable him (and Demelza come down from the roof) to return to the house with the soldiers in it and hide in the cache.

The main sweep of the episode — or overarching threat — is the collusion of the policing prevention men, embodied in Vercoe, and his alliance with Captain MacNeil (Henry Garrett). So we have state law, larger entities coming in, the courts again. The first scene of POV Vercoe and MacNeil on the top of a hill looking down with a spyglasses at Trencom talking quietly with Jud (Phil Davis).

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The motif of surveillance seems very 2016.

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Ross with Henshawe and Paul Daniel (Ed Browning)

This new Episode 7 has far more development in detail of the story than the earlier, including more on the finding of Mark Daniel (Matthew Wilson, now bearded, half-mad with his isolation, near beggary), the disappointment of Ross and Henshawe using maps to discover the supposed copper that Francis saw was what Mark Daniel thought copper:

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Again the motif of Ross coming into town, this time with papers and maps of the mine. Papers are presented throughout the episode, Dwight at Vercoe’s sees the connection between Kempthorne and Vercoe later in the episode because Vercoe’s son has a drawing that reappears in Kempthorne’s house. When Ross has returned without a hope of copper (but now they are thinking perhaps there is tin there and now need money to blast) and goes for another round of smuggling, MacNeil is at the ready, and sends his men to keep Demelza and Prudie in the house: they are the surveillance group. She has to claim she needs to go to her child vehemently to escape this watch. This corresponds to scenes of Caroline with her uncle at night: he loves her, but he has his eye on her and is trying to keep her from Dwight (he does not know of the afternoon trysts)

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Far shot

We have Dwight’s cure and palliation for Rosina’s lameness so we see the good he does (he does not bleed her which Choake would):

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The inward secondary stories are more elaborated: especially the scenes of Caroline come back from London, and now willing to compromise with — their story is moving, with his conflict, his wanting to practice his profession with people who need him, his dislike of sneaking away, of living on Caroline’s money.

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Warleggan continues his pressure on Elizabeth through Tankard, making her nervous about money, and now physically frightened: sending Tankard with stories to scare her, sending men to dig tin on her land and having Tankard tell her that’s legal. She now feels forsaken by Ross; sends letters but Prudie (Beatie Edney, almost a companion to Demelza by this point) does not send them on, pockets them. As in the book and the 1970s Warleggan wants to marry Elizabeth as much to spite and to triumph over Ross (we do not feel any love, only cold pressure), but in this one Elizabeth is responding to a personal need, a fear of what’s out there beyond the house, while in the 1970s she grows angry and (feminist motif) wants herself to have fulfillment with pretty clothes, interesting society (she has only Aunt Agatha with her ominous tarot cards).

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Landing beneath the fire — not yet seen

The new episode is very effective in the same places the old one was — Dwight’s firing the hill, but this time there is a re-launch of the boat. The realization of Zacky Martin and Jud that it’s Kempthorne and their going out to find him. (We do miss the ancient justice ritual of the older episode 15 with the fierce punishment of throwing Kempthorne off a cliff. Here, as i the book and more realistically, Kempthorne is just found dead on the beach and we never know who killed him. Suicide (given his fierce struggle to kill Dwight) is improbable. Finally the shooting scenes on the beach, Demelza in time to reach Ross so he comes into the back part of the house into a cache in the library is (like some Zorro episode — but it is in the book)

I’m not sure the quicker pace of the older episode was not better than the new one because in this new one the actors strained to emote as well but the new one is more realistic, fuller, has depths of different struggles going on at once the first lacks, all allowed by a greater amount of time, but also out of a different stance towards reality across the new Poldark films. We do have moments of Ross and Demelza talking, embracing, coming together, even a glimpse of Demelza on the piano, for a moment quiet which is not death or surveillance.

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But 2016 is a much harder time and the new Poldarks address themselves to that, mirror that, show us characters coping with that. The kind of ambition the 1970s Elizabeth displayed (found to some extent in Graham) has no place in this new humane show: I love the new Poldarks for dismissing what seems shallow, self-indulgent, utterly materialist today even if also in or all the more because in 2016 this selfish set of values reigns strongly out in the real world and other dramas in cinema and TV. The only major character who displays it in 2016 is George Warleggan. He seemed to justify himself in the first season as coming up in the world, but his underhanded manipulative bullying methods, his continual sword-playing and boxing with a paid opponent (the repeating image for him) shows us he is one of the world’s pest leaders — it is fitting he is a banker.

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Time out for instructions to buy a bill so he can squeeze Ross out of life some more …

Ellen

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Bald Hills, one of many landscape scenes, where the Bolkonskii family lives

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Marya (Antonina Shuranova) submits to her father, Prince Bolskonsky’s (Anatoli Ktorov)’s instructions in geometry

Dear friends,

During the few months a group of us on Trollope19thCStudies were reading Tolstoy’s novel, and those before when I was listening to the novel read aloud (Books-on-Tape now on CDs), I watched four War and Peace films: three “mini”-series (I put mini in quotations since Bondarchuk’s Russian epic is 507 minutes; Jack Pulman’s exquisite BBC mini-series in 1972, 900 minutes, with the “short” version by Andrew Davies in 2016 clocking in at 6 hours and 19 minutes) and one cinema feature (Vidor’s 1955 Hollywoodized W&P a mere 3 hours and 20 minutes). These are not the only War and Peace films to have been made, but they represent what is available today (plus a 2007 mini-series that turns the film into a romance about Natasha Rostov), what is seriously watchable.

I begin with the one most written about: Sergei Bondarchuk’s truly epic War and Peace, filmed as a profound reaction against the Hollywoodized and Italianate War and Peace, directed by King Vidor, script by Mario Soldati, as a trivializing debasement of a book Russians are deeply proud of, a part of their national heritage. The interaction between these two has been taken as an episode in the cold war. I found the American-Italian film tedious but those interested might like to know you can read the script on-line, and read a brief conversation I had with people who were just reaching adulthood in the 1950s and were entranced by Audrey Hepburn (Natasha) and Vittorio Gasmann (as transgressive rake-male seduces elusive archetype). I’m glad the first film was made, as it led to the Russian gov’t and many individual groups, to say nothing of some spectacular artists in Russia at the time give their all to bring Tolstoy’s novel to cinematic life.

Bondarchuk’s War and Peace is still the most written about of all these and I am aware I shall probably fail to convey the experience, but perhaps a concrete description of its four parts can function to encourage others to attempt this film and (standing warned, knowing what you need to do or be prepared for as you start) overcome obstacles to enjoyment. More than the other two mini-series, you must read the book first. The 1972 BBC Pulman War and Peace almost succeeds in doing without a pre-read (but if you have read the book then you appreciate how extraordinarily the film gets in so many kinds of discourse from the novel). A synopsis will not do. But if you read and then watch and then re-read, the film will enrichen and add much to the book (especially the voice-over which picks up on Tolstoy’s darkest utterances).

Each time I would start a new disk, I admit, I felt un-eager because in the new digitalized version (2003, which is the one you must buy or rent) the faults of the original are on display too (which you need to know about): keep clicking “English” on the first paratexts and you will experience three languages: first, a voice-over narrator (very well done, dubbed in English, keeping you alert to or understanding what part of Tolstoy’s story we are in, and explaining what is the situation you are watching). Then there are the characters “inside” the frame who speak in French (no subtitles but it’s simple short French) or Russian (with English subtitles, not dubbed). The actors at the time respect decorums and are not wildly virtuoso in performances, they are not close-up to one another and the percentage of close-ups is small. Film affects us most deeply through faces — so that is often lacking. But then I would find myself engulfed all over again. The visual and aural create meanings the book can’t get near; it functions as a shooting script.

But then within a few minutes I’d be engulfed again.

The problem all the essays on Bondarchuk I’ve read have is no single or sequence of stills/shots or clips or montages can come near to conveying what it feels like to experience this vast assemblage of seemingly superabundant ever-changed, controlled and appropriate camera work from moment to moment. Scenes of vast and minute maneuvers in battle and horrific carnage (with literary hundreds of people involved for each sequence, thousands over-all) predominate, and for which it is probably most famous:

But Bondarchuk and Vasili Solovev’s script dramatizes just as surely the intimate and varied story-scenes of Tolstoy’s book, in society and at war, indoors and outdoors, between two or a few people, at a table and in crowds and ritual ballrooms and battle line-ups. I love the many atmospheric moments where dissolving clouds over a forest or some landscape or time of day or season are captured — all Woolf-like luminous envelope as life. Here’s a snow-filled shot of the sky and wood in Russian winter:

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And by contrast, where a character stands frozen, prompted to remember his past as a bomb near-by spins and spins about to go off and we get revolving montages of flashbacks of memory; or we are at a savage hunt and experience the terror of the wolf (the POV) before he is (I hope not for real) hacked to death; or characters weep as one lies dying:

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Andrei (Viacheslav Tikhonov) dying and Natasha (Liudmila Saveleva) crying over him

or walk and talk about their philosophical differences, or chase after one another enclosed and amid beautiful plants. There are scenes of social life in vast drawing- and ball-rooms, war councils, the world of the Russian country house and its grounds and smaller houses around it are shown us; wild madness on a battlefield or besieged city:


Sergei Bondarchuk plays Pierre: here towards the end of the film he’s registering the irrationality and inhumanity of the world’s doings

On top of this, highly varied music from symphonies and classical compositions, original mid-20th century music, to folk music, to effective modern sound track accompanies many scenes. So I won’t try but instead tell how the film re-organizes the book into four coherent parts and makes the book’s themes and plot-designs more accessible (or simpler) than Tolstoy. Bondarchuk clarifies Tolstoy, like some neo-classical rewrite of Shakespeare. Bondarchuk has reconceived Tolstoy’s vast book sufficiently so the film carries a condensation and restructuring into four parts and yet seems to leave little out that counts.

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Part 1: Andrei Bolkonskii (140 minutes)

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Anatole Kuragin (Vasilii Lanovoi) and Andrei Bolkonskii (Viascheslave Tikhonov) —

In his study of the drafts of W&P R.F. Christian says Tolstoy began with a low-life vicious aristocratic male, i.e., Anatole, for his hero, and gradually substitutes the intelligent ethical Pierre; in the book as we have it, Anatole seduces Natasha and ruins the secondary hero, Andreii’s life and dies next to him in a war hospital, so it’s fitting the first shot of both should be together as they enter the hollow party of Anna Pavlovna Scherer (Angelina Stepanova)

The story line takes us from when we meet Andrei who is weary of his wife, finds no meaning in the landowning and socializing roles he is given, leaves his wife with his family, and goes off to war only to discover its meaningless cruelties and hierarchical corruption. Within that story we meet Pierre Bezukhov at Anna Pavlovna’s drawing room, and take him past his father’s death, inheritance of vast property, and succumbing to Prince Vassily’s manipulations to the point he marries Vassily’s daughter, Helene, a woman whose amorality and promiscuous sexuality he cannot stand. This is punctuated (so to speak) by the Rostov world: the innocent Natasha, the repressed hurt Sonya, her dependent cousin, the two naive young men, Nikolai (not so naive he doesn’t go after Sonya) and Petya, the corrupt Boris and his sycophant mother, wild dancing on the part of the count, coarse worldliness in the countess. POV is Andrei’s much more often than Pierre’s; and is impersonal in the Rostov and Bolskonskii worlds.

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Andreii’s father, old Prince Bolkonskii (Anatoli Ktorov) first seen walking through golden autumn woods, and to his side an unexplained string quartet plays music

It seemed to me after a while a deeply poetic part. The emphasis towards the end are these horrific visionary battles but before that, the countryside, the mansions, the sky, water, landscapes of stunning beauty — be it in the snow or in spring, or just aspects of color on the screen. They are there to express a vision of Bondarchuk’s own about Russian which he thinks undergirds Tolstoy’s own more socially-driven matter (and is reinforced by the conversations of Andreii and Pierre). There is some realistic psychology, though the playing is expressive rather than subtle. It’s intensely serious: it seems to trace Andrei’s disillusion and does end on a close-up of his face on the battlefield of Austerlitz where he is left for dead.

Part 2: Natasha (93 minutes)

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Natasha Rostov (Liudmila Saveleva, not a star, but new presence) —

Most people pick the stills of her at her first ball, or enthralled either with Andrei or Anatole; here she is walking in a wood, the bright face of hope for which Andreii falls in love with her

The second part is like an inset novella, a domestic fiction, it is quiet. As Part One focused on Andrei’s story so Part Two centers on Natasha, taking her story from her child-like sexuality with the live-in Boris Smirnov in the garden,and her ecstacy for Sonia (Irina Gubanova) in love with Nikolai, Natasha’s brother (Oleg Tabakov, his role much shrunk). We see her with the Countess her mother (Kira Golovko) in the bed, preparing for her ball, how she fears no one will ask her to dance. We also have the story of Pierre carried on as substory once again: his despair with his wife, her adultery, Dolokhov’s mockery of him, the duel, his returning to his land and finally going to Andreii on his. How Andrei (returned to life, now a widower), is so taken with her that he loves her at first sight and asks her to marry him. Her mother has already brushed off Boris not from reasons of character, but his lack of rank and money.

Unlike the book and unlike the two BBC films or Vidor’s, Bondarchuk’s Andreii quickly realizes he was under a delusion, she is a symbol to him, and not a mature woman (as his wife was not mature and bored him), so his decision to wait in this film for a year is a holding tactic. This helps justify her turning to Anatole in this film. Bondarchuk is stepping back from this male patriarchal vision of the nubile, readily erotically enthralled, yet holding to it. We have her joining in intensely at the hunt, dancing wildly to folk music at Christmas (the uncle playing the violin), and then as the year passes, restless, feeling deserted, wasted, and riveted by a spell the libertine, Anatole, can perform on young women (so Bondarchuk seems to assume). Natasha comes near eloping; stopped with the help of Sonia and Pierre, this second part ends on her humiliation, remorse, begging pardon from everyone, including Pierre (showing up as the ever present kind brother) to ask him to ask Andrei to forgive her and he cannot — he is too rigid a man. Her face dissolves into the sky, and then a vast landscape with “1812” in large letters, and the voice-over narrator comes on to tell us of the irrational stupid waste of what is to come, and the huge armies cross into Russia (if you didn’t watch it, go back to the first YouTube).

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Natasha having bad dreams

The second part contrasts to the other three: it is mostly very quiet, the acting is stylized. A young girl’s life and (temporary) downfall. The narrator functions more centrally here than the other three parts: he repeats his phrases, explicates, provides a depth of feeling; the English dubbed voice is very good; the subtitles too. This is accompanied by beautiful shots; it’s like being in a painting of Moscow, the countryside, especially the long Christmas sequence is appealing. A celebration of Russia, which for me is undermined by the misogyny of making women into sex objects, easily roused unthinking subject creatures.

Part 3: 1812 (78 minutes)

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Pierre and Tushin (Nikolai Trofimov) brave soldier in the book

Our focuses slowly become Andrei and Pierre, one as conventional but disillusioned bitter military officer, the other increasingly shocked civilian. Andreii delivers sonorous meditative despair soliloquies; there are some quiet scenes of him now and again, first framing the phases and then inside them. Pierre is on the battle field like some deer in a headlights,continually more traumatized. The part begins quietly at the Bokonskii home — the scene of the old man refusing to believe Maria and the governess that the French are about to entry their territory, then forced to, and finally dying.

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He does ask Maria to forgive him as he does not in the other two films. These are interwoven with a vast scene of a ball at which the emperor Alexander I appears, and the coming battle is announced. We are at the Rostov home too where the young boy, Petya insists on going out to fight and the countess, his mother is devastated. During the battle we move back and forth from the famous General Kutusov (Boris Zakhava) on one hill and Napoleon (Vladisla Strzhelchik) on another.

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Napoleon is presented as a grim fate (how he sees himself) without conscience or feeling. (Pulman’s 1972 is much more nuanced while blaming him; Davies’s 2016 has him as originally a revolutionary and refuses to forget that; Bondarchuk is closest to Tolstoy). Kutusov cannot at first accept that the Russians have been defeated; he did not want to do this battle and he is crushed to realize they have lost. but then draws victory out of this defeat by realizing in front of us that winning a war is not the same as winning a battle. His business is to save lives and his heroism is to refuse another battle.

At the close of this third part as in the close of the first, Andrei has been badly wounded — worse we eventually realize, and this time he will die, slowly. Nearby a man is moaning fearfully in his death agon as his leg is amputated; this turns out to be Anatole. And across the way Andrei sees Dolohov who seduced Natasha near death. Perhaps this second pairing is too neat parallel — Bondarchuk offers us patterned visuals like this throughout his film (like Shakespeare in his Henry VI plays).

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This is a more stunning depiction of war than I’ve never seen before quite. I have seen effective anti-war films, and late last October Kilo Two Bravo — but it was implicit, focused on incidents, much more narrow. What is terrific about this is the size and scope of the scenes, and the relentless ruthless condemnation of war as horrific, senseless, cruel, utterly irrational at the same time as vast, wildly heroic, chosen. All these people (as Tolstoy says) are not forced. They choose to do this. The final focus scene is the battle of Borodino not far from Smolensk, which led to the scorched earth policy, the fleeing of all middle and upper class people from Moscow, and Napoleon’s defeat because there is no one for him to negotiate with as his army falls apart into marauding. I knew exactly where everything was, what was happening. This is due to the over-voice impersonal narration — invaluable. We meet the great famous Kutusov in his councils, falling asleep at the same time as ever vigilant; he contrasts to Napoleon on the other, at first all square-faced steely-firmness, stoutly glad, but when in Moscow shown up for the petty egoist (this is Tolstoy’s interpretation) he is.

Vast scenes of carnage of all types, sometimes close up, sometimes aerial, sometimes from the side, sometimes full face. Close up of men suffering in so many ways while at the same time they fight on determined like some crazed machines started who can’t stop (the narrator says something like this). The suffering horses, the animals. Canons, bombs, grapeshot, lines of men shooting, the guerillas, bombs blow up everywhere: this is not fakery, they are doing controlled versions; real live generals were consulted, all the Russian hierarchies involved it seems.

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The part has to be watched. It outdoes the battle scenes in Part 1 — so vast and thorough and believable they manage to make it. It is a deep contrast to Part 2 an inset domestic novel.

Part 4: Pierre Bezukov (92 minutes)

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Kutusov quietly grieving after he has had the courage to tell the council they will not try to stop the French from entering Moscow (nor will he try to cut them off as they leave) …

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Pierre during the trek starving frozen from Moscow

So now finally Bondarchuk (he gave himself the hero’s part though he’s not handsome) comes forth as primary story; as in Pulman’s 1972 BBC W&P there is a parallel between him and Kutusov at times. It’s about the horrors of war (yet more), another phase. We see panicked people, fleeing, and go through the scenes of the Rostov’s reluctant and utterly disorganized withdrawal from Moscow, with Pierre’s mad choice to stay in order to find and kill Napoleon. The place catches on fire, he becomes distraught, saves a baby, is captured as a dangerous incendiary, and imprisoned, then almost killed by a firing squad with our viewing the others murdered in pairs so senselessly.

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Moscow on fire — we should remember how this would resonate in 1966 for a Russian audience

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From the execution scenes

The over-voice is frequent: the words come from the beginning chapers where Tolstoy’s words in effect damn these apparently helpless people. Why are they doing this? Why are they slaughtering one another? slaughtering horses? senselessly killing killing killing. Why do they obey the Napoleons of the world? Napoleon admits he must return, is humiliated, and we experience that long trek with Pierre and his new found guru, Platon (the idealistic peasan, Mikhail Khrabov) gradually distancing from one another as Platon begins to die, and ends up shot because he can’t keep up, the pathetic dog howling. The words of the overvoice are grateful that Platon is out of this (Bondarchuk does not use Platon as a mouthpiece for optimism or God’s presence as Tolstoy does). Kutusov seen carrying a weight of immense concern and pity.

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Platon falling behind, the soldiers go to shoot him

The episode concludes towards the end by juxtaposing the long drawn out death of Andreii who the Rostovs unknowingly took with them from Moscow in a wagon, but not naturalistic (as in Davies’ 2016 where we see this), the experience is visionary, intendedly religious. The camera moves up to Andrey’s face and he dreams: he remember his scenes with his father, the land, terrible killing, and we see Natasha there telling him he’s not dying. But he tells her he loves her, he forgives her (the sense of there is nothing to forgive). Visionary sequences of land and sky signalling some powerful God-like presence. It does end quickly after that. After the rescue of Pierre, quickly done, Petya even quickly gotten out of the way in his senseless death (the point here is the mother’s grief and father’s loss, which is too quick, like a caricature). We see Pierre riding through a Moscow being rebuilt and arrives at a house where we find sitting Natasha and Marya (both in black) with little Nikolai (Andreii’s son by his first now long dead wife) by their side. Marya shows Pierre the new boy, and Natasha is there at last grown up in black and we hear the lines how if he were free and a better man, he’d marry her. (Nikolai and Sonia have long been lost from view.) Then Bondarchuk concentrates on visions of the sky and universe as places of oblivion and peace at the close.

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What jarred me at the close is the over-voice suddenly insists life is good, the world is beautiful.

***************************

Still an extraordinary film. Like many others who have seen it, I think it is a filmic realization by one genius accompanied by thousands of willing people of a great book.

A solid ethical perspective, beautifully filmic art, an important masterpiece of film.

This new DVD has a fifth part, features with interviews of some of the original film-makers and actors. You can see the extraordinary seriousness with which the film-makers, production designers, actors, everyone set about their task together.

“One truth discovered, one pang of regret at not being able to express it, is better than all the fluency and flippancy in the world.” –William Hazlitt

Ellen

NB. Blogs on War and Peace to come: the 1972 BBC War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pulman, starring Anthony Hopkins as Pierre, a masterpiece, follows and is inspired by Bondarchuk; then Andrew Davies’ 2016 W&P follows and is inspired by Pulman and Bondarchuk. Pulman chose some of the same central scenes, Davies some of the same visionary moments.

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Dear friends and readers,

Not quite the familiar kind of title. I’d been reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maud, revised, edited by Amy Mandelker, with Elisabeth Guertik’s superb La Guerre at la Paix just beneath for comparison since July;

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and began to listen to David Case reading an unabridged text by Constance Garnett last May.

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Frederick Davidson (David Case) reading aloud Constance Garnet’s translation unabridged

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An appealing small photo of Garnett

I finished book and mini-series about a week before Christmas. So 9 months. Translated texts by four women. Mini-series by men.

But if you count that I began to watch (and fell in love with) Jack Pulman’s 20 part 1972 BBC War and Peace (Anthony Hopkins as Pierre), last January and have gone through it at least 3 times; and then went on to watch Bondarchuk’s Russian 1966 War and Peace (it’s 5 disks lasting something like 9 hours, Bondarchuk himself is Pierre; and I’ve gone through the whole thing nearly twice); Andrew Davies’s 6 part 2016 BBC War and Peace (Paul Dano, Pierre; watching at least twice, the last time weeping throughout the whole of the sixth episode) with one time for the Vidor 1955 War and Peace (once, Henry Fonda, Pierre, John Mills as Platon, Audrey Hepburn Natasha) — this experience might count for two years perpetual engagement.

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Fonda as Pierre and Hepburn as Natasha

I probably proposed to the listserv at Trollope19thCStudies @ Yahoo to read Tolstoy together because I so loved the Pulman mini-series and wanted to understand it much better, see what depths it was drawing on, attempting faithfully to dramatize. Now I’d like to know so much more about Sophia as it was she was who copied out Tolstoy’s endless drafts and she who put together a final version of the book different from the one Tolstoy first published and the one translated and read today (except for those like Christian who read all the drafts). We have agreed that sometime next summer the group of us (whoever is there) will read and discuss Anna Karenina together.

You could say I immersed myself as I also read over the 9 months about 2/3s of A.N. Wilson’s biography, two old fashioned interpretive books (F. R. Christian and Rimvydas Silbajoris, close readers and real source students of the 1960s and 70s types), three of the chapters of John Bayley’s Tolstoy and the Novel, about one half of Alexandra Popoff’s book on the man who may be said to have preyed on Tolstoy in the last part of his life, his “false” disciple, Vladmir Chertkov, watched The Last Station and read Michael Hoffman’s shooting script (though not the book by Jay Parini), and now am one third into Alexandra Popoff’s life of Sophia Tolstoy.

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A superb shooting script gives a reading on the very old Tolstoy and his wife: Christopher Plummer as Tolstoy, Helen Mirren as Sophia

I posted about all this too (to a small Yahoo listserv called Trollope19thCStudies), at least twice a week, sometimes more.

Has Tolstoy changed my life? or view of the world? No. Did the texts and films out of his book affect my existence? Well if you look at time taken yes. I agree it’s one of the world’s great novels, though Tolstoy would not like to hear it called a novel, and its reach is even severely limited by Tolstoy’s aristocratic and masculinist outlook. It absorbed me; often the text felt packed vivid with life, provided such compelling reading — the exception is after a while his repetitive chapters on what real history is, how events in history come about, how to write about these, and attacks on historians for great writing as if history were the result of a handful of powerful individual’s choices at any given time. But because Tolstoy is alert to genre and other books, this book speaks to what is in others, and contextualizes these others with itself.

Probably for me what this book most taught me was about other books because of its conscious relationship to them, especially historical fiction, the more typical 19th century realistic novels. Since reading his book I’ve become aware how much his double-structure, of one half richly individual stories, and the other larger political (war is politics by other means) contexts, taught other historical novelists since him. They imitate him, from say (to cite two recent books I’ve read in the past) Adhaf Soueif’s In the Eye of the Sun (individual Egyptian and British characters contextualized with the larger Arab-Israel conflicts since 1948) to Virginia Woolf’s The Years.

If this seems dry, it isn’t to me for whom books have meant so much.

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A significant book — it includes historical films and adaptations

I read books as deeply reflective of the author and his or her life so that the book may be read as a disguised family history gives it another sort of meaning as a site of memory.

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I hope to read this when we get to Anna Karenina

It’s easiest to fall back on the characters to grasp the book’s meaning in itself. Most of the characters are so convincing in terms of 19th century novels (the women less so than the men’ Tolstoy said early on he was imitating the English novel); what was happening in the “war” part of the novel and its politics so relevant. When I thought I would be bored say after a week’s hiatus (sometimes more), I’d fall back into the text and find myself engaged all over again. I felt that the characters could carry on almost without Tolstoy, and he ended where he did because one must end somewhere. 1317 pages (the Maud text) is enough. But this is absurd: the characters are given life by him, reflect and are shaped by his inner life, and the story comes to an end because what he wanted to say about them, where bring them to, has been accomplished. Silbajoris is particularly lucid on why the worlds of perceptions in War and Peace feel possessed by some real person (Chapter 5).

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Hopkins as Pierre in the Moscow burning episode

Since the male characters are those given most depth and reality, the females kept much more to stereotypes that males (Tolstoy specifically) see and understand, to enjoy War and Peace you must enter into a male-centered approach. At first this feels less gender- and class-driven (most of those we travel any time with are a tiny highly privileged group within larger Russia) because of the way Tolstoy shapes their conflicts as innate and generic to any private self. I bonded strongly with the central male character, Pierre Bezhukhov: the book is his journey from early adulthood as he gradually and with much emotional pain, and many divagations, decisions which hurt him, adjusts to living in and alongside his society in a way worthy of him, yet never gives scope to what his high intelligence and noble nature could do, were he given real room. I loved him for his kindness to others too.

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James Norton as Andrei dancing with Lily James as Natasha at her first ball (2016 W&P)

By contrast, the more secondary, normative, and higher ranking male, Andrei Bolkonsky, behaved in alienating ways, but I grieved for his self-deprivation and early death, brought on by his efforts to please conventional powerful authority figures whose corruption, blindness and narrow egoism he never fully comprehends. Nikolai Rostov, not quite tertiary, incapable of any self-examination or criticism of his society chance, yet so well-meaning, ends doing well from luck (though Tolstoy discounts chance repeatedly and his tenacious instinct for self-preservation.

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Thomas Arnold as Denisov entranced with Natasha at a home party (the same 2016 W&P)

A whole continuum of male characters contextualizes them, from their peers in years, the evil-committing pair, smart, effective and spiteful (he enjoys inflicting violence) Dolokhov and his mate (until he is killed) the utterly selfish, grasping, male animal Anatole Kuragin (apparently his rake-gambler type was in an original draft intended to be the central character) to the good-natured characters, the slightly obtuse (all the more survivable), Denisov (who I loved), the selfless conscientious yielder-soldier Tushin (who saves lives risking his own), and the half-mad uneducated pesant Platon Karataev (who his society throws away with his blessing). Then there are the older corrupted, the hollow-courtier of a man, Prince Vasily, the deeply humane (paradoxically) wise in experience general Kutusov. I could go on to add so many who come alive for one scene, one moment, one or a set of chapters, giving us this or that experience of life through their story-event.

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Frank Middlemass as General Kutusov (1972 BBC W&P)

For the men a group of issues emerges from the “le monde” chapters. The same public versus private, ethical (which has to do with doing right to others and to one’s gifts) versus amoral behavior (anti-social, inhumane). These feed into profoundly anti-killing, anti-war paradigms as senseless in the “war” chapters. Tolstoy’s answers are not satisfactory (sometimes perverse because of his religiosity), but he asks the candid questions without cant for his era and these questions and some of his answers are transferable. He says repeatedly that a war takes the willingness of thousands of men to spend huge amounts of time killing one another. The commanders care about their place in the organization first and their theories about how to plan for war show few consider its realities. People do not respond sensibly to crises, rarely acknowledge a coming disaster before it’s upon them.

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Bondarchuk’s War and Peace: Part 3: 1812

With the women he does not ask the crucial questions but he shows them suffering from powerlessness, so circumscribed and hemmed in, and with an added strong sexual standard (they are judged according to their sexual chastity and obedience to norms of marriage), lack of agency (under the thumb of a parent or authority figure): the saving element is their relationships with one another are detailed so believably and movingly, that what lies outside this seems almost unimportant.

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Morag Hood as Natasha trying to explain to draw sympathy from Sonya (Joanna David) why she finds Anatole’s offer to flee so irresistible (1972 W&P, “Madness” episode)

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Sonya bitter at what has been demanded of her, tells Natasha (against the countess’ orders not to) that Andrei lies very sick in the convoy (1972 W&P, “Life and Death”)

The central women characters are the ingenue heroine, Natasha Rostov, said to be modeled in part by Tolstoy’s (mis-)perception of his wife (who wrote an autobiographical story under this name, which she burned). Bondarchuk believed in the existence of this type and took her story and made it the center of the second part of his family so it becomes a sentimental heroine’s text within a heroic yet damning story of war. There’s the family dependent, semi-servant, Sonya (whose last name we never learn) and Marya, the cruelly abused sister (by her father) of Andrei. Most important throughout is the Countess Rostov who (like Pierre’s cousin, Katische) whatever it has taken from her, whatever she may have to demand of others, stands tenaciously and resolutely for obeying hegemonic hierarchical norms so as to stay wealthy — while her husband, the hopelessly non-competitive lazy amiable Count Rostov cannot hold onto even a wagon during a siege.

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Angela Downs as Marya crushed by her father’s jeering cruelty over a proposal of marriage for her money — Anatole cannot even be faithful or interested in her for two days (1972 W&P, “Two Proposals”)

Equally central to the story (though not gone into psychologically very much) are Pierre’s (to Tolstoy and in the book), vicious and corrupt wife, Helene Kuragin; the semi-mistress (or sexually used) dependent of the Bolkonskys and companion-maid to Marya, Mlle Bourienne, and the female equivalents of Prince Vassily, Anna Pavlovna Scherer, the hollow saloniere, the parrot of what it is socially acceptable to say and do, with whom the novel begins, and the mother of the trained-to-be heartless Boris Durbetskoy (ever rising in rank and wealth), Anna Mikhilaovna, sycophant extraordinaire.

I found the readings of Natasha found in Pulman and Davies of great help in coming to terms with Tolstoy’s central anticipatory Freudian account of the “enthrallment” of Natasha to the sadistic Anatole: after her engagement to Andrei, she is in considerable distress from how Andrei’s family has rejected, mortified her, her self-esteem badly wounded by Andrei’s leaving her, the very sheltered nature of her life a risk. About four of us felt similarly that we were not given anywhere near the insight into Sonya’s feelings her plight as lover (physcial too) of Nikolai and pillow-like confidante of Natasha when she is harassed into allowing herself to lose chance of personal fulfillment because she lacks sufficient money to make up for the Rostovs’ coming bankruptcy. Helene is a monster in the novel because she’s sexually promiscuous, has no understanding of what integrity or virtues might mean, in Tolstoy’s ms incestuous with her brother; as with Dolokhov Davies tries to humanize her as wanting pleasure, adulation, and independence at any price (many human beings are cool towards one another, use one another).

I particularly admired how Tolstoy could move from such large perspectives, vast battles made sense of so that they are de-mystified, seiges, how human beings behave so barbarically in mobs, and as particular individuals (the mayor of Moscow scapegoating a miserably abused once idealistic middle class young man so that he is torn to bits after weeks of mental and physical torture and abuse in the czar’s prisons) to paying attention and bringing to life the smallest details in a scene (Platon’s dog howling at his death but then trotting after someone else), the most seemingly unimportant creatures (down to insects), and how beautiful with acutely felt life he could make a landscape. This is compensation: the joy some human beings feel at a hunt (competition in killing, the thrill of this some feel) and how sometimes he seemed to break taboos over what one can show about human beings even today. The death scenes are startling: from the fights over who gets what once the agonized or nearly unconscious presence vanishes, to the process of death itself going on all that while.

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Rebecca Front as Anna Mikhailovna holding fiercely onto the will; Fenella Woolgar as Katische, Pierre’s cousin, has tried to steal in order to destroy it, Stephen Rea as Count Vassily looking on (2016 War and Peace)

Ellen

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Claire Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitronia Balfe) singing & dancing gaily and wryly

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Murtagh Fraser (Duncan LaCroix) dancing stiffly and awkwardly (from Episode 14, “The Search”)

Claire: May I make a suggestion? Perhaps you could sing a song to jazz up the dance a bit.
Murtagh: Jazz?
Claire: To spice up, enliven. A song?
Murtagh: Yes.
Claire: Something toe-tapping, like

He was a famous trumpet man From out Chicago way He had a boogie style that no one else could play He was the top man at his craft But then his number came up And he was gone with the draft He’s in the army now A-blowing reveille. He’s the boogie woogie bugle boy of Company B

Murtagh: What?
Claire: It’s a bonnie tune.
Murtagh: But you need a Scottish song …
Claire (sometime later):

Here’s to all you lads and lasses That go out this way Be sure to tip her coggie When you take her out to play Lads and lasses toy a kiss The lads never think what they do is amiss Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie For every lad?! wander just to have his lass And when they see her pintle rise They’ll raise a glass And rowe about their wanton een They’ll dance the reels as the troopers go over the lea Because there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen And there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie He giggled, google me He was a banger He sought the prize between my thighs Became a hanger And there’s Kent and Keen and there’s Aberdeen But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie If you see a strapping redheaded fellow, let me know. There’s a big redheaded lad come through these parts. But there’s none as muckle as the strathabogie wogie And no there’s none as muckle as the wanton tune of strathabogie

Dear friends and readers,

In these last three episodes the first season concluded with moving from transitioning to a downright reversal of gender roles. This is taken to a level meant to astonish viewers: where else is a man broken in spirit and raped? The rescuers are all women or women-led. First, the two heroines (Jenny, his sister, Laura Donnelly, one, her breasts filled with milk), and then one, his wife, Claire, alone with her subaltern hero’s brother-mate, now discovered to be rather a replacement father, Murtagh, go on quest for said hero, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). They find him having escaped hanging, thrown into chains in a dungeon, having been humiliated to the point of robbing him of all pride, tortured (his right hand smashed with a hammer), raped, brought to want suicide by one half of the series doppelganger hero-villain, Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies).

He is rescued by the concerted repeated courageous efforts of said wife-heroine, and a band of his mates; then he is nursed, his hand re-structured by her (now we move back to usual gender roles), taken loving care of by all, including brothers, in a monastery. Finally, coaxed out of intense self-hatred, depression, nightmares, but not just recalled rather driven back to life by Claire (again he is the one worked upon) and simply taken into flight across the waters. The three episodes form a kind of climax and denouement trilogy to all that has gone before. Taken to another level.

What many viewers might not know or not realize (or forget) is, like the 12th and 13th episodes (“Lallybroch” and “The Watch”), these three seem to follow the outline of the book’s ending, but in fact depart radically.

In the book the quest, which takes all of Episode 14 (as “The Search”) and then some of 15 (Wentworth Prison), takes 5 paragraphs out of the first of a closing series of long chapters (Part Six, 8 to be precise). While the capture, beating, breaking of spirit and body and rape of Jamie, is there in the book, it takes only about 2/3s of one chapter (35, “Wentworth Prison”) and is not placed as climax. In the mini-series, the actual core scenes of Black Jack and Jamie where Jamie allows Black Jack to make love to him and responds are held off as a flashback (reminding me of Richardson’s Clarissa) until near the end of 16, the last episode (“To Ransom A Man’s Soul”) so they become the climax.

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Murtagh, Father Anselm (Ian Hanmore) and Claire discussing what seems the hopelessness of bringing Jamie out of his intense grief and loss

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Jamie responding, remembering, dreaming moving to the flashback (which I will not put stills from on my blog lest I attract the wrong kind of attention) (from Episode 16, “To Ransom a Man’s Soul”)

As in the book’s versions of Episodes 12 & 13 a lingering depiction of a story about a tense return home ending unexpected disaster from treachery, so that the theme is rooted in characterization and as much about what is meant by home, and men’s relationships to women there, in the book’s versions of 14-16 we are given a luxuriating in woman’s romance:

a full emphasis on Claire’s attempts to save Jamie by negotiation, entering two different Scottish households, one the armed castle type run by Sir Fletcher, and the other, another old-fashioned country house farmstead of the McRannochs, where Claire meets the wife as well as husband. In the book, as heroines have done before her, she is successful because she enlists the aid of the non-violent home-y private knowledge of the MacRannochs, including their cattle. The cattle is just about all that is kept in the mini-series: a way to barge into the prison and during the fracas and violence, sluice Jamie out. In the book Claire, Jamie and Murtagh flee to France — across the waters — immediately, and are taken into a French monastery, recalling to his mind the one he fled to (and told Claire of) after his first nearly mortal encounter with Black Jack, which inflicted on him his criminal status and permanently scarred back.

In the mini-series the monastery is in the highlands (and not safe, but hidden enough for a while) and,by contrast, the final scene is on the shore, a goodbye to Scotland for now, and the three principals sail away — rather like many a male-centered sea story.

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Beyond intrigue, comedy and action-adventure, what survives from the book is the agon of Jamie and Claire forced apart by Black Jack on threat of destroying another part of Jamie’s body (Episode 15, “Wentworth Prison”)

In the book after Claire has performed her physical and psychological re-fashioning of Jamie, they find this French monastery unsafe. Reminding me uncannily of Sophie Lee’s Recess now, they flee into a cave where they stay, make intense love, and then crawl out through the earth to reach the sky and build another future than is in the cards for themselves and others.

But there another political level to this drama (as pointed out by Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker last year): the torturing of Jamie mirrors our own politics. Gabaldon wrote Outlander in 1995 well before 9/11, before systematic torture was practiced by the Bush administration, allowing it to spread and become acceptable elsewhere. It’s important to emphasize this political source for what we see, not only as demonstrating even women’s historical romances are about history and politics (as certainly historical fiction is), but because a newly elected US president has condoned torture and people he’s appointed condon it too. I believe the scenes are made emphatic and developed intutively as timely: there are two between Black Jack and Jamie, in the first Jack smashes Jame’s hand because it seems Jamie will not bend, not yield, in the second the intensely painful submission scene. It should be remembered that no information is being extracted. There are too many studies for me to cite showing that torture is useless for extracting truthful information; perhaps Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain is most pertinent here: she argues not force itself alone but the fear and infliction on someone of bodily pain lies behind powerful state gov’t’s successes. Here the English.

The mini-series might be said to be a (long-distance) descendant of Walter Scott, historical fiction, with a heap of fashionable post-colonialism; the book is a similar descendant of Ann Radcliffe (combining all three of her famous romances) by way of Daphne DuMaurier’s occasionally kinky eroticism, woman’s historical romance (often part fantasy).

Pace the book about these forms I’m reading just now, Bowden’s Descendants of Waverley, the differences between these two genres is considerable. I’ve now gotten myself the British DVD set of the new 2016 Poldarks and the fat books of Complete Scripts, Series 2 by Deborah Horsfield, and will be leaving off writing about the Outlander mini-series for a while, but I’m also struck by how both mini-series (1970s and again now) albeit in very different ways, as they go on become more literally faithful to the books as well as actual 18th century history.

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Surface mining in the new Poldark (seen by the second episode of the 1st season)

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The opening scene at Inverness (1, “Sassenach”)

The World of Poldark by Emma Marriot, a companion volume to the 2016 TV series has many short essays on historical topics; The Making of Outlander by Tara Bennett, a companion volume to this one on-going TV series has almost none: history is only brought up as a detail to explain this facet of a costume or prop or why a particular ritual or song took a certain hybrid form. Winston’s Graham’s original book about Poldark’s Cornwall had much about Cornwall itself (for real), his relationship to it, and his characters to history, actual photos of real places, all set-up as life-writing.

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Cornish perpendicular gothic window, a photo from Graham’s edition of Poldark’s Cornwall

Gabaldon’s equivalent Outlandish Companion has much about Scottish history seen through a prism of fantasy, romance, with astrological tables, ancient Scottish symbols, words, drawings of ruins, playful illustrations, all set-up as a kind of substitute (almost) for reading four of the Outlander books. I began these blogs on Outlander by way of having some comparative and intertextual context for the new Poldark.

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Permutations of a bracelets from Outlandish Companion

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None of this is to stay this Outlander mini-series is not a marvel of good writing (especially the over-voice linking much), interesting human sequences, studies of gender, some post-colonial history, strong structure, effective music and effective scenery (beautiful when wanted), the cinematography breath-taking, the close-ups deeply moving, but to recognize what has happened to it in an adaptation meant to engage male as as well as female viewers. So I’ll conclude with just two elements I was struck by in these last three.

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Coming up to the monastery

The use of the past is not just a pretext. The unfamiliarity of the past is important as when Claire and Murtagh travel across northern Scotland to find Jamie in an era without maps, daily newspapers, telegraph, telephone, TV, internet, lots of published maps (no GPS, no cell-phone). We are comforted by their overcoming the lack of technology, and we delight in how eras can be brought together. So Claire entertains with jazzed up versions of Scottish songs, sounding like a radio program from the 1940s. She tells fortunes of women glad to hear their husbands will die young. She fights one imitator for (in effect) copyright — and he cheats and uses her materials. It’s fun to see Murtagh’s awkward dancing. The visualization and sounds of all this is in fact what the book cannot provide.

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Claire snacking inbetween performances (14, “The Search”)

Love and friendship are matters of affinity, companionship and then physical love are compensatory and crowning expressions of a valuing of one another’s individual qualities, rather than an end in itself. Black Jack is perverse because he wants to devour and punish, inflict pain to feel his power. The good features of any personality are the most solitary ones, the indwelling mind which keeps to its own integrity. So at the end of both book and this first series, we have the deeply gratifying coming together of loving affection between parting men and wedded men and women.

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Claire saying goodbye to Willie who has been the most loyal of all Jamie’s friends

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Fair is the wind for France

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I have not mentioned the music of this series thus far. Let me end on that which begins and haunts most episodes: the theme of the Craig Na Dun stones and women’s dance.

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A header on one of the fan sites for this mini-series

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone …

The song is a re-working of a traditional Scots folk tune: The Skye-Boat Song, with words paraphrased from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, “Sing me a song of a lady that is gone.” Brian McGreary who composed it describes himself as “a Jacobite fanatic,” he did his thesis on the Jacobites and the music of the era. He used a “live orchestra and live soloists … live bagpipes, the live fiddle, the bodhran, which is the drum that can change pitch, [which we hear] predominantly in the main title … ” It was an attempt to be authentic Scots, using one of the great Scottish writers. It’s sung by Raya Yarborough and is part of the paratext opening for each episode.

There is a music or a theme associated with Frank, Claire’s tenderly loving husband from the 1940s and it’s classical, 20th century, what we associate with Vaughn Williams, English composers drawing on English folk song. There is a theme for Frank and Claire together, and there is a theme for Claire and Jamie together, heard in different permutations, bodhran, Scottish percussion, small string ensemble, a deeper more baritone setting with low strings or a viola da gamba when the focus is on Jamie (from The Making of Outlander, pp 22-27). But no theme for Claire. Ah well. She gets to do the over-voice, the perspective …

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
Glory of youth glowed in his soul;
Where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
Give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
Give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
Say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.
— Robert Louis Stevenson

ethereal

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years (the epigraph to Outlander, the first words heard in the series, spoken by Balfe).

Ellen

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Anthony Sher as Lear, David Troughton as Gloucester

The worst returns us to laughter — Edgar, a moment where the production’s clear speaking made a line shine through which is relevant to what is happening center stage in US newspapers on Trump’s “team” today

Dear friends and readers,

Last night I was privileged to watch an HD screening of a production of King Lear from Stratford-upon-Avon at the Folger Shakespeare library. It’s the fifth HD-screening of a Shakespeare play for me, and I take the occasion to praise the Folger for this program and hope aloud to others the library continues to to participate in these screenings. Each one of the five has provided me and those in the audience with a renewed contemporary dramatic realization of Shakespeare: particularly alive and deeply instructive have been the Love Labor’s Lost and Merchant of Venice. I did learn that Lily James is a great actress from Branagh’s Romeo and Juliet (“a few good experiences” — scroll down, just a bit). I still lament I had to miss Kenneth Branagh’s Winter’s Tale with Judy Dench as Paulina. The Folger itself on average is staging at most two plays by Shakespeare a year (the others are often modern adaptations of Shakespeare or some other supposedly related contemporary play). So by screening say three productions from the UK Shakespeare himself is kept before us.

It’s an occasion because Gregory Doran’s Lear (he was the director) is getting more attention than many RSC productions. These occur regularly and why this one is singled out I don’t know. One review from TLS will do, partly because Abell does not say much about the production except that it has to cope with the bombast of the play. There was magnificence in the way the play’s hieratic and crazed excruciating lunatic scenes were done, the scenes as a whole as living emblems before us, a dignity was maintained even in the most intimate moments

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Sher with Graham Turner as the fool

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Natalie Simpson as Cordelia and Anthony Byrne as Kent leading Lear away after she and he have made up

But the experience was not as deeply moving for me in the way it has been before. I usually weep, occasionally almost uncontrollably, and and didn’t at all this time. They were too controlled, too aware of themselves as enacting the super-respected Tragedy. The actors all seemed so delighted to have been given their part.

A case in point was the opening scene: it is hieratic, and let us tell truths (dismiss adulation even for Shakespeare), and admit the scene resembles the static and wooden hieratic scenes in other of Shakespeare’s dramas, e.g., Merchant of Venice (the casket), the one in Pericles (where the suitor is in danger of his life).

Two reviews of an Old Vic production with an 80 year old Glenda Jackson making another astonishingly effective performance (recalling her first appearances as Charlotte Corday in Marat/Sade so many years ago) as Lear suggest the route taken there was quite different: a Samuel Beckett stripped down modernity (Fintan O’Toole in the NYRB; Matt Wolf in the NYTimes; Susannah Clapp in The Guardian).

The problem (as I see it) might be a lack of courage (or originality of interpretation), a fear of the audience, a reverence for the place they were playing in, too much self- and audience regard.

Shakespeare means to show us the mean pathologies of family life taken to a frightening ferocity, with each “child” a step along that road. Simpson is even worse: she hardly breaks her serenity across the play. Simpson played Cordelia so blandly: if she is not given some anger or resentment in the opening scene (as she was not), there is no psychological sense to what has happened. I’ve seen this reluctance before. The conventional Cordelia never not loves the old man. Then why did she refuse him at the opening?

I felt Turner was going through the motions of the fool’s speeches, not meaning them, careful lest we not get all the words. The wicked sisters were wholly unoriginal. Most of all there was nothing abandoned about Oliver Johnstone as the broken, abandoned, utterly distrusted betrayed child in Edgar; he was too studied.

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The director and costumer reinforced the play’s artificiality as a kind of compensation, a guarded wall of costume.

Some intriguing moments: It was interesting to see Edmund so underplayed, understated by Paapa Essieddu, almost semi-comic, but it didn’t fit in at all. Nia Gwynne as Goneril needed to be in another melodramatically emotional production: she was effective, but, except for a moment where Lear seems to hug her so tightly he is trying to destroy her uterus or chest, she had no match anywhere. It’s a testament to the vivid thereness of a long career that Sher managed to give Lear a feel of a real individual looking out of his eyes. The best moments were where he was permitted to react naturally in an intimate or direct way to another presence on stage (with Gloucester, with Goneril).

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Very effective Shakespeare’s drive down to utter degradation, misery, writhing madness in the scenes on the heath and in the hovel — not so much the individual (which is all I have promotional photos of) but the scene as a whole, the larger stage conceptions. I felt also that the age of the two men, aging itself, its vulnerability, its needs were central to what was moving in the experience of this production. But then I am old myself and identified as an aging parent. I would have loved to be able to see Glenda Jackson as Lear (photo from NYRB):

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Glenda Jackson as Lear and Morfydd Clark as Cordelia in the Old Vic’s production of King Lear

Shakespeare often carries himself in less alive or good productions, and that happened here too. Who can deny the horror of plucking out Gloucester’s eyes. You just need to do it feelingly. The long passage spoken by Edgar recreating a frightening height when well-spoken is evocative poetry. About a quarter of the Folger audience missed these scenes because they occurred after the intermission. It is a curious phenomenon how audiences seek to or just automatically respond to something immediately contemporary. So the least reference to corrupt politicians or anything that smacked of moronic or mindless hypocrisy got a laugh. The play’s real themes about say the importance of one’s status and respect of others, as in the famous bellowing of Lear over the putting of Kent into the stocks seemed to fall on blankness.

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As a lover of Shakespeare I enjoyed the production almost as a dramatic reading. Only once in all the 45 years or so I have been going to Shakespeare plays (I began at age 17 when I went to the Papp productions for free in Central Park, NYC) have I left a production. So, I encourage all who read this to go and have written this to bring out into the discussably open the danger that these “screening around the world” productions do not succumb to self-censorship or the self-puffery of praise they will get automatically from some reviewers.

A feature for the intermission of the HD-screening was about the super-expensive gilded costume made for Goneril in the opening scene. Much money was doubtless spent. You can glimpse the dress in this enlarged photo:

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Other wonderful photos of on the RSC site.

I am worried by the (in effect) advertisement for the coming HD-screened production of The Tempest with the great actor Simone Russell Beale as Prospero when we were shown the technological marvel of the blue mask that will be part of his costume. For this reason I have written this critical blog.

Ellen

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