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Archive for the ‘UK social life’ Category


Jim Broadbent as Kempton Bunton — in one of his more anxious moments as he tries to decide what he can get away with for the good of mankind (The Duke, 2020)

Dear friends,

A few weeks ago my daughter, a freelance reviewer for (among others) WETA and NBC, who keeps up with things (in order to make her fees) told me one of my favorite young actresses, Charlotte Spencer (known to me thus far from seeing Sanditon 1 & 2 where she plays Esther Denham inimitably despite it’s being a ridiculous role), was to be in a movie (or had been in a movie) with the great older actor, Hugh Bonneville (another actor with super powers who ends up in the easy drivel role of Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey). I said I’d look out for it, but this information slipped my mind until I saw Charlotte Spencer in The Duke as the hard, mean working class young woman, pregnant and unmarried, living with a young man trying to escape a subpoena to be a witness against a friend, which friend has found a temporary sanctuary in the house of the Buntons.


Charlotte Spencer as Pammy reading a Yorkshire newspaper with her perpetual sense of superiority

He has been let in by his friend, Jackie Bunton (Fionn Whitehead), the son of the house, pictured here in a typically good-natured, but unusually anxiety-free mood with his girlfriend, Irene (Aimee Kelly),

It wasn’t Hugh Bonneville, after all, I thought, it was the yet more wonderful (good at comedy) Jim Broadbent whom I’ve never seen in a bad movie. Spenser’s presence clinched it for me: I had lucked into a supreme talent-loaded movie in the old tradition of Yorkshire TV. Yorkshire TV was once a continual TV program making outfit in Northern England producing gems like the Biederbecke Tapes (I know, I know, you’ve never heard of it). The opening credits listed as producer Yorkshire Screen.  These films were known for the rich humor, off-the-cuff, off-beat ironic wit, combined with a genuine labor-left POV. And that is just what this was, a late revival of a type long gone.

It’s my knowledge that the mood of the film, which is part of what delighted me (and the person I was with) into sudden not easy to explain laughter, that has enabled me to understand the clueless reviews, which are anything from lukewarm to slightly puzzled or dismissive (“typical British”). At first I thought the disdain and also the sentimental language in which it was discussed as a “tall tale” was the result of the reactionary stupidity (what these characters are not super-rich) of contemporary mainstream US life, but then I realized the poor way it’s been advertised (what could the title mean?), as in “come for this one actor,” so that I had no idea what it was about is due to most US reviewers knowing nothing either of earlier peculiar formula Yorkshire TV. The title might mislead you into thinking this another upper-class macho male worshipping product. Mark Kermode who knows a lot about film got it right in the Guardian: a true-tale of an art-stealing pensioner

The basis for the film is a real person, Kempton Bunton, an aging pensioner, who is trying to get together money for his campaign against old-age pensioners having to pay a license fee to the BBC for having a TV. Roger Michell has long produced interesting films using this kind of material (this was his last film), especially with Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). He also wrote the script for one of the best Austen adaptations, the 1996 BBC Persuasion.  Broadbent recently played a similar role in Le Week-end. The fun or comedy comes from a broad but kindly and sympathetic caricature of working class life and Bunton’s own self-regarding inadequate methods against entrenched systems. He and his son sit in chairs under an umbrella in the pouring rain in front of a bank with a sign demanding “No BBC licenses for OAPs.” Needing the money, he gets a job in a bread factor and notices the boss singles out for abuse a Pakistani man working there, and speaks out on the young man’s behalf; he is abruptly fired.


The incident happens over lunch where the white men are playing cards with the Pakistani man (not listed in the wikipedia credits!)

His long-suffering law-abiding wife, Dorothy, played by Helen Mirren as a combination of exasperation, bored weariness (she cleans for the living that supports them), and, along with a tender love for him, genuine fear they’ll get into trouble (he has been in prison briefly once before) lends the film an astringency (the way Barbara Flynn did her man in Beiderbecke) that the reviewers overlook. Dorothy (by the way) does not approve of Pammy because she is pregnant outside marriage, and she tries to keep the couple out of the house. But she failed against Kempton’s sense of obligation to all mankind. Besides which, the young man is his son’s friend and is on the moral side, loyalty to friends and all that (alas E. M. Forster is not quoted)


The married pair talking — of course Dorothy knits — while Mirren keeps her face flat, grim most of the time, here you can see in her held yet flexible face her incipient rising distress

The storyline: we think that Bunton has stolen a famous Goya painting of the Duke of Wellington (whence the film’s title), and, together with his son, has hidden it in a wardrobe upstairs, while he proceeds to demand a ransom from the British authorities. It’s spied out (somewhat ironically) by Pammy, who is not impressed by anyone not solely motivated by self-interest. She wants to sell the Goya for a big sum and offers to split the ill-gotten gains with Kempton, her threats precipitating him into returning the painting.

He is (naturally) easily caught, put into prison and then tried for theft, and for being a public nuisance. It was when I saw Matthew Goode was playing his lawyer — Goode often plays effective kindly upper class people — I realized there would be a deus ex machina and Bunton would not be seriously punished.

It’s a kindly fable, for we are to believe Bunton won a light sentence because the jury was moved by his goodness.


Kempton is putting flowers on his daughter’s grave with son Jackie in the background

There is a secondary plot. We slowly discover years ago the couple had a daughter who died in a bicycle accident for which Bunton blames himself as he bought the bicycle. He is writing a play in the Chekhov mode, The Girl on the Bicycle. He is self-educated, reads Orwell we see, says Shakespeare is overrated because he has all these kings and dukes in his stories. Dorothy also disapproves of his having written the play, and worse yet, sent it out to be published.  They should keep their grief private. She herself refuses to discuss their loss. This play is one of several things he sends to others (newspapers, the BBC, the museum), hinting at his identity as the man who took the painting — he wants to be found out. He wants attention to be paid to his campaign and to him. Experts in these places pronounce him an amateur, third-rate based on his handwriting. The most touching moments in the movie (and there are many) concern this girl’s death. Both parents visit her grave. As a sign of reconciliation at the end of the film, Dorothy takes the photograph of Marion out of her husband’s drawer (where he keeps it to look at), has it framed and puts it on a wall in their house.

Along the way I recognized other wonderful actors I’ve often seen in secondary and occasionally primary roles on BBC and less hyped but excellent dramas. Anna Maxwell Martin is there as Dorothy’s benign boss, married to a Yorkshire politician; she comes to court and loudly roots for Kempton, as she sits alongside the Pakistani man (grateful to Kempton he shows up) — she was the heroine in Andrew Davies’s film adaptation of Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, my favorite Elizabeth Bennet in Death Comes to Pemberley; and taught me to love Esther Summerson in Andrew Davies’ Bleak House.  James Wilby is the judge (he was Maurice in the Merchant-Ivory film of the same name). Richard McCabe is the Home Secretary (he is just such a fine actor, most recently I’ve watched him in Foyle’s War). John Hefferman as prosecuting barrister (a typical role for him). I couldn’t catch who they all were.

There are reviews which praise the film as funny and warm-hearted (populist used positively), or very British, charming, but few take it at all seriously. Yet in the tradition of Yorkshire TV, it is both semi-oddball (no one surely would act this half-mad way) and socially critical.

Don’t miss it if you are longing for some reassurance there is still decency among people today, or recognition of what counts in life and how singularly unjust, obtuse and self-regardingly punitive most gov’ts are more and more without any mitigation. The Buntons have a hard time making ends meet and this gov’t does nothing about that. Think of the price rises in the UK and US over the past year and how nothing fundamental is done to control these. The humor and situations in this comedy reach there.

Dancing in the kitchen (there is a similar scene in Last Orders where Michael Caine is husband to Helen Mirren as long-suffering but genuinely angry wife)

At the end of the film the son confesses to an authority figure we’ve seen before, apparently the head of the National Gallery (played by Andrew Havill), that he, Kempton’s son actually did the stealing of the painting. He is told (after a while) he will not be prosecuted and then sternly warned not to tell anyone or he will regret it. Like the Pakistani man but unlike his father, Jackie is all submissive gratitude. This film is not typical or very British: it’s typical or very old-style Yorkshire TV.

Ellen

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Millais’s Good Samaritan (one of the illustrations by Millais for work other than Trollope’s I showed and discussed)

Dear friends and readers,

I am again very gratified to be able to say I gave a online talk to the London Trollope Society on-line reading group (a fourth), and it went over very well. People were interested by the pictures themselves (remember Alice in Wonderland on pictures and conversations in books), and asked questions about book illustrations in Trollope and other Victorian writers (“did people really like these?”). I was asked if I’d do another, and came up with two (!).

I’m not sure how much I’ve sufficiently emphasized the motive for all four has been more than partly personal. I just love Cornish films, film adaptations, and “Malachi’s Cove” overturns so many stereotypes about Trollope’s fiction that bother me; Dr Thorne was really the book that started me on this long journey into reading, writing, sharing something of what I’ve known and felt for Trollope (original title: On rereading Dr Thorne a half century later); I am a strong defender of Josiah Crawley, one of the many solitary semi-outcasts of Trollope’s fiction,


Frances Arthur Fraser’s “Dogged as Does It” (for a later edition of The Last Chronicle of Barset) — one of the illustrations I discuss in my talk

and was felt so moved by Lindsay Duncan’s performance as an updated version of Crawley’s long-suffering wife (The Modernity of the Last Chronicle of Barset — and The Rector’s Wife).


Lindsay Duncan as Anna Bouverie

“The Original Illustrations to Trollope’s Novels” have been dear to my heart since I wrote my long chapter in my book, Trollope on the Net on them (1999). I spent long weeks and hours in the rare book room of the Library of Congress starting at few hundred of them, and was chuffed when in Mark Turner’s review of my book he singled out this chapter to discuss as peculiarly excellent. As you know if you visit this blog with any regularity, I love pictures, studying art history (and on my other blog, women artists), and writing about film adaptations (moving pictures). And the only chance I’ve had since my book to share any of the visual art and realization in the original illustrations was in paper I gave at a Sharp-l conference some years ago now I called “Mapping Trollope; or, Georgraphies of Power. When we were a larger group on my Trollope and his Contemporaries list, we’d have people describe the original illustrations as part of what we volunteered to do — especially when the pictures are good, people showed curiosity and were comfortable talking about what they see — in the way people are about movies.

So without further ado, here it is:

Here’s the transcript on the Trollope Society website. And the page itself

Last, a brief synopsis: I present why Trollope said he so valued Millais’s pictures, described some of the obstacles in the way of understanding or appreciating them and the other central style of illustrations in the period (idyllic naturalistic versus caricature emblematic), then talk about the nature of Millais’s basic thrust (expressionistic), how far more daring than one realizes, and stunning some of them are outside the characteristic novels of the era (e.g., defying taboos) and finally describe and discuss the series on Lady Mason: as a group they create sympathy for her and reveal the cost to her of attempting to provide her son with a gentleman’s education and income, and herself with the respect and dignity and space for herself of a lady’s life: a life alone, a life apart. Mary Lady Mason is another of Trollope’s solitaries inside a fiction with radical implications about society and the nature of justice and law in court cases.


“Farewell:” the penultimate Millais illustration for Orley Farm: there is no literal basis for this scene in the novel

Ellen

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Michael Kitchen, The French Drop (aired 2004)

Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced —

Dear Friends and readers,

Our second of a proposed 4 blogs on Foyle’s War: two years have passed since the first season was aired, and 10 months in the series or war chronology since the series began (May 1940). Eight episodes have gone by and with our ninth (February 1941), a new tone sets in, darker, more tired, and Foyle becomes more involved with a Secret Intelligence Agency whose ways of dealing with war are potentially deadly for all involved, and Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington) not only returns for the second time, she has a large role in the stories.


Hilda Pierce and James Wintringham (Samuel West) conferring, spy-like, apart …

This first disk of the third set (or season) has a half-hour film on how they worked hard to show us a spitfire shot to the ground, a man pulled out while on fire, and as he is dragged away, the plane explode. It took several stunt men, strongly controlled fire but there, somehow the plane is not blown up. We learn how few spitfires are left and also how proud the people are to be working with them as the left-overs of how Britain managed to keep Hitler from invading. The Companion book by Rod Green (described in my previous blog) has much information on other particulars of this episode. Horowitz tells of how his scripts are really done justice to, partly because the director is his wife. We watch two different scenes, one of Foyle and his son, the other of Sam and the son bidding adieu – done a couple of times. This material also comes from later episodes in the third set, Enemy Fire set in a hospital where they are caring for badly burnt and later when Andrew has become PTSD and also exhausted and wants to stop the spitfire business because he knows he will lose his life and does get to leave. My sense in watching this is that the third season reached a real height in the series because everyone working together for a valued set of stories.

A comparison of the first two with these second two seasons shows the stories growing darker, more pessimistic, mostly because the ways of winning the war are making the people behave in atrocious (increasingly amoral and immoral) ways. Actors on behalf of the military (with some exceptions) especially are losing their sense of what values they are fighting for. The stories show the first signs of shifting from detective to spy stories (which often show a slide into nationalism, superfluous violence, and fascism).

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Season 3, Episode 1: The French Drop, February 1941. Each time we begin with a strong dramatic incident: here it is a young man, seemingly French, dropped into enemy territory (Germany) so as to spy, blown up immediately. Usual paratext of intriguing music and turning away face.

Again Foyle is trying to be transferred from policing (absurd to be catching murderers) and goes to Sir Giles Messenger (Ronald Pickup) for help. It seems it may be possible; as Sam drives him away, she protests she and Milner need him. Messenger angry at Col James Wintringham (Samuel West) about this loss of life Winringham’s agency sustaining – the implication is the agency is incompetence – and wants to take from Wintringham’s unit the (mysterious) war work sent him at Hill House, where he and a special executive operations woman, Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington who first appeared in War Games), have a team. Meanwhile in a bookshop their son, William Messenger seems to have blown himself up. Boy’s mother grief-stricken. Chasing down this son’s background, they find he was estranged from Sir Giles, living seedy lodgings with a caricature of a landlady who supplies a suicide note and watch –- he died because of a thwarted love affair (ah yes). They meet the girl – all melancholy – story she tells is inconsistent, Milner discovers. Trail leads them back to Hill House where nearby Sam’s uncle, Aubrey Stewart, a vicar lives and works. Foyle not only gains entry into the Hill House, but Wintringham invites him to stay: Wintringham seems to be showing off. Sam lives nearby, maybe with uncle.

Paul Milner (Anthony Howell), becoming more desperate having to deal with cynical black market crooks, tells Samantha (Sam) Stewart (Honeysuckle Weekes) he is thinking of transferring

and now Sam supplies the lighter, more affecionate-heart hopeful notes by way of her relationship with a local vicar, her uncle Aubrey Stewart (Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch)

Foyle uncovers absurd and ridiculous sabotage training, as well as attitudes countenancing murder, teaching them how to endure (and perform) torture. Interesting group of men (Raymond Coulthard among them), one an ex-criminal Foyle had put in prison we see trying to sniper shoot Foyle. Colorful characters everywhere, intelligent witty dialogue. It emerges the vicar has seen an unnamed bald man who is connected to bombing murder; Sam spots this bald man and follows him, and finds he and other go to a phone booth where phone not working. Eventually she discovers it’s a place to leave notes which uncover the truth of the bombing. Another young man died recently and was buried (air raid?). Bombing going on, including glimpses of delayed action bombs, people with gas masks.

Foyle discovers that the landlady is Wintringham’s secretary; the whole story of Messenger made up: he was homosexual (in the closet). It was he who was dumped in Germany and died (with which the program began). The body found in the bombing was the recently dead young man’s corpse replanted there –- no corpse in the tomb. There’s a moleat Hill House telling Giles Messenger about what’s happening: he pretends to be French. Foyle re-arrests the sniper-happy ex-criminal (after he has tried to kill both Foyle and Sam by ruining the wheel of her car). Foyle could tell Sir Giles the truth about his son –- he might be more proud of him, but Hilda Pierce convinces Foyle not to tell so that these operations he himself disapproves of morally can go on as they aide the war effort. He loses his chance at joining naval security because Messenger takes out frustration on him.

I’ve unraveled the experience of the plot – it’s more interesting in the criss-cross way things emerge. There is a depiction of the culture of this more rural area and these young men.


In the hospital staff put on funny skits where they make fun of themselves

Episode 2: Enemy Fire, February 1941. This is a wonderful episode. Much that happens is sad and several threads (characters’ ultimate fates) remain very much unresolved, but all that just made it richer because we also saw how many of the characters meant so well and are good and doing good insofar as they can. It’s an uplifting episode — as if we needed this at this point.

The story is centered on a hospital for burnt people, severely wounded that way, and as it begins we see a very fancy castle-like structure, Digby Manor, is requisitioned and the Sir Michael (Michael Wood) who owns the castle, has been put into a cottage (big building really) on his own estate. We see him adjusting with difficulty and his housekeeper, Mrs Roecastle (Alexandra Moen). All this is based on real strides made in medicine at the time which were experimentally and humanely used in such hospitals. Bill Paterson plays the dedicated original doctor-surgeon Patrick Jamieson. We see saved men wretchedly deformed.


Andrew Foyle’s (Julian Ovenden)’s very great upset as he finds he was nearly severely burnt because of a man’s seeming carelessness

A wife-beating thug, Gordon Drake, works at the airfield nearby and is lazy and doesn’t do all the safety measures you must to keep the man in the spitfires alive enough to keep the Germans on the other side of the channel. We see Andrew Foyle berate him and his great anger because he is in danger — could be badly burnt. Drake visits a young wife who is bored with her surgeon husband, Dr Wren (whom we learn saved Paul Milner); the wife attracted to this lout. It’s apparent she is not the only woman –- this kind of thing has more than a tinge of misogyny. We are back to the pattern of the first series: vile men (at the heart of fascism and evil) and good men with such potential being hurt. A strange man tells Wren about these visits; his name is Preston and he also tells Foyle and Milner.

The hospital is being sabotaged – it’s thought by Sir Michael at a distance – perhaps paying Drake, perhaps the housekeeper.

What happens is Andrew is not given the next mission(his superior officer sees that he is exhausted) and Andrew’s friend, Greville Woods, goes, and (has been built up for) the spitfire blows up and he is almost burnt to death because Drake again did not make sure the glass to open the cockpit worked –- Drake also probably make the plane go on fire, meaning to burn Andrew to death. Greville taken to the hospital (after the spectacular stunt we are told about on one of the features) and his girlfriend needs to be shamed into seeing him and staying with him. He turns out not to be blinded.

Entertainments are put on and a couple of nights later one is done – music hall stuff which is thematically relevant and piquant – we and Foyle see Wren sneak out for a few moments.

Next we learn Drake is dead; his wife relieved but she did not do it. Wren blamed even though his wife and Milner think he couldn’t murder someone. Turns out Wren did hit Drake’s head hard but it was Preston who came by and drowned the man in a nearby street fountain. Preston turns out to be Mrs Drake’s brother, Pip, trying to protect her.

Foyle has also figured out who did the sabotage: the housekeeper; he gets her to confess by accusing Sir Michael – who then tells Foyle how bitterly he feels about himself since when he was exhausted (like Andrew) he shot himself in the leg. His batman, Drake’s father saw, in later years told his son and now Gordon Drake was blackmailing Sir Michael, demanding hush money.

It’s an episode about mental disability as well as physical. Mental for which the men are not blamed and yet the episode maintains Sir Michael has been a hollow man. The parallel here is Foyle’s son who cannot any longer bear risking his life in a spitfire and watching others die

The real ending is penultimate and then the last; Andrew has fled to Sam’s house, and Sam is hiding him there over night; when the commanding officer comes to tell Foyle his son is in danger of deserting, Sam (offstage) confesses to Foyle where Andrew is. Foyle retrieves Andrew, takes him to a pub and Andrew resolves to return. There are other scenes between them – over chess for example.

Closing touching adieus between Andrew and his father and then Andrew and Sam. Quietly acted. Beautifully. We see the spitfire with Andrew in it flying off. The commanding officer transferred him. There is deep feeling over this spitfire for it was such planes with men giving up their lives that helped prevent Hitler invading England.

Episode 3: They fought in the fields, April 1941. I had to watch this twice and the second time very slowly, and now I don’t know why I found it so hard to understand. There are two parallel stories going on, and they are intertwined. In the one Germans are coming over-head in airplanes bombing people. This way of conducting war is primary today (witness Ukraine). Soldiers murdering civilians, destroying their worlds. The episode as usual begins with a sort of “hook:” a man lands and dies. As we go through this story we discover that nearby is a place for interrogating spies, they are taken there, and it’s run by a Major Cornwall (James Wilby) who resents any interference and will not cooperate with Foyle — whom Cornwall insults

Nearby there is a farm or farms on which are working Land Army girls, Rose Henshall and Joan Dillon — very dirty hard work for little pay, but important for Britain to feed itself. There another death occurs, a murder of what seemed to me an old man, the farmer, Hugh Jackson. Of course it’s called suicide but soon it’s clear it’s a murder (this is another repeated motif in the series). The episode reminded me of the previous (Enemy Fire) where it’s the human interest of the story and situation (there bad burns, a hospital opened to deal with these) that holds us, not so much about corrupt people making money off the war.


The girls very hard at work — we do see they get ample food

I found it somewhat problematic. It opens with land-girls understandably resentful of the more middle class Foyle, Milner and Sam — I am supposed to believe they and the farmer’s son, Tom (Joe Armstrong) are won over by the goodness of Sam and generosity of Foyle. Lifelong marginalization (especially one of the girls committed some crime) doesn’t go away like that. How the farmer very old now became the lover of the other girl who is now pregnant didn’t persuade me and I was even less persuaded by how happy she is at the end to live on that farm with the farmer’s son and his bride (the other girl).

In the background is Hugh Jackson’s wife who was tired of Jackson and tried to run off — but he murdered her first and put her in a grave he drinks liquor over every night. Jackson was killed because he saw some of the shenanigan’s the Germans were up to as they tried to kill their own pilots who were imprisoned and could tell about German radar.

The murdered wife has her parallel in Barbara Hicks, a woman there to investigate wood (?), who is also bitter when Foyle first met her — she hates men because of bad experience but is also supposed won over by Foyle’s goodness. It’s too quick again, but there are some touching scenes where they refer delicately to their different pasts — and Foyle’s loss of his wife (one of the episodes begins with his annual visit to her grave).


They are so courteous to one another ….

Suddenly too Major Cornwall is sorry; he had meant well, it seems, his interrogation techniques do not include torture but also don’t protect his prisoners from one another. The Germans as a culture or group are represented as not paying fair essentially. So some unusual hostile nationalism, not surprising were we to regard these characters as in 1941 February. Well done, good performances, but it does not hold together because of this desire for an upbeat ending and rewards for the land-girls as well romance for Foyle.

Episode 4: A War of Nerves, June 1941. This one does not strain for anything — no need — it goes into the terrible increased and ever more complicated ways of bombing, the use of delayed bombs especially. And it returns to central characters cheating and making money off the war. June 1941 — the Blitz eased, but the delayed bombing tactic has spread; at the end of the episode we hear that Germany has invaded Russia and that (a coming slaughter we know) is cause to feel hope as the English gov’t is now allied with Russia. At the same time other places are starting to fall like Crete. The comment (hope) it’ll be over by next Christmas by Sam is made ironic by Foyle


Peter Capaldi unfairly treated

Two threads: one interesting, a kind of back-handed defense of communism, socialism, workers — Foyle is told he must investigate Raymond Carter (Peter Capaldi), a communist and socialist leader, find out things about him so the gov’t can arrest him. Foyle quickly finds nothing and does nothing. By the end of the hour we discover Foyle’s superior, Commissioner Rose (Colin Redgrave) ordering this is not only deeply anti-labor but angry because his daughter is planning to marry the the man — he can’t stand the idea.

The stronger thorough content is about a pair of men running a factory where they embezzle gov’t money by pretending their work force is much bigger than it is. They treat their workers badly and we see an attempt at (an illegal it’s pointed out) strike. Into this come the squad of bomb disposers, with the truth emphasized how little trained such people were, how dangerous and nerve-wracking the task. One of them “loses” it in a bar and starts a fight with his gun; he turns out to be moral, in fact balks at keeping the huge amount of money they find stashed near where a delayed bomb landed. His girlfriend is a welder in a factory whom Sam befriends. And we have another more thuggish crook and his wife who is also a welder.

The best parts are this attention to what life was like during the war …. and Foyle as moral center with Sam as the good heart center ….

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To read about Season 4, Episodes 1-4, see comments, Episode 1, Invasion, April 1942; Episode 2, Bad Blood, August 1942; Episode 3, Bleak Midwinter, December 1942; and Episode 4, Casualties of War, March 1943.


A passing moment from The Bleak Midwinter

Of great interest in all these disks, starting with the 2nd through the fourth are the various features telling the literal ways the film-makers made the episodes, about the costumes, the attitudes of mind of the people acting, the historical background. There is also much written information to click on.

Ellen

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From a BBC Ghost Stories series: opening still from M.R. James, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (1971)

Gentle readers and friends,

I got the idea to read for Christmas a few non-traditional sequels to Anthony Trollope’s work one day at a Trollope Zoom meeting when Christopher Briscoe presented his imaginary history of Barchester (scroll down, it’s there). I had heard that Joanna Trollope’s The Choir was another early Trollopian original story (using her legal, not the pseudonym, Caroline Harvey), where the cathedral itself was central.

I had so enjoyed Joanna Trollope’s The Rector’s Wife a sympathetic modern version of the story of Mrs Crawley from The Last Chronicle of Barset, and the film adaptation with a favorite actress, Lindsay Duncan, well I didn’t quite rush out, but went to my computer to buy the book, and soon I was acquiring the DVDs to the serial (Region 2) and an audio reading of the complete book by Nadia May. I now vow to read some later books by J. Trollope, not sequels to a 19th century vision, but about 21s century social and other issues (her Other People’s Children, for example, about adoption)

I also pulled out from its shelf with Henry James books, a book Jim used to read aloud to me from: a beautifully produced (art paper) and illustrated (by Rosalind Caldecott) Ghost Stories of M.R. James, and read a few. All intended for Christmas, to evoke the time and the unknowable natural world through the uncanny. One alluded to Anthony Trollope.

And I’ve now seen two versions of The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, one done as a group of actors listening to one man playing James reading aloud to them and/or telling the whole story in a setting that looks like James’s rooms in Cambridge at Christmas, and one acted quietly well with Clive Swift as Rev Haynes (Swift was Bishop Proudie in the 1983 BBC Barchester Chronicles).


Rev Haynes confiding his tale to his friend played by Peter Vaughn


Sally Ashworth (our heroine, Cathryn Harrison) eating companionably with her friend & father-in-law, Frank (again Peter Vaughn) from the BBC The Choir, Episode 1.

As you can see a cathedral and its atmosphere (stone gargoyles) are never far from overt consciousness in these books & films

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As with The Rectors’ Wife, The Choir is an original novel in its own right, which at the same time creates characters and events reminiscent, even closely of Anthony Trollope, especially the church politics of the Barsetshire series. What makes it inimitably Trollopian in feel and art is an intertwined cast of closely-associated characters who when they should be working together, compete against one another to achieve intensely desired private goals (of love, friendship, personal fulfillment of talents and tastes), which will create a social world they must all share (they cannot escape) and each would love to dominate or control in some way.

It fits Elaine Showalter’s study of academic politics, Faculty Towers, which she claims got their start in Barchester Towers, just as Mr Slope interviews Mr Harding for a job he already has. In the case of The Choir, it is the cathedral which is discovered to be crumbling (from damp and neglect) when, out of vanity, Dean Hugh Cavendish (played by Edward Fox), decides to install modern aesthetic lighting arrangements for atmosphere. A great deal of money is needed.


Choir practice

Just then, Frank Ashworth (Peter Vaughn), a long-time labor activist, a socialist, decides the gardens of the cathedral close are going to waste because they intimidate the average citizen, and proposed to buy a beautiful 18th century house the head master, and a canon of the cathedral, Alexander Troy (David Walker) has lived with his wife, Felicity (Jane Asher), just now run away. Frank also wants to reorganize the boys’ choir his own grandson, Henry (Anthony Way) sings in, as he says it is as presently recruited for elitist. And as part of his personal life, he has a good friendship with his daughter-in-law; his wife long ago left him, and his son, Alan, Sally Ashworth (Cathryn Harrison)’s husband is unable to establish or keep up genuine relationships with other people. Alan works in Saudi Arabia. He has been in flight since his mother left his father; the book suggests some empathy is needed, but not the film. In the serial, he is your philandering hypocrite.

From the BBC film serial adaptation of Joanna Trollope’s The Choir: opening still where through the tops of the Cathedral (it’s Gloucester) we glimpse Nicholas Elliot returning to the sanctuary of his choir years (1995)

I will not be party to a scheme that wears an altruistic mask to cover a heart of envy (JTrollope’s The Choir p 69; repeated in Episode 2 of Ian Curteis’ film script) — remember John Bold in ATrollope’s The Warden, gentle reader

The kindly bishop, Robert Young (John Standing) accuses Frank of concocting these reformist schemes because Frank envies the people who get to dwell in such beautiful places and make such rarefied beauty; his scheme will end up destroying what he says he wants others to share. In the event, when city council takes over the headmaster’s house, it does not become the beautiful community center Frank said he was envisioning. As with Anthony Trollope’s The Warden, where the break-up of the church’s unjust use of a 14th century will does not lead to the old men getting a just allowance, so the Dean’s house becomes a hollow shell of offices for people doing supposedly socially-good jobs they have no belief in for real. The beauty of the house now obscured.

Out of obscure envies and resentments of his own, and an absolute determination to be in charge, Dean Cavendish (the Archbishop Grantley character) decides the church can do without its much admired choir of boys singing sublimely, something which means a great deal to Troy. So too another group of characters, beyond Henry:  the organist, Leo Beckford (played particularly well by Nicholas Farrell), Sally (Cathryn Harrison), Henry’s mother whose husband (Alan, see above) lives thousands of miles away from her so he can be free and unfaithful. Sally seeks solace in her son’s achievements and a bookstore she works in. A central storyline dramatizes how Sally and Leo fall in love.

Alexander Troy, the headmaster and canon’s wife, Felicity, has “gone off again” as the novel opens: like Anna Bouverie (yes Flaubert’s heroine alluded to), the rector’s wife, Felicity had much to bear, and finds herself thwarted of usefulness she can value.


Felicity Troy (Jane Asher) spreading posters about (later in the novel, see below)

Reader, there are other complications. Nicholas Farrell (Oliver Milburn), an old boy grown up and now homeless, has returned to the cathedral world, and is given employment by Ianthe Cavendish (Claire Cox), lusting after Leo (who is cold to her).  Ianthe has invested in a record company, run by Mike (Peter de Jersey, the only black person in the cast) who is capable of making money out of music.

It’s worth saying (and important to this depiction of modern British middle class people) that for a number of the characters their love of music, and working at their roles in it is sincere: Leo Beckford, the most striking; Alexander Troy (who defends the choir at the cost of losing his house), Nicholas Farrell (once upon a time and still), Henry, the young boy, and Mike too.

The Cavendish family (parents and children) are the most directly Trollopian elements in the book: Joanna has in mind Archbishop Grantley as the archetype under Dean Cavendish: the same strong materialism, ability to dominate, strong self-esteem, ruthlessness; his wife, Bridget (Richenda Carey) is a Mrs Proudie softened; their children as obnoxious as most of the Grantley children. Joanna has a less than favorable take on the male Grantley figure whom many Trollope fans profess to like (they identify!).

Our sweet Bishop Young harks back to the Bishop in The Warden, only here we see the cowardliness, or reluctance to fight where he should. As in The Rector’s Wife, to me surprisingly, The Choir is seriously examining the place of Christian (meaning unselfish, charitable, pro-community and mystic) beliefs and acts among the characters.


Henry with a cardboard cat, after Sally has left him temporarily, taking with her Mozart, their cat (Joanna Trollope is delightful the way she describes pets’ behavior in her books)

I found myself following intensely how everything played out, with favorite characters experiencing hard blows, really felt and on-going losses, and yet or also support, kindness and courtesy, and help so that they gradually carve or find out a niche in which they can make some happiness for themselves. This sentiment: we have to make our happiness is stated explicitly.  It represents a way of viewing what the characters are doing at the close of The Rector’s Wife.   The idea enables Joanna Trollope to dramatize a modern version of a typically qualified Anthony Trollope ending.

Joanna Trollope is a deft writer who can include so much action and thought in her tightly interwoven threads. She gets a lot in for 261 page book. This one has many allusions to quite a number of my favorite and less well known or not particularly popular or super-respected books that I just like, e.g., Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, the Merchant-Ivory films from E.M. Forster, and much beautiful music cited and then in the film heard (Bach, Britten, Vaughn Williams)

The film is faithful in its realization of Trollope’s characters, and it makes superb use of Gloucester and Worcester Cathedral (the two churches filmed), and Cheltenham (for the town).  Curteis dialogue is superb (often taken straight from the book).  The serial is particularly strong in the final episode where we experience a temporary resolution and movement for a hopeful time to come, carrying forward love and burdens.

Those who present themselves as hurting worse are the Dean and his wife, though he got his way in everything he said he wanted (including firing those who bucked him); she is only momentarily crushed as we see a bitterness underneath her part of her nature. This is not a feminist tale in the way The Rector’s Wife is, and Bridget’s thwarted ambition with no high rank is part of what makes her so eager to vex others.

The reunion and touching coming together of Alexander and Felicity and then their shared fight the Dean for their house appealed deeply to me. I value my house. He was lost without her:

A traditional sequel you see fills out a story that Trollope told (like John Wirenius’s Phineas at Bay, which picks up the Palliser novels from the end of The Duke’s Children; M. R. James did not do this for Barchester Towers, but tells dark tale of a man whose ambition took him into realm where he was out of his depth. I linked in the story-line and an interpretation, this too of church politics, spinster sisters and servants (above) so here let me just provide you with the movie itself — no longer available to buy or to see on Netflix or Amazon prime.

M.R. James is a much darker writer than A or J Trollope, and at his best disquieting (that link takes you to “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” after reading which I had to find Jim and sit near him for a while).

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

I meant to have written this for “Twelfth Night,” but did not meet my goal by a day. No matter, January 6th will for some time to come not be connected by most in the US to the solstice holidays, but to a criminally-led attempt to take over the US through violence as country via some fragile pretense of legality in order to set in place a White supremacist and fascist dictator state, with all the horrors we’ve seen attached to that in its wake.  Remember 1943 ought to be a rallying cry.


Dean Cavendish (Edward Fox) making a deal with an unscrupulous politician in order to get his way

Ellen

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All Creatures Great and Small, Christmas episode, 2021 (closing scene … )

Friends and readers,

A long while ago, a new subgenre emerged — it may have occurred before TV, but certainly with TV: the Christmas special. At first the kind was a variety show, comedy and songs, with our weekly host/hostess, but didn’t take long for the filmed drama, serial style, to enter our lives directly into this holiday season everyone (seemingly) in the northern (and now even the southern — witness Australia) hemisphere seems determined to act out. In all the Christmas blogs I’ve done over the years, I have among the classic movies (1951 Scrooge, 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life), ghost, romance (Poldark), and popular Christmas movies, probably “done” a Christmas special. Indeed I remember writing about Downton Abbey in Scotland. There’s no use condescending, for some of these hours are brilliant and sustain us today still, for example, the early Sesame Street Christmas, the one where Mr Hooper and Bert and Ernie played out the O.Henry story, and Big Bird talked of Santa “stacked over Kennedy”.

Though James Herriot’s books have now provided at least one fine movie (1974, with Anthony Hopkins as Siegfried Farnon), and I’m told of eight entertaining years of British TV, beginning a few years after that (1978-90, with Robert Hardy as Farnon, and Christopher Timothy as Herriot, Peter Davison as Tristan), and last year was an unexpected hit (“Snuggling down in the Yorkshire Dales to save a few cows turned out to be just what the doctor ordered last winter.” , — I don’t know if anyone paid any special attention to Episode 7. I wasn’t inclined to until I started watching it. This evening I helped myself loosen the tightness I feel as I work at being cheerful under the prolonged strain of Covid — the isolater — by watching it twice!


Opening scene with James Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) opening gate in fence to move on through the beautiful countryside to a worn old house where an aging couple, white farmer with a black English wife, have called him because she is worried over a dog having trouble producing her puppies


Matching first scene with Mrs Hall (Anna Madeley, superb in the part), far more than housekeeper, to one side, and Siegfried Farnon (now Samuel West) to the other of a perfect tree: she is urging him not to open Tristan’s veterinarian test results, for looking won’t change them, and knowing (he’s failed once again) may spoil the days to come

By this time or as of this evening, I confess to having watched this new and third iteration of a first season (2021) through twice, its second season (2022) once (minus the Christmas episode which has not been played yet on British TV), a segment on YouTube of the 1974 movie once, and about 8 episodes of the first season of the 1975 version, once each. At first I was slightly hostile, instinctively alienated by the self-conscious pastoralism of the paratexts (please no meretricious Arcadias was my thought):


In the Christmas episode underneath the refrain associated with, framing the series, could be heard lightly Christmas bells …

Then the events occurring seemed dismayingly predictable.  But as I became involved with the animal care, and then the developing relationships and personalities, especially that of Mrs Hall, I was drawn in, and then amiably addicted. I remembered the paratexts from the 2016 Durrells and how I learned to love that series, and eventually bought the books by Gerry, a group biography, then a wonderful travel meditative book on Corfu, and before you know it, I was reading another of Lawrence Durrell’s travel books with different eyes, understanding where they came from far more. I am a fan of Keeley Hawes for life now.

As the first season went on, not only did it move beyond its kind conventions, the film-makers defied, went against the way the comic-emotional tropes are usually developed. This Christmas episode outdid itself. Most Christmas stories end with the characters getting some version of their heart’s desires, having clearly become life’s winners, not quite here. We learn eventually in fact Tristan (the puzzlingly marvelous Callum Woodhouse — also an unexpected mainstay of The Durrells) has not passed his exams, but when Siegfried opens the letter and reads pass/fail, he lies and then puts the letter in the fire. He will (at least for now) treat his younger brother insofar as he can as a certified veterinarian.  During this episode we watch Tristan learning on the job, not only to care for animals (a donkey requisitioned for the Christmas pageant) but the human being who is its caretaker and is in as much need of alert attention if any good is to be done for the donkey.


Tristan (dressed in the elf outfit to please his brother, Siefgfried) congratulating a small boy dressed as a wise man on telling that he fed the donkey mistletoe – now Tristan can try to figure out how to help the creature’s obvious pain

All episode long Mrs Hall is expecting, waiting, watching, eagerly anticipating the return of her son, Edward, to her (after a jail sentence in which her evidence helped convict him), only to about 3/4s through realize he is not coming. We see her hold up in church, the singing forcing her to control her crying (Siegfried holding her hand over the song book), and while appearing to accept, still in that last still not forgetting him. Because this is the way most Christmas stories end, like her I kept expecting him, but no miraculous forgiveness and reconciliation, only a growing awareness of the hardness of what his reality might now be.


The subtitle, Repeat the sounding joy, functions ironically

Most striking of all, after all Helen Alderson (Rachel Shenton) does not marry Hugh Hulton (Matthew Lewis). Several episodes seem to have brought them together, and now a main motive of this episode is her coming wedding, complete with bachelor’s party for him, the beautiful dress, the congratulations, the ceremony to be performed tomorrow as a key community event. But she cannot face it, and has apparently herself understood she loves Herriot; she urges Herriot to take her with him as he returns late in the evening to the the aging couple and their distressed female dog. The birth takes several hours, fog comes in, they cannot return until morning. We learn of how this couple came to marry, how they loved and have been true to their love against much prejudice and ostracizing.


A Black English woman was always an outsider says the wife, Hattie Edkins (Hetty Rudd)

First Helen and then James settle down to sleep on separate couches. With real difficulty he manages to start the car (it is very cold) and return her to her waiting dress, father. Then taking the kindly meant but conventional advice of Mrs Hall and Siegfried, James starts to drive away back to Glasgow (for Christmas with his parents), but at a symbolic crossroads, reverses and drives back. He discovers that Helen did not go through with the wedding, and now sits on a bench, alone, maybe waiting for him?


James sits next to her, and we watch them from the back, gradually talk, and hold hands, walking out of the church, the right couple at last

Hugh vanishes from the stage after his brief appearance at the party, on his way to a bachelor’s party — he has lost a lot of money as well as pride and his heart’s desire.

Of course it’s not all quiet trauma and doubt. The actresses are all very pretty, Helen especially in her melancholy and strong stasis


Helen brooding at a window (same posture seen in Anna Maddeley as Mrs Hall), standing in front of the car on the cold morning, enduring the coming wedding still

There are two other romances, which while moving at glacial paces, seem to be getting somewhere. Lovely ceremoniousness between Siegfried and an older woman friend of Mrs Hall, Dorothy (Maimie McCoy); like my present hero, Christopher Foyle (who knows not Michael Kitchen?), Siegfried says he is having difficulty forgetting his deceased wife. Tristan is perhaps more than flirting with Maggie (Mollie Winnard).


James and Helen with Connie (Charlie May-Clark) who has hopes of Herriot and finds everything so festive


Preparations for the coming feast — Siegfried overlooking what Mrs Hall has set out in the kitchen

Throughout the episode there is much happy activity, Christmas party, Christmas dancing, Siefried as Santa in green and white; the farmer’s market, Mrs Hall’s food, her shopping for Brussel sprouts. The dog does give birth finally and we watch the first puppy struggle for life and survive. Christmas carrolling in church (de rigueur in such films). Scenes of people eating together, drinking, just (as at the end) being together. All well-meaning. That does seem to be a universal tendency of these Christmas stories; when we meet a genuine evil man, like Mr Potter (Lionel Barrymore) in It’s a Wonderful Life, he is hated by all and thwarted, to the great satisfaction of all viewers, including this one.

If you are like me, home alone, you can vicariously join in to a Christmas that is believable. I do most days need some cheering up, so often so sad that right now my movie-watching includes this year’s All Creatures Great and Small, the set of DVDs sent me by my friend Rory. They still my heart with the strong projection of love, understanding, kindness between one another. I am especially fond of the direct emphasis on the animals the Vets and everyone else too are caring so tenderly for. That the first episode of the second season (about to start on US TV on PBS) opened with an temporarily ill but still adorable cat being taken care of by James was perhaps overdoing it …


Mrs Pumphrey (Diana Rigg) and Tricky-Woo — alas they are not in the Christmas episode

A few words about the differences between this 21st century version and the 20th: The 1978 serial is realer, its pastoral qualities quieter or not so determined, for money comes up right away, people have vexed and unforgiving temperaments.  The housekeeper is not so pretty or obliging and motherly (she keeps her distance, is a paid servant). There is far less depth of emotion. The literal events are much closer to the book.  This 21st century version has added characters (Helen’s sister for example, Herriot’s mother), usually a sign of strong change. I’m glad to see the overbearing dictatorial mother of the 21st century is not in the book. The women in the first series simply go to work, and are less self-conscious about it — dare I say the 20th century version is more quietly feminist? The 1978 series makes no strong effort to be pro-family the way this new series does — everyone does not become a honorary family member somewhere. Hugh’s role is smaller; he is simply preferred by Helen’s family for his higher rank and money. Much less is made of Mrs Pumphrey (Diana Rigg in the new iteration) and Tricky-Woo, the pampered pug. It seems in the 21st century the film-makers assume we long for imagined strong communities where people live up to some social obligations they usually don’t in real life. The 1978 is quicker in pace; I don’t feel it’s more comic though it’s trying to be. We might say the 2020/21 is a more romantic familial series (following in the steps of the 21st century The Durrells?)

Both series show the characters caring for the farm animals and pets, but as far as I watched of the 1978 version (I stayed only for a trial week) the cameras don’t come up as close to them, and I feel at more intensely caring approach is felt in the 2021 episodes. The wikipedia articles tells you that Nicholas Ralph had to do quite a bit of training to enact his role. Mrs Hall (Audrey) is centrally involved in all the veterinarian business too (all personal and professional issues). The impersonal minor presence on the typewriter, in the kitchen in the old 1978 series in this 2021 version holds up the light by which Herriot performs a dangerous operation on a cow.

I would say the 2021/2 version of All Creatures Great and Small is far more theatrical than any of the previous (including the original movie)

Gentle reader, you could do far worse than spend one of these holiday evenings watching the Christmas episode of the 2021 All Creatures Great and Small.

Ellen

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David Nicholls’ Us — Douglas (Tom Hollander) and Connie (Saskia Reeves) in the present time summer of the novel as shown in the spectacular travel scenes of the movie (2015)

Gentle reader, Us, the book, works like Austen’s Emma; near the end a sudden unexpected revelation (if I’m reading aright, which I might not be as the information is delivered ambiguously) makes what we have been assuming all along sufficiently a blunder so a second reading uncovers clues we had not recognized. In order to explicate the book, and suggest why it is superior to the movie, Us, I tell this revelation in my 4th paragraph. For those not planning to read the book, this transformative information is left out of Us, the movie, so it won’t matter to you, except as you learn upfront you have been fobbed off with a far more superficial or at its end shallow experience (that hardly makes sense) or, aka, you are missing out …

Dear friends and readers,

Mid-summer is here and I’ve yet to record even one summer movie or book! The last time I wrote a blog on “summer movies” seems to be in 2018 (includes a summer adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream) and before that, 2015 (Mr Holmes — if this be not a summer movie ….). The specific criteria might be that the summer film gives sensual pleasure (be partly a travelogue), that the catastrophic calamities of what’s called (somewhat absurdly) “the third world” not be visited on our characters, and immediate deaths and long-range historical dire events be for the duration of the film excluded. I called last summer’s movies, “Uplift” because as a group they were so earnest.

But, it will be said by those who’ve seen the movie or read the book, a death occurs in Us, Douglas and Connie’s first-born child, a daughter they name Jane, born prematurely, dies not long afterwards of sepsis; and there’s no denying that our hero, Douglas Petersen (Tom Hollander and Iain de Castecker in the film) undergoes strong trauma caused by his wife, Connie (Saskia Reeves and Gina Bamhill).


Us — Douglas (Iain de Caestecker) and Connie (Gina Bramhill) some 25 or so years ago in the movie

The story is initiated when Connie tells Douglas one night (after some 25 years of apparently contented enough marriage) she “thinks our marriage has run its course … ” and thinks (again the hesitating word) she “wants to leave” him. She just can’t explain herself further. She wants to be free; she’s tired of her life with him. Albie is leaving for college/university in the fall. It’s a good time to do this is implied. The rest of the book and film is an extended set of Douglas’s memories leading up to how this 25th summer he and Connie are so unadmittedly (is there such a word?) estranged and strangers that the statement, her desire is wholly unexpected. These memories are interwoven with one last summer tour together with their son, Albie (Tom Taylor) in which Douglas attempts to win his wife over again to get her to stay with him for the rest of their lives. This then (the action of the story) becomes a tour in which he finds he must mend a broken relationship with his son, because it’s clearly the dysfunctional elephant in the room of the marriage that has been helping tear himself and Connie apart.


The trio in a museum (the Louvre?), Albie (Tom Taylor) closest to us (and clearly bored)

What then makes it qualify as a summer book and movie? The deeply sensuous enjoyment of visiting with film-makers in charge, the actors, camera crew, and all those active together to make a film, experiencing many glorious and famous places across six different countries, and several major European cities. 162 sets worth, not excluding filming on trains and in train stations. The continual laughter – yes laughter, for the book is irresistibly funny as Douglas and (no omitting this) Nicholls continually deliciously sends up, brings out the absurdities of our daily life’s arrangements, and shows a extraordinary facility with sheer language – he emits cornucopias of wit — as some of the jokes are out of sheer language, or marvelous intuitive reductive send-ups of what we actually see in pictures, hear in music, how we dress, talk eat, drink, sleep is not left out. I’m a very jaded reader and it is so hard or rare for me to laugh, but I find myself not only laughing and beginning to giggle and stay laughing aloud for extended passages, but on my re-reading the book (I like it so much and feel it has riches not revealed the first time round, or probably only after several times and then repeatable) I laugh all over again.

Yes, the ending of the book has a dark unexpected revelation (omitted from the film) that it’s possible that what motivated Connie that first night the film begins was her lover previous to Douglas, one Angelo, whom on a second reading one realizes is mentioned far more than we had realized throughout the book, her “ex” from whom she said was on the rebound, deigned to show up and offer to renew the relationship. This suggests to Douglas (and us), she had indeed taken Douglas as some kind of super-superior husband material — kind, money-earning, responsible, loyal, hard working, very intelligent, well educated — whom she could spend a comfortable life with (just taking a part time job in a non-profit art museum) and bring up a son to enter the upper middle class through very good schooling. A fun tame-able convenience she could lead, having so much better social skills and daring ways. Not because she loved him deeply the way he had her. He knows the only way he can hold onto his son’s regard is to let him go live a life with no room for his father in it. Abie is Connie’s son. It’s only then and only briefly – but sincerely – in the book Douglas considers killing himself. Connie in the film 20 years later is not character I was much in sympathy with; she seemed shallow rather than “with it,” after all, what was she doing all these 25 years when she stopped painting. Douglas would have had her carry on. In the book there are hidden aspects of her discontentment and lack of inspiration that at least imply a thinking mind and heart, not just a pillow mother who enters into conventional life with child-like zest.

But Douglas pulls back; he tells us of the routine he builds up after Connie is gone, and then or nonetheless, in the book he types Freya’s name into his computer’s search engine. In the movie he turns up in a museum (the museums and a use of relevant old master paintings are a repeated motif of the film) and there she is, sitting, gazing at the picture waiting for him. Both book and movie offer the possibility of a partner for Douglas who actually sympathizes with and understands his socially awkward ways and high serious values. A woman newly divorced (flat left herself suddenly for a younger woman), Freya (Sofie Grabol), whom he met in Florence and spent the most pleasant congenial compatible day he’d spent in a long time — without fooling himself or being asked to be other than he is.


Freya and Douglas exchanging notes on this strange breakfast — cake and/or cheese slices with coffee

It should be obvious that as with the other summer movies I’ve urged readers here not to miss, my deepest pleasure in reading came from a depth of emotion that is carried so lightly and spoke home to me about myself and others. Nicholls’s crisp lucid analyses bring us recognition (not everyone is humble enough to enjoy this), and the kind of quiet or undirected ethical teaching and insight that have lost status of late (so Booker Prize books have turned into fashionable games too). But they are on offer especially in the book. I’ve discovered reviewers (Mark Lawson of The Guardian on the book in 2014) regularly condescend to Nicholls (there must be something suspect in a novelist and screenplay writers whose works sell so widely). Alex Robins of the New York Times is especially above this movie (Nicholls “wrings a certain amount of comedy out of Douglas’s hopeless squareness”). Rebecca Nicolson (again The Guardian) is similarly disdainful. I say especially in the book because (alas) Nicholls himself rewrites the book into a film where he endorses laughing at and rejecting Douglas for at least half the movie because he knows in social life the person who is all heart openly, is despised.

For myself I bond with, identify or maybe just am especially drawn to the personality type other laugh at, the kind of person so serious and earnest about life and his feelings for others and what they are doing together (as a worthy task to be done to the best of our abilities), and it’s that terrain Douglas inhabits. In book and film What his wife and son continually, sometimes unconsciously but often consciously do is exclude Douglas. Connie colludes in this; she precipitates the deepest crisis of the movie when she sides wholly with her son in an incident in a restaurant where Albie, rightly incensed at the obnoxious treatment by men full of themselves (fancy suits) of a waitress, carries this too far by going over to the table and provoking a physical encounter; Douglas seeking to calm things and appalled at Albie’s aggression, apologizes for this. Connie treats this as betrayal like that of Brutus to Caesar. The boy, awash with money he’s ever provided with, flees leaving behind a letter saying he will not get into contact with them for a long time to come.

Both then, but especially Douglas, become hysterically worried about the boy – he might be in danger — and Douglas’s psychological state becomes so revved up he begins an impossible quest to find the boy, apologize and bring him back home — to Connie (who, pragmatic woman, has returned home). The quest has its own traumas (losing all his stuff and being w/o money and a working cell phone at one point); it’s killing on his feet, but also exhilarating experiences. His son’s behavior when he finally catches up to him turns from utter rejection to comradeship when he sees all he means to his father and his father has a serious heart attack.


Douglas in Florence, soaking his blistered feet

It’s important to insist this sequence is not just a (ho hum) clichéd rehash of the character on the edge. Douglas has been hurt repeatedly — the person whose generous hearted gifts are not just turned back, but accepted on sufferance. To say he is underappreciated does not get to it. One typical incident: they blame him for not being adventurous in eating, and he goes with them to a restaurant where Albie knowingly orders him very hot spicy soup, and then hands him a very hot overcooked meat on a stick — and Douglas is driven wild with burning sensation in his mouth. He sees wife and son laughing at the table, ignoring whatever he has gone through in a bathroom to cope. If he shows an inability to understand mindless fun (with legos, at a quiz over celebrity items that pass as knowledge) he has given his all, to put it in philistine terms, pre-paid for all this with hard-earned large sums of money.

Given a chance, Douglas is liberal; his looking askance at an art major comes from his worry his son won’t be able to make a living out of strange photographs. I note that while the film ends with an exhibition of Albie’s art, implying Douglas was over-cautious, not trusting to his son’s special abilities, the book has no such scene. When Douglas discovered Albie is homosexual, there is not a second’s pause in his acceptance of his son’s sexual orientation. Matt Cain (The Independent) who wrote the film and book are heart-breaking and joyous has it right. Candace Carty-Williams of The Guardian in a short notice about the film said by film’s end she could not control her tears

At the book’s end for three pages, our usual narrator, Douglas, vanishes, and Nicholls as narrator or author retells Albie’s story from a very different point of view, and instead of the over-indulged upper class white male, naively self-confident (if he is only let be!) becomes an unconventional young man who had an unusual relationship with an artistic mother, who finally frees himself of an over-bearing well-meaning father (he sees this). Connie’s story is retold too as that of the frustrated artist who somehow (as a woman?) held back for 24 years now wants to fulfill herself before it’s too late, and resisting her husband’s pleas, separates herself from him, goes to London, and lo and behold begins to paint and not only that reconnects with this lover (now afterward for sure); she loves this man’s bohemian nature (all the pictures in the room Douglas saw in the first days of their relationship were of Angelo) and finds happiness with him “just in time.” (So as with Austen’s Emma, which contains very different stories of the characters besides Emma that Emma can never see, so here.) Nicholls says these might have made better stories than his own, that is, Douglas is a surrogate for him. We then trace Douglas’s anguish (as I outlined above), leading to near suicide, but holding out, to type in Freya’s name, with the words of the next unwritten chapter “dentist Copenhagen” (her profession and where she lives). For my part I disagree with Nicholls’ sudden startling turnabout and reversal, for it is Douglas’s story of ordinariness, of everyday failures, of the enemies of his promise (he has not been able to become that great scientist he dreamt of over his fruit flies either), of trying so hard and meaning so well, earnest seriousness, of ethical giving that can provide us with strength to carry on.

Several summers ago I saw a 2015 Far from the Madding Crowd (Hardy’s book adapted) with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba and just loved it (though I never wrote a blog) and tonight have discovered Nicholls wrote the screenplay for that too. It’s the one time I have been able to appreciate Hardy.


Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene

Ellen

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