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Nora (Marie Leuenberger)

Dear friends and readers,

I saw this delightful serious film about two weeks ago in my local film club at the Cinema Art (Fairfax, a sort of art movie-house), and have been waiting for it to appear either in this theater (which if they are played for the general public usually begin by this time) or in local theaters as it has been nominated for a couple of prestigious awards. I’ve just about given up hope — after the trivializing condescending (“cartoonish” and “clever navigation”) or ho hum reviews (“not exactly breaking new ground,” “a lark”) that I’ve read, and the resolute erasing of its content on wikipedia. Photos of Nora deliberately make sure we see the actress as not conventionally smiling, all pretty; she has a narrow face and is earnest. How off-putting.

A couple of reviews do it justice: Film Journal International; Criterion (but it’s promotional). RogerEbert.com ignores it.

What’s remarkable about the film is how it shows how difficult it is for women embedded in their daily culture to rebel. As the story opens, Nora is spending her life hanging up wet socks in her basement, waiting on her father-in-law hand-and-foot; a comic rendition of a stultifying life. She apparently loves her husband Hans (Maximilian Simonischek); he has just gotten a raise in his factory in a scene where we see another male made fun of for not fitting in, for being ineffectual (effeminate). But although they don’t need the money, she would like to have a more interesting life of genuine achievement. She has sufficient education to apply for a job in an office, but he does not want her to go. And he can forbid her; in Swiss law she has to have his permission (he tells her flat-out) to sign this contract. Meanwhile in her brother- and sister-in-law’s house, her niece (Ella Rumpf) is sent (not to reform school as one review has it), but to a punitive detention center (a prison) because she is refusing to obey her parents’ daily orders and going out with a young man.


Theresa

She watches her sister-in-law, Theresa (Rachel Braunschweig) rage at the girl after she runs away, only she won’t tell Nora where the bruises on the side of her face come from: her sullen angry husband whose masculinity is as threatened as Hans’s and takes his frustration out on her. The daughter has no recourse, but true to life, her rhetoric is anything but sensible. At each point Nora tries to do something for herself, it seems to be pointed out to her how this person is suffering (the father-in-law who keep porn magazines under his pillow), or that (her two sons whose luxurious breakfasts and daily routine are disrupted). Her desire causes them to lose out somewhere because she is serving them but her hurt and her needs don’t matter and they won’t compromise.

Meanwhile the woman’s suffrage movement is reaching a height once again in the towns where there is going to be a vote on whether women should vote (of course they are dependent on the men to decide) and Nora is caught up in the excitement, call for fairness and justice, and makes friends with an older woman, Vroni (Sybille Brunner) who has lived a frustrated life and now is supposed to reside meekly with her daughter-in-law (caring for grandchildren).


Vroni

The fourth central women is an Italian restaurant owner, Graziella (Marta Zoffoli).

Daringly the three, eventually with the sister-in-law set up a house for meetings, and when ridiculed and thwarted by the men, go on strike. Shades of Lysistrata. They go live apart in this house until the day of the vote and gradually many women join them. The most powerful scenes are where Nora defies a majority of people who heckle her or don’t support her even if they (the women especially) want to agree but don’t dare to speak up. She tries to give a speech and is mocked by the men; one woman who is fiercely against the vote (and is the boss at the husband’s factory) gloats in triumph when Nora loses control of the microphone (reminding me of how clever Reagan was decades ago when Bush senior tried to prevent third party candidates from using the mike, and Reagan grabbed it and said he had paid for this and decreed all would talk). There are numerous failures. At one point a group of more thuggish men break into the house and drag their wives away. Discouraged, Nora takes the signs down — her husband is intensely mortified by her picture everywhere and begins to say he would have voted for her to have the vote but not now.

Towards the end and before the vote can take place, Vroni in a moment of intensity, has a heart attack and dies. At her funeral the priest gives an account of her life and personality that make her into a pious contented woman, and Nora again gets up and protests and tells a little of what Vroni was and what was her life. How many times in life I’ve had to sit and listen to half- and full lies. Group pressure this time does not win out as decorum makes everyone sit quietly as she speaks.

The film has nuanced quieter and sad moments. The Italian woman’s husband follows her to Switzerland and she takes him in. Nora finds her embracing him on the night she is driven to leave Hans and takes up residence in the attic as she goes about to write away and seek that job. Graziella says she does not want to be alone when she is old: he needs her. But at another point she says as she stands in a shadow one can be married and feel very alone. Realism: the story is set in one of the two most conservative areas of Switzerland. Hans and the sons give in and start to make their own food, care for themselves. Theresa works to have her daughter released; permitted to have her own life, the first thing the girl does is jump on the motorcycle of her insouciant lover. Theresa’s husband leaves her, and we see even if he at first falls apart (he drinks heavily), he may eventually be happier because he hated the life on the farm and was bad at it — the father-in-law would needle him. Vroni did not live to see the women get the vote nor the gains they had afterwards.

It has faults too. It is conceived broadly and offers few details. It offers no backstory to explain why in 1974 the men this time (they did not in 1959 but claimed women didn’t want it) gave the women the vote. We only see the women openly standing there as a group the men have to walk through. There is a 1970s style feminism “raising consciousness” scene where the women are urged to love their vaginas, encouraged to look at their clitoris. There is some serious talk and it emerges that Nora has never had an orgasm — nor have several of the women. But it is over-the-top, a caricature, complete with a copy of Betty Friedan in Swiss. I found the ending grating. Of course Hans and Nora get together again, but did we have to end on a scene of him sucking her between her legs (her nightgown over them) with her all in ecstasy. In the theater I was in, we had a discussion afterwards and (wouldn’t you know?) the first things said to be “good” about the film is how there is sympathy for the husband. This last scene was laying on the reassurance thickly. Not to worry guys, she’ll still be this great sex partner.


Supposed to be month later, with him walking behind as she votes too

Petra wants to reach people today, to make an upbeat film, to energize us too — for, as she knows, feminism has had some bad losses in these decades since 1974 — and has a long way to go. I loved the soundtrack that used “You don’t own me” and remembered the ad for voting for Obama: all that the ad says — the Republicans will do all they can to kill Roe v Wade, shut down Planned Parenthood, repeal the ACA is now coming to pass:

Aretha Franklin’s demand for Respect is also heard.

So if you should see this film advertised, don’t be put off by the enigmatic title, which makes it sound like a religious film re-affirming changelessness, patriarchal tyranny. I wondered who gave it that title. Go see it. And while you’re at it, refuse to go see films which beat women up, show them as sheerly prettified sex objects (no matter how much the gloss is see this empowered woman) or nurse-mothers.

Ellen

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Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

Friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mark Rylance as the father/captain of the small boat

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

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

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


That’s James D’Arcy with him

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Ellen

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

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

Friends and readers,

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

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


In the classroom

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


The country house they arrive at

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


The train when young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After You’ve Gone

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

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

Ellen

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

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

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

Dear friends and readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ellen

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Gael Garcia Bernal in an inimitably slightly-comic rendition of Oscar Peluchonneau, a police officer, behind him his crew of replicas (2015 Neruda, directed Pablo Lorraine, Script Guillermo Calderón)

Friends,

While you might have already seen this extraordinary political film, in case you’ve not (because it left your area too swiftly as it had already left the Alexandria “art” cinema), I call it to your attention. Its mixture of tones skilfully moved around is brilliant; its analysis utterly cynical of most people’s motives in public places; it explicates before our very eyes our utterly corrupt order. It’s funny and absorbing, a pursuit book. Some reviews (which retell the story): Jay Weissberg of Variety; Oleg Ivanov of Slant; from Ebert, Glenn Kenny.

On the level of plot-design, it’s a bumbling Dragnet detective comedy, with Oscar Pelouchnneau, turning out to be a “half-moron, half-idiot,” and dying in the snow, only to be compassionated and given the intense respect he always wanted by the poet, Neruda (Luis Gnecco), after whom Oscar had been in close pursuit. It’s a Jean Valjean-javier story: a senator, and poet, not to blame for any crime for thoughtfulness and fighting for reform, is pursued by a intensely self-regarding (awkward) police officer. The significance and all the people surrounding this story, though, are not light fun. Along the way we pass through concentration camps, places of great misery for prisoners of all sorts; see the powerful in the Chilean gov’t order deaths, inflict egregious absurd laws and ritual amid an ongoing immiseration. Neruda has stood up to the Nazi regime, and spoken out in the parliament against the crooks, the “disappearing,” and demanded a range of social and other real humane reforms. Now it’s time, one might feel, for a complete change of policy, one determined and with the people’s needs, wants, their social realities in mind. Apparently not. The politics here is that of Laura Poitras’s films.

The film is also a “bio-pic,” a depiction of the character and immediate circumstances of Neruda’s life at this time. The women beyond Neruda’s second wife, Delia del Carril (Mercedes Moran), either lead hard invisible lives or are hired prostitutes to be given out to males at parties. He gets angry at his wife at one point because she pressures him to hide altogether, and then return when it’s safe to pass laws; their accusations are bitter and over sexual distrust. We have a depiction of Chilean culture at the time of shooting. People make money in the most hard scrabble desperate ways. One single woman who has been trailing our poet hero breaks out in a scold about her wretched life. Remarkably though there is no idealization of Neruda. We see him sneaking out to walk the street, thus endangering himself and everyone else involved with him; he’s seen drinking and half-naked with naked fat dumpy prostitutes. His associates are not driven patriots and think to dump him.

The most unexpected moment is when a landlord he has been fleeing agrees to help him escape because he too hates the gov’t; he hates paying taxes; he wants to thwart and mock the gov’t (a Trump supporter type!). Somehow this is exhilarating. Most everyone has ordinary looks, and the costumes are carefully only slightly romantic — like something out of a cowboy film or film noir one. Neruda’s usually seen as this gentle soul. Not quite here. I was still intensely anxious lest Neruda be killed. The actor kept repeating snatches of verse with appropriate words in context, but there was no attempt to make him a lonely soul either. Looking at his life as a whole he had to have been one who socialized well or he couldn’t have survived and triumphed until the US destroyed the Allende gov’t. The word for this film is absorbing and post-modern: overturning of most pious beliefs; anti-foundational, deftly cynical and yet idealistic, for what is it made for but to show the desperate need for some other world order. Unlike most political fables made in the US, it’s not solemn, nor over-the-top melodramatic, and at its close our hero does not supply a heroic peroration, though he does read aloud in a Paris cafe many years later a prose report of this telling incident. Not that the lucky are not seen — on the boat on the Loire for example, eating, reading, drinking away as the poet holds forth.

I have yet to see a film with Bernal in it that I didn’t love (e.g., Even the Rain). It doesn’t hurt that he’s so attractive through the parody.

I began to forget how masculinist is the approach. Yet Neruda’s two wives play significant parts. The first and ex-wife (Claudia Vicuna) is expected to denounce her husband on TV and radio, and instead insists what a good man he is; the Delia, second’s loyalty he depends upon at crucial moments. There are even great chase moments; from cars, to motorcycles, down to horses (not easy for a fat man to get aboard), and then they are rushing, sinking through the snowy Andes mountains where our heroic policeman meets his end.

You can also read some of his poems at poem hunter.

WATERS of the beginning, walls of rain, clover and oats beaten down, strings now joined together in the net of a wet, dripping, savagely spun night, wild drip repeated in lamentation, diagonal fury cutting the sky. The horses gallop perfume-soaked beneath the rain, striking it, interrupting it with their red-haired branches (their manes), stone and rain; and the steam (from their bodies) like a crazy milk-like steam accompanies the water, congealed into fugitive doves. There is no light, but the cisterns of the hard climate, of the moving greenery, and their hooves link the swift earth and the flight of time in an animal odour of horses in rain. Blankets, saddles, saddle-skins bunched in dark reds on the burning sulphurous backs that beat the woodland, determining it.

Forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, forward, the horsemen beat down the rain, the horsemen pass beneath the bitter walnut trees, the rain twists its perpetual wheat into trembling streaks. There is light in the water, a confused lightning poured on the leaves, and with the same galloping sound comes a wingless water wounded by the ground. Wet reins, the vault of the branches, footfall after footfall, nocturnal vegetation of broken stars like frost or moonlight, horse like a cyclone, covered by arrows like a frozen spectre, full of fresh hands born in fury, thumping apple surrounded by fear and its great kingdom with its frightening banner.
[A wonderful prose translation of his “Horseman in the Rain,” from an old Penguin Book of Spanish Verse, no translator’s name cited]

Hurry out.

Ellen

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Pierre (Hopkins) attempting to tell the deeply congenial Natasha he feels called to encounter Napoleon (while Moscow burns half-crazed he decides the calling is to kill this pest)

Dear friends and readers,

As promised, I here conclude the two blogs I’ve written on Pulman’s masterpiece mini-series out of Tolstoy’s novel (see Part 1, Episodes 1-10). These come out of a fulfilling experience I had with a group of people on Trollope19thCStudiesw @Yahoo (we read Anthony Trollope and his contemporaries, but also books on the Victorians, NeoVictorian novels, and talk about film adaptations of 19th century novels and films about the 19th century. I’ve posted an appreciatoin of Tolstoy’s novel after nearly a year of reading; more than a year of watching. Then I did a review of the 1955 King Vidor Italian-American Hollywood W&P; and a film study of Bondarchuk’s 1966 visionary epic W&P.

Doing these has enabled me to re-live these fulfilling experiences, and in the case of Pulman’s film I hope to tempt people who love beautifully acted, written, well-done film adaptations to see this nowadays under-rated (hardly spoken of) mini-series.

We left off at the pivotal center of Pulman’s film (Episode 10), Natasha’s (Morag Hood) delusionary nervous seduction by Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker), the thwarted elopement, the rigid Andrei Bolkonsky’s (Alan Dobie) bitter disappointment to where he has broken off with her for good. He has lost what had given him hope again to build a good life and (in effect) throws himself away, re-enlists in the renewed war. She grows closer to Pierre Bezukov (Antony Hopkins), who has wild ideas of stopping Napoleon himself. As Tolstoy says (in words given to Andrei in Episode 11 as he listens to the war counsel of Alexander (Donald Douglas) it seems everyone is helplessly moving into a maelstrom of destruction. Thus the tragic second half of the film.

Unlike the novel, Pierre is never absent for any length of time now. He is in almost every episode. A rare instance is 16 where Natasha and Andrei are central forces as he lays dying, and Sonya grieves for the coming loss of Nikolai and all her hopes.

Episode 11: Men of Destiny

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Napoleon (David Swift) determined to become (in effect) emperor of Europe with Paris as his capitol: the massive hubris of the man is caught in Swift’s stiff face

Much of it was dramatized scenes not in the novel at all. At this point the mini-series is approaching the 1812 and so they were (Pullman of course) confronted with the problem of what to do about Tolstoy’s arguments not just about history (which I see Tyler has commented on and I’m glad and will try to respond to later today) but a view of Napoleon which is essential to under the battles. Also they want to convey how Andrey feels about the battle and why — as that is part of the material.

So we have an astonishing good scene between David Swift as Napleon and Morris Perry (a great actor of the 1970s, then an older man) as Fouchet, the police chief who was an advisor to Napoleon and angered him greatly. Fouchet presents all the arguments against going into Russia that Tolstoy relies to make us understand Napoleon was an aggrandizing pest; Pullman puts in Napoleon’s mouth ideas about his control and direction that are clearly wrong. We then move to the Rostovs in Moscow: again there is much monologue and point of view in the continued desire of Nikolai to marry Sonya (Joanna David) and her intense desire to take him up on it: Pullman invents a very good scene between Natasha and Sonya where Sonya reads aloud a letter from Nikolai so that they discuss the issues. Inbetween these two we have other good scenes: the ball that goes endlessly on oblivious, ironically, the men on the battlefield coming on, and Petya wanting to enlist.

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The ball

We move to Alexander and his council or generals: not in the book this scene but Tolstoy’s idea of how useless and narrow most of their advice; one man does say they must lead the French on, not engage directly in battle and the whole effort itself will destroy the French army. Andrew is listening and in over-voice we get Andrey’s justified rejection of much that he sees as corrupt politics. We move to the Bolkonskys and Andrey is home: again a scene between Marya (Angela Downs) and Andrei about their mean father, a dinner scene where the old prince is a lecher towards Mlle Bourienne and Andrei tells him publicly how he should get rid of that woman and is told get out. A scene where Pierre brings his bible to Natasha and attempts to interest her in the 666 of the Bible and she cannot get it, but is eager to please him. It’s sweet. A swift wipe-out and now Napoleon enters the empty ballroom, exultant. Money was spent and they filmed scenesenough to suggest huge armies being amassed. The words in the dialogues skilfull quiet irony to show us how tragically and horribly wasteful all this is.

Pullman knows has made many invented scenes for this transitional pivotal episode. Snobbery never ceases and as I’ve said there is not one published article about this excellent series. This episode is just magnificent in the old version. David Swift as Napoleon interacting with his underlings, especially the chief of police is superb. . The BBC 1972 film is vitriolically anti-war. How appropriate the now ironic paratexts. We see the golden icons of shield, of tzarism, of imperialism slowly canvassed by the camera, and then cut to the countryside probably of somewhere in the British Isles, but plain and vast enough to stand for land people, real actual people attempt to wrest a life out of. The music is appropriately filled with trumpets until we reach the countryside and then it’s the men marching in the dark over the bridge. Then it quiets down. I don’t recognize it but I am not learned in music so that does not mean it’s an original score. The thematic music of these costume dramas matter: they frame and sandwich the experience as “not like the rest of TV;” cut off to be a special experience.

Episode 12: Fortunes of War; 13: Borodino

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The serfs’ attempted revolt; POV the astonished Marya

I found myself more interested in Episode 13 than 12 since Episode 13 like Episode 11 (Men of Destiny above) confronts the problem that in order for us really to grasp the larger meaning of what we are seeing requires invention of scenes and transposition of Tolstoy’s narrative into dialogues between characters.

As before 12 is distressing for me to watch. Not for the scenes of Napoleon and Murat who are on about strategy, how this group of soldiers will do this or that (thoroughly ironized for us by the dialogues of Episode 11) or Andrei and the servant telling of the father’s death and move of the family: the first again an interpellation from Tolstoy’s narrative monologue, the second dramatizing Andrei’s intense inward grief. The scenes that come straight from the book: the uncomfortable elder, the naïve puzzled princess (meaning so well), the peasants’ attempt to revolt lead up to the arrival of Nikolai (Silvester Morand) and the way he so easily subdues the peasants by bullying them, by simply asserting his authority, two immediately handtie the leader and they hasten to obey. I dislike Nikolai in this scene and feel so helpless at the peasants’ abjection. The BBC means us to see and feel this embarrassment and this film belongs to the 1970s liberal point of view of costume drama. In the book and here it begins Marya’s dependence on and transference of love to Nikolai as a much better, a kindly strong male.

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The deathbed scene of the old man, Marya hides her face

13 is to me a lesson in how to try to convey the horror of battle and the way people respond to it. Just about all we see occurs in the book in some way but not dramatized as large scenes. It begins with the small human dramas: the corrupt Julie come to commiserate and repeat her usual hypcrisies (it’s a sardonic long range comment that it was she Marya used to pour her heart out to) about Moscow’s safety she’s heard — all the while she is there to see if the Rostovs are fleeing. The Countess Rostov (Faith Brooke) says she will not until Petya returns and before we can object to Boris’s doings (told so proudly by Julie) the count and Pierre come in to say Petya is safe and Pierre has had him transferred. Natasha all gratitude, Pierre rushing off lest he take advantage. But then the contrast of the war scenes – the BBC spent a lot of money The men coming, the setting up of Napoleon on the hill and the gravity of it. Pierre does look a fool and out of place. The ridiculous icon carried through which Kutusov (Frank Middlemass) comes to kneel before. We are expected to remember how he and then Andrei (in 11) told the people asking for strategy there can be none. Kutusov looks intensely grief-stricken; he tells Andrei he has to told Andrei he has to do this because everyone wants it. And then this death scenes, the bombs, individual vignettes which does not end when Andrei is hit but pans out to show us all the death (in every which way ) and writhing bodies.

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Kutusov: from here on in he is presented as a contrast to Napoleon — his face filled with pity

Borodino: here is where Pierre gets caught up in the battle too and we experience and see the battle from his POV. Andrea seems to be blown to bits by a bomb — Pulman’s Pierre is not the deeply good man, that Davie’s Pierre is; but he is humane and what is happening on the batttlefield horrifies him. I thought of our own continuing wars and the very dangerous man who is now commander in chief of US military and his “Mad Dog” appt, which newspapers are glad of (that it was not someone far worse).

Episode 14: Escape

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Rostopchin exulting over Pierre: war and power brings out the worst in many peopel

Another superlative episode using invented scenes. In the book Rostopchin (Mayor of Moscow) is made hideous to us by the way he sets up a mob-murder scene of Vereschagin (a once naive idealistic student imprisoned and tortured). Pullman wants to make Rostopchin’ s behavior feel equally anathema. So a fine actor (whose name I could not find) reads the proclamation which declares all is fine and no one need flee Moscow in front a gathering of middle and upper class men: Pierre just returned from the battlefield keeps saying “nonsense.” Whether Rostopchin heard or not, he asks Pierre to come into his office and then deliberately is as vile and threatening to Pierre as he knows how: each act is a comment on our themes. He says how he is imprisoning Vereschagin as a free mason (whether he is or no) and will use and torture him (it’s implied). As a free mason, he regards Pierre as subject to arrest and death and tells him to leave Moscow immediately. He reports on Anatole’s death as Pierre’s brother-in-law; when that doesn’t hurt he tells of Andrei’s supposed death and Pierre begins to cry. This is not Tolstoy’s man who is utterly incompetent most of the time. Never so focused. But it works. A scene of Pierre coming home, given the countess letter and growing incensed, repeating her shallow words and planning to kill Napoleon.

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The Rostovs attempting to pack

The second half are the semi-comi scenes of the Rostov’s incompetence – only Sonya is packing and trying to get the others to work with her. Finally Petya arrives, angry he has been brought back.Then the mother will leave; when Natasha feels for the men and wants to unload the carts, and the father agrees on a few,the countess goes into a rage. It’s his fault they have lost most of their fortune and are leaving so late. The latter is hers we know (reinforced by Petya’s return in this episode so we don’t forget). He then says oh Nikolai will come and fix everything and she agrees. We are supposed to understand the hopelessness of this. Finally just before they get off Pierre is seen going by from the window and says he is staying but won’t say why.

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This encounter is repeated in all four of the W&P films I’ve watched

Sonya tells the countess Andrei is among the wounded. They are disturbed: the countess forbids Sonya to tell Andrei, in her obtuse way trying again to keep them apart. The scene ends with countess wandering through the empty rooms hurrying to carts loaded with viciously bleeding wounded men.

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Filmed slowly so we feel a way of life is ending

The 1970s mini-series did the books they did with care and attention to really reflecting the meaning of their texts. There’s enough time to character Napoleon from his standpoint and yet show what a monster he functioned as and was. Kutusov refusing to kill men uselessly for a symbol is strong and memorable. Paul Dano has nothing to work with in comparison to Hopkins: the family of the Rostovs and how the countess carries on caring only about prestige, objects, her children insofar as the situation will permit; she will not budge an iota in views as the world tumbles about her body.

Episodes 15: Moscow; 16: Two Meetings

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Pierre wandering through the fire-filled streets

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The woman hysterical over her baby burning to death in the building

15: Filled with memorable moments and beautifully structured within as well. The marching French soldiers, marching marching, camera angle on their feet, implied growing tired, Napoleon surviving, so proud, sidekick about there’s Moscow. He anticipates the great meetings he will have, how good he will be to all, and insists this was not his doing, he didn’t want this but now all shall be in good order under him. (Tolstoy would agree he alone did not do this – -and the point has been made too by dramatized dialogues in previous episodes.) More marching, then Napoleon in one of these vast cathedral types building, pacing waiting but all the officers can find are “riff-raff.” They try to tell Napoleon, but he is not listening; they bring these peasants in, and Napoleon indignant, wrathful kicks them out. Insists still he will set up there.

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The degraded drinking

After Pierre’s meeting with Rastopchin, the despairing exhausted Pierre home again. Real relationship with servant, amazed to see him, you must leave Sir. Hopkins rueful smile. Then the French officer Ramballe enters the house, self-satisfied, taking over — perfectly enacted — a peasant in the household lunges to shoot him, Pierre intervenes, the French man so grateful insists on the meal and in parallel with Napoleon his batman or equivalent to bring up all the wine. The drunken scene not that well done — they don’t let loose enough, but both sodden, Pierre deeply ashamed. Long center. Hopkins ends up drunk with a French officer where we see the frivolity of the latter and despair of the former, both pass out, and Hopkins ends up taken as a murderous aristocrat once he goes down into the streets. Napoleon set up in that space of the Kremlin, an officer to him and he begins to realize no one is coming.

Pierre in the streets, the street scenes, and then the saving of the little girl, he is captured as an incendiary, partly because he is seen to be upper class — so this is what everyone wants (ironic). Finally Kutusov once again stubbornly holding out, bitter now; a last shot of Pierre looking out dungeon window: parallel made of Pierre and Kutusov. Moscow ends up burnt down; we see Napoleon refusing to see what has happened to his plans, that the Russian generals have beat him because of the terrain and insisting on his rigorous rules and strategy which he cannot enforce.

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Natasha and Andrei re-united — it’s like Romeo and Juliet get to wake up

16: Carefully structured as a unit as the others have been it opens with Andrei just coming into consciousness in the hut; his aide rushes to him to help and we see how much in pain he’s in emotionally as well as physically. The actor is superb: Alan Dobie. It closes with Natasha finally coming into the hut, and coming over and starting to weep uncontrollably, him waking, telling her he loves her, nothing to forgive, he was wrong and their hands clasped as they talk. Morag Hood shines here too. Inbetween the stage is held by socially powerful women – or so Tolstoy thinks. The “other” meeting is between Marya and Nikolai and as in the book it comes about indirectly. Nikolai is dancing and flirting away with a married woman at a dance, his hostess breaks this up with ease, and takes him to Marya’s aunt. He confesses his conflicts over Sonya to said saloniere who has little trouble arguing them away. I felt the scene between Angela Down (Marya as I’ve said) and Sylvester Morand (Nikolai) strongly persuasive, because it moved slowly and this time was based on genuine shared history – and yes values.

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High shot of Nikolai hugging Andrei’s son with Marya taking subordinate role

The Countess the voice of calculating prudence, no lie is too much for her: what’s in her interest financially and socially trumps (that’s a verb I have to stop using as it’s horrible so this will be the last use) everyone’s feelings, promises, history. She nags Sonya and never ceases to to get her to write a letter “freeing” Nikolai. The ugly conformist, refusing to acknowledge and thwarting everyone’s deep feelings and needs around her: she is after Sonia to break off with Nikolai so Nikolai can marry money. The ambiguity here is Nikolai emerges as no great man: after the battle he is flirting with a married woman, clearly after her; he is compatible in nature with Maria but not her religion, and the two are brought together by Maria’s aunt and other of these older woman presented by Tolstoy as the makers of personal misery. Tolstoy’s men’s responsibility for the workings of the world are only in the area of war it seems.

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The harassed beyond endurance Sonya

As opposed to the other films, Pulman really gives Sonya room and thoughts again and again and with the countess and again Natasha she is rightly bitter: she is to give up everything that will give her an individual of fulfillment or she is ungrateful and despicable but what do the others give up? Nothing. It is she who offhand tells Natasha Andrei is there. The weak father had tried to persuade the Countess to tell in the second scene of the episode, directly juxtaposed to the with Andrei so as to give most impact – negatively on the countess. Now Natasha does come to tell her mother that was unforgivable but the Countess is unfazed, unrepentant and Natasha does wait until her mother is asleep and hesitates at first to go to Andrei. How hard it is to overcome the hegemonic norms which violates our deepest better nature. The episode ends with Natasha finding out that Andrea was taken in by the family: the actor playing Andre is superb; he has been all along; he is outstarred by Hopkins but the voice-over of his waking and thoughts in the first half and the meeting in the second was deeply moving. We see he is dying while Nastaya thinks there is a good life ahead for him and her.

Episodes 17: Of life and death; 18: The Retreat

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The death of Andrei

17: It opens with Natasha’s loving nursing of Andrei, touching scene between them with two overvoices as he thinks to himself while she speak and her speech heard as from afar. Very effective. It ends with Marya coming just as there is this terrible changed signaled by his having asked for a New Testament at the end of the opening scene. In the close Dobie enacts a man come to terms with death and moving away and out. So Pulman stays with Tolstoy’s interpretation of the inner life of Andrei’s death. By contrast (as I saw it only a week or so ago), Davies’ has Andrei struggling throughout, not the religious gliding into death at all – that’s why I cried so and it seemed to me so real. But Pulman is discreet and so are the actors and this religiosity of presented in muted but there form. Between this we have Pierre dragged before Davout, and the whole scene is his accusation; in the scene (not in the book) Pierre defends himself with a cogent statement (taken from the narrator) that such a city as Moscow would burn and Davout’s argument doesn’t make sense; nonetheless he is marched with other men and we see the shooting of them by firing squad. The death of the boy is not as anguished (or played up) as in the 2016 (and as I recall the 1955 where the political context was anti-totalitarian anti-communist).

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Then back again with the long dialogue with Platon (Harry Locke), the peasant who sees good everywhere, accepts everything, the dog, Pierre does more than listen; he says he feels more himself in this place than he’s felt for ever so long. Now that’s Pulman’s 1970s view of Pierre and of society: it does work in terms of this film. We are not quite convinced though (and I think we are meant to be); Pierre is so articulate, who would want to be Platon.

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Pierre meets Platon who extends his hand

Then back to the countess nagging Sonya who becomes cold and hard on the surface but gives in. A bitter moment. The Pulman film does give Sonya an inner life, one which critiques the world around her – as Pierre’s speech does. Then the coming of Marya with the boy and death of Andrei.

How quiet Episode 17 is. I had thought Danger UXB so unusual for ending quietly, not overstated at all despite central matter of defusing bombs with several of our heroes killed or maimed; this 1972 War and Peace shows a similar avoidance of ratcheted up melodramas.

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Pierre helping Platon — all four films have this sequence

18: All 45 plus minutes cover the retreat (about 6 chapters in Tolstoy’s book). The episode opens with Napoleon squabbling with his top men (Davout, and two others I recognize) where one is urging him to leave Moscow after they hear a report about no food, no hay, the place a shambles, riot. Napoleon says how else can he “make peace” if he leaves: he is told Alexander will not answer his letters. When he is warned Paris is without someone ruling it and to carry on like this risks revolt, he gives in. Switch to the rest of the time: a long duration of us watching phases of the prisoners kicked out to march, the people bullied, kicked and when one dies, he is pulled off, or himself drops and cries not to leave him, and then we hear a shot. Pierre does all he can to keep Platon going and meditates (flashbacks remembering Borodino as they come there and feeling horror as the montage goes on) but (as in the book) when he begin to feel Platon die, he distances himself: we feel a sense of grief in Platon but he gives over in the way of Andrei, and as they march on we hear the shot. The dog disappears.

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Denisov grieving for the life of Petya whom he had not been able to keep safe

Finally we switch to Denisov Gary Watson) and Dolokhov (Donald Burton): they are not presented as marauding quite, but it’s clear they are stealing and Dolokhov just loves it. After Petyra arrives, the scene of the young ensign is dramatized so that Dolokhov goes to have him shot, and Denisov stops him, is sneered at. Back to the retreat, voice over of Pierre walking off by himself (not quite realistic) and meditating darkly (from the book), and suddenly the Russians are upon them, the prisons realize they are saved. Much murder, mayhem, killing of Petya all the while Pierre stands about dazed. (Davies found this too hard and in his 2016 film has Dololkov joyous to save Pierre).

Last scene Napoleon getting into his fine sleigh, he says he does not want to desert his army (which he said I nthe first scene) but there is apparently nothing for it. He slides off in comfort, the pack of officers (now including Murat) wave in the snow.

The last two episodes (19: The Road to Life; 20: Epilogue) and a coda on the last words of all four W&P films I’ll cover here) are placed in the comments. This mini-series is the longest and fullest of the W&P movies thus far: 900 minutes.

Ellen

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The young Sonya and Natasha as we first see them on Natasha and her mother’s name day, Sonya revealing to Natasha how much she loves Nikolai (Episode 1)

Dear friends and readers,

I just loved this mini-series, with Anthony Hopkins as Pierre Bezukhov (quietly marvelous); Morag Hood as Natasha Rostova and Joanna David as Sonya Alexandrovna (cousins, both perfect in the roles almost as envisaged by Tolstoy, only Pulman writes for Sonya far more depths of pain and rebellion within); my favorite actress from the 1970s BBCs series, Angela Downs as Marya Bolkonskaya, Alan Dobie slowly melting into a thoughtful conflicted Andrei Bolkonsky, her brother, and perhaps best of all, Frank Middlemas as an unforgettable scene-stealing General Kutusov against the steely-iron egoist Napoleon performed by David Swift. I could go on to name more (Sylvester Morand is a more sensitive Nikolai, brother to Natasha, but perfect as the conventional man, with Gary Watson superbly just your moral effective soldier, Denisov, understandably in love with Natasha). And must not omit the other central controlling creative presence, John Davies as director. There is still such snobbery about TV films that the recent anthology Tolstoy on Screen never discusses it.

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Pierre, young, nervous, puzzled as his father (not legally. and whom he hardly knows but has been all powerful and is enormously rich) lies dying in a nearby room (Episode 1)

It was after my first watch-through of this that I proposed on Trollope19thCStudies that we read Tolstoy’s War and Peace together. Of Tolstoy’s text as translated by the Mauds, and revised by Mandelkera realized: What is so entrancing is how carefully subtly done are all the scenes, how Tolstoy’s philosophical and political thought is gotten into the film by inventing further scenes that frame what’s in the book; how each hour is a unit in its own, with its own mood and juxtapositions fitted so perfectly.

My experience was at first it is hard to get into the story as Pulman is moving naturalistically and not attempting to rivet our attention at all costs. Very like his quietly opening magnificent I, Claudius, this War and Peace series grows on you (like Tolstoy’s book). After a while, you realize you are so involved with the characters and stories and themes. As with my blog on the first two War and Peace movies (going in chronological order of making), the 1955 King Vidor and 1966 Bondarchuk W&Ps, I won’t go over the book’s story line and characters but leave the reader to find a summary or read my first blog on Tolstoy’s novel — or (as I hope) the reader has, or is about to, read Tolstoy’s masterpiece. I find the wikipedia page contains minimal cast lists and awards, and no break-down of episodes, no commentary, and there has as yet been not one essay in a published film journal (on-line or off), I’ll proceed episode by episode, 20 in all.

Episodes 1: Name-Day; and 2: Sounds of War

Uncannily (for I doubt Pulman read Tolstoy and his wife’s manuscripts as described by R.F. Christian in his book on the ms’s and sources of Tolstoy’s W&P), uncannily, Pulman reverses the scenes the novel opens with in the way they appeared in an early draft of the book.

The first episode in early drafts of W&P allow us to meet our central Rostov family: the fond weak naive count (Rupert Davies), uxorious over his calculatingly worldly wife, the Countess (Faith Brooke pitch perfect in this part); enjoying themselves by the spectacle now that they won it, all the while they are (clearly) overspending and being sluiced by everyone around them. In this the same limpet-clinger, Anna Mikhailovna (Anne Blake) greedy for money for her slowly emerging worldly son, Boris (Neil Stacy, aptly the same type in The Pallisers, Laurence Fitzgibbon, Phineas’s fair-weather friend). Episode 2 brings us to the first passages of Tolstoy’s novel, “What do you think of this man, Napoleon,” the fake patina of concern, the cant feeling of Anna Scherer (Barbara Young) in talk with the novel’s strongest site of mindless corruption for money and rank, Prince Vassily.

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Anna Scherer and Prince Vassily – the first moments of the novel realized (Episode 2)

Pierre comes in and his candor, intense interest in and sympathy for the “revolution” and Napoleon immediately makes him a pariah, laughing stock, but his equally sincere (if far more polished or cagey) friend, Andrei is there, and we see how bored this intelligent man is with his wife, but also how rough and hard to her. Pierre is as yet flotsam and jetsam and after promising not to go to the debauchery party of the novel’s slimy amoral drone aristocratic male semi-rake, Anatole Kuragin (Colin Baker, fitting son for Vassily), Pierre goes and thrusts himself into the drunken feats and cruelty to a bear and police officer that ensue. And then the (for me the first time) the astonishing frank depiction of the fight between Vassily and Princess Katische (cousin to Pierre, stands to inherit a lot if he doesn’t) on the one hand to grasp the money, and Anna Mikhailovna on behalf of Pierre who she hopes will reward her well, over the dying man’s papers & will. The unscrupulous Anna is in fact responsible for Pierre becoming a rich man, a fact that empowers several sets of characters in the book. A fitting contrast to Andrei’s austere, old-fashioned patriarchal home, the rasping tyrannical father, old Prince Bolkonsky (Anthony Jacobs) making life miserable by enforcing geometry on his self-effacing deeply generous puritan of a daughter, Marya.

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From the first scene of Andrei and his sister, Marya, they capture the implicit depths of bonding and communication of this pair (Episode 2)

Andrei unburdening himself of his wife by setting off for the “heroism” and honor of war duty. Andrei will be disillusioned slowly. The different worlds of the upper classes, gender faultlines, feeding off war of “le monde” that form the novel.

And then our first battle: Episode 3: Skirmish at Schongraben

This is a remarkable hour. The BBC people had to film real people, crowds of them in formations, real animals, gotten real canons and shot out from them. They tried for historical accuracy with weaponry and uniforms. They burn down a real bridge they had built. The scenes of masses of men must be there. I wondered what park they were using :). They were not able to project and show the carnage Tolstoy’s language can do so efficiently but it enough was done to be suggestive. The whole hour was given over to these hard war scenes, and an anti-war bias of the film has begun. Frank Middlemass particularly believable, effective — as when they learn of a massacre of the whole army of General Mack, and Andrei appalled to see how little seriously many people take this.

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POV Kutusov hurrying out of his room to Mack to register his sense of the horror the man has known, from the back Andrei

It helps clarify the novel for someone reading this part of it. David Swift starts up the character of Napoleon quietly; Tolstoy begins with the man as nasty, as numinously strong in his manipulative letters, cunning and bold: Swift and Pulman’s Napoleon only gradually shows himself centrally egoistic. But note how we are now in a historical film. And at the close Nikolai’s first experience of battle: his shock at the real danger, at people actually wanting to kill him (though he had wanted to kill them and hadn’t thought about it); when they blow up the bridge it seems to him a game (not so to Denisov)

Episode 4: A letter and two proposals; 5: Austerlitz; 6: Reunions

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Now the spillages begin as well as clear structuring: as the scene opens the Count is weeping over a letter; it’s from Nikolai telling of how he was wounded, the family’s characteristic half-comical over-responses and mode of re-assuring themselves. The unvarnished sincere emotionalism is then contrasted to the worldly cunning which despoils lives: Vassily maneuvers Pierre into marrying his daughter, Helene (Fiona Gaunt, a thankless role), shown to be utterly hollow, embarrassingly sexy, and after wealth of a man she hardly knows and despises, but Pierre unable to extract himself (not for the last time).

The pain to come of this contrasts to the pain experienced when the plain Marya finds herself courted for the first time by Vassily for his son, Anatole.

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She cannot but welcome the possible escape

But the complex old man maneuvers the situation to leave Marya distraught over Anatole’s hypocrisy, and chasing of the French companion-semi-mistress, Mlle Bourienne. The old prince is saving Marya a lifetime of grief, but she is so hemmed in by him she can meet no one naturally. Contrasting close-ups of Pierre desperately pressured and allured and Marya in bed brooding

caughtbecauseattracted (Episode 4)

And again a full episode of war: Austerlitz pivotal in the book, for at its close Andrei seems to have been killed, and the Russians permanently defeated. Long war scenes which show incompetence, scores of people dying for nothing (the book shows this), Napoleon emerges multi-sided, powerful man with an attempt to explain (he’s not at all like the characters seeking true friends, he’d laugh), a man strongly controlled on battlefields and seeming enigmatic political performances.

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Nikolai maturing (Episode 5)

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One of many moments in the battle landscape (Episode 5)

By the end of Episode 5 all the characters are dispersed and then in 6, Reunion, they are brought back to where they started: grief as Andrei’s death is understood from uncertain letters; Nikolai’s home-coming to love; Pierre’s to cool indifference; Helene now having an affair with Dolokov (Donald Burton), a bright cunning amoral rakish and sadistic side-kick of Anatole’s; the death of the princess in childbirth just as Andrei does return. What’s plotted is a cyclical repetitive structuring, a return to the same character in the same situation but older, there’s been intervening experience

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Far shots, odd angles, landscapes each make a different statement: this is a courtyard modeled on typical Russian country mansions of the early 19th century (Episode 5)

I am impressed by how: how brilliantly and convincingly Pulman conveys Tolstoy’s depiction of nervous distress in a nuanced way so as to show it in public situations. The explorations of the miseries of these arranged marriages by showing someone marrying badly and how he’s engineered into it: Pierre with Helene. Pierre has a rich good nature and is thus taken advantage of by Vassily who forestalls his holding off by just pretending that Pierre has asked for Ellen’s hand. Yet Vassily does not succeed with Prince Bolkonsky: Vassily having garnered Pierre’s fortune into his family, makes a move on Maria, the homely Bolkonsky daughter, and ironically the ill-natured man are much better able to fend off this than the semi-trusting instinctive one: Anatole is precisely wrong for Maria who is fooled by him: he would have had an affair with the French governess before he left the mansion. Ironically we see how the foolishly aptly-worldly Andre’s wife, the little Princess does just fine with the hypocritical shits like Anatole and Vassily. Yet she’s become poor in health; she needs society, Andrei as her husband with brains, or her pregnancy will destroy her. Anthony Hopkins’s performance: young then and calibrated just right, with no embarrassment. People individually; in “le monde,” in war.

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

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Walking and Talking (Episode 7)

Episodes 7: New Beginnings; 8: A Beautiful Tale

The first ironically titled; the second (unusual for any book or film) uses a surge of idealism and hope first to undermine Andrei’s bitterness and losses. Andrei is pulled by Pierre’s visits from his retirement and meditatiom, meets and is “recalled to life” (a Dickensian phrase for a man come out of prison) by the intensity of Natasha’s youthful hopefulness and joy in all the sensuality and thoughts, plans of existence found in Natasha at a ball.

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Andrei asking Natasha to dance (Episode 8)

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The sun on his eyes (Episode 8)

Pulman, together with stunning performances by the actors, did justice to Tolstoy’s book. After Austerlitz, after a dual, a death from pregnancy, disease, we see a turn to meaninglessness as the good characters cannot get others to act seriously, usefully, lives not realized, gifts thrown away, the absurd lack of thought and also how the man given big honors knows this (Frank Middlemas as Kutusov got that across at this table). Pierre is driven by needling and insults from Doloknov at the same dinner party to duel with him as his wife’s lover and shoots to kill — an act of naivete (I bond with this aspect of Pierre.) Luckily Doloknov does not die as he in his apparent last breath tries to kill in turn, and then grieves over how his mother will miss him.

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Dolohkov, Nikolai, Denisov Laughing at Pierr, his POV (Episode 7)

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Pierre fleeing the scene of the duel (Episode 7)

Then we have the scene of Pierre shouting hysterically at his awful wife (the portrait in Tolstoy is misogynistic and Pulman keeps to it) to get out. He can’t stand the sight of her. She says oh yes, she can hardly wait, but he is going to pay.
 
Very moving were too long dialogues you’d never see today. The first Pierre on his way to his estate, in retreat from the corrupt society, meets with a Mason and they talk deeply about life’s meaning: whether one should believe in God or an afterlife and what if you don’t. He becomes a Mason. Pullman shows the ceremonies to be absurd (modeled on some performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute either Pulman or Davies saw. 
 
He visits Andrei and now we have another more enlightenment type discourse where Andrea is the atheistic view and more or less wins as probable and Andrei proposes another way to get through life – -you don’t need to believe in this overarching pattern at all. It seems more or less you muddle through. Don’t even try to do good – -which is what Pierre has been trying on his estate. We do get views of the peasants where are deeply class-ridden but the film means seriously
 
A wholly invented scene for Napoleon in council conveys Tolstoy’s views on history (how it works), philosophy (what is the meaning of life even) in ways relevant to politics today. It’s a relief for em to re-watch this film over and over.

Episode 9: Leave of Absence

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Natasha dancing to a folk violin played by her uncle

The title is utterly inadequate: this hour includes the beautiful renditon of the Rostovs’ Christmas embedded inside the family pathologies and tensions and misunderstandings of the Bolkonskys (the old prince’s biting cruelty to Andrey, the countess’s hysterical tirades at Nikolai, his at the stewards) and the desolation of Pierre as with over-voice he tells us of his life with whores/flunkies in his wife’s salon (the Masons have not helped). To me nothing comes near this rendition of War and Peace. From the point of view of moving the story forward, or about the character’s coming fates, the film “wasted” the whole hour. This was a splendid full scale elaboration of a Christmas interlude at the Rostovs in the country just after we are told their finances are in a wretched state – we’ve seen how Nikolai gambled away a huge sum in the previous episode. All the characters are in character: the dinner, the dancing, the hunt with another family; it was atmospheric, the idea Talleyrand’s about how sweet such lives were before the tumbrils began to roar through Paris. it is a high point in the novel too.

Episode 10: Madness

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Natasha trying to explain her vulnerability to such a seduction/attack.

In this episode as Pulman presents this supposedly nadir of Natasha’s young life, she succumbs to her nervous distress at having to wait for a year for a man to return to her and then decide if he wants her, the disdain of his family, and falls for anyone who says he values her. I know outwardly this kind of incident — the young girl eloping with a cad or looking at him so idiotically happens; in the book Tolstoy finds less explanation for it than Pullman in this BBC movie. Davies (BBC, 2015, Lily James as Natasha) has the Freudian erotic enthrallment paradigm in mind more (for Tolstoy that seems to be the whole matter). Sonya saves her and Pierre comforts her. Probably because I now know of the opera playing on Broadway with the title, Pierre, Natasha and the Great Comet of 1812, for the first time I took note of Pierre’s pointing to it as an omen. I didn’t note it much when I listened or read either. Especially the 2007 mini-series made for TV of W&P focuses precisely on this particular incident: that film turns the book into a soap opera heroine-centered Victorian melodrama (idiot girl fooled by vicious young man ends up punished but is comforted by good young man). Pulman’s shows how the same literal material can make a viewer/reader soar as these beautifully natured characters begin to recognize a life’s companion.

Since the characters have been given so much time to develop, the awakening relationship because of this incident between Pierre and Natasya is believable and touching. Beatrice Lehmann is superb as the aunt who rescues Natasha from eloping with the shit Kuragin male, Antoine (married to someone else) on Sonya’s say-so then castigates Natasha for “disgusting” (read sexual) behavior. Unlike Tolstoy’s or Davies, Pulman’s Andrei is hurt but also relieved — he was about to make another mistake, marry another girl far too young for him. Pierre is the site of consolation in the book and this mini-series. No one comes near him in moral understanding. Though he hasn’t got the strength of character to withstand the society around him when he confronts evil, and he certainly hasn’t the power to change much, he is getting better at it. The episode ends with him comforting Natasha

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It is not hard when experiencing this mini-series or reading the book to understand that this core is not the whole even to a limited extent what shapes the experience (which is the mistake of both the Vidor 1955 and the 2007 mini-series). The moment would not have the larger meaning it does without our exploration of the larger corrupt society, the worlds of Russia, the family lives, how so many types find different meaning and loss in their interactions, and how politics by military violence, the top pest males (Alexander I played by the quiet David Douglas is as selfish and uncomprehending of anything beyond himself as Napoleon in the film), and their imitators at all levels impinges on everything. In this scenario, Helene, Anna Mikhailovna, Anna Scherer, Countess Rostov, Katische are the female servants of this order. Those major characters resisting are Pierre, Natasha, Sonya, those upholding but with decent values Nikolai, Denisov, Count Rostov (though he’s been sluiced)

As Borodino is the pivotal moment for “the war” and larger history parts of the book, so Natasha’s enthrallment out of weakness, shame and her near-abduction incident is the pivotal climax for the “le monde” part of the novel. Pulman imitates this structure.

Tomorrow the second 10 episodes.

Ellen

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