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Archive for the ‘Costume drama’ Category

OpeningOvervoice
Claire Randall (Catriona Balfe) looking into Farrell’s shop window in a highland village

vase

(Outlander 1, scripted Ronald Moore)

People disappear all the time. Young girls run away from home. Children stray from their parents and are never seen again. Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station. Most are found eventually. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually. Strange, the things you remember. Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years. Like the moment I realized I’d never owned a vase. That I’d never lived any place long enough to justify having such a simple thing. And how at that moment, I wanted nothing so much in all the world as to have a vase of my very own. It was a Tuesday afternoon. Six months after the end of the war (taken direct from Gabaldon’s Outlander, opening.

Friends,

It’s time. Overdue. It may be my readers think I am above Outlander. I am not. I love it. I have now watched all sixteen episodes of the first season three times. I’ve read Gabaldon’s novel, I’ve read her Outlandish Companion. It connects to so much I’m deeply engaged by: it’s Daphne DuMaurier in the high romance mode, elegant, controlled wildness. Outlander is a cross between DuMaurier’s The Hungry Hill where the hero travels back and forth between the mid-20th and 14th century, and her historical romances, say King’s General (set in the 17th century civil war), Frenchman’s Creek, or Jamaica Inn (smugglers as misunderstood free-trader outlaws set in the very early 19th). Claire is the many times great-grandaughter of Sophia Lee’s Elinor and Matilda, the twin daughters of Mary Queen of Scots in her The Recess. I’ve been reading about Scotland and its civil wars, diaspora (to among other places, Canada), poetry and fiction by its writers (from Anne Murray Halkett to RLS Stevenson and Margaret Oliphant and onto Margaret Atwood) for years and years.

The immediate inspiration though is the new Poldark. Outlander reflects mores of the last few years far more frankly explored, and unlike the new Poldark thus far is a woman’s mini-series, a proto-feminist series of films. I’ve learned the second season of Poldark is going to depart so radically from Graham’s books as to change a crucial thread across all twelve novels and one of my favorite characters (though like Jane Austen over Emma it seems no one but me will much like), Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan. So I thought I might sustain a comparison of the two similar mini-series: Poldark drawn from historical novels, Outlander from historical romance, both obeying naturalism and verisimilitude once the terms of the fiction are set up). I don’t say I won’t compare the 1970s Poldark nor the two books, Jeremy Poldark (1950) and Warleggan (1953), but I will keep in mind and bring in this contemporary comparable series. Run them on this blog in tandem.

The Outlander resembles the new (2015) Poldark in its grimness, brutal violence, grimyness, the POV from below, the peasants and outlaws, not the elegant and fringe people of the older (1975) Poldark, Oneddin Line. But this is Claire’s story, make no mistake about that. The central consciousness, the voice-over in this season in all but one episode (when it is Jamie’s [Sam Heughan] and that very unusual, as “real” men don’t do over-voice). By keeping the central consciousness a woman’s, the narrator a heroine, Gabaldon kept all the intense ambiguity about a woman’s helplessness in pre-19th century eras against males, who then in reaction to the heroine manifest unashamed or shall I say unhidden attitudes towards her sexuality (the film is written, directed and produced mostly by men): upon meeting Claire Randall (Catrionia Balfe) the film’s 18th century men, British soldiers and aristocrats, Irish thugs and clansmen alike promptly think her or ask if she is a whore because she is alone. Jonathan Wolverton Randall aka Black Jack (Tobias Menzies, also Frank, Claire’s gentle husband in the mid-20th century, a descendant of Black Jack, whom he has been researching) proceeds to try to rape her. But she is a 20th century woman, pro-active on her own and others’ behalf, not inclined to regard herself as secondary person or take punishment, self-confident, with a sense of what she is entitled to.

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As our story begins, Claire Randall has been a nurse in WW2 and presided over and helped in horrifying operations, and the war now over, she and her her academic archaeologist husband, Frank (set for a professorship in Oxford), meet again after a near 5 year absence. They visit Scotland for its ruins, look at neolithic sites. They are trying hard to recreate what they once had, but it’s not quite working. The whole section, the way the bed-sit room looked, reminded me of women’s films of the 1940s, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard stuff. The two actors convey the strain the couple is trying to overcome:

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I thought of V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

All photographed with soft brown lights too, stark dark and bleak blacks for the houses, yet in gentle light grey light. He explores genealogy, ruins of ancient fortresses, clans, primitive neolithic stone sites; she half ironically goes along.

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Sunlit

Frank has made friends with a local scholarly vicar, genealogist a Reverend Wakefield, as in Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield, played exquisitely fine, with subtle humor and gravity by James Fleet. Our honeymooning (in effect) couple take to visiting this gentle vicar and Mrs Graham (Tracy Wilkinson), his wry housekeeper. Again I was so reminded of say Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers material before the murder occurs. The men discuss Scots and English aristocracy, Scots clans, the injustices of the 18th century, the patronage system, speculate that perhaps Jonathon Wolverton Randall could act with inpunity because his patron was the Earl of Sandringham. Claire goes off for women’s gossip and tea; Mrs Graham asks to read her palm and finds odd marks on Claire’s hand, and tells of rituals she participates in by Crag na Dunn, a circle of standing stones.

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They are allured by these woman’s midnight rituals.

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Here I was not only reminded of Dorothy in Oz, but the language in the book and series alludes to Frank L. Baum, especially later when Claire-Dorothy wants to get back to the stones as gateway to Kansas, but there is something new here: this is a tale of national identity, of seeking who one is by asking what group one belongs to, and it’s done from a post-colonial perspective, highly critical of the British. Whence the title: Claire is an outsider, a Brit, from elsewhere we know. A Scottish film company is a major producer, Scots actors, venerable (Bill Paterson as the lawyer, Ned Gowan) and new (Duncan Lacroix as the faithful Murtagh, so we are not far from Scott after all) are everywhere. Geography, landscape, blended time frames, intense interiority, mix with lessons in clans, Jacobitism, and the medicine and witchcraft of the era.

What I hope to do is apply to Outlander, several studies of DuMaurier, the gothic, women’s films and Scottish studies, and then by transference see how what is said today about films and books like Outlander relates to the new Poldark mini-series and what is being done to Graham’s Poldark books in them. So this is film, historical fiction, historical romance and delvings into time-traveling fantasies research in progress. It fits into post-colonial patterns too.

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We begin for real and earnest when we move into the time-traveling sequence. Gabaldon knows that women in the 18th century went in for botany, studying herbs and so does our Claire so while Frank is buried in papers, she goes back to the stones and touching one she melts into another realm, coming out somehow into the year 1743.

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She leaves her car

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She has to come close to the stones of Crag Na Dunn to reach the flowers and herbs she wants

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She hears something, music, looks up, and moves to touch the wondrous tall neolithic stone

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The transported moment

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Waking

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An empty world, different older trees, no city in the distance (this is straight from Hungry Hill)

At first Claire thinks she has stumbled onto the set of costume drama (wonderful self-reflexity here) but no the bullets are real and she finds herself having to account for herself. So a re-naming, using her birth name, Beauchamp, she has to deal with everyone looking at her as stray whore: who else wanders in the wood in just her shift. This is an extraordinary moment that can only be done by a film: having the same actor, Tobias Menzies, play the hard mean ancester, Black Jack. Claire does a double take: he is but he is not Frank

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So it’s a re-encounter

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He now the 18th century educated man

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she still the mid-20th century educated woman

The drums of sudden movement, excitement, she flees, he after and so her adventure begins. A snarling redcoat, upholder of a vicious colonialist order, and she finds herself shot at, nearly raped (this will repeat and repeat) by Randall, is taken up by one of the Scotsmen (Murtagh we later realize), rescued (or herself takes up, saved) by the Scots clansmen, and is paired with the wounded Jamie Fraser, whose arm she correctly sets (and thus saves), and soon she is riding in front of him (anticipating Turner and Tomlinson as Ross and Demelza), warning the clan from her memories of what Frank told her of ambushes, becomes one of them. She resists at first and we get the most old-fashioned of gentle abductions:

Claire: [having fled during the ambush, Jamie having gone back to retrieve her] I hope you haven’t been misusing that shoulder. You’re hurt.
Jamie: This lot isna my blood.
She: Not much of it, anyway.
He: Dougal and the others will be waiting further up the stream. We should go.
She: – I’m not going with you.
He: – Yes, you are.
She: What, are you going to cut my throat if I don’t?
He: Why not? But You don’t look that heavy. Now if you won’t walk, I shall pick you up and throw you over my shoulder. Do you want me to do that?
She: No.
He: Well, then I suppose that means your coming with me.
She – [Climbing, he Grunting] – Serves you right. Probably torn your muscles as well as bruising.
He: Well, wasna much of a choice. If I dinna move my shoulder, I’d never have moved anything else ever again. I can handle a single redcoat with one hand. Maybe even two. Not three. Besides, you can fix it for me again when we get to where we’re going.
She: That’s what you think.
He: Here’s to you, lass. For tipping us to the villains in the rocks and giving us a wee bit o’ fun! [All speak Gaelic] [Speaks Gaelic] Have a wee nip.It willna fill your belly, but will make you forget you’re hungry.

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One blanket, one whiskey pouch

The band comes to a stone castle that she and her 20th century husband explored now become fully inhabited. I thought I was back with Frank Yerby’s The Border Lord, Book-of-the-Month club special (from the early 1950s like the Poldark series. I though of Radcliffe’s Emily coming up to Udolpho:

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Leogh

Only the voice again is wry, prosaic, slightly comical:

The rest of the journey passed uneventfully, if you consider it uneventful to ride fifteen miles on horseback through country at night, frequently without benefit of roads, in company with kilted men armed to the teeth, and sharing a horse with a wounded man. At least we were not set upon by highwaymen, we encountered no wild beasts, and it didn’t rain.

When they get inside we are not in a gloomy, grand place, but a busy courtyard where everyone is going about her or his daily business. From the next episode:

Mrs Fitzgibbon [Annette Badland]: Mwah! Ye’ll all be needing breakfast, I reckon. Plenty in the kitchen. Away in, and feed yerselves. [chuckles] Murtagh, you look and smell like a rat that’s been dragged through sheep dung.
Murtagh: Gi’ us a kiss, then.
Mrs Fitzgibbon: Oh, no! A kiss, then! [laughing] And what do we have here?
Jamie: Claire Beauchamp, Mistress Fitzgibbons. Murtagh found her, and Dougal said we must bring her along with us, so So.

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Mrs Fitzgibbon looks at Claire in ways the men do not, sees what the men do not see

Mrs F: Well Claire. Come with me. We shall find you something to eat, something to wear that’s a bit more Well, a bit more

It’s the voice-over that held me especially in this first episode, compellingly, Catrionia Balfe’s voice perfect for a DuMaurier Rebecca too. A sophisticated use of old-fashioned realism smashed together with fantasy gothic and superb cinematography, a richly colored Scotland complete, with the themed music part minor key bagpipes, make for an undercurrent of thrill. I will be concentrating on the women in the series.

As for the book, the source, this first episode is lifted directly from the novel. Many of the lines are taken from Gabaldon; it’s as if she wrote the book with a film in mind. She began in earnestness from an online experience, a Literary Forum in the Net’s earliest days. In her Outlandish Companion her language gives away hat when she started, Gabaldon had Now Voyageur, the old Bette Davis trope in mind but was also thinking of “the Age of Enlightenment,” i.e., the realities of the 18th century.

I love her illustration are soft-focus photographs or line-drawing illustrations, evoking imagination on the part of the reader: emblems, herbs, older symbolic pictures (the zodaic for example). Much richness for us to explore for quite a number of weeks to come.

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From the site of Castle Leogh in Scotland today

Ellen

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Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza (the first season)

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Aidan Turner as Ross

As all those who have been waiting for the second season of Poldark to air know, there has been an unexpected delay in the airing of the second season of Poldark. Usually when a series is a real hit, the producers, channel, film-maker strike while the iron is still hot. The second season of Outlander came before the end of another year, and a third and possibly fourth season have already been announced.

I am among those eager to see the new second season. So late last spring I noticed a column by Debbie Horsfield containing a carefully worded statement (around the time a second season might have ended) that they had decided to present the sexual events of the coming season discreetly. They were going to be suggestive, not graphic. All who have read the books knew a rape was coming and I took this to mean that as in the 1975 Poldark, we would only see the prologue to rape, and then the screen would go dark. She was saying that modern film-making customs would not be followed, and explicit sex scenes would not be developed.

Not that Ross’s rape of Elizabeth would be obliterated altogether.

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Robin Ellis as Ross in the scenes prologue to the rape

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth in the same scenes (1975-76 Poldark)

That is what has been done. A suddenly timid BBC has perhaps pressured the film-makers of the new Poldark series to destroy a central event that makes for a meaningful plot design with a first climax at the end of the 7th book (The Angry Tide) and the final denouement of the whole cycle, at the close of the 12th book (Bella):

The BBC and film-makers say they feel that the modern audience could not accept a rape from a hero. It’s too shocking, rape. Have they not been watching other TV series of late? read any recent contemporary novels?

I wonder how much or if they fought over this. Robin Ellis tells us that in Making Poldark the script-writers and director were in conflict with some of the actors over the way in the 1970s mini-series Ross’s marriage to Demelza was presented as a shot-gun wedding, the result of a pregnancy which she first tried to abort, none of which is in Graham’s books.

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Anghared Rees as Demelza protesting the morning after sex, declaring she wants to leave

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With Ellis as Ross, she struggles to free herself so as to go for her abortion (again 1975 Poldark, wholly invented and unlike the book)

In Graham’s books Ross rebels against hierarchy, rank, status norms to marry a servant in his house because he and she have started to go to bed together, and he feels he is destroying her future unless he stops this before she gets pregnant or marries her. He finds himself comfortable with her, does not want to give her up as a servant, companion, and bed-mate, and is deeply angry against the social order. So defies it. Was this an important change? thereafter the script-makers and director kept faithfully to the books until near the end of Warleggan (Episodoes 14 to 15 in the first season, 1975-76) when they again departed radically, causing problems for the second season two years later (1977-78).

How important is the rape? I’d argue it’s far more important than the initial precipitating cause for Ross and Demelza’s marriage, as nothing else hinged on it. Not so the rape. To put it abstractly, in what ways can a film adaptation depart from a novel in order to erase or betray it? well, it can expunge a crucial plot-event that gives rise to a succession of climactic and centrally thematic fraught consequences in this or later novels, in other words further crucial plot-events. A series of consequences that make for the very ending of novels that are turning points in the novel series. You might say, this would not be easy to do. If A (so we’ll call the final moment in a novel) is the result of B, C, D, and E, and they came as a direct result of F, and F is missing (the rape), what happens to B, C, D, and E? Especially if they are particularly moving and tragic and give the characters acting these events depth and intense interest?

True. events A, B, C, and D will not come until the 3rd season. The results of Ross’s rape of Elizabeth about 2/3s the way through Warleggan (Poldark Novel 4) do not emerge until the birth of Valentine, Ross and Elizabeth’s son in The Black Moon (Poldark Novel 5), i.e, Season 3. The intense jealousy of Warleggan, and his abuse of Elizabeth, and her misery and wretchedness begin only when Warleggan has reason to suspect Valentine is Ross’s much later in The Four Swans (Poldark Novel 6). Indeed the script writer, Debbie Horsfield will not have to trouble herself over the final tragedy in say Episode 8 or 10 since it is only at the close of The Angry Tide (Poldark Novel 7) that desperate to make Warleggan think her present pregnancy is by him and accept Valentine’s his, Elizabeth decides she will make Warleggan believe she tends to give birth early and goes to a doctor for a dangerous concoction of herbs to precipitate early parturition and her own death. Never can tell, there might not be a Season 3.

But if there is (and I hope there will be), how will all this be handled? In Graham’s books Elizabeth was left to deal with it on her own. In the older Poldark mini-series ditto.

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Jill Townsend as Elizabeth, this time pregnant by Warleggan, ashamed as she visits a doctor

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The unsympathetic suspicious doctor who supplies the needed abortifacient

If there is a third season, and say, we actually reach a last season, and the 12th and final book of the series, Bella, what will they do with the plangent meaningful tragic close (our hypothetical E)? What guilt could Ross have over how Valentine became twisted and isolated if he did not for all these books and all these years evade his responsibility, refuse to admit to anyone that the boy was his, he was the father who left the boy fatherless? The gut-wrenching nightmares, Valentine’s turn to a pet orangutan (don’t laugh, the last books do justice to characters with disability, and develop an animal rights point of view implicit in the early books), Valentine’s own choice of death or self-destruction?

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A very young David Hemmings and Samantha Egg in the 1970 Walking Stick

Graham has been credited with being an instinctive feminist, and with presenting women in transgressive and iconoclastic roles. Not just in his historical novels, but also his spy thrillers and modern mysteries and a few remarkable novels centering on mental disorder and disability (i.e., Marni (1964, Hitchcock film), The Walking Stick, both of which were filmed, the second brilliantly). I knew much of this was erased in the new first season, including any undermining of male gender stereotypes, but the protest level of feminism had been at least embodied to some extent in Verity’s story as well as Demelza’s. The first season saw the character of Elizabeth, in the original books and series, an insecure and ambitious woman, who found more joy in motherhood than she did understanding or support in her husband Francis; who didn’t care for sex particularly, turned into a pious moral exemplar, whose every thought was to make her husband a good entrepreneur and imitator of his father, Charles and every waking act to nurture her baby.

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Heida Reed as Elizabeth near tears because Francis is not coming up to masculine norms (2015 Poldark)

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Kyle Soller as a moving Francis Poldark in considerable distress because he’s come down in the world as he can’t manage the work ethic (wholly unlike the aristocratic Francis of the books and 1970s series)

Henry James said what a character does is central to how we know a character’s psychology and ethical character. I am wondering now how they will change this character so that she falls into adultery with Ross? If they have an affair, that means sex with some frequency, no? If we are to see a succession of days and nights of sex between Ross and Elizabeth, what does that do to his character? his relationship with Demelza? In the original books and mini-series, the Scots Captain McNeill almost succeeds in seducing Demelza; she backs away at the last moment. Will she “have an affair in turn.” I hope not because she does have a real love romance in The Four Swans that is meaningful: as a young girl she never had a romantic courtship nor a man near her age, respect and courtesy and poetry she yearned for comes her way. No one is expecting Graham’s hero to be as believable as Tolstoy’s Pierre (from War and Peace) I suppose, but the books do contain a real man as protagonist, a complex enough character to interest us. Real men who are not utter villains rape women — this even happens the statistics tell us often. This is an issue that should not be swept under a rug.

In the first season Horsfield boasted that she was closer to the original books than the 1970s mini-series. She’s given that up — or was forced to. Could it be that the BBC read fan sites where people have argued fiercely that Ross could not have raped Elizabeth; or, that Elizabeth is to blame for the night of sex; or anything rather than Graham’s disquieting novel for mature adults. No longer do fans have nowhere to voice their displeasure. They were worried lest sticking to the original books mar their ratings. Recent film studies have shown that further seasons of a series will alter intentions and characters to please on-line fan groups or at least exert considerable pressure (Andrea Schmidt, “The Imaginative Power of Downton Abbey Fan Fiction” in Julie Taddeo and James Leggott’s collection, Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume TV Drama: The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey). So perhaps the BBC was willing to mar their matter and pressured Horsfield to change her stance towards faithfulness. Whether the result will deprive the central heros and heroines of a complexly develping consistent personalities over a long series of books or (if it should come to pass) series of films remains to be seen.

I had been planning to write about the second season without referring to the 1970s mini-series. Now I will compare the two series with the books as I did last year (see my blog and an essay, Poldark Rebooted, 40 Years On). I may even teach the second trilogy of Graham’s books (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, and The Angry Tide, 1973-77) as last and two years ago I taught the first quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan, 1945-53)

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From the cover illustration of the first paperback edition of Graham’s Black Moon

Ellen

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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.

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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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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:

StemmeEricOwens

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.

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

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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

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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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“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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