Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘film studies’ Category


One of several competing portraits of Edward Marcus Despard (wikipedia offers a barebones outline of the man’s life)


Promotional parallel shot of Aidan Turner as the somewhat aging Ross Poldark, and Vincent Regan as Despard in his last 4 years (Season 5)

Friends and readers,

I had not written until now on the fifth season of Debbie Horsfield’s Poldark because I’m in several minds about it. Having watched the whole season twice, and now going through carefully each episode Sunday by Sunday I know had this been the first group of serial drama episodes I saw I would never have gone on to read Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. I first read the first four quartet (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark and Warleggan, written 1945-53, and set between 1783 and 1793) after watching the first four episodes of the 1975-76 Poldark (scripted by Jack Pullman, mostly directed by Christopher Barry). I learned later Winston Graham detested Pullman’s adaptation of Ross Poldark (Pullman departed radically in linchpin scenes), but I found myself having a deep affinity with them, and unexpectedly, as the series was itself ceaselessly disdained as romance costume drama [for women], and I assumed the books would be perhaps a cut above what was called “bodice rippers” (historical fiction except for a very few writers had fallen to a debased level in the early part of the 20th century), fell in love with them. They seemed to me fine historical fiction with something serious to say to readers barely out of, recovering from the devastation of World War Two.

Horsfield seems to have made the decision to fill the ten year interval between the ending of the first trilogy of Graham’s Poldark novels (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide, written & published 1974-77/8, set 1794-99), not from the fragments of details about the intervening years found in the later five books but by inventing a story whose source and treatment resembles that of Graham. In my paper on the use of documentation in Graham’s historical and suspense fiction I demonstrated Graham had a penchant for choosing the minor real figures of history who were just and decent men scapegoated (using law and state terror and legal violence) by or part of a reactionary establishment but often meaning to do good or not wholly bad men. His deepest sympathy was for the humane rebel, the Che Guevara type combined with the elegance of Gainsborough historical romance males that his own hero, Ross Poldark, represents. To have picked a man like Edward Marcus Despard speaks very well of her, we must give her the credit of calling attention to this man to a wider audience than ever reads non-fiction about the French revolution, the analogous upheaval in the UK in the 1790s for reform (prompting the reign of state terror by Pitt and his state machinery). As the promotional photo for the series suggests, in real life Despard was such another as Ross Poldark in Jeremy Poldark where we see him come near to hanging and/or transportation because his very real illegal activities leading a huge group of local ordinary desperate people to remove and use for themselves the flotsam and jetsam of two wrecks from a violent storm were used by his enemies (and the local state apparatus) to make an example of him to deter people from combining to demand a far better life and share in the good things of the earth than they had ever had.


Promotional shot of Kerri McLean who plays Catherine (Kitty) in this fifth season of Poldark

She also brings to the viewer’s attention other people who lived during this ten-year interval and whose life history has much to say to us today. Joseph Merceron, a corrupt Godfather boss of Bethnal Green (or Spitalfields, as a blog about this older area of London calls it), a Trump type colluding with Pitt’s gov’t to spy on and help imprison, transport, execute anyone who wanted to change the status quo. James Hadfield, a pathetic religious fanatic, crazed by his life and experience, who tried to kill George III (Andrew Gower, fresh from his brilliant complex portrayal of Prince Charles Edward Stuart makes the few moments we glimpse this man memorable). Catherine Despard, about whom records are sparse, come from just the period of her (probable) marriage to Despard, life with him, continual remarkable unusual pro-active activities on his behalf, including publicizing the horrific conditions in the prison he was thrown in for two years (Coldbath Fields), showing herself (probably a Creole, daughter to a freed African woman living in Nicaragua, herself alas the owner of enslaved Africans) to be better educated than many European women, until the time of his execution, whereupon she disappears from public records. It is thought she took her and Despard’s children to Ireland in an effort to appeal to the consciences of his Anglo-Irish protestant family. No picture survives


Geoffrey Charles (Freddie Wise) and Cecily Hanson (Lily Dodsworth-Evans), the only conventionally romantic couple in the season ….

Catherine is interestingly accurately likened to the wholly fictional Cecily Hanson, daughter of Ralph Hanson (Peter Sullivan). Catherine was an educated woman who understood how to negotiate with upper class people and could hold her own in political salons (it takes Demelza many years to learn this). Cecily shows self-esteem and agency in her choosing to engage herself to Geoffrey Charles, and then when (in a later episode), she finds he is beaten senseless by her father’s thugs and cannot begin to hold onto their relationship, give him up. A feel of poignancy hovers around Geoffrey Charles, as the orphaned son of Francis and Elizabeth Poldark. Hanson’s name harks back to a real brutal plantation owner from the Caribbean, Hanbury, a composite figure (such men did make money producing natural wood for mahogany found in mosquito-infested places), who Hanson attempts to coerce into an advantageous marriage with the sadly-reduced but still cruel and amoral widower George Warleggan (Jack Farthing sustains the difficult part of a man hallucinating from grief and guilt, rescued from heinous treatment by Dwight Enys, Luke Norris in the familiar Graham conception). William Wickham was a minor official in the foreign office during Canning’s time — and given Graham’s respect for Canning and in the later novels make his Ross an reporter-spy-negotiator for Canning — to use the name leaves room for a return to the 8th novel, Stranger from the Sea (which there are various signs in even the first four episodes of this series Horsfield and the film-makers, crew and actors would be willing to do).

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


Promotional shots push viewers to liken Demelza to Tess and Demelza in this series is presented as seeing herself in Tess

So with all this important history for interested intelligent viewers to explore, which can also be linked back to Graham Winston’s own novelistic achievements and politics, what can be the cause of my dismay. 1) that Debbie Horsfield’s interpretation of Despard is that of the authorities and establishment of the later 19th century which stigmatized and degraded Despard into a “nut,” a deluded naive upper class male who courted his own destruction. Nothing could be further from the truth, but in scene after scene we have Ross and Demelza and Catherine stopping a foolish man from following the obviously provocative antics of envious revolutionary thugs; 2) that freed from any text, Horsfield abandons the middle-of-the-road perspective of Graham on the revolution (his stance might be likened to the Girondists) continually to condemn any rebellion as coming from envy and dense stupidity, actuated by spite. She turned Graham’s Keren Daniels (who had some cause for discontent) into a dense promiscuous thug; now she invents such another in the character of Tess (Sofia Oxenham).

It is painful for me to consider (as I do) that Debbie Horsfield might be accurate: there are many many scenes of Demelza showing hurt, anger and resentment at his cold distrust of her in the second half of Jeremy Poldark and after her love affair with Richard Armitage. Similarly in his suspense novels post-World War Two, and later Poldark novels Graham evidences a great conservatism. That’s why I am in several minds. I may have been misreading Graham for all these years.

I face the reality that my love of many film adaptations derives from my love of the source book and the original conceptions of the key characters. I have no doubt that Debbie Horsfield’s conception of Demelza as frequently vexed with Ross, dominating when she can (masculine in her approach — as made visible in her mannish outfits), pro-active on behalf of the material needs of her family makes sense prudentially (and might appeal to non-romantic women in the 2nd decade of the 21st century). Horsfield introduced the idea that Ross regards Demelza as his savior, and he repeats this ad nauseam in season 5. Demelza likens herself to Catherine Despard (Eleanor Tomlinson must follow the script she is given) by asserting she too “entrapped” a man whose kitchen she also was (this is a startling travesty of what happened in Graham’s Ross Poldark, Jack Pullman’s adaptation and also Horsfield’s own Episode 4 in the 2015 Poldark). I can only assert and ask those who have read the books if I am correct: Graham’s Demelza is the underdog, a different kind of misfit from Ross, having given her ego, her very soul into her relationship with Ross; like him, finding deepest pleasure in disinterested activities and quiet solitude. What is so appealing about their relationship is they never bicker, are unself-conscious about their deep compatible character geniality.

Now that she is freed of Graham’s texts, I feel Horsfield travesties all Graham major women characters, but Verity, who is dropped, perhaps with relief? (Several of the students I taught Graham’s novel, Ross Poldark to, maintained she was a female Ross as understood in that humanely idealistic book, figures who found peace in solitude.) Graham’s Morwenna loathed the child Whitworth impregnated her with; Horsfield’s is turned into a sentimental fanatic, trailing around abjectively after the boy child, barely protected by the vulnerable (because low-class) Drake (Harry Richardson). She is made as mad as George Warleggan. Debbie Horsfield is more comfortable or wants exaggerated emotional states: in the later novels we are told George grieved, felt guilty, remembered ever after all Elizabeth’s finer qualities, but he did not go mad: Jack Farthing’s acting carries it off as does Elisse Chappell were I not embarrassed for her — perhaps some viewers will be embarrassed for George:

I found irritating Morwenna and Rosina being turned into tenderly loving schoolmistresses — back to the patriarchy. Caroline (the now anorexic-looking Gabrielle Wilder) reminds me of the medieval statue of Barbara, always with lamp except she carries around a deliberately chosen fat dog. She is now resentful and jealous of Catherine whom Dwight does seem drawn to. Even he is travestied, becoming belligerently aggressive toward Ross in order to pressure Ross into giving up his loyalty to Despard (as imprudent). Dwight’s complete lack of this kind of emotional blackmail has escaped Debbie Horsfield (or she is glad to shed him of a characteristic generosity and inability to pressure others many would despise him for). OTOH, as in the books he shows himself to be his own man; he has his professional conscience and follows it despite his wife’s upper class prejudices and ignorance.


Dwight helping George by taking him to his wife’s grave: he utters an idea which is a play on a sentiment that Graham ends The Angry Tide with: all we have is that we are alive here today and that is what we must make what we can of

I share an objection to the pace of these four episodes: relentless. Many of the recap blogs wax snarky over this. If only she would trust her viewer to have the patience to see small moments develop slowly. We cannot dwell in the relationship of Ross and Demelza when it is deeply companionable because the scenes are so rushed and embedded in distractions (juxtaposition, switching back and forth):


The look on Eleanor Tomlinson’s face here suggests to me she has read Graham’s books, and some of her comments show how much she has invested in Graham’s heroine ….

I realize the larger content, the actual thrust of episodes is so often sheerly repetitive. Again Ross is saving countless victim- miners and their children from death in an avalanche. Again he risks all his estate and fortune, this time to save the miners from unemployment. At least in Graham’s books, he does this to begin a business for himself, because he is guilty over Francis’s death and wants to control Elizabeth, make her dependent on him.

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


Opening of episode 1: gradually we focus in on Ross out in his boat, and watch him come into shore

A few elements to praise:

I wish there were more moments in the four hours that derive from Graham’s Poldark books or conceptions, which the reader of Graham’s novels, someone who has read some 18th century history and knows the importance of the French revolution and the Enlightenment to a modern way of life today, and the lover of thoughtful period costume drama is left alone in peace to enjoy. Examples: At the opening of the first episode this season we see Ross out in a boat fishing by himself quietly. He is taking a needed break. George at first leaving Trenwith to rot; then his beginning to see Elizabeth and returning to Trenwith to find her is touching. I thought the conception of George’s half-craziness and coldness towards his son well taken, though he is blackened since in the books he did pay for Geoffrey Charles’s education as far as Geoffrey Charles asked for — the depiction of less major characters too — that Morwenna will have a hard time coping with sexuality is at first presented with sensitivity as is Demelza’s attempt to win over the workers.

Episode 2 has much that is persuasive and interesting politically — as a historical film (the way the first four seasons presented mining, farming and other realities of the era). The 1790s was a period of severe repression — unfairly because the English protesters were out for reform, but Pitt and the wealthy were frightened by what had happened in France. And they did frame people, and use just such printed circulating pamphlets. The gov’t did have surveillance techniques. Despard was far smarter than she presents him, he was impulsive and used to using violence; all characteristics praised and honored by the establishment of this era — very like Nelson (who he was friends with, worked with in the Caribbean) in some ways, only more controlled.

Episode 3: There is an anticipation of a sixth season in the behavior of the children: the young Clowance looking yearningly over the fence at Trenwith. We will find her there in the first phase of The Stranger from the Sea. Sam and Rosina slowly getting together over Bible-reading. Valentine ever alone wandering, picked up by the kindly Ross (who we see is his father from visual resemblance).


Ross watched by spies, enemies ….

In this interim plot-design, we are shown how slowly Hanson and Merceron in London draw a noose of inference and suspicion around both Despard and Ross, to accuse them of treason. This was done in the 1790s and people were tried, imprisoned, hung — 10 famously got off partly by the brilliant defense, Godwin’s publication of a treatise on equity and justice, and the reality the population was deeply against this repression. Of course our characters use Tess as their mole and encourage her to get at the head of gangs to destroy houses and people (highly anachronistic the idea any mob of men would automatically obey a woman). A noose of inference and suspicion is gradually being unfolded around Ross, ever oblivious in her desire to help his friend, bring about meaningful reform, love his wife and children …

Harry Richardson as Drake Carne attempting to care for a mentally distressed young woman delivers a pitch perfect performance; his behavior a parallel to Dwight Enys in the fiction; Luke Norris has his character as far sterner, but then he does not love the people he is treating.


Epitomizing shot

The linking together of the neglected Valentine with the once abused Morwenna is valuable symbolically.

I’ll conclude with my finding that several of the heroes of Graham’s suspense novels involve themselves politically, usually on the left, and act in ethical ways against their own interest, endangering their lives. In one I have been studying, Greek Fire, a depiction of the US-UK ruthless intervention in Greek politics in the 1940s and 50s to destroy social democracy — it result in years of dictatorship, but then Papandreos took power by election and a social democracy for years emerged — Graham’s hero is characterized in waysthat recall Ross. Greek Fire was written not long after Warleggan. Here is one typical characterization: a friend wants the hero to give up his ethics, morality, efforts: and the man says here you are “pushing on, never letting up, … why do you not accept life as it is instead of trying to worry it with your teeth all the time, like a terrier with a bone. Is this not Ross too?

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Claire Randall looking longingly at a vase in a shop window (Outlander 1:1)

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 …

But I can still recall every detail of the day when I saw the life I wanted sitting in a window.
Sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if I’d bought that vase and made a home for it.
Would that have changed things? Would I have been happy? Who can say? I do know this:
Even now, after all the pain and death and heartbreak that followed, I still would make the same choice.

Friends and readers,

So, after all, I am going to the 50th anniversary conference of ASECS (American Society for 18th century studies) in St Louis, Missouri (! — where?). About a week ago the male scholar-professor whose panel I gave my paper on Winston Graham’s uses of documentary facts and silences in the last ASECS emailed me to ask me if I wanted to submit a proposal for his panel, which request pleased me (it means he respected my paper) and whose new proposal had puzzled me:

“I Refute It Thus”: Encounters with Eighteenth-Century Objects (Roundtable) [Northwest Society for Eighteenth Century Studies] …. Proposals invited on any aspect of encounters with eighteenth-century objects, then and now, whether personal, professional, or philosophical; whether in texts, or with texts, or without texts.

Like many — almost all — of the Calls For Papers this year I just couldn’t get it — most of them were filled with jargon beyond me; this (thought I) must came from “materiality” theory, which (to me) is a hodgepodge of gobbledygok most of the time. So I asked him (as he had emailed me) could he explain in commonly used (natural easy) — English — for I would like to join in another panel with him. After a couple of days he did.

What I was thinking for this round-table was a set of 10 minute presentations on personal encounters with 18th-century objects, in mini essay form, that captured what essays can do, and connects with specific research you might be doing. It could be as simple as encountering an 18th century text, or an object associated with an author (Jane Austen’s turquoise ring?), or even encounters with objects in fictional texts. The main linking element really would be the essay/roundtable form, which allows for having fun with a topic. Some round-tables invite discussion because of the ideational content. This one would invite more “show and tell” responses from the audience with other encounters, I’m thinking

Well, all right. Not only did I get it, I found myself enthusiastic. I am it’s not too much to say profoundly engaged by historical fiction and romance. A couple of summers ago I taught Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. The impetus or impulse for this book (so Sontag has said) was the collection of extraordinary objects and painting Sir Wm Hamilton gathered together, especially his vases.


An ancient vase found in Naples area

To teach the book and put this idea across I had bought a marvelous (expensive) art book on this collection published by the Sloane Museum, which owns a goodly part of Hamilton’s estate: Jane and Kim Sloan, edd. Vases and Volcanoes: Sir William Hamilton and His Collection. I passed it around to the class and we looked at a variety of real historical objects found in the catalogue and in Sontag’s book. With The Volcano Lover, I taught Daphne DuMaurier’s The King’s General. The class’s subject matter was historical fiction set in the long 18th century: this book is set during and in the years just after the 17th century English civil war in Cornwall. It’s an unusual book for her because closer to historical fiction than most of hers; it is far more thoroughly researched than most of her books, based on papers and documents about a siege at Menabilly, which ended in attempting to burn the place down, a real general (a cruel ruthless man), indeed many of the Rashleigh and other Cornish family and military characters really existed. Its impetus too (I can’t remember where I came across this — probably Margaret Forster’s biography or one of DuMaurier’s memoirs) was an old wheelchair (ancient type) that she claims she once saw (I am not sure this is true) in an old building on the grounds of Menabilly. She also tells a ghostly tale about half-ruined objects found in a closed tower, suggesting someone hiding away or imprisoned for years on end — haunted things left over from the 17th century civil war.


Said to have been Sir Thomas Fairfax’s wheelchair — DuMaurier says the one she saw was pathetically feeble and looked uncomfortable


The famed (since DuMaurier’s Rebecca) Menabilly with DuMaurier and her children during her long time there as tenant

I said nothing of how the central propelling image in Ahdaf Soueif’s tale of Anna Winterbourne’s journey into Cairo, Map of Love, is from John Frederick Lewis’s oriental paintings, still in a Kensington museum, which I had just reread, attended a class on, and blogged and written about too.


John Frederick Lewis’s Cairo: Indoor Gossip

But I did talk of Paula Byrne’s brilliant biography of Jane Austen, a series of essays meditating and ferreting aspects Austen’s life through the small things she owned and we can look at still: A Life in Small Things. How successful (so suggestive) is Deborah Lutz’s The Bronte Cabinet: she too writes lives of Brontes, using relics, this time objects connected to them through death — some might find this morbid. I didn’t and don’t. And how I remembered Martha Bowden’s perceptive study of historical romance and fiction, Descendants of Waverley, romancing the 18th century, dedicated a whole part to how real historical objects put into fiction makes them come alive, validates them, are vivid focuses.

Bowden traces fascinatedly how these novelists mix true realities then and now (say time) with fictionalizing techniques (e.g., richly subjective world historical characters), especially those using allusion and intertextuality (to music, plays, once or still extant historical paintings and relics, memoirs) … Caryl Phillips’s Cambridge and Crossing the River (not covered by Bowden) include[s] a precious historical document, the scrap remnants of a past that have survived, and Phillips’s novels produce a take on this material that is sustaining and comforting today to those who today still suffer … where there is an intense desire on the part of a specific readership to go back and retrieve the past, to experience it intimately … there is a section on ekphrasis and the importance and uses of archeaology …

And so my proposal was accepted and then the panel also. So I’ve some delightful reading, re-reading, interesting thinking and dreaming and I hope effective writing ahead.

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


Kenneth Branagh as Thomas Mendip, the discharged soldier who says he longs to die


Cherie Lunghi whom the town longs to burn as a witch — she escapes by fleeing …

I would say most of the time Winston Graham does not turn to material objects for inspiration or begin (say) with manuscripts. He is a sceptic and when he does have a written document will point out how problematic it is (Forgotten Story, Groves of Eagles, “Vive le Roi”). He does have pictures and the collecting of art objects as central to a number of his suspense books (his characters are artists, connoisseurs, insurance agents, thieves) and every once in a while (no where often enough for my taste) a real book, author, piece of music painting, but he rarely names any, most are fictional (cited plays in the Poldarks). He will use an alluring allusion to enrichen his meaning (again mostly in the suspense books): in one of his best I’ve discovered, The Tumbled House where a now deceased writer, John Marlowe’s reputation is defamed when John Shorn, a supposed younger friend, driven by envy and perhaps a betrayal, accuses him of plagiarism, and Don, the son and Berenice, the daughter experience much trauma suing the man for libel (a kind of nightmare haunting Graham himself — who had a son and daughter): the writer’s son’s wife, Joanna, is a TV actress playing the part of the witch in Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning. This complex and Christianizing play preaches charity, tolerance, forgiveness — not that the wife whose adultery the novel suddenly swerves to focus on (to the detriment of the book) is at all to blame for what happens. Don and Joanna get back together at the end of the book in the same way as Ross and Demelza do at the close of Angry Tide,

When he was young, he had thought love had something to do with understanding, but with age he knew that no human being understood another. Love was the wish to understand, and presently with constant failure the wish died, and love too perhaps or changed into this painful affection, loyalty, pity … Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter

and the final moral that here is all we have, all we can have, so we must cherish, make do is the burning center of all Graham’s disillusioned texts.

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


Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza and Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark repeat in turn parts of the above passage with bits of sentimentalized love language thrown inm — done far too passionately, Debbie Horsfield, 5th season of her Poldark


The older series (script Jack Russell) had Angharad Rees say the lines softly, unchanged to Ross as what comfort could be found for death, and thus got closer to the book (1978 BBC Poldark 13:6)

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

Still all historical texts romancing objects begin with a kind of enchantment with the past, haunted by imagined passionate caring for what the objects stand for in the past: these prompt the minds of the historical novelist.

Today is the 7th anniversary of Jim’s death and his spirit is everywhere in this house in all the objects with me from our lives together. Here is Samuel Johnson on Sorrow: Rambler No. 47 

” The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment …  Sorrow is a kind of rust of the soul, which every new idea contributes in its passage to scour away.”

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The Upstairs set come out to greet the king and queen


The Downstairs set toast the king and queen (Downton Abbey, the film, 2019)

Friends and readers,

The old magic, the trick played on us by Julian Fellowes and his teams of people — for those susceptible to it — does not begin until at least one-third and maybe closer to half the way through. Anibundel over on NBC has argued that this cinema continuation carries on one important characteristic of the 5 year series at its best: nothing much or nothing overt happens to change anything in the visible life of these sets of people very much. I agree with her that the first season was particularly strong because more or less this formula was kept to. A crippled man arrives to become Lord Grantham’s butler (Brendan Coyle as Mr Bates), and after much stigmatizing and complaints, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonnville) keeps him on, because “it’s just not right” to fire him. An old suitor of Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) turns up and asks her to go to a fair because at long last free he wants to propose marriage, and after much heart-wrenching, she decides to stay where she is. Lady Mary, the princess of the family, eldest lovely virgin daughter (Michelle Dockery) is (arguably) raped and the cad (Theo James who blackmailed the homosexual butler, Barrow, Robert James-Collier, to sneak him in as a surprise attack) dies during the fuck! But (awkwardly, with difficulty, comically) the corpse is carried back and there is no scandal at all!

But I want to qualify the implications here. The trick of the thing is to present a character in the throes of some inner crisis that matters to him or her and dramatize how some decision no one but the character and his or her closest intimates see, affects in some central way the rest of the emotional temperature or outlook of that character, the decisions he or she make afterwards, for the rest of their lives. This trick is most effective when it’s played out with the Downstairs people who are more vulnerable to deep hurt or an ejection (getting “sacked”) from the apparent social safety of the orderly household. Add to this what you find in many serial dramas, strong emotionalism, the stance that most people behave in warm and even caring ways to one another, at least emotionally. This does not distinguish Downton Abbey from other serial dramas, but Julian Fellowes is good at making this kind of thing believable. In life most people we meet behave anywhere from indifferently or with a hard edge. An adult might be extra benign to a child. I feel this sentimentalism is central to why people watch what are called realistic (naturalistic) domestic drama movies.

As everyone knows who has paid the slightest attention to the advertisements what happens at Downton is George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) invite themselves for a one-night stay at Downton while they are traveling through Yorkshire and this creates an nearly traumatic emotional reaction as everyone in the household gear up to present an appearance of high excellence and welcome. As late as one-third or later the way through it becomes apparent the exclusionary snobbish tactics of the royal household decree that its staff replace any local staff. It also sets up a confrontation between the queen’s lady-companion, Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and the Dowager Duchess Violet (Maggie Smith) who are related kin but have been estranged for years; it is rumored she is determined to leave her fortune elsewhere than Lord Grantham. Gradually this visit, these two social dramas ripple outward to affect the inner lives of a number of vulnerable characters and at least momentarily affect the self-esteem and comfort of everyone else.


Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw (a name from Trollope)

The problem the movie has is these things take time, and when you have say anywhere from 8 to 10 episodes (plus Christmas specials) you have the requisite time; so it’s in the third episode of the first season that Mr Bates throws away the torture instrument he has put on his leg to make his disability less apparent. We have learned to feel for him for two episodes before this. Plus since Julian Fellowes has been determined to present the world order as ultimately benign, the last we saw of everyone they were apparently set for life in good and fulfilling circumstances. This was not so to begin with, nor did the shape of the series emerge as benign providential patterning until the fourth season when the series began to have problems finding crucial traumas and had to introduce new characters and put old ones through twists and turns of misery (especially Mr Bates and Anna as his wife, aka Brendon Coyle and Joanne Froggart).

So, Fellowes strains to invent inner troubles that matter. He has a couple and adds some: Thomas Barrow is still a vulnerable homosexual man; Daisy (Sophie McShea) has not agreed to set a marriage date with a footman, Andy (Michael C. Fox); Tom Bransome is still not trusted as an ex-chauffeur radical Irishman; and over the course of the couple of hours we discover Lady Maud is trying to leave her estate to her illegitimate daughter disguised as lady’s maid, Lucy Smith (Tuppence Middleton).


Anna and Mr Bates — brief scene showing her telling her idea to him and his loving her for it

What’s more: several favorite characters and a couple of new ones become powerful linchpins in securing respect and power for one another. It’s Anna Bates who seems to think up the plot that puts the royal staff out of commission (drugged, locked in rooms, hoaxed away) and recognizes the queen’s lady is a thief; Bransome saves the king’s life and falls in love with Lucy Smith; she likewise and they are last seen dancing a ballroom dance on the terrace in a lovely landscape (since she is not yet acceptable to the Upstairs people in the ballroom). Daisy leads Mrs Patmore (Leslie Nichol) for once to kindly lie to the grocer and accept an order of food she thinks they will not need.


Allen Leech as Thomas Bransome (working with Lady Mary again)

It does not all work: You would think Bransome was trusted by this time and a few others seem a stretch: Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) is still feeling undervalued and left alone; the rivalry of the Dowager and Isobel, Lady Merton (Penelope Wilton) has become tiresome; their quips no longer amuse. Lady Mary is still unsure she doesn’t want to disburden herself of Downton. Mr Carson (Jim Carter) is still absurdly proud and wants to work as a butler; Moseley (Kevin Doyle) makes a fatuous worshipper of himself. But Fellowes does have a gift for endowing his characters with good feelings and kindliness towards one another, and those endangered in some way, yearning for some kind of companionship, security achieve this by film’s end.

I’m saying I don’t think the movie quite succeeds. Those who like it are giving it slack — extra patience like you would an old friend.

Some will say this is not what draws people to this series. It’s the super-rich glamour of the house, the grounds, the gorgeous clothes, the leisured existences, the evocative music, the nostalgic escape into a world that never was — the servants were not treated in the way this series dramatizes; it omits 9/10s of the population of England. On top of that, the whole idea this order was a non-violent one is ludicrous. I can’t deny that might be why many people watched the TV series year after year and are making the Downton matter once again a big box-office money-maker. Who does not enjoy seeing a ball? I do. I love the beautiful photographed landscapes. There is the reiterated idea that these super-rich privileged people lead troubled lives themselves — so let’s not envy Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) as she tries to have a life with some emotional satisfaction with a cold mean man. (As if this were anything like the desperate needs and anguished conditions of ordinary people everywhere.)


Princess Mary (Kate Phillips who most of the time ends up dead or otherwise pulverized — as in Davies’ War and Peace …)

To that I can only say, I am not fooled, this kind of supposed comfort (?) is not for me. The thought we are offered at the end that the building, Downton Abbey, and this way of life will last another 100 years and more does not make me happy. It’s sad to think that so many will remain without and desperate so that the money may be gathered by this privileged class to live this way. I suggest that there are many like myself — since this trick so in evidence (for at least three years of TV time) is at the core of the plot-design once again. I know I would be an utter outsider and long ago (say the 2nd season) been ejected as unfit, perhaps scapegoated as a seduced woman. I don’t belong in this series anywhere — the closest I come is to Anna as she was presented in the first couple of seasons. Even then she is such a “good” girl, so filled with respect for the order that keeps her at work long hours most of her life — this is wholly anathema to my finding something to live for in my hours of existence as I recall them.

Yet I found tears coming to my eyes when a character is once again rescued from the possible exposure and punishment — Barrow is lured into going to a homosexual club, something very new, taken in to jail by a police raid but then released on the say-so of one of the king’s footmen, himself homosexual. I wish there had been more of the inner life of Anna and Bates (my favorites) but it’s clear their lives are all content, comfortable, good — as are those of Mrs Hughes (now Elsie to Mr Carson) and Mr Carson (Charlie to her) and others. I am fond enough of them all to feel good seeing them surviving still — like Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) still waiting to marry Moseley.


Moseley and Baxter — behind the scenes (promotional) hsppy moment

I am not dead or broke yet myself. The magic is the trick of involving you, getting you to believe and identify.


Thomas finds a friend and ally, the king’s footman, Richard Ellis (Max Brown)

If you can respond to these carefully studied characters presented with tact and mostly compassion, and most of all, if you watched and liked the TV series for that first and second (occurring during WW1) seasons, here it is back again, trying to repeat what it managed in the first season especially. There is something for everyone, some qualification to enable us to identify. I agree with Anibundel the sweetest story is of that Barrow at long last finding a world forming he can join, and that the charm the wanting to hold onto this world is it feels like a blessed escape.  Quiet lives. So if you want a happy ending, yes, that’s there, but if you are into quiet melancholy, it’s here too.


Lady Mary at the opening of the film, tough lady left in charge at the end

And, for those who would find some satisfaction in thinking this meretricious stuff will go away for good after this, in the last scene Violet tells Lady Mary that she has been diagnosed with a mortal illness and will be gone from from the scene before long. It is a moving moment as she turns the Abbey over to Lady Mary as her replacement. One thing I liked across the series (and think it’s what makes it so appealing to women) is that we have strong women characters through out; it’s the woman’s anguish and loss and power that is often focused most upon. And so it is in this installment.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Poster for Chernobyl (2019, scripted Craig Mazin, directed Johan Renck)


Lyudmilla Ignatenko (Jessie Buckley) looking through the plastic (her baby still died of radiation) at her husband dying howling and wretched with pain

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled — Richard Feynman, Appendix F on the causes of the Challenger disaster

The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants.
It doesn’t care about our governments, our ideologies, our religions.
It will lie in wait for all time
And this, at last, is the gift of Chernobyl.
Where I once would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?
— over-voice of Valery Legasov

Friends,

Chernobyl is not a summer movie — it is a riveting melodrama whose political implications should be frighteningly relevant in political worlds shaped by man (Trump) whose modus vivendi is by lying, small, big, outrageous, cruel, bigoted and dangerous lies. The history we choose to tell each year is the one that we intuits matters that year (not that nuclear power plants as potentially catastrophic places are limited in time or space) Anibundel reads the movie succinctly through the perspective Marzin sets up: the cost of lying was then and will be again limitless suffering and the sacrifice of lives and worlds of thousands of people. I write to add another, from Richard Feynman about how NASA operated and produced the Challenger disaster, and also uttered in the concluding eloquent voice-over of film’s learned scientist, Valery Legasov (played painfully effectively by Jared Harris): there are limits to how far you can manipulate the natural world and coerce frightened powerless people to serve the interests of ambitious men whose pride and position in an organization for them take precedence over everything else.


Jared Harris makes the movie, he just carries it

This dual lesson is dramatized in five episodes as carefully laid out as HBO’s previous political film this year: Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. Most people recognize that HBO movies have had distinguishing features for some time (contemporary subjects or treatment, box-office brilliant actors, quality production); they have recently added a new one: the hard-hitting demonstration. Both movies are well-proportioned wholes, clearly set out, complete and (to quote George Eliot) “natty” as nuts on a stem. It may seem peculiar to use aesthetic language about episodes which drain us with the horror of what they are presenting, but the film’s effect is so strong because they are so effectively plotted.


The explosion

The first episode throws us in medias res (though we only realize this when we come to the end of the last episode), the high crisis of an exploded nuclear plant core, catapulting into the air, everywhere in the peopled environment burning lethal poisons. We experience the explosion from the point of view of those it first impacted: the people driven to set it off and the people all around the reactor, among whom we see the immediate chief culprits, a boss of the unit, Anatoly Dyatlov (Paul Ritter), who was told to get the test done that night “or else”, and his boss, Viktor Bryukhanov (Con O’Neil), manager of the Chernobyl plant; the first responder firemen and their families, where we follow the heart-breaking story of Vasily Ignatenko (Adam Nagaitis) and his wife. Our central protagonist is among those called out of bed, Legasov (Jared Harris) by a high ranking officer in the communist party, also in charge of the department of energy (and perhaps other related things) in the Soviet gov’t, Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård)


“Boris moves from hostility and antagonism towards Legasov to an effective working relationship, both emerging as decent men

Each episode focuses on one or more incidents which are terrifying to watch, where the film-makers pull out all their techniques so that we shall feel the visceral pain, hardness of task, sheer physical stuff people were required to cope to the death with. In this first men are uselessly exposed to acute radiation as they try to hose the nuclear bomb down (as if it were a fire), make visual inspections, go into the area to try to prevent various components coming together to cause a meltdown (this was hopeless as it was happening). And each episode dramatizes different groups trying to cover up some aspect of what happened, no matter whose or how many deaths this causes, and each time the group is thwarted because they cannot stop the natural processes going on and find it politically and humanely impossible to let death spread everywhere. We see how small and vulnerable we are singly and in large groups too


Inside just one of the terrified engineers, Leonid Toptunov (Robert Emms)

By the second episode people in nearby countries are registering spikes in radiation, which are reported in newspapers and so cannot be dismissed. Slowly the various officials are driven to take what has happened seriously; they would like to deny and refute all the Legasov and a woman scientist, a single character who stands for the many scientists who became involved, Ulana Khomyuk (Emily Watson) have to tell them. What she understands immediately and travels to tell the leaders of this disaster is the lava-like mess of molten fuel threatening to melt down into the earth would render the ground water of Ukraine’s 50 million inhabitants toxic for life.


Here she has realized the air has been contaminated

They aksi learn unless they follow what these two have to say, they are confronted with immediate death — they must not fly heliocopters over the core even if that’s convenient; they have to get rid of the radioactive graphite (not deny its there) and boron and sand is what must be poured on the fire.

We see meetings of high officials, including someone playing Gorbachev, and evacuation begins. Another motif which was seen in the first episode emerges explicitly: this is a society where people volunteer to help one another, where the idea that we are socially connected as groups and to help ourselves, we must contribute all our energies and talents (without seeking an individual big reward) seems to shape people’s behavior. We see three of the engineers go on a lethal mission to drain water (basically turn by hand valves) to prevent a meltdown (it happens in part anyway). In the third episode the miners called up to excavate the area below the central reactor — in terrific heat, subject to radiation (only 100 of 400 lived past 40) — Liam Nelson their captain


They eventually work naked because that is the best way to endure the heat, the clothes they are given to protect them are useless

The moment of highest admiration in the five hours is for these working class men, doing hard and dangerous work — the officials (“bureaucrats”) have to confront the necessity of truth here, for lie, prevaricate, evade and the captain will take his men back to their usual mining. The hospital is now overwhelmed; we see individual vignettes

and we follow Lyudmilla as she frantically tries to reach her husband, follows him to Moscow and will not be stopped from seeing and comforting him until she can no longer reach emotionally, much less physically. A moment of strong poignancy (the film works by contrasts) is that where we see her standing with a group of women watching a line of lead coffins (in which what was left of their husband’s bodies) are placed into a deep hole and boron and sand poured over them.

The instructions given a group of men who have to behave as close as they can to quick-moving robots:

Because of the nature of the working area, you will each have no more than 90 seconds to solve this problem.
Listen carefully to each of my instructions, and do exactly as you have been told.
This is for your own safety and the safety of your comrades.
You will enter Reactor Building Three, climb the stairs but do not immediately proceed to the roof.
When you get to the top, wait inside, behind the entrance to the roof and catch your breath.
You will need it for what comes next.
This is the working area.
We must clear the graphite.
Some of it is in blocks, weighing approximately 40 to 50 kilograms.
They all must be thrown over the edge here.
Watch your comrades moving fast from this opening, then turning to the left, and entering the workspace here.
Take care not to stumble.
There’s a hole in the roof.
Take care not to fall.
You will need to move quickly, and you will need to move carefully.
Do you understand your mission as I have described it? Yes, Comrade General.
These are the most important 90 seconds of your lives.
Commit your task to memory, then do your job.
It’s time to go.
After 90 seconds, I will ring a bell.

It seems (from comments and other reviews) that perhaps the hardest episode is in the fourth: we watch an older man teaching a younger one to gun down and kill all the pet animals left behind in an evacuated city. The POV is that of the boy. I had to turn away as a dog came leaping forward, only to realize something was wrong and be shot. The boy moves from inability to kill, to inability to shoot more than once in order to be sure and (so his mentor tells him) “prevent the animal from suffering,” to killing and shooting grimly. We see the animals hiding, one aging cat looking puzzled, and a group of puppies around a mother. We are glad not to have to watch when the older man ushers out the boy and so it’s (only?) the repeated shots and sudden cries that tell us what is happening. Read and see the story as told by Svetlana Alexievich (actual camera pictures of the animals).

But the strongest episode is the concluding one, where we realize that in fact what happened can be explained. First the point is being made that so often we are told things are complicated, complex and cannot be unraveled and they can. Structurally (or as a movie), the effect is something like a mystery, only in this movie almost everyone we see does not want the explanation.


I found the explanation fascinating — it may be that this scene cannot have taken place quite in the coherent full blown way it did ….

The episode cannot wholly rely on testimony in the courtroom: it’s framed by a brief conversation where we experience how Bryukhanov bullied Dyatlov, how he was himself allured by the prospect of replacing Fomin (Adrian Rawlins) if he could pull off this hard feat (test the safety of the plant is the irony). Then bravely and against protests, Legasov patiently explains how reactors work and how this disaster happened (partly no one in the room truly understood what they were dealing with) and insists there is a serious flaw in the way 16 nuclear reactors are designed, and the reason they has not been fixed, is it would cost a great deal of money to redesign the reactors. For this by the end of the episode Legasov has been mortally threatened but let to live (as it would look bad after his testimony) so “merely” lost his job, salary, place in the world, the ability to communicate with others.

The film opened with him recording on a tape this story, putting the tapes in a bucket, hiding the bucket and then hanging himself; it closes with his over-voice and then (just as DuVernay does at the end of When They See Us), photos of the real people played by these marvelous actors. Once again this is very effective.


Valery Legasov at a Vienna conference

We have seen that Lyudmilla lost her baby and are just told she had multiple strokes and was herself told she would never have children — because she exposed herself to stay near her husband. In fact she is one of those who survive and today lives in Kiev with her son. Most of the characters we see died of cancer.

It’s important not to see this as story about communism or a particular culture at all, and to say that the inferences apply to more than larger political issues. The same sort of cover-up was attempted over the Challenger and it was only Richard Feynman’s Appendix F which told the truth. As everyone knows who read Feynman’s report and his story of the Challenger, the reason the Challenger went up in January when the weather was too cold and the o-rings could not dilate was due to several decisions which ignored nature: among these, one, they built the thing top down and they knew they had a design failure: the o-rings were not originally designed to fill a gap when the glue hardens. Nonetheless, they persisted in relying on this. And two, they knew that they needed the weather to be warm or above a certain temperature. Nonetheless, they went through with a January launch on a very cold morning because that was the day the State of the Union address is given, and Reagan wanted a publicity stunt: that he would give the state of the union address the evening after this launch.

In the flashback scenes in the final episode (interspersed and juxtaposed with Legasov’s lesson to judges and jury) the engineers (Akimov, Toptunov and others) in the room knew enough to know this was terrifically dangerous and they were breaking all protocol — they had to be bullied and threatened to get them to do it, and when they saw the core explode (and in effect the reactor turn into a nuclear bomb), were driven to lie and not tell what had happened. How: by the threat of loss of job, or loss of promotion, or their place in the organization. This is how all bullies (including Trump who backs this up by suing you, and then paying you to stay silent) frighten people. We are so susceptible to these sorts of threats. Now Dyatlov was immediately responsible but the situation that led to that was the same as the one at NASA: a refusal to spend money, a refusal to fix a design flaw, and not educating and giving authority to people involved. The human dimension of this film drills down to everyday life.

You can read the scripts online

Each episode tough & riveting to watch, each had remarkable heroism, and remarkable unspeakable pain. The story itself (as Arendt suggested about the nature of evil) at core is the banal one of the behavior of human beings trying to get promoted, protect a job; the refusal of a gov’t to spend money for public safety. And most people lie or they fall silent. If they can find a group to belong to, they might speak out as a member of that group.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Waterfalls in Cornwall

Friends,

I sometimes use my blogs for thinking out a paper, a class, a book, and that’s what I’m doing here.

How to account for the quality and vision of the once again famous Poldark novels would be the goal of this book.

Lacking the lifeblood of most literary (and other kinds of) biographies, the cooperation of the family members and a rich cache of private letters by Graham, I propose to raise the status and make the quality of the Poldark series taken as a whole understandable by

Part One: Three chapters: a study of the author as we find him in all his published works and what I have been able to reach in libraries and online:

Chapter One: the story of his life as he tells it

Chapter Two:  genre analysis, first the bloody death kind, and then Chapter Three, of historical fiction as inflected by regional romance.

Chapter Four. A gender fault-line is responsible for the distinct distance between these kinds, as well as the region they are set in. Cornish gothic links them. Lately I find his use of the gothic one of the more interesting elements in his historical fiction; it links this group of works to historical fictions by popular and masterly writers (Gabaldon to Mantel) ….

Part Two: Four chapters: we turn to the twelve Poldark novels. Class and status; marriage and sexual politics; economic and social politics and circumstances ….

Part Three: Two chapters:  Graham’s legacy is as much in the historical film adaptations he encouraged as in any of his books. Film noir and costume drama.

A coda will return us to Graham, and how a post-modern approach to all his writing (including scattered non-fiction and short tales) can enable a different perspective, and bring out unexpected pleasures (not susceptible of genre or biographical analysis) in some of his short and repressed fictions (which embarrassed him).

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


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) and Ross (Aidan Turner) Poldark — from Season 1

Once again (for a second time) a BBC serial drama called simply Poldark crossing more than year and adapting the first seven books of the series has had a phenomenal success, and has placed the name of the author of the source of popular money-making film before the public: Winston Graham. I say yet another because arguably at least three times before, film adaptations of other of Graham’s books have startled the public into attention: 1947 a film noir, Take My Life; 1964, a still remembered Hitchcock psychological drama, Marnie; and 1971, an unusual crime suspense story focusing on disability, The Walking Stick. The books have rarely gone out of print (or not at all — especially the first seven); and there are readers who profess to like some of the murder suspense contemporary mysteries.

One problem is there is a seeming uncrossable disconnect between Graham’s contemporary murder fiction (there usually is a murder in these, often of an evil woman) and his sixteen or so historical fictions (all but one set in Cornwall). I found analogous patterns and paradigms across both sets of books, similar character types – like marital and justified rapes of women.

I don’t say some of these suspense are not interesting and a few are good – the question is what lies behind the compulsion for these because many are pulp or so thin that the genre takes over. There is a very genuine interest in an immediate time and place, in technologies, the arts and contemporary issues in the decade each of them are written.

Much of his historical fiction is however truly fine (not all).

If nothing else, the film and radio and TV adaptations show the appeal of his matter to better writers, readers, film-makers and the public at large, not to omit those who seek to make money.


From the Walking Stick (1971): Deborah Dainton (Samantha Eggar) and Leigh Hartley (David Hemmings).

I’ve now read most of Graham’s historical fiction; I have eleven or twelve of the non-Poldarks to go (as I consider I have read quite adequately enough Marnie, Groves of Eagles, and Angel Pearl and Little God), some of the stories in the one book of short stories, Japanese Girl (with some scattered ones sent me by attachment), one history Spanish Armada(s), which I didn’t finish. Sigh.

In the case of rewrites, I have looked at all of them and found them mostly decidedly inferior to the first version (even if here and there are some good improvements, concision, new wit).

There are 4 short tales I’ve read (“Meeting Demelza,” “Christmas at Nampara,” “Vive le Roi,” “At the Chateau Lartrec”) that I liked and remember these for their gothic spirit; “The Japanese Girl” I can remember nothing of; “The Medici Earring” I unfortunately remember (because it’s a mean nasty story worthy O Henry), so I’ve read and remember 5 with a bunch to go – not that many and they are not long

I regard Poldark’s Cornwall as a Poldark book, and a couple of Poldark short tales (above cited).

I must read very carefully and create a chronology as best I can from his private memoir and oeuvre (including the radio and stage plays, scripts

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


Winston Graham in 1945

This where I’m at. I am in the middle of Sleeping Partner just now and it confounds me how Graham could turn to writing this thin mechanical fiction after having achieved Warleggan. It has to be an inner compulsion that makes him write in this male-centered narrowly formulaic misogynistic genre. He returned to this compulsion (money-making was part of his rationale) after the astounding success of the two 1970s BBC seasons of Poldark and a remarkably book like The Angry Tide.

I am carrying on because I like the Poldark books enough, am interested in historical fiction and romance, in the sub-genre of Cornish or regional romance, am interested in film adaptation and it seems to me Winston Graham is an author whose work ought to be taken into account as a whole, made some sense of. I’ve done so much and it’s hard to let go?

I admit one impulse in my first curiosity was when I discovered Winston Graham is never mentioned even in common surveys of good 20th century historical fiction nor suspense/thriller/mystery books. I have yet to come across his name or his books in any of these. He does get a chapter of analysis of the Poldark books in books on Cornwall, and on costume-drama period film serial adaptation. But in these cases it is not that he or his presence is felt to compelling, or anything in his art, but that the texts themselves or videos belong to a social phenomenon of the 20th and 21st century the editor of the volume felt worth while exploring.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Marian Halcombe (Jessie Buckley) when Walter Hartright (Ben Hardy) first sees her


As read using Buckley in voice over, Marion’s letter to Walter, Laura Fairlie now Hartright (Olivia Vinall) and Mrs Hartright, Walter’s mother (Cathy Belton)


Marian escaping

This is the story of what a Woman’s patience can endure, and what a Man’s resolution can achieve.” It is also about “the machinery of Law” and the power of those with “long Purses.” So begins the novel. Towards the end we are again told [Walter Hartright] “vindicates” [Marian, Laura, Anne] through all risks and all sacrifices — through the hopeless struggle against Rank and Power, through the long fight with armed deceit and fortified Success, through the waste of my reputation, through the loss of my friends, through the hazard of my life …

Friends and readers,

Over the past few months I’ve watched three adaptations of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone:

1972 (with Robin Ellis and Anna Cropper as especially effective), 1996 (I just loved Keeley Hawes and Gregg Wise), and 2016 (which I found incoherent);

and two of his Woman in White:

1982 (Diana Quick and Ian Richardson extraordinary) and Fiona Seres’s 2018 (unforgettable so many of the performances) while I read with a group of friends on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io Collins’s marvelous novel, The Woman in White.

I’d read about Collins’s use of disability in his novels (No Name, Miss Finch who is blind), and now I added how aspects of Collins’s life, his character as a person, his other craft (visual art) are woven into his novels; see Martha Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, Catherine Peters’ biography, and do read the radical sexual nature of “sensation fiction” in D.A. Miller’s essay in The Novel and the Police, Cage aux Follies: Sensation and Gender in Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White.

I had tried to read The Moonstone when I was in my 20s and just couldn’t get on with Gabriel Betteredge as the narrator. I tried Armadale in my 40s, and found the thickly-evented plot defeated me. I first read The Woman in White when I was about 24, I was running a very high fever and sick in bed for three days and read the whole novel steadily, turning the pages intensely as I went. I never forgot the experience, which is why I tried more than once to read Collins again, though found I just couldn’t manage it. After this second experience of The Woman in White, some books about Collins and all these films, I am eager to try The Moonstone again and No Name.

I’ve come up with a few conclusions:

First, that Collins’s two best-known novels are just not adaptable because their fascination and depths comes from the highly complicated ironically juxtaposed subjective and nuanced narratives; but that when you adapt them if you use framing devices that turn forward-moving chronology into continual interchanges of past and present, gothic techniques, and a strong feminist point of view, which is what Fiona Seres in 2018 does that leaves room for creating empathy with mental disabilities, you can make an adequate substitute.

That he is astonishingly contemporary in a lot of his perceptions, viz., how dangerous people kept innocent who have good impulses can be to themselves and to others; how people are continually under surveillance by gov’ts as well as any local groups they belong to, with records kept about them, and become neurotically insecure.

And lastly that at their core is a radical attack on sexuality as usually perceived and controlled, and violations of privacy, security, and any calm.

Together with Tyler Tichelaar, after reading Woman in White (and also a few years ago teaching Bram Stoker’s Dracula), I’m convinced that Collins’s Woman in White was a strong influence on Stoker’s sensational vampire horror tale: Collins’s use of subjective structures, and many of his themes and motifs are taken over. See Tyler’s The Woman in White’s Influence on Dracula.

It’s a powerful and was an influential book, and when I look back on the English courses I took as an undergraduate and graduate student, it seems a form of snobbery (and left-over imposition of F.R. Leavis’s Great Tradition) that doesn’t make The Woman in White a must-read in any course in the 19th century novel — though to the ten standard novels I was assigned in a Victorian novel course I nowadays also would add Gaskell’s North and South and Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (or if I dared, The Beleaguered City) too.

This is a whole lot for one blog so tonight I shall just deal with a few aspects of Collins’s The Woman in White as it appears in John Sutherland’s edition for Oxford World Classics and the strong anti-hierarchical and feminist stances of Fiona Seres’s 2018 Woman In White (with a few words on Ray Jenkins/John Bruce’s 1982 version for comparison).

I mention the editor of my volume because in Sutherland’s notes, appendices and an apparatus of chronology, it is apparent that there are at least three differing versions of The Woman in White: there seems to be a complete manuscript, which was apparently cut by Dickens as well as Collins before any publication. There the version of the novel which first appeared in Dickens’s own All the Year Round; this differs from the volume editions because the places were the chapter divisions or installments fell are different. (The Woman in White appeared right after Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities, so the two novels could be linked together in the audience’s minds.) And there is The Woman in White that emerged in the stand alone volumes — made yet more concise, more edited. Sutherland prints many passages cut from the manuscript and tells you where the installments ended and what was the last passage so you can see how often Dickens chose highly melodramatic endings (blunting subtlety).

What fascinates me is the artistry of the novel. The diction seeming so impersonal and yet sensuous, deeply felt, passionate. The uses of suspense and dramatic irony.  In the latter parts of the novel where you have several different minor characters as writers (a housekeeper, a cook, a servant, a doctor, a tombstone) and then return to the now knowing Walter Hartright, first you are not told the truth of what is going on under the machinations you watch, so you are left in suspense, to put together a meaning, plus you cannot tell whether the servant/hired professional is disingenuous or not; then the machinations are suddenly explained so now you watch events, so you are experiencing what’s called dramatic irony: you know truths the characters you are watching don’t know. Since a lot of the events are the same, just retold from different points of view, this psychology is endlessly to be explained at the same time we can see continually the distance from between the way people behave on the surface and are actuated.

The matter presented in these devious ways is deep emotionalism. Humiliating and dangerous secrets, strange illness, other unknown of motives — at the core of the book is the history of a disabled child born illegitimately, Anne Catherick, whose parents abandoned her, whose one loving caretaker, a nurse-housekeeper, Mrs Clements, had no power to protect her from them dumping her in an institution. She has two doppelgangers: the obvious, her half-sister, Laura, who looks like her (they had the same father), and is herself unusually sensitive and vulnerably fragile in her will. Laura’s mother (now dead) had shown an impersonal kindness to Anne because she resembles Laura and Anne was deeply attached to her and now hovers over this woman’s grave. Laura herself has another half-sister, Marian (they had the same mother), who is presented as inherently strong but slowly shattered by the abuses of male power, so that if not by genes, by experience she begins to resemble Anne Catherick. We become deeply worried when Marian becomes so ill, then (possibly) so drugged, and then bewildered and frightened at her loss of self-possession. She is no longer in control of where her body is.

The matter is also on the surface brutal: a coerced marriage of Laura to Perceval Glyde who slowly loses control and the quiet menace turns to violence because of his need for money becomes unbearably pressing, while his secret illegitimacy (that would deprive him of any right to rank or his own property) preys on his mind, and he strikes out everywhere, adding kidnapping, possible murder, imprisoning, hired thugs and (wild comedy here) while trying to secure or destroy the birth records ends up setting himself on fire in a locked church. There is the homosexual obsessively reclusive or screechingly selfish uncle has power to help the girls but adamantly refuses, threatening them, and firing Walter (who would come to their aid) ostensibly for not attending to mounting, cleaning, improving his paintings. This hideous cruelly irrational uncle role is played with such high memorable theatrics by Ian Richardson and Charles Dance as to dominate over Perceval’s Italian friend Fosco who in the book is probably the most memorable presence, scary because so amoral (we feel), cold, manipulative, projecting a will which will stop at nothing, mean to animals who fear him on sight, with a utterly cowed wife.

Nota bene. We are told Fosco is enormously fat; the man who finally does him in, the tenderly loyal Italian friend of Walter, Pesca, is said to be a dwarf. But all the film adaptations avoid such “abnormality” and cast for the roles males who non-genteel, tough-looking, Italianate, but nothing out of the ordinary. Collins himself suffered from social ostracism because of his “odd” appearance: some sources say very tall, but with small hands and feet, slight, delicate looking with one part of his skull depressed — from a hard childbirth. Others have him as small with “a protuberance on one side of his head.” At any rate, he looked different enough to be ostracized. He suffered psychosomatic pains and all his life — bad ones. He remained further outside social acceptance when he would not marry either of the two women he got involved with, lived and had children with …. this not marrying was his choice of course, and he did what he could to make a secret of the two families to the point that their existence and present descendants have only been identified recently. All this felt in the books is erased from all films by hiring actors whose appearance is commonplace.

It’s worth noting that in the novel lawyers try to do the right thing. In the 2018 film, Seres invents a third lawyer whose attempts to gather evidence and help at the frantic Marian’s bidding are the central framing device; Mr Gilson has a long narrative, which keeps us at a distance from our beloved characters’ minds; he also recounts the specific amounts of money Laura inherits, and Glyde owes.

This has the effect of breaking the mesmerizing blocks of journals early in the book, calming things down. Why so mesmerizing? The novel is about Marian’s love for Laura, about Laura as utterly in need of supportive love; Laura loves Marian and cannot conceive living apart from her. And it’s Hartright’s love for them both. It’s immersed in homoeroticism — from Walter’s seemingly effeminate sensibility — and lesbian feeling. Marian is attracted to Fosco and he to her. (Collins had two mistresses or wives.) All this keeps breaking through while an attack on the way families treat individuals, parents use children coldly is going on –.

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

As to the two movies:


Marian ill (Diana Quick)


Laurs (Jenny Seagrove) in mourning, found by her mother’s grave by Walter Hartright (Daniel Gerroll) (1982)

The 1982 The Woman in White moves much too slowly in its attempt to be realistic and unravel the novel for us; it is too sentimental, too decorous,but it has real strengths when it dramatizes the novel’s more somber episodes and places.

The fourth episode (which dramatizes the latter parts of the novel described above) partly vindicates the methods. It begins around the time when both Marian and Laura have been very sick, Marian is in her bed at the top of the house, and Laura in her room. We see Marian taken away on a stretcher, looking ghastly, and are told that she was taken to London. We see Laura frantic, going wild, the first time in her life without Marian, Fosco apparently gone, and a brutal drunken Glyde. It emerges Marian was not removed from the house, but put in this ancient ruined part of a barn, filled with straw, ancient furniture, rats. Next image the gravestone of Laura. Now the housekeeper returns and is told Marian is after all in the house, shown her; Marian slowly gets better and begins to investigate; she goes to the lawyer, and we are at the scene with which the 2018 Woman in White begins!

The atmosphere all along has been quiet and desperate, now it’s tragic — the 1982 film-makers tried for a serious tragic interpretation of this material and it actually works for this stretch of the book. Marian visits the asylum, discovers Laura, and pays off the nurse to help her rescue Laura. They go to the uncle who refuses to recognize Laura; she is dead! they become rightly leery of Ian Richardson’s gleaming knowledge of their whereabouts. Laura insists on visiting her mother’s grave first, before going into hiding; who is there but Walter (see above). These images repeat the opening of this film adaptation: Anna Catherick crying over Laura’s mother’s gravestone. The scene of crying in Walter’s arms is very moving, Marian in is arms — and he takes them to live in this utter dive in a broken down boarding house in London: they will hide while he investigates. A powerful scene with the grieving Mrs Clements because Anne has indeed died of heart failure. We then visit the still living Mrs Catherick, a mean cold woman who appears to care nothing for her daughter, but pathetically lives for the minimal respectability she has achieved by doing almost nothing all her life so as not to offend anyone.

The 2018 adaptation is one of the best I’ve seen in years. Seres and Carl Tibbetts (the director) show the talent and originality of Andrew Davies, Sandy Welch and the best of the BBC adapters over the decades. She cannot realize the complicated subjective structures, but her framing, use of flashback, montage, shots, light and dark, depth zoom shot, and voice over is more than a filmic replacement: again and again these techniques serve to bring out more strongly the feminist and anti-hierarchical protests of Collins’s novel. She has narrowed its trajectory and used Collins’s use of lawyers (Art Malik a superbly strong presence with his resonant voice) to provide a skein of continual explanation, telling of secrets (of which there are many) and hope — for the lawyers Marian goes to are all she has to depend upon until Walter returns and then he must use their expertise to decide how to proceed effectively to return to Laura her identity (as well as peace of mind) and in this version not settle in with Marian but watch her from afar find liberty to experience life and choose a destiny. I was impressed by the dialogue, acting, interweaving; the effect is of innovativeness in the service or serious themes and entertainment.


Mr Nash (Art Malik), a central presence added to the lawyers in the novel


Ruth Sheen (as the grieving Mrs Clements): the one person in the novel to have known and cared for Anne Catherick

2nd and 3rd episode: playing games of suspense: for example, bringing in Art Malik as the lawyer taking all down at punctuated moments, ever so skillfully dropping supposed information, writing it down as by-the-bye such as “the demise of Laura Lady Glyde at the beginning of the third hour.” A development of neurotic hysteria is felt along the nerves and carried on through the best actors. This is as strongly a feminist serial drama as I’ve seen in a long time. In the book Marian remains seeming invulnerable — not here. She is as subject to male law, authority ownership as Laura and every other female we see and this is made explicit. At the same time I love her mannish costumes, there are her beautiful scarves and skirts. Laura is something left over from Snakepit. The actors playing Glyde and Fosco re-inforced (by implication) how they use sex as a weapon they can enforce to repress and hurt and bewilder “their” women.


Laura deeply traumatized by the abuse she suffered in the asylum


Frederick Fairlie (Charles Dance), the uncle, threatening Laura and Marian, who has brought Laura to Limmeridge

4th episode: What most haunted me was that the scenes of imprisonment, cruel treatment (water thrown on Laura, solitary confinement, manacles in a strait jacket) were precisely those of 55 Steps. And yet the physical settings were not anachronistic. I thought of Rosina Bulwer-Lytton put away by her husband and dismissed as an hysteric at times after she was released and had a hard time living life of her own by writing. Marian too is bullied and drugged and imprisoned. She escapes by climbing to the top of a roof and sliding down. Again Art Malik as lawyer there at crucial moments; the maids and housekeepers are brought forward as helping Marian and Laura make their case.

Marian is not permitted to sleuth with Walter: she must stay to protect Laura; but this gives the opportunity to have a scene of her defying Fosco, and I’m glad the ending differed from the book’s.

Probably nobody needed me to say all this, but if you don’t know Collins’s novels you are missing out. I did love the description in the book and use of landscape, cityscape, light and dark in the films. I could have gone on about the Moonstone film adaptations, but I want to wait until I’ve read the book.


Walter (Ben Hardy) approaches the church where the birth records of Anne Catherick and Perceval Glyde are to found


Anne Catherick’s grave — the 1991 BBC Clarissa also uses an image of her gravestone near the end of the series

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The whole cast, gathered Agatha-Christie, locked into the green room while eerie versions of themselves get on with the play ….

Dear friends and readers,

Upfront and plain. let’s all who live in DC and come to the Folger library say aloud together, “It’s been a remarkable year at the Folger!” They began with a marvelous rendition of Davenant’s Macbeth, went onto a dramatic and thoughtfully presented political parable (and understandable) King John;  moved to a buoyant, intelligent Nell Gwyn, then about a month ago an entertaining Love’s Labor’s Lost (so essentially two very difficult to produce Shakespeare plays), not to omit brilliant HD screenings, last summer about this time, another film appropriation, a fantasy modernization of Midsummer’s Night Dream by Casey Wilder Mott (scroll down), available at Amazon Prime:

https://www.amazon.com/Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Rachael-Leigh/dp/B07GXSDZJ2/ref=sr_1_3?keywords=midsummer+night%27s+dream&qid=1561351268&s=instant-video&sr=1-3

Last July too a movie by Ian McKellen (“acting, writing, living from the heart”) about his career, worth-it-to-get-to concerts, especially the one at Cherry Blossom time .

And now this: Ghost Light, dark comic appropriation of Macbeth as an unnerving but oddly kindly-natured ghost story. The two directors and scriptwriters thanked the Folger representative on stage for having them.

A dual story: a group of actors come to the Berkshires to perform Macbeth, and their disregard of “the curse” (several use the name Macbeth outside the play) brings down on them the wrath of the ghosts in the play — real witches and real ghosts begin to emerge, the first as woman come to be hired help, a girl hitchhikers, the second as unnerving visions coming out of the real lives of the actors, who are presented as sort of 2nd or 3rd rate, or at the end of not so great a career, the beginning of another.

It’s in the cross currents of magic and anguish that the power of the film lies, plus (like so many of these parodies of Shakespeare) a subset of actors play the play in the last half hour and it is done very well too, directed by John Stimpson who also wrote the script with Geoffrey Taylor. Thomas Riley Macbeth, Shannon Sossamon, Macbeth and his lady, but also a actor desperate about his career, and an alcoholic older actress married to a once matinee idol (no longer).


Macbeth and his Lady

There’s an ambivalent gay couple, an incessantly kissing couple — there are many nervous jokes about sex — a despairing director and cavalier producer

Of interest: like Roma and other movies much admired, even getting awards, e.g., A Very English Scandal, and last year’s HD Screening by Casey Wilder Motte, the fantasy adaptation of MDN (see above), Ghost Light is opening as a streaming experience from Amazon Prime and other venues on-line. I asked them about this and the two directors were frank about how much it costs to have a movie run, and how rare the movie makes such a hit as to reap profits. A more delicate intelligent taste usually doesn’t help wide distribution; Ladybird was a rare case where the gradual opening did that. And here it is:

https://www.amazon.com/Ghost-Light-Cary-Elwes/dp/B07RMCB5H5/ref=sr_1_1?crid=3PP9FO5FU3V72&keywords=ghost+light&qid=1561310115&s=instant-video&sprefix=ghost+light%2Caps%2C118&sr=1-1

via a tiny URL:

https://tinyurl.com/y5z5qz98

It has gone round the country in venues like the Folger, and has been apparently much liked. The audience I was in at the Folger was delighted, and asked intelligent questions, pointed out parallels in other ghost-like occurrences in Shakespeare. These two reviews, perhaps bit snobbish as the reviews were for Nell Gwynn, are less enthusiastic: Movie Nation; the City Paper is brief


One of the real life actress witches; she is replaced by another being something far more “awesomeness” in her looks, lit up uncannily.

Very contemporary exhibits in the great hall too — and I know research and the equivalent of post-graduate courses for scholars if you want to do the work and can produce the exacting credentials.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


The four principals of the film: JRR Tolkien, Geoffrey Bache Smith, Robert Q Gilson, Christopher Wiseman — at leisure, sports and war

Friends and readers,

I thought I’d write a brief review of the biopic film about Tolkien’s life that is just now leaving most movie theaters after a fairly successful run. The reviews have been mixed, and most resembling John Tuttle’s: he likes the art and filmic aspects of the film, beautifully filmed, brilliantly acted, moving story, but he complains not so much that what is presented is all that wrong, but that the emphases are inadequate: he wants more about Tolkien’s religion, more about all the sources of his creativity, a more accurate account of this or that aspect of his earlier and later life: it seems that in later life Tolkien again bonded with a small group of like-minded men of similar attitudes and class. Tuttle doesn’t mind that the film made much of Tolkien’s relationship with Edith Bratt, only says it was presented as suspenseful when it wasn’t. “Everyone” (that is all interested in Tolkien) knows he married her. A similar stance (with different particulars perhaps) is found in Sheila O’Malley’s at RogerEbert.com; David Appleby at Rolling Stone was bored: it was so convoluted and yet did not bring our miraculous author to life. Tellingly, what they all agree on is how grating and excessive are the scenes of war, “oh bother” says Appleby. I could quote others to the same effect.

What no one seems to say is that the this is a film not much interested in Tolkien’s inner creative life: the imagery from his dreams, from his early anguish at the death of his father, mother, fear of being neglected and poor with his brother), and then, as shared with the love of his life, Edith fantasy operas and books, and finally World War One are all in effect decorations; extras piled on to give the film heightened apocalyptic fantasy ominous (exciting?) imagery. The plot-design of this movie is that of the common popular genre, the nostalgic boys’ public school, interlaced with a feminist-inflected romance with strong critiques against class snobbery.

As the film begins, Tolkien is orphaned. His father dies and then his self-sacrificing mother (played to the hilt by Laura Donnelly, familiar to some as Jenny Murray of Outlander), and he and his brother are left stranded. They are taken to live in a boarding house run by a cold snobbish woman (Pam Ferris) by the Catholic priest who has been made their guardian. What saves Tolkien is he is so intelligent, he is taken into the British private aka public school system and there nurtured by deep friendship, and high academic standards that force him to study hard. The public school is presented positively: while there are grossly unfair tutors (one wants to eject Tolkien on the basis he hasn’t got sufficient drive), others (Derek Jacobi) because they are not part of a structured system can eccentrically take him in.


The young man and his professor

The story of Edith is there as part of the usual matter of heritage films.


Courting — the upper class (if orphaned) boy courting the female boarder

It’s worth it to point out the limitations of the heritage tropes: as in so many of them, class is supposedly attacked or critiqued, when we find it is also upheld; in this film, this is done together with religion. Tolkien was a believing Catholic in life; this was his heritage (perhaps from the mother) but also a result of making a priest his guardian. In the film this priest refuses to support Tolkien if he carries on with his courtship of Edith. Tolkien protests, thinks of rebelling but then caves in. We are to feel that he does this out of respect for the guardian as well as concern for his career, but there is a feeling that he recognizes that Edith is indeed not of his class.

As the film moves on, and Tolkien overcomes the prejudices of the people at Oxford, and the war begins, he again meets Edith. Edith is as genteel looking as Celia Johnson in any 1940s film (Brief Encounter, In Which We Serve, Happy Days) and now engaged, and it’s made plain she has done so to support herself. It takes only a few minutes of film time for Tolkien to say he still loves her, for her to reciprocate and (presumably) break the engagement. Later in the film the priest admits he was wrong, and sometime after that Tolkien and Edith are married. This may follow Tolkien’s actual behavior, but we can see that class and obedience to religious and parental authorities are upheld.

The second part of the film is the fulfillment of the first, the war story essential to this genre. It is the final proving ground. Instead of showing us that the values that lead to war are the real basis of public school experience, bullying, competition, physical prowess, daring, separation from one’s family (part of the training that teaches you to be part of an upper class negotiating environment), we are repeatedly shown the great joy, manners, bonding that the young men learn from these exclusive groups within an intellectual demanding environment, which in this case included high intellectual camaraderie, and of course also fierce “healthy” competition in games (we are shown the four young men playing rough sports again and again) . Of course war is horrific, and two of them die, a third maimed for life. No heritage film today is openly militaristic, but the scenes that are individualized show our heroes performing utter self-sacrifice for one another. A small subplot includes Tolkien’s batman, of course named Sam, risking his life to save Tolkien from death, and bring him tea too.


Here is Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien searching for his friend (dead elsewhere several days before)

It’s important to bring this central design of the film out because this elite experience is 1) misrepresented and 2) lies at the core of not just militarism and war, but leads to and shapes colonialism and is behind the mindset promoting Brexit, nationalism, arrogance (the boy becomes privileged, and is kept separate from and encouraged to think he know better than the “lower orders. Joanna Scutts lays out the connection in The New Republic: Britain’s Boarding School problem. The war itself is presented as part of the dream life that led to the exciting adventures, violence, monsters of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve seen so many films of this type: Harry Potter feeds into it; Andrew Davies got his start with the multi-episode To Serve Them All My Days (based on Delderfield’s sentimental depiction of the life of a schoolmaster). I do not say I haven’t enjoyed such films. I enjoy heritage films, I loved the romance, and felt for Edith presented as at the time given no opportunity to have a career of her own, but given the times we are living in, when I read several reviews passing by the central explanatory idea of this film, and seemed even unaware of it. I felt something ought to be said.

I’ll add another corrective here too: nowadays upper class and elite girls are sent to such schools regularly too, and then elite universities. Kate Middleton’s great “rise” came from her having gone to the right private boarding school which got her to St Andrews where she met William, the heir. As Scutts points out, huge fees are extracted (such schools are apparently tax-exempt!, like our churches). As a side note I recall now how startled I was at Vicinus’s account of girls’ private boarding schools in her Independent Women: Work and community for Single Women, 1850-1930, because she didn’t seem to care at all and even was for the psychological manipulation of the girls’ friendship patterns and girls-and-female mentors because it trains girls (who thrived in this) to know how to get and keep and use power. As today parents of boys who suffer badly from bullying, and are emotionally twisted or scarred take that as the price of getting them the right connections and “toughening” them, so Vicinus was for allowing girls to emotionally over-wrought, blackmailed, made miserable by girls’ exclusionary coteries as the price of making girls into women who are embedded in power arrangements and understand how they come about.


Tolkien late in life (photo)

As for Tolkien’s actual and later life: the other male group consisted of deeply reactionary Christianizing critics like C.S. Lewis who also wrote an epic of fantasy wars, Narnia, sheltered dons and learned poets like himself. Dorothy Sayers was a hanger-on, for at the time when a young woman finished university there would be no place for her in university. Think of her Lord Peter Wimsey with his batman turned valet, Bunter. Bob Dixon has analysed the fascist vision of life behind Narnia and (dare I say) and other fantasy epics by over-praised writers like Ursula Le Guin. See also Empire Follows the Flag. Tolkien’s later career as a writer included studies and defenses of Beowulf, Anglo-Saxon poetry, medieval English and Chaucer, translations of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Pearl — delicate lovely poetry with subtle ethical ideas.

I was again startled when I first began to watch the Peter Jackson film of The Fellowship. I had read the books in the 1960s when the illustrations were still taken from romance, fairy books, and looked like feminine depictions Arthurian romance. How had it become a boys’ action-adventure story, filled with violence and Dante-like apocalyptic visions? I have since read that the earliest illustrations were delicate fanciful landscapes done by a woman friend of Tolkien. I dare say a film genuinely interested in his creative life and reading, might help rescue his books from being used or packaged the way they are today. I am told that a five part series, Looking for the Hobbit (on Amazon Prime) does justice to other ignored sources, but I wouldn’t count on it.


Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien deeply engaged with his books

Ellen

Read Full Post »


After long grueling hours of separate interrogation, the boys are put together & meet for the first time

Friends and readers,

Ava DuVernay has made another movie you must not miss — her others are Selma and 13th. Many people will know about the case of the brutal assault and rape of Trisha Meili (called “the Central Park Jogger”) where four African-American and one Latino boy were accused (“the Central Park 5” was the designation), but not necessarily that the accusation was not just wrong but utterly unfounded (not a shred of evidence linking any of these boys to this woman except that all were in some place in Central Park that night), nor that the confessions which were used as the evidence were coerced (by hounding, harassment, hours of isolated interrogation, threats, lies about what “cooperation” meant or would bring). We see how the prosecutor, Elizabeth Lederer, and DA, Linda Fairfax saw that there is no evidence and Lederer at least is bothered, but goes ahead to do all she can to convict the boys, Michael Sheenan, the head of the operation to wrench confessions, and they acquire a Judge Galligan, known for harsh sentences at Riker’s Island.

The five spent from 6 to 14 years in prison, Corey Wiser, a bit older, was tried as an adult, and put into tough adult prisons. It also seems not well known that in 2002 they were exonerated when Matias Reyes, the real criminal came forward (a man with convicted of rape, with an assault record very like that of the man who raped Meili) and said he did it alone, and the DNA found on her body was discovered to match Reyes’.


Coercion

That’s the outline of the familiar story. The way it’s told in four parts is a display or demonstration of how egregiously unfair is the operation of all the parts of the “justice” system: the first part shows us quickly how early in the evening all five young men were spending their time, how they all somewhat differently came into Central park that night, the jogger coming from her building into the park, and then clips from news shows about the assault and rape; the next 3/4s of an hour make us undergo the same grilling the five young men do: see the members of their families also coerced and threatened, or uselessly angry (not knowing what to do), the confessions imposed on them, and the ultimate result, their incarceration as the plans for the trial are formed.

We see they are innocent; they had no idea there was such a girl in the park; the stumbling nature of what they confessed (they are urged to agree to the story the detectives tell them to through hints), and the final scene in the room brought together where they decide confessions or no, they are going to insist on the truth: they are innocent. It is emotionally wrenching to sit through this — the young male actors cry and are hurt, puzzled, beat up. So too their parents & siblings indignant without knowing what to do to protect themselves.

The second part is the trial, we see how it’s conducted; the hysterical social campaign in the newspapers which play the part of a lynch mob, which results in the social death of these young men. Not their very closest but further off relatives begin to believe they did it; we see the furor in the streets, and Donald Trump’s famous ad demanding the state murder them, saying how he hates them and wants no psychoanalysis, no attempt to explain. We get a glimpse of his repeat he believes them guilty in 2016 and his sneers at the court case which finally was allowed to go forward (Bloomberg blocked it) where NYC paid them 41 million dollars in damages.

They cannot and do not get a fair trial. The felt atmosphere makes whatever the attorneys say or do feel so useless as when one attorney points out there is no evidence linking the boys to the jogger at all. The prosecuter does not come across that strongly, but the tapes have an effect on the jury. The guilty verdict, the boys and parents’ hysteria. And then scenes of the earliest experience of juvenile prison in four of the boys, where we are told that they hear Corey is “in solitary” but know no more of him. It is a grilling episode.

A secondary story told in both parts is that of the family life of each of the boys — we see different relationships, with some parents (two fathers) in desperate straits for money, one has a criminal record the police start to threaten him with. In part one some of the parents do tell the boys “to cooperate;” others demand the child be left alone; a great moment is when one mother says to Fairfax “Shame on You!” Corey’s mother seems not willing, unable for some reason to come visit her son. The latino boy, Raymond, seems to have only his father.


There is no place for Raymond and his girlfriend to find privacy once he is let out of jail

The third part fast forwards to the time (different) when the four boys treated as juveniles are released. A different set of actors are now playing the central boys. We see how the cards are utterly stacked against them. They have to tell anyone who hired them they are felons accused of sex crime; they have to be in their house every night by 7; they have to report to a police station every 90 days for the rest of their lives. One has a chain on his ankle. Worse they come back to groups of people not ready to have them or downright unwelcoming. Raymond’s father has remarried and the new wife is deeply antagonistic to him; he is given no room of his own. She calls Raymond a rapist. They cannot be hired for gov’t jobs, for various professional jobs. Strain as they try to make friends, have a girlfriend. Raymond taking an apartment of his own with his girlfriend, is fired, and ends up drug-dealing to support himself. He is caught.

The point is no help is given them to build their lives and hard obstacles put in the way.


Corey disobeying rules to hold his mother’s hands; there is no one for him to tell of the abuse and bodily harm inflicted on him

The fourth part is the most painful. I can hardly bear to tell it. We see Corey Wise put in Riker’s Island. Immediately he is surrounded by scary thugs, which include the guards. One guard asks Corey, if Corey has something for him, and when Corey seems not to understand, has five prisoners beat Corey up. Corey tries to appeal to a nurse who is afraid to help him as a guard is watching. He begs for solitary confinement as a place he can be safe in. I had not realized this might be one reason for the increase in solitary confinement in prisons: to escape the mob violence. We see terrifying scenes of humiliation. We see and hear the noise, the lack of decent food, something to do. Little vignettes: we hear parents saying “for a 10 minute phone call $23.” No medical help worth the name. She does omit probable sex abuse — we are left to remember and to imagine.

Each time Corey meets with his parole board he gets nowhere as the thing demanded of him first is to confess to his crime and say he is remorseful. He is moved to Attica, and now his mother says she cannot come there as it is too far for her to come regularly. Corey is pulled out of solitary confinement one day to be told his brother is dead. He is told that he is told this for his sake. Clearly that’s not so. No one offers a word of consolation. In a flashback from his mind it emerges the girl I thought one of his girlfriends was his brother, a transvestite who dressed as a girl; Corey remembers his mother loathing her, throwing her out. He becomes hysterical: no one cares for him. Robert, his guard, grabs hold of him and hugs him hard to help him exert self-control. This is probably the first hug he’s had in years.

One gleam of light: Robert, the guard in charge of his cell now begins to be kind, offers him magazines, and better food (the guard says he has a son back home), gets him a job cleaning floors. So he can leave solitary confinement (where he appears suffer badly from the heat as no air conditioning comes through his vent until this guard somehow gets it “fixed”). But Corey wants to be transferred in the hope he will be near his mother. So he loses the guard-friend and ends up in a worse place. He is immediately picked on because he is known as the Central Park Rapist: it’s an excuse. Beaten very badly by other inmates.  Laughed at by another guard. And so it goes on and on. A couple of vignettes at the end show his conditions are improving as he learns how to cope and simply keeps surviving and ages so is seen as less of a susceptible victim to bullies.

So DuVernay has put it all before us – this is the system, it’s still in operation, see what it has done. QED. I have not described her powerful use of film techniques because it would produce too long a blog.

The last ten minutes cover quickly the confession of Reyes, the refusal at first of Fairfax and Sheenan to believe it — he is trying for attention; okay there was a sixth. But a new lawyer and Morganthau (who had appeared briefly as protesting the trial because of a lack of evidence) and people we don’t see manage to bring the evidence out and in the last five minutes we see the five men told they are exonerated. For each it’s a different experience as has the whole thing been.

Raymond now in prison is seen looking so joyful with his things walking to the door, and his father comes for him and they hug. Corey as usual treated with no deference or consideration; he is living in a better place again, and no longer in solitary (learnt to hold his own), the guard Robert has somehow helped him again, and he brought out of the prison yard and to an office and given a phone and hears his mother’s voice telling him he is going to be freed. Fast forward to the other three told on their jobs or at home, and then all five standing together on a stage, holding hands.


The young actors


The real individual men as they are in 2019

The coda is moving. An inter-title tells us about the court cases and litigation and their monetary compensation. And then we hear where each of them is in life now. At first we see the younger actor, then the older, and then (very moving this) the real man. All but one has left New York City and all are thriving to some extent, married, with children, one in business, another writing and teaching, one opened a business to help people wrongly accused of crime. Seeing the real men, their real faces brought tears to my eyes.

You should watch it because to do so will be part of Netflix’s rating system and perhaps more movies like this can be made. Any Goodman has devoted a full hour to this movie: she shows clips and interviews DuVernay. I went to find reviews; Roger Ebert’s site has a review which does justice to the film and gives fuller details than I do. It speaks of flaws: I see none. Lucy Mangan of The Guardian is better, she speaks of heart-wrenching (dare I suggest that there is racism in the Ebert site and not here); Sophie Gilbert of the Atlantic: three of the men now live in Georgia.

It is important to know that Linda Fairfax has shown no remorse, and in fact continues to maintain these young men did the crime! and has publicly protested the film, saying it is inaccurate. It is not; the public records are available. She should be tried and put in prison for what she did to these young men.


Felicty Huffman plays the part


Linda Fairstein — she makes money writing crime books; I read the publisher has pulled them off shelves; that some honorary degree she got is now lamented over


Vera Farmiga as Elizabeth Lederer who also maintains she did the right thing but has enough decency to not call attention to herself

For my part being frank here I’ll say at the time I didn’t understand Trisha Meili, the young woman, had run out into the park after dark. I thought that there was understood to be curfew not to go into the park after dark. Of course you can’t fence in the park. But this series does show that late at night groups of people did go in. I may be criticized for this but one of my gut reactions is I don’t understand why Meili went out at that time of night to run by herself. Did she think she was immune to dangers? did not her expensive building have a gym? Was her sense of privilege so strong? She did not understand how we are all at risk and some situations very risky? she should have thought of other people and understood she should find some other mode of exercise.

I am simply puzzled that a young woman like this would go out running late at night in the park. Why did she not realize how dangerous this would be. I cannot see myself courting danger this way, taking this kind of chance. When I was young, there are a couple of instances where I took a crazy chance, but (without telling these) these were not risky to my body. The park is enormous and has many dark people-less spots. I’d like to say a curfew was understood except the movie showed that lots of people went to or were in the park late at night. It might be that I thought there was a curfew because I think there ought to be one: when there are events in the park (like a concert, or Shakespeare play) one must walk back but my sense was of being in a crowd walking on lit lanes and cops around.

Meili has since made money on her book, permitted herself to become something a celebrity (“I am the Central Park Jogger”); there is something wrong with a book about this incident given the sentimental gush subtitle “A story of hope and possibility”


Middle class costume, jewelry, make-up — has she learnt anything?

Trisha Meili is not to blame — the blame falls squarely on the man who did the crime and the cops and the DA and prosecutor. They simply picked out five black young men and proceeded to nail them for the crime. They did not try genuinely to look for the insane woman-hater who did this. They did not follow the clues they had: the semen nor the evidence she had been dragged on the ground by one person. The same police officer and judge were judging Reyes during the same period. Meili was unlucky and so have thousands of other young women been throughout history. They did nothing to protect any girl from another such assault.

We today still refuse to protect girls — think of how the Republicans on the Senate believed Christina Ford and yet put Kavanaugh on the supreme court, an exposed hypocritical thug who for years enjoyed himself and his masculinity by leading fraternity boys to humiliate and rape girls at parties. The concern was to punish these black young men “as a warning,” not to discover who raped and nearly murdered Meili.

To sum up: the movie shows that the lynching mentality of the first half of the century was operative in NYC in 1989 – that the privileged girl was white is central. Indeed Trump is still sneering at DiBlasio for allowing the litigation for compensation to come to court. To me that the center of the push to make these young boys/men confess is a woman just brings home how women can be as reactionary and racist as any man — and reminds us that the person who signed that Alabama bill criminalizing pregnancy was a woman.

The prosecutor who framed them is part of and respected in US society today — and she is objecting mightily to the portrayal of what she did with the help of all her colleagues in the system. Her way of objecting shows she is guilty of having framed these young man and her justification is to assert all she did was legal and they were guilty. She seems to think it was her job to frame them. This was and still is legal — so too plea-bargaining which the boys refused once they were put together.

I repeat she calls what DuVeray presents as lies at the same time as she justifies (she justifies) how those boys (now men) were treated and just about says (despite how the movie shows a complete lack of evidence) they are guilty – were it not for those DNA tests, they’d be in prison still. She implies the DNA tests she leapt on when she found the sock and semen are inconclusive. Doubtless she would not believe in climate change were it in her interest not to believe. Fairfax now has show-off photos taken of herself smiling in a red suit in front of the supreme court put on her site. Indeed, shame on her!


Ava DuVernay

In DuVernay’s interview with Goodman, DuVernay says as she is speaking someone in the US some African-American person is being wrongly treated in an early phase of the criminal justice system; that the whole of the way and where and how people are incarcerated is profoundly wrong, and that she herself believes it will take a long time to fix, against many objections (not least the private companies running prisons) and may not be righted in her lifetime any more.

Ellen

Read Full Post »


Lily Collins as Fantine sometime after she sells her hair and teeth


Dominic West as Jean Valjean on the barricades


Joseph Quinn as Enjolras, the serious revolutionary

Bishop: Myriel: God tells us to love our fellow men.
Jean Valjean: How can I love my fellow man when he treats me worse than a dog?

Andrew Davies produces video masterpieces as regularly as other people simply go out to a movie, and in the last few years or so, the only material that (it seems) will do are the kind of literary masterpieces considered crucial and extraordinary works politically as well as socially. On top of this he has a penchant for choosing among such books precisely those where a previous film has been made with super-popular actors or some super-respected film-maker and seen by so many people and accepted as “unsurpassable.” Usually he has been polite about the previous (clearly to him inadequate and dated effort), as in the cases of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, Ang Lee and Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility, the earlier BBC Bleak House (1985 Arthur Hopcraft), War and Peace (1972, Jack Pulman), but he revels in using them while inventing a new conception and in just about all the previous films he’s redone, correcting (Lean turned Pasternak’s book into anti-communist propaganda) or simply superseding them. What’s special about this new Les Miserables is Davies frankness in accurately describing the musical as “a travesty” (the 2012 film is frequently awful), and how watching it brings home to most viewers they didn’t know or understand Fantine’s story at all, hadn’t realized how crucial Waterloo and an honest depiction of street fighting against a ruthless gov’t is to Hugo’s anti-war reformist book (the 1998 film presents what it does of the complicated stories incoherently).


Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar)


Madame Thenardier (Olivia Colman)

But this is a movie which makes us want to read the book; since Davies got only 6 hours (as opposed to the more than 9 he had for War and Peace, 2016), he makes us aware we are watching a suggestive and quick-moving surface. As the novel very early on includes Waterloo and has a long historical meditation on the significance of this battle and the lost war, Davies opens on Waterloo (he is apparently the only of the many movies made from this book even to include the battle) and brings Thenardier (Adeel Akhtar) to the fore as the first active character we see: he is stealing from corpses and near dead men, not rescuing anyone as he later on claims. David Bellos (in The Novel of the Century, indispensable) says (rightly) the Thenardiers are not funny figures in Hugo. These characters represent people who are key obstacles to political progress. Bellos asks what makes them hate, resent and fleece others so. They are the kind of people who loathe the poor when they are themselves part of this class. And it’s not just greed, but a passion, they bear “grudges,” “deep furnaces of hate.” and resentful revengeful grief. Like the woman supervisor in Valjean’s factory, they want to “get back” at anyone living more easily, or anyone who rouses their considerable repertoire of hurt. We so want Fantine to return and take her child back. Olivia Colman plays Madame Thenardier as an accomplice, complicit in anger and harm of others as the most convenient rout of survival.


The Thenardier family evicted — Colman’s face registers one origin of brooding resentment that emerges as jeering abuse of others

Bellos suggests that Hugo asks, what can be done to stop such people from undermining any compassionate law, rule, institution. Davies adds that they are punished as decisively and ruthlessly as those they resent and take it out on: Thenardier beats his wife casually, her daughters too, and when last seen Madame Thenardier has been parted from her daughters and left in miserable prison.

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

It opens brilliantly with shots in black-and-white of innocent animals killed (especially horses in extremis,in agons, in black silhouette), animals and trees used symbolically (crows), the exquisitely dark and dream like atmosphere is kept up in the first half — that is until we meet a grown up Cosette, and her demand that she be placed in a bourgeois environment where she can “learn about life,” catapults Jean Valjean (Dominic West) into a fiercely guarded island of an apartment in Paris. This reminds us of the Pontmercy home with the ancient grandfather (David Bradley) fiercely rejecting his son and bringing his grandson up to become an aristocratic of the now defunct ancien regime.

Church to one side, naturally, police headquarters prominently there. The wild landscape of white clay, rock, brick, the wretched prison quarters, the chains and whips everywhere are to the fore. In episode 2 The people Fantine meets are costumed like nightmare circus figures (Ron Cook as the man who cuts off Fantine’s hair and cruelly wrenches her teeth out is heavily made up) and the low budget set of streets is like the bleak corner or marketplace of a slum. So in contrast, Father Myriel’s (Derek Jacobi) hospitable table, deep gentle kindness, determination to do and be good, and the Mother superior’s convent are experienced as intense relief.


Lily Collins as Fantine, holding Mallow Defoy as the child Cosette (Episode 2) seeking work and a place to keep her child

Fantine meets Madame Thenardier: I’m on my way to Montreuil.
I’ve heard there’s some good work to be had there.
Where’s hubby? Erm He’s He’s dead.
Oh, dear.
So you’ve had a hard time of it, I dare say.
Yes, I have.
But once I get into a steady job, I’ll soon be on my feet again.
Yeah, of course you will.

The set in the second half expands outward from the provincial towns of the first, the wood where Valjean hides his treasures and earned money, and we find ourselves in Parisian gardens, then in the streets as people pour out and set up barricades, and when the fierce killing is over, in the sewers some have escaped to. The contrast is now the countryside to which Jean Valjean finds another refuge before dying. The whole ambiance is far more symbolic and artificial than Davies usually is as he tries to cover so much swiftly. For example, Jean Valjean and Cosette sitting in the snow:

Typically in all his films Davies brings new insight into the book he is realizing, and here importantly he provides further explanation for Javert’s obsession: his feeling goes beyond the homoerotic, his rage is the rage of frustrated, the man who cannot understand the humane emotions and behavior of Valjean and loathes the man as a threat. The two men are photographed in close proximity again and again:

It takes considerable skill to convey this kind of hidden and criss-crossing emotionalism (for as portrayed by West, Jean Valjean does not participate in this) and the brilliant David Oyelowo is pitch perfect, down to an intense nervousness and sense of someone at the ready for an insult from his subordinates; he is perpetually on the edge. He is fascinated by Jean Valjean (“you astonish me”) and his eyes and body convey deep attraction. This throws light on other pairs of pursuer and pursuit from Frankenstein and his creature, to Caleb Williams and Falkland — to modern doppelgangers. But he is still a police officer:

Javert upon meeting Thenardier when he is in search of ValJean:

Did he say what he wanted the girl for? No, but we’re men of the world, Inspector.
Not hard to guess.
Doesn’t bear imagining.
Y All right.
That’s all.
– That’s all? But look here – What? What are you going to do for me? Nothing.
You should think yourself lucky that I don’t charge you.

His suicide as Javert is given time– the writing of his resignation,

JAVERT: I beg, Monsieur Le Prefet, to consider these proposals for improvements to the service.
First, that we end the practice of prisoners returning from interrogations being made to remove their shoes while they await transport back to the prison.
Many are coughing when they return to their cells.
This leads to hospital experiences.
Second, a prisoner who drops a thread in the weaving room loses 10 sous.
This is an abuse of HIS RECOMMENDATIONS OVERLAP: Third, special regulation of the Fourth, surveillance is generally Fifth, gendarmes Prisoners coming back from the –

Writing this he is pictured and writes as an elegant man. Davies gives him time for a silent agon when he cannot bear to jump into that dark waters but does. He lived his life in darkness and amid filth and cruelty and hatred inflicted on others, now he ends in the dark filth. Davies’s Les Miserables includes Javert as among the wretched of the earth even if it’s he who is a relentless punisher of the wretched.

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


Master crook (Ron Cook)

I can single out only a few scenes, performances, themes. In Episode 2 Lily Collins astonishingly powerful-pathetic as Fantine — without hair, without teeth, laughed at, her mouth filled with blood, spurned and finally dying, crying crying crying because she has lost her beloved daughter and is afflicted with the idea this is God’s punishment. Only if the child arrives on time, can she feel she is forgiven. This is Davies’s overlay of interpretation on the effect of religion on those like Fantine whom society condemns. Ron Cook is a nightmare masquerade figure with his dolls for sale using the human hair and teeth he has wrenched out of the vulnerable.


Josh O’Connor as Marius

Episode 3: a riveting and unexpected theme brought out is the danger of being innocent. Innocence and ignorance helps the vicious, ruthless. Davies presents Marius and Cosette as utterly innocent and ignorant. In Marius’ case the cause is a reactionary hateful embittered rich grandfather; in Cosette’s a deeply humane loving victim of the society, once a life convict, our Jean Valjean. The result is the same: show Cosette a group of prisoners being treated like animals you mean to murder shortly except put on top of this is vicious cruelty and she says what bad men they must be — and I know in Davies’ version will be automatically horrified when Valjean tries to tell her his story. Showing her these men is his first step and see the result: she rejects him. Show Marius Thenadier and have him listen or remember his own innocent father’s gratitude to Thenadier and Marius assumes he is a “great hero” of war (as was his father — without ever thinking what the war was about and what killing is); Marius goes to the police (!) to tell them of how an older man (fully described by Marius) is about to visit Thenadier and Javert suspects this Is Valjean and is there to re-capture him. It’s like informing the FBI that some good black people are in trouble from criminals: the FBI would come in in the 1970s and murder all the black people.


Eponine (Erin Kellyman)


Gavroche (Reece Yates)

Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter) — a poor man who works at the church Marius’s grandfather’s woman servant takes him to each Sunday

The one innocent who hurts no one is Eponine: she seems so without any partisan or protector. Similarly, her younger brother (or step-brother, in the novel he is only semi-adopted, Gavroche (Reece Yates) who thinks what is happening is a game, tries to protect his younger brothers, and dies senselessly. The old man, Mabeuf (Donald Sumpter), his one revolutionary gesture in a spirit of fine hope is killed by sniper fire


The revolutionary young men: Enjolras (Joseph Quinn), Courfeyrac (Archie Madekwe), Grantaire (Turlough Convery)

Parts 5 and 6: the street fighting. In this version the revolutionaries are not presented as frivolous students, but genuinely aroused revolutionaries; yes some of them drink, they make bad decisions, but they are serious about demanding a better life for all. Marius is an outsider. With all the talk about street fighting that I have come across (the one book I know is Tariq Ali’s) this is the very first attempt I’ve come acrosss to show how terrifying it is to revolt against a govt, and really give a feel of the what it’s like to know a bunch of paid human beings are there to murder you, and see it happen all around you. Davies’s switches points of view, partly as individuals go down, but the most frequent is Enjolas. The episode even had a warning for viewers that the violence here is exceptional: it’s not; what’s rare is to show how paid police and militia will kill citizens. During the Obama era only glimpses were seen of what was done to the Occupy Wall Street people when some prominent person’s son or daughter’s body was destroyed — not all die when they are horrifically maimed nowadays. It was very moving when Grantaire (Turlough Convery) chooses to die standing with Enjolras. I’d say Joseph Quinn had a major role in this film


The death scene

The death scene of Valjean collapsing and put to bed with Cosette next to him put me in mind of Andrei’s death in Davies’s War and Peace. Davies had more time in War and Peace (9 episodes of differing length) so he showed the process of dying (and James Norton is a virtuoso actor) — but we may ask, Is it enough for this man that Cosette loved him? There is a bit too much poetic justice perhaps: Thenardier tells us in his losing scene that he is ending in shit. Hugo’s Les Miserables is not Shakespeare’s Lear

ValJean dying with Cosette by his side:

WEAKLY: Are you still there? Yes, Papa.
I had things to tell you.
Never mind.

Somewhat differently conceived a narrator and over-voice would have helped. Davies has rightly conceived of the piece as an epic but is driven down to individual metonymy too often. Is it though right to feel that Jean Valjean has let us down? Had he made it an educational opportunity for Cosette from all we have seen I doubt she could have understood.

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


Father Myriel


Sister Simplice

Bellos mentions as another flaw in Hugo’s book the long sequence about the convent. In a book overtly anti-clerical, rightly critical of the church’s role in repression, to make two of the characters, Myriel at the opening and now the mother superior (Georgie Glenn) as well as Sister Simplice (Natalie Simpson) near saints does more than tend to mute the radical point of view on life. Bellos suggests that like many authors, Hugo is ambivalent; his politics are also partly conservative at times — as would be understandable given his background


We must have the upper class couple: Ellie Bamber as Cosette grown up; Josh O’Connor as Marius

Davies counters this: in each of his adaptations, while it is Davies’s spirit and presence that unites them all (and there are remarkable parallels among the actors he chooses for his heroes), in each he is reacting to and producing a content which is partly a recreated version of his author’s so he is reacting to the author. In Les Miserables Davies turns a sentimentality towards Catholicism at times into a humane secularism, and convent and moral life become symbols for finding peace and safety amid the evils of human nature and the society this nature creates. Davies pulls out of Hugo’s retreat narratives what a good person wants in life is peace and safety. His good people are rarely ambitious; they may want to work hard for the meaning of this, to help others, but they most of them do not seek high position. The bad people are those who value others for their high rank irrespective of anything else. What Jean Valjean seeks for Cosette and himself as the best that can be gotten generally is a framework, a place apart from the world that allows each individual to know individual private happiness in whatever way he or she can achieve – play music, read, whatever.

The priest, the mother superior and the nun who cared for Fantine, were seeking and created peace and safety for all under their protection. That more than any religious belief is the point; it’s the respect the state pays to religious space and offices that allows them to do this for Jean Valjean. We see in the revolutionaries that although Enjolras is a good man and well meaning, all the men surrounding him are too vain, follow their appetites, and simply haven’t the firepower to achieve what this man is after — some other mode of achieving more for “mankind” is needed. So in the meantime we make do.

Voltaire’s famous ending of Candide throws scepticism on the ability of Candide and his friends to protect their garden, and the sense is how tenuous and fragile their space is, it can be invaded at any time.

Another important original move is to genuinely hire as many black as white actors: this is a thoroughly color-blind and integrated cast, from Thenardier, from Arab backgrounds to many black and white actors and actresses, not omitting the usual blonde princess Cosette. There was a black population in France from the 18th century on, but this casting mirrors an ideal for our own times.

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


Douglas Hodges as the unbowed Lydgate with whom the film adaptation begins (the book begins with Dorothea)


Juliette Aubrey as Dorothea hard at work on her plans for workers’ cottages, which are never built

To conclude, I have been watching Davies’s films as a kind of year-long marathon, and much as the originality and relevance of Les Miserables to today, makes it the one to see now, I suggest that his finest art, the ones beyond those I cited in my opening paragraph, the finest of his film adaptations occurred in the 1990s; I’m thinking of film adaptations like Moll Flanders (1996), Vanity Fair (1998), and early 2000s The Way We Live Now (2001), Daniel Deronda (2002), and especially Middlemarch (1994, the narrator’s voice is Judi Dench and by the end I find myself weeping uncontrollably as the destinies of each play out). This Les Miserables is another of the better recently dumbed-down serial dramas: the language is simple, crude, not much given over to subtlety of thought such as we find in his mid-career films.

Enjolras and Marius in front of the other revolutionaries:

I have to say, first, I’m not royalist any more.
What are you now then? I’m a Bonapartist and a Democrat.
Now, that’s a step in the right direction.
Napoleon was a defender of the Republic before he made himself Emperor.
Well, have a drink.
Yes, have a lot of drinks.
[THEY SING AND CHANT] I say down with all nations and down with all kings.
What about emperors? An emperor is just a king by another name, only worse.
I won’t have it.
Napoleon made this country great.
He brought reforms through his conquests.
What a joy to serve under such a man as that.
What could be greater? To be free.
I want to be a citizen of the Republic, not a subject of a king or an emperor.
One day we’ll all be fighting to the death about that, on one side or another.

Ironic and satiric comedy is closer to Davies’s own spirit (and can be just glimpsed abovve), and deep musing grief for the price we all pay for our failures in life and society’s control, punishment and thwarting of our dreams and innate selves, but also a buoyant enough spirit for self-examination to find strength to play out the roles that are offered us as ethically as we can. Davies does not despair. He offers deep filmic pleasures and humane liberal content still, and has created a wealth of video libraries from books — early on more in his own right individually (education and daily ordinary life his theme), then from popular romance and sentimental novels (Delderfield), from the 1990s on the very entertaining and relevant (House of Cards) as well as some of the greatest novels ever written.

Fingers crossed his star is rising again, and he has the years left to do a new The Pallisers.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »