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ShylockAntoine
Shylock (Matthew Boston) about to extract his pound of flesh from Antoine (Craig Wallace)

Dear friends and readers,

Although Izzy and I got to Aaron Posner’s District Merchants, a daring adaptation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice directed by Michael John Garces, at the end of its run, I write a brief review to recommend going to any revivals, or other productions of this new play you might hear of. It’s a triumph made out of indictment, empathy and humor.

Posner has taken up the challenge of a play whose plot-design is anti-semitic, by making the anti-semitism of all the characters but Shylock’s daughter an explicit issue: Shylock self-consciously argues his rage comes out of an alienation forced on him, reinforced by his hurt at how his daughter has been taken from him.

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Shylock’s refusal to allow Jessica to go out among non-Jews estranges her

He is thus given more specific reason for resentment as he believes there was a conspiracy among these characters to remove his daughter from him — as well as take the money he relies on to live. Posner sets the play in the District of Columbia during re-construction (Ulysses S. Grant is president) and re-imagines all characters’ interactions and personalities along analogous lines so as to dramatize equally unjustifiable racism, class snobbery and disdain, and by extension hatred of the other in whatever form cruel emotional violence may take. Antony is now Antoine, a free black and prosperous businessman.

I found myself wishing Posner could have made one of the character a stray Islamic person. I was also puzzled as to why he did not include homosexuality as in fact Shakespeare’s play not so hidden text is the displacement of a semi-betray of Antony’s love by Bassanio so as to get enough money to court and marry the richly endowed Portia. The RSC production of The Merchant last year brought this out. The new play is clearly not bothered anachronistic thought, so why erase the original play’s depiction of thwarted repressed homosexuality?

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A choral moment with Lancelot (Akeen Davis) to the fore

Still, given the recent massacre at Orlando (which included hatred of gays, of latinos, a man who abused his wife and was himself Muslim), it’s a remarkably timely re-write, and part of the strong response the audience gave to the play came out of the whipping up of hatred and fear we’ve seen in present political campaigns in the US and UK. There was even an unintended frisson in the theater when Lancelot become an ex-slave servant of Shylock, after having been asked by Jessica to help her run away from her father and steal his money and jewels (very dangerous for him) asks himself the question, “To leave or not to leave.” Posner could not have foreseen how that would resonate just after Brexit. Ryan Taylor wrote of how heartening such a production feels.

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There is a star-gazing scene where two different levels of time are brought together: Bassanio (Seth Rue) and Portia Maren Bush) at the back, Jessica (Dani Stoller) and Lorenzo (William Vaughan) at the front

I don’t want to give the impression the play was simplistic rhetoric or even crude; except towards the end when Posner seemed not to know how to end his play, and had too many soliloquys of hurt, distress, anger, the experience is not preach-y. Like a number of the appropriations of Jane Austen novels into films set elsewhere and in modern times I’ve seen, he follows closely the outline of Shakespeare’s play where he can, omitting excrescences like the choice of caskets ritual, and developing much further the meeting, courting, and wooing scenes between Jessica and Lorenzo become a southern country boy on the make.

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Jessica and Lorenzo

We see Portia growing up under a kind of tutelage by Nessa (Celeste Jones)

Portia and Nessa

Scenes of funny (and painful) wit when Bassanio overcome by honesty in his love for Portia, tells her he has been passing for white and is half-black. She herself has been training as a lawyer at Harvard (in Boston) by dressing as a man.

Proposal
Bassanio proposes to Portia, blurts out the truth about himself, Nessa looking on …

The different characters are given depth by having them as the play unfolds tell us their pasts. Chris Klimek found the whole mix “marvelous” and sobering. Jeannette Quick does justice to the complexity of what’s satirized (for example, lip-service to progressivism) and the way the different levels of memory, story, and interaction veer between “ridiculous hilarity and despondency.”

It makes us rightly criticize Shakespeare’s play. Posner probably means it as a sort of correction. We see Shakespeare’s Shylock from this renewed humane angle, from the world seen from below (except for Portia all identify as potentially and really outcast, powerless, reviled). At the same time I have to admit that after all when Posner does include Shakespeare’s lines, they stand out as having more purchase on why we must renounce insensibility to the sufferings of others, for our own sake show how dangerous is sowing mistrust, wrong and dangerous violence for violence. We must be merciful to expect mercy:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes

Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech is hurled at the audience. Lines from Shakespeare here and there raise and complicate the play’s perspectives. I especially liked how Antoine refused to accept rescue through a quibble — because he reminded me of Trollope’s Mr Harding who wanted to be morally right and justified. So Shylock could have killed Antoine, but at the last moment, the stage goes dark, and we learn at its close Shylock suddenly turned and walked away.

Quick and Barbara Mackay describe the suggestive symbolic setting (Tony Cisek) : an attempt was made to make us feel a civilization and place under make-shift construction, with columns (one still wrapped), ropes with hooks (suggesting ships). There was a real attempt to give a feel of what DC was like in the later 19th century: mud, much of it empty; that it had been a place where free black people lived before the war. I found the costumes a fun combination of musical-hall stage 1890s, accurate women’s dress and today’s fashions. Lots of music: a banjo, percussion, spirituals. Life has charm, it is good.

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Another proposal scene

Posner has done this kind of adaptation twice before: the “excellent Stupid F—ing Bird (an adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull) debuted Woolly Mammoth in 2013); Life Sucks (or the Present Ridiculous Situation (an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, in 2015).

I had not thought until writing this review how appropriate this play was as a choice near Independence Day, July 4th, and will now link in Frederick Douglas’s famous speech: “What to the Slave is the fourth of July,” as read by James Earl Jones.

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Antoine remembers his past too

Ellen

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Elektra
Klytamnestra (Waltraud Meier) and Elektra (Nina Stemme)

Friends and readers,

Perhaps I should just direct readers to where Virginia Woolf wrote, who could watch the story of Clytemnestra today and not side with her? she had probably read also Euripides’ version, though her “On Not Knowing Greek” centers on the anguished madness of Sophocles’ Electra. It’s in Euripides’ play the cowardly superstition of Agammenon choosing to burn Iphigenia comes out most strongly against the eloquence of Clytemnestra.

The problem is Strauss’s opera is said to be based on Hofmannstal, about whose version I know only what I read on wikipedia. In any case this too is a side-track as the last opera of the season was presented as Chereau’s parting gift to us — he’s another devoured at too early an age by the spread of cancer. (See my blog on his film adaptation from Conrad, Gabrielle.) All the reviews emphasize Chereau’s shaping presence. We are given specific details for each character and actor-singer by Anthony Tommassini but no sense of what Chereau’s actuating idea might be. To say it’s expressionist is to say nothing. Expressionist of what?

A cursory glance at the promotional stills tells it. A sad tale of the anguish of women in the context of our punitive public world. Dysfunctional family, super-bloody, says Bruce Scott. Except the murder occurs off-stage; only at about 2/3s the way through does Eric Owens as Orestes show up, and he’s catatonic, overwhelmed by the women, seeking comfort, effeminized like Hercules among the women:

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In any case he forgot his axe. That’s in the script. Unless the subtitles distorted the dialogue. Elektra is alert enough to notice.

Agamemnon, a tenor (here identified as a weak voice) only enters the drama near the close, and he’s done away with by a single knife thrust by Pylades. Orestes slinks off to the side. I saw no blood. The major presences are all women. The chorus is mostly women prisoners, women slaves, women who ready murdered bodies, a rare old man here or there. As far as I could tell the singing was superb; I liked best Owens’s voice; what melody I heard came from him. The women are too pained.

Chereau has returned the Hofmannstal rendition into a stark contrast, an adamantine stubborness between a mother and daughter who will not listen to one another, because, well, would it help? A conflict that in inward and cannot see to the source or will not admit it. What they have to say is in this Hofmannstal is as uncomplicated and unnuanced as Woolf’s essay on Sophocles’ play suggests. I was surprised that nowhere in the subtitles is Klytamnestra given words to justify herself. She treats her daughter like any cognitive therapist. No references to the past please. “What can I do to restore your sleep?” Elektra answers a sacrifice could free her from these intrusive nightmares. “Who shall we kill?” asks Klytamnestra.

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The confidante is Susan Neves

“Why you, mother,” and the daughter proceeds to imagine Orestes hacking her mother to death.

Klytamnestra exits, all silent dignity. Did I mention, Klytamnestra is dressed in a beautiful outfit with beads in good taste?

Adrianne Pieczonka as Chrysothemis has the usual thankless task, Ismene-like, to worry herself over conventional expectations not met: like not getting a chance to marry and have children. Gee. No wonder her face is frozen:

ElektraChrysothemis

Give in, she urges Elektra, give over. Then we can leave this prison, have clothes appropriate to our rank. Except in his case Elektra, a figure comparable to Antigone, a parallel experience Izzy and I saw at the Kennedy Center last spring, seems unconcerned with what she’s wearing. She cannot forget her grief, rage, terror. Stemme plays the role as a woman gone insane.

The contrast between the stories and the productions can help instruct us. The Kennedy Center design turned Sophocles’ Antigone into (or it is) a deeply anti-war, anti-totalitarian, humane statement where love did matter, could have flourished. Juliet Binoche played the role as a brave loving woman, speaking principle, speaking family passion, and yet all poignancy, oh the pity of this death and mine too. There are flashes of sanity about in the Antigone, even in Creon who becomes a quietly tragic figure. None of that in this opera. Stemme played it right as woman gone insane, a heart of darkness. “Hit once more, strike again.”

There is no sunlight on Chereau’s stage; it’s all grey steel and cement. The servants sweep and bring in water in buckets and sprinkle it about. This season and previous ones the Metropolitan Opera-goer has gotten used to stages that are prisons where torture chambers are suggested, people in impoverished garb, everyone cowed. It was another opera filmed by Gary Halverson, but here one felt that he was filming another man’s work.

ELEKTRApromotional
The poster for the opera — “Electra” “neglected, suffering, blunted, debased” yet “Clytemnestra is no unmitigated villainess” (from Woolf, “On Not Knowing Greek”)

We have too many references to cats on the Internet, but for once the vulnerable nervous proud, guarded weak predator, in this case in a poem offers a hint how to read or take this last experience of this season:

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought horne.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

— by Marie Louise Kaschnitz (1901-74), translated by S.L. Cocalis

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

Perhaps an antidote is in order: Strauss has three operas where picturesqueness and nostalgia (Der Rosencavalier, a pastiche), a self-conscious return to 19th century style Edwardian comic heroine’s text drama (Arabella, libretto Hofmannstal) and a subtle self-reflexive meditation on opera framing a love-in-death myth (Ariadne auf Naxos) are the mode. All highly artificial. Play-acting. I’ve seen them all — with Jim, sometimes Izzy with us.

And the point is, things need not be this way: treated with kindness, cats react quite differently

thewhitecatPangurandthemonk

Ellen

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TomhollanerDrthornefirstshot
The first shot of Tom Hollander as Dr Thorne in the film’s first scene with

MarysQuestion
Stephanie Martini as Mary Thorne, where she asks the question [visible in the subtitle] as a prompt for Hollander, Prospero-like to tell us and her not just many chapters of history but what is held back until near the end of the book’s plot-design (ITV Dr Thorne, 2015, scripted Julian Fellowes, director Niall MacCormick)

Friends and readers,

Julian Fellowes has managed to turn the novel Michael Sadleir ended his ground-breaking study of Trollope on (the book that first attracted respectable attention to Trollope — with preferring Dr Thorne to The Way We Live Now) into an embarrassment. A telling travesty. Reviewers veer from lamenting the very existence of this throw-back to picturesqueness as a travesty to earnestly showing how it has eliminated just about everything that counts in the novel. Viv Groskop of The Guardian suggested we take a drug to forget this disgrace. The courteous and judicious Alison Moulds of the Victorian clinic demonstrated the central matter of the tale, medicine and illness, comic and tragic, is left out. As might have been expected, Philip Hensher of the Telegraph demonstrates that the point Fellowes gets across (and by implication, Trollope’s) is that it’s impossible to cross (ontological?) class boundaries.

As it happened when the film aired on British TV, I was teaching the novel to a group of retired adults genuinely engaged by the book. Two British, the rest American. Contrary to Hensher (and like a number of scholarly critics, e.g. James Kincaid), they are persuaded this is an obsessive attack on the mindset that erects uncrossable boundaries and about the hurt (Mary made a taboo person) and damage, indeed death (Sir Roger’s and Sir Louis’s) the behavior enacting this idea incurs. Miss Dunstable’s role is to expose the hypocrisy of the social codes as we watch money and power throw people away, ruin their lives (e.g., Mr Romer, the liberal barrister who tried to help Roger Scatcherd, the railway contractor and banker) into parliament). I had hoped to screen the film until I saw that (worse than Downton Abbey where all deeper issues may be skimmed over, but at least suggested) Fellowes was simply not going to allow any depth to this, among Trollope’s most emotionally direct of all his novels. I admit there was no character they hated more than Lady Arabella and Fellowes fed this by giving full vent to her as the villainess who experiences a mortifying comeuppance (rather like Miss O’Brien and other upper level servants in Downton Abbey). She is in many scenes endlessly repeating her mantra, but then she is presented simply as winning out, having her way in the end. Rebecca Front was given this thankless role as she was given an analogous sycophantic snob in Andrew Davies’s recent War and Peace.

Trollope’s novel utterly resists treating it as light satiric comedy or “fairy tale romance” (which Fellowes in the feature labels his film and by extension Trollope’s book).

Arabella

Thorne
As Hollander squirms and twists his body to avoid the barrage, the scene becomes a tasteless joke

So why bother write about? Fellowes’s erasure and corrections reveal where the power of the novel lies and where there are cranks for us in Trollope’s attitudes.

In all the Fellowes’s films I’ve seen thus far he abjures all flashbacks, voice-over, soliloquy, montage, filmic epistolarity (where a character writes or reads a letter that is voiced by the actor who is played the character who wrote the letter) or any techniques that demands we go into the vulnerable psychology of any character to the extent of questioning a norm or value asserted. Trollope’s first four chapters are a daring retelling of deep, intermediate general past, and individuals personal histories (which he ironically apologizes for). He then recurs repeatedly throughout the novel to these pasts so that when the character in a social scene reveals his inner psychology, we realize the context which has given rise to this self normally hidden to us in our daily lives the social scenes. I had not realized how the novel is continually working through, back and forth, deeply layered intertwined time until I watched this film adaptation. In most of Trollope’s novels we recognize his gifts for showing the private self unable not to reveal itself in the social scene for those with eyes to see and understand (Trollope’s narrator and occasional preternatually perceptive characters like the Signora Neroni and Miss Dunstable). Here in Trollope’s seventh book he was consciously adding to that by making the character a product of a particular time, relationship, literal and social space.

Since Fellowes resists all deep wide explanation that filmic techniques can offer (including in-depth dialogue), all we have as opening for the film is some dialogue of nasty excluding of Mary from Frank’s coming birthday party by his (in this film) by his stupid dense and clumsy sister, Augusta (Gwyneth Keyworth) egged on by the apparently frigid manipulative Lady Alexandrina de Courcy (Kate O’Flynn). We then launch into Frank’s proposal to Mary to marry him, her “no,” and stay in the superficial linear time of the present, with the party, and Lady De Courcy’s nagging Frank (Harry Richardson, who plays the part of a privileged sheltered and thus idealistic male aristocrat — true to the book) to chase the rich Miss Dunstable (Alison Brie) now an inanely giggling rich American. (I read that the ITV people were told they would get no American funding unless they had an American character in the cast.) As in Downton Abbey Phoebe Nicholls is given the distasteful role of an utterly ineffectual despicable older woman bully. (She is paid well for it.) Fellowes just loves to invent this kind of female monster. But he must tell the important past or the present story makes no sense. How to do it? he is reduced to having Hollander as Thorne in the very first scene he appears, Prospero-like, tell Stephanie Martini as Miranda, just about everything in one go of her sordid Scatcherd family background. Since there is too much to tell, Thorne and Mary get together twice more (after the said party) and again in the second episode after her other uncle, Sir Roger Scatcherd’s death. What’s done for compression leaves the effect of a story turned inside out.

Far from admitting to anything serious in the novel, in the feature released on the DVD, Fellowes says he regards the book as a fairy tale romance. What he has done is chosen the scenes susceptible to being presented as light satiric comedy. I had not realized before what an experimental novel this is in its use of layered past and movement within different times and memories.

Then Fellowes has the problem of the book’s hinge points which he feels he cannot eliminate. Scatcherd must die so that Mary can win the property. In the novel Scatcherd dies from alcoholism and we read a rare protracted death scene in a Trollope novel. The man has drunk himself to death because he has not been accepted by his true peers because of his lack of surface manners, he regrets deeply what has happened to his son who has been similarly ostracized and exploited, but can do nothing about it. The unhappy man his son has become results from cultural realities beyond his reach. Trollope captures perfectly the mood of someone near death, and shows us that real kindness to such a person is to take seriously what they have to say and respond to it — as Dr Thorne does and Sir Roger’s son does not. He is devastated when the powerful remove him from the place in Parliament he has worked hard to win.

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Lady Scatcherd (Janine Duvitski) over-hearing her husband talk to Thorne

I’m told that Ian McShane is a great actor; well he’s thrown away here. He is presented as foolish jackass. His alcoholism is made a joke of in order to us to laugh at elections as such. The working and townspeople are of course fools, and McShane directed to play the part archly until he falls into a pigsty. (Fellowes might tell us, have you not been watching how popular Donald Trump is?) In the book’s death scene, the pain of Scatcherd’s isolation is made worse because Thorne himself has invested so much in Mary, he cannot get himself to allow Scatcherd to know or to see her after Scatcherd first offers all his money to her and his son, if Thorne will encourage a marriage with that son. This horrifies Thorne who is as exacerbated by the class structure of the place as anyone. He wants above all that his darling niece-daughter be a lady, live with ladies and gentleman and turn to him. And how does Fellowes treat this matter at the center of the second episode? For a moment I had a hard time believing that Fellowes was allowing Thorne allow Mary to come over and nurse Scatcherd so we could get this emotional bath of sentimentality instead and listen to McShane as Scatcherd say he is consoled for his “misspent existence.”

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angelsappears2 (1)
“Very well,” says Hollander, and the puzzled angel appears, at which McShane says he thinks he will now cope better with “what is to come … ”

Beyond erasing all the material hung from the present time romance story (including its use of excruciating and satiric letter presences), Fellowes has done a Nahum Tate, a David Garrick! Nahum Tate was the man who rewrote King Lear to give it a happy ending; Garrick-like was the the man who rewrote Romeo and Juliet so as to make the lovers wake up to bid sentimental tearful farewells before they lie down to die. He reverses Trollope’s Dr Thorne’s refusal to allow Sir Roger to see or be seen by his sister Mary’s grown daughter, lest he, Dr Thorne, be dispossessed of what has made his existence meaningful, before he dies, even when Scatcherd threatens to leave all his fortune away from her (without which Mary has only the interest from 800£ in the funds, all Dr Thorne has managed to “amass” from his village doctor practice). Perhaps he thought no one reads Dr Thorne, or if we read it, we don’t remember it. Is there no limit to the man’s contempt for his audience?

Well yes.

Fellowes almost unexpectedly turns Scatcherd’s son, Sir Louis (Edward Franklin), the character pitied by Trollope’s narrator just a little, but most often despised, caricatured, sneered at, presented as a money-hungry creditor (as if he has no right to look into the arrangements Dr Thorne has made to keep Squire Gresham afloat all these years) — into the tragic hero of the film story. A chunk of its second episode and full third of the last was given over to a mortifying plangent rendition of Louis’s pursuit of Mary Thorne, his excruciatingly inept presence at a dinner party and then death (not from delirium tremens) but a suppurating bleeding lung (reminiscent in its stagy-ness of Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham near death for a few seconds in Downton Abbey) because he galloped across the landscape out of anguish at her rejection and fell off his horse and punctured his rib cage with the horse’s saddle. This subtextual slapstick is not in Trollope.

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Among the character’s last lines is “she thought me a buffoon,” but Fellowes has not lifted him out of that

Fellowes has highlighted a problem his predecessor film adaptors managed to finesse. What are we to do with Trollope’s shameless stigmatizing of lower class males trying to “ape” gentlemen as ultimately slime to be expelled? In 1983 Alan Plater, scriptwriter of Barchester Chronicles (and thus the linchpin person) cast the part against type by hiring Alan Rickman and then had Rickman play the part with a self-controlled dignity, guarded rage, subtle manipulative ability (though out-maneuvred by Susan Hampshire as the irresistible erotic Signora Neroni). Before that a full 40 years ago (1975) in The Pallisers Simon Raven similarly endowed Trollope’s anti-semitic depiction of a Jewish hypocritical murderer, the Rev Emilius (Anthony Ainley) with a seething intensity of ambition that the amoral Lizzie Eustace (Sarah Badel) was too stupid to flee from. Fellowes, though, wanted to grant the character a full burden of human gravitas earlier, but could not pull out enough depth to invent longer scenes to show this. All we get is his screeching at his mother, Lady Scatcherd, how could you prefer Frank to me? Lady Scatcherd (as in Trollope) is otherwise mostly caricatured but as Lady Scatcherd’s preference for the heir is too much even for Fellowes (and he feared too much for pious viewers) Fellowes made her feeling acceptable by having her much earlier on insist how she loved both equally. To this low is Trollope brought and for those who know the text exposed.

I grant Fellowes much of the dialogue used in the film is in the novel — he chose the surface dialogues. He transfers the powerful epistolary narrative chapter where Augusta is treacherously persuaded to give up a possible happy marriage with the De Courcy solicitor, Mr Gazebee (Nicholas Rowe) on the grounds of his lack of rank into pantomime comic moments of dramatic startle. Her great cousin-friend, advisor has grabbed Gazebee for herself.

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Augusta is made into an “old maid” buffoon

There are a lot of silences. Another actor-character thrown away is Richard McShane as Squire Gresham; he wanders around looking sheepish by the end behaving as if by not cold-shouldering others he’s doing enough. In the book it is his unexamined snobbery and self-indulgence in the book that wasted the Gresham fortune; the ambivalent and interesting friendship with Thorne and their dialogues are gone. Istead Fellowes has Hollander as Thorne giving Brie as Miss Dunstable sly glances. Yet the man avoids montage so the explanation at the end must be gone through in words character by character.

As a side note the production did not pay for the the use of the houses. We never see anyone going in and out. They were filmed from afar and then we found ourselves in the usual sets. One reminded me of the set from the 2009 Sense and Sensibility for Norland Park.

Ironically the film adaptation vindicates Trollope from being seen as simply material which lends itself for hijacking from the elite. Last year John McCourt asked why the bicentennial celebrations were so muted? He suggested that the kinds of things done were not the sorts of events a larger audience, especially one not equipped with tuxes and gowns could easily join into. As has been said before (John Letts among those saying this), Trollope has partly been hijacked by his elite mainstream fans. I’d maintain that more than his academic readers lean to the left. Plater wrote brilliantly radical 1970s style plays for TV and stage; Simon Raven was radical in his outlook; Andrew Davies is a humane left-leaning liberal; Herbert Herbert’s gem, “Malachi’s Cove” shows just how down-to-earth is Trollope’s appreciation of humanity.

So while I regret very much this opportunity to film another Barsetshire book was botched, it’s salutary to see the material of this Trollope novel resist the kind of treatment Fellowes tries to give it. A friend said to me this film adaptation is something Popplecourt (from The Duke’s Children) might have written. Perhaps that’s too strong, but pace what I’ve heard some fans say, Trollope’s novels are not at all like P. G. Wodehouse.

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A rare far shot of the bedroom scene: Winterbones taking notes, Scatcherd helped up from his bed by Thorne, Lady Scatcherd leaving …

Ellen

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Ross and Demelza (Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees) trying to mislead prevention men looking for smugglers

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Jim Carter (Stuart Doughty) dying of an unjust system, Jinny (Gillian Bailey) grieving (1975 Poldark)

Dear friends and readers,

Though I wrote most of my earlier blogs on the 1970s Poldark mini-series and quite a number of my more recent blog here on Jim and Ellen have a blog, Two, I switched to Austen Reveries last year when I began to teach the novels as historical fiction set in the 18th century, with my accent on the content as about the 18th century. Consequently, the list of the new blogs is on Austen Reveries, as well a summary of the paper I wrote comparing the two mini-series for a recent ASECS (American 18th century society conference), the panel: the 18th century on film. I put Marriot’s book, The World of Poldark here, but linked the paper into Austen reveries.

But since I know a sizable number of readers here used to be interested in this series, I offer this short blog announcing that a beautifully formatted abbreviated version of the paper (complete with stills) has been published by ABOPublic: an interactive forum for women in the arts, 1640-1830. I also took the liberty of publishing the full paper on my page on academia.edu

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Morwenna Chynoweth (Jane Wymark) falling in love with Drake Carne (Kevin McNally) — her coerced marriage shown to be a form of nightly rapes (1977 Poldark)

I demonstrated a plethora of 1960-70s films have been re-made within this time-frame and that with a couple of exceptions, the new films are using real or fantasy history to create a past with different emphases from the one realized earlier in order to project and/or construct an imposed or perceived group identity intended to allay insecurities of our era. I used the Poldark pair as a particularly lucid example of typical changes: the 1970s mini-series series dramatizes exploitative inexorable conflicts along class, political and gender and generation lines. Far from from presenting a strong community identity as way for individuals to solve their lives’ problems, the older mini-series centers on characters presented as individuals escaping – or failing to escape from – invisible coercive and sometimes unjust norms (prisons). The 1970s films identify with the radical, the rebel, and take a strongly feminist (sometimes anachronistically so) stance. The 2015 series reveals a single script-writer using film technologies to make mythic matter for an idealized perceived indwelling heroic community identity as a solution to individual problems. The women are now subordinated to, work for their families and working businesses, and their children, wherein they find their meaning and safety. The mine has become a central site with which almost each episode begins. Horfield adds incantatory speeches like Jud’s:

Jud: ‘Tis in the blood your father‘d say mining tis in the blood … the vein of copper ‘tis the bread of life . . . eat sleep live and breathe it, she’s your salvation and your downfall, make you bold, many a friend did break and many more will follow … Tis a fool’s game … twill end in tears … your father died before his time … So his mining did for him… Well he won’t be the last neither, if he were here today he’d tell you not to make the same mistake …

The parallel for the first series is The Onedin Line, where there is much trust in existence itself, high scepticism towards religionm trust in technology; the parallel for the second Outlander where characters live in a spiritualized landscape, what happens in life mysterious, often monstrous, and the future something to be guarded against, potentially dark and grim. The actuating idea is people need to hold together, stay in a single imaginary space, and yet experience is centrifugal, now and again the strength of community as powerful when united against single or small groups of much more powerful individuals is shown to be a delusion.

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Robin Ellis as the Rev Halse and Aidan Turner as Ross (2015 Poldark)

“Halse: “No doubt the common people you mix with have blunted your faculties as to what may or may not be said in polite society.”
Ross: “No I agree they alter one’s perspective, sir … have you ever been in a jail sir it’s surprising the stench thirty or forty of God’s creatures can give off when confined to a squalid pit without drains, water, physicians care.”
Halse: “The matter of your performance at Bodmin jail has not gone unnoticed, sir. There will be shortly be a meeting of the justices of whom I should say I am one … You offensive young drunkard. You’ll be hearing from us presently.”

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Ross and Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) seen across a spiritualized landscape

Ellen

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From the frontispiece: Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza with Garrick

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Just one of many many meditative stills: Aidan Turner as Ross looking out at the world with a characteristic expression

Mem’ries like voices that call on the wind.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Whispered and tossed on the tide coming in.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Voices like songs that are heard in the dawn,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Singing the secrets if children unborn.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Songs like the dream that the bal maidens spin,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
T#aving the song if the cry if the tin.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Dreams, like the castles that sleep in the sand,
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Slip through the fingers or held in the hand.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Dreams like the memories once borne on the wind.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Lovers and children and copper and tin,
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.

Secrets like stories that no one has told.
Medhel an gwyns, medhel an gwyns.
Stronger than silver and brighter than gold.
Medhel, oh medhel an gwyns.
— M. J. O’Connor [sung as voice-over by Eleanor Tomlinson]

Dear friends and readers,

It’s been some eight months since my handy list, Poldark: the new incarnation and the Old. I’ve not forgotten Graham’s roman fleuve as a historical turn as this past fall I repeated a course on the first four novels I’d given the previous spring, and over the winter break wrote another paper for a panel on 18th century films, this time on “Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years on.” I finished that a couple of nights ago and when the ASECS conference is over will be publishing it, probably here on the Net on a blog part academic and part popular on 18th century topics.

To some extent I found out what many already knew: I studied the Onedin Line, a companion book as well as watched the first years’ series; and I read Diana Gabaldon’s first Outlander book and watched the first years’ series too. Yes the 1970s Poldark is partly modeled on Onedin Line; some of the departures from Graham’s book form parallels to Onedin. It’s no coincidence that a chief heroine of the first or 1971 season of The Onedin Line (often cited as a model for the 1975 Poldarks) also gets pregnant outside marriage, refuses to marry the father of her coming baby, and offered the choice of abortion, the streets or the baby’s father, marries a man not the father of the baby. The spiritualized landscape and mythic identity of Outlander is at least comparable (if not a source) to the new Poldark. An 18th century Scottish Laird and 20th century English nurse are repeatedly filmed in one horse against spiritualized landscapes of castles where megalithic stones are magical; so too the new Poldark has countless montages of Ross alone or with Demelza horse-riding against meaningfully heightened landscapes:

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The actors are quoted and we see the whole cast rehearsing too:

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I found enormously enlightening Lez Cooke’s history of British TV film. All four series fit into patterns Cooke describes. 40 Year re-bootings are all the rage. There has been an astonishing revival of respect for historical fiction and historical film, one adumbrated in the original Poldark series. There is a kind of thrill in watching the “old” Ross (previously the chivalrous Stewart Grainger type turned Che Guevara) turn up as the fiercely authoritarian judge standing off against, seriously threatening the “new Ross, e.g., where Horsfield reworks a scene using lines from the book to have a different feel where Robin Ellis now returned to play the Reverend Halse, an aging icy magistrate responds bitingly, ominously to Turner as Ross:

“Halse: “No doubt the common people you mix with have blunted your faculties as to what may or may not be said in polite society.”
Ross: “No I agree they alter one’s perspective, sir … have you ever been in a jail sir it’s surprising the stench thirty or forty of God’s creatures can give off when confined to a squalid pit without drains, water, physicians care.”
Halse: “The matter of your performance at Bodmin jail has not gone unnoticed, sir. There will be shortly be a meeting of the justices of whom I should say I am one … You offensive young drunkard. You’ll be hearing from us presently.”

“Have a care, sir [from an earlier scene].”

It seemed to me from reading Cooke the Rosses symbolize different eras.

I don’t want to go over my paper’s theses or various detailed comparisons until I’ve returned from said conference so thought I’d mark this occasion by bypassing the film so to speak to recommend a book I found a great help: Emma Marriot’s The World of Poldark, one of these “companion” books sometimes published alongside respected and popular TV mini-series. Like others, this one functions as a substitute screenplay: the story of the film is told chapter by chapter.

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The real scripts the actors studied

These are not synopses of the books as they often change the emphasis from the original text, as well as literal details. Each section of the book though corresponds to some phase of the two novels following their order (more or less).

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From the mini-series: Dr Choake (Robert Dawes), the banker Pascoe (Richard Hope) and Ross

The actors told of their conception of their character: a couple appear to have read the books, but particulars repeatedly follow a line of behavior in the film or changed conception of a character as distinct from the books which are nonetheless the source. They also invoke their own understanding of the relationships between character: Turner says that Ross likes Demelza because he trusts her (thus her deceit over Verity shakes him intensely), she doesn’t perform a role, and he sees himself as taking care of her.

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The originating relationship

Heidi Reed’s talk of Elizabeth Poldark’s relationship to Demelza is revealing not so much because it’s so unlike the book but because she reveals how she cannot resist seeing these historical characters as somehow unreal: like a fan of a Jane Austen book she talks about Elizabeth “as just perfect.” Reynolds’ portrait of Emma Hamilton was the model for her as a type. Biographies of actors and filmographies suggest an attempt was made to find fresh faces, people not well known or associated with too many famous and similar characters. While Ruby Bentall as Verity talked about the character as found in the film she was one of several who seem to me to have read the books.

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Verity and Demelza, becoming friends (from the book)

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This is from the mini-series itself: a favorite moment for me: as I loved the section of the book Ross Poldark where Verity and Demelza bonded so I enjoyed this scene (I have myself danced these dances, first learned, practiced and then enjoyed them)

Everyone was then to fit in as an ensemble, only the costumes for Margaret were “over-the-top.” Each person reading will have his or her favorite portrait and section: I liked Luke Norris’s ideas about his character (he “attends to the poor and whoever is in need, and is tireless in his work”), and feel better about the replacement for Richard Morante than I had

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There is a strongly progresssive agenda at the same time as high romancing. Like others, the book is also a kind of scenario offering the vision of the story: through pictures (drawings made by the staff, contemporary prints and paintings); using long suggestive quotations & passsages from contemporary histories (18th century histories of Cornwall, with citations, titles, dates); contemporary proclamations. There are genuine mini-historical essays on issues dramatized in the series: the criminal justice system, poaching, mining (from Roman to 18th century times, with emphasis on large economic forces), prisons. They will print an 18th century painting of the seashore, then a large clip from one of the paratexts of sweeping cinema views and then we see the cast [photographed on the same seashore cliff (colors enhanced by computer technologies)

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Essays on “Domestic medicine” (items called “putrid sore throat”), how money worked (again issues itemized in bullet fashion with explanations) and gambling too; smugglingv(how widespread). Many photographs of the locations and buildings used. An sort of essay by the composer about the music he created. Chapters from the production and costume design people, wigs, characters portraits with a cornucopia of photographs of the actors and actresses in and out of costume. I’ve picked out just a few representative examples of plethora of materials generously (the book is not enormously expensive) made available:

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John Opie, The Peasant Family, said to have provided inspiration for Demelza’s costumes — there are a number of reprints of less-well known (French, Italian, prints of soldiers in uniform) and famous paintings (by Gainsborough, Reynolds) which served as models for visuals of costume and character representation.

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Contemporary fortune-telling cards — some of the contemporary visual paraphernalia used

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Some of the drawing boards

This particular companion shows respect for history and Marriot tells a great deal about the film-maker’s aims, the teams’s sources, the genre of the film as envisaged for an audience. Marriot’s text explained a number of features of the first season that puzzled me: why these new Poldark episodes, individually so much longer than the 1970s films seemed to have much less time for the secondary stories: the idea was to establish a group identity and have many scenes of ritual and local work, three weddings replace complicated individually psychologized stories.

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many silent sequences with some incantatory speech, Phil Davis as Jud warning Turner as Ross who determines not to listen:

Tis in the blood your father‘d say mining tis in the blood … the vein of copper ‘tis the bread of life  . . . eat sleep live and breathe it, she’s your salvation and your downfall, make you bold, many a friend did break and many more will follow … Tis a fool’s game … twill end in tears … your father died before his time … So his mining did for him… Well he won’t be the last neither, if he were here today he’d tell you not to make the same mistake

There is in this new series use of epitomizing dramas in order to project an archetypal reality, with an emphasis on folk culture (as in the original poem spoke by Tomlinson above). They didn’t want to make a film which would be seen as a re-make of the previous.

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The new Nampara

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Recreation of surface mining

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Interiors re-done at Corsham, the town used for Truro

I learned the names of all the different creative people, their past history, conception of their role and how they went about making their materials.

My experience of this book has made me appreciate the series much more; after reading it and re-watching the new series, I found I understood and liked it much better

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A cross-section map invented for (the fictional) Wheal Leisure which we see Ross (Aidan Turner) poring over

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Demelza’s cloak, whose color fits into the color palette of the series

Ellen

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Final shot of the series: Highclere Castle depicted as in snow, night falling — it is dark note

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Antepenultimate shot: we glimpse Violet, Dowager Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) with Mrs Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) with Tom Branson (Allen Leech) —

Robert, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville): “We never know what’s coming of course, who does?” (his last words)

Friends and readers,

What can one say about 90 minutes of scenes presented as about real human beings where except for the two over-the-top caricatures of Lord Merton’s eldest son and daughter-in-law (Charles Anson returned with his horrible fiancee, now wife, Amelia, an actress whose name I cannot find), everyone is actuated by the kindest concern for everyone else? and they cave so easily: “If reason fails, try force,” says Violet and she and Mrs Crawley snatch Lord Merton (Douglas Reith: “Marvelous!” says he) back. It’s again scene after scene of the usual intense emotionalism, with wry sayings transitioning into complacent on-goingness.

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Thomas (Rob James-Collier): “I think I might try to be someone else when I get to my new position … “

Yes Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is tart to Bertie (Henry Haddon-Patton) when they meet again: he hurt her. Lady Pelham (Patricia Hodge grown old) put up a protest against Bertie, her heir and son, marrying “damaged goods” aka Lady Edith Crawley who comes with her daughter, Marigold, born out of wedlock (because Michael Grigson disappeared in the conflagration of Nazi Germany), on the ridiculous grounds they have to keep the “highest moral standards up” since Bertie’s cousin, the man he inherited from may have been homosexual, and didn’t lead a mainstream life; but the unbelievable stilted reasoning soon collapses under the weight of her desire to be central to her son’s on-going life. This desire of all of them (except maybe Mr Carson, see just below) to not be rejected by anyone, not to hurt anyone’s feelings controlled the behavior of all by all.

I was reminded of an essay I tried to read by D.A. Miller where he asked why there were no police in Trollope’s Barchester Towers?

A paraphrase: everyone polices one another and themselves … we are invited to sit around and fret about how to take how a character given hardly any of life’s real alternatives is acting … thus are we drilled into accepting our lot …

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Mrs Hughes-Carson thinking about what she has seen

As usual Fellowes has a knack for surface realism: so we see that aging men sicken and move towards death much earlier than women. The “golden years” of Mrs Hughes-Carson (Phyllis Logan) and Mr Carson (Jim Carter) are going to consist of her selfless pragmatic and sceptical functioning as the friend, wise adviser and nurse of this rigidly martinet reactionary disciplinarian, worshipper of Debret’s as he subsides into Parkinson’s disease. Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) is not near death from pernicious anemia but he does have a serious case of anemia and will need his new second wife, Isobel Crawley, now Lady Merton, to care for and protect him.

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Robert, Earl of Grantham did not die of a hemorrhage from his ulcers in the antepenultimate episode, and now has a new puppy dog to lavish affection on,

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but he still clutches his chest in a worrying way that suggests angina pectoris, so it may be a good thing that (unlike her husband), Cora has found her metier in local politics at last: she is a soothing Lady Bountiful presiding over a remarkably anachronistically organized hospital system there in Yorkshire (it was Yorkshire the series began in?) where all will be taken care of. In their last conversation they acknowledge we cannot know what is to come.

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It was well-calibrated not to make this last episode into a tear-jerker.

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A few liberal joke-y notes. It turns out we are to see Spratt (Jeremy Swift) as another gay butler — that’s appears to fuel part of the Dowager’s delight when our resident (thwarted) witch lady’s maid, Dencker (Sue Johnston) carries on her thankless task of attempting to get him fired backfires.

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Spratt’s stamp album now a cover-up for his notebook writing of his daily column of advice for young ladies love-lorn and wanting to know what to wear

Mr Barrow (Rob James-Collier) is just dew-y all episode long with gratitude to all for their concern for him when he tried to slit his wrists, and with determined sweet love for all. Lady Mary engineers Lady Edith’s marriage with so little ease I cringed to hear Lady Edith’s return to abjection: “you gave me my life back” — could she have done nothing? The actors did remarkably well under this perpetual pressure. I thought some of the lines downright corny and Michelle Dockery had some trouble in her dialogue with her new beloved. Rob James-Collier managed a little better because he was given fewer lines: if he couldn’t be married, he could smile at being included and replace Mr Carter at long last. If there have been any lesbians (say the lady’s maids) over the years, we were not permitted to glimpse this, though now and again we came across individuals who ended up going it alone.

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Does anyone remember Alun Armstrong as Stowell the butler in Scotland? — Durkheim says elderly men alone are a population most susceptible to suicide

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Or how Violet attempted to secure Lord Merton for Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walters)? — but alas she was too old for his taste (I thought I glimpsed her for a split second at the back at Edith’s wedding but perhaps it was Henry’s as she is his family)

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Why break a butterfly on a wheel at this point?

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The scullery maid the first season opened with now has her hair fixed by the housemaid now privileged lady’s maid and companion — Daisy (Sophie McShea) who saved a farm place for Mr Mason by her protests is all set to become Queen there, with Andy her tender-hearted king

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Andy Parker (Michael Fox) fixing the house roof

I direct my readers to two of several long-time bloggers on this series who offer the equivalent of Trollope’s ironically titled final chapter of Framley Parsonage: “How they all were married, had Two Children and Lived Happily Ever After:” Jane Austen’s world appeared to take it all solemnly, though she called it a “sugar spun bow;” Anibundel provided some salt while she went through it bullet-style: I add that even Mr Mason (Paul Copley) grins at Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol), and Edith’s editor catches the bouquet and so we know that soon she and Tom will be getting together. “All have won and all must have husbands after all.” Two children? Lady Mary is pregnant again, now that she’s got a Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode) who is working out to be another submissive male, and in this episode is a woman who mends and heals and takes care of all. At first Henry seems depressed over this turn of events, but there is Tom to buck him up, and with effortless ease they start a Daimler business. His only worry is lest Mary be ashamed of him, but not in this episode where she is all calm beneficence:

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There were years where I became intensely involved and bonded with some of the characters, Anna and Bates in the early years (Joanne Froggart and Brendan Coyle),

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In the church watching Lady Edith getting married

more recently Mr Moseley and Miss Baxter (Kevin Doyle and Raquel Cassidy). Servants on occasion educated themselves out of servitude: after all Moseley is not going to be a university professor.

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The punctum (as the piercing feel of the image is called) was there for me

It did happen that children of people outside the family could be brought up in the family nursery: Here it’s enough to see Lady Mary bend down to take off Anna’s shoes to force Anna into her own bed to give birth:

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And when the childbirth agon is over (hardly felt at all, hardly took any time) the new Bates son will be put in the nursery during the day with the Grantham children to be “followed by a young Talbot:” Lady Mary decrees:

Baby

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A typical kitchen scene, preparing food for the groups

In this last episode those still capable of being moved were so by the long years of “slow television” (individual scenes were not overlong but not a few seconds and broken up with interweaving with others as they played out), the images and dialogues repeatedly embedded in dramatised explorations of the neurosis of everyday life not gone into too deeply. In a world today where shallow relationships sustain daily communication in places where at any moment anyone may be ejected with no recourse, there can be no denying that finally the attraction was to this story of a group of people privileged to remain in a fractured-pastoral refuge. Community, safety, kindness is what is longed for after all.

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So it feels inappropriate to dwell on close-up images of pairs or single individuals at this last: the episode is larded with scenes where the characters support one another and self-reflexively discuss their relationships, the past, and gently lament they like ordinary mortals must move into future time.

Isobel: “What else could we drink to. We’re going forward to the future, not back into the past.”
Violet: “If only we had the choice.”

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The house was photographed again and again, three times in snow

This is but a blog, but it is mine own and effective soap operas weave themselves into our lives over time. When Downton Abbey began I was happily married after many years and at first did not watch, my husband did not care for TV in his last years, and I did not want to take over the front room where an old television was stationed. I succumbed to find common ground with Anibundel, caught up, became hooked, and over the years events, images, lines in these various seasons intertwined with what was happening with my life. My husband died as I watched the fourth season of mourning; now the quiet “exultation” at the close of this sixth saddened me, since I have no future I want to go forward into as do these “precious winners all.”

‘The only thing I’m not ready for is a life without you’ — Bertie to Edith

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Judi Dench as Paulina (The Winter’s Tale)

Ellen

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Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) finds Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) bleeding to death in the servants’ bathroom

Soon over. Not to worry. Not much to get through now.

The best framing of the last two “regular” episodes of Downton Abbey is probably Fellowes’s sneering bad-mouthing of BBC as this leftish outfit who would have hampered his coming hijacking of Trollope material for the elite in the form of an adaptation of Dr Thorne. (Part of a decade trend, explains John McCourt in The Irish Times.) The photo of this self-satisfied boaster (just click) is another where he resembles Hitchcock, maker of signally nasty movies, horrifically violent towards women. He is throwing stones at the BBC to support David Cameron and MPs of that ilk who (following the US gov’t’s attitude towards PBS), are doing all they can to destroy the BBC as we have known it. Bite the hand that fed his career.

There have been many Trollopian motifs in Downton Abbey: In these last two episodes we have in the story of Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) the young grown heirs who do all they can to prevent the older generation from fulfilling their needs for companionate and sexual love (one of many places is in Trollope’s Orley Farm).

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Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) struggling against the pious hypocrisy of Lord Merton’s coming daughter-in-law who does not care how miserable she and her husband will make the older couple, just as long as Mrs Crawley takes over Lord Merton’s care as he ages

Fellowes may have gotten the Pelham story from the background to The Warden: a Rev Francis North, Warden of the Hospital of St Cross unexpected became the Earl of Guilford after the death of a bachelor cousin (see latest Oxford ed by Nicholas Shrimpton, Introd. p. xvii).

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Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) afraid of this man’s (Henry Haddon-Patton) sheltered life (we would not be asked to believe this in Trollope) cannot get herself to tell him on her own that Marigold is her daughter, and liking his sensitivity so cannot say no to the marriage

Yet just to say how smooth it all is to ignore the point. Fellowes wants to carve in cement the idea that this ruling class rides over all, and everyone fits in.

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In these two episodes our third heroine, Anna Bates (Joanne Froggart) falls back to where she belongs: the careful diplomatic lady’s maid …

Because that’s the way it is and ought to be. Your loathing is so much useless banging against a wall which he claims won’t come down.

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To come to these two week’s salient themes and events, I thought again that Anibundel hit an important note when she remarked in her recaps of the last two episodes there’s something “emotionally horrific” about them (7: “But do they live happily ever after?”; 8: “The Truth about Mary”).

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So Episode 7 achieves true heartlessness in the exploitation killing off of a character invented suddenly as of rooted importance to our new suitor-hero, Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode): what took my breath away was the overt kick Fellowes got out rubbing in the watcher’s nose that once someone, anyone dies, not only does just about everyone in the world carry on just as before (maybe one person affected, in this case the rival car driver in a death-race), but they are as happy, cheerful or occupied as ever. No one gives a shit — for even the grieving other car driver can’t resist asking the ice princess, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) to marry him. She of course says no, being heartless herself — her ostensible believable reason that he has no rank nor money; he has forced her into this, it seems. She won’t admit to him the one legitimate reason: she lost her first husband to a car accident. What is she to be perpetually afraid to be widowed this way again. But no, not she, she won’t ask him to give this up.

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At the races — he later tells her when it seems it’s money and rank alone that he lacks, that he didn’t think she was that small and she is electrified with nauseated resentment

Episode 8 multiplied this effect: we had a roller-coaster of humiliations and deaths of hope: Lesley Nicol as Mrs Patmore business is going to fail from public mortification; ho ho how funny this is everyone feels:

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Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) upon being told her lifetime savings may have gone poof in a squalid incident — the risks to a woman of opening a B&B or boarding house

Kevin Doyle as Mr Moseley is made a fool out of by his students after years spent trying to get the right to stand in front of a classroom.

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Writing on the board

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Cold and indifferent to him, seemingly disdainful

And Lady Mary finally outdid herself in attempting to destroy Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael’s love affair) with such cavalier bitchiness that for a time she was excoriated by the decent people in the house. Tom Bransom (Allan Leech) rounds on her as a coward bully, for once sneering at “her maid” as her friend (of course she would show a respect sympathy). And her father (Hugh Bonneville) on her snide remark that he and Carson together led to Thomas’s attempt at suicide as even he didn’t expect such a “blow, low even for you:”

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and the worm turned:

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Summing one another up at last: Lady Mary starting it: “You’re pathetic,” and Lady Edith finally, you’re a bitch … can’t bear to see anyone happy if you’re unhappy …

Fellowes is so true to the characters he does leave a line where Lady Mary almost implies she could go after Pelham now. Though as ever her mother (Elizabeth McGovern) overlooked it by treating it as trivia in her usual complacent way (“you wouldn’t want people to think you’re jealous”); and the Dowager, Violet (Maggie Smith) hurried back from her holiday in France to reassure the audience underneath Mary has a heart, she just pretends not to (as all worldly sensible people do and Fellowes’s high class heroine would).

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Violet to the rescue

We did have to endure and cannot overlook the talk before and after Mary’s bombshell that Edith must tell Bertie Pelham, now Marquess (Henry Hadden-Patton). Robert had a good moment here to Lady Rosemary Painswick as she carries on insisting they cannot do this to this “other family:”

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Lord Grantham asks Lady Rosemary (Samantha Bond) when she is planning to leave

We can remember how she tried to drive Edith to have an abortion and when Edith wouldn’t, to give up her child to strangers.

But such talk is in effect a form of blaming Edith for not telling him, and she says she might have tried to “trick” him (he’s another of the blind people of these 7 years who never once thought, Where does Marigold come from?). So Mary had to do it even if she did it so viciously. Tom is still half-used as a chauffeur by both Mary and Edith: so much for his views. Fellowes is so clever at getting the audience to accept this formula of resignation: Edith’s grating showing up at this ice princess’s wedding is accompanied by plangent speech about how someday they would be the only ones with shared memories of the world they had known so must not estrange themselves from one another.

But life you know carries on. Fellowes does what he’s so good at: involves you emotionally in realistically conceived and deeply felt characters’ deep crises and when the shit hits the fan, slips away. Snubbed and ignored, and sideswiped, and nagged to get the hell out of there once too often Thomas slits his wrists. But we are given no scene of him doing it, no over-voice, no aftermath: just what the public was told, a social scene of the upper class Master George showing some concern

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and then Thomas at the wedding (looking a bit worn but none the worse for the wear) and it seems he is not going to be sacked after all. And suicide if it does not succeed can be hidden.

Here the arch enemy was Carson who once called Thomas disgustingly repugnant; we have later to endure Mrs Hughes’s (Phyllis Logan) calling his behavior to Mrs Patmore too as “curmudgeonly:” this is to trivialize the cold shoulder bully who behaves with repugnant words and active cruelty to real people in favor of upholding an abstract hierarchy of the rich

MrsHughesbetter
Here her forthright face-to-face response is the right one: to tell him he’s wrong and they won’t do as he wishes

************************************
The most unqualified good moments are in the secondary stories where Fellowes seems more comfortable:

picnic
The servants picnicking

Students
Mr Moseley succeeding with his students by telling who he is and about himself, and that learning is for itself, not lying that they can have anything they want as a result of this learning, Daisy (Sophie McShea listening)

And through stills:

Edithlovingherchild (2)
Lady Mary at Matthew’s grave just before she’s about to marry Henry — this can remind us Fellowes never meant to kill Matthew off, but used it, together with the rape of Anna, brilliantly in the fourth season ….

Edithlovingherchild (1)
Edith knowing she has done the right thing to bring up her own child, Marigold — the still closes the episode and so can remind us how often Fellowes has imagined unwed mothers whose raison d’etre becomes their child …

I agree with a friend that the dialogue, the scripts have been much less interesting the last two seasons.

I have read that the “final finale,” the last Christmas episode will not be aired for two weeks. If this is so, it shows a astute appreciation of how soap operas work in our lives. Their slow pace, the turning of their daily worlds punctuating our experience of our own once a week makes us react to them as we do to friends we see regularly. They enter our lives as part of the thread.

thenewdog
The latest family member: Violet’s present to her son, Lord Grantham of a puppy to replace Isis

Ellen

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