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Archive for the ‘womens' films’ Category

Inprson
In prison, telling of how her stepfather abused her and her mother ignored her distress: Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Bates (Brendan Coyle)

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The Dowager in her mind bidding adieu to any idea of time regained: Violet (Maggie Smith) remembering

Dear friends and readers,

I cannot deny for anyone still emotionally involved with any of these wrenched backward and forward manipulated-for-climax characters, there were still some stirring and/or genuine moments. There is some uncertainty about when and if it will ever end. So to this season’s finale:

For me intense distress over Anna (Joanne Froggart) in prison, humiliated, blamed, her own abused past used against her; some admiration for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) defying all convention and rank-based demands to visit Anna; the improbable angelic quest of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and Mr Moseley to find witnesses to show that Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) was in York the day his confession claimed he was in London pushing Mr Green (Nigel Harman) in front of a bus (if he went so far as to say that — we don’t know); however unlikely that such a confession would be cast aside, Anna’s release and continued abjection when she returns “home” (she will not go into Downton Abbey by the front door), and, not for the first time, her bleak presence in black during the Christmas festivities, only to be gladdened and rejoiced and taken away to a quiet private space with her beloved at last.

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Rapturous escape

Punishment of servants and largesse on the part of masters and mistresses defined several of the stories brought to a temporary close. In the last two seasons Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith’s) adherence to duty and not exploiting those beneath her any more than her position demands was continued. She did not permit Spratt (Jeremy Swift) to triumph over Denker (Sue Johnston)’s inability to make a fine soup:

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Delicious soup

Violet was sorely tempted by Prince Kuragin many years ago, actually fled with him, but was pulled from the carriage, by his wife, the princess, and allowed herself to be dragged back not only to duty, but comfort and wealth, and social acceptability. She has reciprocated by paying for the princess to be rescued, giving the princess acceptable clothes and her reluctant husband back. She rises above the princess’s bitter understandable ingratitude.

Princess

It’s an interesting topic: the Dowager’s attempt to do the right thing. I suggest the Dowager has changed over the course of five years — or better aspects of her character have gradually been brought forth. At first she appeared as a kind of dragon lady witch — remember her first appearance, striking in all glittering black.

Firstshot

She does try to do the right thing, and we have now been given enough of her past to understand her marriage was not super-happy at all; she stayed because it was the right thing to do. Sometimes though these moral “right thing to do” can mislead. When she persuaded the older man to desert Edith at the altar, that was wrong even if it seemed conventional wisdom. She was with Rosamund in trying to remove Marigold from Edith. The “right thing” often violates our deeper emotions and needs — that’s a theme in Anthony Trollope by the way (whom Fellowes claimes to be much influenced by). The perversion of our deepest emotions by being required to follow social rightness — In Trollope’s novel, Lady Anna, the heroine, Lady or Anna Murray refuses to marry the Earl and does the “wrong” thing from everyone else’s point of view; she wins because she’s heir. But other Trollope characters walk away without the big money — in The Warden, Mr Harding for example. The Duchess would have been on Archdeacon Grantly’s side. Phineas Finn walks away to a small salary; he is not made happy and in Raven’s version he does it only because Mary is pregnant. But Trollope does fit in with Fellowes and here (as is not uncommon) if you examine Trollope for real, you find his inferences go another way.

It was certainly a season for older women to be proposed to (a Trollopian theme): Mrs Hughes’s (Phyllis Logan) reply to Mr Carson’s (Jim Carter) is a nearly exact repeat of Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton) to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) and Violet to Prince Kuragin:

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Mrs Hughes: ‘We’re celebrating the fact that I can still get a proposal at my age.’
Mr Carson: ‘And that’s it?’
Mrs Hughes: ‘Of course I’ll marry you, you old booby. I thought you’d never ask.

Where did he get the money? In the original Upstairs Downstairs, Mr Hudson and Mrs Bridges have been saving for their lodging house almost the full five years of the show.

And there were the intelligent conversations between the Dowager and Mrs Crawley once again:

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Otherwise you were invited to enjoy the perversion of natural good feeling, or asked to rejoice in spite, coming comeuppances, abjection, and confronted yet more women who suddenly could put two and two together. The most dismaying was Lady Sinderby (Penny Downie). It was not that she was hiding deep pain; she seemed genuinely puzzled who Diane Clark and little Daniel (HELLO, DANIEL, HIS NAME!) could be?

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I just wish there had been a flicker of recognition and anger in her eyes. I didn’t look but in the script it may say by Diana (Diana or Diane?) Clarke that she expected to be alone with him? I thought she did say that in fleeting passing. The actress the same age as Michelle Dockery, the younger set

(If so, absurd. Jim and I rented a hunting lodge in Sussex one summer. It was once a tryst place for a super rich Duke to have mistress and horses available. We had a large bed with a mirror over it. I kid you not. The building a sort of overgrown hut. I suddenly realize downstairs where younger daughter slept were once servants quarters. This is not marked at all by Landmark Trust who rents such places to people going on holiday in the UK. It was very large down there so lots of servants and grooms as across a yard were old stables — very much marked for our perusal. It was not that easy to get to — as the road is still not marked obviously from a pub, and the bus didn’t go there anymore. Nor were we told which more recent Dukes owned it.)

Rose (Lily James) to the rescue by a series of insistent hypocrisies with all joining in. We were to enjoy Lord Sinderby’s (Aldritch) shame. But what then? everyone conspires together not to help the woman whom he has obviously had a long time affair with, shows no concern for real for or her boy (we don’t learn his name though we do hers, Diana Clark). Meanwhile Lady Sinderby is suddenly unaware of what’s happening, and looks all surprise and bemusement and as ever Atticus (Marcus Bale) notices nothing. There is his half-brother. The character would be great on a slave plantation, surrounded by half-brothers and sisters who were his slaves too; Atticus showed perfect unconcern Beyond yet another women unaware of what’s happening around her (Lady Sinderby); beyond that it’s grating to see how the woman and her child apparently don’t matter, what matters is nothing shall be upset, nor Lord Sinderby embarrassed. Sickening. Yes she looked just fine – but all abasement towards everyone. In a series ostensibly so focused on women, women are dispensable and all children without rich men to keep them.

The worst grating thing was Fellowes’ tendency to when he run out of invented faux obstacles to create tension and climaxes on the back of, he returns to bad servants and we are to rejoice in their comeuppance or downright humiliation. Stowell (Alun Armstrong in the thankless role) was the snobbish butler more willing to hurt others to keep his ego up than his master the arrogant Lord Sinderby needs to:

Stowell

Fellowes made it acceptable by having Stowell mortify our favorite working class turned sop-aristocrat Tom (Allen Leech) and those under him (including Thomas [Rob James-Collier] who got back Big Time with the encouragement of Lady Mary) but who is he? he probably has no money money than Mrs Hughes — in the first season she originally said she was socking it away; now she has a disabled sister she supports (the Tories will like that). We were supposed to enjoy him cringing before others. I have to have been personally hurt directly before I can enjoy that sort of thing. We were also supposed to enjoy how the Dowager finally best Spratt. His spite against Denker is disconnected from her bad behavior in London. These servants are despicable lot, no? both Spratt and Denker are subject to the Dowager — was that supposed to provide our enjoyment?

Despite what we keep hearing about staff cutbacks since the glory days before the war, the Downtown staff never seems overworked (lots of time for self-improvement, museum visiting), except perhaps in the case of Moseley as first footman — and that is treated as comedy–and Moseley’s fault, of course, for trying to get above himself. Who wouldn’t want to be a servant in a great house? My mother-in-law told me it was servitude and discipline from getting up to going to sleep, little money, hardly any time off.

It has been lacklustre season, filled with phony climaxes or dismissals. Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) can’t be fired but she can be erased. This season was at its best when it tried to return to the tone and mood of the first season, but it did not work as in just the way years had gone by, so much pain and melodrama had been put before us. Also its structuring to move to climax after climax this year and not have one-hour long self-enclosed stories destroyed any of the first season’s quietude.

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Canaletto, Alnwick Castle (18th century landscape)

I felt in the last phrase of returning to the Abbey for a singalong at Christmas, they were trying for the quiet naturalness of the first season again. But as is seen from 3/4s of the 90 minutes they cannot — too much water under the bridge and too much expected. So first they have to go away to a super-glamorous place once again. I had thought Alnwick Castle was a testament to Canaletto’s many paintings, the fame of this country house from the Renaissance, deep in Northumberland, but it was apparently Hogwarts they were thinking of — Harry Potter. Whence a very silly YouTube over the preceding week where the characters tried to decide which house each of them would belong to in the school for magic.

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Like parents dropping children off to school

Anibundel remarked that it felt like the cast were hanging around a museum. I noticed only a small segment of the show was filmed in the house. We did see them go into it, through the door, so it was not as with Chatworth in the 1995 P&P where the film-makers were allowed to use only the outside of the house, but only a few rooms were requisitioned. Anibundel said most of the rooms from the Harry Potter films were not there and noted the huge fireplaces (in centuries past to keep the occupants warm). The result was a film experience as absurd as someone wearing an extravagantly overdone dress for a short moment of a day at great expense and trouble. This to impress people fooled by glamour and fame and money. I found the inside of the house gross. As fake as overdone luxury hotels. All gilt, ludicrously over-decorated every inch each wall. Must be awful to sit in — but maybe no one ever really sits in those rooms, much less lie and read a book

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With all this falseness to see this reassertion of how happy everyone is, not just must be, at Christmas, I was gain reminded of what Trollope said he felt like when he was commanded to make a rejoicing Christmas tale.

While I was writing The Way We Live Now, I was called upon by the proprietors of the *Graphic* for a Christmas story. I feel, with regard to literature, somewhat as I suppose an upholsterer and undertaker feels when he is called upon to supply a funeral. He has to supply it, however distasteful it may be. It is his business, and he will starve if he neglect it. So have I felt that, when anything in the shape of a novel was required, I was bound to produce it. Nothing can be more distasteful to me than to have to give a relish of Christmas to what I write. I feel the humbug implied by the nature of the order. A Christmas story, in the proper sense, should be the ebullition of some mind anxious to instil others with a desire for Christmas religious thought or Christmas festivities –, better yet, with Christmas charity. Such was the case with Dickens when he wrote his two first Christmas stories. But since that the things written annually — all of which have been fixed to Christmas like children’s toys to a Christmas tree, have no real savour of Christmas about them. I had done two or three before. Alas! at this very moment I have one to write [said by Julian Thompson to have been “Christmas at Thompson Hall”], which I have promised to supply within three weeks of this time — the picture-makers always required a long interval,–as to which I have in vain been cudgelling my brain for the last month. I can’t send away the order to another shop, but I do not know how I shall ever get the coffin made.

Yes Mr and Mrs Bates hurry off into that dark bare corridor away from the strained singing; there were moments throughout the hour (as I started with) worth the contemplating.

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servants

As for future predictions once again:

Here is a reasonably intelligent review

I have noticed no one has aged much — except naturally. They are all five years older, the daughters dress older; the dress of the servants reflects their changed occupations. I have been glad some of the women are not forced into anorexia: Elizabeth McGovern became that long before this mini-series to make herself viable as a comely older woman. The interviewer said it was to go on until 2010 – I had thought next year would be the last but Fellowes gave another interview which suggested it would drag its coffin on.

So he doesn’t “own” DA anymore and is not the only one to dictate the ending so perhaps it will get worse than ever (more fatuously cheerful with made-up crises easily resolved) or it will darken in ways that Fellowes wouldn’t allow. There’s a general strike coming … My sense is Fellowes made this years’ episodes follow closely on the last because he did not want to show the 1930s in England, the real destruction of some of these enclaves, the proto-nazism and fascism, the growth of socialism for real.

One woman on a Downton fan page called this a “fun” interview. Some people have odd ideas about fun.

Tree

So, out my crystal ball: We have two plot lines: Lord Sinderby has a bastard son and now it’s been brought out into the open the sudden bitterness of Lady Sinderby may actuate her into at least a separation for a while. (Maybe just maybe Atticus will notice his half-brother?) Anna and Bates are not home free. Mary will end up with the insouciant cool racing car driver whom she deserves and if he cannot make her miserable, little George will at least grow up to be a twisted ex-aristocrat; Edith (let us hope) return to London and get a nanny. Daisy and Mrs Patmore and Mr and Mrs Carson are provided for; Baxter and Moseley go off into the sunset for other positions in the same great house, or break free, he goes to teach and she to open a millinery and dress shop. We have been told the ending: Lord Grantham dies of a massive heart attack — it was angina and we see how breathless he is when drunk. Other age away, four widows left with another (Lady Rosamund) coming for visits. They have money to travel, at least Cora is young enough, except perhaps Lady Shackleton not far off in her cold cottage. Lady Anstruthers will not be welcome. But Thomas may stay on as butler at last.

Ellen

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Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon as Mr and Mrs Miniver with their children in a locally dug-out air raid shelter with their children, Toby and Judy (Christopher Severn and Clare Sandars)

Dear friends and readers,

If you read my other blog, Austen Reveries, you know I’ve been working on a paper on the importance of screenplays to be given this March at the ASECS, part of my larger project on Austen films, and just enjoyment of, interest in screenplays.

This week I’ve been reading great and powerful screenplays, chosen mostly as a result of what’s in print and well-prepared in two sets of what ought to be famous collections (John Gassner and Dudley Nicols, 10 Best Film Plays, 1942, and Best Film Plays [10] of 1943-44; and George Garrett, Jane Gelfman, and O. B. Hardison Jr’s Film Scripts 1, 2, 3, 4 (1970s). This to help me demonstrate the centrality and great power of them when well-prepated, and how they are a new changeable experimental genre, worthy reading and study in their own right. When I read Dashiell Hammet’s Watch on the Rhine adapted from Lillian Hellman’s stage play of the same name, the experience was gripping, almost as good as watching it. When I read Graham Greene’s screenplay for The Third Man this week (once again), maybe it was better in some ways. To my surprise, and not meaning at all to have Downton Abbey in mind (though Fellowes has been smart enough to publish the screenplays of the first three seasons completely annotated, with omitted scenes, stills, the works), I discovered a real provable source for one of the striking episodes of the first season: The Flower Show. Here is a still from that in Mrs Miniver:

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Probably not one of the more remembered scenes of the movie, though it leads into the tragic climax

First let me suggest just a few of the characteristics of screenplays that put them apart from other genres that I’m working on: The writer writes with camera visualization in mind, and an awareness of there will be a world created by the hallucinatory screen from production and costume designs: screenplays presuppose encompassing specific worlds constructed so the viewer shall suspend disbelief, and within this assumed imagined environment the scripts present bits of dialogue, descriptions of movements of setting, suggestions for actors and silent moments, and camera angles as a quick succession of fluid and suggestive experiences with movement involved, freed of the time and space of a literal stage. In recent contemporary films what happens in this film is conveyed through a continual movement back and forth between past and present time, with lingering voice-overs that spill voiced thoughts across the interwoven obsessively remembered past and present time in quick change montages. Studying film adaptations alongside the scripts has taught me the films are made of dislocated series of images which can be moved about; Sarah Cardwell demonstrated these are not in the present tense, but tenseless or timeless (in her essay “About Time”). The relation of the words, the dialogue and voice-over, crucially tell the relationships in time between the images. They are concentrated, the feel is intimate because of the close-ups, split seconds of visualization brings us close-up and magnifies the experience. From this comes fan groups for cults of stars. If you know who played the parts and have not seen the movie, you try to visualize the actors and actors; if you don’t know who played the parts, or the screenplay was never filmed, you try to cast it with favored actors and actresses.

In the second Gassner and Nicols volume the screenplays are accompanied by stills from the films dropped it (like illustrations for 19th century novels) at the spots in the screenplay they visualized. That’s also done in the New Market paperback shooting script series, and in many publications of screenplays — often the better ones will have essays by the writer, or a journal of the filming, or particulars about production design, costumes, houses …. Mrs Miniver is in the first volume so I went onto the Net to find stills. I was not surprised to discover I could not find shots for the most traumatic and best scenes — that’s typical. What one finds are stills where the people look beautiful. It’s also hard to find stills of landscape, and the encompassing world which is so central to films. I did find this one of her compassionating the German soldier after he terrified, threatened and was ready to kill her but then sat to eat and wait, and collapsed:

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Helmut Dantine played the part of the German pilot forced down

First the 1940s screenplay is extraordinary. It is not by Joyce Anstruther (also a poet) whose columns in the 1930s were a precursor of The Egg and I, or Bridget Jones, the self-deprecating woman, here quietly ironic about much of her life, but herself the cynosure of competence and complacent assured middle class life (discussed extraordinarily well by Alison Light in Forever England). I can see from just reading the screenplay, how it could have the effect on its viewership it did. It subscribes to the most appealing myths of what England is. Paradoxically at the same time like so many movies of the 1930s and 40s the central characters are upper middle class and as a matter of course have servants (This is true of the characters in Watch on the Rhine, it is not true of the characters in screenplays starting in the 1960s, then we are no longer in firm middle class households, no servants anywhere, e.g, Darling a 1965 screenplay and movie, The Apartment, same era). Mrs Miniver opens in an expensive men’s club in Pall Mall; they are going about their business undisturbed as yet. She is the wife of such a man; we see her first jumping off a bus and rushing back to an expensive shop to treat herself to an unnecessary concoction of a hat. Yet as the story went on, and we go home with her, are introduced to her servants (whom she treats well but keeps in good order by her benign orderly ways herself) I believed in her and these children. Her grown son home from Oxford. The girl he meets and falls in love with — but lacks her upper middle class rank (Orwell would find all the careful nuancing par for the course).

Well emotions are worked up as this orderly life begins to fall apart, but everyone is stout together. I found myself coming close to tears, especially when the family was in the bomb shelter under their house, intensely engaged when the German soldier broke into Mrs Miniver’s house (of course she dealt with him, a bit of luck too, which Mrs Miniver ever has). One of its authors was William Wyler, and apparently some of the lines he wrote for the screenplay were used by Roosevelt in one of his speeches. The sense of the characters are turned far away from Anstruther then.

What startled me though is here is an important story in the first season of Downton Abbey. Remember that Flower Show and how the dowager at the very end gave the prize for roses to Mr Moseley’s father. It had been assigned her as always. The way you can tell if something is a source is if the source has something idiosyncratic which is repeated. In Mrs Miniver the movie the prize is again award to the great dragon lady turned women-with-heart-of-gold, Lady Beldon and similarly when up there Lady Beldon lies and gives the prize to the man who deserves it.

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Dame May Whitty as Lady Beldon

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Maggie Smith as the Dowager doing precisely the same generous act — we might ask why we should be so charmed after she has been taking the prize for years (Miss Obrien [Siobhan Finneran does ask]

It was then I asked myself if Mrs Miniver had a first name. Had Anstruthers and now these writers gone so far as to imitate earlier novels and not give us a first name for this lady. I hunted and found that at night when they talk (in separate twin beds of course) Mr Miniver who is referred to as Clem often calls her Kay.

Much is left out by Fellowes from the original: Mr Ballard (Henry Travers) who grew the beautiful rose wanted to name it Mrs Miniver and that had angered Lady Beldon as no rose should be named after a non-aristocrat. She had learned to accept that, and was about to about to accept seeing her granddaughter become engaged to Mrs Miniver’s son; Fellowes instead has Mr Moseley’s father accepting that he will always win second place though it breaks his heart. But Lady Beldon has always gotten it the way the Dowager had. The moment is much stronger in Mrs Miniver because of this secondary story of love and because the sirens have begun to wail loudly that the German bombers had been seen on their way.

Mrs Miniver is an important source text for a significant Downton Abbey the first season, and the attitude towards war in the second. In Mrs Miniver we see how class barriers break down and how everyone is valued together as they fight — so too in Downton Abbey season 2. (Sigh … .). Flower shows and the beauty and science in Kensington Gardens (its world-wide reputation alongside the Bronx Botanical Gardens) remain important symbols for middle class English-speaking people today. Another story in the first season, about Carson’s past was modelled on a story about Hudson’s past from the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs. But using Mrs Miniver exposes how Downton Abbey repeats all the myths of this movie — other images in the movie reappear in Downton Abbey.

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All applaud the Dowager for her tremendous act

Let me bring up another unlikely or unexpected collocation: Dora Bruder, the autobiographical meditation by Patrick Modiano who won the Nobel this year. One theme of his book is how Dora Bruder, this young girl was just thrown away, powerless flotsam and jetsam when things got at all rough — or when the establishment decreed. Well in Mrs Miniver at said Flower Show we see a group of working class children from London who have been parceled out to people like Mrs Miniver. Of course not quite living in the great houses, or put in an attic, but that is not mentioned. We are to look quite sentimentally at them and think what an opportunity to get into the country. When the reality is these children in this movie are Dora Bruders. Who cares what happens to them as individuals, who considers it? how they got back home? if they got back home? why these were sent?

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I did come across two other more general sources for Cora, Lady Grantham: I’m following a Future Learn course on British imperialism (on which much more in another blog) and came across the name of Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon, the first American wife of a Viceroy of India during the Raj, and aspects of her life reminded me of Cora, Lady Grantham. I like reading memoirs, someone recommended to me Consuelo Vanderbilt Balsan (1877-1964), who wrote a readable autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold.

(c) BRIDGEMAN; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Mary Leiter, Lady Curzon in her famous super-expensive peacock feather dress — her expression reminds me of royal people in Goya’s paintings

Mary’s book is a slender volume of letters selected out of volumes and volumes by John Bradley. Once Mary Leiter marries and becomes the viceroy’s wife her life is endless showing of herself for spectacle, and having babies and caring for them. She becomes less open too, much less. The glimpses of a worthwhile person become rare. She begins to sound like Jane Austen’s cousin, Eliza de Feuillide when she poses, and registers no sense at all of what she (as a symbol and to keep up in this life style) is costing everyone else. Mary Leiter died of disease, sick and ailing by her early 30s, probably childbirth at the age of 36-37. Her mother-in-law died young too, similarly.

A biography by Nigel Nicolson tell you that Mary Leiter had been the daughter of a man who was a partner in one of these huge luxury-serving department stores that opened in the 1880s in NYC, London, Chicago — a Mr Selfridge (!), and Nicolson’s book opens with the portrait of such a store. These are a dying breed; now we get these cavernous warehouses of mostly junk. There are still a couple of them around: Lord and Taylor’s on 37th and 5th was still practicing making the person shopping feel as if he or she were a rich guest and all the objects important art, the experience somehow home-y, comfortable — complete with coffee for free at 9:30 (this was only 3 years ago). Anyway all her life she lived in a privileged environment, a glass box — only her real body she could not escape nor diseases. She was thought Jewish or half-Jewish because some names in the family “seemed Jewish.” In fact they were Memnonites. So she fits Cora, Lady Grantham — a link between one costume drama and another.

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Consuelo and Jacques Balsan, her “commoner” husband

CVB reminds me of the Mitford sisters; she has that strong sense of what she deserves, who she is, and while she was wholly tyrannized over as a child (she was even whipped), and when a young adult could be coerced into making bad important decisions (like marrying the super-rich Duke of Marlborough), give her time and she gets out of it — and married a nobody Frenchman who she lived happily with in France until WW2 when they escaped to the US. Lady Carnavon, the turn of the century owner of Highclere Castle who wandered about the world as an anthropologist of sorts, was a strong independent individualist iconclastic too — none of them stayed home to obey any gongs for dinner ….

Long ago at the close of Caleb Williams William Godwin had his imprisoned driven-insane servant hero, ask why are these people numinous (he had actually told the truth about his employer killing a man), why is are they so much more valued than others. The interest of Modiano’s book is how hard he tries to discover her life and what happened to her, and that he does find a trail. It’s much more than a detective story.

dora-bruder

Here is one of Joyce Anstruther’s poems — about whom I’ll write one of my foremother poet blogs next week, the first I’ve done in a couple of years:

Dedication to an Unknown Reader, from The Glass-Blower (1940)

Like rays shed
    By a spent star
The words of a dead
    Poet are,
That through bleak space
    Unchecked fly on,
Though heart, hand, face
    To dust are gone;
And you who read
    Shall only guess
What thorn-sharp need,
    What loneliness,
What love, lust, dream,
    Shudder or sigh
Lit the long beam
    That meets your eye:
Nor guess you never
    So well, so true,
Shall comfort ever
    Reach from you
To me, an old
    Black shrivelled sphere,
Who has been cold
    This million year.

She was nowhere as uncomplicatedly competent and cheerful as she made her Mrs Miniver to be. See my preliminary foremother poet blog: Joyce Anstruther.

Ellen

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Violet, Lady Grantham (Maggie Smith) explaining to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery why the prospect of Isobel Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) marriage to Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) hurts so

Mary: Granny, I know why you’re finding this difficult.
Dowager: Do you?
Mary: Yes, but you mustn’t give in to it.
Dowager: What? Give in to what?
Mary: Isobel has always been your protege. She looks up to you and you have kept her from harm in return.
Dowager: Have I?
Mary: Yes. So of course it’s difficult that she is to take her place ~ among the leaders of the county.
… you simply have to be bigger than that.
Dowager: Is that what you think of me? That I care about her change of rank?
Mary: Well, you’re not exactly pleased, are you?
Dowager: No. But that is not the reason … If you must know … I have got used to having a companion.
A friend. You know, someone to talk things over with … You have your own lives … Isobel and I had a lot in common. I shall miss her.
Mary: Granny, you’re quite dewy-eyed ….
Dowager: You’ve made me regret my confidence… And for your information I don’t think Isobel has EVER looked up to me.

Dear friends and readers,

Soap operas when they do their work right root their suggestive believable characters into the daily memories and feelings of their viewers. That Fellowes has achieved this may be seen in his continuing audience for a group of stories that he lacks any new material for; one never needed new material for As the World Turns. This week I found my face was wet, the tears had overflowed beyond my eyes over fleeting scenes of decently felt emotion most of us struggle against or want to feel. Some were less tenuously set-up than others. The finest and slowest-fully built up to is above: the Dowager explains to the obtuse Lady Mary that she will miss her friend.

Robert Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) close relationship with his dog, Isis, has been before us from the opening credits (much mocked) where we see the dog from the back, presumably walking alongside Robert back to Downton, to the incident where Thomas (Rob James-Collier) ruthlessly locked the dog out in the wet cold wild so he could gain Lord Grantham’s trust by rescuing her, to her just being there, with him. Even that quiet boss-lady, Cora, Lady Grantham, oblivious as she was to the twisting of Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), her second daughter’s character and pregnancy, and much else seemed to notice the dog’s decline, and opened her bed so the suffering creature need not be alone and feel unloved in her last hours:

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Daisy continues to gain in skills and self-respect from the time we first saw her when the series began and she was making the fires in the house, filthying herself in the cold. She’s now reading Vanity Fair under the tutelage of that thwarted teacher, Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle). While I wish we didn’t each time have to re-assert the justification for learning for Daisy, and this time it was to enable Fellowes to take potshots at the labor gov’t, I enjoyed the visit to Mr Mason (Paul Copley) engineered by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) so as to keep Daisy’s spirits up. At his dinner table no one insults anyone. He wouldn’t allow it — all is generosity and decent social thought:

Miss Baxter: Are we all finished? How lovely, Daisy, to have such a beautiful place to come to.
Mr Mason: She’s always welcome is Daisy.
Daisy: I’ve not been here enough lately.
Mr Mason: You’ve been busy I know. With your books. That takes up time.
Daisy: I think I’ll stop it now. So I’ll be able to visit more.
Mr Moseley: Do you think she’s right to give up her studies, Mr Mason?
Mr Mason: I do NOT.
Daisy: Don’t you want to see more of me?
Mr Mason: You know I do. But education is power.

Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) had been startled to find herself invited, and once there, perked up, looked like she had some self-respect, enjoyed herself guiltlessly, and held Mr Moseley’s hand as they comfortably came home after a comfortable meal.

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Things were quite otherwise in the dinner scene closely juxtaposed next. I felt for Isobel as those wretched sons of Merton made themselves obnoxious again (to Edith too).

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I loved Tom Branson for getting up and calling one of them a “bastard.” They did throw a stink bomb at any coming happiness in marriage with them in the Merton house. I don’t know why anyone eats dinner at that place: it is a landmine.

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Of course dinner tables have ever been places where you dramatize social agons, it’s inherently theatrical.

The ball of agon has not left the Bates’s residence either. I did love the scene of Anna (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates drinking tea so comfortably at home together.

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Here I just wish Fellowes didn’t think it necessary for me to suspect one of the pair is a murderer. I have realized (from reading one of the Downton Abbey facebook fan pages where they regularly take the most small-minded positions, siding with the worst people) that we are supposed suddenly to suspect Anna. This is surely out of character. What would she feel in a prison? horrified. so humiliated and mortified and filled with inculcated self-hatred she’d wither up with shame.

Alas I’ve covered the fine moments and have now to turn to the absurdities and offensive omissions. I omit the condescension enacted towards the Duchess’s adult servants, Spratt (Jeremy Swift) and Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) as children squabbling. To this is Fellowes driven for material you see. Mrs Drewe gets to have her say to Cora, Lady Grantham, but we are not allowed to see or hear her, and doubt we’ll ever be permitted to develop some sympathetic imaginings for the Drewes at home now.

Implications: When told by Robert that Isis has “cancer,” and Cora replied: “Poor old thing … Oh, how I hate that word,” she for a moment redeemed herself, but like Anibundel whose recap is again worth reading, I cannot grasp how Fellowes expects us to take seriously her indignation at her mother- and sister-in-law, Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) at having not told her what she should not have needed telling to know. She will never forgive them, never trust them for not having informed her her daughter had a baby while away on a suddenly “mysterious” 10 month trip to Switzerland:

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Yet worse there was Edith, since Episode 6 closed, set up at last, running a business she owns (left her by Mr Grigson), a job to do, writing she does well, a place to live, a nanny on the spot, with money to pay her:

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And what does she do? return to the Abbey where she hides from Mary and her maid at the station giving up her baby once again to the conveniently there Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough)

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in the library again overridden by Mary (coolly despising Edith’s generous impulses to take “an orphan child”), look like some rabbit or deer staring at headlights lest daddy say no to adopting this strange child until mummy declares it is right. The family obtuseness passes to Edith’s father. There’s more than a hint that Tom (Allen Leech) suspects (he asks her more than once to be open with him about her troubles over many episodes). Mary of course couldn’t be bothered to figure anything out about anyone, least of all Edith. Psychologically for Edith it does fit: she is the bullied, over-sheltered, super-ego driven ugly daughter. I hope she never marries, because surely she’ll end up abused — and we saw in the fourth season that Grigson saw this and refrained.

Is there any more to add? I fear Fellowes enjoys inflicting pain on Edith because he likes Mary’s meanness, identifies, triumphs with it. So more obnoxiousness from Lady Mary supported by the complacent Charles Blake (what ever happened Julian Overdeen as the man who worried about the average person’s housing in Britain): if it was so little trouble for Mary to get rid of Gillingham (Tom Cullen) by a kiss in public of Overdeen, why did we have that scene in the park? Fellowes gives away how he manipulates shallowly to milk scenes.

Lady Rose’s (Lily James) continuing charitable impulses and her hurt and fear she will lose her suitor, the good-natured bright Atticus Aldridge (Matt Barber), are a decent note and rightly rewarded by Lady Sinderby’s (Penny Downe) generous liking of her despite her being a non-Jew; Lady Sinderby and her husband showed real awareness of the prejudice against them, he that he needs to fight to maintain respected space to thrive in, and thus is not eager for a daughter-in-law who will not be Jewish (conversion never mentioned), but their son’s total lack of any consciousness of what it was to be a Jew in England in the 1920s brings us back to the incredible. Someone on a Jewish news on-line page suggested he is modeled on Prince William (Charles’s son); so when he kneels to this princess, far from an intermarriage, we have a simulacrum of revered English royalty:

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(Jim was one of those who wanted to see their huge fortunes taken from them, lamented when again the Queen was no longer to pay taxes.)

I suggest Fellowes is moving time so slowly because he does not want to reach the 1930s. He frequently gives Violet quips which are designed to obscure hard truths, this time it was “My dear, men have no rights.” In the real world of 1924 or so the men were in charge, servants were beginning to flee these places for work for money and freedom. There was a general strike in 1926.

But allow me to end on another of the good moments: Tom leaning over a bridge in the green landscape of the Abbey (one of its attractions for him, one he is at work on as steward in his fine office daily), with his daughter, trying to get her used to the idea they will perhaps leave for another country where he will fit in, be able to maintain his identity (and hers) better:

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Now if we could just get a message to Miss Bunting (the show is a continual fantasizing so why not?) to meet him at the New York docks.

Ellen

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Midpoint — the Dowager (Maggie Smith’s) second walk and talk with Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija), this time in his grey impoverished lodgings

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Closing still — Edith (Laura Carmichael) to a child who either avoids eye-contact, or looks on warily: “I’ll order ice cream, and a glass of Champagne, and we’ll be as jolly as you like.”

Lady Mary has her Hair Bobbed:
Lady Mary: ‘Does this cover it?’
Hairdresser: ‘My Lady is very generous.’
She sails out
Hairdresser to colleagues: ‘At least she can carry it off. Most of them look like bald monkeys.’

Dear friends and readers,

Like life, soap opera is all repetition, and this was another week where endless deferral alternated with levels of climax; the pleasure is in the talk and pictures of the mini-series, and the talk overheard (or writing on the Net I read) added more to the mini-series than much in the hour itself. Have others observed how time has slowed down this year? Unlike previous seasons, each episode begins precisely where the previous left off. It’s all leisurely endless continuation …

Edith story began the hour (Carson: “Telegram for Lady Edith!”), provided several high scenes of emotional trauma (Mrs Drewe [Emma Lownes] upon being shown Marigold’s birth certificate and tearing it up to her husband [Andrew Scarborough]: “How could you do this? I’m your wife, yet you have lied and cheated and used me shamefully. If you’d have taken a mistress you couldn’t have been more false”)

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Mrs Drewe: ‘It’s lunacy! You’ve lost your mind! Tell her.’
Mr Drewe: ‘It’s true. Marigold’s her daughter.’
Mrs Drewe: ‘It’s a lie! I don’t know what she’s holding over you, but you can’t let her get away with it!’
Lady Edith: ‘I have a copy of her birth certificate.’

and ended it in a final chilling madness made sense to Laura Carmichael who enacted the role:

It sort of felt like a long time coming that moment when it’s really exposed how unaware and indifferent Mary is to Edith’s grief even without knowing about Marigold her baby; the pressure would have been so intense and she’s sort of had enough by that point to have family members tell you that they don’t care [Cora, Lady Grantham has a groaning look that Edith has brought up the death of Grigson when Mary has had such a modern haircut] your heart and your happiness must be incredibly difficult

On my listserv a member was eloquent: “I did truly feel sorry for Mrs. Drewes and was glad to see she upbraided her husband for lying to her. Someone on the Downton Abbey fan page (“Spoilers here!” their page motto) scorned Edith as “bleating.”

I’d just been reading an intelligent essay in Leggott and Taddeo’s Upstairs and Downstairs by Andrea Wright on the popular semi-comedic costume dramas focusing on the recent shopping worlds of women, The Paradise and Mr Selfridge, comparing them to 1970s much more feminist The House of Elliot — the owners are women and not punished for risk-taking. But like Downton Abbey, these new costume dramas have lots of “good girl messages” — stay home, be obedient, don’t rock the values that supposedly sustain you and you’ll be safe, perhaps even happy. Well, without reading much against the grain we are shown 6 supremely good girls in this series (the 3 daughters, 1 cousin [Lady Rose aka Lily James, Cinderella herself] and Anna and Daisy), in the case of one denigrated since she was young for awkwardness, intelligence (she writes), what ambition she has, ugliness, “poor” Edith, has been made psychologically sick by obeying most of these messages. Yes she had sex outside marriage and now has paid not just big on it but been made much much sicker. 5:5 ends with her fleeing with her baby lest the grandmother and aunt manage to take the child to an orphanage and it ends on this (to anyone with an ear) chilling line: we’ll be so jolly together. Right. In an impersonal hotel room, baby with ice cream and mother with champagne.

Over on two of the Downton Abbey facebook pages a favorite “fan fiction” thread finds viewers persisting in the theory that Lady Rosamund Painswick (Samantha Bond) is Edith’s mother: how else explain Cora’s absence of any deep feeling for her second daughter, no defense, no help, no observation, all at a distance — if she is the kind of woman who is not a natural mother then why so indifferent to her husband? Why insist he get back in bed with her? he obeys.

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Cora: ‘Because I’m telling you. Nothing happened.’
Robert: ‘I’ll tell you what did happen. You allowed him into your private life. A man who thought he could step into my place, just like that.’
Cora: ‘He thought it – and he was mistaken.’
Robert: ‘Very well.’
Cora: ‘If you can honestly say you have never let a flirtation get out of hand since we married, if you have never given a woman the wrong impression, then by all means stay away. Otherwise, I expect you back in my room tonight.’

As to Lady Mary, I rejoiced to hear the French hairdresser’s view of her haircut while Anibundel picked up on Mary’s gut bitch reaction to the ailing dog, Isis: “I wonder if she’s picked up a germ, or something equally fell.”

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When it came to Fellowes’s apparently ideal normative aristocratic types, I was told that it was amusing to watch and listen to Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary pull off such continually “mean narcissism” and I should consider Cora, Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) as someone hiding her pain with self-effacement, having accepted Robert, Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville’s rule). The YouTube advertisement assumed I would enjoy her hard-faced triumphant riding point-to-point and sneers at Mabel Lane Fox (who never manages to win)

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As she tells Charles Blake (Julian Overdeen) she doesn’t believe in letting other people win …

But I do not like cruelty even as an aesthetic spectacle, and wish that the new man she finally attracts might corrode her soul in the way she carelessly does to others, but I suspect Matthew having touched her was a temporary weakness.

By contrast, Anna believes in helping others to win. We were treated to Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) for once angry at Anna (Joanne Froggart) when he discovers near where her button box should be a dutch cup and Marie Stokes’s book. So she’s been lying when she has said she longs for a child, and preventing it because she thinks her husband a murderer.

Anna: ‘Will you please tell me what is the matter?’
Bates: ‘I couldn’t find your button box.’
Anna: ‘I’d forgotten all about it. Oh, well, never mind. It’ll turn up.’
Bates: ‘I did look. I looked in all the cupboards, and I found some other things.’
Anna: ‘Oh, yes?’
Bates: ‘Yes. I found a book by Marie Stopes and a box containing a cunning piece of equipment to ensure there would be no Baby Bates.’
Anna: ‘And I’m supposed to applaud your poking around in my things, am I?’
Bates: ‘Now, just a minute. It is not for you to be angry with me – it is for me to be angry with you.’

Her anxiety at home gives him a chance to supposedly prove himself innocent (an untorn ticket to London — what? he couldn’t have bought two?) and they end on perfect contentment, she kissing his hand:

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So Fellowes weasled out of that one, jumped that shark. Lady Mary’s choice of contraceptive and who murdered Mr Green is now the subject of talk on fanpages.

For my part I can see how little free is Anna ever and remain much moved by her. I wish such scenes as hers were longer, lingering. The scenes move far too quickly for the emotions suggested.

And for me the absent Miss Bunting and present Daisy (Sophia McShera) provided the high point of the hournot that I mind Daisy, with the help of Mr Moseley (Kevin Doyle) who we discover should have gone on for further schooling given his intelligence on tests, reading away in his prized precious 5th volume of the Cambridge History of England which she is induced by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichol) to accept

Daisy: ‘Miss Bunting loved the new hairstyles. She said women were being set free.’
Moseley: ‘I’m sorry Miss Bunting’s gone.’
Daisy: ‘She gave me such confidence. She’d tell me how sharp I was, how quick.’
Moseley: ‘I agree with her.’
Daisy: ‘It’s harder on your own, harder to believe.’
Moseley: ‘Well, could I help? Not with mathematics, probably, but I know a bit about history and I’ve read a few books.’
Daisy: ‘How old were you when you left school?’
Moseley: ’12.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘It was a shame, really.’
Moseley: ‘I was quite bright. And my dad wanted me to stay on. He thought I could be a teacher, if that doesn’t make you laugh. But he couldn’t manage it. We had no money, you see, and then my mother got ill and so I had to earn as soon as I could.’
Daisy: ‘Why don’t you take Math now?’
Moseley: ‘No, I’ve missed it. But I’d like to help… ‘

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Similarly talk on line and Rob James-Collier made the role played by the ever sicker and more desperate Thomas Barrow to electric shock and otherwise poison his sexuality, rescued finally by Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) and advised by Dr Clarkson (David Robb) to “fashion as good a life as you’re able” though in words condemnatory of Thomas’s homosexuality (“Remember harsh reality is always better than falsh hope”), one intended to make the viewer think

‘For the first time ever in Downton Abbey we see Thomas question his sexuality, himself as a gay man and it set about a sequence of events to try and cure that. So Thomas reads about a “miracle” cura as it were and yah we see the scenes where he’s injected himself and he’s slowly making himself more ill, and it’s quite a sad journey (“I assume this is a course of treatment you spent money on.” “Yes a lot of money, I went to London for a course of electro-therapy … ) they were viewed as freaks of nature the most abhorrent thing that you could be. He’s just saying you’ve got to accept it because there’s no way around it. That is what you are. That just explains how difficult it was back then. For a practicing homosexual man it was virtually impossible … ‘

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Another couple not resolving issues under an umbrella after they leave the doctor

Thomas: ‘Well, that will give you a good laugh.’
Miss Baxter: ‘It won’t. And I don’t expect you to understand, but I think it shows you to be a very brave person.’
Thomas: ‘What?’
Miss Baxter: ‘To inflict such pain on yourself to achieve your goal. Think what you could do in this world if you just set your mind to it.’
Thomas: ‘You’re daft – do you know that?’

As in the fourth episode, these scenes and that of the Dowager (Maggie Smith)’s visit to Prince Kuragin’s impoverished lodgings with her new maid, Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) who does not go up, were the most quietly humanly interesting. It’s a foregone conclusion that Maggie will not elope with Rade; she shows up out of respect for their memory, with the ostensible excuse that slowly his wife is being located — not that he has any room for or has shown any interest in getting her back. Their conversation is nuanced, touching and the acting of the aging people effective

Prince: ‘Some tea? I can just about make tea. How did you find me?’
Dowager: ‘Rose gave me your address.’
Prince: ‘And you came alone to this part of the city?’
Dowager: ‘I was accompanied by my maid. She’s waiting outside.’
Prince: ‘How wonderful to be back in a world where ladies are accompanied by their maids. Why didn’t your son provide you with a car?’
Dowager: ‘Oh, he would have done. I just didn’t choose to tell him where I was going.’
Prince: ‘It is not our first secret assignation.’
Dowager: ‘I always feel more comfortable leaving the past in the past.’
Prince: ‘Then why have you come?’
Dowager: ‘Because Rose’s father, Lord Flintshire, thinks he’s close to finding the Princess.’
Prince: ‘She’s alive, then? She was alive when she left Russia.’
Dowager: ‘That they know. They think she was put on a boat headed for Hong Kong. You’ll know more soon.’
Pause.
Prince: ‘I wanted you from the moment I first saw you. More than mortal man ever wanted woman.’
Dowager: ‘That is an historical detail.’
Prince: ‘Nonsense. If Irena were dead, I would ask you to run away with me now.’
Dowager: ‘You couldn’t run away when there’s no-one left to “run away” from.’
Prince: ‘I loved you more than I loved her. Even today. Even this afternoon.’
Dowager: ‘Please don’t.’
Prince: ‘Why not, if it’s true?’
Dwoager: ‘Because you’ll make it sound as if we were both unhappy, and I don’t believe you were – and I certainly was not.’
Prince: ‘You wouldn’t admit it if it were true. You think to be unhappy in a marriage is ill-bred.’
Dowager: ‘You do know me, Igor. That I must concede.
Prince: ‘Yes.’

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The technique of endless deferral is also resorted to over Mrs Crawley’s (Penelope Wilton) coming decision to accept Lord Merton (Douglas Reith), the police’s latest visit to the Abbey now to question Miss Baxter who as she says knows nothing. Only Mrs Patmore’s buying a cottage for her retirement is permitted closure, not just to show off the old stove someone rebuilt or procured, but ready us for the coming getting together of Mr Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) who look at each other before turning to gaze on Mrs Patmore’s satisfaction:

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Mrs Hughes: ‘What’s the kitchen like? Oh, not quite the scale you’re used to.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘Well, I wouldn’t mind – it’d be my own. I could live here later when I stopped working. There’s only one flight of stairs, so I’m sure I could manage that, no matter how old I get.’
Mrs Hughes: ‘Oh, an outside privy, I see. That’ll bring back memories.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘Well, Lord knows I’ve seen one of them before. But ‘appen I could change things round when I move in.’
Mr Carson: ‘I’m sure you could.’
Mrs Patmore: ‘Well, that’s it. I’m going to take it. Now, if you’ll come outside, I’ll take the key back and give him my answer.
Mr Carson: ‘I envy her. Have you ever thought about your life in retirement?
Mrs Hughes: ‘Who says I’ll live to retire? Is everybody ready?’

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I wish both scenes, of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore, of the Dowager and Prince were longer too.

Moralizing about characters is central to novel reading — not as if they were people, but in accordance with the implied author’s design, his presence making them perform as his puppets, the themes of the whole piece. In Bernard Paris A Psychological Approach to Fiction and Character and Conflicts in Jane Austen’s Novels, he argues for the centrality of characters in understanding novels, that an implied author projects his ethical, political, social (&c) outlooks through what his or her characters are, say, do. The authors studied in the first book are mostly Victorian, and realists, e.g., George Eliot, Stendhal, but he also studies Thackeray’s more satiric approach. The book is refreshing in the way he honestly critiques the ending of a book or what happens in it through his approach. He moralizes through an intelligent thought-out approach to characters. All our talk is filled with subtexts showing our political, social, psychological and other views interacting with the author’s.

That I find no content to comment on in Atticus (Matt Barber) and Lady Rose’s recurring early romance scenes, but noticed alertly how well and cheered Lady Sinderby’s first appearance with her husband (Daniel and Rachel Aldritch) at the point-to-point seemed, and how she cordially accepted Cora’s invitation to dinner (so that’s our next episode) tells something about my age and gender.

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After all, though this too suggests nothing exciting for the mini-series, just more of the same. Lady Sinderby will turn out to be another of Fellowes’s aristocratic women who pay for their privileged lives by behaving discreetly, with self-control and on the surface kind self-effacement.

For myself I remember how Jim loved to go to point-to-point races, how we’d take picnics and wine, he’d bet and lose on the races and I’d buy a new big hat. I died the day he did.

Ellen

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Miss Bunting (Daisy Lewis) before Tom Branson (Allen Leech) finds out she is leaving

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His not-so-cool but complacent acceptance of her departure

Dear friends and readers,

It’s hard to know how to approach this week’s episode: on the level of human feeling, I felt most for Miss Bunting (“I loved you you know”), but found Branson’s cool adieu where he just about informs her while he’ll miss her it’s her fault for not being compliant that drove her from the abbey, repugnant, and repugnant the more lavish punishment meted out to other decent characters. Edith (Laura Carmichael) is forbidden to come near the very young child who she now has a sick craving for. Her male aid, Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is now bitter at the possible loss of his farm because his unbelievably obtuse wife, Mrs Drew (Emma Lowndes) says she cannot bear the pressure from Lady Edith and will insist on departure:

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Edith is directly threatened by immovable pressure from the aunt who enabled her to have the baby (Rosamund, Samantha Bond) and a grandmother (the Dowager, Maggie Smith) who sometimes seems to be the only person in rooms filled with people to recognize intense strain, though her response is usually one which makes the person’s inner condition more wretched. They begin to insist on the departure of the baby to an orphanage in Switzerland where Edith could visit — as long as she’s discreet.

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Lady Rosamund and the Dowager close in on Edith, apply pressure …

Rosamund: I gave up ten months of my life to make sure she [baby Marigold] came safely into the world.
Edith: The trouble is, the farmer’s wife, Mrs Drewe, she just thinks I’m a nuisance. She doesn’t want me to see Marigold.
Rosamund: So, we have a situation of infinite danger to your reputation, which brings you no emotional reward to compensate.

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The shared heart-hope of Anne (Joanne Froggart) and Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) rocks back and forth over the persistent if gentle interrogations of police implying that one of them was near Mr Green in London at the moment of his death. They fear parting from one another.

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Mrs Hughes sits by and supports Anna in one of the police interrogations

I also found repugnant how unthinkable it is to Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and her father, Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) that she should be anything other than imperturbable at questioning by the police, and the way she reacted to meeting the young woman, Mabel Lane Fox (Catherine Steadman), at a luncheon meanly (coolly is the word I’m supposed to use) engineered by the self-satisfied Charles Blake (Julian Overdeen).

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Miss Fox gets up rather than be ganged up on by this pair:

Charles: Well, what shall we do with your food.
Mable: Eat it. And I hope it chokes you …
When she’s gone:
Blake: Now, I’d like my beef pink, but not raw.
Lady Mary goes on sipping her port.

How the ongoing self-berating abjection of Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) prompts her to regard the kindness and understanding with with Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) greets her as a further burden. So too an unexpected parallel with Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) also whipping himself (physically, he is inflicting taking electric shock therapy on himself) who refuses any comfort from concerned expressions of regard (from the Dowager, Mrs Hughes [Phyllis Logan], even Mr Carson [Jim Carter]). He is still out to do damage where he can.

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Sick, giving himself sick treatments, he lashes out yet …

Sometimes it becomes impossible to ignore the perverse ethical and reactionary class and ethnic biases of Julian Fellowes — even if he feels for his victims. There is a very nasty outlook undergirding the whole of many scenes in Downton Abbey this year. I wonder sometimes if many people watching this just rejoice in the faux glamorous settings and clothes and have the most shallow understanding of the forces and themes Fellowes’s figures in the carpet represent.

For example, this week the as yet untouched and thus easily sweet Rose McClaren (Lily James, soon to be playing Cinderella in movie theaters near you) encounters in the rain an equally sweet suitor, Atticus Aldritch (Matt Barber), who turns out to be Jewish. It is the episode’s second sequence to use the romance of umbrellas:

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He at first presents himself as Russian partly perhaps because Rose tells him the sweets she is carrying are for a group of Russian emigres she provides comfort for twice a week. But when they get there and the two Russian males they introduce him are told his relatives came to England in 1859 and 1871, they become angry at his presence, and declare him not Russian, he is pushed into admitting he is Jewish. Those were fierce pogrom years.

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Russian emigre reacting to Aldridge’s presence

Those who would rejoice in another break-through against prejudice in this new coupling, should notice that Aldridge does not behave in any way that marks him as Jewish, seems to have no feelings that might naturally arise from such a family pre-history. Why should these Russians be angry at him? Disdain would be more realistic. This resembles the treatment of Cora, Lady Grantham, who many people might forget is said to be half-Jewish. This identity would be totally erased but for her wealthy dowry, her mother’s name, Mrs Levinson (Shirley MacLaine) and the way Paul Giamatti who played Harold, her brother, did present himself as Jewish now and again.

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As a rakish New York Jew in a London park

At the dinner table with the Sinderbys Atticus’s parents (Daniel and Rachel Aldritch, married n real life and introduced in the next episode), there is a back-handed joke about how much money the Sinderbyss have: this fits the stereotype of the super-rich Jew (the father is a well-to-banker); it’s something about how they need not worry about what others do, but of course the sting in the joke is they do.

I noticed that again it’s Lady Rose who is open to someone outside this narrow purview of who is acceptable to these upper class British people. Can she really be surprised that there is such a thing as anti-semitism? She is the one who went out with the black musician in the fourth season; she did seem to realize there was racial prejudice. Before that she danced with and was genuinely attracted to a working class man to whom she said he was a “nicer” person than she; and again she recognized that he would be seen as “beneath” her. I give her that as a character she does her charity work in a generous spirit, but Fellowes can conceive of such behavior only in a peculiarly innocent person. I just wish he did not then (in the following episode, 7) display a need to demonize some woman in sight so that when her divorcing mother and father turn up, the Marquis of Flintshire, Shrimpy (Peter Egan), and the Marchioness (Phoebe Nichols), he is the generous spirited one and she the poisonous witch. Miss Obrien (Siobhan Finneran, appropriately for a while the Marchioness’s lady’s maid) having gone, Fellowes turns to the Marchioness — Phoebe Nichols often gets such parts, and I suspect because she’s not pretty and has a reedy voice. It won’t do.

How does the Dowager’s schemes to forestall the possible coming marriage of Mrs Isabel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) with Lord Merton (Douglas Reigh) fit into this white world paradigm with its reinforcement of every law and custom that upholds this aristocratic order? After all, does she not want her best friend, Mrs Crawley to be like herself?

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They do a puzzle and drink tea — to keep Spratt (Jeremy Swift) occupied …

When Dr Clarkson (David Robb) suggests to her, she is jealous, she demurs, she does not “understand him.” She cannot be threatened; no, it’s that this useful active female bourgeois will wilt under a regime of having nothing to do and life with a boring man. This does not seem to have hurt Cora, Lady Grantham, and anyway of late, Mrs Crawley’s life has been (as far as we can see) sheer leisure whose one sport is the occasional tension that dinner conversations cause. She says she’ll miss Miss Bunting.

It is hinted that Cora, Lady Grantham may miss her gentlemanly art-historian Mr Bricker (Richard E. Grant) because she is seen standing at her window watching him leave early in the morning.

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He overplayed his game by sneaking into her room on the night that Lord Grantham said he would not be returning from his dinner at Sheffield. But unlike Lady Mary, Cora remains physically untouched; indeed she stands in her lovely dressing gown stiff as a board during much of this “ordeal” — she produces mild abjurations that he must go, until unexpectedly Lord Grantham does turn up, and when Mr Bricker tells Grantham he insufficiently appreciates Cora, Grantham at least erupts and punches him and we get a near row. For once this character is seen to bend and look excited. Never fear when a knock on the door is heard, she returns to peaceful walking and speaks Edith who comes to the door as if Edith were a five year old, “‘Your father and I were just playing a stupid game and we knocked over a lamp.’ ‘Oh. If you’re sure.’ ‘I’m sure, poppet.’

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Since she was allowed to act for real when Sybil died, McGovern has at best been allowed dramatic self-control which she performs here

The legitimate male order must be preserved. What comedy the episode had is provided by Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol) and Mrs Hughes when Mrs Patmore inherits a small sum. His desperate stab at advice was she should buy into a building firm that Lord Grantham had a brochure about on the dining table because he might hire them to build houses on his estate to rent to tenants. He is non-plussed when Mrs Patmore asks if the shares have gone public. The two women conspire to make Mr Carson feel not that he has exposed his ignorance of the ways of the stock market (which he has) but is responsible for Mrs Patmore managing to think of buying herself a cottage and renting it until she retires. Mrs Hughes is (as is common in this series) given the one genuinely funny line as she assures Mr Carson that because of him “We feel thoroughly protected”

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After Miss Bunting, Daisy (Sophie McShera) had the best moments of this hour. She braves the rule which forbids her to show herself upstairs (how many times over the past five years has an upper servant reacted with horror at her presence, one of the household looked puzzled to see her upstairs?) and reaches out to the bumbling Branson to tell him not to give up Miss Bunting: He sees her peeping out at the door and comes over and asks: “What can I do for you?”

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Daisy: You can do something for yourself. You’re making the biggest mistake of your life.
Tom: Is this Miss Bunting, by any chance?
Daisy: She’s an extraordinary person. Clever and kind.
Branson: She’s all of those things.
Daisy: Then why turn your back on her? … I mean it. She’s leaving tomorrow, but I know she loves you. I can tell when she speaks of you.
Branson: She’s leaving tomorrow? For good?
Daisy: Won’t you stop her? You’re not a Crawley. You belong with us. We’re the future. They’re the past.
Branson: Well, I can hear her voice in that …

Alas, the upstairs people are still very much in charge of the UK. But people like Daisy have access to good educations and much more fulfilling jobs than they could dream of in the 1920s.

In James Leggott and Julie Taddeo’s Upstairs and Downstairs: British Costume Drama from the Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, Andrea Schmidt dilates on “Imaginative power” of the fan fiction and postings on the Net about Downton Abbey. She demonstrates how these fans — often disdained — expose the absurdities and perversities of Fellowes. He hires a “historian” as a reinforcement of his claim that he refuses to develop his characters in more sophisticated adult ways and deal openly with complex politics because is he keeps to “historical accuracy” no anachronisms in his characters. “Historical accuracy” is his mantra (like the US uses “national security”) behind which he wants to control the depiction of the characters to suit his defense of this super-rich order of people. At the same time he can write dialogue and invent presences with the power of suggestivity. He is usually real enough, and registers the depths and amorality of people sufficiently to open up suggestions we can play with — such as my argument last year that Mr Bates murdered his first wife and Mr Green through the clever ruse of accident.

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POV: Miss Bunting looking back from her carriage window at the village and Tom Branson standing by a tavern door — perhaps we may hope he relents for his own sake ,a poignant shot

Similarly this Downton Abbey fan fiction develops his characters from hints and behaviors Fellowes refuses to make clear or explicit — he cannot sue them as they are making no money and are not acknowledged as legitimate or serious by those in charge of literature and art. These fan fictions and postings and blogs too expose the nasty undercurrents of his portrayals, his fatuity. They complicate his stories in more “interesting, self-aware and sensitive areas” that he (in effect) refuses to. One I noticed is a fan fiction that postulates a love affair between Miss Obrien and “arguably the most underdeveloped character in the series, Cora, Lady Grantham.” A pair of lesbians. In another “poor Edith” is given a sarcastic and funny voice and describes the passive-aggressive relationship of Matthew (his sycophancy and making up to her) and Lady Mary (her cold indifference and potentially needling tongue) one New Year’s Day. They allow Robert (Lord Grantham to have his affair with Jane (the widowed housemaid?).

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After punching Mr Bricker and throwing him out of his and Cora’s bedroom, Robert asserts himself by holding on to the chair and saying he will sleep in his own room —

Ellen

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Joanne Froggart accepting Golden Globe as best Supporting Actress in a TV series, 2015

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As Anna in Edith’s bedroom — after the fire, finding a photo of Marigold under Edith’s pillow — in this episode she is continually ferreting out, enabling her employer’s sex lives

Dear friends and readers,

This blog covers episodes 2 (with a forecast of 3) as I will not be here next week; there is retrospective, crystal ball work on what’s to come, and like last week’s, I take into account the whole arc of this season, which now includes the Christmas episode filmed partly at Alnwick Castle, Northumberland.

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As famously painted by Canaletto in 1747 — the very basis of the Christmas episode is an old master painting

No one more involved with some of the characters in Downton Abbey than I. After rewatching Episodes 2 & 3 on Sunday night, last night I watched the Christmas Episode as it played on British TV (a region 2 DVD purchased from Amazon.uk): I became that distressed as I watched Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) go through grim gate after grim gate to reach Anna behind bars in a rough cotton, knee length smock I could hardly bear the distress. I am filled with perplexities. Why does Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) not come forward and say Anna was raped? is it that then there would be all the more reason to accuse Ann? is the rape nothing? Mr Bates (Brendon Coyle) visits her and we learn that her background will be held against her: it seems she picked up a knife (how was this recorded and remembered) when as a child her mother’s second husband, her stepfather did attempt sexual coercions of all sorts.

When at the Golden Globe, Joanne Froggart accepted (at last) the well-earned statue and said how gratifying it had been to her to receive a letter from a woman (which she read aloud) who said the depiction of the rape had helped her endure, cope with a rape she had had inflicted on her and the aftermath of that, I felt good for Froggart. Poor Anna, she’s never had a decent dress in the series for 5 years, the best they’ve done for her is a couple of snazzy hats with feathers along the brim.

Nonetheless, the word aftermath is unfortunately the state of things this season. Now that the initial flurry of the whipped-up first episode is done, we are rightly I should say back to the quiet diurnal patterns of the first season. Life’s like that and the original appeal of the series first five episodes of the first season is gestured towards.

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Lord Merton (Douglas Reith) is lost in the room his wife built as he tells the dowager (Maggie Smith) and Mrs Crawley (Penelope Wilton)

Trouble is, this is not the first season, and a mini-series is art, not life, and these quiet diurnal events are too many of them mopping up operations of the previous three seasons or some off-stage pre-history (Raquel Cassidy as Miss Baxter’s excruciating ordeal as the reluctant thief and her need keep Kevin Doyle as Mr Molesley on her side). How can Laura Carmichael as Edith play mother to Marigold (indeed how does she endure being Edith) for yet another year? what is Mrs Crawley to do about Lord Merton’s lonely frustrated existence in that room with his mean sons? who will Lady Mary fuck and will Anna manage to buy a set of condoms for her?

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The conventional tryst photo — faux aggression and glamor (complete with alluring hat band) — are we really supposed to take this seriously?

Where does Allen Leech as Tom belong? But we’ve heard it all before. Then life’s little troubles. Since the new turns are so resolutely pro-establishment, they fail to grip: Lady Rose (Lily James) is doing charity work among Russian aristocratic “refugees,” helping them back into “ordinary life: dancing and shopping and seeing one’s friends” (says Charles Blake, Julian Overden). Lady Rose is not permitted to be other than “a sweet young thing;” she is a sheltered virgin whose lost her way to her 19th century novel. Her anguish is for a wireless. The dowager (Maggie Smith) meets her old love, Prince Kuragin (Rade Serbedzija, embarrassing, the scene absurd). For more comedy we have: Miss Denker (Sue Johnston) and Jeremy Swift as Spratt vye for pre-eminence in the household of the dowager.

Memorial

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Where to place the memorial provides conflict with Lord Grantham refusing to give up his meadow devoted to Cricket for a memorial, and preferring the middle of the village where we do have a moving moment with yet another (this time lower middle class) widow and her student son walking past in the middle of the village, but then the moment is over and we are not involved with the potentially interesting story of widow and son. Our great climax is Robert agreeing to rent a wireless for a day so everyone can hear the King’s first speech to the nation over it, and however possible we get this stiff re-enactment of court behavior.

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Portrait shots abound in these episodes

As it was not creditable that Cora, Lady Grantham would not pick up that her second daughter was pregnant and had a baby so Mrs Drewe (Emma Lowndes) is another mindless woman who does not begin to guess that Lady Edith is Marigold’s mother. She does not even come up with the theory that Mr Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) is the father. What are we to make of this? Well in the Xmas episode Lady Sinderby (Rachel Aldritch) joins the group of wholly undeductive women: Cora, Lady Grantham who never wondered where Lady Edith went for 10 months. A woman in her thirties (not too young) turns up at the castle with a young boy in hand and Lord Sinderby (Daniel Aldritch, in real life Lady Sinderby’s husband too) becomes mortified and runs away in shame to sit in a chair far from all; everyone seems to “get” who this person is (his long-term and now supported mistress? and son?), except Lady Sinderby who is characterized as not understanding who the inexplicable woman is. In context Barrow’s (Rob James-Collier) purpose is to expose Sinderby so Sinderby will stop castigating his daughter-in-law’s parents for their divorce and also to revenge himself for the way the same snobbish insulting butler (Alun Armstrong) has been treating Thomas: Lord Sinderby will blame the butler for having his (ex-?) mistress and son (?) come to the castle.

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Walking outside Alnwick Lady Sinderby does not seem innocently naive

It seems to me that Fellowes saw as a boy growing up many of these privileged women turn a blind eye to the doings of their husbands — just as down south white women pretended not to know about their husband’s concubinage (and whatever cruelties went on). They knew, of course they knew, but they pretended not to to save face — as they could not do anything about it and keep their position. He has deliberately made a pretense into a reality in order to avoid showing us the anguish beneath. We could say the women are enigmatic and know more than they admit — Lady Sinderby does suddenly threaten to divorce Lord Sinderby if he will not allow Lady Rose to marry their son in Episode 7, but her awareness is not in the script, not a hint.

Curiously Fellowes is willing to show upper class young women’s anguish (Edith’s) over babies and of course women who don’t count like Ethel. He is also willing in this season to show us Anna’s anguish once again – -this time from a stepfather’s advances however muted. And last year spectacularly over the rape — though again Lady Grantham is not permitted to notice. Anna is — really strongly dramatized — is our real heroine and there he slams hard. As he did over Sybil who died of childbirth young.

I suggest there’s a twin thing going on: 1) if Fellowes were to show the anguish that would rip open the power and cruelty of males in charge and the compromises women supposedly with power (and they do have some Lady Grantham showed it in episode 1 and over when she learns Edith’s baby is her grandchild). 2) that he does see this and it’s a continual bemused undertow of the series (with hints that Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) had a child out of wedlock and gave it up, that Lady Grantham in this season had no happy marriage and made many compromises) shows that in fact he does look at these stories form the woman’s point of view (no matter how conservatively) and thus can write soap opera so appealingly for women. The number of widows mounts up season by season.

The distastefulness of blaming butlers for snobbishness, lady’s maids as semi-crooks and the like with their masters vindicated as amused egalitarians needs no comment beyond observing this I hope.

So what can we fall back on? I wish there was something interesting filmically innovative, musically, some apt filmic thought embodied in a techique, voice-overs (nothing of this, nothing at all in any of the seasons): all stage playlets, mostly faux theater. The actors carry it all in their faces. The audience watches the costumes and decor and fetishized objects and places (however rich, beautiful or picturesque). What there are this season are lovely pictures: many of the scenes are conceived as old-master paintings, glimmering with soft lights, and subtextually that’s a self-reflexive theme.

This photograph is (C) Carnival Film & Television Ltd and can only be reproduced for editorial purposes directly in connection with Downton Abbey, Carnival Film & Television Ltd or ITV plc. Once made available by ITV plc Picture Desk, this photograph can
Note Elizabeth McGovern’s painfully thin shoulder and arms … (I keep it small so as not to dwell on the anorexic diet she’s been following all these years to keep herself a viable “beautiful woman ‘of a certain age’)

Perhaps the visit of the art historian, Mr Bricker (Richard E. Grant) to see a genuine old master painting Della Francesca (a bit of self-reflexivity here) and his flirtation with Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham and Hugh Bonneville, Robert’s jealousy holds some new line of development but Robert’s pathetic complaint the man is flirting with his dog, is not exactly Othello.

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I am happy Daisy (Sophie McShera) is continuing her studies in arithmetic now with Miss Bunting’s help (Daisy Lewis) and has become such a splendid cook (and anticipate her trip to the Wallace collection where she will see old-master paintings). Were this life it’d be touching and in the first season it might have worked well. It is pleasing development in the spirit of the 1st season, which of course is that a big fuss is made; deliberations carried on by Mr Carson (Jim Carson), Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nichols) and Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan): shall they permit it? is it good for her to improve herself? get aspirations. Would you believe it? And we are given modernized old master pictures.

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A symbolic moment, a climax of Episode 2: they turn the wireless on …

The series’s central action was laid before us towards the end of the third year after the death of Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), with the death of Matthew (Dan Stevens) tacked on and thus providing grief, sorrow, and mourning for season 4. Season 5 we are watching them play on with no new material since Fellowes is not going to dramatize the new social change, but stick with Britain as a tourist attraction, and a commodified fetishized past. Now they have been inexorably tempted to keep salaries coming and revenue by selling products and advertisers/sponsors to a sixth season. So shall we predict how all will end up?

Cover

I have bought the scripts for the third season, which come with far more annotated notes by Fellowes than the previous two and more cut scenes fully written out. In effect a dense encyclopedia. And I restudied Season 4 – which I liked very much.

I discovered what Fellowes had intended for Dan Stevens had he stayed: in the 3rd season it’s clear that not long after Matthew and Lady Mary’s marriage he begins to become alienated: most strikingly by his discomfort over the way she continually denigrates and hurts Lady Edith, but the way she prefers her father, the older Downton way of life. Fellowes writes (elsewhere too), he intended them to separate slowly and Matthew go to the US. By the 4th season in place are the coming marriage of Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes (remember them holding hands at the close), Mr Mason’s farm for Daisy, Miss Baxter has arrived for Mr Molesley (Miss Obrien flees to the appropriate upper class witch, the Marchioness of Flintshire – play allegorical name — at the Christmas episode of the 3rd season she has taken over the Marchioness from the present lady’s maid), Mr and Mrs Bates have his house from his mother in London, their undoubted abilities to carry on. Perhaps Grigson would have returned, and Tom off to America.

At the end of the fourth season Lady Mary, Tom and Grantham together with their one tenant farmer, Mr Drew (also the fireman of the place, are making the place thrive; 5:3 they begin to plan to build houses on the estate. 5:3 also showed me I may have been wrong to assert so unqualifiedly that Mr Bates killed Mr Green, as now we see Fellowes left himself wiggle room for yet more denial as after all Mr Bates’s ticket to London on the train was uncut! Therefore he stayed in York all day. The only way he could have gone to London was to have bought 2 tickets. This is beginning to stretch it. But as they say, from the 2nd season on, Fellowes began to jump the shark regularly.

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Anna’s trip to the pharmacy will provide a new turn in Episodes 3-4: she has Mary Stoke’s book and this and a version of Lady Mary’s cervical cap (?) is found by Mr Bates. Anna is utterly unfree. If she goes to the pharmacy, she is confronted by a demand on the part of the clerk that she prove she is not immoral. She has to state she’s married. In the 1950s when women went to doctor’s for contraceptives, they would be similarly condescended to. When Mr Bates finds this stuff in her drawers, he accuses her of preventing conception. Is it her body? Mrs Hughes did not seem to think Edna Braithwaite’s body (she who seduced the hapless Tom, MyAnna Buring) was hers when Edna said she was pregnant and in effect threatened to attack her, felt she had the right to intrude into her body. It’s such moments one can watch Downton Abbey for now.

So how will the life of the country house itself be brought to an end or turned into a tourist place with offers to the BBC to do radio shows from (TV shows will come later)? It’s being prepared for, and the death of Isis is the foreshadowing. Christmas time Robert is short of breath; can’t hold his liquor and is told he has angina pectoris. Robert will die. Yet another widow. Then the house will fall apart; it will no longer be needed. Silly as we never saw it properly used as the political linchpin it should have been, but Cora will go into a smaller place, maybe travel (why not? — she is still attractive, the false stereotype of the rich widow on cruises will do here). Lady Edith at last rid herself of her nemesis Mary by taking Marigold to London where she runs Grigson’s press. A new suitor appears for Lady Mary in the Christmas episode and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot really does fit into a character who seems insouciantly up to Lady Mary; Fellowes must have said to himself, Why didn’t I see this before? the actor once you see him just is “it” for Lady Mary. Perfect for little George’s cool new father — another generation of heartlessness in the offing.

Violet, Lady Grantham and Mrs Crawley’s marriages do not come off – too much baggage and life does not always have happy ending; so they settle down to doing lunch with Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walter). Miss Denker will improve her culinery skills.

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From the Christmas episode: Poor Mr Barrow. He will have to find another place – he’s not allowed to have a partner or open life.

We are never sure who killed Mr Green — I doubt Anna so back to Mr Bates even if sleuthing by Mr Molesley and Mr Baxter turns up an alibi for him — once again:

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Our enigmatic heroine and her beloved tough husband discussing how that day in London will be understood but giving away nothing themselves (Episode 7)

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Laura Poitras, photo by James Day

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Jon Stewart with the male star of Rosewater, Gael Garcia Bernal

Dear friends and readers,

Over the past few weeks I’ve watched a series of documentaries about what might be called the state of the political world and military actions conducted by the Bush and succeeding US administration (Obama) in reaction to 9/11; this includes the present omnipresent use of surveillance over (I suppose) everyone by various US and UK (and other states’) agencies, imprisonment often w/o trial of literally countless individuals, the use of solitary confinement and other forms of torture. Quite an agenda.

I began with CitizenFour, led to go to a local movie-house at 2 in the afternoon to catch the movie by the crucial interest of the subject (while in the event the auditorium was remarkably crowded for that time of day, nonetheless the movie disappeared in less than 3 weekends), but then drawn by Poitras as a film-maker. I wanted a comparison so went for what was available, Jon Stewart’s Rosewater (also disappeared quickly); understanding that CitizenFour is the third of a trilogy, I used Netflix to watch the second movie, The Oath, and then (unaccountably I suppose going backwards), the first, My Country, My Country. I wanted to see Kill the Messenger, but it played in but one movie-house in all the DC area that I could find, a theater not easy for me to get and by the time my schedule permitted it, Kill the Messenger had been killed (never got to DC where the powerful politicians, their committees and aides, the media, and reporters it exposed work from). Kill the Messenger did last longer than CitizenFour and Rosewater, but then it was at just this one theater — in Ballston, Arlington, by the way, for those who know this area, a place of apartments houses, where in the mall Jim and I have seen startlingly original plays now and again, one of Rameau’s Nephew I still remember).

I’m here to tell you that Poitras is a great documentary film-maker, and her subject being what it is, you should make the effort to see her trilogy, which has been reviewed fairly by David Bromwich in NYRB, with an emphasis on CitizenFour (“The Question of Snowden”), and much less neutrally (hostilely, with snide remarks aimed at Poitras and sudden turn-abouts, such as out of nowhere “Snowden is of course a traitor”) by George Packer (the New Yorker, Holder of Secrets). I’ve already written about CitizenFour (almost upon getting home from the movie), as “A Win” (scroll down to the last third of blog).

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I wish there were a recognized tradition of documentaries in the US as there are in the UK (where they regularly play on TV); the best comparison I can come up with is My Country, My Country is as good as any of Frederick Wiseman’s best.

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Several things make it as good as it is: first her art, in a quiet way she juxtaposes the right scenes against one another; like Wiseman, she tries to erase herself so you are listening to others and watching them (there are little vignettes of people passing the time of day in the way of Wiseman, bits of weather); she photographs landscapes aptly and gets the feel of the place (from driving a cab in Somalia, to the dreadful quiet of Guantanamo, to the destruction of the cities of Iraq as well as life lived inside a house without electricity, or communication lines outside). She wins the trust of those she interviews insofar as they are willing to open up in all three films: the central figure of The Oath, Abu Jandal (complex, sensitive man who has led a brutal existence) seems to be doing this and in a way he does show himself; Edward Snowden is a man being interviewed until near the end in a dangerous situation (in the Hong Kong hotel), and the central figure of My Country, My Country, Dr Riyahd al-Adhadh, an Iraqi doctor, upper class male who runs for office during an election in 2005, acts out his daily routine (he works as a doctor) and seems to say what he intended to say or do wherever he is regardless of Poitras’s camera. She’s not as aggressive as Wiseman or as pointed in what she shows, and she gets an intimate feel as she films people making their tea, unexpected gestures that are revealing.

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A campaign manager telling the people what Bush wants

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People listening

The central story of the My Country, My Country is this election of 2005: all the people we see, soldiers, mercenaries (buying as cheap as they can get them, deadly weapons in order to “monitor” the sites and make sure they go the way wanted), the campaign managers (often from Australia) are there to make this election look right. Riyadh cooperates because he is hoping to help his Sunni brethren in his area of Baghdad and around the country (Falluja) to have some sort of say (however hopeless the attempt) At one point to some prisoners he visits in a supposed opening up who have been held for months without trial, put into solitary confinement, sometimes tortured in other ways, underfed, miserable in heated tents), he bursts forth, so frustrated is he in his inability to do anything to help any of them: “We are an occupied country with a puppet government.”

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Soldier insisting a 9 year old is dangerous, that the people are decently treated, will be fairly tried …

One sequences of images shows an Iraqi man appealing to a committee to stop spending money this way, asking them what is the use of this (phony) election amid this slaughter; this destruction of needed services like electricity and water, these prisons? Well, Bush wanted it. As with the putting the challenger into space in 1987 done at the worst possible time weather-wise was done (as Feynman shows) because Reagon wanted it, so everyone is following the Big man and His men. Bush is the equivalent of the absent Henry VIII in Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. (Obama cannot escape this kind of numinous power from patronage that people still organize themselves around.)

The speakers and their plights make this a poignant movie.

Poitras basically follows Dr Riyahd around; she is in his house at all hours of day and night and we watch conversations of the women inside the house, sometimes with Riiyadh answering. We see a wedding held. We get to recognize the wife, the mother, older female relatives, his daughters one of whom cries out “we have no life and can have no life, have had no life for ever so long.”

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The film’s hold and the respect it commands comes from this man who is reasonable, holding out, though at the close when the election gives Sunni hardly any seats, he is suddenly embittered and talks of how they must move (Where?); it’s touching how much care he will take over this or that specific individual as if each person matters. That speaks the values of this film against which we see the bombing and killing now and again.

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High fat cat at mike, urging them on their “mission”

You have to use your brains and recognize what are obvious lies; the film exposes the absurdity and cruelty of what was being done — we don’t see the actors who are making money of course — the Haliburtons, but in a way you can’t film that; as Alexander Pope said in the 18th century how do you dramatize the corruption of money and how it’s used and works silently so that’s it’s seen only in the people hired to work jobs, the boardrooms and dinners where things are decided. The conversations we might like to hear, money changing hands, moving digitally cannot be filmed.

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A street scene (there are also scenes of Falluja and other towns and houses gutted out from bombs)

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My Country, My Country, was nominated for an Academy Award as best documentary of the year. You’d think Poitras would have gone on to make even better films. But this has not happened. The Oath and CitizenFour are made on much cheaper budgets; she does not get to films interviews of or talks to the same kinds of important people after My Country, My Country. It was after this film, she began to be so harassed at every border crossing she passed, searched and stopped 40+ times at airports, her precious things taken from her more than once (returned most of them, but not always); after this film she moved to Berlin. Packer calls her paranoid — in one of his unfair dismissive descriptions of her. Yes she’s a privileged person, comes from people with wealth, went to fine schools (including New School of social research), lived in Manhattan, frequents nice bars. Does he want her to stay in sordid ones? she’s a woman.
(Packer also indulges in snide cracks at Julian Assange . The man is not cooperative,says Packer as if this were surprising or a sin. Well, duh. Not clubbable like Packer is, eh?)

In the case of The Oath, she wanted to make a film about the taxi-driver of Bin Laden who was captured, put in a black hole, tortured, taken to Guantanomo and (astonishingly to many), with the help of two military lawyers (we watch in the film giving public interviews) won a supreme court case where they declared that one could not call a man a terrorist for supplying daily aid (like a car, like services included in being a chauffeau in effect), so congress passed a law saying to give material aid to a terrorist was enough to make someone a terrorist. The case again was adjudicated and this time he was guilty as charged (according to the new law), but the sentence was time served plus four months so a slap at congress was administered. The Hamdan cases are now used in arguments about terrorism. Promising material, no?

But after giving one interview to a BBC reporter in London, after returning home, Hamdan will give no interviews. So Poitras uses a man close to him, who “recruited” him (got him a needed job as a driver), Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law.

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Abu Jandal the focus of her second film, The Oath

She discovered that Jandal is a revealing and intelligent person in his own right. So Poirtras’s film centers on Abu Jandal, Hamdan’s brother-in-law, what footage she has found of one of Hamdan’s “interrogation” (under a hood, and his body all cringed and terrified in some hideous prison),

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then the trial (just outside with sketches and drawings of what is happening inside the courtroom), the trial lawyers and congressional hearings; she has also footage of Guantanamo, and she films places in Afghanistan and where Abu Jandal now works as a cab driver.

Jandal is a fascinating person: he is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. Also of great interest is Swift, the lawyers working for Hamdan:

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Charles Swift, one of Hamdan’s lawyers

there is also a military officer who says he does this to keep the constitution alive and well.

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Neal Catyal, another defending lawyer

It has depths of a different kind from My County My Country. Jandal is someone who was recruited as a devoted follower for Bin Laden’s army and he is very smart — you must listen to him carefully. He now abjures violence, but he knew all the 9/11 Bin Laden people on the plane who died. He was someone who administered oaths of loyalty. Abu Jandal is an intense believer — in his religion, we see him bringing up his boy continually — and among other things he believes in is the Arab way of life he saw personified in Bin Laden; he presents his wife and sister-in-law (in burkas). We see him teaching his son:

father

son
Father and son

He followed Bin Laden out of a personal identification. People who get followers do sometimes do that.

The film merits comparison with CitizenFour — done on a similar budget, similarly centrally focused without much story line (Snowden escapes to the Russian airport near the end of the film and at the close he is interviewed briefly from an unknown place in Russia by Greenwald with Poitras as film-maker). See my A Win (blog — scroll down to last 3rd).

CitizenFour

She keeps her distance says Packer from Abu Jandal as she does not in Citizen Four. He seems to feel she identified so closely with Snowden that accounts for her taking what he said at face value. I wonder — Packer says we are watching a man being interviewed, not the inner man; well the same happened with Jandal (who is not revealing “all”). She also couldn’t get past the mask (as sophisticated people we want to know the pyschological and personal sociological reasons for his giving up a good life to risk life in solitary confinement and worse, or in Russia meagrely tolerated) becUse he was in danger at those moments as Jandal no longer is.

What we do see in Snowden is revulsion. He felt intense revulsion at what he was seeing going on around, him, at the secret life he was living, at its privileges. I think he’s an austere guy — e has not yet been apprehended because he has files of just this nature that will drop the minute he disappears–and people in power know it. He has not released much of what he has. Why Assange remains safely (tenuous safety) inside the Equadoran embass. The for how Snowden’s girlfriend got from their apartment in wherever it was to now live with Snowden in his Russia and cook spaghetti together. People may also think some of these files are known to Greenwald and Poitras. The repugnance (revulsion I called it) was not just for the way of life he saw in the high tech firms and their employees’ home life but personally, a feeling of how at risk they all were from one another.

Snowden no sentimentalist but he does seem to have acted out of a deep feeling of what is decent and indecent. What he saw happening where he worked, he felt was indecent — Imagine him watching people looking into files of just anyone or someone they wanted to hurt or were paid to find things out about. In comparison Abu Jandal has beliefs that are deeply optimistic (from his religion which is real), though he fears snatching and killing. At the end of The Oath he has lost his job and is worried about having lost his cab but doesn’t say why these events have occurred.

It’s no coincidence that decency also actuates Poirtras’s chosen Iraqi doctor. This sort of emotion outraged, and an idealism as well as intense curiosity about the people who involve themselves fuels Poitras’s films. Her film on Snowden is more careful — it seems apolitical and that’s to enable her to make another.
Films can be a source of real information and insight — like so much in our culture, because their power and abilities are often so wasted and thrown away and wrongly exploited that does not mean the medium is not one of the most powerful we have today.

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David Denby of the New Yorker tells about the incident on Stewart’s comedy program which Denby thinks helped lead to Rosewater.

MaziarBahari
Maziar Bahari interviewed comically by Stewart

At the time of this real life incident on TV, Stewart’s interview of a reporter named Bahari that led (circuitously) to Bahari being snatched, kidnapped, imprisoned, held in solitary confinement for months and emotionally tortured, terrified and also beat up hard a couple of times, I was not watching TV at all so can say nothing (I still don’t watch TV much.) The important element was this gave Stewart a justificaion, a raison d’etre beyond the actuating purposes of the film (similar to Poitras) — to expose what the war on terror, surveillance, and torture in imprisonment, specifically solitary confinement inflicts on individuals.

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Bernal as the British reporter captured by Egyptian nationalists, being harassed by one of his interrogators

Bernal is a powerful actor and this is not the first political film he’s been in; he was superb in After the Rain, about the attempt in a South American country by a corporation to take over the water supply and start charging money for it (see my blog, Even the Rain).

It’s a good not a great film, and part of the flaw is its fiction and sentimentalized (we don’t get deep pain at all). He’s also careful to be mainstream and he does this by suggesting all political movements and leaders are shits. Bahari’s father was high in politics and gov’t in 1953-54 when the only attempt thus far was made to set up a secular democracy, socialist in thrust: the US and UK with their CIA and M15 moved in and overthrew them, imprisoned, tortured (probably) and destroyed it. In the movie Bahari’s father is implicitly criticized as a deluded communist with the implication all communists are tyrants, deluded people follow them. As if they are more evil than fascists, totalitarians, religious fanatics. In fact they were trying to set up a neutral secular state with the socialists; a real election had put a democracy in place. The US staged a coup. The happy ending of the film also seems to justify the American state as a sane one: but the real topic of the movie, solitary confinement (to which much of the movie is given over and is an stunning feat), is more widespread in US prisons than European ones, and political imprisonment has grown to visible public dimensions. The film did not stay long in theaters anyway.

Rosewater (cont’d in comments).

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Some tentative conclusions:

That Poitras comes from wealthy people tells us more than how she affords her traveling, her living in Berlin, and see her earlier privileged life (New School in NYC); more importantly (from my studies of liberty and reading Mill and Berlin and others), her sense of her self, her background, upbringing makes her feel she can exercise her liberty. It is as important to feel you have the right to exercise your liberty, which comes from background (upbringing, class, gender, education, habitas) as to have it. Like Penelope Fitzgerald (an article by James Wood in the same New Yorker as Packer on Poitras), her quiet sense she need not explain, her concision and other aspects of her film making come from this background. Their nerve, they have the nerve.

The non-fiction trilogy is by a woman — there’s a cyclical feel; we end where we began in The Oath, poor Jandal now has lost his cab and job. We are not told why — nor exactly who provided the money for the cab in the first place. We go back to white letters on black in CitizenFour. There’s little superfluous violence, hardly any at all, it’s just menacing us at the corners of the screen – all the people we see interview Jandal (she includes film clips) and the film clips of the defense atttorneys for Hamdan and of course the narrative line telling us accurately what happened to him (sold to the Americans, put into black hole, &c&c) and we feel it in her overvoice of Citizen Four. We see it in the silent pictures of the cities and landscapes (Guantanomo, Afghanistan, places not identified where people are meeting in tents and being interviewed or talked at by reporters and high officials.) Now she’s not an official. She’s just a woman.

As to the issues, there is passing discussion of liberty which one lawyer says is now unfortunately defined as privacy: that’s a real loss as what’s at stake is more than privacy. A friend writes: “The issue of free speech was also addressed. What this surveillance means is that the notion of free speech is essentially meaningless. In invading your privacy, your civil liberties have been suspended. For example, should you try to organize a protest, the government will know what you are up to. If they consider the action a treat, they can stop it. I guess this is when the swat team arrives at your door.” The 8th amendment is also gutted as your money can be stopped from getting to you. The US government and others too (the UK perhaps in its decades old GCHQ), has records of all our business transactions, such as our public transit card, and our credit cards, and our banking info, as well as everything we do on the computer and every phone call we make. They can access these files at any time and go through them retroactively.

Stewart is a deeply compassionate man but without the “license” of non-fiction curtailed what he could have dramatized.

Ellen

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