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Archive for the ‘Costume drama’ Category


Alison Luff as Nell falling on the floor as she dies as St Catherine in Tyrannic Love just before getting up to speak the Epilogue … (Nell Gwyn, by Jessica Swale, directed by Robert Richmond)

They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps … Moth, Act 5, Love’s Labor’s Lost

Friends,

A remarkable season is unfolding itself at the Folger this year, and I would advise you not to miss any of it. It began with a magnificent lavish production of Wm Davenant’s “improved Macbeth.

It carried on with the daringly bare and self-explanatory King John; it was deliberately slow-moving as if to give each audience member a chance to mull then and later think about the nature of politics as seen here or there, by turns seriously earnest, a quietly sardonic, or showing characters who crave calm, peace, order and thus safety. I couldn’t get over that I felt I was listening to Shakespeare think aloud about the ways monarchical hierarchical power in his era worked; what the military are about. For the first time I understood Constance’s speeches attempt to save herself and her son.


Holly Twyford as Constance (King John, directed by Aaron Posner)

Falcounbridge anticipates the ruthless politician types of the later plays, with the difference he (in this case she) explains herself.


Kate Norris as Philip Faulconbridge in Wm Shakespeare’s King John, as directed by Aaron Posner

Peter Marks wrote an essay about it calling it a Shakespearean “Games of Thrones:”

… you will have gratifyingly broadened your knowledge of Shakespeare and your appreciation of Folger’s ongoing campaign to expose audiences to the astonishing range of Shakespeare’s mind and interests.

In “King John,” his curiosity leads him to a contemplation of legitimacy — the political, psychological and spiritual foundation of leadership — as the reign of John is challenged. A son of Henry II, John acquires the crown after the deaths of his brothers Richard the Lionheart and Geoffrey. But a conniving French king (Howard W. Overshown), a meddling papal envoy (Sasha Olinick) and some ambitious relatives at court have other ideas. Constance, given impassioned heft by Twyford, wants Arthur (Megan Graves), her son by Geoffrey, installed. Meanwhile, Norris’s Philip, an out-of-wedlock son of Richard the Lionheart, becomes yet another rival, after King John himself intervenes and declares him, by a legal loophole, a legitimate heir.

“John is now king: Should he be?” is the question Posner poses in the preamble of his own devising. It’s the question that drives the evening and, just as crucially, the paranoia of the king in a court decked out becomingly by costume designer Sarah Cubbage in Victorian bowler hats and petticoats. Andrew Cohen’s set, where the only omnipresent fixture is a wooden throne, reflects the unsettled air of the English realm; above the chair is suspended a primitive crown, awaiting, it seems, the rightful head to fill it.

Dykstra’s John seems the right kind of John for the representation of a realm in disarray. He posits John as unpolished, impatient and prone to rashness; his authorization of his henchman Hubert to dispatch nephew Arthur may not be singular in the bloody history of English royal family affairs, but it does signal his homicidal inadequacy. And by the way, Elan Zafir plays Hubert, torn by affection for Arthur, with such exceptional emotionality that he makes a powerful case for this secondary character to be the humane touchstone for the play. (Twyford’s embodiment of a mother’s grief contributes to another memorable interlude.)

A third play was brought in through the auspices of the Royal Shakespeare company from Statford HD screening events: this time Troilus and Cressida: a concise review from The Guardian.

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And now this:

Jessica Swale has before this rewriitten and produced 18th century plays, original and post-text, Shakespeare plays (ditto), often with obvious feminist or feminine subtexts,e.g., Bluestockings. She wants to defend and create sympathy for women and the vulnerable.


Manuel Harlan; Olivia Ross (Celia), Tala Gouveia (Carolyn), Molly Logan (Maeve …) — bluestockings nervously seeking jobs

In Nell Gwyn we trace the outline of this brothel child-turned orange girl- turned actress — turned king’s mistress, her career as it’s publicly documented and known by hearsay. Each station or stage of her existence is followed if not in exact chronological order: from hanger-on, to attracting & being trained by Charles Hart (Quinn Franzen, the hero type), a cavalier, friend to, employee of theater entrepreneurs & aristocrats.

We meet and are thoroughly entertained by the actors of Killigrew’s (Nigel Gore) company, from the boy page (Alex Michell), to Kynaston (Christopher Dinolfo, just virtuoso in rants and hysteria), the servant woman, house- and costume-keeper, Nancy (Catherine Flye — pitch perfect accent and timing, she was very funny). The same actor played Etheredge and then Dryden (Michael Glenn). We watch Nell’s first struggles to learn her trade, to act, to sing, to dominate the stage amid the ensemble — as the play carried on, sometimes they reminded me of Shakespeare’s clowns because their playfulness was so gay, full of life, buoyant.


Hart acting between Nancy and Rose, Nell’s sister

As all this unfolds she attracts the king and wins his favor to the point her makes her his mistress, with pension, house, and his attention.


Nell Gwyn and R.J. Foster as King Charles II

He has to wrench her from the ensemble


Ensemble

We witness their troubles (so to speak) once married: her conflicts with her mother (Flye) and sister (Caitlin Cisco) who feel neglected, his with his ministers in the person of Arlington (Jeff Keogh), who feels more than neglected. The most powerful because for a moment believable scenes are two in which Arlington threatens Nell with disappearing and other ominous ends if she doesn’t remove herself. She wins out, to fall in love with the king and he her (she is pregnant by this time), time telescopes to Charles’s attempt to reign by himself, his death and the famous line: “Not let poor Nelly starve.”


King thoughtful

It has had a number of very favorable reviews: DC Theater Scene; Andrew White of Broadway World; Nora Dick in Maryland Theater World. Only the Washington Post was “disappointed.”

I’m not sure why the last nitpicked; maybe there was an expectation of an heroic life; this play stays determinedly in the terrain of what we may suppose would be ordinary diurnal experiences of a group of players, an unconnected woman with no money, a high ranked courtier. I admit I began to despair that they would not enact any parts of the plays of the time — only comically allude in parodic ways to Shakespeare’s (The Tempest, Lear — a marvelous comedy we are told), Dryden and Etheredge’s, and the story of the Titanic as conceived in many movies. Did they think these so bad. But at the close of the play after Charles has died, and Nell returns to her old stage friends, they do a quick pantomime of Tyrannic Love in order to end on Dryden’s famous epilogue spoken openly by Nellie, and conveyed with energy by Luff:

Hold, are you mad? you damn’d confounded Dog,
I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue.
To the Audience. I come, kind Gentlemen, strange news to tell ye
I am the Ghost of poor departed Nelly.
Sweet Ladies, be not frighted, I’le be civil,
I’m what I was, a little harmless Devil.
For after death, we Sprights, have just such Natures,
We had for all the World, when humane Creatures;
And therefore I that was an Actress here,
Play all my Tricks in Hell, a Goblin there.
Gallants, look to’t, you say there are no Sprights;
But I’le come dance about your Beds at nights.
And faith you’l be in a sweet kind of taking,
When I surprise you between sleep and waking.
To tell you true, I walk because I dye
Out of my Calling in a Tragedy.
O Poet, damn’d dull Poet, who could prove
So sensless! to make Nelly dye for Love,
Nay, what’s yet worse, to kill me in the prime
Of Easter-Term, in Tart and Cheese-cake time!
I’le fit the Fopp; for I’le not one word say
T’excuse his godly out of fashion Play.
A Play which if you dare but twice sit out,
You’l all be slander’d, and be thought devout.
But, farwel Gentlemen, make haste to me,
I’m sure e’re long to have your company.
As for my Epitaph when I am gone,
I’le trust no Poet, but will write my own.

Here Nelly lies, who, though she liv’d a Slater’n,
Yet dy’d a Princess acting in S. Cathar’n.

The subtext of the play is a young woman’s awakened determination to have, direct and enjoy her life. This was the era in which “everything changed” (as the players say) because women came onto the boards.

As with Davenant’s Macbeth, there was an attempt to evoke the 17th century stage world: a glorious rich curtain to suggest a framed stage, candle holders to the front bottom stage, the costumes (Mariah Anzaldo Hale), luxurious sex. with  a woman once again at the center.


The King with Lady Castlemaine (Regina Acquino)

The company’s fourth choice this year is another that asks for creativity in costume with its complicated play within a play, and is hard to do because of all the poetry quoting: Loves Labour’s Lost. I look forward to it. In the meantime in a couple of weeks Izzy and I will go to our first Folger consort performance this year, a spring festival of Spanish and Italian music, with a Renaissance band to provide dancing and a variety of older instruments, all around the Mediterranean.

“The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo” — the last words of Love’s Labor’s Lost, which I took heed of and so presented Shakespeare’s King John before Jessica Swale’s Nell Gwynn.

Ellen

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Caitriona Balfe as Claire Fraser

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. I live with them daily, after all … Any library is filled with them. I can take a book from dusty shelves, and be haunted by the thoughts of one long dead, still lively as ever in their winding sheet of words … Look back, hold a torch to light the recesses of the dark. Listen to the footsteps that echo behind, when you walk alone. All the time the ghosts flit past and through us, hiding in the future. We look in the mirror and see the shades of other faces looking back through the years; we see the shape of memory, standing solid in an empty doorway. By blood and by choice, we make our ghosts; we haunt ourselves — from The Prologue to Drums of Autumn

Friends,

The serial drama, Outlander, has become something of an addiction with me. I watch it one episode at a time, night after night. This winter I went through Seasons 1 and 2, and am now well into 3. At the same time I kept my weekly appointment with Season 4 each Sunday night at 8 pm, and sometimes we had second date, on another late night, a re-run. I’ve posted on a use of Christmas in Gabaldon’s novel, Drums of Autumn, to which I can now add:

Christmas in Scotland in 1967, Drums of Autumn, Part 6, Chapters 17-18: “Home for the Holidays.” Roger and Brianna go to a Christmas service in a Catholic church — Briana is said to be Catholic — I think Claire might be — as I recall her friendship with Mother Hildegarde in Dragonfly in Amber and her response to the stillborn birth of Faith. Roger is presbyterian by upbringing from his step-father, the Reverend Wakefield. Roger moves out of his adopted father’s house, gives away, puts in libaries and sells many books, and rehearses his memories very touchingingly. There is an erotic sequence between the young lovers at home ….

Nothing spectacular: it’s like Austen, Christmas seems to happen to be there and adds touches as when in the opening of the third season of the series, Roger arrives in Boston Christmas-time and the events of revelation, research, and Claire’s return to the 18th century through the stones occur amid the rituals of a 20th century American Christmas.

My last blog-review of the series was of Voyager as the watery, water-drenched end of Season 3; and I find I hadn’t sufficiently emphasized how central Claire and Brianna’s relationship was to the first half of this third book, nor its overall structuralizing conflicts, with strong women in rivalry. Geillis becomes a weird witch, with Claire her nemesis.


About to build a life together

By contrast, Drums of Autumn and Season 4 are rooted in the land, building on it, hunting, fishing, each person doing their part to contribute to this (to them) new place, and for Claire it’s her medicine book, her surgery and care that’s needed for the invention of a new society. Along with this, what’s enacted this time, by Jamie repeatedly, by Frank across one crucial episode (“Down the Rabbit Hole”), are scenes of good fathers: Jamie and Willie, Jamie and Brianna, Jamie and Ian, Frank and Brianna. A central image-symbol for the book is Jamie and Claire’s log cabin; for the series, this cabin shares the imaginary with River Run, a plantation based on slave labor; a river down which Jamie and Claire and Ian float, and twice meet Stephen Bonnet; the wood and home of the Indians, and Wilmington, the town from which the colonialist order is run.


River Run

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Some notes, recaps and commentary for the first seven of the thirteen episodes:


After Jamie and Claire agree to take Bonnet with them (he’s escaped hanging), she tends to some of his wounds ….

Episode 1, the ironically titled “America the Beautiful:” At first I thought I might be driven to give up when they began on how wonderful the American experiment, outlined the American dream (you can do anything if you’ve the will &c) but pretty quickly this was savagely ironized as explicitly Jamie protests to Claire (despite English accent presented as American in the stories) about slavery and we see the slaves, and we experience violence as a way of life (for once repudiated) so that the idea is what’s a dream for some is a nightmare for others. And corruption rife. Ed Speleers continues his successful career: as the treacherous Mr Bonnet he was memorable, charismatic in his face.


Floating downstream

Amid the hanging of Jamie’s old comrade-in-prison, the refusal of his corpse by a church-controlled graveyard, so melancholy and mockery, as the raft moves downstream, the characters have bad dreams, long flashbacks which are juxtaposed to the present back and forth. These slow down the narrative sometimes until we reach the closing sequence of mayhem where all voice stops and we watch a pantomime of violence and grief distanced from us by stylization in the acting. The effect is to make the episode more inward, and very effective.

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Episode 2: “Do No Harm:” The film-makers have had the astonishing courage to make central, the heinous practice of lynching black men by white men. Lynching central to US life until the 1950s. They did not distract us with several stories at once but kept their eyes on this one happening. So not just slavery and its accompanying justification, racism, but the hideous unjust violence that sustained it – including whipping as a matter of course — is put before us. Claire is again center, with some voice-over, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as the blind Jocasta Mackenzie, somehow monumental as a successful plantation owner of long standing. The young black women who are enslaved are also individualized and as memorable. I was even more moved the second time because I watched it during the day (a rerun) and got more out of what was said. This season is beautifully photographed but this had the effect of keeping us at a distance from the captured African people working in the fields …


Jamie and Claire greeted by Jocasta, Ulysses and Phoebe

The unexpectedness of the story line kept me on tenterhooks. After the conclusion of the pantomime third exit, where Jamie and Claire have been robbed by an ungrateful ruthless but debonair Mr Bonnet (Ed Speleers), they turn to Jamie’s relatives. Lucky man has all these rich relatives scattered around the world. But when they come to Aunt Jocasta, they discover her dependence on slavery in house and fields, no matter how much she wants to turn the management of River Run over to Jamie and Claire, both balk but Claire more. Faery gold as Aunt Jocasta wantsto turn her property over to Jamie; wants to make him heir but before this goes further, a young black man, now named Rufus, whipped by some overseer has responded by cutting the guy’s ear off, and the mob (I don’t want to use the word community which is such an honorific), has strung him up on a hook thrust deep into his belly. This was taking the law into their own hands and Jamie manages to wrest the body back and we watch Claire and young Ian operate on him and him come back to life. He could have lived.


Jamie, Claire and Jocasta face the angry mob of white men determined to torture an enslaved black man to death: Claire has enabled him to die a peaceful death

But there are laws 1) again freeing slaves without pay 100 pounds bond for each 2) signing documents to the effect they will hurt no one and if they do, you get killed 3) that such an act of rebellion must be responded to by execution. A mob comes and Claire finds she must feed Rufus arsenic to save him from torture — the sleeping death is the kindest thing that might be done. Then the body is handed over. One can see that Claire and Jamie will not be able to stop at this plantation but go have to go west — where of course they will encounter Native American and the hideous casual violence, described by Jill Lepore in her King Philip’s war.

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Episode 3: “False Bride: Basically Jamie and Claire refuse to take on Jocasta’s plantation if it means owning and driving people as slaves. But there is an odd subtext here: the way the house servants are presented show them as well dressed, well fed, and happy enough: it’s almost a justification of slavery where Claire comes out as unreasonably austere in not agreeing to go with the system. After all, are not unfortunate injustices rife everywhere: that’s Jocasta’s stance and there is little to counter act it – the only cruelty we see is the one which murders Rufus..


Jocasta left alone

They go west and immediately as a couple Jamie and Claire do have a believable momentary trauma: Ian goes off with Mr Myers (why I’m not sure but they go on ahead) and the donkey bolts and Claire rides after it.. No surprise when she gets lost and then another tempest. Much juxtaposition of scenes so tension created until we get back. Then Claire has a dream of a nightmare ghost, an Indian or Native American whose head is broke open, and then she finds a skull with fillings not possible until two centuries later. Is there another person who crossed those stones now in distress trying to get into contact with her.

But Jamie finds her, all is well again and after some serious conversation, he agrees to stay there in this relatively place and try to make a home. We wonder if it’s too far from where other whites are and the Indians will attack — they have been mentioned as “more civil” in this part of the world but the reassurance itself sows doubts.


Roger and Brianna dancing at the Scots festival in 1967

Parallel is Roger and Brianna’s story. Here the film differs from the book. In the book after initial awkwardness: Roger at first and continues to stand for all Briana dreads about her parents and biological father) they become lovers – he is a wonderful folk singer and plays ancient instruments in the Scots festival. In the book it’s Boston, here North Carolina – I suppose to make more contrast and parallel. I am told that there are three separate encounters in the book where the young couple gets to know one another. Here is it just pressed into one time and maybe that accounts for the inconsistencies.

In the film Roger turns out to be way “behind the times:” he wanted Brianna to marry him, and he won’t countenance just fucking — to him, it’s all or nothing. But as she says she’s not ready, she has her schooling, her career, she’s not sure. An impasse. Is his song about a false functioning as a warning of what’s come. Often songs sung in a film have some resonance. False bride. In the song the man is betrayed by the girl who married someone else. Now we can say this refers to the initial Jamie and Claire story where she is (forced we remember) to marry Jamie and thus betray Frank – and when she returns to Frank she cannot love him any more for real.

There are strawberries in the song; but where in the book (the conclusion of the sequence) Claire and Jamie eat strawberries idyllically in a paradisal set-piece is omitted.

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Episode 4: “Common Ground:” This was a very well-meaning story and the tone throughout was appealing especially in moments where Jamie and Claire and Ian were working on their new home together: the theme is pro-settler colonialism with Jamie and Claire & Ian identified as very well-meaning refugees (in effect) from Scotland where life has become hard if not impossible for them – dangerous and poverty stricken.

One spectacular incident involving Jamie is of over-the-top St George and the Dragon archetype. (I don’t mind these, and they can have a sort of pizzazz if you have the nerve to do it — as in the first season when in Both Sides now Evil Black Jack Randall is about to carve holes in Claire’s body and rape her high in a castle dungeon and suddenly from the window, there is our hero gun in hand, I’ll thank you to keep your hands off my wife — or words to this effect). So a fearful creature, at first they think an Indian and then a bear attacks them and Jamie to the rescue. Turns the bear is not a bear but a murderous man who had put claws on his hands to claw people to death. Where he got these or why he thinks he is a bear this way we are not told. He does real damage to the trader with whom Claire and Jamie and Ian have made friends and Claire now to the rescue with her medical box and tools and knowhow.


Claire and Adawehi

This incident enables our friends to make friends with the local Indians. A story is told that this man was someone who beat and raped a woman and so was ejected from the Indian community (I was glad to see such upright humane attitudes, albeit perhaps anachronistic?). So all are grateful to our hero for killing the insane man with his wild claws and bear outfit and this gives Jamie a chance to make his gestures of friendship, which are reciprocated. A film has a problem here of translating what in a verbal text is easy to conjure up by a reader’s imagination; made concrete by concrete means it is susceptible of rejection as impossible or absurd. A sub-arch is about this ghost of an Indian who Claire thinks is another person who crossed those stones. The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans.


Roger on the phone

The parallel thread is of Claire and her friend, African American, in college in Boston receiving a phone call from Roger who has come across a document showing that Jamie and Claire became settlers in North Carolina and called her to tell her. We learn that Roger’s Scottish housekeeper, Fiona (granddaughter of Mrs Graham now deceased, — in season 1 & 2 important) knows all about the stones and what happened to Claire. We learn she knows because the story line requires that she show Roger a document which suggests that 12 years after Claire and Jamie came to North Carolina they died. She says she heard all the conversation in the house (go back to the 2nd and 3rd seasons) This naturally distresses Roger because even if in realism Jamie and Claire have been dead now 200 years, it will upset Briana to think of her mother as not able to come back through the stones. Roger thinks he must phone again but now discovers that Brianna left for Scotland two weeks ago (!) to be with or join or find her mother.

These scenes are touching — they are now our young lovers.

We are (I suggest) supposed to remember there is a contradiction in the documents or concrete relics. At the grave yard in Scotland in the 20th century, Claire came across a tombstone showing that Jamie died in Scotland with a sub-header of “beloved husband of Claire” (or word to this effect). 17—the two last digits were wiped out. So did he die in Scotland? When? Is the young housekeeper’s document wrong or the document they died in North Carolina wrong. Stay tuned.

There were some very good moments between Claire and Jamie too.

The title is well-put: they are all living on common ground. Europeans and Native Americans; nevertheless, there is a kind of strangeness to this series this time in all these attempts to realize the book’s vision of America and the past now versus the present and keep them distinct. I wish they didn’t call her a healer so often (it just jars) — the word physician was common in this era among white Europeans. The Europeans would have called her a doctor. Much progress had been made by the later-18th century as her box shows – in the book there are interesting insertions in italics by the doctor who owned the box and his experiences as a physician. Claire reads them in Drums of Autumn itself, an instance of epistolarity, & very well done.

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Murtagh

Episode 5: “Savages” has clarity in the way the storyline is designed. The developments: Jamie re-meets Murtagh, now a blacksmith, suitably enough “aged” by make-up. A few sentences explain a long period of indentured servitude, ending luckily (faery gold again) for him in inheriting a smithy. At first Murtagh seems unwilling to leave his place to come live closely with Jamie and Claire once again because he is politically involved with a group of people protesting (among other things) taxes, but by the end of the hour he has turned up at Fraser’s Ridge. In the book I believe there is a Dunton who performs the role that Murtagh is about to take.

The other is that Brianna appears to have had a message that Claire and Jamie are in “terrible danger,” and she must travel back in time to help/warn them. Two sets of brief scenes with Roger Wakefield and a shot of her at the stones and then vanished. Is this another false one? These are neatly brought in not far from the opening of the hour and conclude at the conclusion.

In 18th century America, Claire helps a German girl to give birth to a baby, which baby catches the measles as well as the mother and dies. The grandfather blames the Indians (this is the term used in the series) who had passed by his land and drank some water. They left a blessing, which he thinks was a curse. He seeks a violent revenge on them and murders the good old woman who functions as their “healer;” in retaliation the Indian kill him and his wife and burn down their house. We are to mourn for her death.

The idea is Handy Dandy, who are the savages …. this includes the British gov’t wrenching taxes from the colonists, the original arrests and transportation of people in servitude, the German family, the Native Americans — everyone but our friends.


Remembering the Boogie Woogie song (from “The Search” Season 1, Episode 14)

The elements of fantasy seem to me to be coming out strongly or somehow more jarringly in this fourth season — Murtagh is still so hearty and strong – what works in a book is harder to put across in the visual concrete realism of a movie – which for the audience at large it even depends upon. Brianna almost at will crosses the stones. This put me in mind of The Wizard of Oz, which if I’m not mistaken Gabaldon alludes to in her first book, and the lines did turn up in the first season’s episodes. Claire as Dorothy longing to go home – sans Toto. Soon people will be traveling back and forth (joke alert).

I see no sign of the story of the young girl who was impregnated by a vicious man who was one of the prison guards at Ardsmuir. She either kills herself or tries to have an abortion and dies in the attempt. She is helped by an enslaved friend who is then hunted down according to the savage laws of this land’s people. Jamie, Claire and Ian find this girl and take her to live with the Indians. I hope it’s not cut as it certainly fits the theme of savages. .Handy dandy, who is the savage here – not “our friends” or the victims they come across now and again of this monstrous European colonialist order.

And I do enjoy the letters in the book: Ian’s conveying Jenny’s was especially very pleasant, filled with good feeling. It’s too bad they can’t or don’t try to convey that.

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Jamie and Lord John meet again, in front of the cabin

Episode 6: “Blood of my blood:” I enjoyed most of last night’s episode, but did cringe at some. The story for the hour is Lord John brings Willy to North Carolina, with a variety of reasons why, omitting at first only that he longs himself to see Jamie: Willy should see his father, he, Lord John just happened to be in the area (Virginia is not in the area of North Carolina Jamie points out), is there to reconnoitre the area &c&c

Early on there is an interesting series of inexorable political clashes between Murtagh now called Mr Fitzgibbons: Murtagh is a “regulator” (I’m not sure what that is) and he has been in political meetings with people in the area outraged at the taxes; Lord John commends the Governor’s mansion, “a true monument to elegance.” That elegance is off the back of the colonists and anyone else the British can demand payment from. Jamie tries to stifle this because he is determined not to get on the wrong side of the law again. Murtagh leaves.

There is a scene of chess-playing between Jamie and Lord John: some could come away again feeling a strong homoerotic relationship (without the sex longing on Jamie’s part). Lord John is a rival because Jamie had been willing to confide in him. It’s here that Claire’s jealousy is understandable, though the two relationships are so very different: I feel Jamie and Claire are classically heterosexual in their social and sexual behavior (especially in the areas of dependence and independence).

The most moving moments are between Jamie and young Willie who wants to be called Master William and speaks in a plumy English accent. Lord John introduces them as if they have never met and the boy says nothing, but when he left alone outside with Jamie he immediately asks him if he also has the name Mackenzie and it emerges the boy remembers a lot. What throws them together in the wilderness alone is Lord John comes down with measles — remember the last episode of a family died of measles. It was a virulent deadly disease — still is very dangerous. But no vaccination possible for 18th century people. Conveniently Jamie had it and survived, so Claire is left to nurse Lord John back to health.

Since Caitriona Balfe has rightly been nominated for a Golden Globe, let me say how admirably Sam Heughan acts his part of unacknowledged father and how touching the scenes.Indeed he is excellent throughout the series: The boy is difficult and used to his way and goes outside the boundaries to Indian land and the two are confronted by the Indians. They say they must have blood and in the desperation of the moment, Jamie says the boy is his son and he will bleed for him; Willie then speaks up that it was he who crossed the borders and the Indian leader just nicks him. The “cat is not out of the bag” as when the Indians have gone it’s clear the boy thinks Jamie lied. The boy is very attached to his father and longs to return to him more than once.

Lord John’s wife, Isabel has died — I suppose this erasure of an inconvenient character comes from the book. Back in the cabin Lord John reveals this and while some of the interaction is understandable, I cringe over the submissive lines given Lord John, his abjection before Claire. In some of her jealousy and envy of hi, I felt her unfair; she excuses herself that she and Jamie have been deprived of 10 years. That’s not his fault. When Lord John brings forward the boy as an excuse for his visit, she suddenly tells him she and Jamie have a daughter. That is what she is envious of: the child. Hers lives in Boston. Lord John cannot know Boston in 1967.

At the close I was as usual touched by the love-making and concluding scene. I know it’s improbable that they could have such a comfortable place alone in a wood, and that the log cabin could be so pretty. But this is a fantasy romance material.

The episode seemed like a quiet interlude. Except for the clash between Lord John and Mr Fitzgibbon aka Murtagh, these events will not lead to anything — indeed much of this season has been quiet or highly dramatic moments not linked forward to an on-going story, The story that is ongoing is the development of Briana’s determination to cross the stones back to her mother.

With Fiona and Roger, and Murtagh, when Brianna crosses back there will be 6 characters who know the story of Claire’s crossing, 3 and eventually 4 (for Roger crosses back) in the 18th century. I wonder if Lord John is ever told?

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Outlander Season 4 Episode 7: Down the Rabbit Hole

I watched 2 times this week and then half of it again. I am at the same time slowly re-watching Season 1 and am up to the 15th episode (which I find hard to go through, it is far too cruel and the voyeurism to me is suspect). Anyway I was riveted by this one, just loved it, and crucial for me to its affects and effect was the re-appearance of Tobias Menzies as as a loving, tired, suffering father and yes betrayed husband. The scenes between him as Frank Randall and Briana Randall (the name she gives made me for the first time think maybe the actress, Sophie Skelton has the depths necessary for the character to keep the series viscerally felt. The second actor whose talent is slightly uncanny is Edward Speleers; there he is again (last seen a couple of episodes ago): as the fiercely violent, altogether oblivious to humanity or any reasoning loyalty, Mr Bonnet, Proteus himself in how he flashes from type to type, he’s electrifyingly charismatic. Terrifying because he is all gaiety and courtesy as he does horrific deeds. He reminds me of some of the characters of the first season lost in the second. Several other characters re-appeared – or recurred – for the first time this season. Nell Hudson as Laoghaire Mackenzie now Fraser on the surface and when not touched to her depths this apparently intensely kind conventional woman; but how swiftly she switches to fierce witch herself when she realizes this waif is Claire Fraser’s daughter by Jamie Fraser – Steven Cree as Ian Murray, the gentle presence refelt. (What happened to Jenny aka Laura Donnelly – was she not contracted for this year?)

But none of them with the same meaning as Frank – paradoxically or ironically he is now the ghost people who loved him (it seems mainly Briana) long to resurrect or reach. In episode 1, it was that Scotsman by the monument in the central square at dusk looking up at a window he might see Claire from as Frank approaches. What else is this but beating death, going into the past to make it come alive again. And each flashback of a now dead man in the 20th century worked that way until the near end when the emotion becomes chocking as Brianna once again on her own (Ian cannot accompany her any further, like some Virgil guide cannot go further) turns round once more to look at Scotland before going aboard and sees the now clearly the ghost of her father waving her on.

The title is down the rabbit hole so we are prompted to irony, distance, mockery – here we are with Alice in Wonderland. But that’s not how it’s experienced. I found Brianna’s initial trek through the Scottish highlands as worrying as her mother Claire’s through the jungles of Jamaica in the third season. Both she and Roger (who also has no trouble going down that hole – after due adieus with Fiona) are given experiences which make shocking the differences between 18th century world and today. There is no city, no town, no lights, no coach, no phones and she is in danger of dying were she not found. We must not question too closely how the stones land the person near the place they want to be – though not quite there, like some magic bus that got the address slightly wrong. Roger finds that the structures of society he is so used to and depends on are out; he has to go low in status to get the place he wants (crossing to North Carolina) and once aboard ship, no one has any science or medicine to deal with common body needs. What’s more they are ruthless in this era and small pox so feared that people are thrown overboard.

I know people countered my idea that the last episode was like an interlude by saying grounds were laid for further action. If so, they are still in the planting stage. Here the story unfolds, or unravels swiftly in the way of the first & second seasons. Laoghaire locks Brianna in (fairy tale elements here – Rapunzel comes to mind) but there is a sympathetic child who has a wagon and horse (!) to take her to a relative nearby. And Roger crosses the ocean with memorable encounter with Mr Bonnet once again. That tossing of the coin is a brilliant embodiment of the idea of chance ruling all – though clearly it’s all providential if savagely so in this series.

Women did not travel alone in this period and anyway why not a friend as lady’s companion (Briana getting into the swing of things) so she picks up one Elizabeth to spare her rape. Since there’s been talk about the actress playing the role: her held-back stance and plainer looks make her just right: perhaps she is a bit well-fed, for servants in this era were smaller, thinner (they didn’t get a helluva a lot to eat).
This is a rare episode where neither Sam Heughan or Caitriona Balfe appear. I’d say they had that week off except maybe the film-makers don’t make these episode by episode. I doubt they do.

We see in this episode how centrally this is woman’s romance. The figure who acts first or is acted upon first is the female: Brianna. Before it was Claire before the stones. The male follows her: Roger. He is (I am so glad for this) the opposite of a macho male: anything but a violent cruel man. Jamie despite coming from a culture of violence is as moral and exemplary a figure as Ross Poldark (to bring in another romance hero, though a series of books centered on a male, i.e., him). Brianna brings with her her needs, and she is set in a patriarchy: her mentor and normative figure is her father. Claire’s profession is one woman traditionally have been allowed; she collects flowers & herbs (botany); turns to a husband who she bonds fiercely with. Briana’s role is that of daughter in a central mother-daughter paradigm: many women’s books have this as a central focus.

The use of flashbacks, juxtaposition, voice overlaps (if not over-voice) and parallels was so done so It felt intuitive and gave subjective depths as we went. I noticed for the first time too how they use deep-focus so you can see three deepening sections of a single scene (something the human eye can’t do). Wonderful episode.


Deep in conversation from an earlier season

I was moved to write a poem about how the dead are never gone from us, how historical fiction is aligned with the ghost story and our longings to cross some border into the deep past and bring it alive. For me this is to reach Jim and be alive with him once more, to beat death the way Claire does in the third season and now Brianna in this fourth. The question is, how? I see the metaphor of the Wizard of Oz as central as Alice (and used as metaphor in the first season if not the first book) This is the driving actuation of great historical romance writers like Hilary Mantel and Daphne DuMaurier.

Ellen

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One of the many whole family scenes in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008)


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

Over these few Christmas days I watched two new (to me) Christmas movies, read three Christmas stories I’ve never read before, and renewed my acquaintance with a series of Christmas chapters in a strong masterpiece of Victorian fiction. I most enjoyed the extraordinary creation of a several day Christmas time together by Arnaud Desplechin in his much-awarded A Christmas tale and was fully absorbed by six different households and their experience of Christmas in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. I’m with those reviewers who found that Mary Poppins Rebooted half-a-century later fails to enchant, and think anibundel comes closest to explaining why. The three stories I read, two by Anton Chekhov, and a third by Margaret Oliphant, suggest what was expected from a mainstream Christmas story in the 19th differs considerably from the 20th.

In this blog we’ll stay with movies, and in my next turn to stories.

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Sylvia’s children, Paul, grandfather and Sylvia doing a play of the children’s own device during the week (A Christmas Tale)

I can’t speak too highly of Desplechin’s film. It must may be the best or most mature Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. Before this I would say John Huston’s The Dead (from Joyce’s story) and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (an appropriation of Mansfield Park) were the finest, with the 1951 Christmas Carol archetypally old-fashioned, still delivering a depth of inward anguish, anger and redemption hard to match anywhere, partly because of the performance of Alistair Sim and partly the use of some film noir and fantafy techniques — and Dickens’s famous bitter and joyous lines. But they feel so limited in scope and what’s presented in comparison. Love Actually is vulgar in comparison (and finds sexual predation a bit too humorous with Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody dating just a bit); It’s a Wonderful Life — so meaningfully anti-capitalist for us today, with its angel Clarence seeking promotion and no one doing hysteria the way Jimmy Stewart can (I weep each time) — has problems — the depiction of the wife had she not married as this dried up spinster librarian afraid of her shadow is grating. There are none of these kinds of mistakes in Desplechin’s film.

I’d say if you are alone (like I fundamentally am now) and want to experience Christmas with other intelligent well-meaning real enough people sit for the full 2 and 1/2 slow-moving hours and then watch the 2 hours of features too. It’s the story of a large bourgeois family who all get together for the first time in several years because the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a cancer which requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to have any chance of living even for two years. Two of the family members have compatible blood types, one Paul (Emile Berling) the 15 year old troubled son of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a gifted playwright, who loathes the other, her brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) to the point five years she demanded her father, Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) and her mother cut off all relationship with him in return for her paying the enormous debts Henri had racked up; if someone did not pay it, her parents would lose the family home.

A major character across the film is this large comfortable ramshackle home and its landscape, both of which frame and is a brooding and comforting presence throughout all the scenes which don’t take place specifically in Roubaix. Roubaix is the film’s subtitle, a small French city in which Desplechin grew up and which he photographs lovingly, realistically in small interludes of shots. The key characters are Abel (the father), Junon (the mother), Henri and Elizabeth (two of their grown children), with Amalric as Henri delivering a character of extraordinary complexity and interest, vulnerable, resentful, despairing, kind, insightful by turns.


Mathieu Amalric as Henri talking earnestly to his younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaid) as they decorate the family tree.

Back history (like a novel): Abel and Junon had four children, and the film opens with the death of the eldest, Joseph at age six as a flashback of memory in Abel’s mind — as he and his wife await the arrival of the family as it is today for Christmas.   Elizabeth and their youngest son, Ivan, have married. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) leaves at one point, so incensed does he get against the tactless Henri, when he is having to deal with his son Paul having had a breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. Claude is preparing his mind for a coming interview with authorities to try to get the boy out of the asylum while Elizabeth wants to put him back there. By film’s end the boy will not return to the asylum but stay with his grandparents, Claude has returned, and Elizabeth been helped by talk with her father.

Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroiana, Deneuve’s actual daughter) while reacting with real affection to her two small boys whenever they are around, is essentially bored by them and her life, and during the course of the film discovers that Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a cousin who lives with Abel and Junon, and works in their dye factory (the source of the family income) is deeply in love with her, and gave her up to Ivan after he lost a bet. She apparently had preferred Simon to Ivan; he is one of several family members who absents himself from the group now and again — he drinks too heavily, maybe is bisexual, is doing nothing with his life. So Sylvia finds him alone in a bar on Christmas eve, and they spent a night in bed together, something accepted by Ivan, who himself lives unconventionally as a musician commanding large audiences in rock concerts, one of which we attend.

Henri’s first wife, died in a car accident a month after they married:


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

Henri has had several partners since, and the present woman, Jewish, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) finds herself feeling alien, Henri’s response is he wants to leave too; at one point she goes shopping with Junon, and without telling her, Junon leaves the shop, driving herself back, so Faunia has to get back herself. She does leave early.


Simon, Sylvia, Ivan, Junon in a corridor (left to right)

A complicated family you might say – but no more than many families. I assure you, you will not be bored; it’s funny, wry, quiet and peaceful (as they watch appalling movies), suddenly all is fraught emotion and then they calm down again and exchange presents.

The stories close with Elizabeth intoning the epilogue from Midsummer’s Night Dream, as she overlooks Roubaix.  This last literary quotation (of several) signals the underlying mood that holds it together: acceptance (except during eruptions) of one another, their fates, with barbed raillery mixed with profound thoughts, sometimes read aloud —


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

What helps hold everyone together: the house where they dwell together. All they do in and for it. The town they know. Even the cemetery close by where their baby brother was buried.  The father is the final authority all the while going off to clean up the table, the yard after fireworks were set up all over it; the mother is respected by all even if she had the disconcerting habit of telling this or that child she never cared for them. So a combination of tradition and concrete truth.  Things.  Prickly, messy and companionable (Henri goes walking in the snow with Paul and helps him), filled with shots of beautiful winter, ghastly streets, and the house and rooms every which way, this movie finally helps us to endure on. Chapter headings, days of the week also named by mood, characters who turn around and address us, hospital and bar scenes, it’s all there, Christmas time. The hope in the film that they do get together, help one another, share their memories, which is to say their deepest identities, has some fruition.

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Look at the look in Blunt’s eye — cold as ice

The Mary Poppins movie is not the most tedious Christmas film I’ve ever seen — I give that prize to the Muppet Scrooge story. But it can come close. It’s a child’s movie because the main action, the rescuing is precipitated by the children. I bring it up because Disney has such a prominent presence in our culture, as a girl I loved the books by P.L Travers (wildly disparate from the 1964 movie), which have yet to be done justice to by any of the movies (including Saving Mr Banks), two of which have been used as Christmas icons. Emily Blunt herself played the wife who dies, a central role in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which was another Christmas day extravaganza, and this gives us our clue to what goes wrong.


Emily Blunt as the despairing hysterically lost baker’s wife (2014)

Sondheim’s song was simply about how in life sometimes we end up walking alone: “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.” Paradoxically the film also tried to bring something of the original thwarted feelings of the book: each time an adventure is over, Mary Poppins denies it took place; she is all vanity, egoism, discusses nothing, orders everyone about (Blunt tried for a soupcon of this). Anibundel suggests the problem is the film took on “deep emotional themes” the Disneyfiction can’t include. Manohla Dargis agrees that it follows the trajectory of the old songs; and finds it uncanny that it never captures the original “delicacy of feeling” or bliss.


Lin-Manuel Miranda imitating one of Van Dyke’s routines

I’m inclined to think the actors didn’t believe in it the way they did 50 years ago; Emily Mortimer was thrown away; Julie Walters was a stray from 19th century music hall; the occasional nervous plangency allowed Wishaw went nowhere, and Lin-Manuel seemed to be biking to no purpose, round and round. What seems to me important is capitalism won out; no subversion allowed. All the talk of the movie was money, certificates, and while Dick Van Dyke stepped in for a moment to dance a delicate shoe number and remind us trust in one another was the key to the first bank’s success, that was lost in the hard noise of triumph. The principals worked so hard because it was all counter-productive; the less true Christmas message they had, the more vigorous they became. When they went high up in balloons, they were not escaping from their world. The material as brought down not from Travers, not from her book:


Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers very irritated by what Disney did to her book (Saving Mr Banks, 2013)

But the previous naive travesty won’t work any more because we are cut off from social feeling.


Is the Mary Poppins in the center having any emotion with respect to anyone around her?

They wanted more than a Sondheim production, where rousing music and slow depth simple words convey significance. The movie lacked haunting music because it was not permitted the real melancholy of life’s existence (as caught in Abel’s words in the book he reads; another review by Jen Cheney this time of the DVD set). Streep’s song could have fitted the movie’s story: the Banks children and Michael Banks need to be righted. But one visit from MP will not do it. This was a ludicrously over-produced fantasy, a commercial for Disneyland, pictures of which opened and closed the movie itself.

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What should a Christmas story be? Trollope said “the savor of Christmas” was a story that instilled (in his language) “charity,” which translates literally into acts of giving. We’ll explore this next time. At the end of A Christmas Tale, Henri has given life’s blood, risked his life, on the chance he could save his mother’s. There has been no talk of money here; what tore the family apart was money.


The church scene repeats the arrangement of characters in the court scene only then it’s Abel next to Henri

I mentioned my DVD included two disks. As Cheney says, “Arnaud’s tale” is disappointing: we are told how central the house is to the film, and the city, and these connect back to Desplechin’s life and Almaric talks of how he understood and played Henri. But it’s the one hour documentary movie that illuminates why he chose to make a Christmas movie:

“L’Aimée,” on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin’s relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like “A Christmas Tale,” a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort,” “L’Aimée” introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family’s history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.

Into the Woods was not about charity but it was about heartbreak, memory and camaraderie as solace. A roll of the dice, chance moments, human obtuseness and self have caused much damage but by the end (as Philip Lopate says in the essay that accompanies the DVD — such a lot of stuff in this DVD case) even the depressed Elizabeth “gets her bearings.” And moments of grace no matter how odd (like when the nurse does not stop Henri from drinking and smoking the morning he is to do his part of the procedure) enable the people together to invent livable lives. No one altogether crushed, and everyone at some point smiles with some shared or individual enjoyment.


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark brooding (near the opening, early still after the prologue)


Elinor Tomlinson as Demelza Poldark (near opening &c), singing, troubled

All we know is this moment, and this moment, Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come doesn’t exist yet. That’s tomorrow! It’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment. And at this moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask … Demelza to Ross (last page of The Angry Tide).

Dear friends and readers,

A second Winston Graham blog-review in a row! Beyond Poldark, Graham is the author/source of the misbegotten Hitchcock movie, Sean O’Connor play and now perverse opera Marnie. This time, mostly due to the excellence of the two source novels, Poldark novel 6, The Four Swans (A novel of Cornwall, 1796-97), and Poldark novel 7, The Angry Tide (ditto, 1798-99 is listening), the film adaptation is well worth the watching and thinking about. I declare myself (as loud as I can, in the hope someone with power to realize Poldark novels 8-12, might hear me), I’d love to see the same cast or another (as the Netflix series The Crown has done) film Stranger from the Sea, Miller’s Dance, Loving Cup, Twisted Sword and Bella [misnamed by an editor, ought to be Valentine], 1810-20 as further serial drama seasons for Poldark. Begin two years from now ….

NB: I have eschewed summaries (except to compare the older series in the comments) and concentrated on the realization of the novels as 2018 TV serial drama.

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Turner as Ross eloquent and bitter does bring out the central economic power issues


Elise Chappell as Morwenna grieving over the coming hanging of Drake — a very French revolution scene because of the bars …

Episodes 1 & 2 are much changed from the last part of Graham’s Four Swans. Prologue: Ross standing on the beaching is having bad dreams about Demelza and Hugh Armitage. Story (Episode 1): What had been a politically meaningful series of violent thievery because the people are starving (Corn laws keeping the price of bread very high), and Bassett’s demand for scapegoats, with which Ross feels forced to cooperate, becomes a highly personal melodramatic story involving Morwenna and Whitworth since Horsfield replaces the people in the book rounded up (with one poignant man hung) with the two Carne brothers and Zacky Martin’s son. It’s out of character for gentle religious Sam and the now withdrawn depressed Drake to be in a riot, but now Horsfield can make Ross central hero: he’s off to Bassett’s to try to get them off, and failing, comes to the hanging, where his impassioned speech on their behalf improbably reprieves them. Nothing like last minute reprieves from scaffolds. I was moved by Zacky Martin’s grief for his son. The general primary scenes in the book and in the old series – at Lord Dunstable’s house and Bassetts — become secondary, brief. Horsfield also builds up the romance scenes between the three couples with very explicit dialogue. I liked the conversations between Ross and Demelza over the course of the hour as they work out their estrangement; some of this from the book.

Horsfield’s way of making Ross’s now agreeing finally to become an MP to prevent such personal injustice (the result of many such episodes in previous seasons) gives the new series a kind of unity and simplifying single thrust forward it didn’t have in the first series. In the book Ross’s refusals come out of subtler psychological reasons in complicated circumstances.

Episode 2 again Horsfield turns a realistic depiction of the way the world then worked into a personalized heroic drama. As Ross is dragged into replacing Armitage (now dying) in the election against Warleggan, we dwell on Ross’s complicated psychic life: Horsfield sets up juxtapositions between the elections and Armitage dying with Demelza supposed to love him but reluctant to be seen by his side. So the story is now Ross in public succeeding without having bribed anyone or even run a campaign — while Warleggan is intimidating, threatening and bribing people (to no avail finally). One side effect is Dwight becomes more central as presiding physician. In the book and first series Armitage was allowed to die slowly and only after Demelza is seen grieving separately, and Ross seen devastated and embittered by her grief for another, that the new election starts and The Angry Tide starts. Conversations between Demelza and Ross oddly didactic in all 3 iterations (book, 1970s series, this new one) but he came out of them the finer soul.


Ciara Charteris as Emma Tregirls watching the wrestling match


Tom York as Sam badly hurt

Secondary stories: Sam loses to the lout Harry partly because at the end of the fight Harry insinuates that Emma has gone to bed with Harry. A little later Emma says she had not; Sam’s heart was not in this violence in the first place — he is a believing gentle methodist. The true plangent note was struck by bringing in Drake’s distress for Morwenna: she still holds out against the bully Whitworth. Caroline’s finding herself pregnant and making a joke out of how she doesn’t want this baby. Horsfield shows no feel for this couple – in the original an earnest sincere man coupled with an incompatible “gay” lady; in the 1970s an earnest hard-working physician engaged with his patients married to a frivolous aristocrat who wants to spend her life socializing — the whole thing rings false, coy, with Luke Norris as Dwight embarrassing.

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Ross reading letters in London


Max Bennett as Monk Adderley emerging from darkness

Episodes 3 & 4: After the death of Hugh Armitage in the previous, and Ross’s agreeing to run and his win, he goes to Parliament in London. He and she talk of a different life for both, with her remaining in in Cornwall in charge and taking care, while he goes to London to argue ferociously in parliament on behalf of good causes. Exchange of letters using over-voice contains good feeling. Recess and everyone comes home – Ross and Whitworth in the conversation that opens Graham’s Angry Tide: Ross tells Whitworth to give his curate Odgers what he should get and he’ll help him — thematically effective underlining. In Cornwall Warleggan to the fore with his throwing a large party to make the right connections in which we meet the insinuating Adderley who insults Ross out of instinctive envy (I took you for a down-and-out troubadour). Whitworth visiting Pearce learns of embezzlement, tells Warleggan and his uncle so hypocrisy of the most sordid type, and underhanded dealings can ruin the good banker, Pascoe. Meanwhile well-meant mine venture flooded because supports not well-built (in book Sam allowed to be hero, but Horsfield will not allow anyone but Ross to be chief rescuer)


A Madonna-like moment


Esme Coy as Rowella selling herself

Private life themes: Rebecca Front as Lady Whitworth, the harsh mother-in-law, her snobbery, Whitworth indignant at Morwenna refusing him sex (coerced marriage seen rightly as rape), seeks out Rowella now she has not had a child. Horsfield’s further ill-conceived changes flattening and making senseless subtle characters: Demelza now she bickers with Ross (made resentful, she wants to go to London, the feel is of an estranged couple who from far away love one another but close by end up in much awkward uncomfortable talk); Elizabeth exults in George’s amorality (she made unlikable) while George made one note villain (life seems lived to get back at Ross). Verity’s good feeling visit; Geoffrey Charles now grown made naive. Caroline having given birth Dwight confronted with baby fatally ill unwilling to tell her as she clings absurdly to her indifference (all the while never putting the baby down). But when baby dies (a moving scene), she is all funereal and must to London with Ross to get over it. Excruciating painful scenes drenched in melancholy: Emma tells Sam she must marry elsewhere; the attempt to put Mowenna in asylum. Meanwhile Demelza has engineered a marriage between Drake and Rosina.

Beautiful and effective shots throughout, suggestive psychology, casual effective landscapes, but scenes move too quickly, are too brief for us to appreciate them, and to make effective the amount of action and rich nuances of feeling piled in.

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Episodes 5 & 6: I thought 5 very good except in those places where Horsfield, it seems to me perversely, alters the story or characters. Many of the minor characters were very effective in this episode (Rebecca Strong as the woman bully &c).


Luke Norris as Dwight: his best moments are when his character is acting as physician

London scenes: On the whole well acted, powerful atmosphere in London, corrupt parties, the pressure, and the political skein of given-and-take between Ross and Falmouth throughout, and Ross’s friendship with Bassett especially. Adderley effective. We are to find it natural that Caroline would enjoy his company? Gabriella Wilde is so painfully thin — she wears nothing low cut; they know it would be distressing to see the edges of her bones come out. I cringe when Enys cringes. Ross’s meeting with Pitt effective; yes Pitt had plans for pensions for the poor and helping them help themselves and in the book Ross does protest against just helping enslaved people and not the working poor. He does (again) seem to me to be sitting on the wrong side of the benches The Tories were in power and he is there as a member for a Tory patron, Lord Falmouth, very well acted by James Wilby. She adds scene between Elizabeth and Ross over Geoffrey Charles to once again make Ross the hero: this time he is saving the boy from bad company, from being beat up by them, but of course these are peccadilloes he just needs to outgrow. We should be glad that he is not characterized as going after girls aggressively as another “boys will be boys.” In the book Elizabeth stays away from Ross lest she rouse George’s jealousy. Elizabeth is taking a great chance, and Ross himself regards her warily as strongly self-centered. He has no need to remind her that she can try to misrepresent the date of her parturition.


Amelia Clarkson as Rosina Hoblyn


Harry Richardson as Drake the morning he is to wed Rosina

Cornwall: A powerful moment when Dwight’s baby dies & he grieves, Horsfield gives Aidan Turner as Ross some lines remembering the death of his daughter. Ross at first just uses the word daughter, and Dwight assumes he means Clowance: Dwight may have forgotten Julia, but Ross has not and Turner renders the lines and memory very touching. I would have liked to have the script so I could have exactly the lines. Neither film adaptation has dared to present the Morwenna-Rowella relationship or Rowella’s story truly candidly: Rowella is presented as poisonously promiscuous, reminding us of a snake; Whitworth is a sadistic rapist; his son is a horror from birth (just another just like him). The film-makers are afraid of this material: they dare to present Drake as depressed but that’s as far as it goes; he is fierce (as Harry Richardson is not) and in the first series (Kevin McNally) he was as obsessive as any character in Proust. The scenes leading up to and the murder of Whitworth powerful (these in the book and first series) juxtaposed to invented happy scenes of Rosina and Drake (these are Horsfield’s invention; in the book he remains reluctant.

So then what does the writer do: she has Demelza, Demelza (!) inform Drake just before he is about to wed Rosina that morning that Whitworth is dead and Morwenna supposedly free. That’s the last thing she would do. She has engineered this marriage, done everything to bring it about. In the book he hears from someone else and runs off to help Morwenna live again (he loves her truly and it is partly unselfish to rescue her) and Demelza is desolated because she and all and he agree if he had wed Rosina, he would have been true to his vows. In this episode he asks Demelza why did she tell him? Good question. She has ruined a possible happiness. She says he would not have forgiven her. Clearly untrue and anyway whom is she thinking of here? I like that Rosina as a character is built up, and that Sam is beginning to flex towards conventional aggression against bullies in order to help his brother. Sam and Drake’s relationship is beautifully done — as it was in the first series.

The story of Warleggan’s Machiavellian near-bankruptcy of Pascoe’s bank, Demelza’s actions to help prevent this, the yielding of Basset to make a consortium appealed to me — and it’s done close to the book. I like the actor, Hope, who plays Harris very much and bringing in his daughter and her ne’er do well husband economically stranged by the Warleggans is effective.


Richard Hope as the ever patient, decent, reasonable appealing Pascoe — more idealized in this series than the book or first series

Aidan Turner must be kept before us as the hero in every episode, and each young male needs to be seen nearly naked in the water — so we’ve Ross several times, Drake once and Dwight who for a moment seemed to be killing himself by hanging on the surface of the water.

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Episodes 7 & 8: At moments as a pair unbearably moving. Best when closest to the book. It truly gets the emotional pain of what is happening across up close and intensely. I felt the way I do when I read the book. Oddly I especially admired how the film-makers got across how Caroline can be regarded as irritating — she is so into London culture and so comfortable in it that while at first both Demelza and Dwight seem to be glad of her knowhow, when they realize how hollow this social life is, she becomes the alien to them, someone who could approve of duels. Again Dwight and Caroline talking through the dog. Here the angrier and more individualized Demelza is more fitting; Angharad Rees was just too sweet. Turner as Ross and the actor playing Adderley were pitch perfect: Turner is very good at steely ferocity. The Morwenna plot has been done far more strongly all along and here hits a core of anguish the equivalent of the book. This the photography was fitting — the scene of the duel was beautiful — blacks and whites. Elizabeth in the book is not complacent but as Horsfield has made her so, now that she is shaken out of it, her desperation becomes more effective. I liked the use of darkness, the way the rooms were angled. I don’t know if others recognized Adrian Lukis as Sir John Mitford: he was Wickham so long ago in the 1995 P&P.


Ross and Demelza beginning their time in London so well


Demelza not sure how to react but right away seeing that something is wrong with the way Adderley is speaking to her

First just 7 Three powerful striking stories: how Demelza and Ross’s time in London begins so well when they are alone but once in society, she is taken advantage of by a vicious male egged on by Warleggan. Ross’s manhood is threatened when Demelza does not reject Adderley thoroughly: she is not attracted to him, she even quickly sees and feels what a shit he is, but does not know how to put him off.. The one element left out is that part of this is her low status: this is a deeply hierarchical society and in the book Angry Tide the point is made that many of the people in London despise Demelza and the men regard her as simply probably available. That’s what she can’t handle. further (as in the novel Demelza at her first ball) Ross refuses to give her any help; he refuses to recognize or cannot see she needs help or why. they really dwelt on this far more than 1970s where none of this really came up (as it did in th 1975 first season adaptation of Demelza) The photography was superb. Did others notice how the screen sparkled as the dawn came and then turned into the park where the duel occurs?

Horsfield then tied this story to the other two. By simple means of juxtaposition: we move from Ross-Demelza to Morwenna-Drake and just before the crisis of the duel, Morwenna turns up at Drake’s forge and tells him her inner torment after years of violation, of martial sadistic rape. She is a bit too pathetic in her encounters with the mother-in-law because Horsfield has been so unwilling to make her hate the children she has born by this monster, has been unwilling to make John Conan a chip of the vicious block. If you feel like me, I wanted more of the Morwenna-Drake story in this episode but Horsfield chooses to give more room to Dwight-Caroline’s troubles.

There too there is this softening. Why cannot she allow Dwight to be stronger (as he is in the book) and just sick of London society openly and anxious to get back to his patients, a real chasm of understanding between him and Carolin: they are not truly compatible


Jill Townsend as pregnant Elizabeth with Valentine just before Geoffrey Charles makes his fatal passing comment (1975 BBC Poldark, episode 13, scripted Martin Worth)

The third story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy at first binding the two together but the glue there being so thin that a passing remark by Geoffrey Charles that Valentine looks like Ross just overturns all and George goes back to hatred. This cannnot be an easy task for Jack Farthing: basically he presents the man as cold steel, far more icy than Adderley — who in the book is a narcissistic cold sociopath. We are not really given any reason for Elizabeth to like this guy except that she likes being rich lady in society. This is tied sharply into the duel: as soon as Ross can go out he marches to Warleggan who throws the coins in his face. Thwarted by the local JP (played splendidly by Adrian Lukas — once Wickham in 1995) and the customs of acceptance of duelling, George has again not been able to destroy Ross.. but he will destroy Elizabeth as we see her pacing in the darkened room at the end of the episode.


Jack Farthing as George exposing his hatred and making a fool of himself before Sir Christopher

Episode 8: For this one I also rewatched the 13th episode of the second season of the 1978 Poldark for contrast or comparison. The older show works under the disadvantage of far less time so far less is dramatized in detail, but what is there is in mood much closer to the book, especially the bleak ending.


Far shot for duel (1975)


Heida Reed as Elizabeth seeking the doctor to help her

I found the insistence on Morwenna’s being somehow “ill” or weak by the additions grating. In the book she just appears on the horizon, and Drake runs to her, and says, have you come home? and she is taken into his arms as he takes her heavy bag in which she is hauling all her worldly possessions. Yes she goes to Trenwith, lured by the still obtuse Elizabeth and in the 2018 scene she does finally hold out, declare that Warleggan has no idea what kind of person Drake is — and that augurs well. At no point in the book is the phrase: “you are safe now’ repeatedly. Well thud, thud, thud. She doesn’t want to be safe; she is not safe with Drake in the sense he has no money, no power, no status, but she is herself, gets her identity and inviolabilty of her body back. That’s the point. Not that Drake is so sweet but that the perpetrator, the predator, Whitworth is out of her life for good.


Jane Wymark and Kevin McNally as Morwenna and Drake (1975 BBC, both series include the eloquent speech by Drake about the nature of love in marriage)

I had forgotten how much better Judy Geeson was at the part of Caroline — far more like the “gay lady” of restoration drama. She understand duelling and defends it; she also is sexually interested in Ross as he is in her and they discuss going to be with one another — and coolly decide against it. This is not the coy character all drippy over children or not that Horsfield invents, and Dwight in the 1970s one is attached genuinely to his patients and that is his identity. Again Luke Norris is made just to “icky.”


Judy Geeson as a convincing Caroline (1975 series)

The book ends with Ross saying that Death is Intolerable and it shapes all of our reality, our feelings, and Demelza replying, just about yes except that one has to accept, live with it, and realize this here, now, is all we’ve got and we’ve got to make what we can of it. I should say that Angharad Rees is herself too sweet as she utters those words and in my view Elinor Tomlinson could have projected the acceptance of hard compromise much better – she has now and again over the course of these 8 episode


Robin Ellis as a desolate Ross (1975) leaning over to kiss Elizabeth now dead (1975)

And ending on their wedding shifts the emotional temperature too much. At the end of the book George is still in a rage though at the universe now (in which he includes his children) — I liked the stance Jack Farthing manages of dignified regret and acceptance but it’s a soft Warleggan.

The new opening too emphasized Elizabeth as the “problem” or her and Ross’s love as causing much of what happened. That striking flashback at the opener and bringing back Kyle Soller for the occasion. The book and the 1970s version made the statement that life itself is hard.

So however briefer the earlier version is the stronger truer one to life. Why he and Demelza need to go on about about Hugh Armitage in this 2018 version is beyond me — they don’t in the book except the suggestive hints earlier that in killing Adderly he was killing Armitage and there is a distrust of Demelza (which vanishes in 2018) — but then she has accepted his continuing deep affection for Elizabeth. In the 1970s version we do get an intimate moment of him kissing the dead woman in her bed. Why not have that if you are softening — it’s not in the book. Again and again Horsfield turns to personalities as causing our difficult lives. Graham is wider and better than that and so was Martin Worth (who wrote the scripts for the last 4 episodes of the 1977-78 series)


The last shot: George given dignity of grief in front of Elizabeth’s grave

That said, Aidan Turner, Jack Farthing, Heida Reed and Elinor Tomlinson play their complicated roles well. Turner has grasped the essentials of Ross’s character — only softened. Elise Chapell probaby had the hardest roles. I thought Aidan Turner pitch perfect in what he had to do.He had to provide a kind of coda of stability and he managed that — though Jack Farthing got the last shot.

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To conclude, I worry to think that next year we are in for a fifth season where the present script-writer, Debbie Horsfield will be free to invent what she likes between the ending of Angry Tide (1799) and opening of Stranger from the Sea (1810). Horsfield is said to be writing X number of episodes about what happened between The Angry Tide, which ends 1799 and The Stranger from the Sea (novel 8), which begins 1810 and ends 1811. It is true once Graham’s Poldark fiction comes alive again, half-way through Stranger from the Sea when Ross and Demelza re-unite in Cornwall (as an MP he has spent the last half-year in London), over the course of Poldark novels 8, 9 and 10 (9 is Miller’s Dance, 10, Loving Cup) some of what occurred in-between is remembered and told. I speculate these brief fragments of flashback will provide hints for Horsfield to work with. OTOH, Horsfield may ignore or distort them completely. The son, Andrew Graham, has given full permission to invent stories (something Winston Graham refused to do in 1979).


Garstin Cox, Kynance Cove, Cornwall by Moonlight

What you must do, gentle reader, is read the books (see my “‘I have the right to choose my own life:’ Liberty in the Poldark Novels” and then see the earlier serial drama (see my Poldark Rebooted, 40 years on) I regret to say that shorter and much less expensively done, the concluding episodes of the 1977-78 Poldark (Episodes 10-13) are finally more satisfying not so much because in general they were truer to the books, but because when they did differ (as all films must) the decisions made produced subtler truer-to-life drama with more effective political and feminist thought.

Not that I did not enjoy this season: it was like the last three uneven, but it had much merit, strong merit, was ethically better probably than 9/10s of what you might find on your TV or cinemas — and moving, entertaining, absorbing, beautiful, humanly strong with its visual and sound impact working on our imaginations — all those good things.

Ellen

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Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltland as Marnie and Mark Rutland on their honeymoon

Friends and readers,

I regret to have to tell you that this beautifully-sung, acted, and orchestrated Marnie is as repulsive a misogynistic story as I’ve come across in a while — and with Trump as president that’s going some. Ann Midgette of the Washington Post opined the work has a “hollow center” and offers no substantial understanding for why Marnie behaves the way she does (continually changing her very identity as she moves from outrageous theft to outrageous theft), why Mark Rutland responds to seeing she is a ruthless thief and liar by marrying her and then proceeding to win her over by almost raping her.

Not so: at the center of the opera, its “terrifying” back story is a slattern prostitute of a mother who (without an excuse offered) has rows of military men into her flat while her husband is nobly risking his life in battle, and when she becomes pregnant and has the baby, maneuvers her young daughter, into believing she killed the “bonny boy” when it was she. Each time we meet this woman she is snarling, spiteful, and a downright hater of her daughter. It’s known that a recurrent figure in many of Hitchcock’s films is the “terrible mother.” In Graham there is pity and economic explanation for Marnie’s mother’s behavior (abysmally poor, frightened at the same of ostracizing of her from others), and even Hitchcock condescends to have his Mark (Sean Connery) explain the apparently sweet Marnie (Tippi Hendrin) as someone seeking refuge. At least Marnie’s mother’s outward acts are in Graham’s text, Mark’s mother in Graham is not the scheming capitalist she is here. Mrs Rutland nags her son about his business failing all the while she is ruining it in order to buy it out from under him. In Graham, Mark’s mother is dead and it is his father and sister he must persuade to accept Marnie.


Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother (not otherwise identified in this production) — smoking away & sinister in her wheelchair

Perhaps the most dismaying element of all was how blatant this is. The relentlessly cheerful announcer brought up the “evil mothers” as if it were a joke, and then the two actresses opined that this didn’t matter. No one said it’s just entertainment for the great hype of these interviews is how serious and important the operas are. It is the equivalent of how in Hitchcock’s movie Marnie is repeatedly called a liar and all ads about the character in this movie call her a liar as if this lying were a moral sin of gargantuan magnitude. Worst of all really the lack of any explanation for the actions of the three central characters (Marnie, Make, and Marnie’s mother): we are left with a simplistic crude Freudianism “feel.” That the critics have latched onto this time — they all seem to feel Hitchcock somehow “explained” this — he is at least suggestive, nuanced and detailed in his presentation.

Probably the accusation of hollowness comes from how in this production, like Sean O’Connor and Hitchcock before him (a psychological play focusing on sex, class, money of play, Marnie, London, 1982; and a 1964 Hitchcock psychoanalytic film respectively) Muhly never gets inside Marnie’s mind (certainly not the harridan mother). There is no credible explanation for this crazed re-dressing of herself every few months, this dangerous stealing of the whole of a company’s capital. So Marnie in all three iterations emerges as a clothes-changing frigid manipulative domineering bitch. Since Mark has been directed to be far sweeter to Marnie than Sean Connery, indeed to be loving, kind, well-meaning, once we get past the unexplained impulse on his part to marry her (when all despise her as an employee so beneath him), we feel for Mark at least. Again Muhly goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhly does not allow Mark to rape Marnie. This is to rob the book of hard trauma. In several of his books Graham adheres to the idea that marital traumatic rape is good for the women — yes afterwards it seems they were longing for the man to overcome them. Graham has his men rape women for their own good (!) in some of the suspense novels (The Forgotten Story is one); a few of these men are forgiven for killing the woman when the woman commits adultery (presented as an understandable reaction). They are allowed to love two women (that’s Ross Poldark’s case in Warleggan). In Hitchcock’s case we have documentary evidence to show Hitchcock delighted in voyeurism and insisted the camera stay on Hedron’s face as Connery bears down on her. Hedron as Marnie flees (as in the book and film) but instead of leaping into a pool , in this opera she tries to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Red light suggests blood, and we move on.


Here they were reminiscent of the TV serial drama, Madmen.

I was further dismayed by the ignoring (as did Hitchcock before him) of Graham’s attack on capitalist soul-less offices — the production chose a very fat man to play Strut and he played the part as a gross narrow bully but beyond that nothing explicit. The 1950s was simply characterized as filled with men in suits sitting at desks or crowding in on women; the women were trussed up in offices sitting behind desks; at parties, they looked uncomfortable and absurd in their overdone gowns and big hair or French twists. In this production Terry Rutland (Lestyn Davies) does not develop a slow true understanding of like people with Marnie (which in the novel is at least interesting). In Hitchcock Terry Rutland works to ruin Marnie’s reputation, and she is innocent of his enterprises; here she works with him in deceit and corruption. Lastly, there is no landscape to speak of and Marnie’s one good relationship, with her horse Forio is not presented as the healthy experience it is, nor is she close or intimate with her horses’ feelings. In the book Graham may be remembering the incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where a horse’s life is sacrificed to a race and much sexual innuendo floats about. In the opera and in Hitchcock the horse-riding, racing and shooting of the horse is simply an acting out of a crude suggested (never detailed) Freudian-style analysis about sex: Marnie enjoys riding roughshod over Mark so she rides roughshod over her horse.

The book can go at length into an analysis; when Mark is hurt trying to stop the death of the horse, we can see a relationship develop between him and Marnie. We do feel for Marnie as an inexplicably sick person: she is a Humbert Humbert, except she is the victim, hoist with her own petard. Blackmailed into marriage, raped, then trapped, and finally found out by one of her previous bosses who comes to one of Mrs Rutland’s fancy garden parties and put into jail. In the book she seems almost relieved, and with a sort of reconciliation happening, it seems when she emerges, she may try for a sane relationship with Mark. In Hitchcock’s movie at the end she is pathetically grateful to Mark (as masterful Connery): the seething liar becomes a remorseful dependent. By contrast, in the opera she suddenly sings “I’m free” — of what? her mother who she has learnt in the previous scene died, so pat along comes the mid-wife-housekeeper, paid companion, Lucy, to tell Marnie her mother became a prostitute in the war and when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock smothered her “bonny boy.” Because Marnie has confessed he own crimes and understands her mother’s, she is not free of what happened or her past. She has just suggested to Mark she could like him when she gets out.


As in the book Marnie agrees to go to a psychiatrist (as part of a bargain with Mark): here as elsewhere she is surrounded by “other selves” — to the side we see her mother in a slip in red light

I did ask people near me what they thought of it. Most audience members are very reticent but as with (to be fair) other modern or non-traditional productions, I saw faces made. One woman said the piece was “repulsive.” Lynn Gardner of The Guardian thought that Graham’s novel seduced Sean O’Connor because he saw it as “gritty parable of repressiveness in which sex, class, money and manners are central motivators.” Many years after the initial movie Richard Brody is now cured of his Hitchcock mania. Midgette thinks Muhly too eager a collaborator elsewhere, to glad to have a commission; the music, says James Jordan of The Observer is forgettable. As if he needed to explain his opera more, during one of the interviews Muhly told the “host” how each of his characters corresponds to a particular motif by a particular instrument. The music was meant to be emotionally expressive.What I noticed is Terry Rutland is a counter-tenor, and (unless I’m mistaken), Muhly and Michael Mayer are gay men and wonder if as homosexual men they were drawn to this hideous parable of narrow wretched heterosexuality in a desperate environment. I did like some of the costumes, especially Marnie’s later wardrobe — and I find that 1950s costumes are associated with a gay sensibility.


This was perhaps her last outfit and it and the cream one just before are appealing; she is on the stage after a London performance with Tippi Hendren (who played Marnie in Hitchcock’s film and was sexually harassed by him)

I fear it did nothing to increase anyone’s understanding of the tragic way women experience sex and motherhood in our society. It did not endorse male violence and macho maleness the way Hitchcock did. In his study, The making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral quotes Winston Graham’s son to the effect that his father was not a feminist despite his father’s assertions he naturally was. In a letter to Hitchcock in that volume it does seem as if in general across his books Winston Graham meant to create sympathy for women who have a “raw” deal in our society, are forced to submit, endure much and enjoy little. He said he based this story of the mother on a maid he and his wife had had years before and a story he read in a newspaper about another working class women. Maybe he intended to break through the repressive sexual miseries of the eras (1950s); instead (what he never mentions) because he was improving his technical prowess in using the new amoral ironies found at the time in the suspense novel, he happened upon an imitation in reverse of Nabokov’s hypocritical Lolita, and his adapters have not known what to do with the result.

One caveat: is the opera based on Graham’s book as claimed or Hitchcock’s movie (with a little help from Sean O’Connor’s play)? Asked about how they came to choose the book, the script writer and director said they saw in the movie such astonishing fodder for an opera. Is the opera then based on the movie, asked the interviewer. The answer was if they had tried to get their permission to use the material from the film company or individuals involved, they would never have gotten past the squabbles that would ensue. So the answer is they cannot say they got their opera from the movie, only that their permission stems from the book. As they were talking and a few others interviewed talked, it seemed some of the people had read the book. I believe Muhly did. But the opera is equally influenced by Hitchcock and for all one can tell it’s Hitchcock’s misogynistic and voyeuristic outlook that was a deciding factor. Hard to say.

One last angle: still and whatever the relationship between original source and this opera, surely, all three adaptations should shed more light on Graham as the writer of the Poldark novels, or on other of his suspense books than they do. I find little connection between the early Cornwall successes (The Giant’s Chair, The Dangerous Pawn) and the World War Two tales (No Exit),  and Graham’s book, but there is continuity with The Forgotten Story, The Merciless Ladies, and with some of the hard bleak later film noir books (especially Angell, Pearl and Little God), and with some of Graham’s more memorable vicious ruthless and emotionally twisted characters across his oeuvre (Mark Adderly, Valentine Poldark). Some of my friends have declared Graham’s books misogynistic because of the books’ sympathy with male rapists and murderers; I find a qualified feminism because there is much sympathy with women victimized by the society as a whole and with particular vulnerable males. It is an anomaly to see that Winston Graham could not extend understanding to Marnie’s mother — or that this brutal material found at the core of many a society (what to do with unwanted babies and with women who won’t submit or retreat before the hegemonic patriarchal order) proved too much for Graham here.

Ellen

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Susan Engel as the aged and unappealing Cunegonde (a sort of old lady 2) at the close of a Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Candide (2013), favorably reviewed by Paul Taylor (“astringent, nihilistic, dry”)


Christa Ludwig as the old lady (Barbican, 1989, conducted by Bernstein) —

Friends and readers,

As you probably know (since I’ve announced this more than once), I’m teaching a course I called The Enlightenment: At Risk at the OLLI at AU. The first 18th century author and book we read has been Voltaire’s Candide; ou, l’optimisme. And I assigned selections of his treatises, we saw clips from La Nuit de Varennes (which they appeared to enjoy), and this coming Monday I shall show two clips from a 1989 concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide at the Barbican (Bernstein conducting), and one from a 2004 concert performance at Lincoln Center (Marin Alsop conducting, directed by Lonny Price). What is most striking to me is how many of the people, maybe most in the room came up with interpretations and reactions to Voltaire’s Candide that resemble Bernstein’s comic take on Candide, far more hopeful, morally didactic, essentially preferring a positive point of view on life to Voltaire’s mordancy and presentation of the chaos of experience, senselessness of pain.


1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

To begin with Voltaire’s Candide, a number of people in the class suggested the famous ending of the tale (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”) is its finally restorative moral. Some saw redemption, hope here and there, some religious apprehension. I took the view of J.J. Weightman (a critic in the Norton edition) that tale is absurd and mordant, and that Voltaire produced Candide when his awareness of evil was at its most violent and his vitality at its strongest. I also felt with Wolper that the famous gnomic statement at the end is ironic.

In “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, Wolper argues that Candide is a blind gull to the end. How could Candide forget he was once thrown out, and afterwards an army came and destroyed, beat and killed just about everyone in his home estate. In “Il fault cultiver son jardin,” Candide has only learned to shrink into himself. Yes, work can be a form of salvation: Voltaire himself only when near death tried to stop trying to help people. Diderot is continually trying to help people — individually, though in Diderot’s case they are not crazed events so he ends up with small people bothering him. Camille shuts out the rest of the world — as if one could. He can’t stand the sight of Cunegonde because she’s no longer young and pretty. Martin’s words at the end of the previous paragraph are as close as we get to Voltaire but Voltaire is far far more mordant. All his experiences should have taught Candide that he is not safe anywhere, and he is utterly selfish and narrow in the meaninglessness of what patterns we can discern: “Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin; c’est le seul moyen de rendre le vie supportable.”


Recent illustration — that’s the Cunegonde hanging up the laundry, the old lady with the sails

One man strongly objected to all Wolper said! There are other readings by critics in the Norton (Richard Holmes, Adam Gopnik) and I assigned one of them (Weightman), and did go over the text and tried to show its continual apprehension of stupidity and evil everywhere. I read aloud incidents, the history of herself the “old woman” told, and they so many were powerful individually considered: women living lives of sex slaves, raped continually, worked to exhaustion, thrown out in old age; the barbaric punishments, frantic slaughters, the making individuals into examples ludicrously killing “pour encourager les autres”.

But when I told the usual definition (a conte is a story shaped by a strong central point) and reiterated the tirelessly reiterated lesson it is not all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, a couple of people appeared to find this not very exciting, and the flatness of the characters was stale. When I went about to say why this obsession —

Leibnitz, deism, Pope in his Essay on Man (“whatever is, is right.”) — unless we look about us and accurately say what is, we cannot improve it. We must not rest easy in what is; we must not look to an afterlife; it’s here and now. Panglos, he glosses over everything —

they were (as living in a different age) indifferent to this cliché. People did say they had taken 18h century courses where Johnson’s Rasselas was read alongside Voltaire’s Candide as similar. Yes, yes, said I and so too Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. With Rasselas, it’s the hunger of the imagination after some fantastical happiness (“vanity of human wishes”), the importance of one’s “choice of life. But this led to intelligent explications of why a moderate hope is needed: to believe in useful activity and within limits doing good. That it is a mock on the picaresque romance came up: the opening recalls Tom Jones — so a couple of the people in the room suddenly said how hard it is to remember details, its seeming hundreds of stories (I got in “enough piled into every paragraph for a commonly written realistic long novel were the characters psychologically developed at all”).


This 18th century illustration makes the opening incident resemble Tom Jones or other contemporary sentimental erotic novels

On the whole though I felt people were a bit disappointed by Voltaire’s Candide — they asked me about my title of the course: The Enlightenment: at Risk? what was at risk in this world that was valuable? I had used Outram’s book to try to show the ideas of this movement went much much further than small coteries, spread everywhere in cities, country houses, and were themselves outgrowths of new economic and social circumstances and began in the early modern period. So I went back to that and then tried to explain how satire, hard satire was the mode of this progressive period and the kinds of fundamental attacks on humanity Candide can prompt were not possible before people questioned religious belief as such, monarchy and divine right as such; conversely on powerful men, before people began to feel they had a right themselves to liberty, a good life, secure ownership of their property.

But that hardly can make someone like a book. So I then admitted that this summer rereading or reading for the first time some of Voltaire’s work I was more impressed by Letters on England than Candide, and famous and popularly read or widely distributed as Candide is, think Letters on England more important, his Treatise on Toleration teach us more directly about the Enlightenment thought of the era. I had assigned excerpts from these and then they took notes:

Differing sects of religion keep people from becoming absolutist and makes for toleration. In his chapter on Locke he argue against the immortality of the soul. Locke saw we were born with our minds a tabula rasa; what Voltaire is impressed is Locke accepts that matter thinks. Animals are like us, not simple machines but perceiving and sensitive. In the chapter on Bacon he extols basing oneself on probable experience, and takes over from his chapter on the history of inoculation for small pox, a scientific method. In the chapter on Newton he substitutes the old cosmology of God, eternal heaven, sin and reward with a modern scientific Newtonian universe. No need for all sorts of silly inventions and concepts once you have come up with the concept of gravity and turn it into mathematics and see that these mathematics describe what’s happening accurately, and enable to predict. Things like vortices perihelia. He shows how we now measure. Why the universe sticks together – it’s the brute reality – we would call it a force. How weight works. Newton’s Optics fascinated 18th century people –- to through a prism that light divides into colors. I read some poetry by Pope and Thomson: if you look at Shakespeare and Jacobean poetry you find mostly simple color words – red, pink maybe orange, purple; in these 18th century verses the color words just explode into cascades of shades. Far from attacking Shakespeare he admires him and says it’s impossible to translate him (18) and 23 and 24 he admires and recommends how the English support their men of letters (humanities) and men of science by academies. And so on.

I don’t say they weren’t spot on. First, none of the English translations we had came near Voltaire’s concision, wit, and tones.  Then to be honest, I prefer a realistic psychological story and enjoy Voltaire’s letters to Madame Du Deffand, and much more Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love and Ian Davidson’s Voltaire In Exile where we see him fighting barbaric injustices, and occasionally winning (as against the oligarchy of Geneva he opened a manufacturing factory where people came to work and live more freely). I shall tell about these letters and books next week. . Maybe there is “more” to learn from Lettres Philosophiques (and also La Nuit de Varennes last week)

As a test case on whether the general class view of Candide makes it speak home to us, I found I was irritated by the Lincoln Center 2004 production, thought it mostly a travesty of Voltaire. It’s accurately reviewed by Peter G Davis, with whom I disagree only in that I found the usually appealing Patti Lupone as tasteless as everyone else. The witless sexual gags where the women were supposed to enjoy being raped were the worst. I am very troubled by how sexist this (and other) productions are. To me Voltaire’s females do not enjoy being sex slaves at all. I think Anthony Tommasini) has it right when he says this farrago doesn’t know what to do with Voltaire’s work — they were Hollywood bumpkins, clowns:


Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti Lupone as Candide, Cunegonde and the old lady ….

The best song was the penultimate sharp gaiety of the ensemble “What’s the use.” Still, Voltaire did not mean us to shrug and be gay over life’s meaninglessness. But people in the class said they had seen and they appeared to have been entertained by this production. I was lent my copy by one of the people in the class who wanted me to show it to the class and I will show one clip, “What’s the us?.”

The second DVD I have I bought myself, and I sat through far more patiently. It is the Barbican 1989 production.  Jerry Hadley as Candide sang the lyrical melancholy of Candide (in Bernstein’s “It must be so”) beautifully. Far more of Voltaire’s story survived in the enclosed whole script (!), and the absurdity of the enjoyment of torture and death at Lisbon (“auto-da-fe … What a day!”) seemed to approach a little Voltaire. Yet I remained uninvolved and felt the actors (Adolphe Green reading away so very hard)

and singers were flailing at perceptions that failed to touch them except as generic archetypes.


Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

It was nowhere wild enough, but the reviews of this “labored over” production were more charitable and patient for the sake of the music. I can see it’s respected because my DVD came with the full script and credits to Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Bernstein himself — all credited. I learnt that the original script was wholly by Hellman and that it was much closer in spirit to Voltaire, among other things, satirizing the House UnAmerican Activities committee. Indeed the script did reflect Voltaire in the narrative lines — read aloud as best the performers could, complete with explanations (“what is a picaresque tale? well …. “)

Each of the three productions I’ve mentioned here (the third at the opening of this blog, which I found on-line) have different dialogues so there has been a great deal of free improvisation allowed. It is true it is a mix-mash of different genre types as may be seen in the different earlier illustrations. But what went wrong in the 20th century and is still a problem is candor — reminding me in sound of the name, Candide. In the 18th century a “candid” interpretation was one which tried to present things in the “best” and most moral or sympathetic light. You wouldn’t think we’d want to look away if you turned on recent cable TV movies with their wild violence and amoral sex. Still the history of the adaptation says the first production (1957) was a flop (73 performances), and reveals since then the people daring to mount it have for the most part struggled, almost in vain to come near it. Apparently the 2013 began to come close, as has a recent 2016 operatic Candide at the New York City Opera.

I do find it telling that in our era of massacres, senseless laws and widespread injustice, where the president of the US can go around ridiculing a woman who comes forward to tell a story of assault, rape and humiliation as her civic duty (she knew she had lot to lose personally) rather than have a conscienceless raving elite thug on the supreme court for life, we have a hard time presenting the true core of Candide to an audience. The first edition (1759) was presented as a translation from the German by a physician named Ralph.

Ellen

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Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth in the present Folger production

Friends and readers,

I much enjoyed, indeed was drawn to attend minutely to the Folger Shakespeare William Davenant’s 1673 version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth this afternoon. I was in the lucky (or for the sake of simply accepting Davenant unlucky) position of having just watched a 1979 film (scroll down) of the mesmerizing Trevor Nunn Macbeth featuring Ian McKellan and Judi Dench. Izzy told me when at Sweet Briar’s some years ago now she was on a tech team producing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, had watched it 8 times, to say nothing of remembering our having seen a naked Macbeth (actors stark naked with no props) done here at the Washington Shakespeare theater (at the time in Arlington). We both also remembered an HD screening of a Eurotrash Verdi Macbeth done at the HD Atlas in DC. So unlike just about all the people around us, we were very familiar with Shakespeare’s play.

In brief, and to be candid, Izzy said she found Davenant “tedious”, except in those scenes where he came closest to Shakespeare, where Shakespeare’s original memorable speeches were done so eloquently by our players, and she didn’t think “the comedy funny at all.” The jokes were “irritating,” and “brought Shakespeare down.” That’s what she said.


Rachel Montgomery, Emily Noel and Ethan Watermeyer as semi-comic haunted witches

I admit that after looking forward to dancing and singing witches, I found the extravagant numbers extraneous, tiresome and one supposed lustful love song by one of the witches (Emily Noel) inexplicable. My incessant remembering and comparing led me only to realize that Davenant worried his audience wouldn’t understand Shakespeare so constantly added in little explanations (“here is is a letter informing me …. ” says Lady Macbeth), and big explanations: for the first time I understand why Malcolm tells Macduff he is evil — to test him on the supposition Macduff would prefer a deeply corrupt man in charge to a good one (maybe I was alert to this since the advent of Trump’s regime). Davenant changed the words clunkily (brief becomes small candle), ruined some speeches by understanding them literally, and was determined to make things more moral and pro-Royal (so we had speeches on behalf of royalty, and no porter). When I relaxed though, far from finding the revision “contemptible” (as a literary critic from the 1920s, Hazelton Spencer does in a blow-by-blow comparison), I was fascinated to see how easily Macbeth and his Lady were turned into a bickering couple, how near farce Shakespeare’s Macbeth is. Our lead couple were funny in more than a nervous way. (Just now on the London stage, Othello is being done as wild farce with Mark Rylance stealing the show as mischievously amused Iago.)

Further, as in many movie adaptations, I found good things in some of the changes. I like how Davenant increases the role and presence of Macduff (Chris Genebach) and his Lady (Karen Peakes) so they appear in scenes from the beginning and throughout the play:


Karen and Owen Peakes as Lady Macduff and her son (he also plays Fleance)

I thought her speeches eloquent: she is given one anti-war soliloquy (which reminded me the English civil war was just over), and I felt more emotionally engaged by them as a couple, though making his reasons for his desertion of her so explicit (so as to make them both safer? so as to form a party against Macbeth &c) had the effect of making me blame him more. Maybe Davenant was giving all his actress-singers more lines. I also thought some of Davenant’s lines expressing horror, and poetic haunting effective. (I downloaded the ECCO text of Davenant tonight and skimmed through.) I got a great kick out of Norris exculpating herself absurdly. The play was set in a Marat/Sade mad Bedlam prison but the point seemed to be to avoid having too accurate Restoration outfits (which might be off-putting), though other elements (the candle chandeliers, the make-up, wigs), and a kind of artificial stylization in the acting was I thought meant to remind us we were watching an 18th century play. For Shakespeare lovers (if you know Shakespeare’s play and keep an open mind), this is worth going to see.


Chris Genebach as Macduff and Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth

The Folger consort was there too — high on the balcony playing Restoration music by John Eccles, among others. I recognized Purcell. So from a theatrical standpoint, Davenant’s play becomes highly effective again and again.

And it’s not just a period piece, a close reading lesson. I wondered how Davenant would add poetic justice to Shakespeare’s play. The famous 18th century adaptations make sure we have a happy ending or poetic justice (Nahum Tate’s Lear Edgar and Cornelia marry and Lear lives) or are concerned lest we catch too much despair and apprehension of meaninglessness or nihilism from Shakespeare, or feel the cruelty of life (so Juliet wakes up for a while). Trevor Nunn worked to get rid of this upbeat optimism. Rafael Sebastian (superb performance) as Malcolm played the character as probably base, strangely inward, actuated by the witches.


Rafael Sebastian as Malcolm and John Floyd as Donalbain

They wanted to make it eerie, and as in so many productions nowadays, bring out contemporary analogies to our present bloody POTUS, so indifferent to who is killed, he lies about how many (a few dead is fine). Here is the child Fleance helpless against the evil instruments (the hired murderers) of tyrant:

The concluding scene had the three commanding the stage. There was an attempt at the gruesome and zombies: after Louis Butelli as Duncan (got up to resemble Charles II) is killed, his body is seemingly tortured and he lurches about the stage as a living corpse — Lady Macbeth is haunted by Duncan in Davenant’s play (there is much parallelism).


Witches gloating over the king’s body about to get up again

Perhaps best of all, while I regretted the loss of favorite lines (especially on how one cannot minister to a mind diseased, all the speeches about murdering sleep; they cannot sleep are gone), a great deal of Shakespeare survives just about intact. Thus Ian Merill Peakes delivers the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech with full resonance at the same moment as the character does in Shakespeare after being told of Lady Macbeth’s death. Norris had full scope as a murderous and then mad Lady — true she does not come up to what Judi Dench enacted, but has anyone?

I’ve been reading Voltaire’s comments on Shakespeare in his Letters on England (Lettres Philosophiques) where he praises Shakespeare (“strong and fertile genius, full of naturalness and sublimity”) and finds the problem with his success is other English playwrights copy him and fail to pull off his “inimitable” combination of “monstrous farce” and deep craziness with daringly humanly real scenes — human stupidity, buffoonery, undecorous behavior wildly on display. Shakespeare’s “outrageousness” has just infected the English stage. Spot on. This adaptation is like Voltaire’s translations of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, meaningful in a French context, filled with Voltaire’s thoughts, but continually weaker than the original. The production’s director, Richard Richmond, in his notes is still right to congratulate himself on bringing together “academic scholarship, performance expertise, and creative design” (Tony Cisek, Mariah Anzaldo Hale). Pepys’s admiration for the productions of the play that he saw is quoted in the program notes:

a most excellent play in all respects, but especially in divertisement, though it be a deep tragedy, which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here, and suitable” (1667).

Well, yes.

Ellen Moody

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Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark (Episode 1, after prologue)


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza singing (also Episode 1)

Of course there has to be an end. Of course. For that is what everyone has faced since the world began. And that is — what do you call it — intolerable. It’s intolerable! So you must not think of it. You must not face it. Because it is a certainty it has to be forgotten. One cannot — one must not — fear a certainty. All we know is this moment and this moment. Ross, we are alive! We are. We are. The past is over, gone. What is to come does not exist yet. That’s tomorrow! it’s only now that can ever be, at any one moment, now, we are alive — and together. We can’t ask more. There isn’t any more to ask — Demelza to Ross, concluding words of The Angry Tide, almost the last words of the 1977 iteration but not forcefully enough spoken by Angharad Rees)

Friends and readers,

So we have come, alas, to the end of a second iteration of the first seven marvelous Poldark novels of Winston Graham, with Debbie Horsfield transmuting the tragic and stoic pain of the (by no means) darkest of these novels, The Angry Tide, into hope for compromise and renewal (two of our couples, Ross and Demelza Poldark, Dwight and Caroline Enys); healing after the self has been shattered it would seem beyond repair (Drake and now Morwenna Carne); and maddened rage turned into a stone-y acceptance (as George Warleggan stands over the grave of Elizabeth with two of her children in tow, Valentine and Ursula).


Jack Farthing as George Warleggan (the last shot)

We’ve had four years rather than two, and hour long rather than 45-50 minute episodes. One script writer instead of seven. The last two episodes of this iteration were as powerful as found anywhere in contemporary TV drama. It took time for me to recover after both. When I did, I felt sorrow that Turner could not find his way to live in this role for another say three years (which it might have taken for the concluding quartet, Stranger from the Sea, Miller’s Dance, Loving Cup, Twisted Sword; and coda,  Bella  (Graham originally named it far more appropriately Valentine).


Duelling scene: establishment shot

When seen against the backdrop of the last half of The Four Swans and The Angry Tide (Poldark 6 & 7, the two novels adapted), and the corresponding episodes of the 1977-78 Poldark (Episodes 8-13, scripted by Alexander Baron, John Wiles and Martin Worth), one is driven to same kinds of conclusions as the previous three seasons.


Judy Geeson a much more deeply felt Caroline in the 1977 episodes (Part 10).

At its best the new Poldark provided much much more closely literal transposition; they were much more willing to show the characters deeply disquieted, angry, vexed at one another. Horsfield repeatedly focused on intense vulnerable and angry (and all sorts of) psychological encounters, up-close, up front in ways not quite permitted by the decorum of the 1970s BBC costume dramas. To this was added Ross’s rousing protest against the hanging of innocent and starving men as “examples” (“pour encourager les autres,” as Voltaire famously wrote in Candide), scenes of explicit radical political proposals by Ross in parliament (hinted at in the books and omitted in the 1970s), rousing radical political proposals by Ross in parliament (anachronistically standing on the wrong side of aisle, as otherwise how could he have been protesting against the Tory party as he represents the Tory grandee Boscawen, Lord Falmouth). There was some stunningly memorable photography around the scene of the duel:  the landscape seems to go from dissolve to water and back again. Some fine virtuoso acting, showing the BBC still has this in its pocket if it will only give the actors the nuanced lines and the time: it would be invidious to single any one out, but the particularly hard and poignant role of Morwenna was more or less fully realized by Elise Chappell (she was a bit hampered by the determination of Horsfield to squash Graham’s Morwenna’s revulsion against the reincarnation of the man who nightly rapes her sadistically; that is to say, the baby forced on her by Whitworth).

And it’s not that easy to be as purely obnoxious and contemptible while actuated by genuine predatory power as Christian Brassington managed in the thankless role of complacently incessantly corrupt vicious Vicar Whitworth. Robin Ellis appeared a couple of times this season as a slightly softened Rev Halse who condescends to hint to Ross some good advice, and he was joined by another “old-timer” bought back to lend some subtlety to the proceedings: as Sir John Mitford, Adrian Lukis (Wickham in the famed 1995 P&P scripted Andrew Davies), lets George know that his power as a magistrate to arrest someone is not going to be taken over on behalf of George’s personal vendetta.

I felt repeatedly a good feeling engendered across sequences of scenes as the actors now comfortable in their roles and doing (in the fiction) positive useful work together, socializing back in Cornwall. (Socializing in London is presented as in the book something hollow, hypocritical, dysfunctional if the aim were really friendships or building relationships). Good feeling in Episode 3 with the back-and-forth of over-voice for letters between Demelza reporting to Ross how things are going and a very different life from that in London, from which he confiding in her, his voice over turning into flashback vivid scenes. Episode 5 had effective structure, with the unexpected manslaughter of Whitworth, and then the anguished turnaround of Drake (Harry Richardson) from the girl Demelza and his brother, Sam, have engineered him into promising to marry (Rosina) and his feeling of coming promising joy, security, a peaceful existence. Almost immediately he turns back to the now abused grieving girl he has loved so deep he cannot divest himself of a need to protect her, to be with her as his comfort too. They understand one another intuitively. Then the interlace of cruel destructiveness on the part of the ever seething villain George Warleggan sending the monster Harry and the girl’s father to destroy Drake’s forge desolating.


Harry Richardson as Drake seeking Morwenna along the cliff


The home we see he had prepared for himself and Rosina destroyed (Episode 5)

Emma’s return to tell Sam she will marry someone else is full of empathy. She loves him and he her, but his religion is a barrier they will not be able to get past. She will not be accepted by his flock; he will not be able to understand her and she cannot spend her life pretending. She enjoys the more vulgar, coarse man.

At its worst was again shameless fetishizing of Aidan Turner (the prologue to episode 1 was grotesque). As in previous seasons what had been in the books handled in a naturalistic probable way became contrived improbable and melodrama, e.g. in the first episode Drake and Sam Carne wholly innocent of any wrong-doing come close to being hung.  Horsfield seems wholly out of sympathy with or cannot understand the development of the character of Demelza as realized across the books. Demelza does not have an affair with Hugh Armitage to revenge herself on or triumph over Ross, or to show power. Eleanor Tomlinson repeated this explanation, suggesting she had not read the books or thought about what adultery means even today. When Ross first married Demelza, it was not after a romantic courtship between equals, but as his servant that he had come to like and be dependent on, but someone also decidedly beneath him, younger than him; Armitage was her first introduction to romance, to poetry. Horsfield has Demelza bicker and Ross become abject (wholly out of character). Horsfield also has Demelza, Demelza (!) inform Drake just before he is to wed Rosina that Whitworth is dead and Morwenna supposedly free. That’s the last thing Demelza would do. She has done everything to bring it about. In this episode he asks Demelza why did she tell him? Good question. In the book he hears from someone else, and himself first tells Rosina and while hurt, she forgives him. Horsfield has Demelza say that she had to tell Drake or he’d have never forgiven her!  Who is Demelza considering here? But Drake reproaches this new Demelza, which has the effect of ripping him open again —  and so he is until the 8th episode when finally Morwenna freed (by the luck of a miscarriage) comes to him.

This last season was also reduced, made so much shallower by the continual presentation of George as an almost one-dimensional villain, the hater of Ross, with his uncle Cary as a chuckling minor devil. I wish too that Horsfield had not (as the previous Poldark series did) blackened the character of Elizabeth. In the 1970s Jill Townseend was ambitious and of course therefore cold; this time Heida Reed exults in George’s amoral tricks, looking unconcerned on who he hurt. Thus if it was (and I suspect this is so) that Horsfield wanted us to see Elizabeth as wishing her death (as Horsfield has her taking laudanum drops to endure her), she makes it hard for the viewer to feel the pity of the demise of a just and intelligent if conventional woman.


Heida Reed by her mirror contemplating herself and the drug Dr Anselm has given her to bring on early parturition

Still I am among those who wrote to Macmillan saying that if they were to print the scripts from the third and fourth season, I would be eager to buy them. There is much richness and care in this season and my guess is that as with the first two season (where the scripts were published), the script had more potential than was realized. The scripts can help the viewer get past the brevity of the scenes in the actual film which go far more swiftly than reading them does and the continual switch-back-forth is not as distracting.

Was there anything significantly different about this year’s episodes and those of the previous. It seemed to me that Turner had become so comfortable in this role of truly moral hero that at moment he provided a coda to scenes of anguish: as in the previous seasons, Horsfield is not willing to allow any other character to be the one who won out in catastrophe. So in the book it’s Sam who rescues most of the people from a mine flood; here we had to have Ross in the scene; in the book, it’s Drake who flies to retrieve Morwenna from Trenwith and Warleggan; here we had to have Ross come first. Here we have Ross trying to intervene to help Dwight live with whatever grief he has. The eighteenth century liked an exemplary hero who was a strong, good, earnestly emotional man.


Robin Ellis as Ross not invited to the party, the outsider — he was not the same kind of exemplary figure, but far more elusive, look at his steely eyes behind which we sense pain from simply enduring existence on the terms it’s offered


In this scene Monk Adderley snidely takes Ross for a threadbare troubadour (1977 Poldark) — a shallow back-biter

The last three episodes of both Poldarks (1977, 11-13; 2018, 6-8), both taken from the concluding third The Angry Tide can be aligned. Episode 11 (1977) and 6 (2018) both realize the lavish party George throws in Cornwall as a prelude to his coming career in Parliament and in both the socipathic murderer, Monk Adderley (Malcolm Tierney in 1977; Max Bennett, 2018, both uncannily mocking evil) meets Ross talking to Elizabeth in the garden. Alignment as in the previous years show how much has been lost of detailed novelistic complexity in the dramaturgies of the new era where so many events of different types are piled in within an hour when the older dramaturgy actors could develop a single scene a length. The older series took such time to dramatize the ball; while the new one twists and turns over scene after scene with lighthening speed so we can’t savor the build=up to George’s sudden fury and are to ball back on quick shots of the ravaged face of Elizabeth once Geoffrey Charles has pronounced his half-brother, Valentine, as the “spittin’ image of Uncle Ross,” and George has shut her and Valentine out again.

One flaw in the final ending: far too much emphasis was given to Ross’s relationship with Elizabeth as the central thread of the whole series, by going back to the initial prologue of the first episode of the first season. The invented flashback scene to 1780 in the last episode had the effect of giving us time’s perspective and how things turned out so unexpectedly (the one man Elizabeth didn’t marry was Ross) but we are asked to use this material to reduce all that has gone on between. Elizabeth is not the muse of the books. She is one of three major characters to die at or towards the end of each set of books: Francis’s death desolates Warleggan; now Elizabeth’s Angry Tide; and Jeremy at Waterloo in Twisted Sword is not to be gotten over by Demelza ever. It’s these larger patterns within which several story lines go on that matter. Horsfield softens the incompatibility of Dwight’s idea of a meaningful useful life with Caroline’s (in the novel frankly) boredom. She leaves us with a simple easily assimilable pattern and scarcely does justice to the experience she has offered over four years.


The young George and young Francis

At core the Poldark books are melancholy. Ross Poldark is a driven man, angry at the world’s injustice, striking out now and again insanely. Demelza provides for him a center of stability and hopefulness. I thus conclude this blog with Graham’s very last written story, “Meeting Demelza”  The text has been published in a magazine long ago, and I cannot find it online but there is an audiobook. “Meeting Demelza.” Graham was near death when he wrote it, and in the story he looks to join his most beloved characters: Ross, Demelza — and Dwight — I just knew he loved Dwight as much as Ross and Demelza (Luke Norris this season began to hit the true note that Richard Morant seemed to capture effortlessly so long ago). It will take 12 minutes to listen to.

A ghost story before we go into that night. Ross (let’s recall) begins as a revenant.

Ellen

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The Duke (Philip Lahtam) and Duchess (Susan Hampshire) in conflict in The Prime Minister (Pallisers 11:22)

Friends and readers,

Having once again watched the 26 episodes of Simon Raven’s 1974-75 BBC Pallisers with a few people on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io, I feel compelled to write just a little more on this sustained brilliant work of art. I don’t want to go into detailed analysis yet again: 73 (!) blogs and one conventionally published longish paper (Intertextuality in the Pallisers and Barset in Victorian Literature & Film Adaptation, edd. Abigail Bloom, Mary Pollock) should suffice.

I thought that as a coda to a very good time over many weeks (more of us watched the 7 episodes of Alan Plater’s 1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles together too), I would say watching them in tandem, I had a chance to feel the full impact of Raven’s thematic changes as a unifying force. As everyone knows who’s watched the series, the central couple, Plantagent Palliser, later Duke of Omnium and Lady Glencora McClusky Palliser, later Duchess,” become the dominant couple throughout the films (as they are only intermittently in two of the books, intermittently in others, and not at all in at least two of the novels). Madame Max later Mrs Flynn is promoted to secondary sustaining heroine (by episode 6) with Phineas providing parallel and contrast to Palliser as an effective ethical politician.


A rare private moment for Marie (Barbara Murray) and Phineas (Donal McCann) and he defending the Prime Minister from the same episode

What might not be so often noticed is how Raven’s story of Lady Glenn as a thwarted rebel and saloniere and frustrated woman as wife (or lover) is centrally sustained across the whole series. Lady Glen is Raven’s semi-tragic heroine, his alter ego with a serious burden of loss and compromise uniting the many episodes when for Trollope she is more of an ironically readily duped figure. The Duke’s isolation as a asocial personality and lack of deep compatibility with his wife, that he is paradoxically an unambitious idealistic man, for Trollope central, becomes secondary in the films. Raven’s own pessimistic outlook also leads to sizzling ironic political stories which mostly hinge on or reinforce disillusionment with any progress. In the supporting story Phineas learns he must often lose, and usually compromise, with Madame Max upholding a wistful kind of hope in gradualism for the future. The result is a strong undercurrent of melancholy in the series. I no longer see this mood as dissolving in nostalgia (despite the picturesqueness of the mise-en-scene) so much as relying on active continuity between what’s left over from the past and and seen to be about to come. The characters gain their sense of security from repetition, doing what others before and around them are doing that seems to do no harm, and does occasional good.

The ballast: the separate individual stories, amusingly cynical, earnestly corrupt (an oxymoron that works for George Vavasour, George Watson), angrily resentful (Quintus Slide), gratingly inept (Lord Fawn and Lizzie Eustace, Derek Jacobi and Sarah Badel), are contrapuntal:


Lord George de Bruch Caruthers and Mrs Carbuncle (Helen Lindsay and Terence Alexander) — they’ve escaped out of back doors before (Episode 7:14 from The Eustace Diamonds)

Sometimes Raven cut savagely and brought out emphatically what was muted in the original books: Mr Wharton (Brewster Mason) making a deal with an arms manufacturer to remove Lopez (Stuart Wilson) to South American brings out how unimportant it to such men which side wins and counterproductive when war ends. He was not as sympathetic to Lady Laura Kennedy (Anna Massey) as to her sexually frustrated domineering husband Kennedy so her tragedy is lost to view.


She ends endlessly scolded by her brother, Lord Chiltern.

When not re-shaped to fit Raven’s vision, some material is far more thoroughly developed with many more incidents across the series — like the many earlier appearances of Lord Silverbridge (Anthony Andrews pitch perfect) as boy and then young man, to bring out Lady Glen’s trajectory as a mother who wants to see her children have the liberty she did not and yet uphold the nobility she recognizes in her husband. Also Palliser’s intense conflict with his son resolved by the son’s buying into his father’s values (as is foreshadowed) partly because of Lady Glen’s influence. I missed the erased brighter comic figures (the Widow Greenow in CYFH?), the victim-virtuous heroines (Lucy Morris in Eustace Diamonds) but comic wry crooks, seething figures and Henry James-like couples remain


Anna Carteret as Lady Mabel Grex letting go Jeremy Irons as Frank Tregear backfires (Episode 12:24, The Duke’s Children).

Some of us early on found some of the actors too old; the dramaturgy is that of a stage; you are to be absorbed by long nuanced novel-like scenes requiring mature alert attention, but rather than find that dated to me that was central to why the series is still capable of absorbing the patient viewer. I did think the series improved as it went along with bravura scenes especially in the Phineas Redux material: the murder of the thwarted politician Bonteen (Peter Sallis) because he behaved ethically on a woman’s behalf. One of my favorite scenes is still Madame Max using non-traditional methods to discover the truth of what happened on the night of the murder by befriending and bribing Mr Emilius’s desperate landlady, Mrs Meager (9:17)


Poor Mrs Meager, what a hard life you must have …

Marie: Have you told this to the police?”
Mrs Meager: “No, maa’m, in our parts we is not overly keen on talking with the police.”

There is so much here, scenes with police, the court case with Chaffanbrass brought to life, Phineas brought Meredith’s Beauchamp’s Career and The American Senator by his good friend, Monk to read while in prison… I can’t begin to mention everyone or all the delights.

So I’ve digressed: the point of this blog is to suggest, bring out that Simon Raven turned a series of novels revolving strongly about a continuum of male politician types with women’s fully felt (to be sure) destinies slotted in, into a continuous story line navigating the rise and falls and price paid for her life’s adventures by a young girl grown mature woman who dies early after which life carries on for the others left behind who remember her.


The Coerced Match

Keeping this brief: in the adaptation of Small House of Allington and Can You Forgive Her? (Episodes 1-5) we see Lady Glencora McClusky driven to marry a man with whom she is temperamentally incompatible and whose deeper goals and personality she does not sympathize with. In the adaptation of Phineas Finn, we see her turn society hostess and find that in compensation for what she has personally lost she is willing to pressure anyone she can to make sure her son will inherit the dukedom and the vast properties that go with it (Episodes 6-10). We see strained and broken relationships in Phineas’s accompanying story as he too is forced to compromise and when he won’t, loses his place among his peers, must return to Ireland where he is not living with anyone who understands him. In Eustace Diamonds Lady Glenn has to give up enjoyment of life, excitements she wants to take care of a dying drone of an old man who was responsible for this marriage (Episodes 11-13). Phineas Redux brings Phineas’s story to the fore and she is helpless; it is Madame Max who rescues him, no one else (Episodes 14-18).


Duchess

The Prime Minister she comes as far as she ever does to living the life she dreamed she would have in lieu of personal fulfillment and finds it ashes and hollow. The accompanying story, of a ruthless outsider who ends killing himself reinforces this (Episodes 19-23) The Duke’s Children, we see her resigned and ill, affectionate to the man who stands for the best of the patriarchy she has been an instrument for; she cannot get for her daughter control of her money or independence (Episodes 24-25).


Still Thwarted: the duke objects, the daughter is only 19 …

And understandably, there is a mood of melancholy providing a kind of continuous base for the series.

I especially liked the treatment of Madame Max and Lady Glen’s friendship; to be sure it’s there in Trollope but in the context of Raven’s angle, given more shared plangency


The two friends, 10:20

This friendship and her children’s love for her her compensation or consolation.


Lady Mary Palliser asking the father why does he want to make her miserable for life (12:25)

I outlined the same kind of point with nuanced details brought in in my last blog of the 73: Retrospective.

I hope I have kept this short yet suggestive.

Ellen

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Puck in Motte’s filmic MND — presiding over wood, beach, mountain, his fingers seen typing away on his computer throughout ….

Friends,

I saw the Zellner Brothers’ pernicious film, Damsel, about two weeks ago now in my film club, and had debated ever since if I should write about it. I hoped it would go away, not be shown anywhere or hardly at all, not make any profit so the brothers would go out of business. No such thing. Today while watching Won’t You be My Neighbor?, I saw Damsel advertised as coming to a chain of theaters in my area. It is a film filled with acts of senseless violence, most of the characters exhibit a mindless obduracy, despise any openly vulnerable, tender, sensitive, and want to kill wantonly the one character who seeks friendship and love; one might offer the idea the Zellner brothers meant to parody the norms of the Trump regime and his non-super wealthy voting base, but the incongruities are inconsistent. If a Native American sounds like a Mel Brooks character upending the nonsense (he asks, “What is wrong with you people?”), he also steals everything he can from those he encounters and sneaks off in the night. The heroine is last seen rowing away into a misty lake with a miniature pony, determined to live on herself, in scornful need of no one. Most of the bulk of humanity are presented as moronic peasants who are first seen hanging a useless chubby man in a barrel (classical allusion to preferring begging to being a corrupt lord)


Mark Pattison at the ready (does not need anyone but himself, his gun, and the helpless animal)

One of the central male characters, Samuel (Mark Pattison) is someone out of the scenarios of our mass massacres by white men. Samuel is a white actor and he insists Parson Henry (David Zellner, one of the two people who made this film) a preacher come with him to marry him to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) a girl whom he says has been kidnapped. He is ferocious with his gun. When they finally find her, and Anton (Gabe Casdorph) a young man is seen leaving the hut they live in, this young man shoots him dead. Then we see a gun come out of the door of the house and begin to shoot. It is Penelope. She comes out and immediately it is evident she loathes Samuel, a stalker — for that is what he is. She was in love Anton, whom he has murdered. She tries to and succeeds in murdering Samuel while he is pissing in an outhouse. She then under point of gun, puts material for a bomb around Parson Henry’s neck and at gun point forces him to walk ahead of her. She blows up buildings. She is insane, the young man stalking her was insane — as the young white man who murdered those nine black people in a church was insane. The preacher is laughed at by the film since he does not want to murder anyone and is constantly being threatened with death. Everyone carries a loaded gun in this film.

Other characters: the other Rufus who seems related to Anton (David Zellner) shows off that he is ignorant, ill-dressed, and violent. The movie opens with another nameless preacher and another anonymous young white man waiting for a coach that never comes. Public transportation is non-existent in this desert. Finally the preacher walks off leaving the passive young man waiting.

But it’s not a parody of today’s America because it is immersed in and endorses the violent characters intensely. Not a moment of kindness except by Preacher Nathan and he is sneered at because he needs people: “that’s your problem, ” says Penelope. In the end Nathan returns to the village idiots and stays with them. They drink whiskey and spend their time drunk — they have none or don’t drink water they tell Samuel.


Mia Wasikowska as Penelope (at Cinema art theater)

I had thought going to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would simply be a trip into Laura, Izzy and my shared experiences together in front of a TV, nostalgic, possibly sentimental, making tear up, but it was a serious deconstruction of the profoundly humane and socially good ideas actuating Fred Rogers to make 4 decades of children’s programs that reached out to them candidly.  Mr Roger’s Neighborhood experienced through children’s art (like puppets) children’s apprehension of the world and built their self-esteem, consoled, uplifted, solaced and taught them about the realities they find themselves in.  By tracing Rogers’ career from his leaving the religious ministry to replace the slapstick, obtuse ridiculing, and ceaseless violence in one form or other with his programming really taking kids into account, the viewer travels through how we moved from a seemingly optimistic era and pro-social behavior (enacted, put into law, supported), to the present time, represented in Rogers’ fairy tale land by the arrogance, indifference, and willfull disregard to human needs. The King puppet wants to be a dictator. I remember Daniel as a surrogate for Rogers; the grief of Henrietta Pussycat making Laura grieve too. Rogers’ neighborly world connects the mirrors in the fairyland and good words well understood. Nothing to hide, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Would you believe groups of Trump bigots rant about Rogers as a socialist, and hold up placards saying they hate him. Rogers had on his show a long-time black TV actor, Susan and her husband, our black exemplary parents, Maria the touching young Puerto Rican girl who grew old with the part. A group of these people who loathe him came to his funeral with signs saying how he was a “faggot,” and how they hate him. Trump types have long accused him of wanting children to feel they are entitled to things without working for them. They say all children should be taught they must earn respect. Love does not seem to come into this. He is called gay because to them he is unmanly. Rogers does say how he dislikes TV, especially popular children’s TV, which is frenetic, filled with clowns, and pours thick messes over children, shows cartoon characters in intensely violent acts. I remember the first time Laura saw the Road Runner; she was terrified the character had died when he fell off a roof. We didn’t have TV for the first five years of Laura’s life as out TV had died and we didn’t buy a new one for a few years. American cartoons are the first place Americans are inured to cruel violence. Rogers went into TV to replace such pernicious fodder.


Charity Wakefield a wonderful Peter Quince to Fran Kranz as Bottom (see just below also)

The two films seemed to be so worlds apart, yet covering all possibilities of landscapes, houses people, until I saw Casey Wilder Mott’s fantastical film world, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s text of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Damsel left out imagination, beauty, and Mr Rogers was so concerned to reach children that his imaginative world of puppets is not dreamy but an analogue of our real world. Shakespeare takes us to a world elsewhere. Mott rearranged scenes, cut and rearranged film sequences and the actors were taught (as the BBC ones were for Hollow Crown) to speak Shakespeare trippingly off the tongue, to transform their anguish and comedy for more accurate, elegant language that nonetheless is spoken as naturalistic in TV films of Shakespeare like the recent Lear or The Hollow Crown. The worlds of the play were replicated in a couple of high-powered movie executives (Theseus, a recognizable serious actor, and Hippolyta, long willowy black model), 25 year old white children of super-rich parents (the lovers), hard-working clueless actors, the last two falling into a magical holiday time. Oberon is an older black actor, Titania an Asian actress. Among new patterns: this turns out to be written by Puck wonderfully acted by Avon Jogia as sprite.

Go see Damsel if you enjoy cruelty, jeering at vulnerability, but if not, don’t support this travesty of toxic masculinity. Trump’s world, his impulses heroized or mocked (depending on how you see this). Alas not a museum piece but a “western.” Don’t give them any more money: the Koch Brothers and their ilk is supplying enough; the new Supreme Court is determined to give intolerance power because that’s free speech. Your right to liberty gives you the right to exclude, reject in the public sphere now.


Fred Rogers answering a little girl’s answer (the same as above)

Open up to what people truly are with Fred Rogers. Watch Rogers’ face go to stone and his eyes show pained rage when he consider the mockery of his show on Saturday Night Live where they invented a plot where an actor looking like him is put into a wrestling match with one of his characters to reveal how he is in fact a hypocrite and turns to nasty spiteful violence when he is losing. He is remembering how he was bullied as a boy. You’ll learn about the history of the show (they did make the mistake of trying to film the challenger and caught it exploding), Rogers’ attempt at a show for adults (it didn’t work, too hard-hearted by our thirties we might say).

Achieve forgetfulness of the world of Trump and 30% we are told of Americans supporting him in Wilder’s choice of eloquent passages from Shakespeare turned into text messages, the voice of Puck, the quarrels of the lovers. The wood, the beach. The play within the play finds the actress and actors dressed like the stars from Star Trek (Thisbe looks like Princess Leia, while Pyramus looks like Hans Solo).


Shakespeare’s lovers on the beach

Summer movies are implicitly jeux d’esprit. Not this year. A fat man with a remarkably stupid smile or stupid stubborn pig expression, incapable of making sense for a spoken or speech paragraph (he can only tweet) is becoming a disguised dictator, opening detention camps and prisons around the US, putting children in their squalid conditions (and is not impeached for anything he does which undermines the constitution), and who will he come for next, and do what to the detainees? Mr Rogers didn’t succeed it seems — a cartoon show of him is all that is left on PBS. Are the Zellners right about humanity in their depiction of everyman’s village in their western?


Scofield in the trumped-up trial (A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt)

“Our natural business lies in escaping said Bolt’s Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1960; shall we all escape to the wood? One problem with that is the characters achieve comfort by making fugitive visits to the obscenely rich palladium mansion of Theseus.

Ellen

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