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Agatha Poldark: this is from one of her earnest conversations with Ross; but she has the same expression when she urges Morwenna that she cannot marry Drake (2015 Episode 6)


Agatha now near death, muttering, asking Elizabeth’s now frightened forgiveness because she knows she should not have responded to George’s tormenting of her with tormenting him (2015 Episode 7)

Dear friends and readers,

My header this time refers more or as much to Graham’s books, The Black Moon and The Four Swans, and the 1977 second season episodes 6-7 as it does to this new third season episodes 6 & 7. Horsfield has begun to depart as radically and anachronistically from Graham’s books as Jack Pullman did in the first season of the 1975 Poldark Episodes 1-4, which so incensed Winston Graham. She is not merely taking liberties but she is changing the meaning of the events crucially. It will be said that if this pleases and is understood by the TV audience of 2017 (much larger than the numbers of people who will read the Poldark books in question), so what? I answer the original presentation is understandable by a contemporary audience and would teach them much more about the history of women, which sheds light on their present condition. The new sensational dramas where remarkably contrivance has replaced plausibility may excite an audience more, but if the reaction of the online and paper press is any measure, the reaction is increasing mockery (see the in-house Guardian snark of Viv Goskop, on Episode 6 and Episode 7).


George’s contrived question: what would you give, Morwenna, to see Drake acquitted


Morwenna as a frightened animal caught in headlights in a traffic accident (2015 Episode 6)

Take how Morwenna Chynoweth (Elise Chappell/Jane Wymark) is pressured into marrying the sadistic hypocritical vicar Osborne Whitworth (Christian Brassington;Christopher Biggins): in the book and in the 1970s series it is a slow application of pressure; from Elizabeth (Heida Reed/Jill Townsend) and George Warleggan (Jack Farthing/Ralph Bates), from her mother, and from her sense of what her class status demands, what the norms of her society demand of her. Several scenes. As Verity wanting Captain Blamey and the abused penniless Demelza leaping at a chance to be a landowner’s wife in Ross Poldark; the widowed harasssed Elizabeth in Warleggan, so Morwenna has no “right” to “a choice of life;: subdued and oppressed by loaded phrases like “your natural place,” “your bounden duty,” “a false and romantic idea,” “obduracy” rather than the “gratitude” due someone (BM II:4, 276, III:12, 519), Morwenna falls back on vague mutterings like “I cannot see myself . . . I cannot think that this is [to be my life]”. In the book and the 1970s Elizabeth genuinely hesitates and feels unable openly to countermand her husband George’s plans for Morwenna, asking herself “why she was not more afraid of him.”. “Flight” is not an option. Instead we are given the improbable swift bargain that Morwenna agrees to marry Drake to stop George from hanging him for having Geoffrey Charles’s Bible in his cabin. In both the book and the 1970s, the threat of another riot is what gives him pause — plus he knows GC did give Drake the Bible as a gift. Is this weak of Morwenna? how do women fare up against laws and customs against abortion, supporting male rape, smaller incomes, men with power and property, the demand they marry successfully, have children? the story becames fodder for a joke.

I enjoyed the new episode 6 and 7, for all the reasons of the 2017 art (uses of montage, fine acting, the costumes, setting), but the book and the 1970s versions are in this case superior and in my summary and evaluations of these in my comments I do the two earlier episodes the respect and justice of serious recapping before we go any further. This for those who’d like to remember and for those who’ve never seen these. Then I’ll proceed to comparison.

The 1977 Episode 6


Dr Behenna pitying Elizabeth stuck with George, but giving bad advice for Valentine’s rickets


George like some dark spirit unreasonable, harassing Elizabeth (1977 Episode 6)

The 1977 Poldark Episode 7


At Tehidy Demelza charmed by Armitage


Caroline disappointed in Dwight (bored), also charmed (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Morwenna’s and now Elizabeth’s is not the only coerced relationship. In the book and 1970s Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson/Angarhad Rees) falls in love with Armitage because he is the first young man ever to court her, the first time she is romanced, offered poetry, valued for her singing: Ross was much older than she, and took her as his servant; his marrying her was ethical of him, and he has learned to value her sexually and as a wife from a realistic relationship. She couldn’t care less if he accepts a political position or not. She does see that if he did, he would do some good, and says this but she is not disgusted with him for his lack of ambition for status. Demelza? Importantly left out of this new iteration is Bassett’s (John Hopkins/Mike Hall) support of William Pitt in the book (a deep reactionary, who made of the 1790s a kind of McCarthy era) and his voiced expectation that Ross would support Pitt. This is not brought into the 1970s series, but not as much is made of either refusal. It is to Horsfield’s credit that she sees that the trajectory of the three books is to pressure Ross into compromise, into accepting the patronage system and working within it, but she is using it to present Delmelza as falling in love with a callow romantic young man. In the book and the 1970s series Demelza says she loves Ross still and after sex on the shore, much more than Armitage. People have complicated adult conflicting emotions. Certainly Ross does.


Invented scene of high anger between Ross and Demelza (not in book or 1970s) where she is disgusted because he won’t obey the world’s ways and he is angry she wants him to follow her advice because it’s hers (2015 Poldark Episode 7)

In the book and the 1970s Ross says he cannot forget his love for Elizabeth but he at the same time loves Demelza and differently, as his wife. I’ve read that the film-makers are hesitating over going on to a fifth season because Turner and Tomlinson will ask too much money. Hitherto it was also said that would demand they move forward ten years (Stranger from the Sea is set in 1810, with Jeremy and Clowance grown into young adults): should they “age” Turner and Tomlinson (a lot of trouble) or hire new actors (and lose the audience they hope is into worship for this pair of people). If so, why invent Ross’s suspicion Elizabeth’s baby is his. Why have him and Demelza give one another pointed looks over his refusal to accept any responsibility for what is happening to baby and soon young boy Valentine? The tragic results of this in a twisted personality emerges in The Miller’s Dance and The Loving Cup (Poldarks 8 and 9) and the catastrophic dark conclusion of Bella (Poldark 12). why prepare for what you don’t intend to film, especially if in the book Ross has no suspicion the child could be his and is not an 8th month baby (why would he? he hardly ever has seen the baby) until the scene in the churchyard with Elizabeth in The Angry Tide. The treatment of this in this new series is ludicrous. If you don’t want to comb or brush Ross’s hair and leave his black curls all awry (but in the era he would care for his hair or, as in Ross Poldark, he’d fear lice), don’t give this to the baby as a sign.


Obligatory romance scene between Dwight and Caroline (2015 Poldark Episode 6)

Enough is the same as in the books and the 1970s episodes to give the new drama and interpretations depth, interest, passion. Yes when Dwight Enys (Luke Norris/ Richard Morant/Michael Cadman) comes home, he is depressed and guilty that he survived; he cannot lend himself to sexual passion at first; Caroline (Gabriella Wilde/Judy Geeson) wants an aristocratic idle prestigious life and he yearns to return to his profession. Theirs is another reluctant relationship, a half mismatch. Yes there is a beautiful romance between Drake (Harry Richardson/Kevin McNally) and Morwenna, the boy Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus/Stephan Gates) values the inner spirit of Drake, who is very young and risks bodily harm to spite George with toads; who when he loses Demelza falls into a deep depression. Yes Sam (Tom York/David Delve) falls in love inappropriately with the wanton Emma (Ciara Charteris/Trudie Styler). Yes at the end of The Black Moon George is incensed at Agatha (Caroline Blakiston/Eileen Way) and refuses to allow her to have her 100th party, and she retaliates by planting suspicion in his mind that Valentine was a full term baby, after which as she lays dying she regrets having hurt Elizabeth for life this way.


Tholly Tregirls (not Jud) (Sean Gilder) is the gravedigger but when Agatha’s plain coffin is brought with no ceremony, Ross buries her — this is a moving moment

But why must we have these debasing exaggerations. At no point in the book or the 1970s does Demelza mock Sam’s religion. Emma is a daughter of Tholly but she is kindly. In the book and 1970s George does not openly rejoice at war because he is hoping to make more money; Farthing is made into a cardboard silly (transparently so) villain. Although George is deeply suspicious once Agatha alerts him, and does go about to question people (Drs Choake, Richard Daws, Behenna Hugh Dickson/ and Enys), it is not until The Angry Tide that he feels he has evidence to demonstrate that Elizabeth’s child is Ross’s son — which at that point brings ends the book in great tragedy. And neither Elizabeth nor Ross is really sure — how could they be? Horsfield disrespects her audience in many of the changes of these two episodes — or she is desperate for very high ratings (and a budget to support a fifth season).


Like Demelza Drake takes on a dog for a companion (there is a pro-animal theme in Graham, 1977 Poldark Episode 7)

Most of all what is hard to take is the violation of the characters as Graham conceived them and in the second season of the 1970s Poldarks (1977-78), to which Alexander Baron and John Wiles remained true. Demelza has made Ross the center of her meaning; he deeply bonds with her. They do not bicker; the sex she knows with Armitage is not fundamentally serious; his love for Elizabeth is vestigial. This core of validation of a marriage for love despite life’s ordeals is lost. A eecondary one is the defiance of the world’s perverse values; as in the first season, Horsfield again reverses and reinforces deep compromise (though how seriously we are to take this here it’s hard to say except we can see in her scripts art as saleable commodity). Not that Turner and Tomlinson do not play their roles with what depths they are offered from the script and direction. Elizabeth is an interesting character as is George; he is the world’s successful man, she the woman caught up because she has twice been for sale. There is opportunity for Drake to come back (as a man he is given a profession to develop his talents as a blacksmith; he gets himself a dog), but for Morwenna she is rescued too late, and is forever shattered. Sam and Emma are a contrasting pair, with Emma as a hard well-meaning (she is well-meaning in the book, not a slut) and Sam a kind idealist, who church officials want to put down as revolutionary (this is lost altogether as his religion is turned into bigoted fanaticism over sex when it is also about all souls being equal before God). The lowest are the desperate Rowella (who sees in the Vicar an opportunity to rise somehow) and the vicious state clergyman given a big income and status. She does not have sex with Whitworth for her sister’s sake (what nonsense): her sister, Rowella, does not have sex with the Vicar for her sister’s sake, but for herself — as eventually will be seen unless Horsfield changes the story line altogether in the fourth season and I can’t see how they can (I see the librarian to whom Rowella is married off is in the coming cast)


Rowella (Julia Dawn Cole) and Whitworth about to use one another sexually (1977 Poldark Episode 7)

My reader should read the books and watch the previous Poldarks which are available in good digitialized versions. See my blog on “Poldark Rebooted: 40 Years On,” and Graham’s Four Swans and The Angry Tide.

Ellen

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Friends and readers,

I’ve just read that Dunkirk is this summer’s “big movie.” In his column about it in The Washington Post, Richard Cohen wrote “since July 21 opening, it has taken in more than $100 million in North America and been hailed by ecstatic critics everywhere.” Richard Cohen professes to “admire it even more the second time. It is a stupendous achievement, although more than a little odd. It’s a film for the Trump era. It is deaf to history.” He then goes on to trash it.

My view is more akin to Anthony Lane in the New Yorker — unless I’m misreading him. I wish it were better. It is worth seeing as long as it’s not prefaced by what it was prefaced with in the AMC movie-theater I went to: 20 minutes of trailers for coming film and TV shows, each more horrifyingly violent, fascist,and racist than the one before: advertising a TV film on the Detroit riots which appears to be a Trump vision of cities where the majority of people are African-American as places of wild carnage; two films ratcheting up paranoia over ISIS and terrorist states (of which obviously the US is not one; we are the good guys). Or, one could say, in comparison with these, this is a sane decent truthful film.

What the film-makers do is attempt to make us experience what it was like to be on Dunkirk beach on those few nights. Chistopher Nolan dramatizes what it feels like to be in what MacNamara called “the fog of war.” We experience Dunkirk from the point of view of several individual men trying to escape the beach onto a ship, any ship. Nothing makes sense; there are few boats to rescue them, and the boats that have come are torpedoed by German airplanes. No false explanation, no heroics except for the people on the one small boat we are permitted to experience and the stubbornness and hysteria of those who want to live. It feels like a fragment off another movie the rest of which has been mercifully cut. That’s the point: each person’s experience of war is like a fragment and many young soldiers have no idea what the real quarrel is about or what group of people have incited it.

Cohen complains that we are given no history, no context. He is indignant because he assumes most young people (those who go most to films) will have no idea what this is about. Well, first of all there is an explanation (if brief) at the opening: this is World War Two, the British are caught on this beach, attempting to flee the Germans who are occupying France; they have been beaten back to the channel. Actually his word is “dolts.” No we are not told what happened: that thousands of small British boats (pleasure, yachts, fishing and working boats) crossed the channel and rescued some 300,000 or so off the beach. (The boats were mostly requisitioned.) A huge number of people also died, were badly wounded. The film has a right to set up suspense. Cohen is complaining that Nolan did not make the film he would have made, which appears to be a lecture on the “evil rapacious regime” run by Hitler. Worse, says Cohen, Nolan has done this deliberately since it stands to reason the conversation (if there were some — there is very little) would naturally include references to Germans. “Nolan had an obligation” to make this as well as the Nazi concentration camps and the destruction of the rich European culture of the 1920s clear. Really?

If Cohen were the only person reacting in personal angry ways, I would not be writing this blog, but a number of critics (not all are ecstatic) are indignant. Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street journal wants to know why Churchill’s role is so minimized. This is a dumbed-down film from the maker of Batman. Well, ’nuff said.’ I’ve come across ordinary people’s comments making adverse comments about the film too. The friend I went with, seeing I liked the film, didn’t want to say she didn’t, so simply contented herself with agreeing this was like a fragment (to her ears that was an unfavorable criticism), and saying “I should have read the reviews, my fault [for going].” It wasn’t what she expected.

Dunkirk, this movie, seems to have hit some sore nerve in others, made sorer by having a dangerous (evil? implicitly rapacious) man in the White House. I picked Cohen to summarize because he makes the connection openly: “This [the need to inform] is especially the case in the age of President Trump when it is necessary to appreciate that the ugliness he has exploited could escape its confines and metastasize.” My objection: why is it his age? and what makes Cohen think this ugliness has not already metatasized? Is Cohen not paying attention to the thousands and thousands of deaths in Yemen (hundreds of civilians each week), joined by hundreds killed, imprisoned, starving, in other states whose dictators Trump regularly calls to congratulate?

The ordinary viewer seems to want heroism, something monumental. This movie was apparently made on a small budget. During most of the action, we see only three Spitfire planes, and we see only one small fishing boat crossing the Atlantic. The boat makes it, and is filled to the brim with soldiers, and turns round back to the (of course) white cliffs of Dover. Where else? Two of the spitfires are shot down. All three importantly shoot down as many German airplanes as they can, because the German airplanes during this evacuation, were throwing bombs, firing, doing all they ferociously could to annihilate (one of our War Department head’s favorite words — General Mattis) everyone in sight. The proportion is right. Ridiculously, many people still think the Spitfires were glorious experiences, and in Penelope Fitzgerald’s gem, The Bookshop, never tire of seeking memoirs. There are very few, because something like 80% of the British airplanes (especially the Spitfire) were destroyed, 3 out of 4 (with all on board killed). One of the two very great anti-war BBC mini-series of the 1970s shows this viscerally; most of the characters in Piece of Cake are dead before the series ends.


Mark Rylance as the father/captain of the small boat

The small fishing boat is central. It is in this boat we experience what is best and what are the flaws in this film. Rylance embodies not so much (as Lane has it) the “gallantly narrow squeak through”, “the makeshift,” and is not just your stoic Englishman “wearing throughout the ordeal, a white shirt, a tie, and a sweater, as if he were doing a bit of Sunday gardening rather than hauling a shoal of his countrymen, drenched in oil” from death by drowning in that dark blue cold sea or bombs, fire, shots. He makes it a patriotic British film. He loses a son while crossing — killed by accident by the first numb and shuddering man they rescue, who under PTSD, becomes frantic when he realizes the boat is headed back for France and attempts to try to force Rylance to turn round. He is revealed as Cillian Murphy and knocks Rylance’s son down to the hold where he receives a fatal concussion.

But does Rylance flinch? well, maybe, but he carries on quietly, regardless. Later Murphy is seen pulling others into the boat, leg, body, arms over. All are doing their duty by this time — when they see they have a chance to live. Rylance is clearly a shining example to his second son with him on the boat. When we get back to shore, we learn a third son has been previously killed. But there he sits at the kitchen table, now drinking his tea, reading the paper while an overvoice of Churchill calling out the famous exhortation, “We will fight them on the beach …,” defending their island to their last breath.

Nolan punts at the film’s close; he gives it a close. The one Spitfire that survives is seen floating down out of gas and the man is able to throw off the glass top and Tom Hardy emerges. Elgar’s music is heard softly and then swells up. As the men arrive, the people on shore are waiting for them, blankets, more tea, biscuits, sandwiches in hand. Like some chorus in a play. Late in the film Jack Lowden (perfect as Nicholas Rostov in Davies’s TV War and Peace) is seen busy doing effective things. From afar in the train soldiers glimpse British people at work on the railways, undaunted. Kenneth Branagh is the other famous box-office pull older actor in the film: he is the grimly cheerful man, facing up to this colossal catastrophe, who stands at the head of whatever it is, binoculars in hand.


That’s James D’Arcy with him

His faith is rewarded when he sees (as we do) the flotilla of small boats speeding in, and pulling people one by one, aboard. It is moving. I don’t say it’s not. But the emotion worked up to this point didn’t need Elgar. Nolan cut one of Churchill’s often forgotten lines: we do not win wars by magnificent evacuations (words to this effect). I admit the sentence is seen in the newspaper print but I who have poor eyesight was able to read it. And until near this conventional movie ending, Noland attempts to be as true to experience as his limited budget will allows.

The film begins with a soldier running frantically through the streets of a French village (seemingly empty) leaping over a wall, to find himself on the beach, where he sees long lines, crowds of soldiers waiting at its edge. Hitherto the films I’ve seen which included Dunkirk, made it look like a party (almost); not here. If I’m not mis-remembering we see a horse killed (again just one — very economical, we can call it epitomizing). This Frenchman does manage to grab someone on a stretcher and together with another man (stranger to him) they push their way onto a boat. Later he is almost murdered by the British on that boat when they discover he is not English; at first they think him “the enemy” (not German, the word is not use); when they find he speaks French, that seems just as bad.

Attention is paid to making us experience what it is to be in a war zone directly attacked by ferocious weapons determined to destroy you (me, the individual). This reminded me of a play written in 1929 which Jim and I saw in a London theater the last time we were in England: R. C. Sheriff’s Journey’s End. the audience was made to feel through noise and lights that bombs were raining down on us – as they would have the men in the play. That’s why we are not told the names of the individual stories we glimpse. What happens is and slowly he begins to talk and act to help others. Of course he helps others.

There are no women with real roles. We see them in the teams of people down in a hole in the boat, on shore, serving food, handing out blankets. This is kept up and is a conscious choice for when Rylance and son get home, there is no wife/mother at the table. See Meherer Bonner’s well-taken complaint about having no women; on story lines they are over-rated and impose meaning. This film displayed the meaninglessness of death; it held no briefcase for justified “good” wars. On this watch Howard Zinn’s lecture on three “justified” or good wars: the US revolutionary, the US civil war, and World War Two.

But in our time where what is shown to us in films is cruelty, inhumanity and torture almost as a norm, deep distrust and far from social behavior, individual ruthlessness, this is tonic. It is good. No it’s not a true expose, like Danger USB (the other great mini-series of the 1970s, about a bomb disposal unit), not searingly anti-war so that you not soothed, cannot be mistaken, like Kilo Two Bravo. Kilo Two Bravo was not distributed in the US (though it was in the UK under the name of the place where the British troops came upon a landmine, Kajaki). Dunkirk is reaching a huge audience.

I wonder how it would compare with the 1958 Dunkirk with Richard Attenborough and John Mills. The reviews declare this older film to have been one of the best war films ever made (!): the wikipedia article shows this earlier Dunkirk was presented with a historical context.


Richard Attenborough, John Mills (Platon Karatayev in the 195 War and Peace), Bernard Lee

Quite a number of people on my Trollope19thCStudies listserv at Yahoo have been moved to tell of parents, grandparents and if they are old enough, their own memories or experience of Dunkirk. It is not that long ago. I had a friend who was on the listserv for a few years (not a Trollopeian, she gave it up), who would tell me of what it was like at age 6 to hear the German airplanes come over the channel nightly. It’s only 90 miles. Nowadays if a soldier carries some form of iphone, he may be kept informed – though not of the larger picture or politics. I had an uncle “missing, believed killed”in World War Two who it turned out was not killed; he hid out on an Asian island. When he returned home, he acted differently than most people: he would not go to parties or large gatherings of people; he’d break off suddenly in response to others, but would not say what had bothered him. He was a fruit and vegetable peddler in New York City for a while, and then was given a job (compensation) at the post office. He slept in a separate room away from from my aunt. There were no children. I feel my aunt led a sad lonely life. They had been married before he went away to war.

Ellen

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Episode 4 again emphasizes Demelza’s self-reliance: she is shown to give birth with just Prudie’s help (Eleanor Tomlinson, Beatie Edney) — this is one of Horsfield’s additions


Episode 5 ends in moving funeral for Captain Henshawe (John Hollingworth — another actor who will be missed), with again the emphasis on the group, the community, here upholding E.M. Forster’s value of friendship before any abstraction (“country” aka nationalism)

Friends in Poldark,

I thought the series went onto a new level of power in Episode 5 especially it had not quite done this season thus far. All the new additions of motive and feeling (scenes, dialogues not in the book) and all the changes (having Caroline and Dwight married before he goes on board ship, making George a magistrate and inventing all sorts of scenes where he is egregiously unjust to the starving, homeless, jobless whose plight he and his kind are largely responsible for) come together to give an undertow of intense emotionalism in the story of the rescue of Dwight. In the book, Black Moon and in the 1977-78 mini-series, while we have the romance of Morwenna and Drake seen against the backdrop of the Rev Whitworth and his aristocratic mother selling themselves to marry him off to a connection of George and the new capitalism, the intense antagonism of George and Aunt Agatha, the actual adventure is done at length with no interruptions – and it is well done, carefully showing just how dangerous it is to each individual, no step left out, in ways that leave no room for sentimental emotion. In the book an 1975 movie it’s Joe Nanfan who is murdered and he is not as important an individual presence as Captain Henshawe, so there are no deeply moving grieving scenes, no funeral at episodes’s end. There is no doubt – testing this on my own response that this particular new Poldark episode is far more inwardly felt than the previous comparable one. We do feel intense camaraderie: Ross is like (to given this a very contemporary spin) the small boat owner played by Mark Rylance in the movie Dunkirk: the deeply loyal person who will not throw his friend under a bus, will risk his life, lose lives that mean much to him.


If you can see him in the dark, Dwight (Luke Norris) in the dungeon prison, intensely startled to see “Ross!”


One of Turner’s great moments as Ross in this episode: “My friend” (they have come for him)

In the new Poldark the adventure story is continually interrupted, that is we move back and forth between it and George and Elizabeth’s failed attempts to ingratiate themselves into the aristocracy of Cornwall. We are ever switching back to see George and Elizabeth’s ball to which the important people do not come and then to a ball which George and Elizabeth were first not invited to. In the book and in the 1977-78 film Caroline is still somewhat estranged from Dwight and knows nothing of what’s happening to him, is not involved in politics at all; in this new Poldark she is politicking first to find out if Dwight is alive, and then simply because she feels she must and she takes Demelza to the second ball with her.


Before the second ball, Elizabeth (Heida Reed) knows the necklace is overdone, too gaudy, showing insecurity


George (Jack Farthing) seething with resentment: “Extravagant?”

We see George sneering at Ross while we watch him risk all, and when Lord Falmouth turns from George in disgust after we have watched Dwight in prison with Armitage (Falmouth’s nephew by his side), George looks mean and contemptible. In the book and 1977-78 versions we hardly see Dwight until Ross rescues him; but in this new one a skein of scenes shows Dwight working hard to save people who are then taken out and shot for fun; Dwight active all the time whether crying or ironic, starving yes, but basically coherent. When in the book and 1970s Ross finds Dwight he is half-mad, very sick, very weak, trying desperately to save people but not managing it, and unaware of Armitage’s presence. The book and 1970s version are more probable; the new one more romantic and heroic and emotionally wrenching.


One of Dwight and Morwenna’s many love scenes by the sea (Elisse Chappell, Harry Richardson)


Horsfield’s Whitworth (Christian Brassington) is not the menacing, class-climbing sadistic hypocrite of the book or 1970s: but a slightly comic figure who looks down on George

She has reversed events and strengthened the sexual and religious and economic politics (see Irish Times for what this Poldark series has to say about “late stage capitalism”):

If you look at the changes that Horsfield made, they are all in the direction of showing that the judiciary run by Warleggan, a vicious man who fires people from a company and destroys the company if it’s not making big enough profits for him and shows Ross and Henshawe powerless unless Ross agrees to become an instrument either of Falmouth or Bassett, people transported, hung, put in prison to starve to death or die of disease – are all in this direction. The theme is in Graham and the 1970s, but it is taken much further in 2017. What is this but a reflection of the present reactionary Tory and fascist US rumps running the two gov’ts.

In the older Poldark George discovers Drake’s relationship with Geoffrey Charles and love affair with Morwenna before the final rescue, so Ross makes his effective threat that George will face an intensely raging rebellion if he does not free Dwight first; in the new one this will occur in the 6th episode and after to the forced marriage of Morwenna to Whitworth (in the newer one Morwenna is blackmailed into marrying Whitworth in return for Drake’s freedom, which is wholly unlike the book; in the book she is terrified and morally beaten into this;the older Poldark thus seriously questions the morality of obedience to authority). The older Poldark makes much more of Valentine’s rickets because the older Poldark shows Elizabeth as a loving mother to Valentine – and not someone succumbing to drugs to enable her to cope with life with an intensely malignant fierce George as she is in the new Poldark. Both show Sam intensely worried for his brother, but the first has a kind sweet Sam and the second hostile to love from religious bigotry. The newer Poldark makes it much clearer that the English state is funding a French emigre invasion which Ross hitches onto because Horsfield wants to make a political point that the emigres only make the aristocrats hated further; in the 1970s Baron made the lead aristocrat a very sympathetic comrade and shows us his murder by the French revolutionaries. It’s not clear what his politics are. Aunt Agatha is made more needling but much more pathetic in the older series (Eileen May is intensely memorable in the role); the new Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) is smarter, harder, stronger in the new series – I enjoy the use of the tarot pack as a symbol.


Aunt Agatha telling Morwenna she cannot marry Drake Carne and she endangers him ….

If you allow for a film-maker’s right to make an effective film for her time (and Graham in a letter on Hitchcock’s Marnie, was very open to this), then Horsfield’s version is as valid as Graham’s and Alexander Baron’s (he wrote the first 8 episodes of the second season of the 1970s Poldarks, basically covered The Black Moon and half of The Four Swans). They are just different. How to account for the differences in the art It’s not political vision for book, and both versions are exposing the cruelties of capitalism, the irrationalities of hierarchy, the cruelty and coerced sex of forced marriage for money and rank. Horsfield is decidedly more against the French revolution (presented as insanely violent) but she is also far more explicit about the causes for this: the starving and injustice, the helplessness of those with no office, no power. I think Horsfield’s film has the two sets of episodes going at the same time in order to make her work more full of incident as the mode today is many shorts scenes of high intensity. You are not allowed to concentrate on single story. There is loss and it is the same loss found in the first and second season.

I praised Horsfield’s scripts last year after I got the two books and was able to sit down and read them. They read well, but somehow when acted and directed, they do not come across with any of the complexity and facility of the older scripts which feel like very effective dramatized novels. Last night I rewatched Episode 5 (the rescue of Dwight and death of Henshawe with added scenes of failed politicking for George) and then the incomparable Episode 4: even in the Morwenna/Drake story, there is nothing comparable in the new one to Drake’s accosting of Morwenna in the church, and demanding why she is giving in, and her explanation, defense and grief. My feeling is the new directors just don’t give the actors time and space and some of them are not as good. I feel that the newer actors are less subtle but this may just be the result of the demand they project large emotions quickly and then move on.


Caroline (Gabriella Wilde)’s reunion with Dwight: she is witty: Do I detect Scorbutus?


Dwight as ever holding back, more earnest and serious ….

I want again to say as I did last season that the new actors and scenes have entered my dream life once again and compete with the actors from the older series. I am anxious to reread the books and long to go to Cornwall once again.

I have put specific comments on the equivalent episodes in the older series in the comments (4 and 5).

Last on a TV channel one may find a screening of the 1995 single time (2 hour) film adaptation of Book 8 of the Poldarks, Stranger from the Sea.

This earlier version was a flop, partly because the fierce pro-Ellis-Rees fan club adamantly dissed it and got people not to watch, and partly because it was a 2 hour non mini-series which dropped the interesting larger theme, anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist in the novel. The novel includes in its purview a dramatization of the peninsular war and the American corporations which were big funders refused to include it — they wanted pure romance. It is actually an interesting film (Mel Martin and John Bowe deliver creditable performances as and older Ross and an older Demelza) if you are willing to allow the larger political and social themes of the Poldark novels to be eliminated …

Ellen

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George (Jack Farthing) and Elizabeth (Heida Reed) overhear Sam and his “flock” singing (Episode 3)


Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson) looking down thoughtfully, worried — her care, her concern, all her activities show her to be the conscience of this episode

It would take too long to analyse the creative stirrings and conflicts which decided my change of course … it may have been my absence away from Cornwall at that time, which was one of the factors conducive to the return to the Poldarks — Graham in Poldark’s Cornwall

Friends and readers,

I regret to say I was not able to watch Episode 4 for even a second time of this third year of Poldark films, and I can’t come near Episode 5. I’ve a DVD copy of episode 3 and uncertain memories of the new episode 4. If the BBC would allow non-UK residents to pay the license pay (in effect support the network), I would be delighted to; but I am given no opportunity as a US computer, to support these channels. A quick summary of the central trajectory of Black Moon as it evolves from its hard opening on George and Elizabeth waiting for the birth of Valentine: Ross still cannot get himself to join a corrupt Parliamentary outpost of a gov’t. Ross and Demelza are invited and go to two different powerful political establishments; we see her holding her own. I also wanted to see if the new Horsfield team reached Ross’s rescue of Enys (and as a bye-product, Hugh Armitage) from the French prison, the return home to Caroline and Demelza, and a new let-down after Ross does not take two different offers of roles in powerful organizations (local Justice of the Peace which had been Francis’s and MP under Bassett’s auspices). The Black Moon is the first Poldark novels not to end on a reconciliation of Ross and Demelza; here it’s Aunt Agatha cursing George because he forbids her a birthday party, and sowing seeds of doubt about Valentine’s parentage, and Elizabeth’s perhaps not early parturition.

What cannot be too often stressed is 20 years went by between the first four Poldark novels (Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan) and the second three (The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide). Much life and change has gone by for Graham; he is now not an outsider trying to break into literary society; he’s at some of its centers in London. In this novel Graham is struggling to get back into his material, to bring his characters back to life after 20 years of life’s experiences for him. A good deal of The Black Moon is taken up by politicking with society — reflecting Graham’s own life in the literary world in the between time. No longer is this a story of two people who don’t fit in, their turning to one another and away from their Cornish societies. It’s not a private story at all; as a historical fiction, it is about the intertwining of public and private life.


Demelza, Zacky Martin (Tristan Sturrock) and Sam Carne (Mark Frost) disappointed because George is now refusing to honor Francis’s promise

Demelza’s words bring out how the thriving of a community is the central ideal/norm of this new mini-series


The church Francis (Kyle Soller) promised them

Grief this structure is being allowed to corrode and vanish ….

The weakness felt in both mini-series adaptation is the film-makers want to keep Ross and Demelza at the center as they are the most sought-after popular characters (so they feel) while in Black Moon the Warleggan group are frame. They also don’t want complicated scenes of politicking; both series seek to simplify what happened and give us but one politicking salon. What to substitute? Alexander Baron’s scripts show how in 1977 the expedient was to bring forward the small scale invasion of Ross and his mining-friends into France, Ross coming near senseless execution, and do these swiftly with intense suspense, action, excitement. Both mini-series show how and why methodism is seen as a radical threat to property-owners and the powerfully-connected. They both keep Drake’s mischievous plantings of frogs to torment Warleggan.

But they both marginalize the core of the three books: that Ross gradually learns he cannot be free, and must take responsibility. Instead in both George’s paranoia is played up so he begins to believe that all that occurs on his property which he can’t control (and comes out of the methodists, and Drake’s affair with Morwenna) is set up against him has been engineered by Ross. By Ross’s having refused the position, he leaves his fellow Cornishmen and women at the mercy (but George has none and no sense of justice) of a cold ruthless corrupt tyrant. Horsfield has added scenes showing George to be an utterly corrupt MP and Justice of the Peace: knowing the son of a powerful man has been arraigned for brutal rape, George makes ground for himself by accusing the girl of perjury; we see him transport starving people who killed one bird. Horsfield also brings out much more strongly and early that Elizabeth is horrified by George’s behavior, put off by her own child (by Ross) and cold to the baby; and to live with herself in this condition, resorts to laudanum (Godey’s Lady’s Drops were very popular in the later 18th and early 19th century — what pain-killers were there?).


Shots of several swans together threaded through signal that material from The Four Swans is in this episode — there are now five, including Verity

She has added Verity to the mix (who is marginalized in this later trilogy so that Caroline becomes Demelza’s close friend): in the new Poldark Verity provides a contrast to Elizabeth in her genuine fulfillment and love of her child; she provides a reinforcement of Demelza and Caroline’s fears that neither Ross or Enys will ever come back when for a time Verity is led to believe Captain Ramey’s boat was shipwrecked (this latter wholly made up by Horsfield). Demelza provides contrast to Verity and Elizabeth too: she is developing into her own woman, making decisions about the property and people while Ross is gone.


Ross (Aidan Turner) and Tregirls (Sean Gilder) at Callais

I thought as a whole Horsfield’s additions were justified; the way she presents George and Elizabeth so starkly is theatrically effective, and she does keep and match the sublime and touching scenes of Drake and Mowenna falling in love at the seashore and delving caves while Geoffrey Charles bonds strongly with Drake. Here they are as they meet, intensely happy over the coming few hours together:


Geoffrey Charles (Harry Marcus) — the most forward


Drake (Harry Richardson) — catching up,a little gingerly


Morwenna (Elise Chappell) — not far behind, and self-contained, remaining “proper”

I also thought very effective the way Horsfield and the actor developed Sam’s character and his slowly creating a congregation for himself, and then when George will not honor Francis’s promise to give Nanfan and other dissenters a place for worship, finding through his sister on Ross’s land another building. On the other hand, Horsfield too much buries the central thread of these three books: Ross’s bringing himself to act centrally in his world through office. But she does have him brooding about not going and makes a big fuss about how evil George is, so this thread may become major by episode 5. (For the comparable Episode 3 from the 1970s, click here).

When I’ve gotten more material, namely on DVDs episodes 4-5 at least, I’ll write a longer blog taking the art of the two mini-series into account. I am pursuing my book project and have read a series of non-Poldark novels and seen two superb non-Poldark films (Hitchcock’s Marnie, and The Walking Stick). I expect to write a blog on these books as a group (The Little Walls, The Walking Stick, Marnie, The Tumbled House; Greek Fire) and how Graham’s work seems to lend itself to development in film. I’ve two to go: After the Act, and Angel, Pearl and Little God (almost made into a movie starring Marlon Brando), and then I’ll try a few short stories.

While there are stretches which show the same man wrote the suspense stories as the Poldarks: the use of a loner who gradually emerges as part of the central group (this is a LeCarre motif too so perhaps part of the suspense novel’s tropes); both Poldark and non-Poldark books have the action-adventure risks of theft, of disobeying central laws and getting away with it (or not). Nonetheless, Graham’s travel books and articles on Cornwall general and autobiographical, writing about his writing, need to be treated separately — as also his sheer life-writing. The genre he was writing shaped everything he wrote so they can almost seem works from a different man. (One way he differs from DuMaurier beyond the masculinis perspective is she remained in this historical-romance in Cornwall genre.) Perhaps I should call these not non-Poldark books but non-Cornwall ones (though some of these suspense stories are set in Cornwall). Cornwall is key.


A Cornwall estuary

Ellen

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Halse (Robin Ellis) and Ross (Aidan Turner) discuss the death of Ray Penvenen (John Nettles, a man of integrity, conviction, but also rank, thus standing and considerable wealth in land) (3 Poldark 2)

“Many years ago I wrote four novels about the Poldark family and eighteenth century Cornwall. After finishing them, the modern world [and suspense novels intervened]. Eventually the idea of writing another book about them came to be something not really open to serious consideration. But sometimes the totally unexpected occurs,and one day, for no discoverable reason, it became necessary for me to see what happened to those people after Christmas night, 1793 … to return to an old mood was as much of a challenge as creating a new one. The Black Moon is the result” — Winston Graham, Author’s Note prefacing The Black Moon)

There are three sets of dates: One for the time the novels were written by Graham (the first four 1945-53, the second three 1973-77), one for the time they are said to be occurring (1783-1793, 1794-99 respectively) and now two sets of dates for the film adaptations which mirror the 40 years apart eras they are filmed in (first series, 1975-78, 2015-2017).

“That part of his character [Ross’s] which made him so critical of authority also worked against himself. The same faculty which questioned the rightness of the law and the lawmakers was sharp to keep his own actions under a similar scrutiny … ” (Graham’s The Black Moon, towards the end of the book)

Friends and readers,

How unexpectedly fitting. I begin my series of comparative blogs on the new and older Poldark films a day after Graham’s 109th birthday. On his blog, Robin Ellis (once Ross Poldark) announced June 30, was Graham’s birthday: he had been born June 30, 1908, Victoria Park, Manchester, where his one historical novel not set in Cornwall, Cordelia, written 1949, takes place.


Winston Graham, 1945, around the time he wrote The Forgotten Story and Ross Poldark (thanks to Jim Dring)

Ellis has not been permitted by history, his fan base, and his later career to dismiss his role as Ross, even if he wanted to, which if he ever did (and he must’ve) he has long given up.


Robin Ellis, recent promotional shot, Truro

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Aiden Turner as Ross first seen in the new series


Robin Ellis as Ross, coming home to Demelza (and Jud) from the wars in wars, early scene in older series

These blogs are based on the mini-series as now aired on BBC. This first is on the first two episodes, adapted from The Black Moon and imitating some of the previous mini-series (especially the way the Morwenna-Drake love scenes on the beach are done). I compare them to the older series, for which I provide summaries and evaluations in the commentary and both to the fifth Poldark book, The Black Moon.

I begin with the second episode of the third season of the new Poldark (2017), Ellis is again in the new series, and a pivotal moment. Now he is Rev Mr. Halse (Robin Ellis) in the scenes from The Black Moon (5th Poldark book, 1794-95). Ellis as Halse is given role in the book given to Ralph Allen Daniel (a real local landowner, magistrate at the time), an offer in The Black Moon to become Justice of the Peace (in this latest mini-series episode an MP, a very different role, not local). Ross, wrongly he realizes (ever so slowly), partly because the profoundly vindictive, punitive, reactionary capitalist George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) takes the powerful position (including tax and fee rates, punishment, legal procedures).

We can measure the distance of the first four Poldark books (written 1945-53, Ross Poldark, Demelza, Jeremy Poldark, Warleggan) from this trilogy written 20 years later, (1973-77, The Black Moon, The Four Swans, The Angry Tide), upon which the third and two seasons at least next must be based. In the second Poldark series, Graham chooses to realize truly historical characters (not just invented ones), linchpin capitalists and great landowners, Tory (Lord Falmouth, from mother’s side a Boscawen) or Whig (Sir Francis Basset, later Lord Dunstanville). Not fantasy figures at all. And in both episodes Ross is deeply conflicted over what he has done in the past, and what he should do for the future, and at the close seems to have decided retreat into his nuclear family and friends is the best right option. He will discover that he is wrong here.


Ross and Demelza (after credits and wild scene of Ross stopping Elizabeth from going over a cliff) reflecting on their way of life: she wants to know if he is avoiding thinking about something


He will not let her see inside him, and tells her, she, on the other hand, thinks too much (he means aloud)

The pace of the Poldark world novels has calmed down in the second realization. Graham says in Poldark’s Cornwall, it was “like breaking into a sound barrier.” It’s a lot slower, far more attention to the particulars of politics in the 1790s in Cornwall, London and France. And that is part of the difficulty both mini-series had to deal with. They somehow have to get some of this new matter in. One can see this in the new realization which is far more consciously political. Yes the newer Poldark mini-series is again much more melodramatic than the older, without comedy, literally closer to the books, using cinematographic techniques, montage, interwoven juxtaposition and parallels a lot more than the older series. And a strong depiction of a community, a way of life. But both fill in matter, the 2017 even more so. For example in the newer series, added to Elizabeth giving birth, and all the mortal dangers that brings, Debbie Horsfield has dramatized the death of Ray Penvenen


Caroline Penvenen Enys (Gabriella Wilde) grieving over her dead uncle (from sugar sickness, i.e., diabetes)

and the death of Demelza, Drake and Sam Carne’s father — both referred to at the opening of The Black Moon, but not made into parallel episodes.

Much less is doing in The Black Moon than had been happening in the previous four novels. So Horsfield and before her the great Alexander Baron (the scriptwriter for the first four episodes of the 1977 Poldark, he was a fine novelist and wrote many BBC screenplays for powerful mini-series in the 1770s, especially for Dickens and the 1983 Jane Eyre) invent, they fill in, they don’t get to Elizabeth’s childbed with Valentine until Episode 2, which scene opens The Black Moon. Horsfield also has her characters commenting on the action, reflecting on their behavior and choices, with a (to me) odd didactic effect. Baron’s older series had to deal with the problem that the dramatization of Warleggan had so departed from the book that Trenwith was supposed burnt down and Ross gone for a couple of years fighting in France (they have to bring Ross back, invent a new house, explain who Aunt Agatha is), but there is a skilfull sophistication of dialogue, very novel-like, more subtly suggestive so Agatha in the older series (Eileen Way) really needles George (Ralph Bates) slowly, spitefully, something the new Agatha (Caroline Blakiston) with her relationship with Elizabeth (Heida Reed) is only said to be doing.

I’m not going to recap this year, but leave my readers to read one of the many that turn up on TV blogs (more probably in the autumn, when PBS broadcasts a probably much re-arranged and somewhat abridged version of the third season), even if they are snarky and trivializing or downright mocking (see one, and two). Rather I’ll evaluate selectively in terms of the previous series, attending to how both connect back to the books. In comments I’ll detail the plot-design and events of the 1977 series (click for Episode 1 of the 1977; and click for Episode 2, much more briefly) since they were not recapped originally and are of great interest.

I hope to stir the reader to return to the older series and also read the books. Here are my two blogs on Graham’s Black Moon: Re-entry, Land, politics, love and coerced marriage, religion and revolution; Violence the basis of this order.

My first response is as all previous encounters: I think how this not as good as last year (in this third season the dressers of Ross are back to allowing him to have utterly unkempt hair), and neither as effective, uncompromisingly like the books in spirit, as the 1970s films. Yet — as in previous encounters I admit Horsfield is following the general story and at moments more literally true, elaborating seriously on what is in the books. The 1970s equivalent did not show Elizabeth trying to get rid of the child or bring on parturition, and crudely or melodramatically as Horsfield had the actors clash (Turner as Ross just happens to be on a cliff where Elizabeth seems to be trying to throw herself over); these are incidents George half-glimpses in the book whose significance he fails to understand. It is made pointedly clear in episode 1 that Ross and Demelza (Elinor Tomlinson) believe Elizabeth’s second baby’s father is Ross. Ross cannot resist hanging around Trenwith; after the baby is born, we see him running frantically on the beach to calm himself, bending over in twisted ways frustrated that he can do nothing for this son; Demelza justifies her returning to see her father die despite his abuse of her because there is a special bond between father and child which must not be ignored. Horsfield is developing cores of the books:

I’ve read that Horsfield and Co are not eager to go on to Books 7-12; if so, they are making an implicit fuss about the possible fathering of Valentine by Ross to little purpose. She has added in episode 2 that Elizabeth does not like her new baby, will not hug or soothe him (Verity notices how cold she is): this is not true of Elizabeth in the books: she may favor Geoffrey Charles, but she loves both her sons and shows concern, solicitude, tenderness towards both (far more than she ever did towards Francis her first husband, or George now). Ross’s indifference towards his son, leaving Valentine to endure the mistreatment of George, the stepfather reaches a tragic and twisted climax in Bella (Book 12). It is all over the new series’ nuances, from Ross’s concern, to his guilt, to Demelza’s warning, in the pointed talk about who the new baby resemble, George’s overdone pride in his “heir.” Graham’s Black Moon is quiet about this until near the end when driven by Warleggan’s cruelty to her, Aunt Agatha suddenly rouses his suspicions in a way never to be undone. The 1977 film only hints at this in Prudie’s suspicions that this eighth month baby is a ninth money one (Episode 2) and Aunt Agatha’s final revenge when George forbids her party and she details what a eighth month baby should be missing (which Valentine is not missing).


first shot of intensely sincere Sam, by his father’s bedside

Sam’s (Tom York) religiosity brought out far more. Both were much more melodramatic than the previous series and sometimes look like travel ads, and there is not quite the need for Turner to charge across the landscape regularly. These lead to implicit silliness, but much is good. The Morwenna-Drake (Harry Richardson and Ellise Chapppel replace Kevin McNally and Jane Wymark, whom Richardson and Chappell resembles) scenes are very well done and touchingly done at length. Horsfield brings out how radical politically the two brothers are — somewhat unconsciously


Morwenna and Geoffrey Charles — on the beach, by the seashore


The sweet Drake will lead them into mysterious caves

What she has done that is interesting and new in an original way is reverse events we are shown. The emphasis in the book is on the Warleggan household — partly Graham was feeling his way back after a 20 year hiatus. We begin and end there in The Black Moon. Alexander Baron filled in far more of the Nampara household, but he did not try to rearrange so consciously, and kept Ralph Bates and Jill Townsend to the fore in the story. Horsfield makes a strong effort to show that Elizabeth is learning to dislike George very much (she does not in the earlier series as she is with George in his reactionary hierarchical attitudes, equally resentful of the Carne brothers, though reasonable and judicious). Horsfield is characterizing the era culturally, giving us a sense of what farm life and mining again (the second episode opens on the mine as so much of the first two seasons did) was like.


Verity and Elizabeth


Agatha saying goodbye to Verity — Verity brings out the best in everyone

We have Verity (Ruby Bentall replaced Norma Streader) added (she begins to become a minor character in the second three novels and disappears altogether in the later ones) and her baby, and when it’s thought that Dwight has either drowned or been killed, Verity is led to believe her husband’s merchant ship was lost in a storm. This is another attempt to reinforce by inventing parallels, in this case (I felt successful) because of the power of the actress’s presence (and our memories of Richard Harringtno as Captain Blamey from the previous series). I liked this quiet prosaicism and thought it was carried out mostly by Eleanor Tomlinson in her role as Demelza. I find regrettable Horsfield seems to feel she must characterize the revolution as senselessly violent, and give strong anti-liberal thought talk to Ross and the new Sir Francis Bassett (John Hopkins) at Bassett’s political salon.

There is strong acting, especially among the older actors: John Nettles’s death as Ray Penvenen is to be regretted as he was such a force on the screen; Ellis is again pitch perfect as Halse (he has a real feel for the era). John Hollingforth as Captain Henshawe, Richard Pope as Pascoe. Among the younger actors, Luke Norris (replacing Richard Morant) as Dwight Enys is utterly believable when called to help Elizabeth give birth, married to hard Caroline (politically at any rate), and in closing brief shots seen aboard ship, using overvoice to pen his letters to Caroline, captured, escaping, and then doing what he can to relieve the suffering of the other victim-prisoners in the French prison.


Luke Norris as Enys at the moment of capture

The new series is luxuriating in the number of episodes (10, 60 minutes each) they have been given for 2 and 1/2 books (The Black Moon and The Four Swans will be covered this third season), while the older one was held to a strict four episodes of 45 minutes, with one extra for each of the three novels (they covered all three in 13 episodes). This might account for the more meditative and reflective quality, with more invention of back stories not in the book in the new series, but it is surprising how much the older series included, and they did not drop characters as is now done here.

Since Phil Harris as Jud was not used as comic or subversive foil the way Paul Curran had been, now dropped with little explanation, he is not missed as much as he would be. We’ve never had the moderating Nicholas Warleggan of the book (and older series, presented as a man who is diplomatic and prefers to be honest), only the cutthroat sneering [uncle] Cary (Pip Torrens). There is still little comedy.

The Warleggan (Jack Farthing) of this first two hours is over-the-top in his egoism, drive to ape “his betters” and chip on his shoulder; he is in effect a fool, ruining his own marriage by his coldness; by contrast the Warleggan of the older series (Ralph Bates) was motivated by a passion for Elizabeth, and more inward genuine complicated feelings. The new series again wants more nudity among the males so we are “treated” scenes of Sam and Drake swimming in the nude — without much motivation.

But interestingly (to me) in both mini-series Ross is taking something of a back seat, is in his soul in retreat as he is so conflicted over what he has done in the past and what his future should be. That is why he rejects Bassett and the Rev Halse’s offer. I just wish (as have others) that Horsfield didn’t feel it necessary for Turner to charge across the landscape on his horse, or make him use frantic gestures to signal inner frustration. Graham’s idea seems to have been to keep Ross as private a man as he, Graham, was.


Final scene (episode 1), she melancholy, he withdrawn apart

Ellen

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The fens, marshlands of East Anglia (from Waterland 1992)

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives … quoted from Waterland by George Landow in an essay on the novel (Studies in the Literary Imagination, 23:2 [Fall 1990]:197-211)

Friends and readers,

One of my kind Net-friends, someone who writes to me and whom I write back to a lot, we read together, share thoughts, asked me tonight if I could recommend some gentle, gentle movie and how hard they are to come by. I did have one, I watched it over the past two nights, as well as much of the voice-over commentary and a feature on the music: Waterland, directed by Stephen Gyllenhall, scripted by Peter Prince, based on a profound and inexhaustible novel by Graham Swift: Waterland. Yes, another Booker Prize book, this one merely short-listed. I listened to Christian Rodska read it aloud on an MP3 in my car on and off for a few weeks. So you can say it’s provided much imaginative and spiritual and intellectual sustenance for me. I gave the course I did this season on these books, because they are themselves inexhaustible, so many and still coming, and yet there is a core similarity among most of them, one that answers to needs in my lonely soul.

My excuse was I was teaching my beloved Last Orders — and I re-watched that deeply resonant film too, and showed some of it to the class, wrote about it again in the form of notes for a lecture. What can I say about it? Shall I begin with what what reached my soul last night: Jeremy Irons’s voice as Tom Crick, a history teacher, telling his students stories, opening up to them his vulnerability, that aching gentle elegant voice, tall thin and tortured was the way his body was once made fun of (he’s the narrator-center of the truly great mini-series, Brideshead Revisited), but in this film becoming deeply genial whenever an opportunity opens, listening to others and accepting what they say (sometimes tough, often lies, but occasionally out of their inmost soul a need), and then coming back with a response that elicits from most a reasoned reply


In the classroom

I can’t say it’s a hopeful over-story, for he is being fired, forced out because who wants to know history? what use is what is called history, asks one arrogant student in a love-revenge relationship with him, Price in the book, played by a very young Ethan Hawke. How dare he tell personal private stories (about his adolescent sex life, married life, treatment by the principle of teachers) instead of what’s in the curriculum?


A dream vision where suddenly (as happens a lot) Crick’s story turns into “reality” and we are in a dream vision back in an earlier time so here Crick is showing Price the bedroom his mother died in, where he grew up afterward

Swift was accused of plagiarizing Faulkner in his Last Orders, and readers persist in this pairing (plus Thomas Hardy and Dickens) to explain literary sources for Waterland. Swift doesn’t deny them, but he cites as often Virginia Woolf, her Waves, her To the Lighthouse: her landscape is the same East Anglian marshlands where she finally did away with herself, the center of the second book a meditation on time equivalent in magnificent stasis and meditative richness as the whole of Waterland. For Swift water, the sea, is a central image for life and for the unanswerability of death, the silence when people disappear (as my Jim has forever), and so too Virginia Woolf, from The Voyage Out, to her slighter sketches along the Thames.

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The windmill — where important events in all three stories take place ….

“Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in…The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” — Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, Chapter 14

The book and film ask the question what is history? in the book as narrator Swift asks, why is this set of events put in history books and not that? Why do we learn about who was murdered at the guillotine and not who was building a system of locks in the marshlands, who was draining the lands in France or East Anglia? Which after all had the most lasting useful effect? And anyway (not mentioned explicitly by Swift, but it’s assumed we know) numbers of the French landowners and relatives guillotined were killed because they enclosed the lands their peasants had farmed, overcharged to drive them away, in order to drain it and make huge sums from large agriculture. In England the story of Crick’s great-grandparents, the Atkinsons who reclaimed the land bit by bit. In Waterland there is as much about drainage and how to make good beer from hops (a subject at least alluded to in Last Orders) and how to beat the competition out to be a successful business and distributor as there is in Moby Dick about whales. Some might find this tiresome, but Rodska manages to put it across.

The story of the film and book are the same — this is a film which means to convey the book as nearly as a sellable commodity in filmic art can. It needs unraveling and only gradually unfolds (as in Last Orders). Del Ivan Janik (“History and the ‘Here and Now’: The Novels of Graham Swift.” Twentieth Century Literature, 35:1 [Spring 1989]: 74-88) provides a good retelling:

The novel’s structure is rambling and recursive, intermixing episodes from three major elements. The first of these elements is a history of the Fenland and of the prominent entrepreneurial Atkinson family and the obscure, plodding Crick family, from the seventeenth century to the marriage of the narrator’s parents after World War I. The second consists of events of the 1940s: Mary Metcalf’s adolescent sexual experimentation with Tom, Crick and his “potato-head” half brother Dick (who in his demented father/grandfather’s eyes is the “Saviour of the World”), Dick’s murder of Freddie Parr, Mary’s abortion, Tom’s revelation of Dick’s incestuous conception and Dick’s consequent suicide by drowning, Tom’s return from the war and his marriage to Mary. The final element involves events of 1980, the narrative present: Mary’s religious visions, her kidnapping of a baby (whom she calls a “child of God”) from a supermarket, her committal to a mental institution, and Tom’s loss of his position as a history teacher. The structure is not chaotic, for each of these three major elements, as it comes to the forefront of the narrative, is treated more or less chronologically; but as a whole the novel conforms to Tom’s characterization of history: “It goes in two directions at once. It goes backwards as it goes forwards. It loops. It takes detours” because “there are no compasses for journeying in time.”

Mary Metcalf is played by two different actresses, Lena Headley as the young Mary who is aggressively sexual with four boys, and becomes pregnant by Tom (Grant Warnock, the young Tom), and is driven to obtain an abortion which seems to have deprived her of the ability ever after to have children. (As with Last Orders, you cannot avoid two different sets of actors to play the characters at widely disparate decades of their lives). I much preferred Sinead Cusack in her role as the older Mary, she had the same mesmerizing presence as Irons, told her delusions, held on to them for dear life with the same persistent gentleness.


The older Mary and Tom standing together after their nightly walk (for decades, like Jim and I in NYC at the top of Manhattan and then here in Old Town Alexandria) looking over Pittsburgh (a senseless substitute for England, probably done on the theory you need something American to attract an American audience)

We never see Mary put into an institution nor the institution. the last scene of the movie has the older Tom, now retired and with no company, wandering in marshes with a dream of Mary seeking a baby in front of him. The book ends with Tom’s memories of his mentally retarded (the term used in the 1930s and even the 1980s) older brother, Dick (played almost unrecognizably by David Morrissey), in a boat sailing down the river with Tom, and his father (played in the movie by the ever memorabley Peter Postlethwaite). The three together, the family left. A comforting image but underneath is violence: mocked and jeered at, Dick falls in love with Mary (who does wrongly go after him sexually) and when the arrogant rapist-criminal type, Freddie Parr, claims he is Mary’s lover, Dick murders him through a clever ruse of accidental drowning. Dick thinks the baby he, Dick, should have sired, was sired by Parr. Perhaps good riddance? Tom admits he fears his brother. Dick is never thought of as a cause of Parr’s death, and we can see his mostly isolated life is punishment enough for him.

Swift repeatedly has autistic characters in his novels: disability is often at the core of Booker Price books and films (as for example, The Sense of an Ending, when we discover the child our aging hero (played in that film by Jim Broadbent) sired by another aggressive femme fatale type (I don’t claim feminism for Swift) turned out to be a gently autistic baby. Broadbent has spent decades alone because his wife (Harriet Walter) and others know that (in a moment of jealous spite) he cursed the young woman without knowing that the curse could be seen to have come true.


The class trip — made funny by the flags and stacking of the students


The country house they arrive at

I like hard stories — for me comfort and strength emerge when the matter put before me is believably life and the characters somehow or other cope, survive, that is my sort of contented ending. I think Last Orders is a directly comforting book — the way the characters remain friends as they betray, prey on, love and help and support one another; while Waterland is not even if it has its comforting scenes. What Waterland offers is indirect strength by putting before us how history doesn’t stop and taking us through the different lives and eras, including the day-long talks to the students as Tom takes them to old country houses (in England, how this happens from Pittsburgh is explained as dream visions by him which alternate with the students in a comic bus on a tour), to villages, to pubs, to someone’s house for dinner, to remembered rooms, a windmill, into trains and out, to the classroom, to the auditorium where the principle hypocritically congratulates Tom on his wonderful career now (forceably) coming to an end, to a supermarket where a frantic mother is so relieved when Tom and Mary return her baby.


The train when young

In real life Cusack and Irons married and have been married for many years: here they are at a recent demonstration on behalf of laboring people, the National Health, against war and imperalism:

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Graham’s novel’s real vindication of life, and the film’s is in the telling of these stories. We harken, we listen, we feel things are made some sense of, we express ourselves, we come into contact with deeply imagined and thus known and understood presences.

Children [are those] to whom, throughout history, stories have been told, chiefly but not always at bedtime, in order to quell restless thoughts; whose need of stories is matched only by the need adults have of children to tell stories to, of receptacles for their stock of fairy-tales, of listening ears on which to unload, bequeath those most unbelievable yet haunting of fairy-tales, their own lives (from the book).

The importance of stories seen from the perspective another Booker Prize book: when I was lecturing, discussing with a class at the OLLI at Mason The English Patient, we talked of Kipling, an important influence (intertextual source) for that novel and book. I have never read Kipling’s Kim, nor most of his colonialist stories, only seen a film adaptation of The Man who would be King. But Jim enjoyed Kipling (scroll down to read a Kiplingesque poem written for Jim when he retired), once read a story by Kipling aloud to me to comfort me when I came home from the Library of Congress crying. I thought a rare novel by Charlotte Smith I had located and put on my shelf (inside a rotunda for those with reading desks) had been stolen. I remember feeling better by the end. I told the class of how Jim read aloud several of Kipling’s Just So stories to Laura and I in front of a fire in this house (he had made) and paraphrased the loving endings Kipling as narrator voices to the child as his “best beloved.” To my surprise about 3/4s of the class knew these stories, had read them as children. I never — until when Laura was 6 or 7 he read them aloud to her and me.

Today was not such an easy day. It was Mother’s Day but for Izzy and I it was a usual Sunday: we shopped in the morning for food, and in the afternoon went to a movie together: a remarkable one I’ll blog about later this week: A Quiet Passion about Emily Dickenson. We had good talk about the movie and poet afterward. Laura, my older daughter, wished me a happy mother’s day by sending me a photo of her cat attempting to lick the person on the other side of the photo

Thao, who lives in Canada, and I used to call my third daughter, an ex-student who visited me shortly after Jim died, sent me a card and loving words.

I am reading two wonderful books, Oliphant’s Kirsteen, and Claude Berry’s county book, Portrait of Cornwall, which I will also tell of separately. But it takes strength to hold together when I know others are out enjoying themselves in clubs, dinners, traveling. A 70+ year old widow’s life. I watered my flowers tonight. I have my two cats near by — one squatting on my lap, the other playing with a string. Tomorrow I will resume going to the gym for a class in strengthening exercise which attracts some 50+ people around my age. It’s cheering for me.

I have yet to pick my movie for tonight. I am trying to do without sleeping pills now, to rid myself of all drugs. So I need to be sure to get one the right amount of time and tone.

My Iranian friend who has translated Woolf into Farsi and runs a small magazine sent me this poem by email too today:

After You’ve Gone

After you’ve gone, the rhododendrons
of Anacortes remain fully in bloom,
the islands are still deep green
in their blue-green sea, and the gulls
wheel and turn in breezes that never die,

but I am alone like the shell
of a bombed cathedral, a precious ruin.
— Sam Hamill

Ellen

My day’s journey has been pleasanter in every respect than I expected. I have been very little crowded and by no means unhappy. –Jane Austen, Letters (24 Oct 1798)

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Hana (Juliette Binoche) looking around villa wistfully before moving in with her patient (The English Patient, 1996, Anthony Minghella)

Echo is the sound of the voice exciting itself in hollow places — a phrase from Christopher Smart’s poem to his cat Jeffrey which repeats across the novel. Smart was put into an insane asylum by his family, exiled, displaced, left to rot. He was kept company by his cat Jeffrey: For I will consider my cat Jeffrey is an extraordinary masterpiece of a touching poem.

Dear friends and readers,

I am increasingly remiss about writing to my wider circle of readers and friends. I will try this summer to return to more frequent blogging, especially about the books I’ve been reading.

This spring I have been having such a good time with all three of my classes of retired adult readers at two Oscher Institutes of LifeLong Learning, pouring myself into everything that leads to a good lecture and discussion as a teacher, and what’s necessary to participate as one of the “learners.”

One book that for me functions as an absorption into beauty through extraordinarily poetic rich literary prose and loving compassionate comfort from the believable relationships among the characters who are presented up close to us is Ondaatje’s The English Patient: the charred remnants of the witty, humbled Almasy, the as yet undefeated by death mothering-nurse Hana, the desperately seeking meaning, once tortured Caravaggio, the utterly self-sacrificing figures of true integrity, the bomb disposal soldiers, Kirpal Singh and his lieutenant Hardy. Turned in Minghella’s movie into a wildly unreal romance of death between a Scarlet Pimpernel kind of hero (again Count Almasy, Ralph Fiennes now heroic adventurer in the desert) and self-deprecating warm-hearted Rebecca (Katharine Clifton). One admits in the film the actors present characters so deeply well-meaning and humane, in a film of unsurpassing visual beauty (the desert becomes sheer color), soaring music, that I could never cease from watching. The DVD had a second disk whose features about the making of the movie are (put together) longer than the 2 hour film story. It was such a commercial success (as has been the book) I’m just going to assume, you, gentle reader, have read the book and seen the movie.

So what can I say that might be of interest? Well we read it in my course called the Booker Prize marketplace niche. It is a quintessential example of the best kind of literary masterpiece that wins the prize. It speaks to us in our present political and economic predicament. for the characteristics of these books, see my blog On Using a Long Spoon: the Booker Prize (scroll down).

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Count Almasy (as yet unnamed, Ralph Fiennes) listening irritatedly to Katharine Clifton’s chatter as they drive through the desert

No book occurs in a vacuum and like so many Booker prize books this one has a rich context, which nowadays includes the movie in our emotional memories.

I begin with Ondaatje, as the book, the source of our talk and the film’s script comes out of the soul of the author: multinational multicultural, family divorced. While the elite of a colonialist nation – a colony – often lose out when the imperialist government in the “center” departs, which partly accounts for why his family left Sri Lanka, and moved to Britain and then Canada, he went to the upper class elite type boys’ public school. born on 12 September 1943 in Kegalle, fifty miles west of Colombo, the capital of what was then Ceylon (sehLOHN) and is now Sri Lanka. His family owned a tea plantation, members of the Eurasian élite. Name tells you the originals are probably Dutch — the Dutch early colonized the Spice Islands (as they were called).

When he is 2, his parents divorce (his father violent, alcoholic) and his mother and he go to live in Colombo where he goes to a boys’ school modeled on upper class British schools: St Thomas Boys’ College. Many of the countries Britain colonized took some form of this and you can find versions in US prep schools. So British/English background very strong. He moved to England in 1952 (age 9) and goes to Dulwich College, an old public school with strong academic record and long literary associations. In 1962 he moved to Canada (age 19) where his older brother was living and enters another school rooted in British traditions, Bishop’s University, only it’s in Quebec which is French speaking and strongly French in culture. He’s lived in Canada ever since — with time out for visits to Sri Lanka.

As far as I can tell his novels are set either in Canada or Sri Lanka except for The English Patient. He has written a memoir; In the Skin of the Lion is a powerful historical novel (set in earlier 20th century and Canada). His novels are discussed as Canadian and compared to other Canadian novels. He calls himself an someone with a migrant’s perspective, and it’s one that is more than double

When independence comes to a colonized place, the old élite often loses out badly, not only in terms of money and property but in the sense of their identity. They don’t belong in the “old” or mother country. They are themselves then the marginalized and deprived. Which is what happened to Ondaatje’s father and his mother in a double sense (divorced too). This marginalization of the previous bosses now aging is the subject of an early Booker Prize winner: Staying On

His background is that of the commercial writer, someone who makes his living through writing, not writing and teaching in a university (which many writers do as most people can’t make enough money from writing to support themselves). He left a university post when he didn’t do a Ph.D. thesis; he’s on his second marriage. He’s also a poet; in fact his earliest successes were as a poet. There’s a Trick I’m learning to Do with a Knife is a book of poems. His education is that of the upper class élite, but his homelife one of a displaced person. He seems to have a penchant for admiring the adventurer male, for finding release and romance and meaning in the lives of those who live on the social edge and are unconventional. An early book of poems and narratives is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid: Left Handed Poems. Billy the Kid was a psychopath, homicidal, and not really a conventional hero whatever cowboy stories might make of him.

Booker Prize books are deeply rooted in history, the past, meditate the unknowability of history at the same time as uncovering its layers through memories of the characters and in depth presentation of the story’s cultural nexus. The books to read are: Saul Kelly’s The Lost Oasis: The Desert War and the Hunt for Zerzura, Paul Carrell’s The Desert Foxes (1960, from German point of view, non-fiction), and H. O. Dovey’s Operation Condor: Intelligence and National Security (1989, an M15 Man based in War Office in Middle East).

Who was Count Laszlo or Ladislaus Ede Almasy? He was a Hungarian count from an ancient family; born in deepest Hungary; he was educated as an aristocrat and his politics were deeply reactionary. He was an anti-semitic Nazi; he sold secrets to the Germans which probably led to deaths of spies on the Allies’ side. That is one way he lived. He also spied for the Soviet Union and he spied for England. He had to have done the latter as it’s the only way to explain his escape from a prison for Nazi spies which someone helped him escape from. Almazy was the kind of person you can’t buy; they are only for rent. He was probably not a nice man. Indeed he was probably a bad man in many ways, amoral. The world of spies is still a dirty and nasty one; it is still filled with amoral types. The world is I’m afraid made up of such people and they sometimes end up running countries nowadays — if they can spout piety at people and have control of the military.

Almasy’s was a marginalized family (like Ondaatje’s). By the 1910s aristocrats were out and his family was cash poor. The way to grow rich was not to go on adventures through the desert which is what he did. The way to grow rich is become an investment banker, to go into industry, build railroads and interconnective communications, be in short bourgeois, self-controlled and dull. You do like Donald Trump – buy and bankrupt companies and sell early; Romney did that too. You don’t spend all your hours hanging out in Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo reading poetry and getting very drunk. Almasy was your adventurer-explorer. He was also homosexual. He left a packet of intense love letters to another man. He was passionate and romantic; the homoerotic aspect of his character is hinted at in the relationship between Madox and Almasy in the book and the film.


Madox (Julian Wadham) as yet not aware his friend a possible spy, is angry over Almasy’s apparent carelessness over the maps and papers detailing plans

Elizabeth Pathy Salett, the daughter of a Hungarian diplomat posted in Egypt in the 1930s, said that the count had planned a desert museum as a front for German espionage. She lived in Washington, DC and her father, Laszlo Pathy, was Hungarian consul general in Alexandria, Egypt; she wrote an article for The Washington Post that outlined how Almasy sought revenge against her father. After the count’s museum plans were scotched in 1936 because the Egyptian king learned that the museum was planned as a cover, the count blamed her father, Mrs. Salett said.

Six years later, while in Rommel’s service, the count sneaked into Cairo for 10 days, Mrs. Salett said. On his way out the British confiscated his briefcase and found a list of the people Rommel planned to arrest when he occupied Egypt. Among the names, she said, was her father’s. For Mrs. Salett, and other Hungarians who have seen “The English Patient,” the movie portrait of Almasy is “amoral and ahistorical.” She said that by ignoring the count’s work for the Germans, Ondaatje, who won the Booker Prize for his novel, trivialized the “significance of the choices men like Almasy made.”

Almasy (as in Ondaatje’s book) cultured, well educated in among other things geology, and he become part of a group of people living in or continually visiting Africa between the 1910s and 1940s who were interested in exploring the desert. Some were archaeologists (Louis Leakey was one of these), some big-game hunters, some plantation builders. He was an important member of the Royal Geographical Society in North Africa which was international in membership; he wrote a couple of important monographs on the desert. He did heroic research and deeds. He crossed the desert alone under very extreme circumstances more than once.

There was no such person as Madox — though Almasy’s had lovers. He is fictional but there was a Geoffrey and Katharine Clifton. It’s not clear whether Geoffrey was a spy; he might have been. He was also a genuine explorer; he died young and Katharine was an adventurous woman. She died during World War Two in a plane crash. A whole group of them in Kenya found in Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. West with the Night a classic book by Beryl Markheim, bush pilot; like other women people have claimed she didn’t write her book. She did not die in a plane crash but lived in poverty for a while until her book was rediscovered, she gained back friends with her money and became a horse trainer. Plane crashes were not an uncommon way to die among the members of this group. The Royal Geographical Society threw up another political figure probably much more important than Almasy; he’s mentioned in the book and I think in the film (though I’m not sure): Major Ralph Bagnold. Post-modern history prefers to tell of the subaltern, the marginalized.

Bagnold is said to have helped the British take over much of the desert and succeed in beating the Nazis in the desert. Like Almasy, he had at his fingertips and in his brains solid knowledge of how to live in the desert, how to survive, how to carry on a campaign, and he headed important groups of military people in the mid 1940s. He was awarded all kinds of high medals at the end of the war. Almasy was awarded the Iron Cross for his actions by Field Marshall Rommel and died in 1951 of dysentery.

Ondaatje must’ve done enormous research both on the desert, on this Royal Geographical Society (all sorts of small details turn up which are transformed into the fiction) and into Almasy’s own life. This beyond the literary intertextuality that is continual. A certain kind of Booker Prize book is like this: Wolf Hall by Mantel is this way.

He also researched the way the way was fought in Italy, landmine bombing; there is much transformed information about World War Two, about the migrations of peoples across Italy. Italy was a melting pot people moved up and down and ravaged the place; amazing anything left except that it was not bombed from the sky in the way Germany, England and Japan were. Japan suffered by the way horrendous losses even before the two atom bombs. Much of England’s old structures on the ground were destroyed; a couple of German cities were firebombed to the point that you probably could not have killed more people had you dropped an atom bomb. Back of book, credits show he read up on experience of Canadians in World War Two. The descriptions of the defusing of the bombs is utterly accurate and as I said you could worse as background for this book than watch the 1970s mini-series, Danger UXB.

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Kip (Naveen Andrews) and Hana’s first encounter — in the ruined library which he rightly worries is landmined

The book’s deep archetype is (perhaps unexpectedly seeing the above background) home: the characters we learn to know and love rebuild themselves a new family, and a home: in the movie we do see Hana (played in the movie by the lovely Juliette Binoche) gardening a lot; several times a family is formed and it’s destroyed or can’t last under the forces of war, colonialization and the way society is structured which pulls everyone hither and yon. The book to me – you may disagree – has this deep motif of retreat which I see in A Month in the Country (the second book we did in this class on the Booker Prize) – the world of art, science, thought imagination and without stretching it one can say The bookshop (the first) stands for that with its wonderful set of books as originally set out and described by Florence Green.

The English Patient is deeply post-colonial: a protest on behalf of the marginalized subaltern person subject to the economic and political and military domination of the patriarchal imperial west. In an interview Ondaatje is quoted as having said: “There are a lot of international bastards roaming around the world today. That’s one of the books (and film’s) main stories or themes.” It is also post-modern, characterized by high scepticism towards the idea that people really believe in enlightenment moral values and act based on these, and that these values will save our civilization from horrific self-destruction.

As the novel opens we meet two exiles, Hana and Almasy (Ralph Fiennes), then a third, Caravaggio (William Dafoe), and finally a fourth, Kip or Kirpal Singh (Naveen Andrews), with sidekick, Hardy (Kevin Whateley): who’s not that much a felt presence in the book; he is made much more of in the film, but he stands for all that is decent in the normative). They are living in an abandoned house which was built in the Renaissance, the house of a great poet and learned man, Poliziano. Repeatedly the novel connects present time with the past to show how much what we experience today and do is continuous and built upon what others experienced and did in the past. While far fewer and less varied, the war scenes are as realistic, seriously felt and realized as Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.

All displaced and exiled characters; at the same time they are rooted in their original cultures and don’t forget their earliest experiences. In England we find people who are deeply rooted: Madox, Lord Suffolk, Miss Morden, Mr Harts, who form an English family for Kirpal or Kip (named so as to allude to Kipling’s Kim) and the Cliftons (Geoffrey is played by Colin Firth) who are very upper class British.

It’s a novel about attempts at healing too. They find comfort in one another, read together, listen to music, the deepest wounded take morphine and drink condensed milk. The character Cavavaggio is especially important when he decides not to murder the English patient. The villa is a kind of Eden, an escape, a primitive garden, a cul-de-sac. The people come together without technology.

The beauty of the figures in the Cave of Swimmers is repeated in the beauty of the figures on the church walls in Italy, the songs from the old fashioned record player, the piano. What does sex become in the villa? Not this violent challenge, this devouring of one another. But nurturing. I’m attracted to the character of Hana and Caravaggio and their friendship: niece and uncle. He and Hana are my favorite characters. Displaced daughter/father lovers; “You have to protect yourself from sadness. Sadness is very close to hate”; each of them in their “own spheres of memory and solitude”; “To rest was to receive all aspects of the world without judgement. A bath in the sea, a fuck with a soldier who never knew your name. Tenderness towards the unknown and anonymous, which was a tenderness to the self” (p. 49). I find Hana a beautiful character; so too the way Cavaravaggio is presented — in the novel.

In novel Almasy says he hates ownership. In film this idea is scotched because he is turned into a sexually jealous man who wants to own Katharine. But in the book it’s a significant theme. Who owns who? Does anyone? Whom do we learn from? Ondaatje has said a central relationship in the novel is that between Kip and Almasy: the colonialized and the elite European male. Kip learns to respect the man but he demurs at the books which argue for colonization and marginalizing his people. Why are they paired?

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is an ultimate colonialist text; there’s a deliberate echo of the name Kim in the nickname Kip. I’ve never read Kipling’s famous novel, Kim, though I have read his The Man who would be kind; Jim my husband read aloud his children’s Just so stories to my older daughter – how did the elephant get its trunk, the camel its hump, Rhinoceros its skin – they all end with this loving coda to the child being spoken to. Tone at end reminds me of Randall Jarrell’s Animal Family. Kipling has a bad reputation today but it’s unfair. It has poems by Kipling, original book had glorious and interesting illustrations.

Herodotus, the book Almasy clings to, puts his photographs and letters in, was an early Greek historian; called the father of lies. He tells a very slanted history. He is known for his folk stories and mythic geography. Great chronicle with world wide scope.

It’s a novel about a world in ruin but also asserts that the world has always been in ruin. We cling to these roles because we don’t know what else to do. Cultural identities are given people. People insist English patient English. Why? Because of his culture. We see our characters make alliances based on individual affinity and congeniality of outlook and taste not biology and cultural ritual. Body as a site of resistance is very frail in the book. People smashed easily, burned up. Now you are here, now you are not. Lord Suffolk trinity; Hardy. Violence important in book: barbarity of people to another another; indifference of natural world.

Its meditation on the place of memory accounts for the rearrangement of time to be subjective. The language gorgeous: a voice of his own. Splendour of imagery everywhere, songsong lyric quality.

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Katharine Clifton (Kristen Scott Thomas) telling the story of Candaules and Gyges (voyeuristic husband turns murderous over lover) from Herodotus as the other men listen …. in the desert

It’s useful to compare a film adaptation to a novel since you have much of the same story matter. By seeing what’s omitted you can gauge both the thematic resonances the film wanted to avoid and the new ones they put in place. The same goes for looking at what’s added. On average another statistic at 37% of the original story matter remains; the rest is added. This is a case where the movie has gotten so intertwined with people’s memories of the book I have now to differentiate the movie from the book.

Minghella’s film reverses the emphasis of the book: specifically the romance story of Almasy (Ralph Fiennes) and Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) with adultery and the jealous rage of Geoffrey Clinton (Colin Firth) takes over the movie. If you look at the book, after the initial seeing of the airplane in flight over the desert, the shooting down by Germans, the burning of Almasy and trek through the desert, we do not return to the story of Almasy and the woman we saw in the plane until the middle of the book’s 4th section, Cairo (1930-38), of ten, and don’t get into it in earnest until the 5th called Katharine. In the film this material is continually there, moved up front, woven into the story of Hana, Almasy as charred patient, Caravaggio, and Kip in the Villa San Girolamo (presented as once the home of Poliziano, a Renaissance prince and writer), is added to, and forms an important part of the final ending when the initial scene is finally explained. In the book the explanation for the woman in the airplane (we are do not know she’s a corpse when we first see her) is finished at the end of the 9th section, “Cave of Swimmers,” (where we see the ancient drawings of swimmers inside a cave) which contains also considerable material on Madox (Julian Wadham), implicitly Almasy’s lover, whose suicide matters in the book and is hardly mentioned, much less explained in the film (from horror at the church worship of the war, from loss of Almasy’s love, from Almasy’s betrayal of the British as a German spy); after which we the 10th section, “August,” move back to life at the villa, Kip and Hana’s love affair, Kip disposing and defusing bombs at great personal risk, the atom bomb, and Kip’s strong revulsion, and coda in Sri Lanka and Canada, where Kip has returned to his home culture to become a doctor and family man, and Hana retreated from the world to an island with her aunt, while Caravaggio resumes his role as wanderer, which coda is left out of the movie altogether.

Kip’s building of an English family in Sussex with the delightful Lord Morden (who never left Sussex in his life), his secretary Miss Morden (the name alludes to death), and their loving butler, with the thermos and sandwiches — they explore the geology of Britain together — all omitted. If you do not read the book you may see Kip simply as Hana’s lover. In the book he is not only a Sikh, but also an Anglophile, risking his life endlessly to save the Allies and people of Europe. His affair with Hana is counterpointed against the affair of Katharine and Almasy with more resonances and depths, and neither the major story. He does not break away because of Hardy’s death but because of the dropping of the bombs on Japan. His people were regarded as dispensable, wiped out in minutes.

The true model for the Almasy-Katharine story is Baroness Orzcy’s The Scarlett Pimpernel crossed by DuMaurier’s Rebecca. Think The Prisoner of Zenda. A band of English gentlemen dedicated to rescuing innocent aristocratic victims of the French revolution. The hero whose name is Sir Percy Blakeney appears to be effete (subtle, sensitive, impeccable manner, has read the classics) but is in fact a determined man of action. I hope no one needs me to summarize Rebecca, a femme fatale (it’s actually a misreading of the book but that’s another blog). It is simply factually true that Rebecca was used as a code book by the Nazi spies: it was carried about by Almasy’s men into Cairo. It’s just the sort of thing that might have appealed to the real Almasy who thrilled to adventure and romance.

Hana is no longer central; Katherine is — though they are treated as a double figure. In the book Almasy tells Hana about the winds; in the film, he tells Katharine.
The inimitable Kevin Whateley as Hardy — carrying Kip’s boots to be cleaned

Nonetheless, there is much gain too. The film ends differently: the film stays true to the transnationalism of the rest of the book. By showing torture you bring it home to people. The way the film opens and closes on the plane, desert and cave of swimmes, with the desert and the incessant maps assuming the function of presences, characters. Almasy chooses to die in the film; Caravaggio is given more intensity against Almasy in the film.

Actors enrichen a work: William Dafoe is particularly good, and Fiennes through his makeup. Hana too has inner beauty. With his small role as Madox, Julian Wadham does very well. He has presence and overshadows Kip as someone in relationship to the English patient.

Let’s not be snobs: there is a splendid visual quality. From Allen Stone’s review on line (“Herodotus Goes Hollywood”):

The English Patient is stunning, filled with archetypal, exotic, and oneiric images. The film contrasts the browns of the desert with the greens of Northern Italy, the scarified face of the burned English patient with the handsome profile of the Count. Constantly finding creative camera angles and perspectives, the cinematography intrigues and fascinates from the opening scene. And it sustains that intensity for more than two and a half hours.

The English Patient begins with a close-up of a painter’s brush drawing exotic figures on a textured surface. We have no idea who the painter is or what the figures represent. Eventually we will learn that Katherine Clifton is the painter and that she is copying figures from the walls of the “cave of swimmers”–a real cave discovered by European explorers of the desert between the two world wars.

Minghella makes them into a team whose members are of diverse nationalities; he does not want to deny the possibility of love which is what the book does. At the end in the desert Almasy paints the corpse and does not weep. Hana returns to her family; so too Kip.

The film ends with a sad but hopeful image of Hana in that truck with the child beside her, clutching Herodotus.

Ellen

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