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Archive for the ‘film studies’ Category


Cherry Blossoms (Elmar Wepper as Rudi Angermeier, and Aya Irizuki [de] as Yu)

“What I love most about this book, as about all of Downie’s nonfiction works about France, is the way the reader is brought intimately into the adventure of his discoveries as he performs his intrepid research. We are spared, of course, the many hours of reading in dusty libraries he has done for us. But when he sets out into the Paris of today in search of its ghosts of yesteryear, he takes us along with him. We are there with him as he interviews the archivist at the Victor Hugo Museum, and the director of the Arsenal Library–a gathering place for such Romantic age luminaries as Dumas, Liszt, de Musset, Delacroix, Balzac, and Gautier—a place which, Downie tells us, “hasn’t changed much since the 1820s.” We are there with him as he sneaks up back stairways and into private courtyards in his furtive attempts to connect with Romantic heroes of the past, to look out the same windows they looked out of, gaze upon the same courtyards they would have seen. We are there with him in those rare moments when he is able to commune with those spirits of the past” (Janet Hulstrand)

The impermanence of life is at the core of Cherry Blossoms, an exquisite German film directed by Doris Dorrie (How to Cook Your Life). A wonderful sequence in the story takes place during the cherry blossom season at the beginning of spring in Japan. Hanami is celebrated for about ten days as families, friends, and visitors gather under trees while their pink and white flowers are in full bloom. The cherry blossom is seen as a symbol of beauty, awakening, and the transience of life … (Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat)

Dear friends and readers,

Summer is slowly turning into autumn, and I’ve written only once of this year’s summer reading and movies: David Nicholls’s Us, book & film, probably because I’ve only read and seen one I’d so characterize, and now as the days begin to shorten more quickly, I feel I’ve been remiss, partly because my spirits have been again rejuvenated by a movie and a book.


The audio book

First, the book, which will require my speaking first of David Downie as I encountered him in his earlier Paris to the Pyrenees last spring, and providing contexts with other books, and French movies. I took a course at Politics and Prose (the DC bookstore) called A Literary Tour of France, it was somewhat disappointing as the teacher refused to discuss any serious topics (!), and seemed to live in dread of offending people in the classroom, but she did offer two books, with real merit, the equivalent of Steve Coogan and Bill Brydon’s first and second Trip movies, the one where they drive around Derbyshire, into the Lake District ending at Bolton Abbey before returning to London, and the second a journey through Italy, from Rome past Pompeii to Naples.


Somewhere in the West Riding — an idyllic dream vision of what I remember of the rare walks Jim and I took out into the Yorkshire moors

Travel books encompass books about people making a home usually in what is to me a “foreign” country; they can be the encyclopedia type Trollope favored in Australia and New Zealand, the let’s analyze this country, his North America, or his jolly When the Mastiffs Went to Iceland (the nearest he got to popular travel books). I think the genre is invented in the 18th century where the idea of truly telling the truth of what you are seeing, of cultures being different, of trying to discover history this way began with Johnson and Bowell’s twin tours; a second variant is Susannah Moodie’s 30 Years in the Bush, a classic first Canadian book, about how she settled into the countryside to become Canadian.

Jeffrey Greene’s French Spirits: A House, A Village, and A Love Affair in Burgundy, was assigned first, and begins well, but David Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees sustains the type. Greene’s French Spirits is similarly replete with intelligent insight into places, objects, people. He and his partner are marrying and decide to buy and renovate as a place to live an ancient church: they have plenty of money, live upper class educated lives (whose values Greene never questions, the source of the money never told): Greene is trying to capture his sense of what life against history is, French culture in history, and uses these “odd people” in the countryside to bring this out. Greene’s book is light and half-way through falls off when he goes into these chapters (to me tasteless) on his wedding but it is picturesque and evocative of middle France. He and his wife renovated a presbytery to make it into a home: the history of the building and the real problems of trying to renovate such a structure are absorbing, teach one about buildings.

Downie’s Paris to the Pyrenees is a sort of sceptic’s pilgrimage across that part France and down to the Pyrenees. He’s more somber in spirit, and the character he comes across made less eccentric at the same time more locally embodied. He has rejected much that Greene is content to accept: the materialism, hierarchies, fashion-laden admiration for what reeks of rank, monetary success. Downie is exploring his own mind (quietly, not that openly), his past, and the past of the countryside he and his wife are walking through. One needs courage and a partner to do what they are doing — — just walking following an old route and not sure whether they will find an inn in a given place, or the kind of food and drink they might require. They are doing their journey in an entirely non-commercial way.

Gradually his book turns into a more political polemic attached to French history (eons back) and the recent political events (1871 and the French occupation in WW2, Algeria, modern emergence of fascism). An emerging theme is how much is left across the French countryside of WW2. We saw that in Calais and Brittany. Downie describes so much left of the Resistance (and Nazis’ atrocities) and so criss–crosses for me A French Village (and Come What May). It’s a pilgrimage, in which the French landscape seems to contain almost no one, they have to find taverns and even once stay in someone’s home, take chances, depend on themselves and other people. It put me in mind of Anne Radcliffe’s gothics at their spiritual landscape best. Colleen’s Paris (a blog reviewer) captures the book very well, telling you the details of the story too. Downie’s book is more genuinely worked out than Greene’s.

Both are a long distance from VS Naipaul’s masterpiece, The Enigma of Arrival (Salmon Rushdie finds it too sad), but they move in this direction of deep meditation in a landscape about the history of the place through what’s physically left there and what we can know (and in Naipaul’s case) dream deeply and re-create to make of himself (to the person) embedded in this foreign landscape — through his memories too. For Naipaul it’s the landscape around Stonehenge, as a strong antidote to the culture he was born in and has rejected. Karen Langley in her Kaggsy’s Ramblings writes of a lighter gay variant, Hugo Charteris’s Marching with April (introduced beautifully by Frederic Raphael), the writer and his family determine to leave London and takes root in an ancient place, the Highlands (out of his background) and attempt to build a new life: this time the Highlands. It will come after Downie’s Paris Paris, is lower on onw my night-table’a pile.

To be honest, I’m only half-way through Paris, Paris but I’m just loving it. One problem with many travel books is they fail to convey a deep sense of what it feels like to be in the place — Downie has this ability. Each area of Paris the reader is taken to, is fitted into a larger coherent picture of the city, and then itself explored visually, physically, and mentally. The photographs are beautifully done (black-and-white) and epitomize a mood, the kinds of history that occurred in the place and/or what is there now, the people he sees. I’ve been to Paris three times now, once long ago for 6 weeks on my own in a cold winter, and twice with Jim and Izzy, 2 weeks around Christmas time and the New Year (2000), and the following summer. I am learning more, getting a better feel of the place than I’ve ever done and think if I could go back how much more I’d benefit. Each chapter is a little Eleanor Clarke, Rome and a Villa. Each one forms a walking tour; you are exploring with him. A shorter review by Kirkus. Janet Hulstrand says rightly there is so much here of history, literature, art, that it’s almost impossible to capture in a couple of paragraphs, but I believe she comes near and regales us with the details evocatively.

Downie himself, talking in France, about the book. He begins slowly, and has trouble getting into contact with the audience but as he goes on he’s extraordinary: the romanticism of Paris is the result of its negativity, that it make each visitor invisible, and conveys amid its austere life suffering, time past, darker passions contained.

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Hannelore Elsner as Nadja Uhi, with either one of the film’s younger actresses or perhaps the director? or costume maker?

I had confided in a friend how much I was again missing Jim this summer, and my friend recommended to me a 2008 German film, Cherry Blossoms, about an older man whose wife dies suddenly. I looked up the reviews and found most reviews to be vitriolically hostile or indifferent. For the record, I watched The Toyko Story and found it to be frozen, creepy, too long, too still, absurdly over-rated. The only parallels are the angry children and the deaths.

Cherry Blossoms opens with Nadja, the wife (a wonderful German actress, Hannelore Elsner) listening to doctor’s tell her that Rudi, her husband has not got long to live. She cries silently; they tell her to take him on a trip and she says he hates adventures. He follows the same narrow routine everyday of his life, including the sandwich she makes him for lunch. It would seem despite her staying home, being there for him all the time as he forges forth in the world, he stays within her sphere.

So no surprise when he follows her advice as she proposes a trip to visit their grown children in Berlin or some other German city (they live in a country town or suburb) and to the beach by a hotel. We see how much they do love one another, are dependent on one another, also glimpse the hostility to them of their grown children who slowly it’s revealed find their presence even so briefly an encumbrance, annoyance. Her favorite son lives far away in Tokyo — later we learn he moved there, that far to escape the domination of her quiet presence.

Quiet mood on a boardwalk; they move to the beach, by the shore, and suddenly she dies.

The film is half an hour in. The rest is Rudi’s very hard adjustment, then a chosen trip to Tokyo to see the son who fled them. At first he is bewildered and this son also hostile; they adjust to one another; he gets lost early on, but soon he is finding his way. Tokyo seemed to me as inhumane as I’ve thought it. The son says everyone works weekends, long days, all the time. They live in small boxes in high look-alike buildings, where everything looks the same. Their talk reveals that indeed the wife had always had this inexplicable desire to visit Japan, had wanted to be a Japanese stylized dancer. We have seen photos of her when young so dancing.

He has brought with him his wife’s clothes, at first he puts them on the bed beside him to sleep (what he started at home) but then he puts them on under his coat. He sees and then introduces himself to a street performer, Yu, an 18 year old girl who turns out to be homeless. She does a dance where she appears to get into contact with the dead; she says she is with her mother this way. She wears white make-up on her face — as the aborigine did in Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith as a sign he was willing to die, to let the whites murder him rather than flee them some more. He and she bond, form a friendship, she says she is an orphan and he suddenly cuts loose from this son (who has said he moved to Tokyo to get away from his mother who he loved so much but was overwhelming).

He takes the girl to Mount Fuji which his wife dreamed of going to. She dreamed of being a dancer, of going to Japan. He feels very badly that he stood in her way. We do see how middle class people in Japan take holidays: in a vast hotel-like structure where they live semi-communally — all eat in the same vast room. He and Yu are failing to see the Mount as each day it is so cloudy; and one morning he gets up very early and sees the mount: a vision. He hurries back, dresses in a Japanese dancing costume for a man that he has brought, and returns to the shore. As he dances, we see a hand reach his, and his wife is there, visible, similarly dressed. They dance intensely together. The camera moves away to Yu, just waking up. She discovers Rudi is gone, a couple of hours go by and he does not return. Now she too goes to the shore and finds him dead, laying by the shore. There follows a Japanese style funeral with his son and Yu presiding over his ashes in an urn, and then another funeral in Germany. The film ends quietly with the camera returning to the girl who has returned to the park to dance for money and to reach her mother. There is a dedication at the movie’s close, apparently by Dorrie remembering someone who perhaps died.

I use the phrase very moving so often, so let me say very very touching. Here is a review by Frederick and MaryAnn Brussat which begins to do the film justice. It’s beautifully tastefully filmed, written, the music just perfect, everything, tactful, controlled. I found it uplifting.

I do have one (many) regrets from my marriage: I never went to the shore or the beach with Jim enough. I knew how he burnt, and I’d get bored. Now I wish I had gone every summer with him — we’d go when we went to England to the Chitterings beach, once we went to Brighton. This summer I didn’t get to the shore at all. It is a three hour drive from my house to reach a public beach.

So these are the summer books and movies I have experienced this season of 2021; Nicolls at mid-summer and these at journey’s end.

Ellen

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Mally (Veronica Quilligan) and Jess, her donkey (1973 Malachi’s Cove, Penrith Film)

Dear friends and readers,

I am delighted to be able to say I gave a third successful on-line talk about an Anthony Trollope story to a group of people who have been meeting every two weeks since March 2020 online to discuss Anthony Trollope and his writings (sponsored by the London Trollope Society); that is, since self-quarantining for the COVID pandemic began. In June as a way of transitioning from Framley Parsonage (the fourth Barsetshire novel), I introduced Trollope’s Last Chronicle of Barset by comparing it to Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife (the first written 1866, the second 1991). Then about five months ago (March 2021) I gave a talk on Dr Thorne as the book by Trollope I first read and one I remain especially fond of. This time, last Monday, I spoke about one of his short stories, “Malachi’s Cove.” The group is still enthusiastic — we are having fun — still going strong, with plans for a another of Trollope’s novels, The American Senator, to begin September 5th.

My paper talk on this story and a comparison of it to its film adaptation by Henry Herbert (1973, Penrith film company) is another paper that comes out of a blog I wrote. But it has a larger context as my subtitle suggests.


John Everett Millais, “Waiting at the Railway Station,” from Good Words

For a long time now I’ve known that Trollope’s short stories are not sufficiently appreciated, mostly because they remain unread even by his more devoted readership. I taught these as a group to college students way back in the early 1990s when I realized that they were a good length to assign students, were written in clear, entertaining, often comic but sometimes tragic ways, and could and did interest college-age students: among other things, they are travel stories (Trollope gathered them more than one as “Tales of All Countries”) and about colonialism. The students were more open-minded towards these old tales than I expected, at first more so than the people on a listserv I was moderating at the time, perhaps because they came to Trollope with no expectations whatsoever — most of them never having heard of Anthony Trollope before. Then a few years later (1997) to the other adults on a listserv I was moderating, I again proposed reading and discussing all the stories; after a while it went over so well that I was able to put on my website a record of what we said and thought. We liked them sufficiently that years later we went through a selection of the stories once again (“The Spotted Dog,” “Why Frau Frohman Raised her Prices,” “Journey to Panama” among these. Each Christmas we still read a couple of the Christmas tales (for example, “Christmas at Thompson Hall”).


John Everett Millais, “Christmas Story-Telling,” “Christmas Supplement,” London News, 20 December 1862

Malachi’s Cove represents one of masterpieces of the genre that Trollope wrote — which I name in my paper.

So, now Dominic Edwards, our fearless moderator and leader (and Chairman of the Trollope Society) this summer proposed for August we as a group read a few of the short stories — as a kind of break from the longer works. (We had just finished The Way We Live Now.) He chose “An Unprotected Female at the Pyramids” and “A Ride Across Palestine” (sometimes called “The Banks of the Jordan”). I know I showed a lot of enthusiasm about the stories, and he asked me would I present a talk on “Malachi’s Cove” to start us off. It emerged that in fact the place on the London Trollope Society website where you can find all sorts of information about “Malachi’s Cove” (story, characters, publication date) is one of the most popular spots on the site. I was happy to do a talk.

In brief, I first showed that Trollope’s tale is a violent mood piece presented as a parable: we experience a persuasive glimpse of two people surviving together through “a hard and perilous trade” (460) in Cornwall: the girl rakes seaweed from the cliffs and rocks on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean where it washes up on the shore, to sell it for fertilizer. She makes it seems just enough to stave off destitution for herself and her grandfather who appears to have custody of her. Then I take the reader through the film adaptation, which I also think superb, and demonstrate how the Penrith film (the name of the company) develops from Trollope’s matter a haunting coming-of-age film (a familiar movie subgenre), an atmospheric Cornish story of intense loss, grief, anger and providential renewal.

So, here as before, is a link to the video on the website, which Dominic kindly accompanied by setting forth talk itself beautifully, “Malachi’s Cove: An Edge Tale: On behalf of Trollope’s Short stories.”. And as before I transfer the video from the Trollope Society site here for your convenience and to have it as part of my blog site:

You can also read the text at academia.edu


Malachi’s Cove, the opening far shot: Mally and Jess as specks by the shore

There is, as any regular reader of this blog will know, another context: I am enormously interested in films, especially adaptations of books. I love them personally and have published papers on them professionally and here on my website and blogs. So my paper values the film as much as it does the story.


Malachi’s Cove, the Vicar (John Barrett) talking with Mally in the graveyard by her dead parents’ gravestone

Ellen

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The Householder (1963): husband, Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and wife, Indu (Leela Naidu) not getting along


Shakespeare Wallah (1965): daughter Lizzie (Felicity Kendall) and mother Carla Buckingham (Laura Liddell, Felicity’s real mother) playing Shakespeare


Roseland (1977): a few of the chief presences sitting around one of many tables just outside the dance floor


Heat and Dust (1983): chief characters: Nawab (Shashi Kapoor) and his kept man, Harry (Nickolas Grace) and the English Official’s Wife, Olivia (Gretta Scacchi) out for a picnic

Friends and readers,

Over the course of my life, I’ve seen at least 16 of some 40 films (and some several times) made by the whole M-I-J team or two of the three over half a century. A few are bound up with memories that matter: going out to the cinema one summer’s day with Thao, a young woman I am motherly towards, and Izzy and seeing the Chekhovian The City of Your Final Destination (2009, so very late, after Merchant’s death); one night very late, Jim asleep, I burst into hysterical tears at the sense of a life thrown away, in The Remains of the Day (1993) and rushed into a room in the front of the house so as not to awaken Jim; during our trip into Quebec one summer, about (I thought at the time) retreat, Heat and Dust (1983), and now I’ll remember Shakespeare Wallah (1965), studying, trying to understand the work of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for a course I’m about to teach, and feelings about England deeply awakened by the poignancy of the characters having to leave India to go home …

While they are quite varied, I’d say at the core what makes them so often so compelling, so memorable is the true feeling caught or theatricalized in their actually usually quietly understated films; themes like memory, inexplicable longings, an undercurrent of melancholy. Film stories carefully developed, so the hidden life of social scenes is revealed before us. I didn’t chose the most striking shots from the many many brilliant actors who have performed for them, some of them almost unrecognizable by the time they were swept up into the film world (especially once Maggie Smith transformed) though the shots released to the public bring out the actor from the part to sell the picture:


A young Shashi Kapoor as Prem, the intensely frustrated, repressed (before his mother) and occasionally distraught husband in The Householder


Julie Christie as Anne supposed independent young woman come to India to research the life and places her great-aunt Olivia ended up in India in Heat and Dust

Ismail Merchant in one of the many short films he made with Ivory abut their work, and now to be found (if you are lucky), as features in re-digitalized DVDs, said what differentiated their work was they all worked with “heart, intelligence, art.” They were earnest as well as playful about their trade (Wallah can be translates into a trade). I find in their best moments, they approach the work of Ingmar Bergmann; there are also many fallings away, as they stumble, try for non-cinematic almost non-dramatic material (Roseland), attempt to please an audience with simply lush photography (The Bostonians). There is a love affair with the English southern countryside, though three continents, three cultures are their groundwork: India first (Southasia), then England (and Anglo places wherever found), then NYC (very late South America) and Italy (Europe). They could take a photograph: in their very first movies, The Householder and Shakespeare Wallah, they had the direct help of Satyajit Ray and his cinematographer from whom they learned much about cutting, editing. I feel they were drawn to the misty and intangible currents emanating from characters to one another


Felicity Kendall, the wandering half-broke troupe’s daughter, and Shashi Kapoor, the young Indian aristocrat in Shakespeare Wallah


Daniel Day Lewis as Cecil Vyse and Helen Bonham Carter as Lucy Honeychurch in Room with a View (1985)

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I have vowed to make these blogs shorter and so readable; my aim here is to encourage the reader (and watcher) to watch the earlier films (1962-83), perhaps in the black-and-white versions off-putting at first (little is compromised, they are not bland)go to Amazon prime or YouTube (where many are to be found), rent one of the older DVDs from Netflix (or better yet, splurge and buy a newly re-digitalized version with features as long as the movie), so perhaps the best thing, swiftest is to make a picture worth a thousand words by linking in the whole of Householder from YouTube

with a precise, carefully observed detailed study of the film’s art and the human story’s appeal. What I can add as to the story:

The Householder is a close adaptation of Jhabvala’s apparently fourth novel (in books on her The Householder is said to be her first). Now I realize it has in embryo central motifs and types of characters she has throughout her fiction, from beginning (all India) to middle (English women drawn into India and their original personality destroyed by the experience) to end (cool stories of corrupt individuals exploiting vulnerable ones across the Indian/American divide), — you can see a parallel plot in way (putting aside too literal alignments) in Heat and Dust (which I chose as the end of the early films as it was their first true hit, and ever after they were too often tempted into cream and enigmatic evasion).

The Householder is also a utterly believable story of two young Indian people put into an arranged marriage, and then left to make it on their own with the husband, Prem, having a low level job as teacher on a small salary. One of the aspects of all Jhabvala’s novels is that as we begin (and in many of her novels this does not change) in pairs of characters supposed to spend their lives together at least one, sometimes both have no concern or love for one another, are not congenial and what’s more don’t expect to be (particularly true here). Prem is having a very hard time adjusting to teaching in a crude place with no help from colleagues, no education in education, students absolutely w/o any real motivation to learn what he’s teaching (a dialect of Sanskrit); Indu (Leela Naidu, also an actress in France) is given nothing to do, no one to be with, her only function to serve him and he’s gone all day. One of his big mistakes is to bring his mother to live with them — a greedy, self-centered woman, rather stupid. The wife flees back to her parents and what she remembers as a happy household of sisters when she discovers she is pregnant. It’s this period away that awakens our hero to his need of her and desire to be a successful husband (householder). Amanda Vickery did a three part series on men in the 18th century and one of hours was how men wanted and needed to marry to belong, to have status, to be seen as successful males. So often 18th century England resembles 20th century India.

There are remarkable scenes of fights between teachers, of his attempt to get a rise in salary and get his rent put down, a friendship with a young man very like himself, but having an easier time adjusting to what the society has given him as his fate. We are shown that marriage is no picnic at all — The Namesake of Jumpha Lahiri (a writer whose franker work teaches you much about Jhabvala’s) is an idealized depiction — in Jhabvala these males are just so rude and commanding to the imprisoned females whose feeble weapon is to strike back by being awful in conversation. Prem gets involved with very ego centered Americans who have come to India to escape to some sublime nirvana (as does Anne in Heat and Dust) and we meet both sincere gurus and crooks. This is a sketch of the kinds of people and social interactions which matter which she repeatedly, almost obsessively develops at length in her later stories. I hope women today in India in some classes are offered far more in life for real individual fulfillment.

A Daphnis and Chloe archetype underlies this story, for at its end we are asked to believe they are making a happy adjustment at last


Returning home together on the train

I’ve not got a video of the whole Shakespeare Wallah for free online, but I can supply some remarkable reviews, from the New York Times archive; in The Guardian, the professional Chris Weigand approaches with concision some adequacy on the film’s complicated arts: Bollywood and the Bard

In his Guardian obituary for Geoffrey Kendal in 1998, Ivory wrote about the tensions during the production with the veteran actor (Geoffrey Kendal): “He let me know how he despised the cinema – that the cinema was his enemy, causing theatres to be empty and tours to be cancelled.” But Kendal – who has an ease in front of the camera despite his lack of film experience – came to recognize that thanks to Ivory “it was the despised cinema that told the world of my existence and to a certain extent of my fight”.


Geoffrey Kendal doubting the value of what he has spent his life so beautifully on

And the despised cinema is here undeniably beautiful. Shot in black and white (for budgetary reasons) by Subrata Mitra, the film has a stately pace, is sensitively written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and comes with music by the esteemed director Satyajit Ray. The bumpy travels of theatre troupes often make for bittersweet comic escapades

And now my words:

A wandering troupe of actors have made a living traveling around parts of India doing Shakespeare and other classics (as the film opens we see a Sheridan play in progress before a mass group of boys in suits — white, Indian and one Black).


In 18th century costume performing on a bike

But they find they are no longer wanted in the same numbers or way. Gigs dwindle: the local places would rather Sanskrit poetry; the British schools are closing; they are paid much less. We see their truck break down on the road. They are aging, one man dies. The Gleneagles Hotel (pitch perfect that Scots name) that used to accommodate them – very British – is closing. Felicity Kendall is not comic in this and she is not thin — no need to be near anorexic in the 1960s. She and Sanju, an Indian man who rescues them on the road fall in love ad who has as his mistress, Manjula, a Bollywood star who performs one of their sexualized songs, Madhur Jaffrey (she is the Begum in Heat and Dust).


Manjula performing a Bollywood song and dance for Sanju

The poignant question is, Can They Stay On?


Exhausted, on the road, rainy, hot ….

So this is a version of Paul Scott’s famous masterpiece, Staying On, a story retold by Olivia Manning in The Rain Forest (franker and nowhere as well know, and yet more visionary, acerbic, yet in Manning our hero and heroine after some scarifying ordeals escape back; in Scott’s the man dies and we leave our heroine in a desperate situation, just holding on in a beauty shop and hostile hotel. They and this are all autobiographical: the Kendalls did live this way and in one of the features, a mature Felicity tells us at first her father was disappointed with the film as it did not show their triumphs, the fantastical fun they had living the way they did, it too emphasized the ending and sense of loss

We see several famous scenes from Shakespeare done very well in what seems an old-fashioned 19th century way (disrupted now).
Saying goodbye; her parents know it’s best for Lizzie to return to an aunt in the UK; they will follow when they find they must — now they will go round just doing “gems from Shakespeare”. The way it is discussed off-hand by ordinary people suggests a rollicking comedy (!), but while it does not end tragically and there are very comic moments, it is a melancholy and oddly realistic film.

It’s very realistic in the sense that we get feel for India. Jhabvala is the author of the script which while not as subtle as her later ones is very good — no book behind it. I am slowly beginning to appreciate her stories for the very first time ever –understanding her better and being older less emotionally involved, more distant myself.

These two films are a pair.

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Roseland, the place and marquee


The dancefloor

I would call Roseland one of the team’s noble failures. They actually filmed in the real Roseland theater, and with some professional actors, used the aging and ordinary people dancing of an evening: the idea seems to have been to concentrate on the dancing itself, with the stories barely sketched and the repetitive obsessions of those who come to such places regularly emphasized. It has its moments (Geraldine Chaplin of the professionals manages best); there are some professional dancers who catch our attention now and again, but it is fatally unrealized because it is trying to show us that the shell of these places is quite other than what is unexaminedly celebrated briefly in commercial films and histories.

This evening’s task is nearly done. I am passing over the effective The Europeans (1979): sorry to do this as it features a young Robin Ellis (also Lee Remnick — see just below) is a Henry James story, about clashing cultures, which is picked up later on, as just the sort of thing that M-I-J were particularly good at. Its themes differ from those of the other early films and the film anticipate other Henry James stories as well as several of the later, E.M. Forster stories — all set in England — or the US as The Europeans seems to be. It is not one of their best; they grew better at this type as they went on.

Heat and Dust has been if anything over-reviewed. Jhabvala’s novel had won the Booker Prize (so it sold fantastically well). Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian

After 37 years, Heat and Dust stands up as an intelligent, ambitious, substantial picture – with flaws but also intriguing aspects that were perhaps not sufficiently understood at the time. Is the movie’s love story a diversionary heterosexualisation of something else?


Anne after reading her aunt’s letters seems (mysteriously) taken by their content, next to her Chidananda allowed back in (he lives off her)

Yes, the Nawab is homosexual (the team also had real empathy for homosexual men), and the ending is not happiness; Olivia and now Anne turn out not to be free spirits but frustrated women who allow themselves to become the sexual partners, Anne, for example, as deluded as the successfully for a bit stubborn shaved American with his faux-Indian name, Chidananda (Charles McCaughan), and her landlord Inder Lal (Zaki Hussain, another less scrupulous Prem). She does not know who the father of her child is, and her retirement for help in the transformed building that Olivia ended her isolated life in as far from self-actualization as Olivia. The Nawab we have learned is a corrupt thug.

Bradshaw concentrates on the wonderful performances, and hidden meanings that leap out today, as well as the facile nature of the Anne parallel (just compare a real depiction of such a household, with the wife subject to epileptic fits, the mother-in-law supplying counterproductive punishing remedies). I want to add that what helped make people keep coming to the film after they satisfied an early Booker Prize enthusiasm, is the simplicity with which the stories is filmed — almost the hollowed out nature. Like The Householder, Shakespeare Wallah (and the quietly complex The Europeans), nothing is over-produced or over-emphatic at all, even if feel of the film’s images and music is so sensual — which gave our film-makers their nuggets for turning to a commercially successful second half (later M-I-J).

What people remember best — who saw it — is the parallel plot, exquisitely dove-tailed into the same places — Anne (Julie Christie) comes back to India to see the place her great-Aunt Olivia’s (Gretta Scacchi) life played out, to understand it better by inhabiting the living context – and we go back and forth between the 1920s elegant Raj (once again Shashi Kapoor) with its desperate people and high violence (not seen by us but heard about off-stage) and the 1970s in exactly same places in India. The parallels including both women getting pregnant by the India man closest by, only Olivia has an abortion and the disgrace leads her to desert her (boring) English husband, Douglas (Christopher Cazenove doing a serious job a la Leonard Woolf) for the alluring (to Olivia glamorous because strange) Raj — a retreat which deepens when he is said to visit her only 3 times a year — in deference to his mother, the Begum (Madhur Jaffrey from Householder now grown 20 years older), and then stop altogether. Like so many of the women in Jhabvala’s stories, Olivia is utterly alienated from all the women she meets, and some have good advice, try to support her. Anne is your liberated young woman, but supposed sensible, with her affair with her landlord (Inder Lal) emerging slowly. But unlike Olivia, she stops short of an abortion


Anne stops the woman in mid-performance

and is seen joyously retreating to a building now a hospice institution, hospital, where we last watched Olivia live her life playing the piano, until the very end when (it is hinted) Olivia ended in desperate poverty. It seems the Begum has won at long last


Jhabvala presents these Indian mothers-in-law as vengeful when given any power

We have the saturninely bitter-witty gay companion, kept and bullied the Raj — Harry (Nickolas Grace, young in the 1920s, and made up to be very ancient in the 1960s; Grace played this type too many times — Brideshead Revisited, Dance to Music of Time. He can convey no wisdom to Anne now grown old, back in England so safer and more comfortable, but storyless — we learn nothing of the inbetween time — it is story which thickens out characters in films.


The two take tea many years later, miraculously Anne has aged little

Maybe what was liked were the scenes of playful social activity, rituals done so quietly (not much gossip) and dinners at length, Anglophilic with the important qualification none of the white men or women show any understanding or sympathy for the people they are supposed to be governing, except maybe Douglas at his table in the heat trying to dispense justice.


Maybe it’s his stiff white shirt and tie that make Douglas (Christopher Casenove) so unappealing to Olivia (Gretta Scacchi)

But unlike the stories of her later career, Jhabvala is willing to grant her heroines a refuge with the implication they have accepted being women alone or subject to others.

I recognize the types and themes (people performing, a foolish American following gurus, who at the film’s end, somewhat unusually escapes relatively unscathed — like Lizzie, he is headed home to his aunt, in his case it seems almost a Kansas of Dorothy-like security and safety. This is the paradigm for Adhaf Soueif’s Map of Love who gives the story post-colonial politics, with dollops of feminism, strong heroines in the past and present and the central heroine at book’s end her own person, bringing up a daughter, companion to her deceased husband’s elderly (kind and gentle) father in middle class Kensington.

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

Early in the partnership

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s most central theme in her books (as also Jhumpa Lahiri) comes from her thoroughly post-colonial roots; born in Germany of a Polish father whose nuclear family were killed in German concentration camps (he later killed himself), brought up in England (she writes in English), studying literature, she married to an Indian Bengali man, spending 25 years in India (read “Myself in India”), and the last phase of her existence in New York City. She was a perfect fit for the Englishman James Ivory who had come to India, and Ismail Merchant A major theme of her fiction — searching for, building an identity, which even people who stay put at first sometimes must do as the one the nuclear family and community they live among seeks to impose one that violates their innermost nature which seeks actualization. This is the central theme of The Namesake (Lahiri also has a multiple identity now: Indian, English, US, and now Italian. It fits the Merchant-Ivory perspective as seen in the writing and interviews by and about them. She died in 2013.

Merchant appears to have personally been a secular man, but as an Indian born he grew up in a religiously-laden society, with opposing groups (Muslim, Hindi). In the online biography at wikipedia His father, a textile manufacturer, was the head of the Muslim League, and he refused to move to Pakistan at the time of independence and partition. “Family networks” enabled him at a young age to become friends with people influential and in the film industry. He studied at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai and received BA degree of University of Bombay, moved to New York City where he worked as a messenger for the UN, and showed his talent for attracting funds from Indian delegates for film projects. He was the producer, the man who made the money come, and when he died, Ivory did not have the same talent. He and Ivory had met in 1961 when he was in the US on a scholarship in a New York coffee shop; at the time Ivory was an Ivy Leaguer with aims to work in artful cinema. He died in 2005.

Ivory’s biography in wikipedia tells us he came from middling people in Oregon, where he first went to University, he moved to the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, where he directed the short film Four in the Morning (1953). He wrote, photographed, and produced Venice: Theme and Variations, a half-hour documentary submitted as his thesis film for his master’s degree in cinema. The film was named by The New York Times in 1957 as one of the ten best non-theatrical films of the year. He graduated from USC in 1957. Here we are told Ivory met producer Ismail Merchant at a screening of Ivory’s documentary The Sword and the Flute in New York City in 1959; but we meet up with the other biography for we learn they formed their company in 1961. He wrote and or collaborated with all four books on them as a team.

Neither man seems ever to have married or had a public partner.


The three continual creative spirits grown older …

In Robert Emmet Long’s wonderful (full of wonders) and useful book, The Films of Merchant-Ivory: there are good biographies, much better than the ones I’ve provided, insightfl details about stages in their careers, the gifts they showed, where learned their crafts, then descriptions and accounts of many of the films, many beautiful and thought-provoking photographs and stills. Long calls these three “unique uncommon individuals” who make “unique uncommon films.”

Ellen

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Trevor Chaplin (James Bolam), Mr Carter (Dudley Sutton), and Jill Swinburne (Barbara Flynn) — in the school cafeteria (see Beiderbecke Affair for cast)

Jill: How many records do you have in your collection?
Trevor: No idea. Never counted. Maybe a thousand. Or two thousand. Plus a few tapes. [Takes some out to show her]
Jill: Thank you, I know what a tape looks like.
Trevor: Well, there’s a few tapes.
Jill: How many?
Trevor: No idea. Never counted. Maybe —

Best of all the pleasures on offer is the music, jazz themes that stay in your head long after you’ve watched, lingering like some Sondheim theme, and within the programs cheering, providing the beats, the pace, the meaning, part of the content of each episode (sometimes quite explicitly)

Friends and readers,

I was going to begin this fervent recommendation to stop all you are doing and obtain the three seasons of what we may call The Beiderbecke Trilogy, closely associated (for once) with the name of its wonderful script-writer, Alan Plater, with a paradoxical apology, admitting that the films are almost impossible to get and the books difficult too. Except tonight I have discovered they aren’t — as long as you have a working DVD player — or access to one. The books too are available at reasonable prices (showing just the Trilogy), if you don’t mind used paperbacks from Bookfinder.com


Little Norm (Danny Schiller), Jill and Big Al (Terence Rigby) — waiting to be interrogated by the police

I’ve been for the last month or more watching these seasons on and off, sometimes two episodes a night, sometimes one, together with a couple of hour-long documentary features about Plater: on The Beiderbecke Tapes DVD is Images of Yorkshire, all about Plater’s career writing for Yorkshire TV, with the man himself interviewed — and very interesting he was; on Fortunes of War, the 3 DVD set (Region 2), TimeShifts, a posthumous moving life-and-works beginning with his first play and carrying on to his last programs and books, emphasizing what he brought originally to TV: the real language of everyday England from all classes used by characters, and music integrated and used so that we remember the tunes and they stand for themes, ideas, characters distinctly. I wrote about Plater earlier this season (Hearing the Music) so will not repeat his biography nor signal accomplishments nor filmography (as it’s called). This is “just” to recommend Beiderbecke.

And it’s not easy to do unless you’ve seen the series or at least read the books. William Gallagher, a TV historian, journalist, critic, and dramatist in his own right captures the tones and tells the story of how the programs first emerged, the several process through which they were made, synopses of episodes, complete with representative witty dialogue, and assessments. Retelling the stories (see also Tapes and Connection), and saying they are gentle parodies of mystery/spy/thrillers. Gallagher says they combine prosaic quiet realisms with “the absurd,” but the better word is wacky — what literally happens is slightly and more wacky, versions of daily life turned askew so the underlying silly sudden contingent desperation of some of our behaviors lies open to view. This though sounds too stark (even if here and there the action skirts real danger, risk, threat) for the controlling mode is droll and the pace utterly leisured. This may be seen visually in the way repeated we see the two people get into the yellow van (old, battered, with signs from Jill’s campaigns) and go back and forth to their jobs or wherever they are going. No show today would waste such time with what’s “not needed.”


But we are perpetually in our cars too, with the sun in our eyes, we talk there to one another


It becomes a motif, a sort of symbol for the series

People also say (rightly) that for quite a while after the program is over you hear the strong jazz music (played by a band, with Frank Riccotti the composer). Remembering it you have in your head a kind of rhythm (this is what Sondheim achieves too in his best songs and musicals), the lingering effect.

No one ever hurries, there is no pile up of action, and no ratcheting up of tension, a kind of cumulative effect is felt but not so we really become anxious or stressed about anything. Part of this is the benignity, sanity, low expectations, & ironic distanced temperature of our central lovers (the term feels overdone), Trevor and Jill. When the building Trevor is living in to make way for a road (gov’t is not looked upon as having any common sense) is knocked down, Jill invites him to come live with her in a much less phony-looking house where she is first found (her aspiring ex-husband’s taste) as “probationary cohab.” They do love companionably, sentimentally, in friendship and duress, but they don’t romance. They approach love-making by first defining what are erogenous zones, then discussing further, and then the covers are pulled up or the light goes out. Two of the series (Tapes and Connection) end with our two high on a Yorkshire hill overlooking the dales, with the second by their side a cot for First-Born (their baby to whom they have not as yet given a name by the time the the third season ended


Feel the fresh breezes


With their first baby (first-born implies there may be more), to whom we hear Trevor tells tender stories to

Much is happening all the time, but it does not always lead to high melodramatic action (in fact there is little melodrama in the serials and when it does occur, say in Beiderbecke Tapes, you realize the series is straining); characters are thinking, deciding, doing things they need to do, becoming, helping one another or following some direction that is part of the story and itself issues in denouements that teach us or them something or other; we are learning a lot. Especially important are the many throw-away lines; typically the brilliant sudden intrusions of this or that ironical comment is spoken in a quick understated way. Why did the police arrest you? Trevor asks Jill. “I was intercepted with sealed envelopes from the Kremlin” is her quick quiet response. What else did you expect? Answers that go nowhere and are themselves filled with questions are what Jill and Trevor typically tell Mr Carter, their sceptical colleague, or the earnest imbecilic headmaster, Mr Wheeler (Keith Smith).

In one interview Plater says when he conceives a character, he or the character asks three questions which the action pursues: “who am I? How did I get here? What am I going to do tomorrow?”

They are supported by an inimitable cast, some of actors semi-famous, and others (to me) unknown (and perhaps never became BBC regulars). These are mostly variants in comedy, but when pushed move into semi-neurotic memories of unjust treatment. Terence Rigby as Al was told he was redundant so he set up a warehouse of goods in the basement of a church and sells them by having his “sister,” Janey (archetypical beautiful platinum blonde) go round neighborhoods with a thick catalogue. He was a major character actor at the time; not so Janey (Sue Jenkins) or Yvonne, the baby-sitter (Judy Brooke) who confesses a nagging deprivation leads her to steal:


Judy Brooke as Yvonne Fairweather.

I was delighted to re-find Maggie Jones as the pub-owner’s wife, Bella Atkinson (she was in the 1971 Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Quiverful in the 1982 Barchester Chronicles), Beryl Reid as Sylvia Jill’s old friend, companion in radical women’s circles (doubtless named for Sylvia Pankhurst, who was “consistent” we are told), now living in what seemed to be assisted living for disabled people and Jill’s confident and occasional advisor.


Jill with Sylvia who says she cannot understand why people think the old want to sit near ducks in ponds …

I recognized Eamon Boland as Jill’s errant and now petty criminal of an ex-husband when he appeared

Editorial use only
Eamon Boland as Peter Swinburne

The attentive reader will have realize the POV of this series is pro-labor, egalitarian, compassionate – – one of its pleasures for me — as all Plater’s original work and some of his choices (J. B. Priestley’s Good Companions) reveals. This goes along with having central low status characters (whose actors are not name people) make wry comments and play major roles: in the Beiderbecke Affair, it is “the [nameless] man with a dog called Jason” (Keith Marsh) who remarks there are no neighborhoods, no neighbors any more, who snitches to the police for money; the Chief Superintendent Forrest (a star elsewhere, Colin Blakely) an ultimate crook; and a very funny over-enthusiastic (half-mad) Sgt Hobson (Dominic Jepcott) trying so hard (he gets a Ph.D, but cannot think outside his script


Dominic Jephcott as DS Hudson and Terence Rigby as Big Al — the Sergeant scrambling about over rocks is described by “the man with the dog called Jason” as “having a bit of a crawl” as he watches him

I also so enjoyed all the shots of Yorkshire: not just the countryside, but typical and real streets, compounds of houses — I lived there for over 2 years, and was very happy with Jim — euphoric in the first months of our marriage.


In one of the semi-wacky sequences Jill and Trevor deliver a man who seems to be a Polish refugee to the Lancashire border because they cannot get him to the Mexican one — you can see here the casual continual photographing of Northern England

I did assume the books must be inferior; they were written after the series aired but are not simply novelizations. The stories differ somewhat; there is a real attempt to use the narrator, to have appealing effective description, pace, subjectivity, but what really makes them an equivalent reminder, substitute let’s say on a train, or bus, is Plater has recreated the tone of the series — the same wry undercutting wit, ironies, crisp dialogue whose words surprise you — there is poetry in Plater’s language. My copy is a many times read book.

So far from having to apologize for recommending something the reader will not be able to access, I’ve discovered the cult that arose at the time (over five years, for there were breaks in the seasons — not all the people high in the BBC believed in this program’s ability to attract viewers), is not gone altogether. The show is remembered and people are still buying and watching it. Barbara Flynn is not the only one of the actors and other professionals involved who remembers the experience with real fondness and pride. She supplied most of the photos in Gallagher’s book


This seem to be an ad for Britbox (a subscription site on the Internet where you might be able to see the serial): they have chosen to show hero and heroine in Amsterdam (Beiderbecke Tapes goes to Amsterdam and Edinburgh)

Ellen

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Mudbound: Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) handing the letter from Resl (German woman) meant for Ronsel t(Jason Mitchell) to his family; Laura (Carey Mulligan) alone on the Jackson porch

Friends,

My theme tonight is adequate movies or films. Over the last couple of months I’ve been watching a number of films adapted from books — I’m not sure what to call them any more as I reach them by different technologies, or software, all of which are accommodated by my computer or my TV (which is after all a computer too). They stream in, I use DVDs, I watch via YouTube. There’s vimeo. I am exploring what makes for excellent film adaptation, without which you have poor hollow movies — or travesties.


The two friends, Jamie and Ronsel

The most recent and one dwelling on my mind is Mudbound, streaming in from Netflix who produced it, a film by Dee Rees, adapted from a book by Hillary Jordan. It is a gripping tale, very hard to watch for me because I was in a perpetual state of anxiety, worried that the members of the Black family would be killed or maimed from the constant threat or menace from the cruel violent whites they (and other Black families) are living among, or that the whites themselves would turn on one another, as in the opening scene where two brothers are burying their father, Pappy (Jonathan Banks playing evil man), and it’s not clear that the older brother will rescue the younger one who appears to be drowning, sucked in by the mud the grave turns into as it starts to rain hard. The movie and book show you how racism under Jim Crow worked a constant demand from whites on blacks that they kowtow, humiliate themselves, with an ever menacing threat, every once in a while made good — as at the end of the film and book. The story has been reviewed as a movie far more often than as a book (New York Times; Odie Henderson of Roger Ebert’s site, with the story told and retold. The cinematography by Rachel Morrison is breath-taking in its artful suggestiveness.

The book itself reminds me of Faulkner or Graham Swift crossed by Toni Morrison: it’s told in turn by narrators in deeply subjective ways, all of which add up to an eloquent rendering of the misery and deprivation, impoverishment of the best of the human spirit in a racist, deeply inhumane capitalist racist order — Mississippi in the 1940s. The women are utterly subject creatures — in a secondary white family the father beats his wife and rapes his daughter and they have no recourse. We see whites cheat whites; and the way the whites makes money is to exploit the Blacks. We see Laura, the white wife (whose husband takes the car keys from her as a punishment), and Florence (Mary J. Blige), the Black one (whose husband relies on her) create meaning and beauty for themselves through piano playing or doing for their families; they form a supportive friendship; Hap (Rob Morgan), the Black father is a preacher and kind to his family; two sons, Jamie, white, and Ronsel, Black, learn that life can be far more decent and rewarding even during the terrors of war in Europe, and through friendship almost bring upon themselves annihilation but also escape at the film’s end.

But my theme tonight is not the message about how racism and patriarchy work in the US even now (subtler except when it comes to the police), nor even the relationship of the book and film, nor even the splendid art of the film (patterned scenes at the core), but rather that element so hard to gauge, to measure, to explain: why a given film is adequate to the content it seeks to visualize, give sound to, human presences, life, realization.


Stuart Wilson as a viscerally deeply felt Vronsky

I’ve watched several of these over this winter into spring time which are as it were forgotten (not even an adequate wikipedia entry; a 1977-78 BBC Anne Karenina by Donald Wilson (who also wrote the Forsyte Saga), with Eric Porter, Nicola Paget, Stuart Wilson, Robert Swann; the 1979 Rebecca, directed by Simon Langton (the best of them all), with Joanna David as Rebecca, Jeremy Brett as Mr de Winter, Anna Massey. The 1987 BBC Fortunes of War, written by Alan Plater (from Olivia Manning’s masterpiece epics, Balkan and Levant Trilogies), with Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, Ronald Pickup, Rupert Graves (among others.


Joanna David (her daughter, Emilia Fox, played the part in 1997) showing that the quiet second Mrs de Winter of the book, is the strong woman

We dwell on these actors but it’s the embedded film world that is made for them as much as the enactment of their characters in that matters. What is it that makes for this depth of apprehension and detailed lived realization? Faithfulness (as it’s called) to the literal surface of a book or psychologies of actors and mood are the means. Each of the characters on a separate journey within groups of characters in a situation. There is the jelling together of the actors as they make the story realized. But more central I find is the inner drive to maintain an integrity of thematic vision, truth to a complex moral on the part of the central film-makers (writer, director, cinematographer, producer).

I stay with my paper written so long ago, the importance of the screenplay — that’s why we should study. In all these cases, that’s what I’ve been paying attention to — as well as watching how the director elicited from the actors the emotions wanted moment by moment. Look upon this as an interim attempt to suggest what I might write more at length once again.

Re-watching Mudbound, reading the book and studying Martin Scorcese notes for his masterpiece Age of Innocence over the past few days too: I’ve been studying Martin Scorcese’s for his 1997 adaptation of Wharton Age of Innocence, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daniel-Day Lewis, and there the give-away are the lengthy descriptions of setting, gestures — and the use of a narrator. And re-watching the magnificent 2004 BBC The Way We Live Now, scripted Andrew Davies, featuring David Suchet — I mention Davies in the same breathe as Plater — in both cases shooting scripts are often available. A signal of the same core resolution and good strong book which can be so parsed.


There is a beautiful still of the Black church open to the sky with stained glass window covering half the space and Hap preaching so movingly in front of it but I cannot find a still among those online

And watching Rachel Morrison discuss the cinematography of Mudbound tonight brought me to bring together these nightly experiences over these weeks and what unites them even if the only stills commercially available on the Net are the far shots of landscapes, medium shots of people and close-ups of actors.

Short tonight, but I hope adequate … Do see the six films I’ve cited and read the six books alluded to in this blog. I want to say stick especially with the BBC later 1970s and early 1980s serials but again and again since then, as in Mudbound, one finds the crew and film-makers doing it again. A sign of seriousness is the published shooting script and in it real essays and thoughts in the appendix about what inspired the people — in Age of Innocence it appears to have been other brilliant costume dramas. Read what Mary J Blige has to say where she discusses why the most horrifying scene in the film is her favorite.


How they all stay in character too: Jamie is to me super-handsome but he is not the actor; and Mary J Blige is Florence throughout

Ellen

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A Bridge Party by Barbara Loftus (1995?)


From A Woman in Berlin (Anonyma), Nina Hoss, Evgeniy Sidikhin, Irm Hermann (German, Max Färberböck 2008)

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Thursdays, 11:50 to 1:15 pm,
April 1 to May 20
4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032 but conducted online via zoom

Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course: 20th Century Women’s Political Novels

We’ll travel across 20th century wars, politics, and social life in fiction and memoir: Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929), about an Anglo-Irish household during the 1920s civil wars; Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (1960) and The Spoilt City (1962), on the fascist take-over of Romania in 1939; Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time (1975), her experience as a target of the paranoic McCarthy era, 1950s USA; and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), African-American experiences of life in early to mid-century America. We’ll learn of the authors; the woman’s perspective on earlier and today’s era and how women’s political and war novels differ from men’s. There are numerous excellent films which connect directly to these books; I cite a number (below) that people may profit from by watching on their own: of these, two are direct film adaptations of our books:  1999 Deborah Warner’s adaptation, The Last September; 1987 Alan Plater & Cellan Jones BBC serial film adaptation of Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogy titled The Fortunes of War.

Required books (in the order we’ll read them):

Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. Anchor, 2000 978-0-386-72014-4.

Olivia Manning, The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City (the 1st and 2nd of 3 novels called The Balkan Trilogy set in Romania, one continuous story) are available separately, but I have them in the more much more frequently printed The Balkan Trilogy. Penguin 1974. You get three for what you pay and the novels become more brilliant as they go on. The URL for this older print is 0-14-010996-X. The trilogy has been recently reprinted with the dual Title, The Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy, introd. by Rachel Cusk. Penguin, 2010. 978-1-59017331-1. Both printings have the same pagination for the text.

Lillian Hellman. Scoundrel Time, introd Garry Wills. Little, Brown 1976. This same edition is available reprinted in 2000. The old URL is 0-316-35294.

Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye. Vintage, 1970. 978-0-307-27844-9.


Bowen’s Court, now pulled down

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. For the first week read as much of Bowen’s novel as you can.

April 1 Introduction:  A kind of novel, historical as well as political & about war; when written by women; 4 era. Using film. Contrasting memoirs & fantasy dystopias: Marta Hiller’s A Woman in Berlin (gang-rape); Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (nursing); Virginia Woolf, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison (polemicists, home front stories). Bowen’s books: Irish War of Independence & Irish Civil War; WW2 bombing

April 8 Bowen’s life & POV. Bowen’s The Last September (with comments on The Heat of the Day and The Demon Lover).

April 15 The two film adaptations of Bowen. Fascism; the fascist take-over of Romania. British colonialism.

April 22 Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Manning’s The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City.

April 29 The 1987 BBC Serial, The Fortunes of War. Eras of “great fear:” the later 1940s, the Smith Act, into McCarthy era; Watergate.

May 6 Lillian Hellman, especially her plays & movies, with something of Dashiell Hammett. Scoundrel Time

May 13 Black history in the US. Toni Morrison’s life & career & novels.

May 20; The Bluest Eye. If time permits, tentative thoughts on political-history novels, esp as written by women. The four eras we covered.


Guy and Harriet Pringle (Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) with Prince Yakimov (Ronald Pickup) in the Pringle Flat (Fortunes of War, 2nd episode)


From Julia, Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and Dashiell Hammett (Jason Robards) going over Autumn Garden (1977)

Suggested Films:

The Heat of the Day. Dir Christopher Morahan. Script: Harold Pinter. Perf. Michael Gambon, Patricia Hodge, Michael York &c. 1989. Available as DVD to rent, buy from Amazon, and as a whole on YouTube.
The Last September. Dir. Deborah Warren. Script: John Banville. Perf. Fiona Shaw, Keeley Hawes, David Tennant, Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, &c. 1999. Available as DVD from Netflix or to buy on Amazon. Also found on YouTube in 10 minute segments.
The Little Foxes. Dr William Wyler. Script: Lillian Helmann. Perf. Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright &c MGM, 1941. Amazon prime.
The Fortunes of War. Dir. John Cellan Jones. Script: Alan Plater. Perf. Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson, Ronald Pickup, Alan Bennet, Rupert Graves &c. 1987. Right now available as 7 YouTubes and DVD Region 2 to buy.
Michael Collins. Dir. Script. Neil Jordan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts. 1996. Available on Amazon Prime, as a DVD on Netflix to rent and on Amazon as a DVD to buy. As a DVD it comes with a documentary by Melvyn Bragg, very much worth the watching.
Watch on the Rhine. Dir. Herman Shulmin. Script: Hellman and Hammett. Perf. Bette Davis, Paul Lukas, Lucile Watson, Donald Woods &c 1943 Warner Bros. Amazon prime.
Julia. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Hellman and Alvin Sergeant. Perf. Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Robarts, Maximillian Schell, Meryl Strep &c 1977 20thC Fox. DVD to buy and to rent from Netflix.
Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Dir. Jonathan Miller. Perf Benjamin Whitlow, Charles Gray, Anton Lesser, Suzanne Burden &c. BBC, 1981. DVD to rent from Netflix.
The Pieces that I am. Dir. Timothy Greenfield-Saunders. Perf. Toni Morrison, Hilton Als, Ophrah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Walter Moseley &c 2019 Perfect Day Films. Amazon Prime, DVD to rent  from Netflix.


Lillian Hellman, 1947, Photograph by Irving Penn

Suggested Outside Reading:

Austenfeld, Thomas Carl. American Women Writers and the Nazis: Ethics & Politics in Boyle, Porter, Stafford and Hellman. University of Va, 2001.
Bowen, Elizabeth. Collected Impressions. NY: Knopft, 1950.
Caute, David. The Great Fear: The Anti-communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower. NY: Simon and Shuster, 1978.
David, Deirdre. Olivia Manning: A Woman at War. Oxford UP, 2012.
Foster, R.F. Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History. London, Penguin, 1993.
Glendinning, Victoria. Elizabeth Bowen: A Biography. NY: Knopft, 1977.
Johnson, Diane. Dashiell Hammett: A Life. NY: Random House, 1983.
Lee, Hermione. Elizabeth Bowen: An Estimation. London: Vintage, 1999.
Kessler-Harris, Alice. Lillian Hellman: A Difficult Woman. NY: Bloomsbury Press, 2012
Lassner, Phyllis; British Women Writers of World War II. London: Palgrave, 1998; Colonial Strangers: Women Writing the End of Empire. NJ: Rutgers, 2004.
O’Reilly, Andrea. Toni Morrison and Motherhood: A Politics of the Heart. State University of NY, 2004
Martinson, Deborah. Lillian Hellman: A Life with Foxes and Scoundrels. NY: Counterpoint, Perseus Books Group, 2005.
Patten, Eve. Imperial Refugee: Olivia Manning’s Fictions of War. Cork UP, 2011.
Roymon, Tessa. The Cambridge Introduction to Toni Morrison. Cambridge UP, 2012.
Staley, Thomas. Twentieth Century Women Novelists. Barnes & Noble, 1982.
Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies, trans from German by Stephen Conway. 2 volumes. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. A study of fascism.


A recent photo, from The Pieces That I am

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Alan Plater (1935-2010), screenplay writer extraordinaire, playwright, musician-composer

Dear friends and readers,

Tonight in my efforts to watch a Region 2 version of the 1987 Fortunes of War, a brilliant 7 episode serial adaptation of Olivia Manning’s brilliant trilogies, The Balkan Trilogy and Levant Trilogy, I was driven to use my multiregional player attached to my flat TV. My vlc viewer just was not strong enough to get through the occasional damage on the disks (in this set there are 3), and I clicked by mistake on something called “Timeshift.” I just could not get out of this program, and was irritated until within a minute or so I realized it was BBC documentary, lovingly and intelligently done, appreciative, of the life’s work of Alan Plater: Hearing the Music (unfortunately not available from the site it’s now announced on).

In the 1960s (many one and two hour plays) and early 1970s he wrote over 50 screenplays for the BBC; he wrote fewer in the later 1970s and into the 1990s running up to 2000 (his last) but these include the memorable whole of the Barchester Chronicles, this Fortunes of War, and one of the best of the episodes of the important Danger UXB; his work includes Misterioso, The Good Companions (J. B. Priestley novel turned into a musical), A Very British Coupso many it’s hard to look them all up. With many stunning performances, from Judy Dench to my favorite, Barbara Flynn, playing Jill Swinburne, whom Plater said was a version of himself.

Although this Guardian obituary does justice to Plater by beginning by naming him as one of the screenplay writers for British TV who made an important difference in the quality of its drama, and changed what you could represent and how ever after, in the tone of respect and felt appreciation for his work, the writer does not emphasize sufficiently Plater’s love of music, jazz and modern rock, his use of it in his work — and his political point of view (socialist). According to Timeshift (and other pieces I’ve read), Plater was a highly original writer for TV in the 1960s strongly because of his Hull and musical background (he studied to be an architect and that probably helped his sense of structure). At the time most shows displayed upper class accents and working class people were given cockney accents, with the dialogue often stiff or naive, or utterly conventionalized so as not to be realistic. With his roots in Northern England, especially Hull, he was one of those who changed all that, writing dialogue for the real spoken voices, kinds of accents different idiolects across Britain. He slowed down the action, and often wrote scenes between two or three characters conceived of as the core of the drama. Most of all he integrated music into his plays, conveying meaning through music. Music told the identity, the culture, the past, the feel of his characters; in talking of how he wrote his plays he called his process like that of Jazz; he has 12 bars, and within that he provides variations.

Here is one 10 minute segment on him, together with a discussion of a four season series made for Yorkshire ITV, the much respected and popular Beiderbecke Trilogy:

You hear and see Barbara Flynn talking too.

He conveyed how people really talk by writing less dialogue too and leaving spaces for pause, for really felt enacting by the actors together. He loved to develop what the author of a novel might have left out — what was the sermon the Reverend Slope spoke from Barchester Chronicles — it’s not in Trollope but improvised as the script developed by Plater.

Plater is not alone unsung. I cannot express how often I have had the experience of identifying a wonderful TV drama show by its writer, and been greeted by a blank look. If I’ve tried to tell the person who was the writer, what his or her career, what other programs he or she wrote, they politely wait for me to finish. They don’t seem to realize their love of Dickens is a love of Alexander Baron (prolific screenplay writer of the 1980s with some of them peculiarly fine, and a good novelist too) or Andrew Davies or Arthur Hopcraft or Simon Raven (of the Pallisers). Nowadays many women write these screenplays, Sandy Welch (Our Mutual Friend 1999) is an older practitioner, so too Fay Weldon (1979 Pride and Prejudice) more recently, Fiona Seres (2018 Woman in White). In the BBC until recently the screenwriter was the linchpin or (as the position is now called) one of the showrunners of the series. In cinema they are now named early in credits and paid much better; so too in some more prestigious (or pushed) serial adaptations (Poldark, Deborah Horsfield; Downton Abbey, Jerome Fellowes), but not as much (how many people know the names of the remarkable team writing Outlander under the general direction of Ronald Moore). Misterioso is perhaps one of his finest later dramas (1991, based on his own novel.

Hours, days, months, years of fine entertainment are due to such people — of course the cinematographer, the directors, producers, costumers, but in the case of the writer you can find biographies and you can trace a personality and point of view that is interesting across the work. I wish more people would pay attention to these unsung heroes and heroines. I hear in my head for hours afterwards the music that plays across The Fortunes of War

As a coda treat, it is said of Plater he combined Coronation Street with the feel and outlook of Chekhov story or play. I cannot locate Misterioso (the name is after a Jazz number), nor anything more than the kind of 2 to 10 minute clip included in the above interview so instead here is one of those Play of the Month productions (not by Plater) but of how Chekhov has been seen and done on the BBC: Francesca Annis and Ian Holm, 1974 in The Wood Demon (I believe it’s the whole thing)

Ellen

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Father (in his sepulchal voice) There was this English butler out in India — one day he goes into the dining room and what’s he see under the table: a tiger. Not turning a hair, he goes to the drawing room– ‘Excuse me, m’lord’ — (gives imitation of slight cough)– and whispering so as not to upset the ladies: ‘I’m very sorry, m’lord, there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps his lordship will permit use of the twelve-bores?’ They go on drinking their tea and then there’s three gunshots. They don’t think nothing of it — this being India where they’re used to anything — and when the butler is back to refresh the teapots, he says, cool as a cucumber: ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time, m’lord, and I am pleased to say there will be no discernable traces left of the recent occurrence by that time’ (shooting script, third draft, scene 22).

Friends and readers,

This not very long novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), with its quiet main story, the happenings along a road Darlington Hall’s long-time butler, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), encounters as he drives in his master’s Daimler cross-country from southeast to southwest England — is as rich a masterpiece as any overlong super-respected 19th century novel, as richly interesting as the novel Ishiguro said he had in mind as its precursor, E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). The film adaptation by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (whose script is a not-very-much altered version of one by Harold Pinter, is repeatedly said to be one of their masterpieces. I just finished teaching the book to a lively intelligent group of retired adults, and wish I could better convey the tone and comments on our conversations online (via Zoom), which show how metaphorically connected to our lives is the outlines of the story, now the characters, especially Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) are versions of ourselves from whom we can learn. We talked warmly about things that are important to us, coming out of and returning to the book and its film.

There has been so much said about both books and sets of films (Howards End comes in two forms, the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala 1993 version, with again, and not just a coincidence, Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the key roles; and the 2015 HBO version scripted by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Hettie MacDonald, this time with, as alterego for Margaret Shlegel-Emma, Hayley Atwell, but a somewhat different type from Wilcox-Hopkins, Matthew MacFayden.) What can I add? Here goes.

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The Remains of the Day, the book, continually exists on at least two levels: Mr Stevens is both a realistic character and a symbolic one. On a psychological level, he is a super-sensitive man, afraid of life’s emotions and hard realities (like possibly even getting fired), status insecure, and hides under the habit of the archetypal butler. We gradually learn to feel for him, grieve for his unlived life (as he finally does at the end of novel and film); on a symbolic level, he stands for the person who opts out of responsibility, will facilitate the doing of the most horrible aims (Nazism, fascism, flourishing and extended out of Lord Darlington’s conferences), an instrument for evil to work with. In his interview online, Ishiguro says he chose an archetypal figure for his allegory, made a man who fears the arena of emotions, emotional engagement, who at the same time is us because we too are removed from real power, do a little job as best we can, without being able to control how our contribution will be used. In a democratic culture we don’t get to choose among the out of our control decisions that affect vast numbers of people. He is Us.


Here he is always under strain


Miss Kenton intruding on Mr Stevens’s refuge in sentimental romance (a self-reflexive scene, since what is this novel but a sentimental romance?)

Ishiguro wants Mr Stevens’s idea of dignity to be completely challenged by the end of the book. I saw saw Mr Stevens’s definition of preserving self-guarded control, an attempt at a veneer which would save him from mockery, ridicule, scorn (in the book when Lord Darlington’s rich powerful guests question Mr Stevens we see how easy it is to humiliate him nonetheless). The true servant is the man who gives good advice, trustworthily, tells the master what he or she (the mistress) needs to hear to do well — as Kent does in the first act of King Lear, for which the king, I admit, banishes him.

Miss Kenton is Everywoman in the guise of a type seen in traditional English novels: she is pro-active, strong, competent in housekeeping (no small task to run such a house), with perception, integrity, and prudent self-control. She will act according to her conscience, as when she is horrified that Mr Stevens goes along with Lord Darlington’s orders they fire two Jewish maids (thus threatening their lives, as without jobs, they might be returned to Germany), she wants to quit; but she stays because she needs this job to live, because she enjoys her status in this awesome house, is deeply pleased by its order, beauty, and diurnal routine peace. She is a sister to Elinor Dashwood, to Margaret Schegel; that’s why the same actress, Emma Thompson, is perfect for all three characters.


as Elinor Dashwood writing to her mother (1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, scripted by Thompson too)


as careful Margaret Shlegel (M-I, 1993)


Miss Kenton interviewed (presumably in book and film, spring 1922)

She defends herself against Mr Stevens’s frequent nervous hypercriticism (his father “incorrectly situated [the china] Chinamen”). She says of another maid when she choses to marry over staying on in such a celibate position, “she will be disappointed,” but it not long afterward he begins to date Mr Been (Timothy Piggot-Smith). She wants both: the career, the marriage and her sad ending choosing to stay with Mr Been, so she can be near a coming grandchild and live through it, is not atypical. The letter (over-voice) with which the film opens, is brought back at the end, to show us that she had longed to return to Darlington Hall and this butler for whom she had venerating respect. Her grief at loss of a dream of happiness (it does not seem that they could have been happy together) is unbearably moving as she waves goodbye as her bus pulls off. Their hands had touched, and she leaves him and us weeping too. How many of my woman readers recognize themselves in her life and this ending? He could not reach out to her, and ridiculed him in a petty revenge among her last scenes in the house together.

Looking to the large issues: the unsettling of the old order, with a new one struggling to be born (Gramsci) pathological symptoms emerge. This is an unobtrusive condition of England novel — there are auctions in the movies made from both novels. Young Mr Cardinal (Hugh Grant) belongs here: he knows what is happening, his father persuaded to work for Nazi fascists, and in his newspaper he will try to expose his uncle — to stop him. The scene where he (like Miss Kenton) prods Mr Stevens to let go, open up to the reality of what he is working so hard for and is rebuffed is one of the books’ several climaxes.


Grant pushing Mr Stevens to own (up) to what has been going on at Darlington Hall this 1936/37

And in a throwaway line, when Mr Stevens and Mrs Been discuss Lord Darlington’s estrangement from England after he was shamed by his own libel case (he did entertain Nazis), she says how perhaps his nephew prevented too profound a loneliness, only to be told oh he died in the war. The good man in potentia and actually thrown away.

I love that the book is a beautiful patterning of art in itself. The story (the woof) contains three time skeins, with indeterminate time in-between. We begin (this is the third letter of the book). 1922 when Miss Kenton is hired, 1923 their earliest struggles – over who will have more power demonstrably, over his father too old for the job, his father’s death (where his face is suffused with tears which he wants no one to notice), seems around that time to want to visit the town the school the new schoolmaster (me) he is. Then 1936/37 – the conferences and also when Miss Kenton begins to date, tries to approach Mr Stevens is rebuffed, –- when Darlington tells Mr Stevens to fill his nephew in on Facts of life (sexual facts or more sinister, real politick). 1956 – when the trip happens – 20 years later, the time it became apparent during the Suez Canal incident (why should Egypt allow Britain to use its natural resources) that England no longer the world power she thought she still was. Three theads)

The trip itself has wonderful incidents, and juxtapositions intermingled, juxtaposed to long skeins of Mr Stevens’s remembering the past (the warp of the tapestry), to wit:

There’s a prologue and six days. The prologue and first day contain Mr Stevens’ memories of being in groups of servants like himself in “the old days” (so pre-1922/23, a time when grat houses were flourishing and had extensive staff) discussing what makes a great butler, with Mr Stevens telling anecdotes of his father or Mr Graham, whom he so admired, enacting dignity – in the face of absurdities (a tiger under a table) and active derision in a car trip (something to do with a music hall routine I could not discover). In the present Mr Stevens’ invited to take this trip (“take my car, the gas on me”), and dressing himself in the suits of his Lordship, with a comical allusion to the old (delightful, filled with real photographs of the places and an imagined trip through them) county books (Vol III of Mrs Symons’s Wonders of England). This is the first trip Mr Stevens has ever let himself take, and from Mr Farraday’s banter in the book, drawn out by his longing to renew a relationship he has brooded on for twenty years with cherished memories of Miss Kenton.

By Day Two, “Morning Salisbury” (evoking the cathedral with its embodiments of time across centuries), as Mr Stevens truly gets going on his trip (woof), Mrs Been’s (poor Miss Kenton that was) letter yearning to return, for her youth, for finding some purpose in life; with over-voice of Emma Thompson (the first spoken material of the movie) set against the house, saved from being sold as cement. His memories (the warp) more or less start at the beginning of their relationship (1922, the interview) and climax at the end of Day Three, Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon, when Miss Kenton roused by seeing her protegee leave to marry, herself begins to date, and, with Mr Stevens refusing to show any anxiety and even when she tries to say their evening talks are getting in her way, swiftly (spitefully as she can be) bringing an end to them, over her protests. Then her acceptance of a marriage proposal from Mr Been, juxtaposed to Mr Cardinal trying to persuade Mr Stevens to admit what’s going on. Neither can crack his facade.

In Devon too, the evening, we get a climactic dialogue of Mr Stevens with a Mr Smith in the Taylor’s house, which seem to serve as a tavern, with the neighbors all around, and Mr Smith who reflects morally on the another meaning of dignity for all of us (equality), with the corollary what they fought for in WW2 was liberty, not to be slaves of others, the right to exercise one’s will and make a view felt. Alas this time Mr Stevens hurries off because he has presented himself falsely as a Lord who knew powerful people (we cannot too much criticize him as Mr Smith’s desire to speak to him comes from this misapprehension) and hurries away because a physician he fears might expose him has entered “the fray.” It is against this scene that the upper class people at Darlington Hall humiliating use of Mr Stevens’s lack of an educated man’s knowledge in special areas is juxtaposed: it supposedly shows how he is not capable of making serious decisions about his or anyone else’s life. The “lower” people were so respectful and kind and asking him to identify with them. We get Lord Darlington’s half-apologies to Mr Stevens, and discover (to our dismay) the next morning not only did Dr Carlisle guess Mr Stevens to be a servant, but despises, dismisses the conversation of Mr Smith.

In the movie the final scene between Mrs (now) Been and Mr Stevens in the hotel restaurant is in present time; in the book, there is again evasion and we are privy to the scene only through Mr Stevens remembering it afterwards. All thrown into the immediate past, including their last scene standing in the rain waiting for her bus. And then, at last present time), his sitting on the bench breaking into talk with another older retired man –- tears streaming down his face. The man feeling for him urges him to look forwards, the evening or our lives are the best, and as ever polite and self-erasing Mr Stevens agrees, and vows to himself to do better once again, perhaps try to learn what this bantering is all about.

There are many juxtapositions that are “merely” suggestive: in Day two, Morning Salisbury, Mr Stevens swerves not to flatten a hen who just happens to be in the middle of the road and a farm girl comes out to thank him. It shows Mr Stevens’ good nature (perhaps in Ishiguro’s mind the cat that Charles Wilcox so carelessly “flattens”), and she tells him of a beautiful view nearby I worried she was thief, thinking Mr Stevens (like Lord Darlington) a naif, an amateur at life (as Mr Lewis says in the memories that come on the next day).

There are a number of reviews which do justice to the book, Laurence Graver of the New York Times; Peter Beech of The Guardian will have to do. Neither of them, though, dwell at the length they should on the characters of Miss Kenton and the young Mr Cardinal or Lord Darlington.

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Miss Kenton, unable to break through Mr Stevens’s carapace, tries to see what he reads privately — a sentimental romance (surely a self-reflexive joke)

The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie, whose script is close to Harold Pinter’s screenplay is rightly regarded as one of the team’s supreme achievements. For my part I attribute this to the brilliance of the book caught up through its most intensely aware (on the part of the implied author) scenes realized by a brilliant group of actors and director. In the book Miss Kenton is seen through the memories of Mr Stevens and so not viscerally there in the way she is in every scene of the movie. To my mind, very few of the reviews come near the rave one I would write were I a professional reviewer. Vincent Canby of the New York Times comes closest; Rita Kempley of The Washington Post; and some of the thematic kinds of publications: in Spirituality and Practice, ignore what Frederick and Mary Brussat say the film is about. I know I burst into tears the first time I saw the concluding scene of our thwarted lovers holding our their hands and not quite touching as her bus takes Mrs Been away from Mr Stevens forever. I took it as about the agony of self-reproach we feel as we look back at our unlived lives, our failures at not wasting our existence.

It is fair and accurate to remark that one of the people in the class remarked that Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton would have been very unhappy with one another had they married, and that often the scenes skirt a demented kind of comedy


Timothy Piggot-Smith as Mr Been kissing Miss Kenton after a couple of dates


They wait for Mrs Been’s bus together

In her review of Ishiguro’s first three books, Hermione Lee speaks of “the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate [I’d call it intensely tremblingly controlled) surface of the book. They’ve caught this in the movie as well as the stretches of absurd comedy, open anguish and daily ordinary life. James Ivory writes more than adequately and in detail about the scenes that matter so effectively in James Ivory in Conversation with Robert Emmet Long (pp 226-238).Ivory says he kept in mind a Satyajit Ray movie where an unfaithful husband and wife hesitantly reach out to one another and fail to make contact, also that it’s insufficiently appreciated how all the scenes upstairs are seen from the point of view of a servant passingly there and hardly take any of the screen time. I’d say as in the M-I movies set in southeastern England, do not underestimate the effect of the soul-gratifying orderly green landscapes (see the intelligent picture book, John Pym’s Merchant Ivory’s English Landscape: Rooms, Views and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes).

I’ll leave my reader to watch the film again and listen to Ishiguro talking of what he meant to do in his book and how he felt the movie related to it and should be approached.

Ellen

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Hana (Andrea Riseborough) examining a temple (Luxor, 2020, directed scripted Zeina Durra, 2020)


Oliver Sacks His Own Life (biopic, 2019, Ric Burns directed, using Sacks’ book of the same title)


Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) and Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in sunlit landscape contemplating excavation (Dig, 2021, directed Simon Stone, scripted Moira Buffini from John Preston’s book)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been very fortunate in the last week or two because (without doing this deliberately) I’ve seen three excellent recent movies (actually four, see Even the Rain, 2011, in comments), all of which are thoughtful, quietly passionate, with genuinely interesting content, landscapes, story — all providing a true uplift. I write this blog to tell those of my readers seeking some respite from anxiety (COVID morphing into more deadly or infectious variants, not enough vaccines, the economic future. people hurting economically, and trying to self-isolate) you need only go to your computer and it’s a couple of clicks and a nominal sum away.

I don’t want to overdo this as I think of what most popular movies are, but I begin to wonder if there has been an effort recently — given the continued misery (see above) — to produce films where characters persist in hoping amid nearby or coming carnage (middle eastern wars, WW1) or the neglect of the agonizingly mentally disabled) or their own inner demons and distress. It really is a coincidence that just now on PBS, an excellent re-make of the movingly comic All Creatures Great and Small, has been airing, coming over your cable from PBS for the last five weeks. But maybe not that the era the film-makers are drawn to is just before or after WW1


James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) treating Strawberry, the cow (ITV, 2020, now on PBS)

I watched Luxor and Oliver Sacks His Owe Life as assignments in a weekly movie-class, where we watch movies online at Cinema Art Theater (supporting our local art movie-house). We are in our second week of four, all current movies. Luxor and Sacks are $12 each for 3-4 days of potential watching.

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What a relief is Luxor.


Hana with the newly re-found Sultan (Karim Saleh) at the hotel bar

It’s such a quiet movie, people hardly speak. The sexual acts that occur — several times, Hana, once with a stranger she met at a bar, Hana more than once with Sultan) are off-screen! There is no overt violence in front of us. Hana has returned to Luxor where she spent a joyous time with Sultan (throes of first love) 20 years ago. She is suffering from PTSD after years of surgery, practicing medicine the worst war and refugee places you can imagine — the Syrian border is mentioned. Unexpectedly she finds Sultan is now living there; he too returned, to do archaeology for the Eygptian gov’t (to please nationalists, for tourism). The story is we watch her slowly seem to get better, to come out of herself. Towards the end after she dances at a bar and comes back to her room in the hotel with Sultan, she bursts into hysterical shattered crying. To find tranquillity you have to allow the passions some release.

Like Celine Siamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, it’s oddly devoid of dialogue — some people in life do talk a lot … but not this pair of lovers. As you go through her experience with you, you (or I) find therapy yourself.  At one point Hana visits a fortune-teller with the hotel owner.  It is also at core a romance, with two people who once knew each other, coming together again (like Linklater’s Sunrise, Sunset trilogy) with beautiful photography of this city left off the beaten track of commercialism, power, and today not even getting heavy tourism. It’s an Indie , the director is a woman who has made other movies of a similar type it seems. Roxana Hadadi writes a fine favorable detailed review on Ebert. It gains its denser power by the significance of the temples, the history of lives lived in squalor and hardship, the profound irrationality of people caught in their statues

The small diurnal transient lives considered against this backdrop, which lives are nonetheless precious and everything to those living them — this perception embodied is replicated in The Dig of Sutton Hoo below.

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Self- or group-reflexive still – during the course of the movie we met the living people now making the film and friends to the dying Sacks, as well as those no longer living (through older photos and Sacks narrating

His Own Life is the title of Sacks’s last book.  At last, out as a gay man, he owns his life.  And now he tells it. I’m a reader and teacher of Sacks’s books and essays as was Jim (our library of Sacks’s books) and I’ve taught several them (Hearing Voices, A Leg to Stand on, Migraines) and xeroxes of chapters and essays from others and periodicals (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, the New York Review of Books), and I thought I knew a lot. This film taught me I knew very little about the man’s full life (Jewish boyhood with physicians for parents, 3 other brothers), his character, how he grew up in England, how his mother rejected his homosexuality with abhorrence and then silence about it.


Oliver Sacks as a child.

What a sexy young man he was — when he left England, after having gone to the best private schools and then Oxford, for San Francisco & then Greenwich Village, NYC


Oliver Sacks, 1961.

His colleagues at first sidelined his work or fired him (when he accused their punitive methods of cruelty), his going on drugs, a slow and agonizing flowering when he got a job in a Bronx clinic where he was able through insight, drugs, compassion to bring catatonic people back to life. His literary success and then social through giving talks in prestigious places, his success as a doctor finally brought the psychiatric world round enough to appear to accept him.

I did not know he was homosexual and had to hide this most of the time. I was startled to see how heavy he was at one time. To watch him risking his life in crazed motorcycle riding. He is presented as living a more or less chaste life until his last years when he fell in love and his last partner, Bill Hayes, is in the film. The film narrator attempts to explain his methods, and his clinical work is done justice to as well. Among the witnesses is Jonathan Miller who describes Sacks at Oxford. Owen Gleiberman has written an intelligent review of the film, conveying the deeply humane nature of the man that also shines out in the film.

The film omits a few things about his career itself:  he was a wonderful storyteller  — a writer.  And central to is professional success without the support of academia was to have had the abilities of a novelist (in effect). His chapter stories are little novels where he has himself through his writing understood his patient or alter ego better by talking/writing to the reader.  To be sure, all these are based on years of clinical work (which work is not respected by the highest academics who prefer the theories that arise from abstract thought and research).

Very important: his real thrust was low tech (see especially Migraines). He contextualized and understood phenomena in history, e.g., the deaf in Hearing Voices where they were idiots for centuries and suddenly were people like you and me after the 3 Enlightenment philosophers invented sign languages.   The last thing he resorted to was a operation (see Migraines especially), and drugs were only applied after long talks and getting to know and understand a patient.  This is not appreciated by the medical establishment, supported as they are by the pharmaceutical industry & astronomical prices for surgeries.

As Oliver Sacks’s homosexuality made him for a long time an outsider in society, so his deeply humane methods, and his choice of approaches which are not prestigious (or as well paid) .  Sacks’s storytelling,  abilities as a brilliant writer as much as a clinician, neurologist and psychologist made him the hero and explorer and man we should be grateful to.

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Dig is a pastoral movie with much sun over the peaceful green fields of southern England

The Dig. I loved almost every minute of it, and although I realize the novel from which it is adapted, departs from historical accuracy, invents personalities and characters, I’ve a hunch it’s the sort novel I will find comfort and strength from (I have bought a copy from bookfinder.com). I gather the movie is getting a big audience; the subject is one long known, one which does attract a popular audience when set up in a museum to be a spectacle of gold: the Sutton Hoo burial grounds, the ship, its treasures, the Anglo-Saxon history.


Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) in the sun — many of the characters in Dig and Luxor are photographed in the sun


With Peggy Piggot (Lily James) by a left-over wall — your conventional romance trope

As with Luxor, and (on TV) All Things Great and Small, the photography is beautiful. One does not wonder why so many Anglophilic novels are set in the southeast. The acting very good: Ralph Fiennes, as Basil Brown, the “amateur” archaeologist, superb excavator, hams it up a bit with his accent, but when he is gone from the screen is when the film begins to fade and lose strength of emotional will and understanding.  He, together with the owner of the property, Carey Mulligan, as Edith Pretty, who catches the note and behavior of the upper class woman with her sense of privilege, have found the buried ship and its treasure together. She defends him only slowly from the ambitious academics, but it’s she who saves his life when the excavation collapses over him; she tries to invite him to dinner but he evades what might have been a very painful experience for both; nonetheless, they form a strong bond in the film. At one point he leaves the site because he is treated so rudely, condescendingly by those with degrees, but he is persuaded back by his wife, May (Monica Dolan) on the grounds that has he been doing this all these years for these people’s praise? At its end, she says she will be sure he will be recognized. Intertitles in the final credits tell us the Sutton Hoo material first arrived in the British Museum 7 years after Edith’s death; and then it took a long time for Basil Brown to be properly credited, but he and Edith are both central names on the exhibit today.

Our two central actors are ably supported by Johnny Flynn, as Rory Lomax, who I first saw as Viola in the all male Twelfth Night, and does have this charisma-charm; & Lily James, as Mrs Margaret (Peggy) Piggott, who falls in love with him (James has been superb as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play, Cinderella, & Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice & Zombies). Rory Lomax is Edith Pretty’s brother who is going off to WW1 as a RAF and we and he and everyone knows the danger and death rate high.  Peggy Piggot is the wife of the one of educated by degree team who is also homosexual and has married her in a cover up ,and continually rejects her body and companionship. Like Brown, she is not professional, has no degree, but knows a great deal, and she comes upon a jewel first (fiction can do this).

One of the film’s pleasures is its staunch egalitarianism. Again, the seeming ordinary man is our hero, and he is almost pushed off his site; but his wife persuades him to accept the snobbery and sidelining by the official professionals who at first treat him like a servant whose services they must endure but control. But after all he is not ordinary; the caste system erases people not born with money and rank, irrespective of their deeper talents.

Fiennes was believable as the older man whose partly orphaned son is attracted to him — they look at the stars through Brown’s telescope together. When Mulligan presented the reality of a personality of a upper class woman of the era, now widowed, she shows a hard edge, and assumes of course that her servants should serve her hand and foot. The love story of Rory and Peggy is conventional, but I did not find it detracted — it done from the DH Lawrence point of view, which roots the attraction of the two people to their deep time alone at night in the natural world all around them (a tent, behind a garden wall).


It rains; the women with the famous archaeologist from the British Museum (Ken Stott)

It themes includes death — Mrs Pretty visits her husband in his grave; she is discovered to have rheumatic heart disease and physically deteriorates during the film. Her young son is desolated when he sees this, and cannot save her — as he tells Mr Brown. Then we get this wonderfully delivered speech by Fiennes-Brown about failure: how we fail all the time, have to accept it, and just try to fail better. He got near Robert Louis Stevenson’s axiom. The boy clings with admiration to Mr Brown.

Et in Arcadio Ego; death is in The Dig shaped by the film’s consciousness of long time, and that each individual is part of some long range cycle seen in the buried ship. We are in an ancient cemetery. Planes going over (RAF) soon to be replaced by the brutal Germans with their bombs. All this is in Luxor too: war and carnage, the irrational temples. Sacks is dying and has been deprived of deeper companionship of a lover most of his life. The dialogue is realistic, well done. For detailed full reviews see Sheila O’Malley on Ebert. Also The Guardian, Mark Kermode, better than usual because he’s reviewing a better film.


Fiennes’ presence helps make The Dig


Riseborough pitch perfect in silent grief


Playing piano, being filmed in His Own Life; his papers just below — there are no online photos of his patients (Jim used to feel that there was a voyeuristic element in his books)

Ellen

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Probably the happiest moment realized in the history of Charles Windsor’s relationship with Diana Spenser as envisaged The Crown, fourth season — a rural area of Australia where apart from all others Charles (Josh O’Connor) and Diana (Emma Corrin) live for a time with their baby son, William


Charles and Diana, the actors and the real pair of people, keeping up the pretense

Friends and readers,

Season 4 differs from the three previous seasons because of the close at times step-by-step attention it pays to a single central story: the meeting, courtship (such as it was), wedding, then almost immediately deteriorating and finally (with a few events now and again bringing the couple together) utterly failed marriage of Charles, heir to the throne of the UK and whatever commonwealth countries still recognize and respect the office & man, to Diana Spenser, the younger daughter of an aristocratic family, the Spensers, whose Anglo lineage goes back to the early modern period (16th century).

Seasons 1 & 2 certainly told the story of Elizabeth, heir and then Queen of Great Britain (Claire Foy) as she both takes on her role of queen and tries to live the life of a loving wife, mother, and individual, vis-a-vis her husband, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (Matt Smith), a Greek prince, who has his problems adjusting to what’s demanded of him, what he must sacrifice (career, last name, private home, Clarence House, and also a private life of larger dimensions);

— but also with her sister, Margaret’s (Vanessa Kirby) and Margaret’s need for a strong protective kindly father figure of a husband she can love, Peter Townsend (Ben Miles) whom she is forbidden to have, and the rake cad-substitute, Tony Armstrong (Matthew Goode), whom Margaret ends up with. Already I have had to bring in a two couple five-way story, yet have omitted the centrality of Churchill (John Lithgow), and his wife, secretary, and political life for its own sake, and later in the second season, Elizabeth’s yearning for another more genial companion, Porchey (Joseph Kloska) and real empathy with her young son, Charles, who takes as a father substitute, Mountbatten (the gentle Greg Wise) because Philip will only domineer over his boy, demand a narrow version of manliness while he spends his life from sports to apparent sexual philandering.

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The real royal couple and the actors

The third and fourth season present Elizabeth (Olivia Coleman) and Philip (Tobias Menzies) as a married pair who have accepted one another’s personalities and resigned themselves to the roles they must play in life as Queen and Queen’s supportive husband. He is still having troubles resigning himself (see Episode 7, “Moonstruck”). She learns to unbend a bit more, to be open to labor points of view, and another PM, Wilson, but the most interesting female of the season is Margaret (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”), who now likes her choice of sister to the queen, but not all its consquences.

What is concentrated on is the world around them, and in this fourth that means Elizabeth’s relationship with her Prime Minister, here Mrs Thatcher (brilliantly portrayed by Gillian Anderson to the point I forget I was watching an actress and thought there was Mrs Thatcher in front of me):


Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and Elizabeth I in one of their periodic meetings


A close up of Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher

We learn what Thatcher inflicts on the British world in the poignant Episode 5 (“Fagan”), about Michael Fagan, an unemployed lone man who entered the palace to talk to the Queen,


Tom Brooke as Michael Fagan and Fagan himself

Elizabeth and Philip’s (Tobias Menzies)’s relationship with their now grown children is context. Philip’s favorite is Anne, whom he pushes and encourages, Elizabeth’s is the egregiously spoilt Andrew (Tom Byrne), who arrives for lunch by heliocopter as if this were nothing unusual or expensive). Charles is no one’s favorite, or he was of Mountbatten, bringing down on Charles (as we learn) his father Philip’s resentment. These relationships are told as parallels, and kept controlled, intermittent. Margaret’s story (Helena Bonham Carter) is reduced to one episode (7, “The Hereditary Principle”) and brief outbursts of memorable truth-telling (rather like the fool in King Lear). She is the only character given truly separate space beyond Philip and Elizabeth, Charles and Diana. Thatcher is always seen as surrounded by people, either her family, or the male politicians she leads and bosses around (including making food for them which they do not look like they are keen to eat). The cast is shrunk, the minor characters very minor most of the time, used as further parallels (Thatcher’s grown children and favoring of her spoilt son over her loyal daughter), or as context to understand Elizabeth and Philip’s lack of sympathy or even real interest in Charles and Diana’s relationship. The courtiers now have little power over Elizabeth; and in 48:1 (Episode 8) she sacrifices a loyal secretary, Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell pitch perfect as ever) when she needs a cover-up.


Michael Shea (Nicholas Farrell) — the real Shea was not forced out at all but he did become a popular writer of “insider” mystery thriller

Their view of Charles’ and Diana’s marriage the same as Anne’s (Erin Doherty): just get on with it, as we did and do. Ben Daniels as the faithless hard Snowdon is now there as an obsession and obstacle to Margaret’s peace of mind, getting no more screen time than Dazzle Jennings (Tom Burke) who existed, perhaps as a caring if limited friend to Margaret


Dazzle (Derek) Jennings (Tom Burke) and Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter)

Even the snow “Avalanche” that could have killed Charles (Episode 9), that did kill his close friend (and I still remember a photo of the real Charles weeping helplessly, copiously on a snow mountain that day), even this is just part of an episode, whose riveting content is again another phase of Charles and Diana’s marriage. The world of the fourth season, including Thatcher and the shown-to-be absurd war, a war for show (like the royals’ lives) over the Falkland islands, might be considered background for the season’s focus on Charles and Diana. One can compare the real time-line of the real couple to this fictional reduced one.

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Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles (Emerald Fennell) presented as naturally and deeply congenial

This emphasis, and intertwining of truth and fictionalizing makes how you see the season’s depiction and perspective on the couple the determining factor in how you judge the season. The story and characters fit the overall theme of all four seasons, the price of this crown, but the interest here is not generic. It’s said that “the palace” and defenders of the Royal Family are angry at this depiction, feel it is unfair to Charles and them. They are understandably right. While the film is highly fictionalized, the producers and film-makers are conveniently forgetting how they are doing all they can to make us respond to it as a historical film.

So I can understand the palace’s discomfort since the first time I watched the series while at first I thought there was an attempt to be even-handed (Charles was emotionally blackmailed, coerced into a marriage with a girl much younger than he whose character was inimical to his own), but by the tenth episode (“War”) I was convinced we were meant to see Diana as a victim of a group of people who offered her no aid to cope, no advice, basically ignored her, so she never had a real chance to thrive: all they taught were gestures of submission.


Charles shouting at Diana after she has sung for him and needs praise and validation; his coldness to her


Diana did dance before Charles in a sexual dress to “Uptown Girl” — and meant to please plus yes show herself off, because she enjoyed doing that

In the case of Charles, after an initial attempt to teach Diana to be like him, he turns to cling to Camilla Parker-Bowles, buys a house near hers, phones her every day, is with her and their friends most evenings. He is intensely jealous of how crowds respond to Diana, and care little for him. This is part of why he responds with castigation to Diana’s genuinuely well-meant overtures. She can have no idea he finds spectacle shameful — which he does and I would probably; but he hardly cares for his and her two children whom she appears to love and care for and about, and in the last two episodes will not answer any of her phone calls. Diana only shouts at Charles once he has castigated her.

Elizabeth is cold to her need for affection, berates both of them separately. Her grandmother is obtuse, humiliating her on her first entry to the family by teaching her who and how she must bow to each. Diana is driven (I thought) into promiscuity, the arms of a cad. But the way Margaret talks about her is the degrading unsympathetic misogynist type talk of the 1950s, i.e., she’s a tramp. I felt a great deal of the blame falls on Elizabeth as a frigid individual (misogyny there again – the cold mother). Olivia Coleman is directed to evince a complete inability to respond to Diana’s real need for emotional support. Elizabeth now clearly favors at least two of her children over Charles (Anne and Andrew). Edward (Angus Imrie) is presented as so nasty because sent to a nasty public school it is understandably hard for Elizabeth to warm to him. Elizabeth is shown to have no sympathy with Charles’s love for literature, gardening, anything intangible having to do with imagination and the arts; she berates Diana for playing to the crowd — something she like Charles finds personally distasteful and is jealous of too.

The contrast is Margaret Thatcher’s shameless preference for her spoilt son, Mark (Freddie Fox), who goes missing carelessly and Thatcher’s lack of appreciation for her loving her loyal daughter, Carol (Rebecca Humphries). Thatcher tells Elizabeth she’d never have a woman in her cabinet, they are such emotional creatures.

To me Diana seemed in outer role to resemble the way women are used in powerful families when they are a servant, seduced, impregnated — they are made to disappear and leave their children behind them. That was Diana Spenser’s fate.


Diana lies when she first meets Charles, pretends to try to be escaping him, when she is deliberately encountering, intriguing, seducing him, playing innocent


The second time she is dressed in fetching overalls

But by watching three times now — so I’m into careful watching — I’ve discovered what is implied is that Diana did throw herself in front of Charles at least twice. She dressed herself very attractively and non-threateningly in the first episode (“Gold Stick”), like a pixie and drew Charles’s attention. On another public occasion, she presents herself before him once more, dressed fetchingly and absolutely worshipping him in her face and gestures. She is after him, after a position. Once he sees her, is attracted, takes her out, and then (poor calf) mentions her to his family (without foreseeing they immediately will approve of her for the wife they wanted for him and for children in the family), he is in effect trapped. When Thatcher leaves Balmoral (Episode 2), Diana passes “the Balmoral test” effortlessly — as Mrs Thatcher fails utterly (also effortlessly). Thatcher is no aristocrat. She cannot spend whole evenings playing silly games. By contrast, Diana falls right into charades, brings the right shoes for muck, wears nondescript colors. Philip finds her perfect because she falls into hunting the stag so well. Just before and after Charles goes off on trips (as if escaping what his family wants); Diana does manage to tell him she knows he need not go, but of course she will wait. She does speak up: she tells him after she went out to lunch with Camilla, she understood Camilla was his mistress and knows he has given Camilla an intimate gift just before her and Charles’s wedding — yet she does marry him. She did know what she was intervening on.


The aging Mountbatten (Charles Dance) off to seize and kill lobsters in Ireland while Charles fishes in Iceland, and the rest of the family hunt in Scotland — oh to have such estates ….

Charles is also pushed into this by the death of Mountbatten (Charles Dance), who also loves blood sports, has no sense that an animal has any quality of life; and whose last letter to Charles pushes Charles to marry to carry on a high status line — it was his duty as he Mountbatten had spent his life dutifully. Mountbatten has died as a result of a bomb thrown at him by the IRA. Charles had just rebelled, flung himself away from Mountbatten, accusing his uncle of being part of the group who pushed Camilla into marrying Parker-Bowles. Parker-Bowles carries on having affairs. Mountbatten dismisses this charge as in Mountbatten’s eyes it’s not a charge. When he encouraged Charles to be with Camilla, he thought it would be understood by Charles you are not to fall in love where it’s not appropriate. Charles had not. He does try to bring in his interests (literature architecture &c), but unfortunately not dramatized (I suspect the film-makers thought the average audience member would not sympathize with these aesthetic and poetic impulses. We are told there was no response from her and (with her pregnancies and their social routines), no time for him to figure out why. What I’m trying to say is he never accepted the marriage as she did, to start with — for reasons that have nothing to do with love or understanding — it was a quiet career choice for her. What she didn’t foresee is how alone she’d feel when (what he didn’t foresee) he couldn’t bear to be around her.

I felt the wounded moaning stag killed was a stand in for Charles (Episode 2, “The Balmoral Test”). It was his father who actually liked & accepted her after “examining” her manners, taking her off to watch the killing of a stag. I do loathe these scenes where these characters just slaughter birds, animals, deer. In his childhood it was his father who rejected him, and Mountbatten who was kind, something we learn in this season that enraged Philip: he lost his father figure, Mountbatten and his power over his son. Tobias Menzies communicates this in a power sudden speech to Charles. His mother sees Diana as a convenience whom she wishes would take up none of her time. Like Anne, she is indifferent to this fairy tale beauty. But Charles never had a chance either; once Diana spoke and said she wanted the marriage to work (with no reasons given) in a meeting Elizabeth and Philip arrange presumably to be hear about the marriage from both of them, Charles is told there is nothing more to be said. All he has planned to say in defense of his desire for a life for himself he could have some pleasure in, for a separation and divorce dismissed. The only thing that will free him is if she becomes scandalously sexually unfaithful. So he hires detectives to watch her. And after a while she calls her captain-lover back.

What no one is interested in is her bulimia.  My real objection to the way the story is presented is the inadequacy of the way bulimia is treated. As someone who was anorexic for five years, and knows that anorexia is like alcoholism, not only do you never truly recover, it is interwoven with your whole life and comes from complex and varied causes, I find ludicrous and empty the treatment of Diana’s eating disorder. To be bulimic allows the anorexic woman (trying to be fashionably frail, thin, ethereal) to eat and thus be with other people. So when they are alone, develop a series of techniques to make themselves vomit out the food before it becomes digested. This way they can keep themselves thin, one of the manifestations of this disturbed state of mind. The apologies at the opening of the episodes where we see Diana hovering over a toilet and throwing up have ridiculously over-wrought warnings. You hardly see anything. The behavior is seen as something apart from everything else. No one tries to stop her. We are told nothing about her family life. Had the film-makers truly wanted to understand and create sympathy for this girl and then women they should have read some books and woven their findings into the story. Girls who are anorexic (as Hilary Mantel once wrote) want out: family pressure to have a career, to be admired, to marry; and the predatory demands of heterosexual sex and self-sacrificing pregnancy are too much. One area Diana apparently did shine in was motherhood. Everyone in the family treats what she does over the toilet as unspeakable. No one talks to her. Such attitudes help no one and I just know they did not help Diana.

So yes the story is treated as another instance of the price of this numinous rank, endless wealth, endless deference we see the other characters paying. But it is self-consciously intensely developed because the film-makers know that the audience is paying intense attention. Martyrdom is part of Diana’s cult (the people’s princess), she did die horribly, Charles did remarry Camilla after a decent interval.

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I’d say all the episodes of this season have power, beauty, nuance and intensity of relationships, and it’s in the enjoyment of the many small humane quietly brilliant moments that our deepest pleasure lies, so to keep all these blogs from from being overlong (as I’ve promised) I will treat at length only, not perversely, the one dedicated to Margaret, Episode 7 (“The Hereditary Principle”).


The real Margaret Windsor grown older juxtaposed to Helena Bonham Carter in this season

It was typical of all four seasons in that nothing major or physical happened. It opens with someone named Dazzle (nickname), a companion-lover coming to tell her he is joining the priesthood (see still above of Tom Burke in the role). We are shown how her husband lives apart from her and takes mistresses as he pleases. So again she is left alone, and again she asks Elizabeth for something to do; instead Margaret is removed from the circle of those called upon to substitute for Elizabeth. Elizabeth is apologetic, but this is a slap in the face. I remember in an earlier season Elizabeth being resentful of how Margaret stole the show (like Charles is being presented in this season about Diana). Sometime the series is at its best when all is implicit and one episode refers back to many long ago. Charles visits her and they commiserate.

Then Margaret is at these apparently frequent lunches with her female relatives (Anne, Queen Mother, Queen) and coughs up blood. Switch to her having a dangerous operation after which she is told to stop incessant smoking, drinking and to lose weight. She goes to a psychiatrist (Gemma Jones) although her background teaches her to do this shows weakness and it’s useless. The character can do very little to help the recalcitrant Margaret. But somehow in their talk — Margaret confesses to periods of frantic anger, madness, depression — she learns of four cousins kept in mental asylums – we have been seeing these pathetic inmates of an asylum juxtaposed with the regular story for the hour and didn’t know who they were.


Apparently (but these are actresses) the queen mother’s nieces and queen’s cousins, Katherine and Nerissa

Turns out these are cousins of the Windsors who were not been given any chance to try to have a normal life. Dazzle accompanies her on her visit to these people; she is appalled and he accepting as in “It is what it is” — that awful axiom. The world is what it is.

Margaret is horrified because she identifies. Both Elizabeth and the Queen Mother say oh their diagnosis is imbecility, idiocy — and they would have threatened the throne to let them stay about. As ever Elizabeth avoids the talk, and it is the Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) who takes it on. She is (as we have seen for four seasons) someone who is utterly conventional — even if she loved her husband, her hatred of Edward VIII came from her detestation of his bohemianism as did the grandmother’s (Eileen Atkins).

A second place and set of people are juxtaposed to Margaret: those we saw at the end of Season 3 (Episode 10, “Cri de Coeur”, scroll down to summary and commentary), Anne, Lady Glenconnor, her amoral lady-in-waiting, her husband, and all the hangers-on at Mystique Island. After the demoralizing visit with Dazzle, and a final conversation with him, where he now suggests she do like him — retreat from this world, give it up, we see her there once again dressed flamboyantly, half-drunk, singing rowdy songs, drinking and yes smoking. She looks like and is having a wonderful time. It’s empty of the depth of love she once wanted, and instead of which Tony could only give the parties and then eruptions of antagonism and sex. wn up with a husband. The last scene of the episode shows her sitting quietly by the pool in the morning. This is her sad life now — but one she half-chose.


Margaret’s public self — dressed up to go downstairs


Her private self walking about her island at night

I thought the hour moving. You need just to minus the fact these royal characters are all the types who never worry about whether they have a check coming to them for work they did this month.

We then see real photos of two of these people in the asylum grown older. They died only recently. Poor women — sacrificed for this family. The same was done to Leslie Stephen’s oldest daughter by Thackerays’ daughter — put in an asylum for life because she wouldn’t cooperate. Was difficult, stupid it was said. Didn’t respond to discipline.


Carter as Elinor who is freed and gets to live a life on her own for a while …

Helena Bonham Carter has made part of her charity and career work trying to help people who are disabled. In a wonderful film, 55 Steps, based on a real life story, Carter played someone with lower IQ who managed to get a lawyer to free her from an asylum. I wondered if she was somewhat responsible for this choice of topic. Carter said in a feature she works to help mentally disabled people because of something in her background — she is herself related to the Windsors.

If only there were more episodes like this one in the four seasons (e.g., Episode 5 “Fagan” in season 3).

Ellen

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