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One of the many whole family scenes in Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008)


Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Friends,

Over these few Christmas days I watched two new (to me) Christmas movies, read three Christmas stories I’ve never read before, and renewed my acquaintance with a series of Christmas chapters in a strong masterpiece of Victorian fiction. I most enjoyed the extraordinary creation of a several day Christmas time together by Arnaud Desplechin in his much-awarded A Christmas tale and was fully absorbed by six different households and their experience of Christmas in Anthony Trollope’s Orley Farm. I’m with those reviewers who found that Mary Poppins Rebooted half-a-century later fails to enchant, and think anibundel comes closest to explaining why. The three stories I read, two by Anton Chekhov, and a third by Margaret Oliphant, suggest what was expected from a mainstream Christmas story in the 19th differs considerably from the 20th.

In this blog we’ll stay with movies, and in my next turn to stories.

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Sylvia’s children, Paul, grandfather and Sylvia doing a play of the children’s own device during the week (A Christmas Tale)

I can’t speak too highly of Desplechin’s film. It must may be the best or most mature Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen many. Before this I would say John Huston’s The Dead (from Joyce’s story) and Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (an appropriation of Mansfield Park) were the finest, with the 1951 Christmas Carol archetypally old-fashioned, still delivering a depth of inward anguish, anger and redemption hard to match anywhere, partly because of the performance of Alistair Sim and partly the use of some film noir and fantafy techniques — and Dickens’s famous bitter and joyous lines. But they feel so limited in scope and what’s presented in comparison. Love Actually is vulgar in comparison (and finds sexual predation a bit too humorous with Bill Nighy’s impeccable parody dating just a bit); It’s a Wonderful Life — so meaningfully anti-capitalist for us today, with its angel Clarence seeking promotion and no one doing hysteria the way Jimmy Stewart can (I weep each time) — has problems — the depiction of the wife had she not married as this dried up spinster librarian afraid of her shadow is grating. There are none of these kinds of mistakes in Desplechin’s film.

I’d say if you are alone (like I fundamentally am now) and want to experience Christmas with other intelligent well-meaning real enough people sit for the full 2 and 1/2 slow-moving hours and then watch the 2 hours of features too. It’s the story of a large bourgeois family who all get together for the first time in several years because the mother, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a cancer which requires a bone-marrow transplant if she is to have any chance of living even for two years. Two of the family members have compatible blood types, one Paul (Emile Berling) the 15 year old troubled son of the eldest daughter, Elizabeth (Anne Consigny), a gifted playwright, who loathes the other, her brother, Henri (Mathieu Amalric) to the point five years she demanded her father, Abel (Jean-Paul Rousillon) and her mother cut off all relationship with him in return for her paying the enormous debts Henri had racked up; if someone did not pay it, her parents would lose the family home.

A major character across the film is this large comfortable ramshackle home and its landscape, both of which frame and is a brooding and comforting presence throughout all the scenes which don’t take place specifically in Roubaix. Roubaix is the film’s subtitle, a small French city in which Desplechin grew up and which he photographs lovingly, realistically in small interludes of shots. The key characters are Abel (the father), Junon (the mother), Henri and Elizabeth (two of their grown children), with Amalric as Henri delivering a character of extraordinary complexity and interest, vulnerable, resentful, despairing, kind, insightful by turns.


Mathieu Amalric as Henri talking earnestly to his younger brother, Ivan (Melvil Poupaid) as they decorate the family tree.

Back history (like a novel): Abel and Junon had four children, and the film opens with the death of the eldest, Joseph at age six as a flashback of memory in Abel’s mind — as he and his wife await the arrival of the family as it is today for Christmas.   Elizabeth and their youngest son, Ivan, have married. Elizabeth’s husband, Claude (Hippolyte Girardot) leaves at one point, so incensed does he get against the tactless Henri, when he is having to deal with his son Paul having had a breakdown, and spent time in an asylum. Claude is preparing his mind for a coming interview with authorities to try to get the boy out of the asylum while Elizabeth wants to put him back there. By film’s end the boy will not return to the asylum but stay with his grandparents, Claude has returned, and Elizabeth been helped by talk with her father.

Ivan’s wife, Sylvia (Chiara Mastroiana, Deneuve’s actual daughter) while reacting with real affection to her two small boys whenever they are around, is essentially bored by them and her life, and during the course of the film discovers that Simon (Laurent Capelluto) a cousin who lives with Abel and Junon, and works in their dye factory (the source of the family income) is deeply in love with her, and gave her up to Ivan after he lost a bet. She apparently had preferred Simon to Ivan; he is one of several family members who absents himself from the group now and again — he drinks too heavily, maybe is bisexual, is doing nothing with his life. So Sylvia finds him alone in a bar on Christmas eve, and they spent a night in bed together, something accepted by Ivan, who himself lives unconventionally as a musician commanding large audiences in rock concerts, one of which we attend.

Henri’s first wife, died in a car accident a month after they married:


Henri showing Faunia a photo of his long dead wife

Henri has had several partners since, and the present woman, Jewish, Faunia (Emmanuelle Devos) finds herself feeling alien, Henri’s response is he wants to leave too; at one point she goes shopping with Junon, and without telling her, Junon leaves the shop, driving herself back, so Faunia has to get back herself. She does leave early.


Simon, Sylvia, Ivan, Junon in a corridor (left to right)

A complicated family you might say – but no more than many families. I assure you, you will not be bored; it’s funny, wry, quiet and peaceful (as they watch appalling movies), suddenly all is fraught emotion and then they calm down again and exchange presents.

The stories close with Elizabeth intoning the epilogue from Midsummer’s Night Dream, as she overlooks Roubaix.  This last literary quotation (of several) signals the underlying mood that holds it together: acceptance (except during eruptions) of one another, their fates, with barbed raillery mixed with profound thoughts, sometimes read aloud —


Abel reads Goethe to Elizabeth

What helps hold everyone together: the house where they dwell together. All they do in and for it. The town they know. Even the cemetery close by where their baby brother was buried.  The father is the final authority all the while going off to clean up the table, the yard after fireworks were set up all over it; the mother is respected by all even if she had the disconcerting habit of telling this or that child she never cared for them. So a combination of tradition and concrete truth.  Things.  Prickly, messy and companionable (Henri goes walking in the snow with Paul and helps him), filled with shots of beautiful winter, ghastly streets, and the house and rooms every which way, this movie finally helps us to endure on. Chapter headings, days of the week also named by mood, characters who turn around and address us, hospital and bar scenes, it’s all there, Christmas time. The hope in the film that they do get together, help one another, share their memories, which is to say their deepest identities, has some fruition.

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Look at the look in Blunt’s eye — cold as ice

The Mary Poppins movie is not the most tedious Christmas film I’ve ever seen — I give that prize to the Muppet Scrooge story. But it can come close. It’s a child’s movie because the main action, the rescuing is precipitated by the children. I bring it up because Disney has such a prominent presence in our culture, as a girl I loved the books by P.L Travers (wildly disparate from the 1964 movie), which have yet to be done justice to by any of the movies (including Saving Mr Banks), two of which have been used as Christmas icons. Emily Blunt herself played the wife who dies, a central role in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which was another Christmas day extravaganza, and this gives us our clue to what goes wrong.


Emily Blunt as the despairing hysterically lost baker’s wife (2014)

Sondheim’s song was simply about how in life sometimes we end up walking alone: “Sometimes people leave you/Halfway through the wood.” Paradoxically the film also tried to bring something of the original thwarted feelings of the book: each time an adventure is over, Mary Poppins denies it took place; she is all vanity, egoism, discusses nothing, orders everyone about (Blunt tried for a soupcon of this). Anibundel suggests the problem is the film took on “deep emotional themes” the Disneyfiction can’t include. Manohla Dargis agrees that it follows the trajectory of the old songs; and finds it uncanny that it never captures the original “delicacy of feeling” or bliss.


Lin-Manuel Miranda imitating one of Van Dyke’s routines

I’m inclined to think the actors didn’t believe in it the way they did 50 years ago; Emily Mortimer was thrown away; Julie Walters was a stray from 19th century music hall; the occasional nervous plangency allowed Wishaw went nowhere, and Lin-Manuel seemed to be biking to no purpose, round and round. What seems to me important is capitalism won out; no subversion allowed. All the talk of the movie was money, certificates, and while Dick Van Dyke stepped in for a moment to dance a delicate shoe number and remind us trust in one another was the key to the first bank’s success, that was lost in the hard noise of triumph. The principals worked so hard because it was all counter-productive; the less true Christmas message they had, the more vigorous they became. When they went high up in balloons, they were not escaping from their world. The material as brought down not from Travers, not from her book:


Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers very irritated by what Disney did to her book (Saving Mr Banks, 2013)

But the previous naive travesty won’t work any more because we are cut off from social feeling.


Is the Mary Poppins in the center having any emotion with respect to anyone around her?

They wanted more than a Sondheim production, where rousing music and slow depth simple words convey significance. The movie lacked haunting music because it was not permitted the real melancholy of life’s existence (as caught in Abel’s words in the book he reads; another review by Jen Cheney this time of the DVD set). Streep’s song could have fitted the movie’s story: the Banks children and Michael Banks need to be righted. But one visit from MP will not do it. This was a ludicrously over-produced fantasy, a commercial for Disneyland, pictures of which opened and closed the movie itself.

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What should a Christmas story be? Trollope said “the savor of Christmas” was a story that instilled (in his language) “charity,” which translates literally into acts of giving. We’ll explore this next time. At the end of A Christmas Tale, Henri has given life’s blood, risked his life, on the chance he could save his mother’s. There has been no talk of money here; what tore the family apart was money.


The church scene repeats the arrangement of characters in the court scene only then it’s Abel next to Henri

I mentioned my DVD included two disks. As Cheney says, “Arnaud’s tale” is disappointing: we are told how central the house is to the film, and the city, and these connect back to Desplechin’s life and Almaric talks of how he understood and played Henri. But it’s the one hour documentary movie that illuminates why he chose to make a Christmas movie:

“L’Aimée,” on the other hand, immerses us completely in the tale of Desplachin’s relatives: his grandmother, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis in her 30s; his father, Robert, who was forced to live apart from his contagious mother, then grow up without her after her death; and the many relatives who played a role in nurturing Robert into adulthood. Like “A Christmas Tale,” a film that clearly was inspired by this documentary effort,” “L’Aimée” introduces us to all the heartbreak, joy and tucked-away memories that comprise one family’s history. And that, in its very French, thoughtful and occasionally somber way, is what Christmas is all about.

Into the Woods was not about charity but it was about heartbreak, memory and camaraderie as solace. A roll of the dice, chance moments, human obtuseness and self have caused much damage but by the end (as Philip Lopate says in the essay that accompanies the DVD — such a lot of stuff in this DVD case) even the depressed Elizabeth “gets her bearings.” And moments of grace no matter how odd (like when the nurse does not stop Henri from drinking and smoking the morning he is to do his part of the procedure) enable the people together to invent livable lives. No one altogether crushed, and everyone at some point smiles with some shared or individual enjoyment.


Walking in snow


Playing piano, others listening


At one of the many meals ….

Ellen

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Emma Stone as Abigail Hill Masham — unfortunately the released promotional shots don’t begin to offer an accurate sense of the nature of the typical scene in this costume drama

Friends and readers,

For a third time this year I break a sort of rule with me which is not to write about a work of art that is awful on every level — the other two were the egregiously stupid and misogynistic opera, Marnie, commissioned by the Met, and a crude frantically violent caricature of the violence, cruelty and stupidity that may seem to characterize much of American public life, especially as reflected in westerns, Damsel. That’s a lot for half a year, but three times now a movie, opera, and many more books I don’t begin to read, and TV serial dramas (on channels like FX, Starz) have seemed genuinely to me to function perniciously in our culture, and especially at the present time. I have many friends who want nothing more than a great 18th century historical film or would be interested in a new take in “victim queens” especially the long 18th century variety. Folks, this is not it. This is derision.

It didn’t seem to me a matter for mild bemusement when Anthony Lane of the New Yorker can produce an anondyne (this is screwball comedy you see) amused praise of The Favourite, giving the impression this is still your regular costume drama (quintessential lately in Netflix’s The Crown) by virtue of his complacent tone. He does say it’s “very odd,” but then defends the film by the assertion its “lubricious scenes” are true. They are not; we are presented with wild exaggerations intended to disgust, excite, shock, and rivet us by a kind of fleshly horror. One scene has a very fat man naked with bruises all over him, with a huge fantastical wig being assaulted by projectiles and hosed by over-dressed aristocrats just hilarious with joy; another Abigail stamping to the point of crippling a rabbit for fun; I couldn’t count the number of scenes where Olivia Coleman as Anne is a grotesque embarrassment, a pile of ugly sores, screaming at the top of her lungs she wants or does not want this or that, with Rachel Weisz as a kind of gothic handmaiden dildo-ing the bored queen upon command, bullying her physically (as well as morally), looking like a caricature of a midnight nightmare of maleness in soldier-like courtier outfit.

A. O Scott (Critic’s pick!) of the New York Times is franker but writes in a dense prose which defeats visualization and often remains on an abstract level. How he comes up with how a mountain of self-indulgent flesh (as Coleman is presented) is a figure of “sincerity,” dependent on wheel chair, grim body brace head to toe to go riding, vacillating between okaying Lady Sarah’s desire for more war and higher taxes (from others) to pay for this, and just yelling “no” (knowing nothing about anything) is a “free spirit” is beyond me. His justification too is that all this is faithful to what humanity in the court of Queen Anne in England was:

The best — and also the most troubling — thing about “The Favourite” is its rigorously bleak assessment of human motivations and behavior. The palace is a petri dish aswarm with familiar pathogens of egoism, cruelty and greed. A sentimental soul might wish for a glimpse of something else, but at the same time it’s hard to say that anything is missing from this tableau, which is also a devastating, flattering and strangely faithful mirror.


The first close-up shot of Olivia Coleman as Anne, witheringly told by Lady Sarah she looks “like a badger”

It is true that in this film there is not one character who acts morally, who appears to have any sense that anyone ever acts morally, who shows any kindness, true courtesy or respect for anyone else. At every opportunity, spite, corruption, sensual gratification as a major motive in life with a complete lack of moderating reason is put before us. I am aware I will be told don’t I understand irony or satire. I reply:  I can recognize when a pretense of satire is used to as a cover for rottenness.

I have read a biography of Anne Stuart, Queen of England between 1702 and 1714; a volume of her letters to and from Sarah Churchill (they did address one another as Mrs Marley and Mrs Freeman) together with Abigail Masham’s letters. Also essays suggesting lesbian attachments, rivalry, and lately (as scholars love to elevate the view of the figures they study — it’s an identity thing, theirs) that Anne was by no means an ignoramus, and while Sarah, Lady Churchill bullied her badly to make political choices favoring the wealth of her husband, his career, their Blenheim palace, favoring war, the merchants in the UK, and the Whig establishment (represented by James Smith as Godolphin in the film), she, Anne, wanted these, was complicit, and when she changed course, and put the Tories (represented by Nicholas Hoult as Harley), it was not just that she was breaking free of Sarah at long last and plummeting herself into the arms of Abigail. When I left to see the film I felt good to think a new female icon would enter the “familiar queen” matter, one not attractive to men, one perhaps lesbian, with a sad frustrated life (tragic over the loss of so many pregnancies and the ruination of her body); when I left, I told myself if this is the way Anne Stuart is going to be dramatized, I hope this is the last movie about “her” I ever see.


Lady Sarah in a “fun” mud bath with Queen Anne, they both make themselves much moustaches — characters in this film are repeatedly thrown into the mud, into ditches, made filthy and humiliated by this

The movie is an argument no woman should ever be given power because they are hysterical, ignorant, easily debauched: by the end of the movie, Abigail Masham is not the virtuous downtrodden scullery maid, birched at will, any longer, but she has learnt very little and is herself involved with debauched grotesque sex scenes. She has achieved title, income and we see her jerk her husband’s penis off as a form of sex in payment. Sarah Churchill is a violent, cruel egoistic ruthless woman (a monstrous sort of Thatcher), who appears to hate Anne. And Anne is a helpless blimp. When Sarah is thrown out, and Abigail (this is the kind of detail the film uses to justify itself) doesn’t read the political documents, Anne bumbles through them, falling asleep as she cannot understand what they are about. The historical Anne may have had a stroke towards the end of her life. This is the most anti-feminist film I’ve seen in a long time and that’s going some.

Some of the images reminded me of the vilest ones I ever saw picturing Hilary Clinton, which a  group of articles on the defamation of Marie Antoinette by her contemporaries during her imprisonment and trial argued were in alignment as to what was to be inferred. Profoundly unnatural sexed-up hag.  There was no real tenderness in evidence in Anne or Abigail over the pathetic 17 rabbits the queen keeps in her bedchamber:  they were self-centered children at play with toys.

That the egregiously vulgar language (I don’t know how many times the word “fuck” is hurled around rooms), anachronistic high-jinks, and utterly distasteful interactions between the characters are not meant as satire but as substitutes for the high-action of a male movie with all its bloody corpses and seething action-intrigue that recent fantasy costume dramas have come to lead a thirties-to-forties audience to expect can be seen in the level of noise in this film. Each time a bird is killed we get a close up of the animal’s agony along with a deafening gun noise.

The women are repeatedly shown to be as violent and aggressive as men. They slap one another very hard; they thrown one another down — even Anne gets this treatment from Lady Sarah; all three major women and some of the men are seen vomiting into vases. We get exaggerated stylized versions of males dressed up in wild Restoration type garb; the worst wigs of the contemporary portraits on the men. All bowing and preening in high heels. Masquerade type make-up. The point of this is to entertain by startling you — as if the audience was a bunch of hens sitting in a yard and someone shoots off a gun. I used the word repulsion because I remembered back to Polanski’s unspeakably exploitative movie about depression in a repressed young woman, Repulsion, but really it was just nerve-wracking, continually deeply unpleasant and on the whole revolting. On Wikipedia we are told Repulsion is considered by some to be Polanski’s greatest film; surely something has gone deeply awry with any set of aesthetic or moral understanding that can come up with this judgement or say The Favourite is the treat of this season (women’s film it’s implied) to see.

There seems to be desire to transform the conventional “victim queen” movie — strength of character is in Mary Queen of Scots translated into woman as male warrior, possible lesbian, by no means “a loser” but trapped because she thought she had to stay married.


Saoirse Ronan as Mary Queen of Scots is also addicted to in-your-face gunning other creatures down (she also affects a strong Scots accent).

The Favourite does use lines from Anne and other letters by Sarah but the screenplay has no sense at all of history, of what makes communicable good art, repetitious events.  This is specious travesty. Save your money and don’t throw away time for something from which you may emerge from with a headache from the noise, and anything but refreshment from the mean obscenity of many of the scenes.

Ellen

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Isabel Leonard and Christopher Maltland as Marnie and Mark Rutland on their honeymoon

Friends and readers,

I regret to have to tell you that this beautifully-sung, acted, and orchestrated Marnie is as repulsive a misogynistic story as I’ve come across in a while — and with Trump as president that’s going some. Ann Midgette of the Washington Post opined the work has a “hollow center” and offers no substantial understanding for why Marnie behaves the way she does (continually changing her very identity as she moves from outrageous theft to outrageous theft), why Mark Rutland responds to seeing she is a ruthless thief and liar by marrying her and then proceeding to win her over by almost raping her.

Not so: at the center of the opera, its “terrifying” back story is a slattern prostitute of a mother who (without an excuse offered) has rows of military men into her flat while her husband is nobly risking his life in battle, and when she becomes pregnant and has the baby, maneuvers her young daughter, into believing she killed the “bonny boy” when it was she. Each time we meet this woman she is snarling, spiteful, and a downright hater of her daughter. It’s known that a recurrent figure in many of Hitchcock’s films is the “terrible mother.” In Graham there is pity and economic explanation for Marnie’s mother’s behavior (abysmally poor, frightened at the same of ostracizing of her from others), and even Hitchcock condescends to have his Mark (Sean Connery) explain the apparently sweet Marnie (Tippi Hendrin) as someone seeking refuge. At least Marnie’s mother’s outward acts are in Graham’s text, Mark’s mother in Graham is not the scheming capitalist she is here. Mrs Rutland nags her son about his business failing all the while she is ruining it in order to buy it out from under him. In Graham, Mark’s mother is dead and it is his father and sister he must persuade to accept Marnie.


Denyce Graves as Marnie’s mother (not otherwise identified in this production) — smoking away & sinister in her wheelchair

Perhaps the most dismaying element of all was how blatant this is. The relentlessly cheerful announcer brought up the “evil mothers” as if it were a joke, and then the two actresses opined that this didn’t matter. No one said it’s just entertainment for the great hype of these interviews is how serious and important the operas are. It is the equivalent of how in Hitchcock’s movie Marnie is repeatedly called a liar and all ads about the character in this movie call her a liar as if this lying were a moral sin of gargantuan magnitude. Worst of all really the lack of any explanation for the actions of the three central characters (Marnie, Make, and Marnie’s mother): we are left with a simplistic crude Freudianism “feel.” That the critics have latched onto this time — they all seem to feel Hitchcock somehow “explained” this — he is at least suggestive, nuanced and detailed in his presentation.

Probably the accusation of hollowness comes from how in this production, like Sean O’Connor and Hitchcock before him (a psychological play focusing on sex, class, money of play, Marnie, London, 1982; and a 1964 Hitchcock psychoanalytic film respectively) Muhly never gets inside Marnie’s mind (certainly not the harridan mother). There is no credible explanation for this crazed re-dressing of herself every few months, this dangerous stealing of the whole of a company’s capital. So Marnie in all three iterations emerges as a clothes-changing frigid manipulative domineering bitch. Since Mark has been directed to be far sweeter to Marnie than Sean Connery, indeed to be loving, kind, well-meaning, once we get past the unexplained impulse on his part to marry her (when all despise her as an employee so beneath him), we feel for Mark at least. Again Muhly goes one step further in an absurd direction: astonishingly, Muhly does not allow Mark to rape Marnie. This is to rob the book of hard trauma. In several of his books Graham adheres to the idea that marital traumatic rape is good for the women — yes afterwards it seems they were longing for the man to overcome them. Graham has his men rape women for their own good (!) in some of the suspense novels (The Forgotten Story is one); a few of these men are forgiven for killing the woman when the woman commits adultery (presented as an understandable reaction). They are allowed to love two women (that’s Ross Poldark’s case in Warleggan). In Hitchcock’s case we have documentary evidence to show Hitchcock delighted in voyeurism and insisted the camera stay on Hedron’s face as Connery bears down on her. Hedron as Marnie flees (as in the book and film) but instead of leaping into a pool , in this opera she tries to kill herself by swallowing a bottle of pills. Red light suggests blood, and we move on.


Here they were reminiscent of the TV serial drama, Madmen.

I was further dismayed by the ignoring (as did Hitchcock before him) of Graham’s attack on capitalist soul-less offices — the production chose a very fat man to play Strut and he played the part as a gross narrow bully but beyond that nothing explicit. The 1950s was simply characterized as filled with men in suits sitting at desks or crowding in on women; the women were trussed up in offices sitting behind desks; at parties, they looked uncomfortable and absurd in their overdone gowns and big hair or French twists. In this production Terry Rutland (Lestyn Davies) does not develop a slow true understanding of like people with Marnie (which in the novel is at least interesting). In Hitchcock Terry Rutland works to ruin Marnie’s reputation, and she is innocent of his enterprises; here she works with him in deceit and corruption. Lastly, there is no landscape to speak of and Marnie’s one good relationship, with her horse Forio is not presented as the healthy experience it is, nor is she close or intimate with her horses’ feelings. In the book Graham may be remembering the incident in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where a horse’s life is sacrificed to a race and much sexual innuendo floats about. In the opera and in Hitchcock the horse-riding, racing and shooting of the horse is simply an acting out of a crude suggested (never detailed) Freudian-style analysis about sex: Marnie enjoys riding roughshod over Mark so she rides roughshod over her horse.

The book can go at length into an analysis; when Mark is hurt trying to stop the death of the horse, we can see a relationship develop between him and Marnie. We do feel for Marnie as an inexplicably sick person: she is a Humbert Humbert, except she is the victim, hoist with her own petard. Blackmailed into marriage, raped, then trapped, and finally found out by one of her previous bosses who comes to one of Mrs Rutland’s fancy garden parties and put into jail. In the book she seems almost relieved, and with a sort of reconciliation happening, it seems when she emerges, she may try for a sane relationship with Mark. In Hitchcock’s movie at the end she is pathetically grateful to Mark (as masterful Connery): the seething liar becomes a remorseful dependent. By contrast, in the opera she suddenly sings “I’m free” — of what? her mother who she has learnt in the previous scene died, so pat along comes the mid-wife-housekeeper, paid companion, Lucy, to tell Marnie her mother became a prostitute in the war and when she found herself pregnant out of wedlock smothered her “bonny boy.” Because Marnie has confessed he own crimes and understands her mother’s, she is not free of what happened or her past. She has just suggested to Mark she could like him when she gets out.


As in the book Marnie agrees to go to a psychiatrist (as part of a bargain with Mark): here as elsewhere she is surrounded by “other selves” — to the side we see her mother in a slip in red light

I did ask people near me what they thought of it. Most audience members are very reticent but as with (to be fair) other modern or non-traditional productions, I saw faces made. One woman said the piece was “repulsive.” Lynn Gardner of The Guardian thought that Graham’s novel seduced Sean O’Connor because he saw it as “gritty parable of repressiveness in which sex, class, money and manners are central motivators.” Many years after the initial movie Richard Brody is now cured of his Hitchcock mania. Midgette thinks Muhly too eager a collaborator elsewhere, to glad to have a commission; the music, says James Jordan of The Observer is forgettable. As if he needed to explain his opera more, during one of the interviews Muhly told the “host” how each of his characters corresponds to a particular motif by a particular instrument. The music was meant to be emotionally expressive.What I noticed is Terry Rutland is a counter-tenor, and (unless I’m mistaken), Muhly and Michael Mayer are gay men and wonder if as homosexual men they were drawn to this hideous parable of narrow wretched heterosexuality in a desperate environment. I did like some of the costumes, especially Marnie’s later wardrobe — and I find that 1950s costumes are associated with a gay sensibility.


This was perhaps her last outfit and it and the cream one just before are appealing; she is on the stage after a London performance with Tippi Hendren (who played Marnie in Hitchcock’s film and was sexually harassed by him)

I fear it did nothing to increase anyone’s understanding of the tragic way women experience sex and motherhood in our society. It did not endorse male violence and macho maleness the way Hitchcock did. In his study, The making of Marnie, Tony Lee Moral quotes Winston Graham’s son to the effect that his father was not a feminist despite his father’s assertions he naturally was. In a letter to Hitchcock in that volume it does seem as if in general across his books Winston Graham meant to create sympathy for women who have a “raw” deal in our society, are forced to submit, endure much and enjoy little. He said he based this story of the mother on a maid he and his wife had had years before and a story he read in a newspaper about another working class women. Maybe he intended to break through the repressive sexual miseries of the eras (1950s); instead (what he never mentions) because he was improving his technical prowess in using the new amoral ironies found at the time in the suspense novel, he happened upon an imitation in reverse of Nabokov’s hypocritical Lolita, and his adapters have not known what to do with the result.

One caveat: is the opera based on Graham’s book as claimed or Hitchcock’s movie (with a little help from Sean O’Connor’s play)? Asked about how they came to choose the book, the script writer and director said they saw in the movie such astonishing fodder for an opera. Is the opera then based on the movie, asked the interviewer. The answer was if they had tried to get their permission to use the material from the film company or individuals involved, they would never have gotten past the squabbles that would ensue. So the answer is they cannot say they got their opera from the movie, only that their permission stems from the book. As they were talking and a few others interviewed talked, it seemed some of the people had read the book. I believe Muhly did. But the opera is equally influenced by Hitchcock and for all one can tell it’s Hitchcock’s misogynistic and voyeuristic outlook that was a deciding factor. Hard to say.

One last angle: still and whatever the relationship between original source and this opera, surely, all three adaptations should shed more light on Graham as the writer of the Poldark novels, or on other of his suspense books than they do. I find little connection between the early Cornwall successes (The Giant’s Chair, The Dangerous Pawn) and the World War Two tales (No Exit),  and Graham’s book, but there is continuity with The Forgotten Story, The Merciless Ladies, and with some of the hard bleak later film noir books (especially Angell, Pearl and Little God), and with some of Graham’s more memorable vicious ruthless and emotionally twisted characters across his oeuvre (Mark Adderly, Valentine Poldark). Some of my friends have declared Graham’s books misogynistic because of the books’ sympathy with male rapists and murderers; I find a qualified feminism because there is much sympathy with women victimized by the society as a whole and with particular vulnerable males. It is an anomaly to see that Winston Graham could not extend understanding to Marnie’s mother — or that this brutal material found at the core of many a society (what to do with unwanted babies and with women who won’t submit or retreat before the hegemonic patriarchal order) proved too much for Graham here.

Ellen

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Susan Engel as the aged and unappealing Cunegonde (a sort of old lady 2) at the close of a Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon Candide (2013), favorably reviewed by Paul Taylor (“astringent, nihilistic, dry”)


Christa Ludwig as the old lady (Barbican, 1989, conducted by Bernstein) —

Friends and readers,

As you probably know (since I’ve announced this more than once), I’m teaching a course I called The Enlightenment: At Risk at the OLLI at AU. The first 18th century author and book we read has been Voltaire’s Candide; ou, l’optimisme. And I assigned selections of his treatises, we saw clips from La Nuit de Varennes (which they appeared to enjoy), and this coming Monday I shall show two clips from a 1989 concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide at the Barbican (Bernstein conducting), and one from a 2004 concert performance at Lincoln Center (Marin Alsop conducting, directed by Lonny Price). What is most striking to me is how many of the people, maybe most in the room came up with interpretations and reactions to Voltaire’s Candide that resemble Bernstein’s comic take on Candide, far more hopeful, morally didactic, essentially preferring a positive point of view on life to Voltaire’s mordancy and presentation of the chaos of experience, senselessness of pain.


1778, 1787 illustration emphasizes the grimness in the adventure

To begin with Voltaire’s Candide, a number of people in the class suggested the famous ending of the tale (“Il faut cultiver notre jardin”) is its finally restorative moral. Some saw redemption, hope here and there, some religious apprehension. I took the view of J.J. Weightman (a critic in the Norton edition) that tale is absurd and mordant, and that Voltaire produced Candide when his awareness of evil was at its most violent and his vitality at its strongest. I also felt with Wolper that the famous gnomic statement at the end is ironic.

In “The Gull in the Garden,” Eighteenth Century Studies, Wolper argues that Candide is a blind gull to the end. How could Candide forget he was once thrown out, and afterwards an army came and destroyed, beat and killed just about everyone in his home estate. In “Il fault cultiver son jardin,” Candide has only learned to shrink into himself. Yes, work can be a form of salvation: Voltaire himself only when near death tried to stop trying to help people. Diderot is continually trying to help people — individually, though in Diderot’s case they are not crazed events so he ends up with small people bothering him. Camille shuts out the rest of the world — as if one could. He can’t stand the sight of Cunegonde because she’s no longer young and pretty. Martin’s words at the end of the previous paragraph are as close as we get to Voltaire but Voltaire is far far more mordant. All his experiences should have taught Candide that he is not safe anywhere, and he is utterly selfish and narrow in the meaninglessness of what patterns we can discern: “Travaillons sans raisonner, dit Martin; c’est le seul moyen de rendre le vie supportable.”


Recent illustration — that’s the Cunegonde hanging up the laundry, the old lady with the sails

One man strongly objected to all Wolper said! There are other readings by critics in the Norton (Richard Holmes, Adam Gopnik) and I assigned one of them (Weightman), and did go over the text and tried to show its continual apprehension of stupidity and evil everywhere. I read aloud incidents, the history of herself the “old woman” told, and they so many were powerful individually considered: women living lives of sex slaves, raped continually, worked to exhaustion, thrown out in old age; the barbaric punishments, frantic slaughters, the making individuals into examples ludicrously killing “pour encourager les autres”.

But when I told the usual definition (a conte is a story shaped by a strong central point) and reiterated the tirelessly reiterated lesson it is not all for the best in the best of all possible worlds, a couple of people appeared to find this not very exciting, and the flatness of the characters was stale. When I went about to say why this obsession —

Leibnitz, deism, Pope in his Essay on Man (“whatever is, is right.”) — unless we look about us and accurately say what is, we cannot improve it. We must not rest easy in what is; we must not look to an afterlife; it’s here and now. Panglos, he glosses over everything —

they were (as living in a different age) indifferent to this cliché. People did say they had taken 18h century courses where Johnson’s Rasselas was read alongside Voltaire’s Candide as similar. Yes, yes, said I and so too Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield. With Rasselas, it’s the hunger of the imagination after some fantastical happiness (“vanity of human wishes”), the importance of one’s “choice of life. But this led to intelligent explications of why a moderate hope is needed: to believe in useful activity and within limits doing good. That it is a mock on the picaresque romance came up: the opening recalls Tom Jones — so a couple of the people in the room suddenly said how hard it is to remember details, its seeming hundreds of stories (I got in “enough piled into every paragraph for a commonly written realistic long novel were the characters psychologically developed at all”).


This 18th century illustration makes the opening incident resemble Tom Jones or other contemporary sentimental erotic novels

On the whole though I felt people were a bit disappointed by Voltaire’s Candide — they asked me about my title of the course: The Enlightenment: at Risk? what was at risk in this world that was valuable? I had used Outram’s book to try to show the ideas of this movement went much much further than small coteries, spread everywhere in cities, country houses, and were themselves outgrowths of new economic and social circumstances and began in the early modern period. So I went back to that and then tried to explain how satire, hard satire was the mode of this progressive period and the kinds of fundamental attacks on humanity Candide can prompt were not possible before people questioned religious belief as such, monarchy and divine right as such; conversely on powerful men, before people began to feel they had a right themselves to liberty, a good life, secure ownership of their property.

But that hardly can make someone like a book. So I then admitted that this summer rereading or reading for the first time some of Voltaire’s work I was more impressed by Letters on England than Candide, and famous and popularly read or widely distributed as Candide is, think Letters on England more important, his Treatise on Toleration teach us more directly about the Enlightenment thought of the era. I had assigned excerpts from these and then they took notes:

Differing sects of religion keep people from becoming absolutist and makes for toleration. In his chapter on Locke he argue against the immortality of the soul. Locke saw we were born with our minds a tabula rasa; what Voltaire is impressed is Locke accepts that matter thinks. Animals are like us, not simple machines but perceiving and sensitive. In the chapter on Bacon he extols basing oneself on probable experience, and takes over from his chapter on the history of inoculation for small pox, a scientific method. In the chapter on Newton he substitutes the old cosmology of God, eternal heaven, sin and reward with a modern scientific Newtonian universe. No need for all sorts of silly inventions and concepts once you have come up with the concept of gravity and turn it into mathematics and see that these mathematics describe what’s happening accurately, and enable to predict. Things like vortices perihelia. He shows how we now measure. Why the universe sticks together – it’s the brute reality – we would call it a force. How weight works. Newton’s Optics fascinated 18th century people –- to through a prism that light divides into colors. I read some poetry by Pope and Thomson: if you look at Shakespeare and Jacobean poetry you find mostly simple color words – red, pink maybe orange, purple; in these 18th century verses the color words just explode into cascades of shades. Far from attacking Shakespeare he admires him and says it’s impossible to translate him (18) and 23 and 24 he admires and recommends how the English support their men of letters (humanities) and men of science by academies. And so on.

I don’t say they weren’t spot on. First, none of the English translations we had came near Voltaire’s concision, wit, and tones.  Then to be honest, I prefer a realistic psychological story and enjoy Voltaire’s letters to Madame Du Deffand, and much more Nancy Mitford’s Voltaire in Love and Ian Davidson’s Voltaire In Exile where we see him fighting barbaric injustices, and occasionally winning (as against the oligarchy of Geneva he opened a manufacturing factory where people came to work and live more freely). I shall tell about these letters and books next week. . Maybe there is “more” to learn from Lettres Philosophiques (and also La Nuit de Varennes last week)

As a test case on whether the general class view of Candide makes it speak home to us, I found I was irritated by the Lincoln Center 2004 production, thought it mostly a travesty of Voltaire. It’s accurately reviewed by Peter G Davis, with whom I disagree only in that I found the usually appealing Patti Lupone as tasteless as everyone else. The witless sexual gags where the women were supposed to enjoy being raped were the worst. I am very troubled by how sexist this (and other) productions are. To me Voltaire’s females do not enjoy being sex slaves at all. I think Anthony Tommasini) has it right when he says this farrago doesn’t know what to do with Voltaire’s work — they were Hollywood bumpkins, clowns:


Paul Groves, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti Lupone as Candide, Cunegonde and the old lady ….

The best song was the penultimate sharp gaiety of the ensemble “What’s the use.” Still, Voltaire did not mean us to shrug and be gay over life’s meaninglessness. But people in the class said they had seen and they appeared to have been entertained by this production. I was lent my copy by one of the people in the class who wanted me to show it to the class and I will show one clip, “What’s the us?.”

The second DVD I have I bought myself, and I sat through far more patiently. It is the Barbican 1989 production.  Jerry Hadley as Candide sang the lyrical melancholy of Candide (in Bernstein’s “It must be so”) beautifully. Far more of Voltaire’s story survived in the enclosed whole script (!), and the absurdity of the enjoyment of torture and death at Lisbon (“auto-da-fe … What a day!”) seemed to approach a little Voltaire. Yet I remained uninvolved and felt the actors (Adolphe Green reading away so very hard)

and singers were flailing at perceptions that failed to touch them except as generic archetypes.


Jerry Hadley as Candide and June Anderson as Cunegonde

It was nowhere wild enough, but the reviews of this “labored over” production were more charitable and patient for the sake of the music. I can see it’s respected because my DVD came with the full script and credits to Lilian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, John LaTouche, Bernstein himself — all credited. I learnt that the original script was wholly by Hellman and that it was much closer in spirit to Voltaire, among other things, satirizing the House UnAmerican Activities committee. Indeed the script did reflect Voltaire in the narrative lines — read aloud as best the performers could, complete with explanations (“what is a picaresque tale? well …. “)

Each of the three productions I’ve mentioned here (the third at the opening of this blog, which I found on-line) have different dialogues so there has been a great deal of free improvisation allowed. It is true it is a mix-mash of different genre types as may be seen in the different earlier illustrations. But what went wrong in the 20th century and is still a problem is candor — reminding me in sound of the name, Candide. In the 18th century a “candid” interpretation was one which tried to present things in the “best” and most moral or sympathetic light. You wouldn’t think we’d want to look away if you turned on recent cable TV movies with their wild violence and amoral sex. Still the history of the adaptation says the first production (1957) was a flop (73 performances), and reveals since then the people daring to mount it have for the most part struggled, almost in vain to come near it. Apparently the 2013 began to come close, as has a recent 2016 operatic Candide at the New York City Opera.

I do find it telling that in our era of massacres, senseless laws and widespread injustice, where the president of the US can go around ridiculing a woman who comes forward to tell a story of assault, rape and humiliation as her civic duty (she knew she had lot to lose personally) rather than have a conscienceless raving elite thug on the supreme court for life, we have a hard time presenting the true core of Candide to an audience. The first edition (1759) was presented as a translation from the German by a physician named Ralph.

Ellen

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Tom Hollander as Dr Thorne (scripted by Jerome Fellowes, Hollander is right for the part)

Friends and readers,

About four days ago I joined in on a meme on face-book: you are asked to cite 10 books that influenced you strongly or made a real impact on you or your life, one a day for 10 days, with the book cover or illustration if there is one. I’ve cited three thus far: Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, and Suzanne Therault’s Un cenacle humanist de la Renaissance autour Vittoria Colonna, chatelaine d’Ischia. Day 10/4: Anthony Trollope’s Dr Thorne. I was somewhere between 18 and 20 and read it in a college class. In this case I can share the original cover, but I have a bit of a qualification:

While I just didn’t forget this novel, wanted to write my term paper on Trollope (but the professor didn’t approve because he thought Trollope not quite first-rate, he was just a mirror of his age, his fiction “told” instead of “showing” so I wrote on Dickens), and remembered ever after the amused calm in the narrator’s voice as he patiently explained he was forced to take two long chapters at the opening because he had to tell us the previous history of the characters and place before his book could officially begin; while I didn’t forget it, I didn’t go on to read more Trollope for 11 years and then it was the Pallisers in black-and-white on an old TV that set me off, and I just loved Can You Forgive You? this rich extraordinary world teaming with all sorts of life, but I had to stop (I read all six Pallisers in a row in tandem with Jim, my husband) as I was teaching and doing a dissertation on Richardson’s Clarissa. So it was the third start that mattered finally: age 43, my father came to the hospital where I had ended up after a bad car accident and gave me a copy of The Vicar of Bullhampton (the Dover edition) and said Trollope would get me through (it was Metropolitan hospital in Upper Manhattan in NYC where the place was so underfunded there was but one person to do X-rays in the whole place): “how wise Trollope is,” said my father.

I still have a copy of that first (for me) CYFH? and in spring 2019 I shall start teaching all six Pallisers in a row at two OLLIs (American University and George Mason University). Next spring at both OLLIs I shall begin a six term journey with the people there on the Pallisers, one a term, beginning with CYFH?.

We just finished watching all 26 episodes of the Pallisers one each week on TrollopeandHisContemporaries@groups.io. Raven makes Lady Glenn the quietly tragic heroine of the series:


Susan Hampshire as Lady Glencora McClusky in a symbolic bethrothal in the first episode of the 26 Pallisers

I’ve written some 30 blogs on the Pallisers, and published a paper on its intertextuality and that of Barchester Chronicles, with other Victorian film adaptations. I hope to write yet another blog, this one a single comprehensive concise one on the series as a whole before I go off on holiday this summer.

I still have the copy of The Vicar of Bullhampton that my father gave me too, with me today, this morning. Here’s its cover ….

Need I cite my book, Trollope on the Net, five published papers, two of them on the film adaptations (by Andrew Davies of The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right), two reviews, a huge part of this website, years of running reading groups on the Net, participation in the face-book Trollope society page, the New York Society itself, giving paper there, giving papers at two Trollope conferences, and now teaching several classes on Barsetshire novels, Beyond Barsetshire, the short stories.


Anthony Trollope as traveler by Julia Margaret Cameron, albumen print, 1864

Could there be more impact?

Ellen

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Puck in Motte’s filmic MND — presiding over wood, beach, mountain, his fingers seen typing away on his computer throughout ….

Friends,

I saw the Zellner Brothers’ pernicious film, Damsel, about two weeks ago now in my film club, and had debated ever since if I should write about it. I hoped it would go away, not be shown anywhere or hardly at all, not make any profit so the brothers would go out of business. No such thing. Today while watching Won’t You be My Neighbor?, I saw Damsel advertised as coming to a chain of theaters in my area. It is a film filled with acts of senseless violence, most of the characters exhibit a mindless obduracy, despise any openly vulnerable, tender, sensitive, and want to kill wantonly the one character who seeks friendship and love; one might offer the idea the Zellner brothers meant to parody the norms of the Trump regime and his non-super wealthy voting base, but the incongruities are inconsistent. If a Native American sounds like a Mel Brooks character upending the nonsense (he asks, “What is wrong with you people?”), he also steals everything he can from those he encounters and sneaks off in the night. The heroine is last seen rowing away into a misty lake with a miniature pony, determined to live on herself, in scornful need of no one. Most of the bulk of humanity are presented as moronic peasants who are first seen hanging a useless chubby man in a barrel (classical allusion to preferring begging to being a corrupt lord)


Mark Pattison at the ready (does not need anyone but himself, his gun, and the helpless animal)

One of the central male characters, Samuel (Mark Pattison) is someone out of the scenarios of our mass massacres by white men. Samuel is a white actor and he insists Parson Henry (David Zellner, one of the two people who made this film) a preacher come with him to marry him to Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) a girl whom he says has been kidnapped. He is ferocious with his gun. When they finally find her, and Anton (Gabe Casdorph) a young man is seen leaving the hut they live in, this young man shoots him dead. Then we see a gun come out of the door of the house and begin to shoot. It is Penelope. She comes out and immediately it is evident she loathes Samuel, a stalker — for that is what he is. She was in love Anton, whom he has murdered. She tries to and succeeds in murdering Samuel while he is pissing in an outhouse. She then under point of gun, puts material for a bomb around Parson Henry’s neck and at gun point forces him to walk ahead of her. She blows up buildings. She is insane, the young man stalking her was insane — as the young white man who murdered those nine black people in a church was insane. The preacher is laughed at by the film since he does not want to murder anyone and is constantly being threatened with death. Everyone carries a loaded gun in this film.

Other characters: the other Rufus who seems related to Anton (David Zellner) shows off that he is ignorant, ill-dressed, and violent. The movie opens with another nameless preacher and another anonymous young white man waiting for a coach that never comes. Public transportation is non-existent in this desert. Finally the preacher walks off leaving the passive young man waiting.

But it’s not a parody of today’s America because it is immersed in and endorses the violent characters intensely. Not a moment of kindness except by Preacher Nathan and he is sneered at because he needs people: “that’s your problem, ” says Penelope. In the end Nathan returns to the village idiots and stays with them. They drink whiskey and spend their time drunk — they have none or don’t drink water they tell Samuel.


Mia Wasikowska as Penelope (at Cinema art theater)

I had thought going to Won’t You Be My Neighbor? would simply be a trip into Laura, Izzy and my shared experiences together in front of a TV, nostalgic, possibly sentimental, making tear up, but it was a serious deconstruction of the profoundly humane and socially good ideas actuating Fred Rogers to make 4 decades of children’s programs that reached out to them candidly.  Mr Roger’s Neighborhood experienced through children’s art (like puppets) children’s apprehension of the world and built their self-esteem, consoled, uplifted, solaced and taught them about the realities they find themselves in.  By tracing Rogers’ career from his leaving the religious ministry to replace the slapstick, obtuse ridiculing, and ceaseless violence in one form or other with his programming really taking kids into account, the viewer travels through how we moved from a seemingly optimistic era and pro-social behavior (enacted, put into law, supported), to the present time, represented in Rogers’ fairy tale land by the arrogance, indifference, and willfull disregard to human needs. The King puppet wants to be a dictator. I remember Daniel as a surrogate for Rogers; the grief of Henrietta Pussycat making Laura grieve too. Rogers’ neighborly world connects the mirrors in the fairyland and good words well understood. Nothing to hide, nothing ventured nothing gained.

Would you believe groups of Trump bigots rant about Rogers as a socialist, and hold up placards saying they hate him. Rogers had on his show a long-time black TV actor, Susan and her husband, our black exemplary parents, Maria the touching young Puerto Rican girl who grew old with the part. A group of these people who loathe him came to his funeral with signs saying how he was a “faggot,” and how they hate him. Trump types have long accused him of wanting children to feel they are entitled to things without working for them. They say all children should be taught they must earn respect. Love does not seem to come into this. He is called gay because to them he is unmanly. Rogers does say how he dislikes TV, especially popular children’s TV, which is frenetic, filled with clowns, and pours thick messes over children, shows cartoon characters in intensely violent acts. I remember the first time Laura saw the Road Runner; she was terrified the character had died when he fell off a roof. We didn’t have TV for the first five years of Laura’s life as out TV had died and we didn’t buy a new one for a few years. American cartoons are the first place Americans are inured to cruel violence. Rogers went into TV to replace such pernicious fodder.


Charity Wakefield a wonderful Peter Quince to Fran Kranz as Bottom (see just below also)

The two films seemed to be so worlds apart, yet covering all possibilities of landscapes, houses people, until I saw Casey Wilder Mott’s fantastical film world, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s text of Midsummer Night’s Dream. Damsel left out imagination, beauty, and Mr Rogers was so concerned to reach children that his imaginative world of puppets is not dreamy but an analogue of our real world. Shakespeare takes us to a world elsewhere. Mott rearranged scenes, cut and rearranged film sequences and the actors were taught (as the BBC ones were for Hollow Crown) to speak Shakespeare trippingly off the tongue, to transform their anguish and comedy for more accurate, elegant language that nonetheless is spoken as naturalistic in TV films of Shakespeare like the recent Lear or The Hollow Crown. The worlds of the play were replicated in a couple of high-powered movie executives (Theseus, a recognizable serious actor, and Hippolyta, long willowy black model), 25 year old white children of super-rich parents (the lovers), hard-working clueless actors, the last two falling into a magical holiday time. Oberon is an older black actor, Titania an Asian actress. Among new patterns: this turns out to be written by Puck wonderfully acted by Avon Jogia as sprite.

Go see Damsel if you enjoy cruelty, jeering at vulnerability, but if not, don’t support this travesty of toxic masculinity. Trump’s world, his impulses heroized or mocked (depending on how you see this). Alas not a museum piece but a “western.” Don’t give them any more money: the Koch Brothers and their ilk is supplying enough; the new Supreme Court is determined to give intolerance power because that’s free speech. Your right to liberty gives you the right to exclude, reject in the public sphere now.


Fred Rogers answering a little girl’s answer (the same as above)

Open up to what people truly are with Fred Rogers. Watch Rogers’ face go to stone and his eyes show pained rage when he consider the mockery of his show on Saturday Night Live where they invented a plot where an actor looking like him is put into a wrestling match with one of his characters to reveal how he is in fact a hypocrite and turns to nasty spiteful violence when he is losing. He is remembering how he was bullied as a boy. You’ll learn about the history of the show (they did make the mistake of trying to film the challenger and caught it exploding), Rogers’ attempt at a show for adults (it didn’t work, too hard-hearted by our thirties we might say).

Achieve forgetfulness of the world of Trump and 30% we are told of Americans supporting him in Wilder’s choice of eloquent passages from Shakespeare turned into text messages, the voice of Puck, the quarrels of the lovers. The wood, the beach. The play within the play finds the actress and actors dressed like the stars from Star Trek (Thisbe looks like Princess Leia, while Pyramus looks like Hans Solo).


Shakespeare’s lovers on the beach

Summer movies are implicitly jeux d’esprit. Not this year. A fat man with a remarkably stupid smile or stupid stubborn pig expression, incapable of making sense for a spoken or speech paragraph (he can only tweet) is becoming a disguised dictator, opening detention camps and prisons around the US, putting children in their squalid conditions (and is not impeached for anything he does which undermines the constitution), and who will he come for next, and do what to the detainees? Mr Rogers didn’t succeed it seems — a cartoon show of him is all that is left on PBS. Are the Zellners right about humanity in their depiction of everyman’s village in their western?


Scofield in the trumped-up trial (A Man for all Seasons, Robert Bolt)

“Our natural business lies in escaping said Bolt’s Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons in 1960; shall we all escape to the wood? One problem with that is the characters achieve comfort by making fugitive visits to the obscenely rich palladium mansion of Theseus.

Ellen

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Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Prime Suspect series)

I, too, dislike it — Marianne Moore

Friends,

I’ve embarked on a reading journey through an area mostly unfamiliar to me, and Polonius-like, can come up with only the clumsiest of labels: the mystery, detective, suspense, gothic, spy thriller, crime, murder novel. Most of the time even with the most generally admired, about half-way through I grow tired of the formulas, and either give the story up altogether, or skim-read to the end. That’s what happened yesterday when I read for the first time Dashell Hammett’s much-bepraised The Maltese Falcon. Or I get to the end, and think what a good book this has been, until three minutes thought assails me, and I see it for the claptrap anti-feminist thing it is and become seriously annoyed. That’s what happened the other day when I finished Winston Graham’s Merciless Ladies.

I admit I can be hooked by a film serial; especially late-at-night, with a female hero, be drawn intensely in by its mix of ingredients blended into my more favored fare: that’s what happened with the film adaptation of P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberley. I can like the “Golden Age-1930s mold” even with a wholesome male at the center and a sermon at close: my favorite time for watching James Norton in Grantchester was 1 in the morning.


Typical cheap paperback cover illustration for the era …, now published by the New York Review of Books as a worthy book, became a remarkable 1950s movie by Nicholas Ray

But I’m no more fooled than Raymond Chandler in his debunking “The Simple Art of Murder,” or Julian Symons in his truly brilliant and entertaining Bloody Murder: “it is an inferior thing, but a thing with its own particular and unique merits. Nobody condemns Restoration comedy outright because it lacks the profoundity of Jacobean drama” (20), as with most film noir and ghost fiction.

I’ve embarked on this because I’ve embarked on a book on Winston Graham, his Poldark novels and Cornwall (working title). I don’t intend to read every work he ever wrote, or study every film made from said work (some in each kind are dreadful). To understand the man and his genuinely creative books, one cannot ignore 30 odd volumes of suspense set in our contemporary era, a few of which have been much admired, with one famous title (even had an opera made of it last year, i.e., Marnie, and some time ago a very good play by Sean O’Connor). One chapter I’ve told myself.

I’ve been reading these desultorily, out of order for a few years now, depending on what I thought I could stand: The Forgotten Story, written the same year as Ross Poldark, historical Cornish, deeply reflective of the trauma of WW2, Angharad Rees starred in the now wiped out serial; The Walking Stick, with its fine movie with David Hemmings; The Little Walls, won prestigious prize; Angell, Pearl and Little God, despite its godawful title, said to have been considered for a movie with Brando in a leading role. Graham has a number of novels with (to me) unappetizing titles, many first published with embarrassing covers.


I like this 1960s Bodley Head cover illustration of Demelza used on all four of the Bodley Head publications of the first four Poldark books

But now it will be my project, give me some kind of goal for a biographical book of my own, one I think I can do for real, and which is called out for — there is no book on this man whose work is so well known, liked, has made a great deal of money for so many. And I’ve corresponded with his son who for now has no objection. All the reading and love I’ve put into my study of biography and continual reading of literary ones (now there is a genre or book type that when done right I don’t tire of but read on however slowly to the end) — could just emerge in one of my own.

So I’ve begun steadily working through Graham’s early ones in the order they were written, and when revised, cut down, rewritten (several were) even comparing the two texts. And I’ve found myself engaged, e.g., The Giant’s Chair, 1938, became Woman in the Mirror, 1975. Alas (for Graham’s mature judgement of his own work), the earlier version is much better. I’ve heard this said of the first 12% longer version of Ross Poldark. The Giant’s Chair set in 1920s Cornwall, with attention paid to geology, geography, local feel, has an idiosyncratic charm, a traumatized secondary hero, disabled son, unjust death (not by murder), with believable heroine who has Radcliffian adventures, lesbian sexuality, becomes a weak hard-boiled thin bloody murder read, albeit with some stronger lines and passages — and more coherent clarity.

Tomorrow if I can get through the byzantine “security” procedures of the Library of Congress (whose real effect is to curb research, lest the cowardly congress be at risk as they place their iron heels on 90% of us), I shall read the relatively rare 1937 The Dangerous Pawn. It fetches $2000+ on the open market.


Jeremy Brett — the 1980s Sherlock Holmes

For tonight I thought I’d introduce one aspect of this fantastically successful genre, which the reader may not know or not mind being reminded about. (Beyond how necessary it is to find delight and solace in its central detective figure0. How flexible it is all the while keeping its recognizable furniture. It can accommodate so many kinds of stories & materials because one can tell anything to Sherlock. Two weeks ago I watched a remarkable modern-type BBC film adaptation of Wilkie Collins’s real novel of quality, The Woman in White (1860), arguably one of the pattern forms. I remember reading it in two days when I lay sick with flu — 1973 that was, we lived at the top of Manhattan with our dog, Llyr. The Italian Fosco was the origin invention that gave rise to the book of Marion Halcombe, the spinster who I defy anyone not to like. About the subjugation of women. The lady gone mad is not in the attic but wanders from her asylum across moors.

I had thought a genre I am familiar with, have long loved in the dyptich, historical romance, historical fiction, was very far from suspense novels. I was wrong. As in Graham’s oeuvre, characteristics, motifs, character types slide across one another co-terminously. It is not that uncommon to alternate between them. Police procedures can combine with women’s subjective novels, which historical romances are a version of in disguise. The great Breaking Bad belongs to this genre.

And today LeCarre is one of those who have made of them philosophical politically engaged books. I suppose the road was opened for this first by Hammett (1931, The Glass Key is not far off his rewrite-collaboration with Lilian Hellman from stage to film, Watch on the Rhine, 1941). I remember first reading LeCarre’s early, A Small Town in Germany (1968) which I thought was a fable about integrity very like Trollope’s The Warden (a similar retiring male at the center).

Trollope by the way knows the drill. In his parodic dark The Eustace Diamonds he has the de rigueur fuss about key, locked room, weapon (depends for working on some mechanical device), not to omit the importance of the exit/entrance and mappable space. By reverse logic, it stands to reason Trollope had no feel or urge to write historical fiction. He didn’t care what happened at “exactly half-past two o’clock on Tuesday morning” fifteen yards beyond the fourth milestone.


A Nancy Drew introspective cover, as Umberto Eco says at the opening of Il nome della rosa,

Naturalmente, un manoscritto

I have almost written myself into admiring this stuff. As I write myself into wakefulness and a feeling of cheer. Now if only I could find real pleasure in reading it. It can be fun to read about it on the train and watch it obsessively at 1 in the morning.

Ellen

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Sophie Marceau as Anna, typical odd angle, very close up shot (1997 written, directed, produced by Bernard Rose)


Jacqueline Bisset as as a passive Anna submitting to Christopher Reeve as a conventional cad Vronsky (1985, script James Goldman, directed by Simon Langton)

Friends and readers,

I’ve been participating in another group read and discussion of Anna Karenina! This time on the GoodReads site. And I’ve gone on to watch two more notable film adaptations, the 1985 Anna Karenina (made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky) and the 1997 Anna Karenina (an independent film, made in Russia, an even more extraordinary cast, with Sophie Marceau, Alfred Molina as Levin, Sean Bean as Vronsky, James Fox as Karenin, Phyllida Law as Vronsky’s mother, and Fiona Shaw as Lydia).


Matthew Macfayden as Stiva meeting Keira Knightley as Anna at the train. well-known opening of book and film, resembles book illustrations (from 2012 Wright/Stoppard)

It may be this is hard to believe, having watched watched three other Anna Karenina films and read essays and chapters in books, yet I feel I learned yet more, and was made to see more insights into the human condition when under pressure from this particular story and character elements.

The 1997 film, dismissed as “shallow, bloodless, having lost track of characters, by re-arranging the order and then stripping from the story almost all the larger social scenes, to focus on key linchpin memorable one-on-one intense encounters lays bare the trembling core of Tolstoy’s second masterpiece.

The 1985, less interesting philosophically is moving because it updates, make feelingfully contemporary the same trajectory as the book the 1935 Gretta Garbo AK (she is what is remembered) and 1977-78 BBC faithful and liberal-minded Donald Wilson of-Forsyte-Saga-fame AK (remembered for Porter, Stuart Wilson as Vronsky and only after that Nicola Paget).

Scofield and Marceau in their different films enable us to reach a new understanding. Both films ought to be better known; they are absorbing.

I refer my reader back to my blog on Tolstoy’s novel for the story, and AK at the movies I for the 1935 and 1948 (remembered for Vivian Leigh’s performance near suicide and Ralph Richardson as the steele-knife Karenin), and Stoppard and Joe Wright’s 2012 brilliant theatrical rendition

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Bernard Rose’s 1995 Anna Karenina, an independent film:


Alfred Molina as Levin (1997, opens and closed film, given narrative overvoice)

I was astonished when Rose’s film was over. It startled me by opening on the ice-skating scene between Kitty (Mia Kirshner) and Levin; his point of view, seemingly reasonable, trying to find some rationale for what is happening, some comforting lesson or sense runs across the movie, linking the scenes. While Kitty is there and in quick moments, has the familiar turning points of dance, snubbing, sickness, rescue by Levin, baby, there at Levin’s brother’s death with brother’s prostitute-mistress by her side, hers is a minor role. The major woman after Anna is Madame Vronsky and Phyllida Law captures the banal hypocritical ways of this woman with her hard insinuating glances perfectly, so her presence at the first train encounter, and at the close of the movie as who Vronsky flees to makes her point of view that one that destroys Vronsky and Anna.


Phyllida Law as Madame Vronsky effectively inserting herself between the lovers

Also made into a major presence is Fiona Shaw as Lydia. Rather than a mere religious fanatic clinging to, squatting all over Karenin, she is a forceful political actor (goes to political rallies).


Shaw as Lydia, while Karenin’s own austere idealism and role as a cuckold has ruined his career

Karenina is kept as an outer ring character; stern and sensitive he is the first of the Karenin enactments to move to rape when he brings Anna home after the race, and the carriage scene, which are (as in all social scenes of the movie) kept to a minimum. The point is to have the confrontation where Karenin’s sense of himself is rocked: his anger is not over social appearances and if she did agree to a veneer, we are to feel he wouldn’t keep to it.

Rose took all the famous strong passionate scenes and rewrote them so they become intense interactions where private emotions takeover; he rearranges them some, strings them together. All the rest of the story, the social world, hum drum life left out. Danny Huston’s draining of his wife, Dolly, bankrupting them, bland complacency is choral; we hardly see Dolly as she is a figure who brings in the troubles and compromises of the social and economic worlds of the novel; Huston’s role is to listen to Levin,go hunting with him, attempt to persuade Karenin to give Anna a divorce. He seems so weak against Fiona Shaw whose scene with the child where she tells Seriozha his mother is dead is chilling, scary. Somehow Levin working hard in the fields becomes another private moment of self-discovery which just happens to occur in a (lovely) public field. Childbirth is a screaming painful bloody affair that occurs twice (Anna and then Kitty). Another departure is Rose presents Sean Bean Vronsky more positively than any of the films:


This promotional still of Bean in uniform as Vronsky must be the only time in the film he seems involved in his regiment: the look of puzzle is more common.

Bean is driven to anger and distraction between Anna, his mother, Karenin refusing to cooperate. Anna’s baby by him dies or is stillborn in this production (we see her nursing an old broken plastic doll). When he screams at her, there is no sense from the film that she has deprived him of a career he wanted, or even a place. Just that it’s the done thing to be married so he can be an accepted landlord. The film’s tragic scene focuseson his scream and frantic mad behavior pulling himself away from the officers as we hear Anne go under the train.


Bean is that movement under blue cloth

It’s a stripping of Tolstoy to bare bones and then putting back in psychologically distraught moments. Sophie Morceau carries the film, moving from cheerful and strong by stages into utter self-abjection, loss of identity, a kind of stupor as she only half-heartedly tries to follow Vronsky. A each scene is flung at us background music passionate romantic opera or equivalent link — there’s a heavy use of music and at times pantomime. The last 8 minutes of Anna last walk towards death is all music. The houses and rooms are opulent. Trains continually brought in and function. Dialogue is extraordinary, things brought out frankly in physical interactions. No words of continuity, just juxtaposition. Are these the core power of Tolstoy, Rose seems to be asking.

Rose makes the book into a kind of wild romance. Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard made the book theatrical too but they kept the outer social world as a shaping force and the story line and dialogue had strong intellectual ironies. This film made me see Anna Karenina more as about how the personal and sincere have no chance to thrive. Vronsky’s mother’s objection, that of Betsy (Justine Wadell), and the astonishment of everyone else seems to be Anna and Vronsky’s attempt to live by some shared mutual soul within them. And this inner self can’t take this kind of leaning. Babies die. People don’t cooperate. Things don’t make sense.

The movie ends with Vronsky on a train going to Siberia. He has lost all meaning. Levin is narrator and then he returns us to his life with Kitty, and his book, asserting one can find meaning in life by turning to religion. It’s not very convincing.


Near closing shot of film, after this we see the writing of his diary (lines from Tolstoy)

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The 1985 Anna Karenina, written by David Goldman, directed and produced by Simon Langton (filmed in Hungary)


Paul Scofield brilliant as Karenin (1985 TV film) — this film returns us to Karenin as the powerful central male

This is another remarkable production. The cast includes some remarkable actors, and in the minor parts too: including Anna Massey as Betsy, Joanna David as Dolly. It opens using a sort of browned framed set of stills, to set up an antique feeling — although the attitudes of mind are recognizably those of the mid- to later 20th century imagined TV audience


Joanna David as Dolly: she is the suburban wife who is persuaded to forgive the erring husband

Simon Langton, who directed and produced the 1995 Andrew Daves P&P directs and produces; Goldman has written other fine screenplays (e.g., The Lion in Winter). It seems to have been produced by some combination of companies, filmed in Hungary and then put on TV, though its length (2 hours and 15 minutes) and feel makes it seem as if it were meant for movie-houses. It’s the only one I watched straight through and it’s exhausting. Its one weakness as a film is Christopher Reeve’s inability to act, his woodenness is a real flaw. He was considered super-beautiful (yet he was given the usual mustache). That he too is made into a positive figure enables him to carry the complex role more easily. It does have something peculiar at first: it seems as if the voices were dubbed in after for the first hour so the actors seem oddly distanced.

In conception it’s a redo and updating of the previous three I’d seen (1935, 1948, 1977) in the sense that Langton (director) and Goldman (writer) adapted the same arrangement, story line, emphases. Yes Levin and Kitty are just about eliminated but that was the tendency before. But otherwise the characters are simply modernized. Tellingly there is a softening of attitudes towards adultery and at the same time towards both Oblonsky and Vronsky. Oblonsky is merely weak, poor guy means well, and there is a repeated Americanization of both going on. Vronsky never meant to mislead Kitty; and it is presented as perfectly understandable he wants to get on with his career. There is no Lydia, so no disquieting aspects to religion (American audiences might not like that). Betsy is not a bad woman either: she understands that Anna is not the kind of woman who can live a disguised life.


Anna Massey as Betsy the good-natured advise giver

Unexpectedly (but this seems to me very much in line with today’s attitudes) Karenin is himself a man who lived solely for his work and Anna, and she was enough for him; why is he not enough for her. Anna only grovels at the very end of the film. Strikingly it opens with Karenin and Anna and the son, and they seem a contented enough family. He has just had a big success, and they talk about whether they should say goodnight to their child and go into the bedroom. It’s a very 1960s family scene. It’s from this position of an adjusted family that the film departs and presents Anna’s seduction by Vronksky as a sort of sickness. Anna herself is without friends except for Betsy even before she loses her reputation.

Scofield’s characteristic quiet apparent reasonableness is to the fore; when he does become fiercely enraged at Anna’s behavior at the races and her telling him in the carriage she is Vronsky’s mistress, loves Vronsky, is pregnant, it’s no loss of social appearance that drives him wild. His image of himself as a man, his choice in life to make her the center and have no other friend (he says this) morphs immediately to near rape: this is her duty. It’s that she personally betrayed him, with marriage as a one-on-one relationship. There is real sympathy for Kareinin. He decides to get back towards the end by refusing to divorce her even after she agrees to give up her son. Anna is passive sexually (so a good woman), waits to be taken. She is firm and angry with Karenin after the childbirth collapse; she wants out of this bed and only one man at a time. I admit this film made cry more at the close because I bonded in small ways with this Anna as I had not with any of the previous: this heroine is no longer a 19th century character. I felt yet more for Karenina. If I may make the comparison, the couple reminded me of the characterization of Winston Graham’s Ross and Demelza Poldark in the recent film adaptation by Debbie Horsfield.


Anna with her maid did not want to take a ball dress with her; she was not particularly ambitious; their friendliness reminded me of Lady Mary and Anna in Downton Abbey

Some viewers might like this one best. Modern readers are often bored with Kitty and Levin, and they are hardly there. The directors and actors are allowed to present the sexual scenes between Vronsky and Anna far more candidly. While not as many as the 1997 film, it does eliminate a lot of the exterior events — especially the closing scenes between Dolly and Stiva and the Levins in the country estate. Especially interesting is this re-conception of Karenin: here he is not driven by religion or even his political position, he says he has no friends, and Anna has been everything to him, he has been satisfied with her as his friend and companion. He seems to go on for politics as a principled business as an aristocrat but find no personal meaning in it. He is not ambitious as Ralph Richardson, Eric Porter and then Jude Law all are.


One of the effective scenes between Bisset and Reeve

Four hinge point scenes are revealed as what one must have: the race scene, Karenina taking Anna away in the carriage after Vronsky falls, has to kill his horse (done intimately) and her abjection in the carriage. In their talk afterward Karenin is the most sensible of all the husbands: he is warning her of what will happen: she will be lost, Vronksky will tire of her; it’s almost done kindly. Scofield’s behavior and words reminded me of how he played Thomas More. She does get pregnant, have the baby, in this one wants to die — there is a death wish throughout. There is the forgiveness scene but then (as in the other movies but one and the book) she cannot stand Karenin again and flees. When she comes for the divorce, they are like a 1960s couple agreeing on how they will treat the child; she promises to give him up, and in return he will divorce her.


Scofield in pain but controlling himself


Anna giving up her son

Reeve was mechanical in feel early on, he did much better when it was a matter of sexual interaction and in the last part when he rejects her: as in the 1936 film he grows irritated, tired of her, threatens to leave. At first they seem to be adjusted: a visit from Dolly and Stiva make the four look like American in-laws during an afternoon.

But it’s not enough. In this one Betsy does not betray Anna as the norms behind it are not really high society Russia. Anna just becomes more clinging and nervous, and he does irritation and restlessness very well. The scene of her return to the house when they return to Moscow is powerful, at first centered on the husband. Her love of her boy and her boy’s for her is touching. In this the film harks back to the 1935 Anna Karenina where the strongest scenes in the whole film are Garbo and the son.


There’s real pathos as Anne bends her head; Reeve’s stiffness as Vronsky works well here

The last part of her chasing after Vronsky gone to his mother and her choice for his wife remembers the 1948 with Vivien Leigh. Bisset is going mad with nothing to do, no one to be with. She wears a dress that looks like a prisoner’s outfit, all stripes. She too is haunted by bad dreams and sees a figure of a man. But she berates herself in practical 20th century American terms: she has destroyed two men, one boy, and she does not love her daughter. In this film we feel why she does not love the daughter: the daughter stands for this new life Anna claimed she loved (I don’t need society) but found herself cracking up under. In this film she does not go to the opera; she obeys Vronsky and still she and he quarrel. He wants to escape her altogether. The last moment shows her by the train and then we switch to where Vronsky has become aware she has come after him from Annuska and turns horrified at what he sees. End of film.

I suggest that the 1985 film has the most modern feel because of the depiction of Karenin is not based on religion or status and of Anna as the most inward, inner directed people might say. I wondered if the elimination of many of the social scenes gave Rose the idea for his re-conception.

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One of the older Penguins

Returning to Tolstoy’s book too, I am just reading a book by Joan Hardwick about Clementine Churchill, Winston Churchill’s wife, whose father was not her mother’s husband. Hardwick paints a picture of the aristocracy in Europe at this time as often adulterous, with differently sired children in one family. Karenin is then as unusual as Anna, but they live in a world of egregious hypocrisy. Oblonsky represents the norm. That makes the outlook many middle class 20th and 21st century readers and viewers have had on Anna anachronistic; it was not her adultery that was so unacceptable; it’s the way she went about it with passionate integrity. In that she resembles Levin. And the movie adaptations that come closest to this are the 1948 and 1977.

We might say now in our 21st century political and corporate culture what the filthy rich do today esembles the parasitical aristocrats of Tolstoy’s day, so it may be the 1% as a culture (which are where Tolstoy’s characters fit in) are not so far from these corrupt aristocrats as we like to imagine. Levin and Anna are our figures of integrity — Kitty is simply another utterly conventional young woman, believable yes. These hollow pretenses have provided the way Karenina, along with rank, and wealth and status, has risen so high. A real jack-ass con-man whom of course Oblonsky gets along perfectly with wins an election in Vronsky’s area; Levin can’t figure out how he did it. Like Levin, Anna doesn’t fit in; she will not play the social games with all their hollow pretenses.


From a two act production in the Abbey Theater by Irish playwright Marina Carr, directed by Wayne Jordan

The book was written by a man and all these movies made by men. What matters in male-centered, male-written, male-made movies is adultery, the man has been betrayed. What matters to women is the custody of their children. Anna Karenina shows these outlines too.

Next up for Anna Karenina will be an account of a few other of the Anna Karenina films as found in Tolstoy on Screen, edd Lorna Fitzsimmons and Michael Denner. The list of movies is NOT endless. You don’t have to watch them chronologically. I am slowly discovering more about Tolstoy’s book by watching these

Ellen

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Albert Finney as Churchill (Jim Broadbent as Desmond Morton, The Gathering Storm)


Michael Gambon as Churchill (Churchill’s Secret)

Friends,

Another rather shorter blog where I depart from our usual fare, this time in content. Since this summer, without intending this (in a “fit of absence of mind”), I’ve been watching and reading about a sub-genre of movie I hadn’t realized existed: films centering on Winston Churchill as a piquantly fascinating and admirable older hero. In one he seems hardly to figure, Dunkirk; in another, he is sideshow for a season, The Crown (superb performance by John Lithgow — I hope to blog soon on this extraordinarily well-done serial drama); in a third, he is sort of warped Trump twin, The Darkest Hour (very worrying film). Then after reading Geoffrey Wheatcoft’s superb essay in the NYRB, “A Star is Born” (January 18, 2018), the most touching and insightful of biographical sketches, Rosemary Dinnage’s “Holding the Baby: Clementine Churchill” (under “Partners and Muses” in Alone! Alone! Lives of Some Outsider Women), and Joan Hardwick’s Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Figure, I consciously set out to watch two against type: 2001 The Gathering Storm, and 2016 Churchill’s Secret.


A statue on the Chartwell grounds

This is a departure because I avoid books and movies about supposedly great men, often, as Thomas More had it, the pests of humanity. I dislike and find such films dangerous most of the time (exceptions include anti-war films Danger USB, Piece of Cake, Kilo Two Bravo). I slipped into this for the reason I want to talk about two against type: we find ourselves in a culture and unacknowledged coup lurching towards war. The cult has been and continues to be heavily American, a profoundly militarist state where violence is close to the surface, and macho male norms prevail. What can attract them? What’s worth noticing is the Churchill films (until The Darkest Hour) have been anti-fascist because Churchill’s intelligence, words, behaviors help undermine the hero fantasy, and he is not himself an action-adventure icon. The list of actors playing the various parts in these films show something worth while glimpsed in the legend: Richard Burton, Robert Hardy, Robert Shaw; even the self-deprecating ever self-conscious Bob Hoskins (in World War Two: When Lions Roared, in split screens, with Michael Caine as Stalin, John Lithgow as Churchill, with much war documentary footage).

Gathering Storm and Churchill’s Secret place Clementine equally at the center


Vanessa Redgrave as Clementine who Churchill calls Mrs Pussycat and she Churchill Mr Pug (Gathering Storm)


Lindsay Duncan as Clementine, with Romola Garadi as Nurse Millie (the myth has come to include a young woman working for Churchill whose life he changes)

These two against type also feature Clementine as central, a role when written with insight offers remarkable moments for a great actress: in The Crown, when Harriet Walter as Clementine burns Graham Sutherland’s portrait of her husband because Sutherland captured his aging and dense characteristics and she cares about how she remembers him, it’s one of the finest intense sequences of the first season.

After reading Sir Almroth Wright’s able and weighty exposition of women as he knows them the question seems no longer to be ‘Should women have the vote?’ but ‘Ought women not to be abolished altogether?’… We learn from him that in their youth they are unbalanced, that from time to time they suffer from unreasonableness and hypersensitivity … and … later on in life they are subject to grave and long-continued mental disorders, and if not quite insane, many of them have to be shut up … May we not look to Sir Almroth Wright to crown his many achievements by delivering mankind from the parasitic, demented and immortal species which has infested the world for so long … Clementine Churchill, a letter to The Times, published 1912)

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Chartwell in both films played an important role.

In both we are being let into the life of the house and watch the characters wander about the grounds. In Gathering Storm, Churchill is fixing his pond, draining it, saving ducks; in Churchill’s Secret, it is a ambiguous haven for all.

I was much moved by The Gathering Storm. I felt as a widow what I’ve lost was enacted by Redgrave and Finney’s relationship: deep companionship and support. It gave over some 2/3s perhaps to private daily life whose values are not militaristic, not aggressive (anything but), nurturing, home-making. The movie has Churchill show Clementine on behalf of what he is acting: what preserving — good quiet lives lived in liberty. The center was the same as Spielberg’s The Post: a defense of whistle-blowers.

The film’s other hero, Linus Roache as Ralph Wigam is a Deep Throat, a Daniel Ellsberg, is supplying documents and evidence to Winston so he can have ballast in his speeches that they must prepare for and fight the insanely tyrannical socio-pathic Hitler. Wigam and his wife love dearly their disabled child, a Downs Syndrome son, caring for him tenderly. The emphasis was also on how Wigam was not supported by his colleagues (as is Ellsberg in The Post). In a Laura Poitras film the hero is a victim, and in The Gathering Storm Wigam’s colleagues, e.g., Hugh Bonneville as Pettifer. threaten Wigam by saying they will place him where he and his wife cannot attend properly to their child’s needs. Wigam cracks under the pressure of doing what he has been trained not to do.

Ronnie Barker returns as an the argumentative faithful comic Butler. Vulnerability is to the fore, mutual tolerance, comradeship.

The original title for Churchill’s Secret was KBO (said to be Churchill’s motto: Keep Buggering On). Here we have a man who with the help of a working class nurse who would never have voted for him, brings himself back from near death; the courage to be is at the film’s center. He’s weak, sick, and yet aware of others. No pious family, bickering bitter snarky adult children (especially good are Tara Fitzgerald and the inimitable Matthew Macfayden as egregious snob Randolph and desperate Diana. Rachel Stirling as the daughter deprived of a man because her father despised him), yet everyone gathers together to watch a film and walk in the garden.

In Churchill’s Secret, there was a disturbing intrusion of our contemporary insanities: the way Garai was introduced. A hard-working nurse, she is commanded by silent men to “come” with no explanation, then threatened if she spills some vital secret she will regret it forever. This is appalling — it seems to be presented as part of life. Garai is about to go to Australia to live a life as a man’s wife when she really would prefer to stay in London because her job is more satisfying. She does not long to spend her life as this man’s wife. And watching Clementine crying and the family’s lack of identity outside this man gives her courage to say no. She seems to lose her labor identification and allow her father’s earnest reading to be made fun of (just a bit, as Churchill reads the same poet).

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A photograph of Winston and Clemmie walking together when young

What is valued in these two films are relationships between people, reasonableness, strength as staying true to an inner self, kindness and real equity. No misogyny, no ritual humiliation for anyone. Touching individualizations. In Dunkirk it’s a sheer will to survive that governs the evacuation whose hero is Mark Rylance.

When you come to the quiet end of these two films, you might think as I did: how unfathomable and crazy can we be in the US to have large numbers of people supporting a manic malevolent man who promotes violence, anti-social behavior at every turn, says carelessly he’ll kill 12 million, and no one acts seriously consistently to remove him.


This is Churchill’s portrait of himself from 1920

Izzy tells me she has read Churchill’s war correspondence and it is very worth reading. The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor by Jonathan Rose is valuable. That last word is significant: he made himself into a theatrical figure in public, a possible clue to the cult. Like Martin Luther King he was a master rhetorician, but since he was not philosophically deep, we have to look elsewhere to understand. A recent book by Barry Gough extends our sense of Churchill as head of the Navy together with John Arbuthnot Fisher in World War I.

In Joan Hardwick we see the aristocratic culture of the later 19th and early 20th century: Clementine was the child by a man who was not her mother’s legal husband; the same man fathered her older sister. Her twin brothers had a different father. She was sent away to and pulled out of schools on whims, for lack of money. Maybe she clung to Winston because he was rock-like, a kind of Tolstoy’s Levin & Karenin with cigar and liquor.


As Sir Winston and Lady Churchill much older; Harriet Walter as Clementine burning the false portrait

Ellen

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Vivien Leigh as Anna Karenina (from the first half of 1948 film, at home — an unfamiliar shot)


Gretta Garbo as Anna Karenina (reminiscing in front of Kitty, a fine moment from 1935 film)

Friends and readers,

Each time one watches a great movie, like each time one reads a great book, one learns more about the film, art, and to some extent the life it reflects. In these two Anne Karenina films, the visuals tell a different story from the script: in visuals, the 1935 AK is far more romantic and highly erotic, but in the dialogue it’s the conventional point of view; the 1948 AK is from its words disquieting, disturbing, but its visuals present prosaic conventional or picturesque images.

Out of eighteen film adaptations, I watched five, attempted a sixth, and read good essays on yet three more. None of my choices were Russian. The finest, in my view is the longest, not written about anywhere, the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina, scripted by Donald Wilson (who wrote the 1967 BBC Forsyte Saga), featuring Nicola Paget, Eric Porter, Stuart Wilson. It should be treated like the BBC 1972 War and Peace, scripted by Jack Pullman, featuring Anthony Hopkins. I’ve written about the 2012 Joe Wright-Tom Stoppard Anna, with Keira Knightley, Jude Law, and Matthew Macfayden.

For tonight I’ll cover the first (for English speakers) two famous Anna Karenina films (1935, 1948); on another night I’ll tell about two more (1985, made for TV, with Jacqueline Brisset, Paul Scofield as Karenina, Christopher Reeve as Vronsky, 1997, directed by Bernard Rose, notably greatly acted by Sophie Marceau, Phyllida Law, Sean Bean, Alfred Molina, James Fox, Fiona Shaw and in some ways the most interesting of all the AK movies I’ve seen). A third night, I’ll describe the three I wasn’t able to reach by watching but read about; and at last, a fourth and fifth blog, the culmination, we’ll do the 1977-78 BBC Anna Karenina masterpiece.

I assume my reader knows the story; if not, go back to my blog on the novel by Tolstoy for links (as read aloud by Davina Porter).

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The 1948 film opens on the train, cold, snowy and a terrible accident quickly ensues (Anna thinks it an omen, the pragmatic Stepan says no)

I’ll go backwards because I watched the 1948 British Anna first. I was so curious to see Leigh and Richardson. This AK was scripted by no less than Jean Anouilh and Julien Duvivier (who also directed), with a little help from Guy Morgan (whoever he is), with Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson as Karenin, and a very weak (unconvincing as someone who’d I’d find irresistible) Kieron Moore.

With British actors, a French company, I was naively surprised to find it resembled the 1956 US War and Peace, scripted King Vidor, featuring Henry Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer, John Mills. The same kind of sentimentality and superficiality of acting or keeping emotions decorous. I noted that the women’s voices were all this same soft oozy breathless sound Marilyn Monroe and Jackie Kennedy and Billie Holiday and so many others affected. Including the Kitty. Only the older women allowed to have real voices. I was so absorbed and bonded with Leigh in Streetcar and a couple of her other films (The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone also by Tennessee Williams) that when she was at first presented as this coy sweet thing was grating. Vronsky and his friends were all these Don Ameche matinee idol stuffed male dolls.


The first meeting is at the train (as in the book and several of the AK films)

That said, Duvivier-Anouilh’s work has merit. Richardson as Karenin is its core: hard as steel and mean (not softened as in the BBC 1977-78 Eric Porter conception). This man wanted a divorce fiercely, right away. Richardson’s conception of the character and acting reminded me of him playing Dr Slope in the 1949 chilling version of Henry James’s Washington Square by William Wyler where Olivia de Haviland is Catherine. So the rigid male controlling his women. Duvivier-Anouilh begin with Hugh Dempster as Stiva and they tried for comedy — which is what Joe Wright does and what is in Tolstoy about the marriage of Stiva and Mary Kerridge as Dolly. Telling about US culture, at the same time as Stiva is socially okay he is adulterous and it’s suggested he and Anna inherited this unfortunate disposition. They included (as the 1997 AK does not, but Wright 2012 does) the race course where Anna first reveals herself. The most effective other male is Michael Gough playing Levin’s brother. The gossipy types spoiling things with their tittle tattle is effective.


A playful Karenin when he comes to pick Anne up at the train station, home from Moscow

In 1948 the film-makers were much more anti-adultery than the 1977-78 BBC, but when in the carriage after the race track where Anna’s intense love for Vronsky was on the table, the whole movie shifts into a mode capable of accommodating bitterly realistic marriage, with a shift in the last quarter of psychologically shattering tragic death. Karenina insists on taking Anna home from the races for having disgraced herself. Leigh is abject (anticipating Nicola Paget in the 1978 BBC version) when she says she won’t ask for a divorce. Leigh also says she deserves to be punished (which no other Anna I’ve seen says). The film-makers try to make the lack of a divorce understandable in Anna’s love for her boy, concern for his welfare with a harpy-housekeeper. Leigh is seen caring for the boy but it doesn’t come off in the same emphatic way when Anna turned suicidal and will approach anywhere the BBC managed.


Richardson and Leigh in the crucial quarreling scene

The flight of the young couple to the suburbs was not successful. They didn’t plan enough (as Jim and I when we were young did not). There is no real critique of society; Levin Niall McGinnis) and Kitty (Sally Anne Howes) are downplayed as ordinary people not thinking much about these things Richardson is seen as an admirable strong man doing politics. Somber, thoughtful, and prosaic too. Originally sensible.

Vronsky’s mother is cold and cruel to Anna, openly snubbing Anna in Anna’s own home but that is put down to her character (not the influence of those around her). In this film Anna self-destructs because she lacks strength from within to live on herself. She’s blamed in effect in several scenes where Vronskry is trying to compromise and increasingly irritated, grated upon, towards the end calling Anna a monster. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. The social types who fit in surround Anna on her mistaken trip to the opera where Vronsky himself is going (Stuart Wilson was not going in 1978) and sits in his mother’s box. The quarrels get worse: It’s presented as not fair but nonetheless natural. She visits Dolly who welcomes her and finds she is not thrown out of the family but feels her position and flees.

Anouilh’s script is fine and Dudivier’s directing good; it is also a French film with European expressionist techniques in the use of lighting and performances. Despite it’s being just one movie length, it seems to have much more time for inner psychology than 2012 (comparable in time) Wright/Stoppard. Richardson is this hollow man who wants to obey conventions, not a bad man, he just didn’t understand he wasn’t satisfying his wife.


Oblivious Stiva early in the film


Kitty the innocent maiden at the ball

The depiction of the marriage is very much a depiction of a 1948 or mid-20th century marriage. The dialogue is showing us how a couple can become incompatible — it’s not a costume drama (even though it’s produced by Alexander Korda, who may have been responsible for the unbelievable sets), or film of a classic novel but a kind of semi-women’s film only with extravagant clothes. Leigh is given new kinds of lines about her needs, dissatisfactions, and her attachment to her son made more daily and prosaic. I recognized the actresses playing Dolly and Kitty from other films at the time; Kitty is more like a novel character in her illness over Vronsky but Dolly is a woman whose husband is unfaithful living with it. Levin is marginalized and made comic in the same spirit as Stiva.


Dolly’s unhappiness early in the film


Frederick March look-alike when they first flee, he is in love but brisk, sharp, assertive

The music and picturesque settings are now a problem. The music is soppy, the sudden soft focuses, the feel is of a weepy woman’s film at times to us today. She is filmed in a corridor or at these people’s stairways with this pathetic treatment. Outside picturesque house left over from Gone with the Wind or maybe some film taking place in New Orleans. Maybe this pleased and made the 1948 audience weep.


Anna losing her grip

But then everything then falls away as Anna is left alone and we get a 10 minute sequence of her mind going to pieces haunted in the house (hears footsteps). Leigh takes over and is stunning. This sequence takes a long time. It’s a specialty of Leigh’s. She is trying to follow after Vronsky on the train, and happens on and watches an incompatible couple, gradually losing it on the ground until she steps out, in front of the train. This is done slowly as the train comes at her. the camera on her face. It’s tough and while I didn’t take the down there are very Anouilh desperate lines about life before the train smashes her. A blemish is an inter-title just before this from Tolstoy reasserting how good life is or something like this — surely stuck in by the studio.

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1935 — Anna Karenina – Greta Garbo (Anna), Frederick March (Vronsky), Basil Rathbone (Karenin), Maureen O’Sullivan (Kitty). An all-star cast. A studio product so Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer matters; the director chosen was Clarence Brown with three different writers (the script writer was not respected in earlier films).


Garbo and March

First upfront: where I’m unfair: I don’t care for little triangle mustaches all the men seem to have. Th March look-alike for Vronsky in the 1948 film had this too. To me they look absurd. The males clothes in this one make them look trussed up. I realized the film-makers were once again trying for comedy at the opening with absurd feast, but why the men should all go under the table is beyond me. I preferred the train opening in 1948 but admit the 2012 AK also begins with comedy and Stiva (as does Tolstoy). Kitty is made too innocent: she does yearn for Vronsky but she is hardly allowed near him; she is kept with Levin all the time, and Levin is marginalized, the actor a nobody, Gyles Ischam. Vronsky is thus to be seen as someone who might “pollute” a nice girl’s chastity. Like later Indian films (which eliminate Lucy Steele from Austen’s S&S as too raw material) this shows just how women were kept dolls.

I noticed something no longer with us — film-makers were willing to hire older “ugly” actresses and give them semi-comical parts. Such an actress plays Vronsky’s mother (May Robson, a character actress at the time), so we don’t take her seriously. Who would taken an ugly old woman as a serious presence? On one level, this means jobs for aging semi-fat women; on another, there can be little sympathy such as we find for example in Virginia Woolf (and films made from her books). A third: there is a kind of toleration in showing this reality, except it’s treated derisively. Such a woman type is even in Gaslight (as comic relief — now there’s a powerful film).


Gretta Garbo as Anne Karenina (from just before she meets Karernin in her way home from Moscow, after she has met Vronsky, on train)

All the acting seemed to be artificial including Garbo’s – somehow stiff, detached from their bodies, not coming from some gut area. I felt somehow the tones were off — the falling in love in this film did not convince me. Also there is no felt violence from the men. Some of this is 1935 dramaturgy but it’s hard to make the transition in this film and I have made it in others — when I was reviewing a book about pre-Hays and post-Hays code films I saw a number of 1930s films which were rooted in real emotion and a real sense of body. Was it the awareness they were doing a classic book and so naturally it cannot be quite real? or contemporary? no one believed in it — who had read it of the cast or crew, after all? On the other hand, some of the pictorial moments, the shots were striking (as in the famous one just above)


Rathbone as Karenin also reproaches Anna for her extravagant outfits …

That said, this is a still living effective film.

The crucial or climactic moment was similar to the one in the 1948: there is a fierce quarrel between Karenin and Anna on the way home from the race (where Vronsky is again thrown). Some of the language written by Behrman reappeared in the 1948 script: she is abject, she blames herself, he won’t give her a divorce, but it also takes a different direction: she blames him for caring for appearances. Rathbone is far more menacing: he looms over and accosts Anna in the bedroom: she is too open about her flirtation with Vronsky and Anna tells him she does love Vronsky. This pair argues over appearances: he cares about social appearance (he refuses to admit to jealousy) for the sake of his career; she says she cares nothing for this. It’s interesting to me that this opposition is one that is made explicit in Anouilh/Dudividier’s 1948 AK. It’s not couched that way in the 1978 BBC because in this later liberal era, they were the critiquing society full-stop.


One of Garbo’s many scenes with her boy

I was surprised by Garbo’s presentation. This shows how little I’ve seen I guess. She was not at all a vamp nor over glamorous, but framed in a downright sentimental way: she is clearly filmed as being stunningly beautiful. I had not realized how tall she is. I didn’t recognize March. I did recognize a number of the actors from other films in this company. The most convincing moments were Anna with the son (Freddie Bartholomew). I read afterwards in brief more recent commentary that the mother-wife role was the subtext given Garbo (or the role she longed for) in her films. I would not have guessed that: I thought she was a “vamp.”

It improves around this same spot: the second movie (1948) is then probably modeled as to structure on the first. Vronsky and Anna go to Venice, they are lonely and miss Russia so return, then they are ostracized, the trip to the opera is insisted on by Anna, the humiliation, with a visit to Levin and Kitty at whose house Dolly and Stiva happen to be, preceding the suicide.

But there is much difference and maybe people today could like the 1935 better. Garbo is not a distraught woman, she does not go into a tizzy of self-berating, she does not fall ill — as Anna does in the book from the childbirth. The childbirth is omitted altogether — maybe the 1935 film makers omitted it because they did not want this weakening scene. Basil Rathbone never for a moment compromises in the way Richardson and Porter do.

Garbo remains strong, her speeches show her justifying at least her outlook for sincerity and real emotional life, but then the book has to be followed so after the couple goes off to gether, we have her suddenly angrily berating Frederick March (who looks astonished) and demanding he act out love for her, declaiming doesn’t love her, and she is desperate.


Garbo as Anna in emotional pain from genuine rejection about 2/3 the way through the film


Vronsky wants out

Another change: of all the Vronskys I’ve watched thus far, March alone explode angrily very early on, says he cannot take this any longer and leaves Anna forthwith. The 1935 film has him get an invitation to rejoin his regiment for war so he has somewhere to leave to. There is no near suicide in any of them but the 1977 Stuart Wilson, but one could believe they would self-destruct, not March in this one. He is your Boghart tough man — he goes off to war purposefully after the suicide (totally unlike the book where Vronsky’s going off to fight is throwing himself away for what is senseless). US militarism glimpsed here.

So when Anna visits Dolly and Stiva this occurs after Vronsky has left her. In this 1935 movie Dolly at the visit is clearly bleak since Stiva after partly scolding Anna (yes) for her affair, is clearly going out to a mistress. (This kind of outright disdainful contempt is not seen in the 1948 or 1978 or 1985 movie.) OTOH, unlike the book and all the other movies, Dolly tells Anna she has made the right choice: we see Dolly’s children are selfish and clamoring. Not companions for Dolly. Anna was right to leave Karenin whatever Vronsky’s behavior now.


But as Dolly tells Anna that Anna is better off, we see how lost and rigid Anna has become

Then the scene at the train is very brief and we do not see her body or anything smashed. All very discreet. As I said, Garbo is not presented as transgressive or shattered. Instead this 1935 movie reverts to Frederick March Vronsky who we began with at the feast (with Stiva there too). He has this fancy painting of Anna and talks remorsefully about having left her and says he will always feel guilty.


Levin and Kitty at the ball

The weakest scenes in 1935 are the weakest in the 1948: the opening of Kitty where in 1935 she is not even allowed to dance with Vronsky is repeated; the Levin-Kitty wedding and superficial scenes of wedded content. Again, the strongest scenes are between Anna and her son. They are much longer than the 1948; the son stands up for her, mocks his father. Very good. And we have the servant (Harry Beresford) who says how good she has treated him so he will let her in (that’s in the 1978 film too).


Where we are invited to imagine she will fling herself

End of film. Taking A Streetcar Named Desire (which also lies behind the 1948 film), we might say Garbo as Anna has turned into Blanche who kills herself to escape all these men.

At the end of the 1935 film there is a list of countries where it’s said this film will not be shown, is forbidden. So the adultery was more shocking in 1935. Maybe this curious punishment of Anna (Vronsky actually leaving her, telling her he’s had it well before she kills herself) is there to satisfy the moral lesson that women who are adulterous must not have any joy.

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Brief recapitulation, despite some real strengths in the 1935 film and its surprisingly contemporary revelations and resonances, its strong heroine, over all the 1948 movie seems to work better, have a stronger thrust and shape because the 1948 film-makers felt the material was more acceptable to the audience. They could thus be truer to the book in some crucial scenes where the 1935 didn’t dare. To be noted are how many of the archetypal scenes we think we remember from the book reappear in both these films (as in the 1977-78, 1985, 1997 and 2012)


Above all the train and the cold — this is from near the end of the 1935 film


Anna contemplating the above train, listening to the sounds of the working men’s tools

As it happened yesterday I read a superb essay by Hermione Lee on Virginia Woolf: Essays on Biography: “Virginia Woolf’s nose”. Woolf saw a 1920s version of Anna Karenina and commented on it; she wrote aghast at what the film medium did: instead of interior life, the emphasis is on “teeth, pearls, velvet.” Woolf mentions scenes of sensual kissing with Vronsky, absurdly well-appointed gardens (a gardener is seen mowing one) and super-luxurious rooms.

The 1935 film had pearls, velvet, and a garden — so maybe the 1935 film was influenced by, imitated the 1920s AK that Woolf saw. Anticipating my last blog on AK at the movies, I preferred the way the 1978 BBC people did it to all the other because it’s setting and clothes were the most austere. Maybe they had a lower budget so the lack of emphasis on costumes or houses was necessity; in any event it was done somberly and I liked it better for it.

In the book says Woolf “we know Anna almost entirely from her mind.” but in the film (writes Woolf) we “lurch and lumber” through this furniture. Hermione Lee suggests (rightly) the same vulgarization went on in the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway as The Hours which presents Woolf’s suicide as at once romantic and self-indulgent (both the worst uncomprehending choices one could make). Woolf is probably unfair; she is not used to the idiom of the visual film, and writes before they developed tools for inwardness.


A later 19th century illustration towards the close of Anna Karenina

Ellen

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