Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘womens' films’ Category

7X2A4831.cr2
Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth) and Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) going over the manuscripts together

twowomen
Maggie (Greta Gerwig) and Georgette (Julianne Moore) plotting to trick John (Ethan Hawke) to go to a conference with Georgette (where Zizek is speaking! — John’s favorite) – two women plotting over worthless man

Dear readers and friends,

Reviews of Michael Grandage’s Genius (script Joshua Logan) haven’t been exactly ecstatic (come to think of it an embarrassing title); like the reviews of Rebecca Miller and Maggie’s Plan, we are told to rejoice that this is not another senseless alpha male action-adventure, or Marvel cartoon.

In her Maggie’s Plan, Rebecca Miller has given us 2nd rate Woodie Allen (3rd rate is closer to the mark but would be unkind) from a story by Karen Rinaldi. It’s good-natured — mostly from the warmth and awareness Gert Getwig endowed her generous (all-giving) heroine with, but tepid in its unwillingness to make it clear what a self-indulgent narcissistic male is Ethan Hawke’s thankless John, whom the two women were supporting, giving themselves bodily to and fighting over. What did occur that revealed this (and other aspects of their lives) was then made nonsense of by a tacked-on sudden switch to your happy ending, nostalgic music to the fore, no not a wedding, but everyone happily ice-skating in Central Park. Maggie’s core is that of a woman’s film, the dream of a single woman to have a child without having to marry a man since she is not inclined to stay “in love” with anyone she meets, and the great joke that after all the prowess of John did not impregnate Maggie, some artificially inseminated sperm from a pickle dealer (Travis Fimmel) did. Critics have been unduly kind, though Roger Ebert’s continuing blog recognized tired romance.

HawkeGertwig
Your falling in love scene

I concede it did not aggress at me, and there was occasionally some wry wisdom on display (Julie Delpy’s feminization of Allen, Two Days in Paris, was actually witty). At his best and in his prime Allen’s films made serious statements about American mores and culture (and recently he did one about British culture: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger). This movie represents an off-day, a retreat from her career thus far That Miller is daughter to Arthur Miller and his long-time photographer wife, Inge Morath, and her previous work might account for the critical “delight” in Maggie’s Plan. Maybe we are not meant to find the film pleasant but probably we are.

Genius (a seeming team effort) reminded me of Trumbo: a fine idea turned into a mainstream film where the character preach to one another in ways no one would in life, so that the audience can understand some subtle unusual ideas, ending in an inspirational moment: here after Wolfe’s death, a letter by Wolfe reaches Perkins where Wolfe thanks him. Suffragettes suffered from having been turned into a ratcheted up chase thriller. Two ostensibly art movies I’ve seen this summer (which will go unnamed) were insufferably pompous, over-produced, literally hard-to-follow, and sexed up in an misguided attempt to make them widely appealing commodities. The result: no one is pleased. Love and Friendship (click for my review), the third endurable film still playing at my local “better” movie theater, is a disappointing timid period drama. Women are going and men accompanying them because it’s billed as a Jane Austen film and looks and feels like what’s expected. It’s what PBS is not doing any more.

In Genius, there are no women authors even to be heard of. The mid-20th century is an era replete with great women writers. Perhaps Perkins didn’t edit any of them, but I can’t believe Scribner’s didn’t publish any. Not to mention even one in passing gives the falsity of the picture of publishing away. It’s a curiously empty story, as if the production people had insisted on few characters in order to have few actors to pay. The second woman in the film would not pass the Bechtel movie test either: no woman talks to another, and Nicole Kidman is another brittle possessive woman who has given all her to her man, including leaving her husband, and children and supporting him (as the women in Maggie’s Plan support their shared man). Prestige pandering (like the two supposed art films I saw earlier this season) is what Rolling Stone magazine accused this film of? But I see an insistent erasure of women which is unreal today.

Both films have spirited performances (as does Love and Friendship), Moore as the erudite professor:

MooreasGeorgette

Firth as usual scrupulously not over-acting a character presented as reserved without vicariously enacting, living out the passion he reads and crosses out (though his accent was not quite American)

withLauraLinney
with Laura Linney as his long-suffering, half-neglected but convincingly loving loyal wife (who writes plays which he seems not to publish)

Genius does have something more and so I recommend going (though don’t drive major distances) before it disappears (rapidly I fear) from theaters. What you will see are characters genuinely concerned to make good books. No small thing. The film-makers dare to make the process of revision of a gargantuan text to a recognizable “classic” central to the plot-design. Logan’s script make the inner psychology of authors however simplified the story –cameo appearances of a depressed Scott Fitzgerald, desperately woebegone Zelda, Hemingway as the apparently firm male icon whose self-control doesn’t require editing. the story.

The relationship of Wolfe with the famed editor, Maxwell Perkins is proverbial (I suppose that’s why the film was dared in the first place): Perkins was far more ambitious and driving than appears in the film (though we see how beautifully paid he is by the mansion he lives in, and well-educated comfortable lives he is providing for seven daughters), while Wolfe’s madly self-enthusiastic fits (as enacted by Jude Law) are said to have happened: he would burst from his apartment, wild with pleasure from something he had written, and run downstairs to the street to tell passers-by of his joy, maybe share the passage. The profit motive is there: Perkins is cutting and shaping Wolfe’s manuscripts so they will be coherent and sell, but he is not re-making them, not demanding they be other than they are, say another genre, in a different mood, with language smoothed out to be easy — which is what editors demand of authors before they will even accept a script for consideration that a film whose aesthetic core is a belief in the effectiveness and staying power of beautifully written, (we have to take this on credit) visionary poetic prose is not to be overlooked. And Firth and Linney were convincing as a couple who understood why they were living the way they did and valued high literary careers and considerate behavior to other people and one another. I felt uplift and cheered in a way Maggie’s Plan failed at (though Maggie’s Plan was trying ever so hard as Genius was not) and finally not disappointed.

I went home and read for the first time the chapter in Alfred Kazin’s On Native Grounds [on American prose writers of the 20th century, one chapter only on women] about Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner, the first of whom I’ve never read and Faulkner I dislike very much (violent, like Flannery O’Connor something mean-spirited there). I took a course in American literary naturalism and the 1920s and as a result since then have read and liked Upton Sinclair, Dreiser, Stephen Crane, and Elinor Wylie, Ambrose Bierce. I felt Hemingway all about broken American males and not much more, though “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” is a story which hits centrally at American myths; Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby also, but over-assigned to students and read because it’s so slender. Jim did not read much American literature: I remember him reading e.e. cummings, Truman Capote, American historians and contemporary essayists; mostly he turned to British and European writers. So I have in my house only a few books by Fitzgerald and Hemingway and of Wolfe only an old copy of a old-fashioned 50 cent paperback (New American Library, Signet) of Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again (published posthumously by Harper, with another editor shaping and cutting).

I found this: Kazin says like other male American writers he admires so much: as did Henry Miller (this appallingly bad writer is discussed seriously by Kazin), Melville, Whitman, Saul Bellow (Kazin’s chapter on two American women writers shows he has little use for them as they are apolitical — he does not understand Ellen Glasgow or Willa Cather), “Just so did Wolfe burn himself out trying to bring all the rivers, sights, sounds, pleasures, torments, books in America within a single compass of the long long novel he wrote all his life. Just so did he express his final contempt in You Can’t Go Home Again, for ‘the world’s fool-bigotry, fool-ignorance, fool-cowardice, fool-faddism, fool mockery, fool-stylism, and fool hatred for anyone who was not corrupted, beaten and a fool'” (468). The world is the enemy. Genius left out Wolfe’s frantic critique and self-ironic disillusionment: all we were told (by one of the two women. perhaps Linney as Mrs Perkins) is Wolfe is searching for a father, and Perkins a son (pop psychology).

Thomas_Wolfe_1937
Thomas Wolfe in 1937

Several things are going badly wrong with better films in the movie-houses this summer. In the three mentioned disrespect for the audience (at least 50% women), failures of nerve, and a curious indifference to the very matter (Wolfe’s text, Maggie and her baby, Lady Susan’s inhumanity) chosen to be filmed.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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

Trollope’s novel utterly resists treating it as light satiric comedy or “fairy tale romance” (which Fellowes in the feature labels his film and by extension Trollope’s book).

Arabella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

angelsappears2 (2)

angelsappears2 (1)
“Very well,” says Hollander, and the puzzled angel appears, at which McShane says he thinks he will now cope better with “what is to come … ”

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

Well yes.

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

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

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

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

Harhar
Augusta is made into an “old maid” buffoon

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

Read Full Post »

out there on the edge of change.

OpeningShots

Andrew
Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) under considerable strain, with Andy Parker (Michael Fox) looking sorry for him

Friends,

In Robin Nelson’s State of Play, a study of “contemporary (post-1990) ‘high-end’ TV drama,” more than once we are told of Tony Garnett’s “famous refusal to make more runs of This Life even after it was a smash hit.” Since Fellowes wants to remain a major player writing costume drama for American TV (the up-coming Dr Thorne will not be his last), he didn’t dare. So we are left with this slow motion good-bye.

Fellowes is having artistic conscience enough to produce more episodes in the mode of this season’s 2nd: the hour feels like not much is happening, not much excitement, because in life that is how it is. And chosing at random, one of the many meals these character sit down to (they seem to have nothing else to do), I find that no change is registered if you notice four male servants stand at attendance for four diners:

chosenatrandom

and the way the various ladies in the houses we visit eat breakfast mid-morning in bed, command tea, whatever they want.

QuiteatRandom
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary — quite at random

My self-appointed task to finish out what I began is made less arduous because many like myself are doggedly keeping up: bloggers still do recaps whether sarky or perceptive (Anibundel covers episode 3 as “Hughes wedding is it, anyway?“; Episode 4 as The Return of Gwen Dawson).

**************************
So, to begin, for myself I confess to feeling intensely moved by Phyllis Logan as Mrs Hughes during moments of the wedding she wanted with Mr Carson (Jim Carter).

MrHughes
Look at her face

And the camera switched to Leslie Nichols as Mrs Patmore taking equal emotional gratification from this coming future for her friend:

MrsPatmoreDaisyalongside
And Daisy (Sophie McShea) as ever close by her side

But Mr Mason and Daisy’s (Sophie McShea) satisfaction was marred by the punishment they had again had to take. And how he urged on her she had earned this by her submission to her employers. We also have the snide “Madame Defarge” hurled at her — has Mrs Patmore been reading A Tale of Two Cities? She can’t have seen the movie. The anxiety we were made to feel. Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Lady Grantham may feel enough responsiblity or obligation to her servants and their connections, to push successfully to put Mr Mason (Paul Copley) a farm to work on as a tenant; she may even give up one of her many unworn (unwanted, unneeded) fur coats to Mrs Hughes because Fellowes tells enough truth to show us that servants don’t have super-expensive weddings or dresses, but catch anyone who belongs downstairs upstairs, or in her room without permission, and she is really to sack them, apologies afterward or not.

shockedshocked

humiliationscattering
She is shocked, shocked, to find them in her bedroom; they scatter — that’s Joanne Froggart as Anna running away from wrath off the screen, Mrs Patmore behind our bride Mrs Hughes suddenly made into a schoolchild …

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

Recurring or brought back characters can exert a powerful grip on the engaged emotions of someone who has been watching a soap opera for some years, and Fellowes has been careful to rehire the same actors years later to reassure us these dream figures exist. For me in these two episodes it was the re-appearance of Harriet Walter as Lady Shackleton:

firstshot (2)

firstshot (1)

At the remembered first shot, and when Lady Shackleton not only attempted to reason with Maggie Smith as the retrograde Dowager, Violet, Lady Crawley who had invited her to be an obedient supporter against re-organizing the hospital to make it part of a larger health group (therefore richer, therefore with better services), but referred to her life in just the same way she had the last time we met, I felt a tiny lump in my throat:

Lady Shackleton: “It was sweet of them to let me bring Henry.”
Violet: “Though why couldn’t he stay behind with a tray on his lap? …”
Lady Shackleton: “Don’t be unkind. I never see him. He’s only up here now to look at some horrid racing car.”
Violet: “Does he get on with Philip? – They were friends as boys.”
Lady Shackleton: “I’m afraid he doesn’t like my daughter-in-law.”
Violet: ” — Oh, dear.”
Lady Shackleton: ” — Who does …”

Walters’ voice lingers to give the tremor of unspeakable because however untheatrical nonetheless continual unavoidable heartache …

There were too few such moments for me. When Gwen (Rose Leslie) recurs, I’m again supposed to feel grateful to Lady Sybil (Deborha Findlay Brown) who is presented as almost single-handedly responsible for her great rise in life, but I remember the hard slog, insults (Mrs Hughes told her she had not right to the space she slept in so no right to a typewriter) and the fierce determination it took on her part. What is her reward? To be served upstairs?

Is it for this that she, Lady Edith and Lady Rosemary Painswick (Samantha Bond) are meeting to set up a college to train young women? I grant the good feeling to watch Edith driving Rosemary who broaches the plan to her:

thecollege

Our upstairs heroine’s, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) suitors are so feebly there, emasculated into polite Ken dolls, ready to spend the night editing your paper with you (Bertie Pelham) or take you out to dinner inbeween expensive racing car bouts (Matthew Goode as Henry Tablot), that the pleasure is simply in the glimpsed romantic shot if you can identity with the venue:

bertie-and-edith

**************************
To turn to our perpetual presences and symbolic houses, Anna’s joy at holding on her to pregnancy begins to pall from too much use, especially since part of the point is to show us how Lady Mary has a heart after all. If we were to have to come back six seasons from now (fingers crossed this never happens in some movie-house singleton), we’d have to rely on Brendon Coyle’s undercurrent of realism to object to attributing his state of happy fatherhood to his wife’s boss. And Fellowes gives the scene a misogynistic (on Bates’s part) framing bite: his first impulse is to distrust Anna’s trip to London, suspect her of what?

distrust

I was intrigued, held for a time by how a formerly great house, Dayton Park, where Thomas endures his second interview transformed naturally as it were into a gothic mansion Anne Radcliffe would have recognized:

thomas-interviewgothichouse

And there were other explanatory new images, upsurges of genuine feeling, as when Miss Dencker (Sue Johnston) chummily watches Spratt (Jeremy Swift) work on his stamp collection:

chummyoverstamps

But do we really have to find more servants discovered as thieves and criminals. Spratt is hiding an escaped convict of a relative in the shed; once again Sergeant Willis exerts excruciating pressure on Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) to go to court and re-confess her role in a jewel theft for which she has done enough time.

SergeantWillis (2)

SergeantWillis (1)

Yet as Mr Molseley (Kevin Doyle) tells her and we know from his presence, her life is far from ruined: he will become a teacher, and she his work-from-home seamstress wife. But that’s not the emphasis of this punitive series of scenes.

Why do we have no characters going off — as most wealthy families had — in form of of younger children to grab land and resources as settler colonials in say South Africa, Australia, New Zealand? No one profiting hugely off India? Grand thievery that would not bring any Sergeant to the door, but we could then see where some of the great wealth that made houses like Downton thrive? But no. This common type is missing, no where to be seen or heard of, and I’ve listened to our substitute, the man from Ireland, Tom Branson (Allen Leech) abjure his weak socialism too many times now, and talk fo how he wants to help and do his bit for everyone else, and haven’t the stomach to treat these matters merelyas fodder for supposedly trivial fun sarcasms. I want to turn to Thackeray:

“Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

Maybe not quite? There is the on-going subgothic of Barrow’s frustrated life: a slow march to a suicide attempt.

seriouslydispleased
Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham seriously displeased with how Thomas exposed Gwen to the company at lunch

Andyseeingitagain
Andy again observing Thomas slinking along

The strength of the series all along (unadmitted-to) has been that at Downton Abbey the men are not all strong and the women not all beautiful.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

“There is much in the world which is monstrous” — Graham’s Ross on the beach, Demelza

“I am finding it very hard to live with myself” — Francis to Elizabeth, Christmas, Wheeler’s script, invented scene …

“Have a care for the law. Tis a cranky and twisty old thing. And you may flout it half a dozen times. But let it once come to grips with you, and you find it harder to be loose from than a great black squid.” — Captain MacNeil to Ross, Horsfield’s script, a darker variant on Graham’s utterance

Onthebeach1 (2)

Onthebeach1 (1)

Leadingpeopleback
On the beach carrying the burdens of life’s necessities, leading those who will come with him back (Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark, 2015)

Dear friends and readers,

So we are come to the end of this year’s first season: Poldark re-booted, 40 years on. Though I’ve not titled this blog to include Graham’s Demelza nor the 8th episode of the 1975 Poldark, as in all previous this is another comparative blog which assumes previous knowledge. Once again we have the old familiar pictures from the 1970s for those who loved them as I did. And once again, the distance as well as similarities between Ross Poldark and Demelza and the two disparate kinds of film art.

Our theme though is a bit different. I have been able to profit from watching one of Debbie Horsfield’s previous mini-series, the astonishing, riveting All the Small Things (directed by Metin Huysein, whose corpus includes the 1997 Tom Jones) and read about a couple of others. All the Small Things differs strongly in its dramaturgy from this new Poldark: Like Sex, Chips & Rock-n-roll, its scenes are not short, the characters use precise interesting complicated language, and its strength derives from what the characters say to one another. In neither is there this continual back-and-forth switching of montage and repetition of archetypes and simple ideas. This dramaturgy was therefore deliberate, and British ratings say it’s been widely watched. Thanks to Anibundel I’ve also been comparing costumes, hats, hairdos, wigs. If these be not costume drama, costume drama is nowhere to be found.

My suggestion tonight: while the 1970s film-makers were content to produce a sufficiently historically accurate and novelistic series reproducing the spirit of the original books (4 of them, post WW2 milieu), Horsfield’s cinematic archetypal approach is an attempt to make a new mythic matter. The 1975 films are Cornish regional romance, an adaptation of 4 historical fictions set carefully in the later 18th century, low-keyed enough for comedy. The 2015 films are not localized in the same way at all; they reach out to function the way recent films do, aware of themselves as in an intertexual film universe. This is not as hubristic as it may seem, as Graham says in the early 1970s when filming the first four books was broached to him, the idea was to make a British kind of Gone with the Wind, I half-regret to admit US mythic matter because so pro-Southern, so racist.

This is not to say that both don’t differ from the original book and try to appeal to the mainstream politics of the era. So in Demelza where it is acceptable and understood from centuries of custom, that the flotsam and jetsam of wreckage on a beach is fair game for the people living around both films takes into account this seems to our capitalist private-property obsessions crime of the first order. There was also a deep resentment against the excise tax, the imposed soldiers of the British army who were there to stop any reform movements lest they turn into a 1790s English style French revolution. In Graham’s Demelza Ross arouses Jud to waken the community, he is half-mad with grief and rage and needs to strike out against an implacable universe which has taken his child, his business, still threatens his wife, and he is gladdened to see the local people gain food and furniture for the coming year, and he participates, but he does not lead; he encourages, represses, orders where needed; only when a riot ensues when other groups of people come does he intervene to save the captain and his men and look to see if anyone needs saving on the ship.

Highoverthebeach

Takingaction (2)

Takingaction (1)
Looking from on high over the beach, distraught (many close-ups), taking action, first a line to go into the ship and then stumbling on soldiers urging them back to Nampara (Robin Ellis as Ross Poldark, 1975)

Paul Wheeler departs from this by having Robin Ellis go to Jud to find help for the men on the ship, and only realize that scavenging will result when he looks into Jud’s eyes, and then exult; Ellis spends his night trying to stop the riot, and save people. We see the British soldiers as in an earlier corn riot killing the people. By contrast, Debbie Horsfield has Ross not only rouse Jud deliberately, but himself organize the scavenging so as to be deeply useful to all, alert throughout, a figure of controlled stern anger, taking on managerial functions; like Ellis and Graham’s Ross himself violent to stop others’ violence, as a last thought inviting the Captain and his men back to the house but if they do not trust him they need not come. We see the lead British soldier taking a bribe from Warleggan to lie about what Ross did on the beach.

The changes are telling. In 1975 we have a deeply psychological take on a man in distress and acting half-insanely, innocent of scavenging himself; in 2015 we have a hero caring for his people by scavenging with them. Wheeler’s is closer to the book where Ross means to allow others to scavenge, but then tries to stop the riot, but in neither film is there a willingness to dramatize one of Graham’s paradoxical themes: the self fighting society’s deep corruptions, refusing to be coopted except on its own definition of what is virtue.

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

Graham’s Demelza, the last quarter

Chapter 1: Verity’s letter to Demelza: her happiness and gratitude, Verity now has the life to live she wanted to and could. Family and business, politics and gender are utterly intertwined in the world (seen in Graham’s Forgotten Story and Cordelia. Demelza did it. Chapter 2: a bleak Christmas — at Nampara and Trenwith. Francis despairing, alcoholic, Elizabeth turning away. Demelza and Ross and Enys carrying on with carols; he going over books, ending company; the two struggling through to be decent to one another and restore relationship; she visits Sir Hugh Bodrugan, Ross’s angery: he will not ask for loan; he will see Pascoe.

Chapter 3: The desperate illness at Trenwith brings Choake and then Enys; Ross’s meeting with Tonkin and then George’s offer to buy him out at inn; narrator insists on spite as strong motive in George. So Demelza’s (to Ross and the Poldark family) loyalty to her gender and sister-friend has destroyed Ross’s company. As in Ross Poldark where Ross’s humane rescue of the child Demelza brought down the community on him, so her humane rescue allows others’s exploitation. Chapter 4: News of illness at Trenwith: another decision of hers, to be a nurse to Francis, Elizabeth and Geoffrey Charles, partly because she feels she took from them Verity — this will lead to her sickness, the death of Julia. This is interwoven with Ross and Sir John, Ross and Pascoe where Ross will not sell his mine.

Chapter 5 Ross to Pearce. Pearce lives with his sister; he will arrange 1000 pound loan if he can; Ross home to Demelza who tells Ross where she’s been and what done: at Trenwith with the dying helping to save them. His intense business for a year is useless and he is thrown back on farming. He refuses still to sell his shares to Warleggan and takes out a new loan to pay through Pearce — refusing to bend to the monopoly. It is his choice to do this (which will lead to smuggling in the next book), but it was Demelza’s interference interacting with the family that inadvertently led to the failure.

Chapter 6: New Year’s Day, 1790, a gale, snow flurries, Demelza takes to her bed; Enys: both wife and daughter have it. Chapter 7: Northerly gale for another 3 days: Demelza’s nightmares; her father’s crazed religion about being saved: she dreams of Ross saying “let him die in the mud;” memories of Keren and Mark, she calls to her dog, “He takes things so much to heart, Verity had said” (of Ross); choaking someone’s hand there (Enys). The cold, the thaw, the weather, Demelza wakes and Ross lies to her that she can see Julia in morning; Julia has died

Chapter 8: The burial of the child; Ross’s rage; Julia will be lonely in the cold, she hated wind. Now deep in Ross’s mind (as we went back and forth between them just before and after marriage in first book); the wreck reported, how he rouses the people, Grambler miners to come, Jud says she never saw Ross looking so much like his father

Chapter 9: A scene Ross remembered for years afterwards: the men on the beach, women taking needed food; he gets inside ship and sees hopelessness (Sanson’s body) the fires, the wreck happening, and more men streaming on. Rose’s mind half-crazed but he does join in, advising, encouraging, repressing, ordering. There is a second ship and the wreckage is more ambiguous; it seems with help the wreck might have been avoided. But Ross’s despair and then identifying with the working classes utterly does lead to the high conflagration food riot: unintended consequences (rather like Demelza’s act for Verity). Chapter 10: Drunken fights and mayhem on the beach; men of ship come and Ross there invites them back to his house although his wife has been sick. Ross: “much in the world is monstrous”.

(A sub plot-design is Ross’s perpetual kicking against the laws and customs of his world directly while Demelza works against them indirectly — both are pro-family, pro-friend. This is by the end seen to be attached to his male friendships and companions whom he is loyal to: lower class, Jim and Mark, then upper for bank loans, and then at the end Captain MacNeil who warns him he must not get caught disobeying the law nor push it too far. MacNeil chases down smugglers on the beach and at the same time, Mark Daniels so knows Ross has been instrumental in freeing Mark. MacNeil and Ross identify as ex-solder who fought in North America, but their allegiance is to in McNeil’scase the state and law (MacNeil on the twisty nature of the law which will swallow Ross); in the Ross’s to friends, love, family, principles.)

Chapter 11: Morning after; tranquil now: he had planned so much for Julia; normative life returning to him; she so thin and weak; he takes her to window to look out, she asks that he let her stay in the sun. Book ends quietly, wrap my shoulders, let me have the light a little longer please.

For a more detailed exposition with themes worked out see Demelza, A Cornish world mirroring our own.

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

1975, Episode 8: it’s been rearranged but just about all the original events and characters are there. The only loss is it ends more melodramatically than the book: the soldiers come to arrest Ross. A cliff-hanger and final anguish for Demelza (which is the way 2015 ends). As throughout the film opts for theatric while the mood is naturalistic, melodramatic romance, sudden action, or wry comedy. I’ve come to realize that Francis is made considerably more appealing by Wheeler’s script: Graham’s Francis is witty, but his open self-berating and guilt are from Wheeler; also his generosity of spirit now and again.

MacNeilsWarning
MacNeil (Donald Douglas) issues his warning …

Opens as a continuation of Episode 7. There we saw Ross helping Mark Daniels to escape from Cornwall and a murder charge from his own boat into the sea across to France, and running up the high cliff be shot at by MacNeil and his men. Episode 8 begins with him running down the hill and across the fields to Nampara. A delicious scene for someone totally on their side ensues. Ross runs into the house where Demelza awaits him at the window; she frantically pulls off his boots and he says since MacNeil has no evidence, MacNeil cannot jail him and he must go upstairs to bed. Jinny is there, quick with an alibi — he’s been in bed all night with “the headache.” There is a comic feel to the scene as all three know Ross, Demelza and Jinny are lying.

MacNeil bursts in and Demelza is there to greet him, with Ross upstairs and coming down in a robe. We see them outwit MacNeil while his eyes glitter and he issues a warning to Ross that the law will entangle him if he does not watch out. One visible motif of this episode is those stairs: Ross running up at the opening, coming down, from the last one Mark Daniels running past to the library; MacNeil coming in and out of the hall.

The Christmas scenes are ironic — they remind me of Trollope’s Christmas scenes as they show Christmas to be an extra fraught time (not the complacent joy of stereotypes). After Ross and Demelza first escape the clutches of MacNeil we switch to Demelza and Ross hosting Enys, Sir Hugh and Lady Brodugan — in book they are alone first Christmas Eve night and visit Brodrugan the next day and her desire to ask for loans is not enacted, just discussed. At first all seemed high cheer, until Demelza not being able to contain herself asks the knight and lady for a loan to help them out. They speedily leave and Ross is indignant at her.

FranicsChristmastime
Francis filled with self-loathing, the cool Elizabeth, the puzzled child

Switch to Trenwith and we see Elizabeth and Geoffrey Charles at table waiting for Francis. He comes to the table drunk, filled with self-hatred over his betrayal of the names of Ross’s contributors to George; Clive Francis again delivers a powerful performance, until he collapses. Elizabeth sends for Enys then at Nampara who returns with Demelza.

Ross’s first reaction to the news of Francis’s illness is indifference; Demelza’s determination to go over to Trenwith elicit an “I forbid it,” but when she insists this is family (the great sacred cow which is not invoked in Graham’s book) and says she will go anyway, relents.

The scene where Ross is driven from wanting to behave with high integrity, to moving again to try to outwit someone, this time it’s George he wants not to sell his property too. There is a self-destructiveness here we see.

Elegantelizabeth
Jill Townsend as an at first cool, regal Elizabeth

Elizabeth at first wants to turn Demelza out of the house for her low rank (and because Ross married her) but in her terrible need, allows Demelza in, and Francis in his terrible sickness sees and acknowledges. One night Elizabeth and Demelza sit and makes frends. Elizabeth confesses how she broke off her engagement with Ross, how she meant to marry for money and prestige and thought she could do without love (this reminds me closely the TV mini-series version of Trollope’s Lady Laura Kennedy by Simon Raven — made a year before this series). The scene is too inhibited in its mode of acting (as are a number of the scenes of this episode), but Graham’s material comes through enough and realization gives this film an intense edge of the books. Demelza saves Francis, wins over Francis and Elizabeth, only to return herself very sick.

RossnursingDemelza
Demelza sick unto death, Ross nursing

As she comes in Ross scoops her up and carries her up the stairs. She is very ill and the baby Julia catches it. Enys there throughout. As in the book, it’s the death of Julia and the destruction of Ross’s hope for a successful mining venture that intertwine behind his despair which precipitates his inciting the men to their violence. Film removes Jacobin arguments and moral preferences of book for friends, high ideals, independence, integrity.

The scene on the beach occurs. Very effective and unlike today done with no computers so literally for real in front of cameras, including ships brought in, really felt underproduced violence.

aftermath

Ross brings home the crew and they return to their boat in the dawn. He hears her ill, goes up and find her hysterical over the empty cradle, down those stairs again to talk in front of the fire with captain and crew.

They are in the front room the next day or so dressed as from a funeral, her comments about the small coffin and the MacNeil’s entrance and arrest. In the book the funeral occurred first and Ross’s guilt over not providing food another motive for his wanting to see people fed.

Here they talk and in film she says now there is no Julia, he must be very bitter for he married her because she was pregnant with Julia. She stood in the way of his marrying Elizabeth. He loved Elizabeth when he married her. Of course this is not in the book as in the book he married her well before she got pregnant. He acknowledges this but says that was then and now he has learned to love her. He and she speak of their two years together since. It’s at this point the book Demelza ends with a beautiful dialogue between them (re-spoke here). Book does not emphasie rivalry between women at all; book interested in social and economic pressures

takenaway

Eight, though, closes with MacNeil again rushing the house. This time Ross was not expecting to be arrested, and this time MacNeil has a warrant for his arrest. The episode ends with Demelza running out of the house crying frantically for Ross. A wild thrust.

Final
Crying after him

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

Cont’d in comments: 2105 Episode 8; concluding remarks.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

listening
Wolf Hall 1, early shot, Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance) listening to Norfolk (Bernard Hill) and Suffolk (Richard Dillane) threaten Wolsey (Jonathan Pryce) at York palace (1529)

“A strong man acts within that which constrains him” …. to Henry, who resents being told he cannot war on France easily (Wolf Hall 1)
“I have never known anything but kindness from the Cardinal” … to Bonvisi, the Italian friend, advising to talk nicely to More and to dump the Cardinal (Wolf Hall 1, Cromwell)

Dear friends and readers,

I am just so riveted each time I watch one of the hours of this mini-series, and was at the end of the last, so shaken and roused out of myself to myself, that I must write some separate blogs on it now. If I waited until I felt fully competent to write a series of blogs on this season’s Wolf Hall, I’d not do it any time soon. I heartily recommend Anibundel’s meditation on Wolf Hall as demanding something more in the way of background (real knowledge of the era, the historical figures who appear with no introduction, a study of Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, her sources and other books, not to omit re-watching the 2011 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by Peter Straughan), and an ability to see the genuine analogies of this early Tudor era with the politics and social life of 2015, and so I end on another must-read, Fintan O’Toole’s comparison of the RSC stage play by Mike Poulson with this mini-series (in the NYRB).

You may also have come across high-pitched diatribes by name pundits (Charles Krauthammer) and much lesser-known historians who are still engaged in a bitter debate (400 years later) over whether Thomas Cromwell was a ruthless brutal thug (Colin Burrow) or an early modern magistrate, by closely monitored persuasive manipulations effecting a revolution from a Catholic hierarchical medieval European outpost to a Protestant local monarchy, and in both cases defying his low rank and growing rich, developing a household and estate as part of his reward (G. R. Elton and Marilyn Robertson). Was More a fanatical burner of men rather than this man of conscience Robert Bolt created? Was Thomas Cromwell the first modern magistrate with some integrity but very human? How shall we understand Anne? Why was she so disliked?

And yet the deeper pleasures require nothing more than watching. After all a novel, a film, piece of music, picture must deliver in its own right, have no need of anything outside itself, and I maintain this does. Just don’t be intimidated by Straughan, Peter Koshinsky (the director) and several of the actors, most notably Mark Rylance’s, refusal to compromise. So here goes.

If they avoid unreal histrionic theatrics most of the time, and do not treat the costumes and sets as on sale in shop windows, Damien Lewis as Henry VIII and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, Mark Gatiss as Stephen Gardiner, Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn, more than make up for the quiet realistic performances of say Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey, Natasha Little as Liz Cromwell. Anton Lesser as Thomas More is more gothic than one realizes at first.

Thomasmore
Our first sight of More which prompts Cromwell to one of many sudden frank speeches where he speaks truth to power (including to Henry):

More: “I care nothing for wealth. “The world’s esteem is nothing to me.”
Cromwell: “So how is it I come back to London and find you’ve become Lord Chancellor? Lord Chancellor. What’s that? A fucking accident?”
More: “You’re no friend to the church, Thomas. You’re a friend to one priest only – and he’s the most corrupt in Christendom”

And the music by Debbie Wiseman as driving and forceful and memorable, and turns soft, Renaissance like and lilting throughout as any of the latest commercial serial dramas.

Let us look at our story as three act play, which I believe a study of the release dialogue transcripts bears out. Let us think about how these imagined characters relate to the historical figures they represent only after we grasp the actors’ realization of them (out of Mantel’s characters and Staughan’s script, Koshinsky’s direction, in the costumes by Joanna Eatwell) as they move through the story which is a brilliant Renaissance “revenge tragedy” (Straughan’s phrase for how he constructed a coherent line out of Mantel’s two books).

The first act lays out before us the development of a father-son relationship which travels deeply into the core of the central consciousness, POV of the play, Thomas Cromwell, once a savagely-abused boy, homeless outcast, whose alert intelligence (social cunning), thorough practical and book learning, quiet reciprocal kindness, and loyalty (constancy) Wolsey recognizes and takes in. Wolsey is all personally that Cromwell admires and wants to emulate — the great public man.

What we are watching over the course of the two hours where time moves back and forth is Cromwell remembering his first encounters with Wolsey, the development of his love and respect for this man and how and why Wolsey was personally destroyed. After Wolsey tries negotiation in Europe with the Pope’s legate and then negotiation in England and then a trial of Katherine of Aragon in an effort to enable Henry to divorce Katharine and marry Anne. Wolsey’s autocratic dealings, we see his slow deterioration, which allows for an emergence of his affectionate ways (the birth and gift of a kitten to Cromwell). Here they are playing cards (the game Cromwell says supported him on the docks as a male adolescent):

vlcsnap-2015-05-02-22h03m36s42

vlcsnap-2015-05-02-22h03m30s237

They talk and eat together. Then as events close in, Cromwell’s helping to move the old man to Winchester and then York,

Cromwell:  “Masters, I want kindling, dry kindling … Get the fires lit … Stephen, find the kitchen …. Actually, see him in first… I need the bedding … What? Who is that? … Michael? Down, off. The horses, later. We want the Cardinal in bed and warm. …Come on, come on, we’re not done yet! …”

To Wolsey now in bed:  “I asked if they had nutmeg or saffron – they looked at me as if I was speaking Greek. I’ll have to find a local supplier.”
Wolsey:  “I shall pray for it.”

I find it very touching the way Cromwell tries to secure creature comforts for the old man, and how the old man gently mocks his endeavours. Despite Henry’s claim that he loves and misses the Cardinal, and that he cannot bring the Cardinal back (as his courtiers, and the powerful aristocratic clans who loathe Wolsey as a butcher’s son are pressuring him), Wolsey is thrown away, humiliated, sickens and dies. Against this the horrific scene of Cromwell’s father almost kicking him to death, and the one encounter where we see how vile to Cromwell Cromwell’s father seems.

By contrast,

bedroomscene

there is the way Wolsey teases Cromwell and then blesses him. Perhaps the film-makers have Cromwell remember a nasty deriding masque four sleazy male courtiers act out against Wosley for the amusement of Henry and Anne a bit too often, but they want us not to forget what Cromwell does not forget. Colin Burrow suggests the two novels (and I this three act play) themselves make up a revenge story, deep and abiding. At the close of the second hour, Cromwell assures George Cavendish (Wolsey’s secretary, right-hand man who later in life wrote a memoir of Wolsey) who weeps for the man that he remembers all those who mocked, and used Wolsey:

Cromwell: “There’s no need to trouble, God, George, I’ll take it in hand.”

It’s easy to miss how often in the first two hours Cromwell is waiting to talk to someone, sometimes Henry himself on behalf of the Cardinal. Partly because Crowmell is an enigmatic figure, for after all although he promises to return north, he does not. He uses his mission to bring the king and cardinal back together to secure his own place in Parliament and in the king’s entourage. We are privy to his face, his remarks, his acts, his flashbacks, but not his thoughts.

The story of an old man and middle-aged one’s respect and relationship is not one must admit the sexiest of stories, and it occurs amid the criss-cross interwoven other stories, also told often through flashbacks coming out of Cromwell’s memory: the central one which also moves across the whole 6 hours is Anne Boleyn’s rise to power as a result of Henry’s sexual attraction to her strong aggressively confident character (as seen in this play)

AnneDancing
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy) as first glimpsed dancing with Henry Percy (Harry Lloyd) in a flashback as her father, Thomas Boleyn (David Robb) explains to Wolsey that the young people have pledged themselves to one another

The homelife of Cromwell at Austin Friars, with his real love for his wife and affection for his daughters, seen in warm light, before they suddenly sicken with sweating sickness and die:

Grace (2)
The first shot of Liz Cromwell (Natasha Little), POV Cromwell as he comes home and up the stairs

Cromwell: “You’re sweeter to look at than the Cardinal.”
Liz: “That’s the smallest compliment a woman ever received.”

Grace (1)
With Grace on his lap as he attempts to tell Liz of the Tyndale English translation of the Bible which she should read

The stories of the boys he takes in, trains as courtiers, then spies, and finally aides in bullying, and threat-torturing of those Cromwell wants and needs to take down, take out. In the novel (and history) Cromwell filled his house with such young men.

Earlyshot
Another early shot, Richard Cromwell (Joss Porter) and Rafe, his ward (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) whom Cromwell’s young Anne loves as a young girl and asks permisssion to marry:

Anne

Anne: “Can I choose who I want to marry?”
Cromwell: “What?”
Anne: “Can I choose who I want to marry?”
Cromwell: “Within reason.”
Anne: “Then I choose Rafe.”

I warmed to Cromwell’s turning to his wife’s sister, Johanne Williamson (Saskia Reeves); he pictures her in place of Liz, but he likes her for herself. It cheered me to see them in bed together in the morning talking. I sorrowed when she brought an end to it because her mother had found out. She is often seen in the group more lit up then the others

Cromwellshousehold

If I’m supposed to get a kick out of Charity Wakefield as Mary Boleyn’s bitterness and ironies about her sister, and her attempt to seduce Cromwell to become her protector (as she sees how strong he is), I bond rather with Liz and then Johanne. But I am intrigued by Mary (discarded mistress and mother of children by Henry) and Jane Boleyn (one of those who provided evidence against Anne and her brother, Jane’s hated husband) and have gotten myself two history-biography books about them to read:

WolfHall2MarytalkingtoCromwell
Mary talking to Cromwell

The colorful contains the dangerous and we are intensely alerted to this at each renewed encounter of Cromwell with Henry, from their first meeting in the Hampton Court garden, to court interactions,

Crromellsgreyhead
The careful photograph captures the neurotic king, half-unsure of himself, and the bare grey head of Cromwell

to real intimacy, as when Henry asks for Cromwell to come to his palace at 2 in the morning to reinterpret a dream.

If you remember Katharine’s bitterness, her court trial where she stands up for herself as a virgin when she first went to bed with Henry (she has the most striking headdress in the series until Anna becomes queen (Margaret More’s easy to miss, the most beautiful and tastefuL):

KatharrineAragon

there is so much going on in these two hours, it’s chock-a-block. Mantel has remembered and used Shakespeare’s Henry VIII.

But it’s best to see it as slow, the scenes and shots are much longer than usual for a movie, you can take in what you see while the sense is if something hieratic. Think of it as a build-up. The sub-stories evolving depth and emotion while the longer over-arching ones are moving towards a terrifying climax as so few have power to keep themselves afloat. In Act One Cromwell thinks he can still act justly to most and get what he wants as well as secure himself. He will find otherwise.

Fintan O’Toole has the relevance and appeal of Mantel’s thematic shift to and take on Cromwell right:

He is a middle-class man trying to get by in an oligarchic world. Thirty years ago, Mantel’s Cromwell would have been of limited interest. His virtues—hard work, self-discipline, domestic respectability, a talent for office politics, the steady accumulation of money, a valuing of stability above all else—would have been dismissed as mere bourgeois orthodoxies. If they were not so boring they would have been contemptible. They were, in a damning word, safe.

But they’re not safe anymore. They don’t assure security. As the world becomes more oligarchic, middle-class virtues become more precarious. This is the drama of Mantel’s Cromwell—he is the perfect bourgeois in a world where being perfectly bourgeois doesn’t buy you freedom from the knowledge that everything you have can be whipped away from you at any moment. The terror that grips us is rooted not in Cromwell’s weakness but in his extraordinary strength. He is a perfect paragon of meritocracy for our age. He is a survivor of an abusive childhood, a teenage tearaway made good, a self-made man solely reliant on his own talents and entrepreneurial energies. He could be the hero of a sentimental American story of the follow-your-dreams genre. Except for the twist—meritocracy goes only so far. Even Cromwell cannot control his own destiny, cannot escape the power of entrenched privilege. And if he, with his almost superhuman abilities, can’t do so, what chance do the rest of us have?

Continually all these noblemen talk angrily and ferociously about both Wolsey and Cromwell’s low origins. They can’t stand that. They loathe having both around or above them.

Look at the use of the camera and color. The POV is only immersion when it’s a deeply private moment, one which must be hid from other’s eyes:

Loveinshadows
Johanne and Cromwell

and it is most of the time Cromwell’s. But it is to the side: the camera (and Cromwell) keep looking at others from the side and when the camera is on Cromwell himself we see his face from the side, framed in doorways, walking down dark narrow corridors (of power?). There is a deep sense then of cautious lurking. There is little use of montage — which nowadays is unusual (except for old fashioned costume dramas like Downton Abbey) and not much voice over (ditto). This keeps us outside the minds of the characters and keeps them enigmatic, at a distance, and leaves us with a sense of film as a stage. Light is used to bring out beautiful colors: the modern tendency to use light in ways that repeat the darknesses of eras before electricity is practiced, but large windows and “day” time makes up for this. Light colors, beautiful windows. Cromwell himself is soberly dressed, only gradually beginning to appear more rich by furs and the like. Here he is towards the end of part two, la rare unguarded frontal shot when he is alone, looking over the relics from the Cardinal:

vlcsnap-2015-05-02-23h59m15s48

I’ve written on functions of historical fiction and film in our culture, and self-reflexive acting of Rylance (scroll down to the final three paragraphs), but the joy of the experience is the story, the performances, the characters’ relationships, the film experience.

Ellen

Read Full Post »

wolf-hallAntonLesserasMore

Anton Lesser as Thomas More (Peter Straughan defying a fear a wider swathe of viewers will declare a series boring or slow-moving returns to some of the techniques he used in Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy … ) The Washington Post featured a editorial column by Charles Krauthammer inveighing against the distorted portrait of More, showing how seriously these films are taken …

Dear friends and readers,

My concluding blog review of this unusually rich volume of essays on the often neglected and casually dissed costume drama from the BBC, for several decades a leading and influential creator of fine TV drama. The first part covered different ways of dicussing these serial films ; the second the history and evolution of historical films, and this last on the power of these drama’s audiences (especially in the age of fandoms on the Internet with their instant commentary) and how they can influence how a given mini-series might develop and frame how the series is discussed in public media.

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

nextmorning
All we are permitted to see in the 1970s is the morning after (Ellis as Ross, Jill Townsend as Elizabeth)

Chapter 16: Julie Anne Taddeo’s “Why don’t you take her?”” Rape in the Poldark Narrative.” I liked this one — it coheres with my point of view on gender politics in the Poldark series (though I differ in how I see Graham’s stance). Where she differs from the approach I would take is she organizes her findings around the fan groups which protest regularly, where misreadings are a result of mainstream cultural values. It offended many viewers of the 1970s mini-series that Ross rapes Elizabeth, and they are given ammunition in this view by the relatively chaste presentation of the 1970s depiction, and by later qualified backtracking in the novels, to be noted in Ross Poldark’s memory — but not sufficient to turn away the reality that Elizabeth manifests intense bitterness towards Ross in The Black Moon and is in The Angry Tide given a very “rough deal” indeed (Graham’s terms for the realities of women’s lives in our culture): she dies of miscarriage she pays a doctor to bring in by causing early parturition, using some herbs known to lead to gangrene. why? the intolerable life she finds herself having to endure when George Warleggan, her aroused jealous husband begins to believe that her second son, he thought his, and born prematurely, is Ross Poldark’s.

Taddeo begins with the enormous popularity of the Poldark mini-series as well as the unacknowledged (by elite groups) extent of Graham’s readership for years of his Poldark and mystery-thrillers-psychologically complex books. Her point will be to show how the fan groups managed to influence how the film-makers changed Graham’s books when they filmed them. The central dilemma of the 12 books is that Ross Poldark loves two women, Elizabeth Chynoweth, aristocratic, upper class, who chooses to marry Ross’s cousin, Francis, partly because she fears marriage to Ross (as a man of renegade risky outcast behavior), and thought he was dead and promised Francis; partly because Francis is the oldest son’s older son, and thus the heir and she hopes can provide her with a high culture social life. Ross takes in a pathetic abject working class (beaten up or abused) young girl, Demelza Carne, to be a servant in his house. Demelza grows up and eventually they have sex (almost inevitably and this carries on) but he marries her quickly — as someone he really likes and feels comfortable with, as a good sex partner. As to defy his class; it is an act of rebellion.  He falls in love with her gradually and deeply. In the 1970s series this altered so that Ross and Demelza have sex for just one night (the film-makers feared the audience would think Demelza unchaste if there were many nights, and that even today would not condone breaking the taboo of marrying far beneath him); Demelza becomes pregnant, even tries to an abortion, but Ross finds out, stops her and “gives” and their child “his name.” When Francis Poldark dies, and Elizabeth finds herself impoverished, alone, insecure, lonely, she marries George Warleggan, even though Ross has made intense efforts to help her (like giving her a lump sum he and Demelza needed badly for his mining business).  Incensed, enraged, he goes to Trenwith and forces himself sexually upon her.  To take her back, to assert his right to own her.  Fans resent bitterly the idea that Ross could have raped anyone. Just the other day I debated this issue off-blog and off-facebook with a long-time ardent reader of Graham’s books and about his life.

So fans of the mini-series argue over this triangle, wanting to absolve Ross and turning to hating Elizabeth. Taddeo shows that Graham is seriously interested in the question of rape, presents women as subject to men; in the second mini-series (out of Books 6-8), we have a young woman, Eliizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna, forced into marriage and Graham dramatizes her experience of married life as continued sadistic marital rape — happily her husband dies, and she remarries a brother of Demelza, but she never recovers from her two years of such experiences.

Anotherrapescene
A scene related to the one focused on above: another rape scene written by a man, and this time we are encouraged to see coerced sex as aggresive seduction (Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, forced down by a Turkish friend of one of her suitors, Downton Abbey, the first season, 2010)

Chapter 16: 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.

Schmidt suggests that 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?).

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

MissTowlerLookingattheWindow
From Mr Selfridge: the opening episode, Miss Agnes Towler gazing yearningly at the dress in the department store window

Chapter 17: Andrea Wright’s “This Wonderful Commercial Machine” defends and analyses “Gender, Class, and the Pleasures of Spectacle in The Paradise and Mr Selfridge compared to the 1970s House of Elliot. The 1970s is incomparably more genuinely feminist in outlook — for a start, the owners are women. These costume dramas have lots of “good girl messages” I’d call them — stay home, be obedient, don’t rock the values that sustain you supposedly and you’ll be safe and maybe unhappy critics who complain about the spectacle and shopping should realize that’s the point of these series; women go there for pleasure. The older program had 2 ambitious women now we have ambitious men.

HouseofElliotScene

Like The Bletchley Circle, The 1970s House of Elliot featured women in charge, dealing, negotating

Wright finds that conservative ideologies have taken over; we espape the present. In The Paradise something less authentic is taking over – modern retail is characterized by cavernous hypermarkets that lack all individiduality. The Paradise maintains its French origin in feel and tone. She carefully goes over the décor of the two series and what is projected – -an opportunity to revel. Respectability and reputation are central to women of all classes. Agnes the desperate girl of Mr Selfridge is matched with Denise of Paradise, a prey to men, clerks on display like the goods, women as a consumable pleasure. Wright compares the kinds and fates of the female characrers in the two series. They fail to offer progressive roles for women and reiterate rigid class structures. A French business women Clemence is a threat sexually as she seeks to win through sexual enticement; she is cast as a dangerous other. Normalcy restored. Agnes has little opportunity, she gets paternistilc support, a sexual education rather than emancipation. We have also another Miss Bunting, desperate over debt, who steals is not pardoned and kills herself.

CALL THE MIDWIFE S2
The upbeat 1940s Cherry Ames/Sue Barton feel to the series can be seen in this kind of stylized cheerful promotional shot — connected to the above still, women going to work

Chapter 18: Louise Fitzgerald’s “Taking a pregnant pause: Interrogating the feminist potential of Call the Midwife.” It’s the story of a newly qualified midwife who arrives in Post WW2 London to take a position alongside other novice midwives and Anglican order of nuns – Jenny Lee, a middle class woman who once loved classical music. The midwife can be seen as a feminist figure because she has been cloaked in misogynies – female strength not liked, a scapegoat. Birth and reproductive rights continue to be a central feminist subject; the show breaks this aesthetic taboo. Abortion becomes a flash point in the series – a story of a backstreet abortion at a time abortion not legal; Nora Harding almost dies – we witness her screaming. Neither woman (a story of Trixie who is first seen painting her nails with blood red varnish) is judged by her community, but both women are in effect punished and abortion and sexual assault are seen as the result of sexual desire. After success of first season Heidi Thomas (the writer who is a centrally important person in costume dramas, especially British) began to try for feminist content. Midwives are a much more visible presence in the UK; US media did not like its bleak ideologies and socialist Health care system. It is feminocentric and about women – none of women defined by relationship to a man – it suggests a communitarian spirit and that domestic history is valuable history.

alljoys
Another promotional still which does show the ambiance of at least the first season

The main concern of the series is the relationship of poverty and social welfare even if topics – domestic violence, abortion, rape, birth, prostitution are feminist issues – there are so very few programs with women at the center is one reason for its success. Channel 4’s reality TV show One Born Every Minute has a high prioritization of birth stories – central in popular culture today and does reinforce “fact’ of women’s biological difference from men – Call the Midwife is a ghettoizing of what it means to be feminist because midwifery childbirth and motherhood seen as female space. No new points of identification. There is a nostalgia in the way class identity and hierarchies are used (reinforced too). It is white – one nun makes an “unintentional racist” remarks does not provoke disquiet that working class women’s behavior does. A story about a black child is told without referring to the child’s race; the story about the man as a father and man. Call the Midwife does not offer new paradigms for identification nor systematically challenge sstems of oppression and inequity. The larger problem in feminist of racism is here.

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

As general constant across the three parts of the book and different subgenres of costume drama and mini-series is the gender fault-line: there are men’s films and women’s films from the point of view of the characters and stories and from the point of view of how the screenplay writer, director and producer treat this content. And even if they are apparently feminist, written by women, feminocentric, sympathetic to women, they do not escape the hegemonic male dominance of our culture.

Chapter 20: Elke Weissmann’s “Transnational Complexity and the Critique of Masculinity in Ripper Street.

Ripper Street
Promotional: Matthew Macfayden to the fore, the women ghostly

Elke Weissmann writes on a mini-series Ripper Street (2010-) produced by BBC and BBC America. She feels the mini-series “emphasizes the problem that is constituted by traditional patriarchal masculinities.” This drama exposes while it attempts to critique the results of these behaviors and especially a nostalgic view of them. It offers an intense emotional engagement with its characters — part of serial drama. A central character played by Matthew Macfayden is at first presented as a traumatized and admirable male; he’s a versatile actor and apparently unlike Walter White in Breaking Bad where (according to Weissmann) we see a good man gradually corrupted, Reid was corrupt to start out with. A large theme is the problem of policing: who is to police such a society when the police are part of the problem. Along the way she describes similar min-series which she aligns or contrasts with this one: none of them have I ever seen; Dixon of Dock Street (British 1955-76), Wire (HBO – -I know this one is much admired), Hill Street Blues (I know it was popular.

BBC America
It’s telling how easy it is to find stills on the Net of profoundly wounded women with supposedly protective standing over them (from Ripper Street)

She thinks Deadwood the best of these, but it too makes an exaggerated use of violence, which is shown to be “deeply troubling”. Ripper Street manifests deep unhappiness and does allow for other concepts of masculinity. Violence is shown by the storylines to be a “key element of traditional, hegemonic masculinities,” is traumatizing and central to the problems men face too.

I’ve probably seen so little of this type of thing because I avoid high raw and continuing violence that I know is typical of a lot of filsm — Breaking Bad was an unusual program for me to watch

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

footman-and-duke
Rob James-Cellier as Thomas Barrow, a homosexual footman who attempts to blackmail Charlie Cox, the Duke of Crowborough but finds the Duke has far more power than he (Downton Abbey, 2010, the first season)

I’ve omitted Chapter 12, Giselle Bastin’s treatment of the two Upstairs/Downstairs series and keep Chapter 19: Lucy Brown’s “Homosexual Lives: Representation and Reinterpretation in Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey to a minimum. As I remarked in the second of these blogs, I watched the two seasons of the 2012 Upstairs Downstairs and want to deal with the changes from the older to the new series separately, but here I would like to record the central insight of this essay. Lucy Brown shows that paradoxically the depiction of a gay footman in the 1970s, Alfred Harris, much more hostilely than that of Thomas Barrow, which actually ends on Harris’ execution as a spy is in a way far more truthful to the suffering and reality of life of homosexual men until the mid-1970s (Stonewall anyone?) than the sentimental way that Thomas is on the one hand sympathized with when it comes to his love relationships but otherwise stigmatized as a spiteful angry desperately snobbish man (in cohoots with that witch, Miss Obrien).

A single collection of essays has to leave some topics out. I was glad to see the emphasis in two of the essays on the importance and central function and dominance of the screenplay writer in the way the BBC does its actual film-making, but wished that there had been more about the business side of things. For example, a British friend told me:

it no longer produces drama itself. It commissions it from private companies — many of them (originally at least) comprising people who used to work at the Beeb. This new system has been in place for about twenty years, and certainly applies to Wolf Hall. Commissioning seems to work both ways — the idea may come from the Beeb, or the independent companies may pitch to them.

There are reasons to dislike this way of going about things, but it has resulted in many cases in higher production values — contrasting Wolf Hall with the 1970s Wives of Henry VIII shows the difference. It has also led to dumbing down, but Wolf Hall is not guilty of that.

Some the aspects of these dramas beyond dumbing down (short scenes, much less dialogue, itself much less complicated and thoughtful) which the essayists in the last part attribute to the power of audiences could be the effect of profit-making companies who want values that uphold their company and executives to be enacted.

I am a lover of historical fiction, biography, narrative history, historic fiction (older fiction) and think all these literary forms directly connected to, give rise to serial costume drama. I will be writing soon about Peter Weir’s Master and Commander (adapted from an amalgam of several of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, directed and written by Peter Weir, featuring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany).

galapagosislands
Bettany as Stephen Maturin on the Galapagos islands, writing up his notes)

Ellen

Read Full Post »

cover

Dear friends and readers,

Way back in December 2014 I announced the publication of this volume, edited by James Leggott and Julie Ann Taddeo, in which my own essay on “Epistolarity and Masculinity in Davies’s Trollope Adaptations” appeared. I’ve now read the whole of the volume and had a chance to view some of the films I knew nothing about before reading it. In the Foreword, Jerome De Groot makes a strong argument for regarding costume drama as a central export of British TV, and when done as film adaptations of great books, truly fine movies; at the same time he brings up why and how they are dissed continually. I thought a review of its sections and individual essays would be of interest to those who love these mini-series as I do. Since the volume is quite rich (see the Table of Contents), I’ve divided this blog in three parts following the divisions of the collection. This review is of the essays in Part One: Approaches to Costume Drama.

shouldertoshoulder
From Shoulder to Shoulder, a young Sian Phillips played Emmeline Pankhurst

Clare Monk’s “Pageantry and Populism: Democratization and Dissent: The Forgotten 190s,” is on the power, the liberal outlook, and variety of themes and art of the mini-series and costume dramas of the 1970s. She opens with an excellent demonstration (convincing) that the costume drama of the 1970s has been ignored, partly because it had a number of centrally influential highly liberal mini-series, only one of which has appeared on DVD, Days of Hope (it’s upbeat at last). Shoulder to Shoulder a significant contribution to the history of suffragettes and how they were treated is not wiped out but obstacles are still put in the way of re-digitalizing. Monk demonstrates the richness of the 1990s and a type of structure, pattern, cinematography, historiography is a development of the 1970s and lasted until 2003-4 when (alas) Mobil Exxon withdrew its support. She does not say but Eaton tells you that was when the bottom fell out of PBS. She also shows (I’ve know this for years as does anyone with some access to British TV) that only a small number of British mini-series came over to the US, the type that Downton Abbey comes out of.

The second essay by Thomas Bragg, “History’s Drama: Narrative Space in ‘Golden Age’ British TV Drama, also examines the 1970s, as a seminal period of costume drama: the sixties began it, and it was serious because of the simultaneous presence of the play of the week (Wednesday nights) and the reality that the people on the London stage were the same people on the TV in these plays. They began to cross over to the mini-series in the 1980s when British film having collapsed in the movie-houses (due to Hollywood’s popularity) moves into TV (e.g., My Beautiful Laundrette), writers and all.) Bragg’s thesis is not so admiring of the 70s, is a corrective. The 1970s have been credited with going-out-of-doors and several of the famous mini-series are repeatedly said to be photographed on location, out of doors, most famously Poldark. Bragg demonstrates that while the film-makers did indeed go on location and film some sequences there, these are few and far between. The central space remained the studio and built versions of rooms. At the same time though the uses of camera work changed: in the 1967 Forsyte Saga, a filmed stage play, the camera becomes a narrator, moving in and out of spaces; the rooms themselves are highly appointed visual versions of the era (made to seem accurate by specifically elaborate props). A strong use of mirrors, windows, and angles made the viewer aware there was an outside which was redolent of wide open spaces. Bragg argues this is the equivalent of how historical fiction works or had worked since Scott; the important scene within a confined area, carefully described objects and houses from the era, with occasional forays out to descriptive landscapes. This is interesting: how does one give the effect of a past time in a written fiction.

Fristfamilygroup
A scene of the family group in the 1967 Forsyte Sage (early on, Episode 1)

Bragg suggests this way of filming changed again in the 1990s when TV film-makers no longer had to rely on older film techniques to film out of doors but could take their computer equipment, moving cameras, one tied to the waist of the cinematographers. Then he makes the point that in Downton Abbey, the one standing heir to all these older dramas, focuses on the outside. The way the characters are filmed, walking, talking, interacting the effect is that of a group of people say in a courtyard (as in Poldark when Ross when to market they filmed in a courtyard in Ealing Studios) — but the great emphasis is the house, the lands, the dominating wealth. Where in the 1970s Upstairs Downstairs do we see the grand houses, the outsides, the gardens? we don’t. Some film-makers wanted to give the impression of landscape more than others; I’ve been thinking about the 1972 BBC Emma: this would be one much less concerned to make it seems as if the story is filmed in a landscape but I can see how the disposition, way of filming, where arrangement of scenes is that of the 1970s Poldark, and Upstairs Downstairs.

James Leggott’s “‘It’s not clever, it’s not funny, and it’s not period!’: Costume Comedy and British TV” makes this an unusual volume. Leggott is a BBC person; he teaches film and TV at Northumbria University and is chief editor (he started it) of the Journal of Popular TV. It’s on a topic I’m not qualified to evaluate: a kind of BBC and (in a way) elite costume drama that rarely comes over to the US: Blackadder was a rare cross-over and it appeared later at night on PBS; I watched maybe one or two. Jim used to like them when he was watching TV. He’d laugh and laugh.

Blackadder
A remembered moment from Blackadder

Blackadder belongs to a sub-genre of hour-long and mini-series which make fun of serious costume drama; He mentions Upstairs Downstairs Abbey and Lark Pies to Cranchesterford (a mocking title). These types include Monty Python’s Holy Grail, on the one side, and Benny Hill on the other: low humor pretending not to recognize its own salaciousness, boy’s stuff. The Carry On movies come out of this: Carry on Cleo for example (mocking the Cleopatra movie). Leggott covers sitcoms: Brass, Dad’s Army, and others which are anti-war, anti-hierarchy. For those of us who didn’t see the full panoply of the 1970s costume drama we won’t recognize what’s rejected and made fun of. Leggott shows these deconstruct and expose the fallacies and harm; they are often attacked — as “not clever, not funny and anachronistic.” So what? Well, as he proceeds he shows that some viewers begin to believe the history they see in these programs; they really do and instead of getting the parody or critique the original shows ideas are reinforced. And some come out of a reactionary point of view very strongly. Apparently you can find British people who believe in the medieval period they see in these or the 18th century mock-ups. Not so much the Victorian.

Marc Napolitano’s “It is but a glimpse of the world of fashion: British Costume Drama, Dickens and Serialization,” attempts to show that the costume serial drama embraces many of the attributes of soap opera by looking at the techniques of serialization. Napolitano says the incessant reiteration of Dickens’s name as what early films were like because Dickens is so cinematic was an attempt to gain respectability; yes Dickens published in installments but his installments were words. What was influential was not so much the vaunted pictorialism of his texts but their open segmented narratives. Napolitano says Dickens’s novels are open-ended; and what we have in costume dramas from Upstairs Downstairs on is an open-ended story that can keep going. In fact, the continuity and themes are grounded in character and setting not story. They use a limited number of sets while an overarching story narrative which ties the season together. By contrast there are older film adaptations of specific books that no longer how long do have an ending because the books have an ending: Forsyte Saga and Pallisers. By chosing this open-ended structure, the writers and film-makers can respond to audiences and experiment. He’s really describing and defineing a television novel: that we have television novels nowadays. He writes in detail about The Foryste Saga, and Duchess of Duke Street. He mentions in a note Breaking Bad. Vince Gilligan had a general idea where he was going but at any point at the end of a season he could have pulled the curtain down; and he did pay attention to audience response and grew far more daring as he goes along. It’s the daring experiment that makes for the innovation. They dare not do that anywhere near as much on PBS, and we in the US get only a limited range of what goes on on British TV.

BleakHouse2004SergeantGeorgeSirLeicester
A lesser known moving moment towards the end of Davies’s Bleak House: Sergeant George (Hugo Speers) caring for Sir Leicester (Timothy West)

Benjamin Poore develops Napolitano’s essay further — “Never-ending Stories: the paradise and the Period Drama series.” Beyond an analysis of structure he pointed to features we see after 2005 or so. The lead writer who becomes an executive producer and is the linchpin was in place by the mid-1980s. An emphasis on the workplace which makes the workplace a substitute for family (and not said in the essay remains pro-establishment utterly); source texts which are relatively unknown (like Zola’s novel, Gaskell’s short stories — My Lady Ludlow is narrated by a crippled servant in the book); production practices: the fully built complicated set and precinct (the house or department store and land or streets around it); a “warm bath” atmosphere — everyone kindly, communitarian — the new reassurance factor is strikingly different from the 1970s. He discusses Davies’s Bleak House as a half-way between the older forms and this newer one — alas it did not get enough audience and so now the BBC and ITV people want a “springboard’ rather than a classic book. Poore discusses pragmatic practicalities and how decisions are made based on commercial considerations and audience numbers.

Quieter
One of the quieter and feminine of the many epistolary scenes in The Way We Live Now, Georgiana Longestaffe (Anne-Marie Duff) writing to her Jewish lover while she is in the London house of the Melmottes

Mine comes next — “Epistolarity and masculinity in Andrew Davies’s Trollope films. Here rather than summarize or evaluate my own essay, and in order not to interfere with copyright (so I won’t put my essay on the Net), I offer Taddeo and Leggott’s summary of my paper in the volume’s introduction:

Perhaps the most subversive writer to examine, Ellen Moody argues, is Andrew Davies whose two BBC adaptations of Anthony Trollope’s novels, He Knew He Was Right (2004) and The Way We Live Now (2001), offer a liberal feminist interpretation of Victorian domesticity and masculinity. Moody closely analyzes Davies’s televisual techniques of filmic epistolary sequences, montage, flashbacks, and voice-over, critiquing and shedding light on the relationship between the original source texts and their adaptations. Davies not only undercuts the conservatism of these novels while exploiting conservative tendencies in heritage films, but also freely adapts Trollope’s male characters’ psychological experience as they cope with the demands the characters make upon themselves while they attempt to enact sexual ideals of manliness and achieve financial and social success.

UncleArthur
In Small Island, the mentally distressed Uncle Arthur (Karl Johnson) coming upon the Jamaican British solider, Gilbert (David Oyelowo)

The section concludes with Karen Beth Strovas and Scott M. Strovas on “music in the British Serialized Drama,” the first half of whose title is “What are we going to do with Uncle Arthur?” It’s more than an allusion to a music hall song and dance Sarah the servant does in the 1970s Upstairs/downstairs,” but is a trope: in Small Island, there is an aging working class man called Arthur, and the joke his while others around him regard him as a simpleton or treat him like one (as in the older programs; Mr Weston in the 1972 Emma is made into a sort of semi-salacious genial simpleton), Arthur is rather cunning, and more sophisticated in his tolerance and observation than any one gives him credit for. There are few essays on music in film of any usefulness — so few have the technical knowledge and those who do can’t write to make themselves understood and anyway write on classical music and history (musicologists). This pair of people manage to describe pieces of music with concrete words that yet eschew technical language. New terms have evolved: source music for music that the characters in the film are making, and underscore music for the music we hear but the characters do not. The thesis is that music is so important to all film, and even in the 1970s ones where it seems it was not used to provoke emotional response the way it is today. The mini-series used the 1970s Upstairs/Downstairs, the 2003 Forsyte Saga and again Downton Abbey. (Before people cry out against this obsession with DA, the people doing it make their materials available for study. The composers for DA have published material that is usable — the way Fellowes’ scripts and 2 of his companion books are scenarios and of real use.) These three mini-series can be used to analyse others — so here again we have a rare instance of the editors and write managing to produce an essay that those outside costume drama might find useful and general.

The Strovas show that what developed is a use of music beyond the opening and close themes. All three have theme music that begins and ends the show each hour, and is brought back in particular different ways to make emotional and thematic points. In the 1970s music was a tool to define and intensity the class conflicts of upstairs and downstairs — and conflicts were much much stronger, it was a polarization. Eventually upstairs took over when the hero became the son and heir, James as a tragic figure, but not so before that. What happened was a development whereby source material states explicitly some of the themes or underscore but in key scenes the two interact so as to musically enact emotions and thoughts and what’s happened. It is much more developed in Downton Abbey because they are more conscious of what they are doing and have more money than U/D did. DA uses music more psychologically and very effective it is — much more lush, but not drooling because of pace. Those who have watched the 2003 Forsyte Saga will know that operatic music is used a lot; the book and film take advantage of Irene being a piano teacher, musical and the wealth of the family leads to soirees and going to opera. The Strovas analyses the first encounter, sex and rapes scene to show our source and underscore music is used as a counterpoint. Sarah in U/D loves music hall and we see contrasts of her singing and dancing downstairs as the upstairs ones sit composedly. A scene at the close of the 2nd season of DA has Mary and Matthew playing the gramophone with a haunting love song at the time and an underscore that stops and starts as well as allusions to a show that flopped. The 4th season of DA used music a lot: Dame Nellie Melba came and sang Puccini; the black Jazz singer of course sang his songs and there was dancing. In both Forsyte Saga and Downton Abbey when a woman is raped, all music ceases where she is.

Paratexts
Poldark 1975-76: one of four sets of paratexts that opened and closed the mini-series, each having images epitomizing the actions of the four episoces and accompanied by the same memorable alluring music

Ellen

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 286 other followers