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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well yes.

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

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

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

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

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Augusta is made into an “old maid” buffoon

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Sondra Radvanovsky as a ghastly aging Elizabeth in the final moments of Roberto Devereux

Dear friends and readers,

If the play itself, the acting and singing, production design, direction, even most of the costumes (not all) had not been so splendidly pitch perfect, I’d have rested content with Izzy’s take on what we saw and heard yesterday. This is another of these opulent yet pared down presentations. She offers insights into so many of the choices of casting and camera shots by viewing the opera as being done to be part of the New Met Opera Experience on display for most of this year’s operas: The Modern Opera Experience II. While the stills available on the Net are except for a very few resolutely of Sonya Radvanofsky in her most trussed up and be-wigged moments, and concentrate on the heterosexual antagonistic lovers:

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Matthew Polenzani as Devereux making up to the Radvanovsky’s creepily over-made up butterfly winged Elizabeth

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Marius Kwieccien as the seethingly jealous Duke of Nottingham threatening Elina Garanca as his adulterous Duchess (in corset and shift and underskirt),

what the production did was show the aging woman declining and thrillingly bring back the homosocial pair of males from Les Pecheurs de Perles transposed to the Jacobean world:

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It is my argument that Tudor Matter has been so ceaselessly popular because it undermines the usual male stereotypes and rips apart its taboos to show us vulnerable, emotional, woman-like men subject to strong women (see my Tudor Matter: Overturning Gender Stereotypes). This subversion and transgression is so unusual in any where but high opera, it’s no wonder people flock to The Boleyn Girl, Wolf Hall, Henry VIII (where even Ray Winstone crumbles before the onslaught of his obsessive insecurities. Nottingham as played by Kwiech, Devereux as played by Polenzani broke many taboos on the way males are supposed to  be self-controlled, all guarded triumph and conventional domineering strength. There was but one strong woman in this one: Elizabeth, but it’s an opera and must pare down the number of characters. Notably too Radvanosky played the character not as a Machiavellian frustrated malicious old maid (which from Scott on was the way this magnificent queen was seen), nor the recent sentimentalizations we’ve seen (as in Helen Mirren’s film or before her Bette Davis with Errol Flynn in Elizabeth and Essex) but a woman of genuine feeling that has been searingly violated and betrayed and is now shattered, can barely walk, is bald, near death. Radvanosky was not at all ashamed to mime death.

As Izzy remarks, one has to divest one’s mind of much that is known of the real Elizabeth and Essex’s relationship at this point and why she executed him: he was incompetent militarily but he made up for this by networking conspiracy, and he was ambitious. He attempted with a group of understandably rebellious Irishmen to take over England as its leader. But there are more than grains psychological truth in story of Elizabeth’s self-indulgent demands for erotic adoration from her courtiers.  I would now like to re-see Maria Stuarda and Anna Bolena with Radvanosky under McVicar’s direction.

Roberto Devereux is (as I”ve just alluded to) the third in what has since Beverly Sills revived the Donizetti “three queens” as a series (Maria Stuarda, ultimately from Schiller; Anna Bolena, the product of an Italian poet from the 19th century working on sensibility romantic poet’s vision of the 18th century). Radvanofsky sang the tragic heroine of all three. The excellent New York Times review by Anthony Tommasini has a slide show and links.

What they have omitted to say though is wherein this opera differs from the other two beyond the sources. It is a deeply melancholy work, the music eerily distraught by end of the second act. Yes, the libretto for Devereux is based on an early 19th century romantic play, itself drawn from a later 18th century sentimental French subjective novel whose ultimate source is La Calprenede; that is, one of these enormously long 17th century French romances where a woman is made into a sort of goddess, who exists to be worshiped and emotionally tortured. But the source of the emotion is Donizetti himself. In the two years before this opera was produced (and while he was presumably writing it), his parents died, his wife gave birth to a stillborn baby and then herself died. This autobiographical origin is the source of the strange beauty of much of the music, even in the less inspired first half. I felt more genuine emotion in it than I ever have before. The translation of the libretto left thoughtful lines one didn’t have to stick to that story to respond to. Not everyone can respond to depth of grief (see James Jorden’s snark in the Observer).

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One of the reviews I read complained about the stage as boring. It is modeled on the Wanamaker theater in London, newly brought back to life (where Izzy and I saw Farinelli and the King last September in London) in all its original later 17th century proscenium stage glory. As in that play, the rest of the cast, here the chorus, acted as an audience to the main action, so suggestively we saw the faces of these nameless courtiers and ladies watching the faces of these too-often named characters. Another friend who goes to opera frequently (in England) says more attention is paid to innovative and allusive production design than even the acting and trying for stars who look right, which nowadays can trump superlative singing. (Deborah Voigt is a perpetual hostess, sings no more because she is deemed too heavy and old for the mezzo-soprano roles her voice suits.)

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Still Eric C. Simpson is surely right when he praises this latest product of the new mode of opera as much for the historical detail, symbolic figures and replications, striking costumes: McVicar has outdone himself and that’s saying something.

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Garanca

We were in a theater where the equipment has not been kept up, so while most of the time, I disagree whole-heartedly with the reiterated absurdity the HD-Met hosts and hostesses repeat obediently that there is nothing like experiencing these operas in the opera house live (yes, especially when you are at the back of the orchestra or anywhere from the second tier up), this time we were at a disadvantage and may next year go to a different movie-house. A second assumption voiced now and again is that these operas are not staged with the film audience in mind. Patently untrue. The staging is inflected to give the cameras full opportunity to do close-ups at climactic moments, far away shots as the opera say comes to a transition, medium range for allegorical effect. Again it was Gary Halverson who was listed as film director. We’ve one opera to go for this season: Strauss’s Elektra, directed for the stage by Patrice Chereau, a great film director. Doubtless he was chosen for his fame as well as expertise in film.

As we were talking about the opera over our supper later on, I wondered to myself if there is some way I could commemorate Jim’s love for opera that would somehow center on him. Alas there is not except if I regard my continual going now for the third year without him, and plans to keep this up and keeping the writing about this up as originally actuated by him and partly kept up to remember him. He would have loved this one.

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Garanca singing of her love for Devereux

Ellen

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Afterwards

Oh, my beloved, shall you and I
Ever be young again, be young again?
The people that were resigned said to me
—Peace will come and you will lie
Under the larches up in Sheer,
Sleeping,
And eating strawberries and cream and cakes—
O cakes, O cakes, O cakes, from Fuller’s!
And, quite forgetting there’s a train to town,
Plotting in an afternoon the new curves for the world.

And peace came. And lying in Sheer
I look round at the corpses of the larches
Whom they slew to make pit-props
For mining the coal for the great armies.
And think, a pit-prop cannot move in the wind,
Nor have red manes hanging in spring from its branches,
And sap making the warm air sweet.
Though you planted it out on the hill again it would be dead.
And if these years have made you into a pit-prop,
To carry the twisting galleries of the world’s reconstruction
(Where you may thank God, I suppose
That they set you the sole stay of a nasty corner)
What use is it to you? What use
To have your body lying here
In Sheer, underneath the larches?
Margaret Postgate Cole (1893-1980)

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From the first episode: Ashe (Anthony Andrews) goes down into the pit to defuse a bomb for the first time, the men wait up on the ground; we see Sergeant James (important character, Maurice Roeves) LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) and Corporal Horrocks (Ken Kitson)

Friends and readers,

I thought at this moment — after the bombing of the Brussels airport and central train station, considering what might happen short- and long-term as a result, the turn to the extreme right in South America (Brazil, Argentina) — that it might be appropriate to write about serious anti-war films, of which the 1979 Danger UXB is a mini-series you should not miss. It seems so a propos.

The stories are about a bomb disposal unit in World War Two, where about one-third of the characters we become involved with are blown up in their efforts to defuse bombs planted all over England (it seems) during World War Two. I cannot speak too highly of it — it’s the quietude and lack of melodrama with which it’s done too. One earlier episode called Butterfly Winter is about how Germans littered towns with hundreds of small bombs — how do you cope with these. How find 254 bombs in an area? One man does die when he goes out by himself too quickly, too humane; he should have waited for another member of the team to help. We just see the sudden explosions from slightly afar each time, or as they would have been seen by survivors. Then the unit commander, Brian Ashe (Anthony Andrews in one of the superior roles he enacted) is told, they rush to the spot and identify what’s left of the body. A moving scene in a church not overdone for once brought tears to my eyes.

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LCorporal Salt (Kenneth Cranham) listening to his distraught wife after he insists they must leave where they are, which she has made a sort of life for herself in (Digging Out)

Digging out is another I’ll single out (the 9th). It’s semi-famous, written by Paul Wheeler, who wrote episodes 5-8 of the 1975 Poldark series. Here we follow one of the non-officers in a unit whose wife and children live in an area of England just then being bombed heavily by the Germans. He wants leave to go to his wife to persuade her to move which move she is resisting. During the course of the hour he becomes drunk in oe of these corroded awful bathrooms I recognize from Leeds in the later 1960s — the harsh realities of every day life in England are really presented in this series. He comes across a girl caught in a collapse of a building near a bomb and risks his life and that of his mates (against orders) saving her: they are as non-officers and non-trained people not supposed to cope with bombs. He is crushed by what happens in both cases, and then punished for disobeying orders — which our hero, Anthony Andrews, head of the unit tries to mitigate.

I watched, riveted to my chair each time. I’ve found myself beginning to worry with intense anxiety over Brian Ashe, whom I’ve gradually invested so much concern for. The 8th episode they and he alone — are trying to defuse a new kind of trickier bomb — each time the Nazis make them harder to defuse. This time they must freeze the mechanism. Use liquid nitrogen. The focus in the episodes is repeatedly on working the technology right and its trickiness; instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Once the men save a young woman pinned down by a bomb and the only way they can think to save her is pull the bomb up by chains, swing it over her onto a wagon and then rush like crazy with the wagon to the sea and heave it high. The bomb explodes mightily in the water. They were dangering their lives and those of anyone in the factory. The heroine (Judy Geeson plays the part — she is to me drippy, just grates with her upper class mannerisms but she is supposed to be upper class) has a husband who works at Bletchley and he has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills psychologically; it demands an attitude of mind unnatural to people.

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The group rushes to take Ashe to the hospital (The Pier)

The final episode shows what happens to Brian Ashe as his body recovers from a blast that hits him in episode 12: I know I’ve said I’m one who doesn’t care if someone tells me the ending of whatever the novel or story is — except in some peculiar cases. Well I am that different from others that yesterday I found I couldn’t watch until I finally went over to wikipedia and ascertained that Ashe, my favorite character, did not die at the close of 8, merely very badly wounded ….

In our last hour, he is deeply depressed is the way people would put it, distressed is the word I’d use, angered at the deaths and destruction he’s seen, feeling the futility and failure of what he’s done, blaming himself, also simply in a lot of pain. The problem with series comes out in how he seems to overcome this: he wants to return to bomb disposal, and he’s not up to it. He does manage this with great pain, and the others let him risk his life to do this. They chose a bomb where only one person is needed. Two men offer to be next to him but he won’t let them — against the rules. So he is risking just his life. The problem is the show can’t help but endorse heroism and war at long last by doing this. Also the norm of the “stiff upper lip:” he apologizes to others too often.

We have a conventional toned down marriage where another set of mainstream values is endorsed. Class. The men are all enjoying themselves with working class women in jolly ways that the officers seem not to join in on; no they go off and have an elegant dinner.

It’s a kind of little upstairs (officers) and downstairs (men), with our Sergeant James just looking on at the men. He is the person who got Ashe to return, a liaison individual who belongs no where. Too serious for these working people and not elegant enough for dining. I suppose it reflects a reality but this reality while consciously shown is endorsed.

The quiet, lack of exaggeration and deep impulse to show what the experience of war is, how terrible fills each hour. I find myself having to stand by the door of a room while watching it so I can run away if anyone who I’ve grown attached to is killed — or anyone at all really. Each episode ends so quietly too, no cliff hangers. Just about every show has an important death, and often accompanied by anti-climactic behavior on the part of the people biologically, familially or by where they lived attached to the dead person, sort of flat. The men in the unit are quietly deeply disturbed but move on. Nothing melodramatic so you almost overlook it as sometimes it does not occur at the hour’s every end. It’s brought home to me how bombs are so horrifying, how they are still used — cluster bombs nowadays are used. Bombs laced with poison gas. Think of these drones. No trial to prove someone guilty of anything; a whole group of people hideously hurt, killed, their lives and futures wiped out.

Danger UXB is a work of real integrity. Writers included Jack Pulman (again), Alan Plater, other familiar names from the 1970s I recognized. It is very much told from a man’s point of view. Judy Geeson (Caroline Penvennen in Poldark) is susan, the one repeating woman character and like the others docilely domestic — almost. She has an affair with Andrews thought she’s married to a man working at Bletchley. So here too it breaks taboos: good heroines were not supposed to have affairs like this — without great trauma.

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Susan (Geeson) looking out the window — there are many such quiet stills

It’s usually talked about as having no women. That’s not so; they are not central but they are there, I’d say almost very mainstream values for women are in place. They are shown to have sex themselves and enjoy sex; they drink; our chief heroine is an adulteress. Our heroine is also ever so obedient to Daddy who is this “generous man” but of course knows she should go back to her husband and if he had not had a breakdown (from Bletchley stress) and died, she’d not have been able to become Ashe’s partner/wife at the last. So the sexuality of the programs are not presented to liberate women so much as something that pleases male viewers because of the way it’s presented. They are finally docile sidekicks. The final episode has the girl who early on presented as a manipulative tramp getting involved with Ashe’s batman, and finally pregnant and Brian Ashe’s batman marries her. Ashe has told him he need not, how does he know her baby is his? So no it’s not at all feminist. Women are seen from the outside as men see them.

The overarching struggle of the series is the education, and disillusionment and moral strengthening of Brian Ashe as he learns to be a good commander: he learns about himself and finally has this moral triumph; each episode is show the unit overcomes some technical difficulty — or not. Now Susan the one major character is a woman who does not have a lineal story of triumph; she moves from her father’s daughter, to adulteress deeply in love, back to wife to nurse her husband who kills himself anyway, and then onto becoming Brian’s fiancee; from man to man. She works behind the scenes effectively to help Brian by enlisting her father’s patronage network in the same repeated ways; at the end she’s where she was at the beginning but her emotional and moral life is so much more satisfying. Like Ashe’s batman, Salt (after the death of his wife from a bombing) becomes involved with less respectable woman, a music hall entertainer who we later meet as a prostitute; she is doing the same job for higher fees is her view. He cannot accept that and maybe he’s right. She is living a hollow life. We glimpse women suddenly made widows. Brian’s aunt is a longtime widow who apparently lives a quiet upper class gentry life where she has time to make herself available to Brian as caring stable surrogate mother.

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The mini-series’ central focus is technology: danger clever deadly device here. Instead of brute heroism, we have people coming up with solutions by technology but it’s very ambiguous this heroism. Judy Geeson’s husband who works at Bletchley has a nervous breakdown and kills himself. Sometimes the new fangled tech stuff kills too. What makes Ashe a hero is he can do technology well. Some intuition usually bettered this kind of theme: he leaves engineering school before he can get his degree so in the last program he cannot be promoted to a job higher than he had to keep him in bomb disposal. He doesn’t have the certificate. In fact he had not been at Oxford or Cambridge but was in the Technical Modern school (or whatever they used to call them). It showed up how injustice happens over these certificates and kinds of schools available to people. The paratexts opening and closing each episode show us the noise and strength of the machinery building bombs, firing them, sending them off to be used. The mini-series shows us how frail people are as they used this iron, steel and their electrical killing devices.

Some mini-series have not been re-booted; I suggest perhaps one sign of real superiority is the sense that you cannot reboot. This one cannot be re-booted; it’s not just that sensationalism has invaded and pervades the BBC nowadays but the whole mindset of integrity and true anti-war presentation (somehow not glorifying war at al and yet respectful of those risking their lives, fighting, the civilians.

A comparable work from the later 1980s shows up some flaws in Danger UXB. A Piece of Cake, like Danger UXB, has been admired as an unusual anti-war war film. It was done in the later 1980s and I’ve begun watching it. Only 6 parts it still merits discussion on the level of Danger UXB — or the recent (hardly seen at all, it disappeared in the US so quickly) Kilo Two Bravo. A Piece of Cake is about a flight squadron in WW2. It falls off towards the end, suddenly the incidents become shorter and the themes are not focused. A couple of romances start up where women are hardly distinguished from one another. (They have no coherent story.) It’s as the movie did not have the courage to paint as dark a picture of the human sides of the reality of group combat as it seemed to be moving towards.

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A Piece of Cake surprised me in two ways: first it’s ironic; the characters are presented as these admirable upper class males but as you watch you realize a couple are real shits, the commanding officer who seems so knowing and elegant and competent is a fool who thinks of war as an excuse for adventure and living in French castles where there is luxury and servants. It is unusual for a film to be ironic: to expect us to realize how inadequate awful &c characters are. One I can think of is the 1972 Emma. Its center is an unhandsome intelligence office, the actor who played Hooper (Thomas Hope) in Brideshead Revisited and is now Dr Pascoe in the new Poldark.

There is a technology theme here too: the captain at first insists on following heroic kinds of group behaviors that are not longer applicable and threaten everyone’s lives. The group must fight individually. He loses a number of men to his stubbornness. He wants to control them and be Top Male. Then the use of the technology of the airplane endangers them. There is zenophobia against their allies the French who we see them with. Again and again their own blindnesses, mores (which are after all why they are fighting), make it difficult for them to use the new technologies the way intended.

Piece of Cake shows up Danger UXB in two ways. First A Piece of Cake brought home to me how improbably nice and kind are most of the men in Danger UXB (one episode is about a shit commander, petty, enjoys tormenting the men with the “rules,” but he is outed quickly because all conspire together to get rid of him), how well meaning, how respectful between classes. In Piece of Cake they are more real — nasty some of them, use class to put down the men below, corrosive. In Danger UXB the survivors are technically very good (not physically brave or heroic necessarily at all, not conventionally), but in Piece of Cake you also have to have the kind of personality that survives corrosive competition, put downs; you must not be the person in the playground recognized to have coolies — and the second person to die was the type who others bullied and he tried to do a stunt in his plane. This level of human nature is kept out of Danger UXB for the most part. It is responsible for some of the deaths, and then having funerals conducted in ways that grate on people because too much class distinction is observed.

And far more people die in this series. I did realize that of the 12 we become really attached to in Danger UXB only 4 died and 2 we don’t know. That’s softening too. Almost everyone dies in A Piece of Cake; by the end we have a whole new bunch going up, and we feel they are not going to last much longer either — flying war planes is not a piece of cake. Churchill’s speech about their “sacrifice” registered this. Some of the actors who had individual stories and were grieved over when dead were almost nobodies when they were in it and went on to become stars (though it took time): — Jeremy Northam, Nathaniel Parker are among them. I did think the quiet bitterness of the film superb.

***************************
After watching all 20 episodes of Jack Pulman’s 1972 BBC brilliant, moving and complex, War and Peace, I’m convinced this is another such mini-series, taking its considered quietly tragic vision from Tolstoy’s book.

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Anthony Hopkins as the young Pierre, come to be there as his father dies, stalked Anne Blake by the Countess Drubetskoya, anxious lest the letter which leaves the estate to him is snatched out of his hands (Pulman’s first episode)

Notably powerful were Frank Middlemas as General Kutusov, David Swift as Napoleon.

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Angela Down as Maria Bolkonsky (another of my favorite actresses from this era) – we watch our princpals age, learn, become sober thinking adults and yet ironically remain what they were when they started, learning in effect very little in a deeper way, or unable to change or take in what happened to behave differently

As I love movies so and think watching them can be as reading a book, I’m going to watch alternatively with this (thanks to a friend), the 1966 Russian epic War and Peace by Bondarchuk, and the sadly abbreviated but intelligent and well-shaped Andrew Davies’s 2016 version. We have agreed to read this book over the summer on Trollope19thStudies @ Yahoo (hoping the site remains), starting probably sometime in June and ending September. My project for it is going to include books on Tolstoy’s book, and I’ve gotten myself an older good translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, as revised and edited by Amy Mandelker; as well as a novel focusing on Sofay, Parini’s The Last Station, and Rimvydas Silbajoris’s War and Peace: Tolstoy’s Mirror of the World. I’ll at long last listen to all of David Case’s reading aloud of this book which I gave up on twice because I was trying to listen while my husband was dying of cancer.

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Recently revived as a film, Journey’s End with James Norton (who plays Andrei Bolkonsky in Davies’ War and Peace film)

REGENERATION, Tanya Allen, Jonny Lee Miller, 1997. Tanya Allen and (a favorite actor for me) Jonny Lee Miller (Regeneration, 1997)

I had registered for a Smithsonian course in World War One supposedly centered on a group of books, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, R. C. Sherriff’s frightening play, Journey’s End (I experienced it with Jim – the whole theater is made to feel as if you are in a bomb field), but when I saw how superficially All Quiet on the Western Front was treated (out of three hours, no more than 20 minutes — if that — of discussion) and how the history was presented as top down and about elites quarreling — and how upbeat the presentations I lost heart. So I am going to try Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way (short-listed for the Man Booker), Sebastien Japrisot’s Un long dimache de fiancailles (I’ve got the translation too, by Linda Coverdale and I saw the film with Izzy when it came out) and Pat Barker’s Regeneration on my own (a film here too). When I don’t know: I hope to get to them this summer. I almost hope a proposal for a paper on Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (which I have prepared an edition of for Valancourt Press, and the editor-publisher is stalling on) to be given at a conference at Chawton Library is rejected, so I can do this.

What can I do better in the world as a reader and writer than read and write about and maybe teach such books?

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A landscape still from Regeneration

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

I’ll close on two more poems written during World War One, both by Edward Thomas (1878-1917)

Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain
On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me
Remembering again that I shall die
And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks
For washing me cleaner than I have been
Since I was born into solitude.
Blessed are the dead that the rain rains upon:
But here I pray that none whom once I loved
Is dying tonight or lying still awake
Solitary, listening to the rain,
Either in pain or thus in sympathy
Helpless among the living and the dead,
Like a cold water among broken reeds,
Myriads of broken reeds all still and stiff,
Like me who have no love which this wild rain
Has not dissolved except the love of death,
If love it be towards what is perfect and
Cannot, the tempest tells me, disappoint.

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In battle scenes from Davies’s 2016 War and Peace we see the horses dying too

As the Team’s Head-Brass

As the team’s head-brass flashed out on the turn
The lovers disappeared into the wood.
I sat among the boughs of the fallen elm
That strewed an angle of the fallow, and
Watched the plough narrowing a yellow square
Of charlock. Every time the horses turned
Instead of treading me down, the ploughman leaned
Upon the handles to say or ask a word,
About the weather, next about the war.
Scraping the share he faced towards the wood,
And screwed along the furrow till the brass flashed
Once more.
    The blizzard felled the elm whose crest
I sat in, by a woodpecker’s round hole,
The ploughman said. “When will they take it away?”
“When the war’s over.” So the talk began—
One minute and an interval of ten,
A minute more and the same interval.
“Have you been out?” “No.” “And don’t want
to, perhaps?”
“If I could only come back again, I should.
I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose
A leg. If I should lose my head, why, so,
I should want nothing more. . . . Have many gone
From here?” “Yes.” “Many lost?” “Yes, a good few.
Only two teams work on the farm this year.
One of my mates is dead. The second day
In France they killed him. It was back in March,
The very night of the blizzard, too. Now if
He had stayed here we should have moved the tree.”
“And I should not have sat here. Everything
Would have been different. For it would have been
Another world.” “Ay, and a better, though
If we could see all all might seem good.” Then
The lovers came out of the wood again:
The horses started and for the last time
I watched the clods crumble and topple over
After the ploughshare and the stumbling team.

castposing (Medium)
The cast or crew in Danger UXB acting out posing as the Bomb disposal unit posing for photos in a town they are trying to rid of planted landmines – we see how awkward it is to pose as heroes in the expected way — the mini-series has endless nuances of this type in all sorts of situations

Ellen

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From the frontispiece: Eleanor Tomlinson as Demelza with Garrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The real scripts the actors studied

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

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

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

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The originating relationship

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

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Verity and Demelza, becoming friends (from the book)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Some of the drawing boards

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

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

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

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

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The new Nampara

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Recreation of surface mining

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Catherine Dickens (Joanna Scanlon) obeying Dickens and bringing to Ellen Ternan her jewelry (Invisible Woman, script Abi Morgan, directed, produced Ralph Fiennes)

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Again, from The Invisible Woman (adapted from Claire Tomalin’s book on Ellen Ternan) — we see (among others, Ellen Ternan (Felicity Jones), her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas), her sister

Dear friends and readers,

This blog is a product of a few books on or from the Victorian into Edwardian age I’ve just read (Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, James’s The Other House), or am reading (Martha Stoddard Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, Constance Lytton’s suffragette memoir, Prisons and Prisoners, Trollope’s unabridged The Duke’s Children, and Gaskell’s Wives & Daughters); a movie I watched three times (Fiennes’s Invisible Woman) and one I’m in the midst of re-watching (the 1970s mini-series about the suffragettes, Shoulder to Shoulder). I’m thinking about these because of what’s to come: I’ll be teaching Gaskell’s North and South at the OLLI at Mason and Trollope’s first three Barsetshire novels at the OLLI at AU this coming spring. A Victorian Winter into Spring. What stands out or interests me, what unites these texts and films for me is the depiction of characters disabled in some fundamental way, and in three of them the registering of intense hostility to sexuality and/or social non-conformity and rebellion (the James novel, the real life the movie projects, and the literal destruction of Lytton’s life). What I’ve done here is edited my postings to lists and offer them as subessays on the theme of the blog: disabilities.

To begin with the most disappointing and the most stirring:

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Jenny Wren (Katy Murphy) presented with real humanity in Sandy Welch’s film of Our Mutual Friend

I’ve been disappointed in Holmes’s Fictions of Affliction, not because of anything lacking in her treatment, but to discover how little sympathy, understanding, or genuine depiction of disability there is in 19th century texts. In Fictions of Affliction I’ve discovered that what’s cared about in 19th to early 20th century stories is not disabled people as such, but whether and how they can work if they are men, and if they will marry and pass on their disability to others if they are women. People who have disabilities that are not visible, borderline, not recognizable right away are most disturbing to people; where it’s visible, there is deep suspicion they are twisted and angry or over-sexed because frustrated; or faking and exploiting weak or vulnerable people. From examples, it appears the male novelists are worst (Bulwer-Lytton, Collins), with a few women showing disabled people to be simply people (Dinah Craik, Charlotte Yonge). Dickens has pity but only for those readily labelled as crippled, and he uses them to project abjection and distress. From my own knowledge I know that Gaskell has a continuum where we see disability as part of the norm; unexpectedly (or perhaps demoralizingly) Trollope’s Signora Neroni emerges as one of the less insidious portraits. I had hoped for some general increase of enlightened subtlety.

The most moving and sympathetic over these issues is Fiennes’s cinema film, the Shoulder to Shoulder mini-series, and Lytton’s memoir. In the case of the commercial film, Morgan adapted or wrote the script out of Tomalin’s book, Fiennes directed and starred as Dickens with Felicity Jones as Ellen Ternan, Kristin Scott Thomas as her mother, and Joanna Scanlon as Catherine. What was the problem is the film-makers were unwilling to show Dickens to have been the shit he was in this situation — they cannot get themselves to. On the other hand, they show how the characters achieved a sort of fulfillment they cannot erase.

Over-solemn, over worshipful of Dickens: he was presented as this tenderly affectionate kind man, ever so reluctant to put Catherine aside but of course turned off by her fat, her sullenness, and her lack of understanding of his work.  And he is this great genius who mustn’t be disturbed at his desk. The scene of him at the desk reminded me of the Dickens’ house I saw in Bloomsbury a couple of weeks ago. Perhaps they filmed there? or modeled the room on that?
    Felicity Jones (as Ellen) asserts several times she knows joy with Dickens but there is not much evidence of this mostly: she is suffering and strained. It’s a framed story so we see her in widow’s weeds years later, now married to Wharton Robinson. Their actual life together is not dramatized; we see it from afar, in soft focus in lovely meadows and forests, all blurry, with appropriate music. Someone told me there is some evidence that Ellen Ternan came to “loathe” her relationship with CD, having told someone that, near the end of her life. Her motives for saying so aren’t exactly clear, but it is true that her son is said to have killed himself later in life and her relationship with Dickens was a factor.
    You have to know the story and about Dickens is another problem: it’s left fuzzy that she is pretending to be much younger than she is so has just erased that part of her life while (confusingly) is going about in these sombre clothes in worship of Dickens still.  They put on a play twice: in the past history and present The Frozen Deep. I’ve never read it, but have heard two papers on it and it seems to be an highly autobiographical play at heart filled with anguish. But the ordinary audience member and even people who think they’ve read a lot of Dickens, might not get these allusions to “the buried life” that we are to feel Dickens was suffering under married to Catherine. 
    How easy Dickens gets off. The film eliminates all he did to Catherine to get rid of her; we only see the parts where he rents houses for Ellen, the last away in the country where she must live alone, out of sight.  We do see him bullying Porn while playing ball (so the film-makers are aware of what Dickens inflicted on his sons in Australia). But everyone acts in ways that are very chary of the central couple’s feelings, especially Dickens. I was hard put to figure out how he communicated he wanted her to come live with him; it was Kristin Scott Thomas who announces this to her daughter. Her one bad moment from other people is when we see her on stage where it’s implied she was a miserable actress.
    The plot climaxes in the train wreck which is realized quite well — especially the photographed moments of the two on a train, she reading and he writing. It reminded me of Victorian paintings.  We do see he pregnancy and aftermath of the childbirth which brings still born baby, but these are just incidents in a chain of what comes next. The film ends with Felicity-Ellen all mainstreamed mother, caring for her children, honored and treated with remarkable tenderness by her husband. Are we to feel she is now getting over it and need no longer wander about the beach dressed in black?
    The movie questions nothing, breaks no new ground except perhaps to tell this story however obscurely to a public who might not know it and yet how tenderly all is done; we are made to feel for all the characters. there is much use of soft focus, we see characters repeatedly trying to be kind to one another. Tomalin in her biographies is often careful not to offend but she did strongly bring out how the conventions and mores of the era must’ve stifled and twisted the relationship of Dickens and Ternan. Nayder’s deep compassion for Catherine is caught in Scanlon’s performance.

Lytton
Lady Constance Lytton (F. Hollyer, 1899, note the crutch)

Shoulder to Shoulder and Constance Lytton who one can argue was (like Dickens) marching to a different drummer than those of her society: What a wonderful thing it would be to “do” this suffragette memoir with a new woman novel at one of the OLLIs. No male would register. It’d be fine.

Written by Ken Taylor (who brought us Jewel in the Crown, the 1983 Mansfield Park and other BBC masterpieces), and created a team of three women, this 1970s 6 part (75 minutes each) mini-series came into its own by the third episode. As perceptive, accurate and thoughtful as the first two episodes are (Emmeline Pankhurst), I have to admit I found it tame at first and far too upbeat for Annie Kennedy (Georgia Brown): we would not today present people so much in harmony and the servants as so deferent. All the sentiments were true and the arguments that matter are there: we are shown that unless you disrupt — and in this case as women it had to be violently — you are ignored. The fourth episode about how the two Pankhursts (Christabel with her mother) forced the Pethick-Lawrences out of the WPSU. The P-Ls gave all, their fortune, their respectability, and they were ejected. We are not told in the series what were the issues, only that a seemingly seething ruthless Chistabel insisted on it. It did leave room for thinking about issues of what should be publicized and I fear the pace and insistence on high action in the film now in theaters (Suffragette) will preclude.

It was in the third episode it came into its own. I did not know that Constance Lytton in effect died of the forced feeding she endured in prison. I had read that she dressed herself and took on a common name in order to be treated like a regular woman:without that ironically she was getting no where. But when she did her real heart condition made the treatment fatal. We are in this episode shown the force feeding to some extent: it’s horrible and terrifying and painful and clearly done with spite by the people acting. Judy Parfitt when young was much chubbier! I didn’t recognize her for a moment. She is another good, warm-hearted character (so are they all in this suffragette group) so that’s not the type she eventually did either. But she came into her own – a great actress. I can see that by losing weight off her face the strong lines and nose came out firmly but the hitherhto protected sheltered Lytton she made her role, and the whole trajectory of increasing understanding, radicalism and finally redressing herself. She is often presented a kind of crank. Not here. I know force feeding is inflicted on anorexics: it just makes them worse; the language used by the people forcing, imposing is the same condemnatory talk on women alcoholics, just as castigating in effect. Not eating is the symptom that kills, but it’s the surface symptom. I’ve begun the memoir which is also about prisons, who goes to prison and why what is done to people in prison is done.

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Michelle Dockery as the governess in Sandy Welch’s film adaptation of The Turn of the Screw

Then there’s James’s stunning novel of hatred, The Other House — I felt he hated his heroine, Rose, he was intensely hostile to his hero, Tony: her for her persistence in pressuring Tony in effect to be with her, marry her; Tony for how everyone admires and likes Tony’s brand of complacent easy heterosexuality:

I’ve read for years how James has this underlying sinister tone and how people have these dreadful insidious motives and impulses towards one another. I agreed easily or readily — as part of the underlying meaning of a book which on the surface can present pretty people (The Golden Bowl) or plausibly decent people who are monsters (Dr Slope in Washington Square, Osborne in Portrait of a Lady) or desperate bitter predators (in Wings of the Dover) or apparently virtuous people who devour and destroy others in order to maintain their own non-conformist gratifications (Maggie and her father in The Golden Bowl).

But in a way I didn’t take it seriously as it was not on the surface. David Case is the first person I’ve listened to who brings out the sinister feel of the fiction for real, and The Other House is a dreadful tale that fascinates because of the horror of a foreseen murder of a young child, Effie Bream. As I think about it strangely most of the characters are in fact over-decent, very nice: Tony the central husband male and father of Effie; Paul, a super-kindly stupid heir, probably the closet homosexual of the piece and Jean Martle knows he is relieved when she refuses to marry him. Paul’s mother, Mrs Beever who means very well wanted Jean Martle to marry her son Paul because Jean is (in the fiction truly — like a Gaskell Molly Gibson) sweetness and gentleness and all loving kindness. But Julia, Tony’s wife, Rose Armiger’s best friend, who we never meet, but dies upstairs from illness after the birth of Effie demands her husband never marry again as long as her baby is alive lest she have as dreadfully awful a stepmother as she this woman endured.

Her best friend, Rose Amiger is the book’s monster. On the surface utterly plausible well meaning guest, she wants to marry Tony herself, is apparently intensely enamoured of him. She acts hatefully Dennis Vidal, her suitor who keeps coming back to ask her to marry him after years in India growing rich (presumably on exploiting the natives ruthlessly). She loathes Jean Martle and Jean Martle knows this and is afraid of her. It’s obvious to this read Amriger is about to murder the baby so that Tony can marry Martle. She’s like some snake. She refused Vidal when Julia, her friend died because she hoped Tony would marry her — was she planning to kill the child then but that she saw Tony did not want to remarry or love her?

I don’t know that I’ve begun to convey the feel of ugly seething emotions that the surface talk which is the usual so-and-so is just beautiful or magnificent as well as the story of manipulation. My sense of revulsion reminds me of how I have felt listening to Austen’s Lady Susan read aloud. It’s as if for once a raw hatred is allowed to show. James himself somewhere in him hates these people. He hates their manipulating marriage arrangements. He hates the way the doctor behaves to order others about. He shows them all as dependent upon keeping up surface lies and repressing themselves and one another. Each time he describes the little girl about to be murdered it somehow turns her into this repugnant over-dressed little human animal.

I can see why some readers might dislike James very much — beyond the difficulties of the language in the later books. Well those who see how he indites humanity at its core.

I finished this novel where dreadful things openly occur sometime on Saturday night driving back from Pennsylvania. I had bought myself a reading copy, having discovered that the New York Review of Books published it, with an introduction by Louis Begley. He defends it, and to be sure, what is openly put before us, is one interpretation of what we suspect goes on in other of the novels. Having seen this single woman dependent on others, in love with this Top Male from afar, murder a child and be permitted to get away with it, I began to think to myself, well maybe the governess in Turn of the Screw did murder the boy, or meant to, out of desire for the employer or frustrated sexual desire. I’d always seen the possibility the governess is to blame as misogynistic as James said the ghosts were really there and they persecute everyone. They too driven by sexual desire, frustations. In other of James’s novels, children are destroyed and no one notices. The saving thing is we don’t know for sure — if you want to keep up your respect for humanity’s morality. The child’s name is Effie and I wondered if this is an allusion to the famous French novel.

What leaves me shuddering is the intensity of the monstrous emotions driving Rose – they are presented as all really distorted — did she love her friend, Julia, after all? did she hang around to marry Julia’s husband if Julia should die? She agreed to marry Dennis Vidal who went away to make a fortune as one of these (presumably) ruthless colonialists in India — as a front. Her punishment is to have to go back with him; on condition she does, she is let off by the doctor and everyone else. Begley likens Rose to Charlotte Stant who I’m inclined to see as a victim, a sacrifice to cover up a father-daughter incest love. Also Kate Croy who reminds me of Lady Mabel Grex. I feel sympathetic.

Begley suggests that the fact the novel was written just after Woolson’s suicide is important. It’s about twisted sexual desire. Is Rose in some sense a stand-in for the devouring (as James might have seen this) Constance? That’s the implication of Begley’s introduction. This was also originally a play. I’d thought the reason James’s plays failed was they were too romantic, not stage-worthy, or too melodramatic; maybe they were just too unpleasant, too horrifying in their open content as you do have to let most audiences have concrete senses of what happened. The novel has thrown a whole new light on James’s work for me. Since on Trollope19thcstudies we are planning to read one of Woolson’s novels this coming spring and did talk a lot of Michael Gorra’s Portrait of a Novel using The Portrait of a Lady to explore James’s traveling abroad.

I’ll be carrying on this Victorian trajectory. As yet I’ve found nothing to un-dismay me about the depiction of disabled people in the 19th century. I will read on in Holmes’s book for a while and dip into a vast Disability Studies, ed. Lennard Davis volume I bought at the last MLA Jim and I went to (which will now be the last I’ll ever go to) to see if I can find better individuals and when attitudes towards disabled people improved in the 20th. This sure makes Winston Graham’s depiction of disabled and autistic characters in his fiction look good. It is disappointing though and when I’ve written the review I’ve promised I’ll be relieved.

When I finish Shoulder to Shoulder and see the new film Suffragette and have gone on with Lytton, I’ll report back on that. So there’s something to be going on with.

And of course more teaching, which I have to begin to prepare for. Making Barsetshire at the OLLI at AU this coming spring will be a repeat of what I did at Mason last spring, but I’ve a new subject and central figure in Gaskell’s North and South. This is the outgrowth of a year and one half of reading Gaskell on WWTTA.

Gaskell wrote introspective domestic fiction, strange melodramatic gothics, political historical fiction,an influential passionate and great biography of Charlotte Bronte, and novels of social protest, including disability, emigration and prostitution, set across the landscape of Victorian industrial cities. Born to Unitarians, she became a clergyman’s wife, wrote fiction from her earliest years, published in magazines, and lived for many years in Manchester. Her tale of his city, North and South, centers on a strike that occurred (also written about by Dickens in Hard Times and Marx in the newspapers), on religious controversies, military injustice, the psychic pain of displacement, regional and class conflicts in romance. We will read her book against this wide context and see how it also fits into other contemporary Victorian women’s writing (e.g., Bronte’s Shirley, George Eliot and Harriet Martineau’s writing). She is an intriguing exciting novelist; and this novel will give us a chance also to discuss Sandy Welch’s 2004 film adaptation for the BBC, North and South.

North-and-South
Margaret Hale (Daniel Denby-Ashe) and Mr Thornton (Richard Armitage) meeting in Manchester in Sandy Welch’s film adaptation of North and South

I look forward to immersing myself in Gaskell once more. I hope my retired students will love it too. I see that three of the texts I’ve been riveted by were filmed by Sandy Welch (!). An affinity.

I am glad to be undeceived yet more about Dickens — though wonder why he continually has disabled characters in his books since he has such little patience with weak or vulnerable people (like his sons, how he bullied his wife); Holmes fails to explain this.

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Barnaby and his one friend, Grip, the Raven

Dickens is also very cruel to Barnaby’s mother who is endlessly punished and has to endure absurd advice and suspicion from the “hero” of the novel, Gabriel: forsooth, he is willing to turn on her lest she have had some kind of man outside marriage.

I am now not eager to read any more of James’s novellas — I feel about the The Other House the way I have about Wharton’s Ethan Frome. I never went near Wharton’s bitter raw book again, though I am glad to glimpse what might be the hidden reason Henry James instinctively kept from his readers behind a wall of opaque sentences.

Ellen

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Truth
The team (Elizabeth Moss, Topher Grace to the left) intensely anxious as they watch their TV journalism play out (2015 Truth, scripted, directed James Vanderbilt, out of Mapes’s memoir)

Dear friends and readers,

The climax of James Vanderbilt’s Truth (directed and scripted by him) is a conversation Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) have on a terrace in New York City. Very glamorous setting. Rather has decided to retire to protect himself; he is telling Mary she must knock under to pressure because she’s too young to give up the investigative journalist career ahead of her. Mapes had just delivered a documented story of the horrors at the Abu Graib prison tortures by Americans — and seemed to have such potential.

But Rather does not argue that. Instead he goes off on a tangent which relates to his own career. He tells Mary stories of early news shows, of how he was among the first to start up Sixty Minutes, and how Sixty Minutes showed a TV channel could make money on the news. The irony here is rich. The reason for the existence of new shows had been to satisfy the FCC demands that all “sides” have equal time. But now they could turn a profit. Redford as Rather looks intensely wry. His next words imply what happened was the profit motive took over other news-shows, so they all now are the product of their advertiser’s advertisements galore and exist in a universe where other news-shows have become forms of entertainment and no serious investigative reporting is done. It’s not wanted.

This movie is not getting the attention it should get nor the positive reviews for its content. It has flaws, but they are of the artistic kind (too much melodrama, too much hype), but it’s retelling of the story puts the emphasis on the right place: the rot in news shows themselves. At its center is a courageous woman.

Truth is about the rot within that we see the full results of in 2015 on not only Fox and CNN but new shows that are still respectable. We see how one reason Mary Mapes rushed her story was it was necessary to keep the ratings of Sixty Minutes high. We see how her high-powered pressuring methods were a product of this system and worked successfully within it as long as she didn’t expose the wrong group of people. It indicts the news-papers that repeated the ploy and method of the Bush administration at the time to attack the story that would have exposed Bush’s lack of any military experience just as Kerry was smeared by distorted stories of his experience of the realities of actual military life.

Thus the strongly qualified praise meted out to exploration of what investigative journalism via a TV medium has become, which is what Vanderbilt’s film, Truth, tries to dramatize unbiasedly, is disquieting. The New York Times appears to want to uphold the establishment’s judgement that these reporters at a minimum exercised bad judgement (she is “not exonerated” — from what, pray tell?), and suggests the movie is a detective story as propaganda out of political bias. In the film Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) avers that for her she was bringing out the truth, but it undermines her too: for ambition; as family bread-winner. Read also Roger Ebert’s Brian Tallerico half-dismissal; Tim Robery in the Telegraph (the actors focused on); Peter Travers strange short Rolling Stone review. David Edelstein for the Vulture at lease explains the situation, what is said to have happened, and the result : not Bush exposed, but Rather’s departure from CBS and Mary Mapes unable to work in journalism for a long time afterward — recalling Nina Tottenberg who was fired after in the 1980s she bravely exposed lies about marijuana.

I recommend seeing it though I have mixed feelings about the film. The continual hectic pace and hyped-up melodrama is at times over the top (not that TV producers don’t need to make a deadline), the message speech (true enough) shouted by Mike Smith, about to be dismissed to homelessness once again (Topher Grace as Mary’s aide), that Viacom profits are protected here is intended as deep background. But it does come across as hysteria, and the dialectic gives the man firing Mike the opportunity to call him a fool for thinking all the people in the office are evil. Mike was not saying that.

The film was also marred by its closing scenes, which included an insistent upbeat presentation of Redford as Dan Rather walking away surrounded by admiring loving compassionate faces. Those who fired Mary and were working to push Dan out, were represented as remorseful (!), and as having acted only because they had to, as nearly (the film makers did draw back) overcome with guilt because they feel for their ex-friends and associates. Right. As with a protest novel, a protest film needs at a minimum to reach the wider audience and such sentimentality is one crowd-pleaser.

I was moved at its penultimate scenes. The performances were very good: Stacey Keach as the opaque whistleblower Bill Burkett and Noni Hazlehurst as his wife.

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Hazlehurst lights into Mapes for pretending to care about her husband’s health with the implication they have used and are now discarding him for no good reason. Some watching the film may come away believing her perspective, holding to it.

In the film’s scenes nuances get nowhere. Still I can be manipulated. I was touched as the film-maker intended me to be when Mary leaned on her husband (Conor Burke), and agreed to go out for walk with him now: she’ll have plenty of time to recuperate. Vanderbilt and Mapes (as it’s her book) are presenting material much less socially acceptable than the coming film (I want to see badly) Suffragette. Who is against the rights of women to fight wars? A general political witch-hunt has been dramatized too in the story of Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston, no less) “coming soon.”

Perhaps Mapes’s caustic memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power does suggest that she became an aggressive reporter after facts and documents because her father had physically abused her, and she was standing up to him. That she worshipped Rather as a father substitute in the form of a mentor.
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Real Mary Mapes — as I looked at the photo I remembered this moment of distress, harassment, shock, sheer tiredness registered on her face

The film needed to provide a usable past for understanding the new shows’ behavior towards their journalists, and the scapegoating (witch-hunt) of these journalists as their framework. It did come close. It’s not a propaganda but a political film and the reason it may not fully convince is its melodramatic mode, not its content.

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Redford, Vanderbilt and Keach on set — Redford has done strong political films in his life

The full context of 2004 was the Iraq war, its falseness, and we do see in the film Tony Blair saying how much he wants peace (two weeks ago we read his memorandum to Bush a year before the war that Blair would support attacking Iraq), early footage from the Iraq war. The film could have emphasized this context more as when I watched it this afternoon in November 2015 I couldn’t forget the refugee crisis in Europe, the massacres in Syria, the raw violence of Afghanistan, ISIS; the Bush presidency as another step in the direction of chaos in the colonized lands, and the impoverishment blight engineered across Europe and the western hemisphere. Its topic was spot on: the origin and develpoment of “news” shows like Fox (liars), CNN & MSNBC (compromised), which are influential.

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This image is seen in the movie — it was shown by Mapes as the photo of one of the people tortured at Abu Graib, a human being suffering horribly standing as he is humiliated, de-humanized and then laughed at by that outfit

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

For me the worst thing about the film had nothing to do with its news and war politics or art: it is Cate Blanchett’s new rubbery mask-face, which her inner experience of intense drama managed to project through:

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Also Mary at worship of Dan

Poor woman (I mean Blanchett), she’s had some kind of cosmetic surgery or face-lift or used some kind of wax on her face: her face can’t do subtlety any more the way it could. In this film’s scenes nuances get nowhere anyway, but she might want to do great stage plays again. I also felt her American accent as disconcerting because together with the new false flesh mask fitted around what used to be the old facial structure, the actress I’m familiar with him seemed hidden away. Surely she did not have to do this to keep getting good roles.

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Cate Blanchett when she still had her real face: 2013, Blue Jasmine

Ellen

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