Posts Tagged ‘Helen Mirren’

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

Dear friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Philomena (Judi Dench) and Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) by the grave of her son

Dear friends and readers,

To help myself get through Thanksgiving Day yesterday, I went out to a movie that had gotten rave reviews: Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears, written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and based on The Lost Child of Philomena, a book by the real journalist, named Martin Sixsmith, who did help an elderly Irish woman locate the adult her baby born 50 years earlier and taken from her had become:

50 years ago Philomena became pregnant outside marriage (in the film after one night’s love-making at a fair); she was thrown out by her parents, and taken in by a Catholic Charity who proceeded to treat her in the harshest way: she had a breech-birth with no painkillers; she was made to work long hard hours in a laundry for 4 years for little pay in the meagerest circumstances and, along with the other unwed mothers, permitted to see her child one hour a day. Her male child and another female were sold to an American couple for $1000 and she coerced into signing her rights away. Years later the nuns lied to her when she came back to locate him: they said the records were all burnt but one, the paper where she signed her rights to her child away. In the film the journalist is immediately suspicious: how could this one document survive and all others be destroyed? We discover they lied to the boy become an older man when he returned to find her; when he died of AIDS, he wanted to be buried at the charity and his grave is now there and in the film untended (like those who died at the time of the mean inhumane treatment)

The film resembles Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I saw some years ago (2001) where the aborigine children of three women are snatched by middle class white Australians to be brought up in a European middle class culture (but in a harsh orphanage-like environment); in that film the girls make their way back to their mothers through terrible deserts. In both films, the behavior is justified by those who did it: in Philomena, the nuns say she was a gross sinner who deserved the worst punishment; in Rabbit-Proof Fence, Australian authorities say the white culture will provide a much better life for the children when (and if) they grow up. Philomena acknowledges that the boy, Michael in the film, grew up in a middle class home in circumstances which enabled him to become a successful lawyer and work for top Republican people; he was gay and lived with a male friend in reasonable comfort until he contracted AIDS which killed him well before he and others could get the Republicans in charge to fund any program to help find a cure or help for this fatal disease condition.

So the premise is not sentimental. The story exposes a profound injustice done to a powerless woman.

This review (by Jay Stone, Post-Media News) praising the film tells the basic opening premise: a fired or failed and humiliated politician becomes a journalist who does human interest stories and finds himself hired to help an elderly woman locate her son. Also its moral purport: “an odd-couple drama with a dark heart and a post-modern sensibility, an expose of the shockingly sadistic treatment of unwed mothers in the 1950s, and a worldly dismissal of everything that brought it about.” Martin and Philomena are an odd couple: utterly disparate in cultural understanding and age (she reads and understands improbable sentimental romances literally), his sceptical ironic perspective and her naive defenses of those who damaged her profoundly make for oddly dark humor.

Researching today is looking into the computer

I had not expected this political paradigm: unlike Rabbit-Proof Fence the way the film is advertised, does not bring out its critique of the anti-sex and anti-women attitude in Catholicism, its hypocritical practices: not only do the nuns in charge lie, they make it impossible for Philomena to talk to the aging still ferociously hateful nuns who did the deed. I also didn’t expect the plot-design: such stories usually end in the victim finding her child all grown up and happy and successful at the close; or dead, having died terribly and had a terrible life at the close. That’s what the head newswoman keeps saying on the phone she expects Martin to find after his journey to the US with Philomena and she wants him to write it up that way in order to sell newspapers and is paying the funds needed for travel and research in the expectation of such a story. He is to find such a story write it this way.

Instead about 1/3rd into the film, maybe less, through the computer’s access to information and Martin’s experience telling him where to look when they get to the US, we and then Philomena discover what happened to her son and that he died some 20 years ago. Armed with his name, the names of the people who bought him and became his parents, and the names of those he worked with in the Republican administrations (and photos too), they slowly discover what was her son’s nature and how he lived (middle class life growing up, good school but the parents were hard on him and the girl who became his sister), his homosexuality (which funnily but believably Philomena suspects quickly upon seeing his photos). They and we visit his sister; then an ex-colleague now at the Folger Library; and after much struggle, they force their way into the house of his partner (who was in effect his spouse) and he shows them one of these montages of photos and films that funeral homes nowadays make up and put on DVDs as wellas websites for customers.

It was when the film became to play this montage I broke down. I began to sob uncontrollably. It was so like the montage the Everly-Wheatley Funeral Home made of my husband Jim; opening with the same sentence telling the day the person was born; closing with a similar sentence recording the day he died, and more or less taking the viewer through the stages of the person’s life as he looked and changed. The relatives of this fictionalized montage and I and my daughter naturally chose the best pictures and the expertise of the funeral director puts them into coherent order. Soft music and interwoven photos of natural phenomenon (grass, birds, sky, flowers) do the rest. So the montage I paid for is common I learned.

After that the emotional moments in the rest of the film drew tears from my eyes. Judi Dench rightly receives high praise for her performance. I’ve seen her several times before perform this high-wire act (Cranford Chronicles, with Maggie Smith, Ladies in Lavender) where she conveys a depth of tender emotion just held in check so that a sentimental story is told prosaically; a underlying sternness of aspect in Dench’s face (Helen Mirren pulls off this kind of thing too) is part of what’s responsible for the effectiveness of Dench’s presence; as Philomena she conveys some self-irony (like Maggie Smith does in her enactments of this kind of role, say Bed Among Lentils) — even in a woman given to retelling with utter earnestness the silliest romance stories.

Dench is helped by being partnered with an acerbic comic actor: Steve Coogan played in a burlesque adaptation of Tristam Shandy (A Cock and Bull Story); as Ann Hornaday says he utters “mordant asides” “often having nothing to do with theology, or religion.” Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian calls them a divine couple.

One must not forget the contribution of Stephen Frears who while not seen has made many film masterpieces as disparate as My Beautiful Laundrette, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, The Grifters, Mary Reilly, recently Cheri, Tamara Drewe. And scriptwriters Coogan and Jeff Pope.

It was Thanksgiving Day which is still kept by many Americans so few people were in the theater. Most were presumably at home with families or friends eating a turkey or other roast-bird meal. Or quietly allowing others to think they are. Some put photos on the Net to show they are participating, a propensity made fun of this week in the New Yorker (see The Ordeal of Holidays).


A known secret is that Christmas Day is now passed by many by going to a movie — you do see people in groups — and the meal is sometimes eaten out in a restaurant (Asian ones have been open on Christmas Day for a long time, permitting the joke I passed the day in the Jewish way, movie and Chinese food out). Although Thanksgiving itself has not been commercialized beyond the buying of a bird and trimmings, those who don’t get to do this are made to feel bad so public media shows include statements by announcers expressing compassion for the presumed unhappiness of those who don’t get to experience such get-togethers for whatever reason. On Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifills’ PBS Reports, I saw the story of a poor black woman who since food stamp allowances were cut gets $63 worth of groceries per month for herself and her grandchild. This is not enough to buy a Thanksgiving feast. Well some charitable organization in Virginia was giving away grocery bags full of roast birds, vegetables, treats (cakes? pies?) and drinks; as a viewer I listened to her description of her life (she is the type who works at Wall-Mart’s) and how grateful (!) she was to the charity. Right.

The demanded behavior on Thanksgiving or Turkey day is an expression of thanks (read W. S. Merwin’s poem) — in origin it’s a religious ritual feast.

I’m not immune to this. Today was my birthday and I was relieved and rejoiced when my young friend, Thao, and her partner, Jeff, were able to make it to DC all the way from Toronto, Canada, where they live. It is common for people in the US to travel long distances to get back to some relative or friend for dinner. Thao and Jeff were here also to shop for an an engagement ring and see other friends (she attended GMU for her undergraduate degree). I am no cook, but together for the day after Turkey Day, Izzy and I managed to roast a chicken, heat up frozen pre-prepared zuchini (awful), cook spaghetti and a yummy pasta and cheese sauce I bought from Whole Foods; fresh bread, ginger ale for all but me (who drank cheap Riesling) and Port Salud cheese rounded out our feast. We talked, took photos.

If you should see the remarkably candid, intelligent and moving bio-pic Joan Rivers made about her life (A Piece of Work), you will find that on Thanksgiving day she makes a feast in her apartment and to fill the table’s chairs and do a good deed, she invites street-people known to her up to apartment each year to eat with her. A friend of mine whose grown children are divorced, live far away, know unemployment and other obstacles preventing all from getting-together, this friend invites three woman who have no families to dine with her and her husband and those of her children and grandchildren who do make it.

I have a double excuse for this weakness this year: my beloved husband died of cancer this year; the rightly dreaded disease allowed to continue to spread (President Obama just signed some bill easing the way for those who want to frack for huge profits), this disease killed him horribly inside 6 months.


But I digress. I’ve forgotten Philomena. Don’t miss it. It’s funny. The background is modern day USA as experienced by the middle class in DC and modern day Ireland. We are able to remain calm and not get too indignant because the Catholic nunnery as presented in the film is an anomaly, a broken-down place no one in their right mind goes near. None of the sternness of the ending of Rabbit-Proof Fence: in Rabbit-Proof Fence, the perpetrator played by Kenneth Branagh remains as unreformed as the nuns in Philomena do, but the aborigine children who escaped back to the aborigine people are presented in their present poverty-stricken existences — probably dependent on charities the way the black grandmother seen on the Woodruff-Ifill show was yesterday. The modern-day Philomena lives with a kind patient professional daughter wisely underplayed by Anna Maxwell Martin (another wonderful actress who I hope decades from now is working on in the way Judi Dench, Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith all have). Mother and Daughter live in a decent house, do lunch in pubs.



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leigh anna kareninablog
Vivien Leigh as Anna (1948 film, scripted Jean Anouilh)

Ralph Richardson’s Karenin, reasoning with Leigh as Anna

Oblonsky to Levin: It’s Kitty I’m sorry for — not you! — Stoppard’s Anna

Anna to Vronsky: I would never see my son again. The laws are made by husbands and fathers … Unhappiness? I’m like a starving beggar who has been given food — Stoppard’s Anna

Dear friends and readers,

After seeing Wright and Stoppard’s recent film of Anna Karenina, featuring Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfayden, Jude Law, I determined to read the book. I had tried when I was in my teens but been defeated because I found the Levin matter intolerable; this time I thought I’d manage by listening to it read aloud while driving my car. It took time so I lingered over it (sometimes at night reading this or that passage on my own) as Davina Porter’s reading was brilliant.

I found I much prefer the meaning of the story & characterizations in Wright and Stoppard’s from Tolstoy’s; that Tolstoy’s story is meant to be and is harshly punitive on Anna even if he feels for her loneliness married to a repressed easily resentful man much older than she. He presents her adulterous love as an evil impulse in her which moves from impelling her boldly to leave her husband and live an amoral life, and then twists her to destroy her relationship with her lover because she cannot accept her despised position. She cannot find something within herself to give her life meaning because she has moved away from religion. Greater sympathy is allotted Karenin. Tolstoy’s unique greatness seems to me that he conveys a sense of every day life slowly passing for all. He dramatizes people’s working lives, how they pass time in the evening; he reveals the tedium of existence. He is said to be respected for his rounded apparently believable characters, but when I listened to it with my husband in the car with me, they emerged as types, stereotypes from other novels in part. He does not offend against conventional standards of good taste — as forged by male oriented readers.

Tolstoy is not interested in Anna’s lack of happiness or fulfillment as a woman; the system needs to change, and that’s the point of the Levin part of the novel. Levin is said to marry wholly for love (which is basically an animal passion as we see once they marry they do not understand one another’s minds at all); he is not performative. Tolstoy writes against personal ambition, performativeness. Levin is also contrasted to the drone Oblonsky (Anna’s brother) who is unfaithful to his wife, Dolly, does no useful work, conceives of positions in gov’t and elsewhere as sheer plums of money for him to collect to support his habits. Not only does Levin work the fields and keep his house, Levin would change the political complexion of the nation to be more equal, to provide more education and opportunities for the lower orders.

Domnhall Gleeson as Levin (Stoppard and Wright’s version — it’s hard to find images of earlier Levins as non-entities often played the part and were forgotten by the public)

Here he is stopped because what is valued in political gatherings is the ability to network, to flatter others, to be congenial in an amoral kind of way, to look handsome. All these Vronsky does, and if Vronsky had not been destroyed by his relationship with Anna, the way he fits into his regiment and is liked and the way he immediately is a social success the one time he goes to a political gathering, shows he would have risen to power.

Sean Bean as a decent intelligent well-meaning Vronsky in 1997 (BBC)

He has a conscience and some decent ideals (unlike Oblonsky); when in the novel with Anna and she is still behaving, he opens and supervises a hospital, schools, but he would not begin to go further than reforming his own area and property and people within it without giving up one iota of power.

In short, Tolstoy writes a 19th century novel which (like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary) has been over-rated because he does at least deal with adultery directly. The way to value it is the way we value Gaskell’s Ruth where the heroine is similarly punished – this time for having a child out of wedlock where at least an attempt is made to present a woman’s sexual life. We can also liken Anna Karenina to Trollope’s novels (Tolstoy admired Trollope enormously, said Trollope’s books “killed him”): they are debates about the political and economic and to some extent social arrangements of the era where a kind of moderate reform is proposed, and how political life is really carried on exposed.


Structure — I assume the reader knows the story, if not you may find it in the wikipedia article.

Gretta Garbo as Anna (1935 film, director Clarence Brown)

Frederick March as Vronsky to Garbo’s Anna

The novel made be said to be made up of two novellas which could’ve been very short but are here blown up into a large book by modern psychological and realistic techniques. At the opening of Is He Popenjoy? Trollope says he wishes he could write his story in the brief strong way of railway novels, but must make it middle class through subtilizing it, then it becomes acceptable to Mudie’s lending library.

If I were to see the novel as an outgrowth of the 18th century novel (it’s set in the early part of the 18th century), I’d say Anna-Vronksy comes from Lafayette’s Princess de Cleves (same central types in the couple) by way of 18th century depth psychology: the president de Tourvel in Les Liasions Dangereuses, and this is a deep vein of fiction important in functioning for liberty. In Anna Karenina, paradoxically the story that functions for liberty is Dolly’s — how badly Oblonsky treats her shows how a woman needs more liberty and independence.

Anna Karenina
Matthew MacFayden as the conscienceless, self-satisfied bureaucrat, Oblonsky (given star billing in Wright and Stoppard’s play, considerably softened, he grieves for Anna at the movie’s close)

The Levin material is by comparison Sir Charles Grandison matter. I’m sure Kitty breast-fed, no need for Tolstoy to tell us.

A wholesome Alicia Vikander as Kitty (Wright and Stoppard’s version)

It’s exemplary, optimistic, leisurely, leaving time for disquisitions on art (though there are some of these in the Vronksy-Anna story when Vronsky takes up painting for a while), politics, farming, social life. In mood it’s closer to section in Rousseau’s Julie, ou La Nouvelle Heloise when the heroine goes to live in Switzerland with her husband. I do like the debates over politics whose nuances remind me of arguments between Plantagenet and Phineas: Levin wants moderation; he does not wan to exploit so ruthless and yet wants his property and place. The others take the modern position of Republicans like Romney which are recreations of this older indifference to anything but the one narrow classes utter comforts. Where the story becomes fascinating again is realism (not in Grandison as character). Levin’s jealousy of Kitty before worldly men, the hunt and his resentment. No kindness in Tolstoy towards the poor animals slaughtered so effectively by Oblonsky who has the admiration of all, very chic in rags and the best guns. I imagine like Trollope over hunting foxes, Tolstoy hunted grouse, and farmed the way Levin does.

D’Epinday’s Montbrillant (mid-18th century long memoir as novel) has the same two types of fiction squashed together only the Grandison part is about salons, and Vronsky-Anna stories of adultery and sexuality are really seen from the woman’s point of view forced to acquiesce in her husband’s adulteries, and attempts to sell her to pay his debts.


From my reading experience as I went through the book and remembered the movie I had just seen and what I’ve read about the other movies and Tolstoy and other 19th century novelists:

At first: Tolstoy’s book feels so rich. It seems to contain in it other novels: well when Anna first meets Vronsky, he is just about engaged to Kitty, Anna’s brother’s sister-in-law. It’s deep attraction at first sight for Anna and Vronsky — which we are warned is bad news for Anna by Anna’s brother’s father-in-law’s attitude towards Vronsky.

It reminds me very much of Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga. Anna is regarded as this icon of mysterious beauty in just the way Irene Heron is. The possessive successful male sweeps her up, but he cannot understand or satisfy her. The dark continent.

Eric Porter played both Soames in 1967 and Karenin in 1977 for the BBC

Unlike Irene, Anna resists this attraction at first, but then she’s nowhere as unhappy as Irene with her husband. She has had a child, she is satisfied with her friendship with Dolly, her sister-in-law. In Tolstoy’s novel by this point we see that Levin is actually the central hero or presence of the novel, however ironized, for by beginning with Anna’s brother Oblonsky, Levin his friend is brought on novel’s stage and (unlike the 2012 play and movie) becomes central for chapters and chapters.

Tom Stoppard and Joe Wright’s movie is literally true to the book as it opens (they deviate later) — but then cut off at all the Levin material.


Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Wright and Stoppard’s debauched, half-crazed Vronsky

I’m into part 2 of 5 and remarkably very early on Tolstoy makes it clear that Vronsky lives the life of a shallow drone, someone Anna should have walked away from. In the play he is neurotic, over-emotional in the extreme whatever he does; in the novel is he an average aristocrat, perhaps a little better than many, capable of shame and good feeling. Others see this — Dolly’s father, for example. We see the low-life demi-monde Vronsky favors. The text feels for Anna very much, but Tolstoy sees love and coupling as sheerly drivingly sexual and has no inward understanding for real.

Myself I find Tolstoy’s a male view — it’s found in Trollope. Tolstoy does sufficient justice to Anna’s tight bond to her son and how much she is as yet comfortable with, respects Karenin at first, but she has tired of the way he is cold, stays away from her, is controlling from the outside. The words Anna used to express her love for Vronsky to Vronsky upon trying to explain why she is not degraded by their affair (all the while made to feel terribly shamed) could be a translation of the words Laura Kennedy uses in Trollope’s Phineas Redux when they walk in Konisberg at the castle over the parapets. The words in Trollope to describe her passion are close to those in Garnett’s translation. It’s uncanny.



Comparison of an incident: Bronte’s Villette and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

I can’t resist making a note of this. I had earlier been listening to Bronte’s Villette where there is a striking parallel and contrast to Tolstoy’s book.

In Bronte’s a powerful sequence shows Lucy all alone coming to Brussels and with her tiny amount of money seeking a hotel to stay. She is given an address by a kind stranger. Lucy Snow sets out. It’s nighttime. She finds herself followed by two young men who are laughing at her, to her they seem semi-thugs, they call out. In euphemisms it’s suggested they are after her sexually. Terrified she gets confused where she is and goes the wrong way altogether. This results in her landing into the school which takes her in. It determines the course of her life. It’s a harrowing sequence. Izzy was in the car with me and both of us gripped. Told of course from the woman’s point of view.

In Tolstoy’s AK, Vronsky tells this “amusing” story to the demi-monde woman he finds in his flat which he is sharing with a drone low-life officer, she this man’s mistress. It seems that two young men in his regiment saw a young woman coming home and they thought her living alone. What fun. For a lark they follow her upstairs. The next day an irate husband challenges them. Vronsky (good man they all think) has been negotiating to avoid a duel. The woman was his pregnant wife returning home early from the theater. Vronsky is much amused at how often the husband so easily become irate: his honor is involved. To do Tolstoy justice he gives us a glimpse of this young woman coming home and in distress.

But the accent is not there quite. The sequence is not harrowing. The incident reveals Vronsky whose concern is with his regiment. Yet it is told. It is part of Vronsky’s view of women: he tells it to the demi-monde as a joke. I have not got up to her response.

Only in the novel I’m typing slowly, Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde (English Jacobin & sentimental novel), do we have an harassment incident where the point is at least made that an attitude of mind by men towards women causes this at least by implication. Emily is staying with a cousin who does not care to protect her from the men in the house; they know she’s a poor, a nobody, no father and they chase after her through the landscape. The result is not a plot-hinge but it is significant in Ethelinde’s determination to quit this house. We are made to feel this sort of thing is what Ethelinde would have to contend with in this house when she arrives.

As a woman who has had such experiences I know they can drive a girl who has partly succumbed to the pestering and aggression (which is presented as just fine) to avoid going out. The Steubenville rape is a crude ugly bullying version of what I’m pointing to here. How far it can go.

Tolstoy as a young man, 1848 — he could be Levin

Tolstoy skips over the long year of deepening involvement — unlike another neglected novel which explores adultery seriously as an alternative to a miserable marriage where one can find companonship (Charlotte Smith’s Ethelinde).
What Tolstoy is interested in, “does justice” to Anna’s horrific guilt once she and Vronsky have sex. There’s more of this self-horror than anything else. This is utterly different from Stoppard and Wright’s movie too -there we have the woman who wants to escape imprisonment and exploitation. I prefer the movie though I grant the depth of writing and intensity in Tolstoy is powerful

Levin is a sort of surrogate for Tolstoy, and again in the movie this is not so. He is more than half-caricatured by Wright and Stoppard. Oblonsky is sensible in comparison. It’s interesting to see this 21st century amoral modern take as opposed to Tolstoy’s Victorianism which makes Oblonsky into a semi-Skimpole type.

I find myself remembering what I read about Tolstoy about the time Jay Parini’s book, The Last Station, focusing on Tolstoy’s wife was made into an interesting film. The film made Sophia self-centered, materialistic, seeking sex for herself and not for procreation, but it was my understanding Parini’s book in fact was a real critique of Tolstoy as self-deluded, a powerful aristocrat who took advantage of his status all the time, with real sympathy for Sophie — which Helen Mirren picked up on.

Mirren counters the distrustful anti-sexuality thrust of Tolstoy’s conception of his wife and women

Tolstoy’s last text was one where he presented sexuality as such as loathsome even when inside marriage, Kreutzer’s Sonata.

Frances Trollope’s novel of an unwed mother, Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day is another 19th century novel which shows far more understanding of women’s vulernability and inner life. But she too (like Gaskell) makes her heroine suffer without showing what was the pleasure. Yet I had to drive 90 minutes in my car once again yesterday and found myself listening to a very long loving description of every detail Levin and Kitty’s wedding ceremony. The equivalent of a bridal magazine today. It so irritated me. Why so much time on this? Tolstoy is clever and he makes ironic jokes about how a couple of years from now for just about everyone this long ceremony seems idiotic, false, but that’s not what the lengthy text does. It insists that each detail the wedding counts; that’s why Levin is late in dressing, why Kitty spends months and months in planning with her mother. Bridezilla.

It could be a woman’s magazine today. It explains why fools complained that in Downton Abbey Fellowes had the brains to present Lady Mary and Matthew’s wedding only in terms of the fuss and trouble leading up to it.

Just before the ceremony Levin is not the ideal exemplary man having won the love of the sweet chaste Kitty, almost alienates her by letting her see his diaries with his disgusting affairs. This great novel of adultery is deeply against sex. When in Downton Abbey Dan Stevens had to play some of this kind of nonsense, he looked excruciated.

Not Wright at all and not Stoppard; they skip the wedding.

Meanwhile in the book Vronsky rushes to Anna in bed who has given birth to their little girl, confessed to Karenin and been forgiven. But Anna cannot stand her husband’s presence or embraces; she is beyond reason or humanity towards Karenin who (in the novel) turns emotionally noble and is willing to be shamed and take her back. Vronsky throws himself onto Anna, she cannot resist and three sentences later they disappear from the narrative only to turn up chapters later several months later so we can see them despised. We only saw their affair a year later.

I hadn’t realize how much Wright departed from Tolstoy until I’d gotten well past the mid-point of the book. In Wright and Stoppard’s version Anna leaves Karenin half-way through the narrative, and takes up life with Vronsky; has her baby daughter by Vronsky while living with him. In Tolstoy’s book she has not left Karenin as yet; Karenin has begun proceedings for a divorce and custody of his (now apparently detested) son. But Anna nearly dies in puperal fever, she hysterically calls for her husband, declares him great, noble-souled, and herself so much crap; she and Karenin manage to humiliate Vronsky and in the throes of this scene Karenin forgives Anna. Vronsky goes home, shamed, and realizing suicide can be brought on by humiliation and the world’s scorn tries to shoot himself through the chest and nearly dies. Both though do not die — Tolstoy implies perhaps Anna would have been better off if she had and so too Vronsky. She lives to regret, and in Tolstoy Vronksy lives on to want to get her back, only much later to be destroyed by her suicide.

It’s theatrically effective in the book and films which use it, and the discourse about forgiveness and how Karenin wants to keep to that, how it brings out the good soul in him is probably (I do believe) the conscious message. But I find the scenes at the bedside absurd and improbable — but perhaps a 19th century reader would not have.

Much of Tolstoy’s text is taken up with how badly Kareinin feels. He naturally becomes the prey of religious fanatics like the old countess, Lydia. It’s the only way he can hold up his head; she is responsible for Karenin’s keeping Anna’s son from her too. So the man is absolved and sympathized with again and again.

Not so in Wright and Stoppard’s film where the narrow, sexless and vindictive seething of the man is emphasized — here Jude Law has a tight mind and body


Horse race as done in the theater of Wright and Stoppard’s conception

This is not to say there are not many remarkable and interesting passages in Tolstoy’s book — sort of interwoven in as part of the story but reflecting both Tolstoy’s high sense of himself and his fiction and its purpose.

From the penultimate sections of the book, before the final crash of Anna and departure of Vronsky to a useless war where he and his regiment of desperate men will be killed for nothing — and the qualified contentment ending of Levin’s choice to marry Kitty and live the life of an aristocratic landlord-farmer.

The depiction of Vronsky’s attempt at a career as an artist and patron of the arts in Italy in the earliest phase of his time with Anna, when she is still in control of herself and enjoying life well away from Russian society. This sequence allows Tolstoy to present thoughts on art and the 19th century scene.

The death of Levin’s brother is another sequence — we see the poverty of most hotels in this rigid ancien regime world. We see how badly the supposedly idealistic leftist brother treats the prostitute he has taken in as his wife. On this level, Tolstoy feels for a woman; she ought to have stayed with a peasant husband somewhere. I’m sure Levin would have found her one had she come to him first.

I’m also “enjoyed” the realism of the relationship of Vronsky and Anna as it slowly hurts so badly from being outside the rest of the world, the ostracizing, and even Levin and Kitty with their lack of real understanding of one another and explosive fights in early marriage.

Keira Knightley as the grieving mother

Extraordinarily strong because so believable Anna’s stolen visit to her son and the responses of the servants, her meeting Karenina and his half-mad behavior. You can prove anything if you get to make up the evidence, but far more than Trollope successfully I think Tolstoy does persuade us a woman of this milieu, religion, would feel the intense guilt of Anna, digs deep into it, how it functions to twist her and give her little chance to finally live a life that is fulfilling for both with Vronsky. The scene at the theater where she goes out of some kind of inner-directed spite at herself and Vronsky equally strong. Vronsky needs to be accepted in the world and live in it; she needs just the respect.

Anna supported by the corrupt Princess Betsy (Ruth Wilson)

She is mortified and humiliated. I wish I could believe Tolstoy critiquing this double standard but he’s not.

The linchpin connection between the Vronksy-Anna matter and the Kitty-Levin is Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly with whom the book and Stoppard and Wright’s movie opens. Dolly feels for Anna; her husand, Oblonsky a careless rake and roue who is ruining them by his continual spending of money (leaving nothing for the household, saving nothing for the children’s education).

So, Oblonsky’s harried put-upon wife, Dolly, goes to visit Anna. Anna had persuaded Dolly to stay with Oblonsky after one of Oblonsky’s many affairs (the man has casual encounters and sex like some people have meals) was exposed — because it was with the governess. He spends all their money, he impregnates her carelessly; she is worn, her children will have no decent schools unless her father pays for it — reminds me of Montague Dartie in Forsyte Saga. She knows he does not love her. She is miserable. She thinks Anna is no different from her, just braver. When she arrives, Anna is ecstatic to see her and Vronsky so glad. She notices the people around them are third-rate hangers on as the world judges these things. We are made to notice how rich Anna is through her eyes — the riding out, the hat, the horse, the house they stay in.

So, were this an English novel, this moneyed state of Anna would be accounted for — it’s not in AR. It is probably not from her husband. Would she have her own estate? I don’t know. It seems to come from Vronsky who we are told in an early part of the book has to borrow to keep up his lavish life style.

The moral nature of what’s happening is central. Probably because I’m reading Galsworthy at the same time I am so aware of how Tolstoy too makes of Anna this beautiful mysterious icon. In her case being torn apart. Slowly after Vronsky and Anna return to Russia, whether St Petersburg or Moscow, their relationship sours badly. No one respectable will be friends with them; they get only hangers-on. People they once would have passed over, come to them and Vronksy and Anna cling to these fringe types.

Yet he can live with it, he can suffer the loss of his army regiment (very much a Rawdon type — from Vanity Fair); it’s more her fault than his because she cannot live the unconventional part of a mistress and woman of the world. Why she should want the friends we saw at the opening were all so hollow I can’t say. She has Dolly and her brother who seemed to be the only people she enjoyed herself with before. And men do visit. She is pathetically grateful to have Dolly’s loyalty, but we see Dolly becomes sickened at what she sees as their false friends, false lives and stays only one day on a visit meant to go on for a long time.

Mary Kerridge as Dolly (1948 version, sentimentalized Oblonsky, glimpsed weeping with remorse)

We then get the encounter of Anna with Levin who is drawn to her as mysterious alluring icon but then reverses himself when he sees his wife. Anna here has become evil as she is presented as consciously trying to seduce Levin sexually.

I also very much enjoy some of the political drama and discussions about art in the Levin sections; I don’t have space to detail this sort of thing. The political meeting with Vronksy emerging as successful had the sceptical understanding of Trollope and the principles and parties were of interest similarly. Tolstoy defends realism in pictures.

At the same time I was so grated upon by the long drawn out childbirth, especially the turning from ravaged screaming on Kitty’s part to bliss. No thanks Mr Tolstoy for your moral lesson here. I writhe to have to listen to this nonsense — Trollope wouldn’t have minded and might thought it was just the pap (like the wedding) women might want.

Very interesting are the less cliched stories: Oblonsky, Stiva, near bankrupt trying to get a lucrative post where he does nothing and thinking he deserves it! Some amusement there – this is how Felix Carbury behaves in Trollope and Davies’s TWWLN and Matthew MacFayden played both parts.

The story of Anna’s son being slowly turned against her and made to be cold from his life’s experiences with the angry embittered father and morally stupid tutor.

Why is Anna not afraid she will be broke and end in the streets? she is so sure of her aristoratic words & norms to reach for.

A 19th century illustration of the end of the novel
The novel concludes:

Again I am deeply engaged by Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the final phase of Vronsky and Anna’s story. It is more than grippingly believable. Tolstoy lays bare how someone (Anna) can act destructively against herself and her interests, because there is not enough on offer for an erasure of those parts of herself necessary to play the part in her world Vronsky as her open lover allows her. She is in too much pain over her own loss of self-esteem. I can see myself acting like that and have in life acted that way.

I continue mostly bored and irritated by the Levin matter.

At the close of book 7 is the powerful sequence where Anna finally loses all perspective, and throws herself under a train. I’ve just ambivalent responses to the depiction. I think the way to get round the worst is to lower expectations – that’s why when I first started reading I suggested Tolstoy is over-rated. If we think of him as just another Victorian-19th century writer, we don’t expect as much, give him more slack, and as with reading say Gaskell’s Ruth, we look at what is gained by an attempt at a frank depiction of a transgressive woman (Anna) or a woman who has transgressed (Ruth) sexually. Trollope will depict no such figure; Dickens would not touch this with a 50 foot pole.Most women didn’t dare lest they be accused of sexual transgression.

I know were I to have read the book in my 20s even I would just have utterly bonded with Anna and felt for her and not noticed as I felt continually Tolstoy’s continual corrective: Anna says everyone is hateful to her, and immediately Tolstoy brings home to us how most people are not hateful; everything she feels or says is quickly shown to be an exaggeration and coming out of her. The worst is how he talks of an “evil’ spirit inheriting her soul — surely this is God punishing her.

He also does not spare us. We are shown that Anna did not die immediately but felt pain and knew what was happening. When we are told that Vronsky saw the body he never got over seeing what was in her eyes. Or her mangled body.

One can read the sequence sympathetically from her point of view too. It is true Vronsky is tired of her. We can see she is trying to reach him as best she can. It’s his choice to stay in Moscow, visit his mother. What he wants is for her to make the best of it or go herself into the country where he would visit her or stay with her and come back to his social life from time to time. She seems unable to manage with this. Myself I know how she feels from the exquisite details about egoisms conflicting that Tolstoy does manage. I’ve experienced this in family life, feeling oneself disdained some, really not respected, and how painful this is, especially when something is done which points to it and the person denies it. Trollope knew our egos mattered: many of his scenes show characters reacting internally emotionally violently over this.

Months have passed when the last book (8) begins again. When we next see Vronsky, now worn, having again nearly gone mad with his remorse and leaving for the war front with a group of less than admirable types because he can’t get anything better together and listen to his mother’s vicious tongue about Anna this is a reinforcement of empathy for her — and him.

1899 Twilight Moon by Isaak Ilyich Levitan

One then has to wade through at least a hundred pages of Levin material where we learn God is good, well-meaning, dwell in the Russian landscape, and if Levin is also dissatisfied, this are the terms on which we have life. At the close of the book Levin has a vision which shows him the value of his existence and makes him think he will act more loving to everyone no matter how much they irritate, but soon discovers he cannot change himself. I thought of the long shooting bird (grouse) sequences and how vividly (very like Trollope) Tolstoy entered into these and told them in detail; unlike Galsworthy though he did not at all feel for the animals endlessly murdered (by Oblonsky and finally done in by Levin too) — to show his manhood, nor even so much as register them as presences (which Trollope at least concedes).


Ideally I would after listening to this reading, watch the recent Wright movie and read carefully Stoppard’s screenplay to see how the Anna character has been altered — and it has much — to make it speak to us today. I know Vronsky is blackened in the movie: in the book he was willing to give up much if only she would be at peace with the freedoms he sought and he was not seeking to have any other women (as he is in the movie).

The movie marginalizes Levin into sheer Lawrentian material (how often Wright turns a book into Lawrentian material, even Austen) and plays up the ironies of the Oblonsky story as relevant to us today. Wright also emphasizes the role Vronsky’s mother plays as Anna’s fundamental rival and enemy.

He also makes Oblonsky our everyone; at the close of the movie Macfayden is the only one in the room as the family gathers (including Levin and his wife) for some ritual who remembers Anna

He is though as corrupt and useless to anyone but in his kind moments like these as he is in the novel

The Levin group must be put into the movie, but in the movie they function as the vast majority of human beings who buy into conventions and are made safe enough by by them.

The first sentence of AK now strikes me as potentially if unintentionally ironic about happy families, happy people. Tolstoy may be read against the grain.


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Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).

Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.

Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.


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Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) finding one of the girls fleeing in a wood

I watched this film for the first time last night. It’s an important film which I hope more people saw than I fear did (I suspect it was not a mass entertainment even if it played in mainstream cinemas). It’s a kind of Helen Mirren Prime Suspect film made more realistic and done with ensemble type acting. I’m only a year late (it’s a 2011 film) for a review, and trafficking is as pervasive as ever, plus collusion and downright activity by those who are supposed to stop it themselves doing it.

In her usual gear

Rachel Weisz plays the part of a American (mid-western) police woman who simply will not not do her job; she has real integrity and will not go through the motions pretending in order to collect a salary and remain prestigously within the group. She goes to Bosnia fora career advancement (yes) and also to do good work in an environment where she might be really needed. One night she encounters a group of beaten prostitutes who look terrible and understands that these are trafficked women; one is very sick. She attempts to send the
one to the hospital and the others to safety. She is just one person; while she is taking the group herself to a safe hospice, she cannot be in the hospital; she goes there to discover that the girl cannot be sent home because she lacks papers. Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac is never for a moment put off by such patent lies. She replies, so what? we’ll get her papers. No we can’t do this, the rules say … She finds herself up against a wall. She returns to the hospice to
discover the girls have been returned to the bar.

Unlike Jane Tennison who then would have to go through a long plot to discover that there are paid kick-backs everywhere (which come to think of it shows her were we thinking realistically to be very dim), Kathryn immediately sees that they were returned by the UN peacekeeping authorities because at least one person, probably more was taking a kick-back. What she has to learn (and without much trouble) is that many are taking bribes, and many of the men who are peacekeepers are the very men buying these women and abusing them under the guns and whips and other hard mean weapons of the women’s keepers.

Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave)

The plot-design of the story is then three-fold, and is a realistic mirror (reminding me of Five Days where the mirror was a domestic life situation of lower middle class people in the UK). It was not to discover that (in the words of Madeleine Rees, or Vanessa Redgrave, who again has chosen to be in this kind of exposing movie — Coriolanus‘s this), that “those hired “to protect the vulnerable are raping them themselves”, buying and selling them themselves. This is put before us again and again in the evidence, as vignettes, incidents we see as simply obvious.

It’s rather to show us as watchers how formidable is the opposition to putting a stop to the traffic. We see this in each of the groups Kathryn tries to contact.

It is also to show us the realities of Kathryn’s life and how this is part of why she does what she does and how this private life of hers can get in the way or the police life change her private life. And to show us the girls being ruthlessly beaten, humiliated, tortured, and to put before us photos of these girls.

Raya when first seen (Roxana Condurache)

The movie opens with how one specific girl, Raya, was brought into these groups: one night she was out late with a friend, got involved sexually with someone, her friend pressured her to come out after the time she was due home. She went home and got into a quarrel with her mother, and then ran out into the night. That was the end of her life; the next time we see her she’s in a bar and is one of the girls that Kathryn encounters. To make the story effective the movie focuses on one girl’s story.

We see her mother is contacted by Kathryn or representations, how she begs money from her other daughter to go to the hospital. How the other daughter is beaten by her husband and is afraid to give her mother money (it’s not hers). But she does it. How the mother is too late. Then in a later scene we see the mother home again reviling the daughter as a cruel sister for this second daughter’s husband was the man who enabled the boyfriend that night to kidnap Raya.

As in Story 6 of Prime Suspect (“the Last Suspect”), like Helen Mirren, Kathryn has promised to keep the vulnerable girl, here Raya, safe. After Raya is snatched back, we see her dragged before the girls, thrown on a table, & knifed in the back (not killed but just scarred for life) before the other girls to show them what will happen if they try to talk to police or are willing to testify. So like Tennison, who loses first one sister to a brutal killing (and then the other alas), Kathyn is driven to make good on her promise somehow. In a scene near the end of the movie, at last Kathryn reaches one man who will raid the bar &promises not to return the girls. Once there though another group of men rush in, override this man and his crew, and Kathryn seeing Raya begs her in front of everyone to come away with her. Raya is too frightened and refuses. Later that night the same man who led the group in knifing her, takes her before the other girls and simply shoots her through the head.

She has become the lover of one man early in the film and he remains a confidant. We are told in a series of intertitles at the end of the film how all we have seen is real (just souped up for drama), how the real Kathryn now lives with Jan in the Netherlands. Apparently it was not safe to return to the US or Jan, this man’s name, was Dutch and wanted to stay in the Netherlands. A small part of the ammunition against Kathryn (this suggests this kind of loss of reputation does not count as much as women might fear) is her private life. She lives freely and has lovers. Goes to bars herself. But as an upper class (it’s understood in context) white American woman. In one interview a superior tries to needle her about a second story the movie opens with: her ex-husband has custody of her daughter. She was deemed less fit than he; he made more money; he could provide a conventional home with a stay-at-home wife/mother.

Kathryn lives in another state from him and one motive for going to Bosnia was the larger salary which could enable her to move back near her daughter. We see her job get in the way of keeping promises to her daughter to go to this or that occasion. So her story includes separation from her daughter and loss and one motive for her wanting to help Raya is she identifies with Raya’s mother (she says “I keep seeing Raya’s mother”). She also is enacting the mother she did not in US circumstances. This is parallel with Mirren who has had abortions and tries to be a mother where her job and wider usefulness and the life she wanted to lead would not permit her to have a baby, especially without a husband, a kind of relationship Jane did not really want.

The opposition. Those trafficking. Those using the women sexually, brutally. This provides the real action of the film, the hinge-points, the stages of excitement and danger. We see how gradually Kathryn is cut down. She is demoted, She goes to this or that chief officer and realizes very quickly they are protecting their men (and themselves too perhaps). Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) and Peter, another of these very few males who help women stop the trafficking, in effect Rees’s side-kick helper, are frustrated by what happens to Kathryn.

Peter (David Strathairn)

After Kathryn realizes one cannot working within the system (well, duh), and writes an email outside to a high official in a UK embassy, her ID and keys are taken away from her. She is now not just fired, but cannot go into the building to get her files. She must sneak in. She tries to get a woman friend to help her but the woman friend says I’m not you, I won’t risk my job. All do keep telling her it’s not safe, but like Mirren as Tennison, Weisz as Bolkovac seems to lead a charmed life. We might say fairy tale, but in fact Kathryn Bolkavac survived. (Part of the power of this film is it’s a real story transposed into action drama.) Well we see Peter help her.

A crucial turning point occurs as she is walking out of the building with her papers. We see Fred Murray (David Hewlett), aone of the lead man who fired her with Peter and Peter appears to have double-crossed her. She must turn over the bag. But they talk and Murray sneers at her. A few seconds later (scenes are short), Peter comes from behind to give her the bag. He was enabling her to get a tape of this man’s voice as part of her evidence when she returns to the UK.

There we see the interviews on TV with Bill Hynes head UN man (Liam Cunningham) who denies all complicity (as he said he would in another scene). He justifies this in a separate scene as enabling the UN to carry on. But what is it carrying on for? We also are told by him how much money is at stake, how the companies behind much that goes on in Bosnia of a money-making nature are Bosnian, and we know it’s his job.

We then see Kathryn on TV accusing Hynes of lying. The judge does side with Bolkovac (as happened in real life) and we are told (intertitles) all the specific individuals found guilty where deported back to their original countries. But no one was imprisoned, no one punished. And then we are given the huge numbers of people involved in trafficking and enslaved that continues on.

The acting does not bring Rachel Weisz so very centrally to the camera; we do not dwell on her nor on her life interwoven in the same way as Prime Suspect. There are a number of scenes (of Raya’s life, of Raya’s mother’s actions, of the girls’ lives either beaten, or in the bars, or Weisz’s eyes going over the photographs (reminding me of a film by Bergman where Liv Ullmann’s eyes go over photos and a narrative emerges) where Kathryn is not the central point of view.
Most of the time in Prime Suspect, Mirren is. That’s how they keep the plot-design a mystery. But the effect is very good as we feel a real sense of a large world on the screen. Weisz is herself a fierce presence, she has subtlety when needed, is tender, is of a wiry build (so has the requisite thinnness wanted of younger actresses). I feared for
her again and again. So that held me. I cared about her.

A portrait shot of her concerned and talking to another woman

I do like Weisz because of the films she’s in. My students learn a lot from The Constant Gardener; I learned a lot from Agora, neither of whom survived. Agora did exist for real and she survived a bit longer than Tessa, but then she was upper class, attached to upper class men.

I also cared intensely about Raya who is last seen dead, with wounds all over her body, in rags in the wood. Prime Suspect often opened on a scene like this. The wounded murdered corpse of a woman badly dressed.

And about the other girls whose voices, faces, bits of presence emerged now and again.

It’s no coincidence this is a film directed by a woman (Larysa Kondracki), written by a woman (Eilis Kirwan), centrally produced by three women (Amy Kaufman, Christina Piovesan, Celina Ratray). The men in the film every once in a while dismiss the trafficked women as whores. That word is enough. They are now without status.

Thinking about it brought home to me why I found a book like
Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (which I reviewed, and which review I will put online after it’s published) in such bad taste; & what’s wrong with books like Pullen’s Actresses and Whores (which unlike, Nussbaum’s seeks to upgrade the status of whores I will concede (Nussbaum just wants to separate her star actresses from prostitutes). Also those many online sites where feminists who want to stop prostitution are scorned and told they are imposing their prurient values on a profession that makes money and these girls chose and even do well at. Nussbaum, Pullen, and many others who insist on distinguishing courtesans from prostitutes. This so that they can write with admiration and pride about their favorite courtesans (be they actresses, or Renaissance poets, e.g., Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, or today’s high-paid and high-class call girls) are imposing on a huge population, most of whom either are right away or become desperate victims (unless they escape very quickly) the luck of a few in just the way we are told to admire unqualified capitalism because a few succeed spectacularly and the rest clearly didn’t “have” their gifts, energies, strength of character, are inferior in some way, when the reality is the difference between the very few and the rest is where you are born, your class (circumstances, connections). The girls in Bosnia and the third world are like the proletariat in the third world, not fringe hangers-on on the tables of the powerful (the edges) but treated with open raw exploitation, and in the case of prostitution the job is to answer with your body whatever the average man wants of you.

So it’s the difference class makes this film teaches us, how terrible is the violence accepted across the world aimed at women, that it is simply felt by many men women are dispensable and to be used where possible (where class and location allows) like animals and then discarded when inconvenient.

And of course like many of Mirren’s films, the politics of the fable shows us those who are pretending to help the vulnerable (of whatever type) are either in collusion with the murderers & rapists & imperalists or themselves actively central.

The DVD includes a feature where we see Kathryn Bolkovac today, we see a woman involved in trying to stop trafficking, the director, screenplay writer, Weisz and Redgrave talking. Trafficking of women continues to be featured and discussed in many womens’ venues: see Women’s enews. This film has helped allegations against the UN to stop, but has it ended trafficking.

See also cross-cultural collaboration.

I cannot recommend seeing this one too highly and telling everyone you know to see it. Like Mirren’s films, it is entertaining because of the melodrama, excitement and the use of a powerful strong female hero or heroine at its center. I never thought I’d begin to love police-procedural type stories, but I have. I did not like many of the older mystery type novels with heroines at the center when they seemed frivolous and shallow and about retreat and upholding establishment values (Agatha Christie). A new breed of women’s film is among us and it is a re-write of male type films which we may hope males go to see, enjoy, and learn from too.


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Helen Mirren, final shots: walking quietly away from a lifetime of work

Dear friends and readers,

I have now watched this last mini-series (two episodes of well over an hour each) and found it did not disappoint. The final act shows Jane Tennison understandably faltering before her own need for companionship with a girl as she imagines she once was (as her father lays dying and she is made to understand it’s time to retire) but then upon recognizing that Penny Philips (Laura Greenwood as the adolescent girl who seemed to so cling to Jane, admire her) had to have been the deliberate murderer of her friend, grimly obtains the evidence from an interrogation once more.

The full circle is that Prime Suspect has dealt with so many larger social issues: hatred of women, of black people, of immigrants (or racism), exploitation and abuse of homosexual men, boys; of the disparity of rich and poor, drug culture, sheer crazed psychopathy, colonialisms. It’s time to get in touch with our apparently more or less sane adult close-to-home issues again. Here one Sally is her parents’ world, she is champion of all, well-liked, outgoing cheerful as yet. They wanted to end in the inner circle where the larger problems first take shape.

Jane and Mr Tennison

In the first half I was almost unbearably moved. More than in “Scent of Darkness” (where Mirren as Jane’s affair with Stuart Wilson as Patrick is made nearly as important as the events of the police story), Jane is now brought to the center. Her drinking (she is now seen as alcoholic — her drinking is occurring not just in the lonely nights), her loneliness, her dying father (Frank Findlay brought back) are made the parallel plot for the police story where she also finds herself increasingly shut off. The father tells her what she does is not for him (she wants an expensive second opinion, cannot face he is dying and accept it) but for herself. We are to see that goes for why she has spent her life the way she has: she has felt genuinely useful.

She looks back on her life and finds she is not at all satisfied with what she did and what she has become. Need I say how I identified with this? I do think as a feeling it is common — a motivation for many an autobiography where people try to retrieve the loss and justify their lives to themselves. She is alcoholic and must control her drinking, goes to alcoholic anonymous where she sees Tom Ball. He has and she is at long last facing retiring: what she will do with herself she doesn’t know. She is not well enough to continue.

Talking together, much older, in non-pretentious cafeteria

A beautiful thing is they did get a few of the actors to return who were in the first programs. Frank Finlay was her father in 1991. He and she do look alike: the same gene pool comes out in their facial features. Tom Bell who was her rival-enemy Otley is back and we have an example of that truth that knowing one another over years in itself makes for bonds through memory; he too has slid into alcoholism we are asked to take it. A crushing loss is he gets involved in an altercation that Jane herself started and ratcheted up, and following hard upon her father’s death, Otley is killed. In fact this episode had far more moments of sheer panic than most of them as people saw their intimate assumptions and needs and lives gone haywire.

A note: Brendon Coyle who is given the difficult role of the masochistic Mr Bates in Downton Abbey is Jane’s boss (who tells her it’s time, she must retire) and he is very good in this role — his earlier career is in fact in detective, male-oriented programs: he is so differently photographed from Downton Abbey and Cranford that at first I did not recognize him.

The second half moved into the police procedural mode and this last time we had no larger issue but really an exposure of family pathologies, the lies schools use to cover up what teenagers’ real lives are, and at the close Jane finding she’d been fooled once again. She had not seen that it was Penny who killed her friend, Sally, partly because Sally was going to bed with Penny’s father, a person high in the school hierarchy and under much stress, Sean Philips (Stephen Tomkinson). This series has four sets of parents (family groups): Sally’s parents to whom the unbelievable must be face: their innocent daughter, has been having sex with a young black man, with a teacher, become pregnant and is now dead, gone forever. Their lives desolate, stunned, they must start again:

The first shock, the mother (Katy Murphy) comforted by a black man sitting next to her so calm

Penny’s where the mother is again stunned by the ordinary: her husband having an affair with her daughter’s friend, that daughter gone out of control:

Neither pair understands. The third family group is the young black man and his sister, and her child whom Sally had dumped herself on. He, violent because afraid (the chase scene occurred over his flight), his sister, his mainstay. The last set of parents or family-friend group is Jane Tennison’s: her mother never seen (ah), but father and sister there and towards the end a niece; Otley, killed, and yes the last police group she departs from.

The particular characters of this episode in the second half begin to realize what has happened, grow angry, bitter, and finally cope, Jane manages to control herself, curb the heavy drinking during the day; we are probably to applaud or feel her “confession” of drinking was right; for myself I saw her as again yielding to what she had to yield. Her sternness as a last turn towards the father who betrayed his student, daughter, wife, school, was appropriate though; towards Penny too, who in fact killed, followed the wrong impulse of resentment, envy and now is at a bleak loss.

Nothing lachrymose — the sadness of the first half was justified. And not overdone. And the bewilderment, anger and finally stoicism of the second simply spot on as what would or could be given what people had succumbed to.

And I loved the close. Sally’s parents saying goodbye to her, the father thanking her, she giving the cross to the mother, the two seen from the back clinging together. The office is giving Jane a final party and all are getting drunk and whooping it up. Does she go in there (as she did in the first episode’s triumph). No. She puts on her dark coat and walks sturdily, bravely into the night.


I liked these moments of quick sudden insight throughout the series

The feature attempted to have scenes from across the 15 years the series had been filmed. They rightly did congratulate themselves upon having made a serious drama with humane and relevant import, and absorbed us all the while. Entertained too: how I loved her affair with Stuart Wilson, her getting back, the excitement of her life, entered into her despair, her affairs, her decisions (as not to have a child), her aging, her peculiar strong humanity, decent values.

I’m really glad I bought the whole series. I could not have seen it properly otherwise. You do need to see all the episodes and you need to see them in the order they were done. This is Jane’s story, her life and the life of her police world as seen through her perceptions. As I told a friend on facebook, I don’t identify with Jane Tennison’s power but I do all her emotional stances and thus love the show and go to sleep feeling better for having watched her. This was why I so loved Poldark and the Poldark books: the stance of the hero was the same as this heroine: a loving renegade.


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Hilen Mirren as Jane Tennison, around the time of Inner Circles and Errors of Judgement (1995-96), promotional or posed shot.

Dear friends and readers,

Another blog on the brilliant and uncloying Prime Suspect. I’ve just finished watching Prime Suspect Season 5 (Errors of Judgement) and 6 (The Last Witness). Although 7 years apart, the perspectives and dominating themes were continuous and developed further those of Season 1, 2 & 3 (“Walking Wounded”),and 4 (Scent of Darkness and Lost Child, and Inner Circles).

A feature accompanied the 6th. Mirren herself is interviewed and denies that she psychoanalyses or thinks about her character inwardly from any abstract point of view: she “plays” them. Not all actors think out what they do. She does have a conception of the series as a whole, what unites it. Prime Suspect evolves from a script each time, and each one aims to be “relevant,” “serious” and “exciting.” She is “aware” they are “edgy,” that her character and each story has a “dark edge” and this quality makes them different from other films focusing on women detectives.

Its director, Tom Hooper (yes, he did The King’s Speech and Daniel Deronda talked of the “immigrant problem” and how British people don’t have real understanding of immigrants.

They both wanted to help change that and also picture image the real today world of England — and the series throughout does just that. We are not in the mythic green and pleasant world of the southeast or west favored by tourists, but England’s cities and town’s typical streets.


As “The Street” (Steven Mackintosh) bullying and terrifying a reluctant young male member, Michael (Ray Emmet Brown) into murdering another young man in a peculiarly degrading way

Having just finished watching a great film adaptation (of Charles Dicken’s novel) by Sandy Welch, Our Mutual Friend, which also stars Steven Mackintosh, I’ll start with Errors of Judgement since I am filled with admiration for Mackintosh’s brilliance and intelligence as an actor. He’s just superb at wild killing anger 🙂 and makes this mini-series electrifyingly chilling.

Like Inner Circles, this is one omitted from Netflix. Jane has been re-assigned to another city, a very poor place up north and is a community officer investigating community crime, here specifically a drug ring. The center is Stephen Mackintosh as The Street, a frightening psychopath who beats, tortures, kills and Jane Tennison must somehow nab him as well as prove he has committed fearfully cruel acts to local people. We are in poor, bad alleys, watching women without husbands and no income, young boys growing up as their sons who are taken in by and become vicious through first emulation and then fear of “the Street.” Mackintosh’s is a symbolic name.

It left me trembling; the last ten minutes or so I was in a fever of anxiety lest The Street maim Jane in the way we have watched him maim all others who cross his path. I knew it wasn’t likely and The Street couldn’t kill her (as there were two more seasons) yet there I was intensely anxious.

The Errors of Judgement are Jane’s for having been fooled to think her superior officer, DSC Ballinger (John McArdle) was trying to capture The Street, and for having had an affair with him, and that Ballinger was working with, not against her. What distinguishes this one (each has a distinguished target, set of issues and world portrayed) and then next is police and gov’t corruption. DSC Ballinger is in collusion with the Street and it takes Jane nearly to the end to see that it is he.

This links these two to the other episodes (patterns are emerging) in that at the end DSC Ballinger gets back in his car and heads back to the office. Nothing is done, and if he has much less authority over the people he bosses, and it becomes harder for him to function, that’s the worst he’ll know. Again and gain in these programs a powerful corrupt person is left standing, unpunished, gets in a nice car and rides off. That was the close of Inner Circle and Season 3 (the one about the boys who are molested by the very person running the boys’s shelter, he protected by those supposed also supposed to protect and help the boys to better lives). In this case, Ballinger has allowed horrific murders to go on; his justification was that by doing this he could “contain crime,” control it. What a laugh. He’s doing no such thing.

He’s in effect upholding the order we see. So the other part of this episode that is its distinguishing characteristic is the poverty of everyone, the run down degenerate streets, the lack of jobs, how blacks are kept in the roles of thugs. Noreen Lafferty (Gabrielle Ready), the mother of the central pair of young people we are to care about, a white woman with presumably mulatto (to use the older word) children spends her existence on drugs. She has no future, no life, no hope. Janice (Marsha Thompson), her daughter, beautiful, good, is a waitress. When Tennison first comes she is to give pep talks to the students (who include these young people) and it is a useless endeavor, hypocritical. What do they want: law and order? because it’s safe, provides a minimum of peace for them to exist in.

This is what Ballinger only appears to give them. Offstage at any moment they may be tortured emotionally and destroyed by the man they sell drugs for. I had just watched DemocracyNow.org and couldn’t help seeing the parallels in our real world. Govts and their military flunkies and armed bands slaughtering people in streets far from those who watch TV, the reasons for this utterly misrepresented.

What the errors of judgement are also how to cope with the phenomena of poverty: young people give no future, no decent jobs, no education, a man who takes advantage of these people’s need to escape and for some money whom they all fear they won’t tell on him. Women as a specific group are marginalized in this program and yet provide its most poignant moment, e.g., when Noreen Lafferty finally takes her black son, Campbell Lafferty (Joseph Jacobs) from the prison where he has falsely confessed to a murder he did not commit. She is bringing him home in her car. Her son is brutally abducted from her by the Street and then murdered with a gun at point blank range by a friend of his (also black), his sister’s lover (Michael above) at the command of the Street. Michael is put in a pool area and watched by all as he runs frantically to escape the bullets. In the same pool area the Street had set fierce dogs on a previous victim he was displeased with and we listened to that young man torn to bits.

The actress’s face upon realizing her son had been taken was unforgettable. I don’t have a still of this, it moves too swiftly, only of a later moment when Janice, the sister, attempts to get Michael to confess to murdering her brother:

Is the horror and terror justified or just some titillation. I would say it is justified because it is embedded in the explicitly-explained story matter which asks you to connect what you are seeing to the drug trade in cities, to poverty engendered by political arrangements which keep a few very rich, to the criminals who are caught and we are encouraged by the media to blame. Michael rightly goes to jail, but nothing is changed or improved by that.

Ballinger (John McArdle) left in charge

The last scene is a still of the other police officers who know all the truths of their world watching Ballinger walk through their group to his car.

My one criticism of this mini-series is that the accents are done so expertly (North Yorkshire) that I had to turn on the subtitles to understand what was happening. It added to the reality of the experience, and my sense about how hard it is to understand this world, but many US viewers might not think to turn on the subtitles and grown tired of not quite understanding what’s happening.

I also surmised that between 1995 (Inner Circles) and this one the program-makers had had difficulty getting the usual cast to return, so necessity drew forth from the company this insightful turn north. My favorite line from “Inner Circles” (featuring the super-rich’s ideas about the poor in England) Jane’s “whatever happened to community policing?” Indeed: its disappearance and replacement by straight arrests and long prison sentences in the US has led to our present mass incarceration of black men (and their dienfranchisement).


Jasmine (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) in her work clothes

Last Witness is another mini-series focusing on, opening with a horrifyingly bruised body of a young woman, this time Serbian, twice tortured: cigarette burns all over her body. So again the vulnerable person’s mutilated corpse. Sometimes it is a man, then he’s young, a boy, poor or black or homosexual as in Story 3 or Inner Circles).

We then switch to an older woman having her body examined, bit by bit with the emphasis on reality of her skin. As it goes on, we realize this is Tennison submitting to an examination as part of a “interview” which is said to be there to help her keep up to the mark; it’s partly a pressure point to get her to retire. The emphasis on her body links her directly to that bruised body.

It’s Jane’s job to discover who she is and who killed her. To do this she discovers that the young woman had a sister now in hiding, Jasmine (above). She is presented as one of typical women immigrants at great risk from the Serbian Bosnian war. IN this episode Jane strides through see the upper rooms of restaurants, all luxury and then head downstairs to see where the people work in harsh impoverished conditions, filthy walls, low wages, demeaned.

The remarkable repeat images of “downstairs,” life from below, of this program, what I will remember best, is that of women in the hospital. Jane tries and fails to save the life of a second woman victim from Bosnia: her sister was tortured before killed, she is just shot through the head after she is found cleaning a toilet. The film is filled with women cleaning toilets, doing the most menial work in the bowels of modern buildings.

Mirren herself aging and now working for Mark Strong (DSC Larry Hall) who used to work for her. W see her bully men below her, threaten them too. Jane’s side-assistant, DC Lorna Greaves (Tanya Moodie) is a black woman I’ve now seen in recent films form the BBC — Tennison is pressuring her to leave her position since she spends too much time with her kids; the black assistant threatens to cry “discrimation” and really feels it is.

There are in the whole series many attempted firings of Jane, often at the opening of the program. Now it’s that Jane has completed 30 years; they are trying to get rid of her and she turns around and tries to get rid of Moodie as not committed to her job with her 2 children as not having enough level of commitment. Jane is depicted as perhaps jealous and all alone: she watches Lorna go down to her car where her man who is a house husband waits with her children, they kiss.

Tennison takes case from man when he cannot seem to stop papers from calling the dead girl a prostitute and using it as propaganda against asylum seekers and immigration. This is sensationalism Jane abhors.

Last Witness turns out – once again — to reveal at its close that powerful people have been covering up for the brutal sadistic murdering. This time the people are at the very top: people high in gov’t are content to protect Milan Lukic, a false name (the part played Oleg Menshikov) because he can at the same time feed them information about “terrorist’ and immigrant groups in the UK. At their behest knowingly Mark Strong takes Jane off the case towards the end of the story.

Lukic (Oleg Menshikov)

A mole. I was startled at how differently a mole was seen in this program; not only that Lukic was never called a mole. By no one. Surely the term was known to the writers. Avoding the term brought home to me how it trivializes the treachery which often allows the evils to go on, makes its somehow acceptable by the commonplace name. LeCarre’s stories (which have made the term famous) also displace the woman at the center so that we never hear her story from her lips — as we do in Prime Suspect most of the time.

Not only do we again have people in power colluding (a theme across all the films), again two important ones are women. One Lukic’s wife who is tricked into telling the truth by Jane Tennison when Tennison comes for an unofficial visit: the trick is to get the wife to defend her husband: her defense: he is supported by the highest people in gov’t.

Jane (Mirren), with Lorna (Moodie), defying DC Hall’s order to stay off the casem, confronting Mrs Lukic (Clare Holman)

The wonderful implication never stated is: so what? so what if these are supposedly numinous high ranking people. Does that mean they matter more than those who clean the world’s toilets?

The other is a police woman type played by Phoebe Nicholls who often takes on stereotypes as irritating women, crude and/or obtuse, narrow: Elizabeth Elliot in the 1995 Persuasion, Cordelia, super-religious in Brideshead. She is central for protecting him.

So, to the story: A woman Serbian who was tortured ten years ago, upon coming to England, she is murdered, found beaten, tortured at the bottom of a basement in a huge building site. So again we have the destroyed and maimed woman’s body, her real life existence a terror. Again the cigarette burns. The quest for DCI Tennison to find her sister who is in hiding has a comic motif. She is informed by a young black man who is the supervisor of the womens’ teams (and explains his low job by saying there is nothing else for him). Long sequences again of people who work downstairs in fancy places. Laundry maps. The real modern downstairs. Mostly brown people, paid poorly, they cannot afford a bus to the train daily. A black man who can get no better job.. At last Jane is enabled to track Jasmina down to her lair (poor apartment) where she comes up throught the floor. She fears similar torture and murder.

I was touched by their having a small black child in a child’s burka like scarf show Jane where the torture victim’s sister lives. Jane tells her to go back home. And she goes into a modern small make shift apartment and the sister comes up through the floor.

What motivates Jane to continue is that she promises Jasmine she will help and protect Jasmine if Jasmine will come out of hiding. Jasmine is then shot through the head (see above) while on her job.

The repeat motifs include an older woman’s body too: in previous episodes (Lost Child) Jane goes to find out if she’s pregnant and then has an abortion, this one early on has a long sequence of a doctor (this time a woman) is going over Tennison’s body, now aging — the words emphasize her age: have you been screened for breast cancer in last two years (we had her as checked before an abortion); do you smoke, drink, any pains. No no no. We see her smoking directly afterwards, drinking far more than 5 units.

The odd decent older boyfriend also recurs (Jane’s inner life kept more to the margins again in this mini-series): this time it’s Liam Cunningham and to me he’s as attractive as Stuart Wilson. He’s too busy for Jane, gets phone calls, she does not stay when someone else rings. He does accompany her to Bosnia; without him, she could not travel safely.

The bedroom scenes are kept away from us, darkened

Jane has defied everyone who tries to stop her. She breaks the law when she visits suspects; this time we see her break-up with her current boyfriend; but before that he agrees to go to the funeral of the sister in her place (women are not allowed at funerals of Bosnians still) and somehow this produces a crisis. Lukic is taken by some Bosnians who themselves are going to kill him. But before that can happen she manages to win out by tricking the wife and finding evidence of where a murdered body was buried, unearthing it and presenting it to her superiors.

The last witness is this body we look at. They can then not ignore her at least insofar as this particular murder is concerned. They put Lukic away.

But has Jane won? At the end of the piece we see her sitting there grim. She has seen justice done to the two sisters, one tortured to death, the other shot in the head while cleaning a toilet in the fancy hotels of the rich. But is anything changed at all? And Jane is aging …

Towards the program’s close Jane turns round to talk to someone


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Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison (Inner Circles)

Dear friends and readers,

My Christmas present from Jim and Izzy (bought by me on their behalf) was the complete set of Prime Suspect seasons, and while I was chuffed to get them, it was not until I opened the box three nights ago now and began to watch again that I realized what a wonderful present I had given myself. From two angles: first off, I had not been understanding or seeing the stories the way they were intended and second, they continue to rivet, move, and thematically fascinate me.

First that the box showed me that the set on Netflix misrepresent the series: stories are left out. Does it matter? yes.

I had suspected there was something wrong, something missing. One of the delights of this series is the mostly marginalized but on going story of Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison herself. At the close of “The Lost Child” we had Jane having had an abortion and sitting in the darkness and at the opening of “Scent of Darkness” she had embarked on a fulfilling liaison with Dr Patrick Schofield (played marvelously by Stuart Wilson), the psychologist from “The Lost Child.” How was this? Then what I thought was the next story, about a Bosnian woman who was tortured I was so disappointed to find no Stuart Wilson who I really liked, especially from his relationship with her. Jane Tennison was alone, haunted, often in a black cape and had on DI Haskons with her.

Characteristic still from Season 6

Well, when I opened the box of DVDs for the first time, I found 7 boxes with a couple of boxes having 2 disks; the 6th and 7th also have bonus features (!). In Box 4 I found between the two-hour each film, “The Lost Child” and “The Scent of Darkness,” another 2 hour film: “Inner Circles.” And that there was a mini-series film between “Scent of Darkness” and the 6th series about the torture of a Bosnian refugee where Jane Tennison relocates to Greater Manchester for a stint as a community relations police officer. “Inner Child” lacks the usual crew of people except for Richard Hawley (Di Haskons in all of them) and a cameo appearance of John Benfield (her supervisor, Mike).

One problem with doing this series over several years is the producers could not always get the people back so my guess is her (unlikely) stint as “community relations” person (just what she as an iconoclast and unconventional woman would not be acceptable at or even good at) was the inspired reaction to the producers not being able to get any of their usual people back.

They overcame this partly by the focus on Jane but they clearly also did this for itself. The series has a woman’s novel implicitly working itself out inside the conventions of a police procedural (as the genre is called in Britain). In many of the detective series the film-makers of TV (BBC, the better British channels and PBS) have filmed, the books may have the outlines of an ongoing story’ but most of the time in the TV programs this must be dropped because there are too many programs (when it’s a success). Lynda LaPlante’s (and her successors) creating a series out of their own minds and intended for TV (not based on novels) and not having that many programs or stories per season , there is an evolving story and it matters. Sometimes it presents an ironic or ambivalent contrast to the crime story, sometimes Jane’s emotion out of her own life reinforces the emotion of the crime story, motivates her quest to solve the crime strongly.

To outline: when we first meet Jane (Story 1, Season 1, a mini-series) she is having trouble breaking into the hierarchy of the police force. She cannot get a case to conduct. She is also in a warm relationship with a husbandly man played by Tim Wilkinson – he has broken with his wife who is now pregnant with another man’s child and Jane tries to make dinner for him, the child and herself. We see he can’t get enough jobs in the killing new capitalist structure where people are left to “free-lance” and it hurts their relationship as she sits up night after night — to a breaking point.

Tom Wilkinson plays Peter Rawlins, her partner-lover in the first season

Jane also is straining to spend any time with her biological family; when with them, she must watch TV to keep up with her job and partly ignore them, and this angers Peter.

In story 2 (Season 2, another mini-series) we see her have a casual encounter with a young black officer which is held against her and she must drop as he is going to use it to wrest power.

The 3rd story (Season 3, another mini-series) about transsexuals and child molestation is so powerful and is framed by her at the opening of the story meeting an old lover and having a week with him where she does wrenchingly break it off because he demands she give up her job and he will in turn leave a wife and 4 children. This is scenario we may often see: the aging man leaves a wife and 4 children for a mistress. To her credit, Jane refuses.

The 4th story (Season 4) is the first of three 2 hour films and given a title: “Lost Child.” In this one she has an abortion, the result of her love affair in Story 3. It’s also the story of a child murdered by its mother where almost automatically a man who had been known to sexually molest and abuse children (had spent time in jail for this) was blamed. Jane’s anger is fueled by her own loss, her own ambivalence. The story includes a psychologist, Patrick Schofield (played memorably by Stuart Wilson) who explains and defends the accused young man to Jane.

I now realize that “Scent of Darkness” is Story 6, the the third of the two hour films of Season 4) and did not follow “Lost Child.” It has the most development of Jane’s private or non-professional life of all of them: we see Jane and Patrick
meeting at a movie house, both too late for the show, and discovering neither wanted to see it and then we have these vignettes of them in bed, in the bath, drinking and talking, her working at her latest crime and he watching TV: in this one he seems to betray her by himself taking on as a customer in part the man who wrote the book saying her solution of the first crime was false. The crime part of the story is a re-do of Story 1 (Season 1) about violence against women, how Jane is not permitted a promotion easily, how the men conspire against her to protect their chief. At its end she triumphs over a humiliation, dances with the officer chief who tried to bring her down, and is last with her Patrick at the same dinner party.

Penultimate scene of Scent of Darkness

So how did she get there: to that affair. Well, “Inner Circles,” Story 5 of Season 4, a two-hour movie in which shows her very lonely, picking up the phone to call this psychologist who she had liked and getting his answering machine. Trying twice. She has no circle, she is someone who comes home from her job and watches TV or reads. I see the opening of “Scent of Darkness” was the opening of their affair.

In “Inner Circles,” Jane’s lonely or outcast state may seem deprived, but the inner circles she see are made up of people who as much prey on as they support one another. She has more strength and more distance to be able to feel and act upon more real or un-ambivalent affection for the youngsters of the story than their troubled parents can manage. We see her fellow officers discussing this more than once and she is needled by DCI Raymond (Ralph Arliss), the man who is running the cop shop she is momentarily relocated to: he is having an affair with a woman detective in the office, DS Cromwell (Sophie Stanton) who changes allegiances to Jane during the 2 hours. When she sees them as a pair at a town bar and asks him, where is his wife, he retaliates by saying “at home” and “she’s fine, she’s still getting it regularly which you’re obviously not.”

At the bar

I immediately recognized Arliss as the hard apparently mean working class male gamekeeper type in the 1977 Love for Lydia. Inner Circles like Story 1 (Season 1) and also “Scent of Darkness” (Story 6, Season 4) reaches back to superb actors from the 1970s series who never made it to total stardom. From Stuart Wilson (Ferdinand Lopez in Pallisers) to Gareth Forwood (Everett Wharton in the same part of the Pallisers) as the murder victim, Dennis Carradine. Again Wilson played the strong alluring male lover while Forwood the man with homosexual inclinations who cannot succeed in the world, weakish, but well-meaning, emotional, a victim type.

Opening shots of Inner Circle: the country club surrounded by a large — green and pleasant — golf club meadow

In my previous three blogs I suggested that each film-story examines another aspect of real life. In “Inner Circle” we move to a contrast between the wealthy, comfortable upper middle milieu, a place of of clubs, of power in police shops and city councils, and the desperately despised poor in public housing like Larchmont Estate from which the people accused of murdering Dennis all come, and in fact the hired killer too. The politics of the piece is the rich people are in cohoots with Raymond and others to blame the poor, do what they can to stimgatize and make the idea of helping such people useless, ludicrous, dangerous in order to protect their own crimes, ruthless appetites, and of course money and power. I noticed Anthony Bate as James Greenlees is the head of the club; he often plays this type (he was Lacoon in the 1970s/80s Smiley films).

Like Paul Endicott, when Greenlees is last seen he is getting into a luxurious car and driving home: at the center of the storm, he gets away with his dealing scot-free because he knows how to stay on the right side of custom and law

This time the murderer Maria Henry (Jill Baker), an upper class woman lawyer who wants to hide her financial dealings and her long-time friend, Dennis’s incompetence, is leaking it out. She and Greenlees and her lover, Paul Endicott (James Laurenson), also a member of the club have Arliss to cover up for them and present the crime as an act engendered by poor people living in council housing (ironically named Larchmont Estates) who hated Dennis as a homosexual upper class male type and tortured him in some humiliating way before strangling him.

Bird’s eye shot of Larchmont Estate courtyard: no grass here

So the crime becomes ammunition against social programs too. Early on in the show everyone assumes that Mickey Thomas (Jonathan Copestake) murdered Dennis with the help of the young woman the police do take in, Sheila Bower (Julia Rice). Raymond’s police come to the housing project and he panics and flees, and runs into a car which smashes him to death. Even half-way through the show the country club types, and Raymond are still trying to pin the crime on Thomas and Sheila.

Mickey Thomas looking up at helicopter surveillance over Larchmont (perfect symbol of our time), cursing them but also panicking

Only this pair of young people didn’t torture or strangle him. They were just trying to burglarize the building in which Dennis lived.

Like “Lost Child” and “Scent of Darkness” too much was piled into 2 hours and I didn’t quite get the ins and outs so had to re-watch before I understood what had gone on.

Suffice to say this one made me identify with Maria Henry (Jill Baker) the woman lawyer — this astounded me. Again the series was functioning to extend the sympathetic imagination, this time mine. This upper class lawyer, successful networking made-up hard nosed woman. Well she melts at the behavior of her equally hard but stupid and naive daughter, Polly Henry (played brilliantly by a young Kelly Reilly) and cannot reach her. I burst into tears at one angry set-to between them. Polly does not understand how she is being used and it is through her that her mother Maria’s crime is exposed.

Maria Thomas, the lawyer-mother, tough as nails

Polly Henry, the thick, sullen hurt puzzled daughter, weak and clinging, easily manipulated

Maria now needs to kill the killer of Dennis, Geoff Brennam (Thomas Russell), a sadistic thug because Jane Tennison has realized that Geoff was the paid killer.

Geoff also an inhabitant of the Larchmont Estates, another another of its cement and iron terrace patios

So Maria Thomas tells the easily bullied stammerer, another vulnerable young man, Hamish Endicott (Nick Patrick), Maria’s lawyer-lover Paul Endicott’s son, that Geoff raped and beat and maimed Polly, needling the boy to hammer Jeff’s head to bits. Hamish? or Paul? loves Polly from afar:

Polly and Hamish in the country club, children imitating their parents

Hamish has been tormented and mocked and fleeced by Geoff (as he has been similarly sneered at by his father) and a huge amount of raging hostile emotion has built up.

Paul Endicott seemingly the ultra-successful lawyer male (he’s a failure in reality, like Maria needs money desperately)

Maria taps into this easily, manipulating the young man into fancying himself a hero doing a brave deed. Someone at the Larchmont Estate where Geoff lived and did inflict rough cruel sex on Polly, and saw a red-haired woman in the car with tall young man; when Hamish turns himself in, it’s a matter of deciding whether the woman was Polly or her mother, Maria. Maria could leave her daughter to be blamed (and we see the girl is a narrow, silly person who will probably be destroyed by others later), but that far she won’t go. She has tried to protect her daughter from her crimes, her life-style, her boyfriends to no avail. Polly wants to live the way she sees her mother does, does not know enough to see how hollow are Maria’s relationships. It is hard to tell whether Maria does love the daughter who instinctively feels her mother does not love her, but when she turns whining to her in the last moment of the show, the mother melts once again.

They are an inner circle inside an inner circle. Jane is in no such inner circles at all — nor is DS Cromwell whom we learn during the show came from an estate like the Larchmonts and understands some of the psychology of the young people burglarizing and behaving in self-destructive ways. It is Cromwell’s way of interrogating the suspects that helps Jane to understand and ferret from them the truths of what happened.

Cromwell makes faux pas that Jane would not: she does not first clear her right to investigate Dennis’s mail at the club

Perhaps Jane and Cromwell are better off with their impersonal relationships. But Jane at least is lonely as we see her making those phone calls to Patrick’s answering machine. And DS Cromwell has been giving herself to that shit Raymond and for all we know may return to him casually once again.

That it’s a mother-daughter relationship gone all wrong and women’s friendship story at its core may come from its film-makers mostly being women as were the first three stories (seasons 1-3). It’s based on a story by a woman, Meredith Oakes; it’s directed by Sarah Pia Anderson and two of the producers were Sally Head and Rebecca Eaton.

Closing moment, Jane and Cromwell (we never do learn her first name) smoking together, sharing cigarettes

Other miseries of human relationships that are explored, dramatized exposed beyond that of how the powerful and rich treat the desperate and poor is how cold and therefore cruel and bullying personalities can twist emotionally loving and warm and weak or uncertain people. How such people will get back either directly or through the very love relationship the strong or bullying person (in two cases here it’s a father and son and a mother and daughter or parents and children) takes advantage of or even promotes.

Some good lines:

On the police fear of the people in the Larchmont Estate and their terror (justified) of the police: Jane: “Whatever happened to community policing?”

Mike, higher ranking than Jane says to her late in the film: “”Politics this is what this is all about use your social skills if you’ve got any …”

Jane Tennison to Maria Thomas: “Tennison: you are refusing to tell us anything.” Maria: “I honestly feel I’ve been as frank as I dare be.” In fact that’s so. We see how laws set up to protect people like her. She can claim client confidentiality to hide that she and Dennis were in deep trouble over their buying of a ruin, Burdette House when the city gov’t refused to let them build luxury housing there

I like my Christmas present very much. Prime Suspect was a series of brilliant films which evolved as they went, inventing and changing as the year and times and what was available for actors demanded. (By contrast, Poldark stayed with the books, for all three tries, even the 1996.) Perhaps the people making the 4th season of 3 two-hour films realized they had piled too much in and the series lost some viewer-ship or maybe because it kept gaining, for I can see that they returned to mini-series in the 5th season. I have much to enjoy. But before I watch these for the first time, I shall luxuriate in re-watching the touching affair of Stuart Wilson and Helen Mirren of “Scent of Darkness.” As I say these films demand and repay rewatching.


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Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) and Dr Patrick Schofield (Stuart Wilson), Scene of Darkness

Dear friends and readers,

A third blog on the unusually good police series, Prime Suspect: I’ve now watched The Lost Child, Scent of Darkness , which I want briefly to compare with Christopher Reid and Niall MacCormack’s Song of Lunch, a more typical heroine’s text (a 2 hour film from PBS Masterpiece theater this year), and the older fine mystery thrillers film adaptations of John LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. So you see how I’ve been riveting myself into wakefulness in the late nights these weeks. These two new Prime Suspects continue the exploration of sexuality, women’s issues (here motherhood) and male violence against women begun in the previous three stories. They also develop Jane Tennison’s story more centrally.


The last concluding shot of Lost Child

Lost Child

This is the fourth of the Prime Suspect Stories; they have changed format. Story 1 and 2 and 3 were mini-series, each with 4 episodes. Lost Child & Scent of Darkness are both two hours long, the Americanized format of mini-series that winston Graham complained destroyed the attempt to bring back Poldark in 1996. The briefer time frame does not seem to hurt these two Prime Suspect stories as they can do without the leisurely kind of realism the Poldark and other naturalistic books require, but we do get less development of the characters and events are sprung on us where the film-makers rely on the actor’s ability to persuade us this new inner self we didn’t see before was there all along.

Lost Child brings together pederasty and also motherhood — quite a combination. What happened is this: a child, little girl, seems to have been kidnapped from Susan Covington (Beaty Ednie) a mother who has continued to cherish the child just as much as she did before its father John Warwick (played by Adian Lukis wonderfully well – the Wickham archetype fits here) deserted them to have liaisons with more than one woman and moved North. A scene with Tennison shows him at first defiant and nonchalant, not denying he did it even if he lied and was nearby while the murder occurred: he spent the afternoon in bed with a woman who is engaged to marry someone else. Susan, the mother, is hysterical; she goes on TV begging for her child to be returned safely to her.

About half-way through for the first time I had begun to feel that in a way these series could pander to the bigoted paranoia of people, especially surrounding sexual experience vis-a-vis children. The suspect is someone she has also filmed in the park; her film and identification points to Chris Hughes (John Glenister) who served 14 years for molesting minors. I was troubled by the harshness of the response to Chris; I hasten to say I have no agenda for child molesters, only that Hughes was treated so brutally: one of the police officers, Jack Ellis (Tony Muddyman) beats Chris savagely upon trying to arrest him when Chris (understandably) tries to flee the ferocity of this bunch. Jane Tennison is as ferocious and will not listen to any alibis of Chris, especially since she finds he still indulges in saving photos of girls in albums. She is throughout dressed severely; in 3 she was homeliness and clutzyness itself; here she is repeatedly in tight cut black suits, her hair severe, knife-like puritanical elegance:

We are led to suspect Chris just as much by Chris’s relationship to his wife/partner Anne Sutherland (Lesley Sharpe). They seem not be be getting along. Ann seems to be hiding something; she falsified an alibi; Chris over-reacts to situations we see; he is sensitive man who has suffered a long time, was abused in prison because he was a pederast. He insists too strongly he’s fine now. Well, he’s not altogether; they have troubled sex. He saves pornographic magazines in a drawer.

The story seems to culminate in the police trying to wrest Chris/Glenister from his house where he is holed up and taking Anne and their two children, girls both, hostage. The police promise not to have snipers, but they lie and start to shoot; hysterical, he grabs a child and returns to the house.

Now here is where I saw I was wrong and the film was slowly leading us to see that even pederasts should not be pre-judged; they can change, reform; they deserve understanding, sympathy. Suddenly and without preparation to explain why we are led to think that after all Christ didn’t do it beyond that a psychiatrist, Dr Patrick Schofield (played by Stuart Wilson) says adamently in his view Chris/Glenister could not have done it. Somehow when Chris is chased down by the police Susan loses it. She goes hysterical in a new way when she sees Chris and his wife’s children. A long soliloquy brings out slowly how tired she had become of her daughter,, how relentless her life with her (from job to child care, to job again), how the girl irritated her by screaming, screaming, screaming, endless demands, never ceasing, never giving her a moment to herself.

The murderer was Susan. The mother suffocated the daughter. She was (we are to see) given no help and had herself to come up with the baby-sitting money. The roar of anger and distress that comes from her is stunning.

The show is about how insanely we react to child molester (who to be sure, those who are, can do awful things; that they are or can be suffering people too. But it’s also about how motherhood is experienced in our society and its phoninesss and pretenses (which Susan inveighs against in the long closing near soliloquy Tennison and her aide, Sgt [police officers) Chris Cromwell (played by Sophie Stanton) rejoins the show (she was in Episode 1 as Jane’s sidekick) and its hardships. What it asks of a woman.

The frame is important. It’s a “termination” — as it opens Jane has an abortion, a left-over from her love affair with an older lover, now married, was part of Prime Suspect 3. Jane is roaring mad at the death of this child because she has lost her own. The title refers to her abortion as well as the loss of Susan’s child.

I know audience members could be strengthened in their opposition to abortion and say, see how over-reacting made Jane blame Chris, and also liken Jane to Susan as two murderers. But that would be entirely false to the feeling of the series. Jane had a hard time getting time off enough for the “termination” — it’s called, and the child would get badly in the way of her career. This does not mean she does not feel bad too, at some level identify with Susan, not as a murderer but as someone in the grip of unfair choices There is too much sacrifice required of women as mothers.

It did need to be longer. We did not learn enough about Jack Warwick’s and Susan’s relationship nor Chris/Anne Sunderland’s. Susan’s confession was sprung too quickly. Still that Chris/Glenister’s innocence is sprung on us works very well. He is never idealized and on the surface could have been prosecuted, even found guilty. No sentimental ideals are pushed before us and a lot of cruel mindless over-reaction. The ambiguities made me think of James’s Turn of the Screw often read (wrongly) misogynistically.

Another effect of cutting the time for the story in the fourth season was indeed to focus on Mirren. She became a continual presence. The film-makers decided to marginalize the other police officers because they didn’t have time to cover them all. IN the next story she was made the focus deliberately.


Jane (Mirren) and Patrick (Wilson) talking, she intently, he companionably (Scent of Darkness)

The Scent of Darkness

I did have trouble understanding it; that is to say, I couldn’t upon my first watching figure out how the murderer or quite why the murderer did what he did because so much was elliptical and just piled in. It was like watching a story meant to be 3 hours or 4 done in a couple of hours and 20 minutes.

Scent of Darkness had a different script writer, director, and producer: suddenly it all men; Lydna La Plante gone, Sally Head gone. But it was as strongly feminist as ever. By happenstance over on WMST-l the women were talking of how feminists are endlessly accused of being prigs and not have a sense of humor when the case is what’s said to be funny is really not funny to its victims (women in general) and helping to find books which showed this. Scent of Darkness opens with Tennison angry because a woman she wants promoted is not being promoted. The panel in front of her says that’s because this woman is not a team-player, doesn’t get along. Tennison asks for proof? “She has no sense of humor.”


But I also liked it and was eager to re-watch. I especially (I admit) liked the focus on Jane and giving her an on-going private life and relationship with the psychiatrist she had begun to like and trust in Lost Child: Stuart Wilson as Jane’s boyfriend and the relationship that was suggested. It appealed, and he as an older man (he was Ferdinand Lopez in Pallisers, and in Jewel in the Crown, the shit who impregnates Sarah and she knows better than to want to marry so by her mother and aunt is driven to have an abortion) who is amoral/immoral made empathetic by giving him kindness and acceptance and tolerance if not a will to commit.

Well, my second watching made the program not only make sense but showed the implicitly feminist scene that opened the program was the clue or twig developed for the rest. In addition, for the first time Jane Tennison was slightly more central than the murder story; hitherto her story has been parallel, going alongside sometimes, almost equal in the first program but not the center as it was here.

Basically it’s a reprise of Story or Season 1. Instead of Sergeant Otley trying to get rid of Jane, we have the chief detective in charge who makes the comment, “she had no sense of humor” to Tennison: David Thorndike (played by Stephen Boxer): Thorndike is intensely motivated to destroy Tennison’s career and not quite consciously decides that the two new murders of the first mini-series were not done by the man who Jane put in prison.
In other words, she was responsible for a tremendous miscarriage of justice then. He uses a book that has been published by someone whom George Marlowe fools.

So we have to return to the story matter and central theme of malicious brutal violence against women. What emerges is his time the real murderer is the jailor of Marlowe: there is a problem of probability here — perhaps why I didn’t get what was happening. The idea that jailor seems subject to Marlowe and is acting out Marlowe’s violence doesn’t quite wash, but this allows for Jane having to resolve an old case and return to its issues.

A problem this film had too was this time not all the actors returned. Richard Hawley has been in all the series and he was used centrally as someone loyal to her and that helped bind the films.

DI Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley)

Together they break a code, though since the case is hers, she is repeatedly hauled over the coals in public, reprimanded, taken off the case finally (when she insists she was right in the first place) and at last just about fired. So the humiliations of women a member of WWTTA said are so typical of women’s films are here in spades — but with a twist. We see the way she is made to kowtow, plead for herself, admit error are not only unfair, but shown to be wrong and partly the result of the misogynistic Thorndike. She she wins in the end because silently the intelligent and decent people (John Benfield as her superior, DCS Michael Kernan) are on her side. The very top man is just and lucid.

What I loved best was the slow development of her relationship with Stuart Wilson as Patrick Schofield — from missing a movie they neither of them wanted to see, to taking a bath together while they drink and smoke, to watching TV, to sleeping together, getting up in the morning. It really felt real this, though again we had to strain at the improbability that Patrick, a man who seems so ontologically on her side, would allow himself to interview and half countenance the author of the book who wrote the book saying Jane was wrong. This leads to Jane suspecting Patrick is betraying her and gives rise to powerful scenes of conflicting emotions (in this viewer too) as we watch them seem to break apart. They don’t.

This is one of the stories that has a happy-ish ending, not group exultation this time but Jane asking Thorndike to dance and then sneering at him before she returns to Patrick’s table. Very human.

Not that the violence against women is at all marginalized or the way Jane is almost fired and humiliated for good. I can’t say in real life she would have been fired, for in real life none of this would have happened in this way at all. It’s fairy tale this one, more so than the previous.

A kiss

Maybe it’s the men doing it made a love story and powerful or empowered woman (they would believe that) so central. Mirren was here more central than the previous 5 stories, only I do think without Stuart Wilson the depths of feeling at moments would not have been there. This too is part of a woman’s life and in this story Mirren could carry off having happiness in private as well as success in public.


She (Emma Thompson) in Song of Lunch

I want to compare Mirren to Emma Thompson as archetypes. I watched the powerful Song of Lunch two nights ago and it has rightly been given favorable reviews: this one retells the story and slowly developing ironic poetic perspective. The film is an adaptation of a poem by Christopher Reid.

At first I loved it, then by the end I found myself angered by one of the two opposing themes or messages that were conveyed: the one where we are to despise the misery of “he” (Alan Rickman) as brought on by himself.

He (Alan Rickman)

I know you can take it the opposing way, but only by watching a good deal of the movie against the grain. In the movie Thompson plays an archetype she often does — not acknowledged. The headmistress, her teeth a kind of vagina dentata. she was that in spades in An Education. A part of this comes out in her as Elinor Dashwood, dry lone unmarried possible old maid. Here it grated strongly because she was not a victim (as in Wit) and was so sleek and well-adjusted, such a winner with her successful novelist husband, beautiful flat, life, daughters. Maybe Rickman was self-absorbed, narcissistic, felt sorry for himself, spoiled the lunch by his morbid behavior, but he was genuine and his faults preferable to her self-complacency, conventional success, coolness.

I suppose Reid maybe did hate “she” but the film makers made “she” our norm that is good not ambiguous, not cold, not the result of luck. In Mirren’s series we see the common fates of women.

So for me I much prefer the drunken, half-incompetent, often wretched (behind the scenes they fight and spoil things for one another) Wilson-Mirren archetype to this of Thompson, with what she demands of Rickman and he can’t come up to. I’m saying that at heart I find after all I’m preferring Mirren’s archetypal iconography fully than Thompson’s as developed by films with their pro-social, pro-conventional moral turns. Helen Mirren’s films have taught me something that I had not realized was part of Emma Thompson’s.

Lastly: the film adaptation of LeCarre’s Tinker Tailor (1979) and Smiley’s People (1982)

Smiley (Alec Guiness) and Peter Guillam (Michael Jayston)

I have been struck with how LeCarre through Hopcraft (Tinker Tailor) or Hopkins (Smiley’s People) is an inverse presentation of Lynda Plante’s perspective, or perhaps I should say she has reversed LeCarre’s. LeCarre is a rare male writer not to be a misogynist finally or anti-feminist. He is often deeply sympathetic to his heroines, makes them strong, independent, complicated. Not marginalized. Yet not central. As adapted into films, they are victims in the sense of LaPlante: the world stacked against them, men murderous. In Tinker Tailor by episode 3 one young woman who gets involved with the circus (spies) has been abducted, probably raped, tortured, killed. We never see her but the experience Ricki Tarr (Hywell Bennett drop dead beautiful in the Anthony Andrews mould) has galvanizes himself into action to expose the “mole.” We see Smiley (Alec Guiness) visit an old girlfriend, now retired from the circus because she found out too much and her hands are twisted from torture; she is clearly as old as she is utterly available. She is left with an old dog for company, “safe” in Oxford – lovely street off a fine park. The eldely actress reminded me of Dorothy Tutin. In Smiley’s People we have an older woman (Eileen Atkins) who has lived a desolate life separated from her daughter as the underlying motivating story. The same holds true of Meirelles Constant Gardener

Both Smiley and Wilson are presented as protective tender man (reminding me of Robin Ellis as Poldark in some of his behaviors to towards his two beloved women). Plante took their women and made them center repeatedly, made us see the torture, the rape, their desperate lives. The mode, the action, the implications, and the larger political issues are then feminized.


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Jimmy Jackson (David Thewlis), Prime Suspect 3

Dear friends and readers,

This blog may be read as a continuation of my blogs on Lynda LaPlante’s Prime Suspect (1), starring Helen Mirren, and “New hook-up culture another name for “old” casual encounter. In the first I showed the first mini-series was feminist, progressive, advanced ideas of social justice . . . drew insights from the marginalized: the prostitutes, Marlowe’s (John Bowe) common law wife,

but there is a vision of collective hope and empowerment at the end when all do work together.

In the second blog I described our rape-prone culture in the context of its encouragement of exploitative relationships; how young women are driven to be somewhat promiscuous as the price of finding men to go out with. As in the economic public world, so this sexual world allows the worst values to reign.

Now I intend to show that the Prime Suspect series makes this sexual viciousness in our world the terrain of its criminality. It’s beautifully appropriate that a woman comes to the rescue and makes sense that a woman would write the script and another produce the films. Also, in all three Mirren has had a close woman associate helping her. These are indeed 20-21st century versions of heroine’s texts (the phrase is used to characterize the the first series of novels, 18th century with heroine’s at the center, just as often written by men in drag as sensitive brilliant women.

In Prime Suspect 2 the murderer is a pornographer; the people blamed are black.

So the subject is again gender, violence towards women, with a new turn on racism, and desperate poverty among working class whites part of the mixture. The places people live in are part of the text: an old white man suspected of one of the murders in one of these awful tall public tenement buildings. All the re-tellings of Series 2 you come across stress how Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) is having or had an affair with the young black officer assigned to her case: in fact there is one casual encounter, and just as important as race is that she is much older than he.

Sergeant Robert Oswalde (Colin Samuel) and Detective Superintendent Michael Kernan

It’s not overtly feminist, but the difference really is that we are now bringing aboard the full sexual panoply and more marginalized desperate people who are less idealized. The prostitutes of Series 1 were somewhat sentimentalized: the young man who hung himself had in fact participated in the brutal raping, beating and killing of the central victim — along with his sister. The searing moments were watching those black parents made to sit in a waiting room while this son was bullied, harassed, literally driven mad and then put in a cell to die. (This is absolutely the way the modern utterly cruel indifferent system works. If you’re lucky you get on two weeks’ vacation with pay.)

No false uplift at the end. Instead of congratulations — for again it was she who persisted, she who would not believe the old man’s story he did it (to protect his truly lousy son), she who realized the young man who hung himself did it not only because he was driven by another black man ashamed of him but because he had done some of the crime. The belt, finding the photo with that belt. She is overlooked and the super-investigator given the spot.

The murderer was a pornographer and the accent was (Henry Fielding comes to mind this morning) how some people do have bad natures and their surroundings and others only if not deliberately work to make them worse. Every once in a while she is accused slyly of letting her feelings get in the way of her judgment — because she had a casual sort of encounter with the young black subordinate – which could not turn into anything because it’s not permitted.

Prime Suspect 3

I was riveted to the screen. I suggest the third and the first stories are more powerful than the second because the matter at hand is sexual abuse, sexual violence wrecked on the vulnerable, be it a woman or vulnerable gay male or a boy. And in the third season we were watching not only the victims but the people who do the abuse and the people who let it happen and know it’s happening. In the first season the victims were all dead and no one was letting it happen knowingly.

Sergeant Otley (Tom Bell) with abused rent-boys

I’d call PS 3 a kind of Oliver Twist: Lynda LaPlante was showing us what could have been the realities of a band of boys in the Victorian streets. Polanski tried to make a film of OT doing this and earned the vitriolic enmity of Dickens fans. What is exposed here is a pedophilic ring of men with collusive other men and women enabling them to carry on. No pious family in the wings waiting for little Oliver, and little Oliver who wins at the end is turned into a Connie who loses utterly.

To the high spots of Season 3: I really liked the ending. Season 1 had this silly uplift of intense cheers for all; Season 2 ended with the murder solved and all the bad people either dead or punished so the irony was Tennison was not appreciated, did not get a promotion, and was transferring out to a worse job or place, vice squad. What happened in PS 3 is the murderer, Ciarhan Hinds as Edward Parker Jones, a man whose job it is to run “Advice Centers” for runaway boys, orphans, abused young children is precisely the person who is abusing them; this position is perfect for his business of making money off of them with others who exploit and abuse them. Finally we learn that he set fire to the murder victim, Connie (played by Greg Saunders), an adolescent who, unlike Oliver Twist, was not an angel type, but wanting to get money for an transvestite operation was blackmailing Vera Reynolds, Jimmy Jackson and (very dangerous) Edward Parker Jones by selling photographs of them exposing them having sex with the boys or them as youngsters (Vera’s case). Jane Tennison has only circumstantial evidence and she cannot win the case on its merits. But who were they selling the photographs to? A sleazy woman reporter, Jessica Smithy (played also virtuoso-ly by Kelly Hunter). She is a total shit. Tennison has loathed her all along and the final scene has Tennison call in Smithy and deliberately leave on the desk a folder filled with these photos. In case the viewers are a bit dim, Tennison says your newspaper sells a lot of copy with photos like these. So the idea is Smithy will make splash headlines, sell papers and resmirch Parker-Jones so thoroughly that the state may just win its case against Parker-Jones.

The irony is this is sordid and a direct contradiction to the supposed principles of law where a case is to be tried without pre-judging. We all know what can happen to that. This summer a woman was accused of murdering her child; she was grossly treated by the press and TV and Internet and all was done that could be done to make the decision make her guilty. What happened in the courtroom we don’t know because we have to have been there to feel why the jury voted the way it did. Often such newspaper fouling of a suspect does work.

We are to hope it does in Parker-Jones’s case because we have been shown that the police and people high up knew very well what was happening in the Advice Centers and similar places. I noted that there had been a deliberate juxtaposition of the fat cat dinners of males high up in the police, detectives high up in the police department, lawyers, judges in tuxedoes to the vulnerable male losers of society and the boys. It was more than filmic happenstance giving meaning. In fact John Kennington (played by Terence Harvey), a superintendent and police man for decades had been himself a homosexual who was abusing boys. The other officers were afraid of what he was prepared to do to their careers and had been trying to keep Tennison from going deeply into this case; indeed they wanted her to fail. And they only let her go on when she made it plain she would not expose them for collusion and complicity.

From experience and what I’ve been told I know that drug running and other kinds of “sin” crime go on because the police not only collude but are themselves often on the take. Colonial officers from a powerful country often run businesses in the colonies where they make money off goods that are illegal; they pretend to want to arrest the local people involved; rather they control them.

The collusion and complicity as a motive go further. One of the best moments in Season 1 was when Tennison gets Moyra Henson (Zoe Wanamaker), the common law wife of the serial murderer-torturer, George Marlowe (John Bowe deliberately cast against type — he is often the good man) to half admit she knew what was happening all along and lived with it. So too in this film at several turns we are suddenly looking at a woman who is the sex partner of the bad man and she lets Tennison know she has known what was happening all along. John Kennington’s wife (Rowena Cooper) and Parker-Jones patsy girlfriend social worker, Margaret Speel (Alyson Spiro): as with Moyra these two women did not fnid it to their advantage to tell. It was nice being Mrs Kennington, so rich, with money for her sons to go to fancy schools (she lets out she protected her sons at least) and the fatuous believer in liberal ideas as controlling real people, Margaret Speel, who also had a job to protect.

Moyna Henson, George Marlowe’s long-time common law wife (Zoe Wanamaker)

Anyone reading this will laugh when I mentioned Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa where a key collusive figure is Clary’s mother, Charlotte. She lets it happen; she has become craven over the years from the bullying of her tyrant husband it’s anything for a quiet life with her. Whatever hypocrisy necessary she will do to get Clary to marry the horror Solmes. I’ve always felt that intuition of Richardson particularly important.

Tom Watson (David Harvey), the guilty father tries to take the rap for his murderous torturing son

In Season 2 the colluders were the parents of the porn photographer; they were covering up for him. This sentimentality is somewhat undercut because they were presented as half-afraid of this son, but it’s not enough. We do have two policemen who are revealed as decent. A man who leads Tennison to the right transvestite nightclub (I’d have to watch again to get his name) “comes out” and he is treated ugily by the other police officers, with distrust. He is not bullyable we learn and holds his own. A police officer high up assigned to drive Tennison; it doesn’t make sense that he(again I’d have to watch again to get his name) would be given such a job. Gradually she learns and then gets him to admit he is there as Kennington’s personal watch dog over her. He does help her too. So there is sentimentality here. In the case of the gay policeman I think the “good gay policeman with real integrity” a necessary counter to all the evil people we meet. We don’t need that family as counter because viewers will be pro-family members and want to believe good things of such people, such as loyalty to their son.

Mark Strong from Prime Suspect 3 (Mr Knightley in Davies’s 1996 Emma)

Jonny Lee Miller from Prime Suspect 3 (Edmund Bertram in Rozema’s 1999 Mansfield Park, and Mr Knightey in Sandy Welch’s 2009 Emma)

A sort of side comment which may amuse anyone who has gotten this far and knows I have worked hard on Jane Austen films. I’ve thought that Mark Strong (here in this episode as a firm strong at first anti-feminist policeman) was hired as Knightley precisely because he often plays bad guy strong men, torturers and — it was to give Knightley the “macho” qualities the TV people think the audience will find lacking. Johnny Lee Miller, on the other hand, played both Edmund Bertram and Mr Knightley who on the face of it seem different types (Bertram dim if moral; Mr Knightley all seeing except for his besottedness with Emma and jealousy of Frank Churchill who is still a cad in potential). But they both get the heroine? Why? Like Darcy they have a streak of intense vulnerability, and here Miller was, almost unrecognizable in modern dress, playing a young man who had been badly abused by Parker Jones and others set over him (we hear of nameless policemen either abusing the boys or telling the boys they must say they are lying or will regret it), who breaks down and tells what happened to him, but steely-like will not tell his story in court for at long last he is about to be promoted and wants nothing to get in the way of a decent self-respecting career. He is a colluder in potentia. Years from now he too will be at a dinner in a tux. It’s perfect for the man chosen to play Austen heroes both against and with type, for Austen’s Bertram and Knightley are paragons of virtue.

Mirren herself only breaks down once. There is a sentimental story fused into Season 3: it opens with her having a one or two night fling with an old lover she refused to marry who himself is now married to someone else with 4 children. Her refusal to see him again is treated like a sentimental love story partly. And late in he program we are to believe she’s pregnant. This is an old trope that won’t quite do: women are made to get pregnant after one night or two. It’s not probable though can happen. She gets the news from her doctor that she’s pregnant and makes an appointment for an abortion. We are asked to believe she had an emotional difficulty choosing this route. Maybe but it doesn’t seem probable to me. What does seem probably is the choice for an abortion and her bitter face. She will not bring a child into this world is the idea on Mirren’s face. I liked that.

Vera (Vernon Reynolds)

The third season also had strikingly virtuoso performances beyond Mirren’s, especially John Thewliss as Jimmy Jackson and Peter Capaldi as Vera [Vernon] Reynolds. You could say that this program will open wonderful careers for people who could perform such roles; I am not surprised that it has not. Such roles or character types are rarely wanted, plus there is the intuitive feel borne out by the two biographies that Thewliss and Capaldi are acting partly out of their life’s experience. Strong prejudice then gives people pause, for if Prime Suspect 3 wants to help dispel the prejudice, as in other areas of our society, dispelling prejudice is not readily done. Both have found work basically doing these “types” where they can be found. Thewliss is working class and his first job (before PM) was with Mike Leigh. No surprise there as Leigh does present unusual truths about down-and-out and low status people; he shows love for them and presents stories where we can see them happy even. Thewliss’s next great role was Damage where he plays the son of Jeremy Irons’s father who utterly betrays this son to the point the son kills himself.

So on the whole this third season was superior to the first even and both better than the second.

In Five Full Days the police procedure turned into a TV woman’s novel by Gwyneth Hughes and Anne Pivcevic: it similarly turned on a woman’s point of view of the cruelties of sexual life as experienced by people in our class, money and race ridden bigoted hypocritical societies. They represent a new form of heroine’s text.


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