Archive for February 6th, 2013

Edward Ferrars (Dan Stevens) upon seeing Elinor Dashwood (Hattie Morahan) in the library (2008 JA’s S&S)

Dear friends and readers,

Having returned to one of my chapters towards a book on Austen films, working title: A Place of Refuge, where I’m placing the accented Indian Austen films in a global context, I’m thinking about Andrew Davies’s Austen movies in a fuller context of his own filmic work and novels too.

To begin with, a list:

Davies’s films

Seven of the above are Jane Austen movies: Davies has scripted more of them than any one else. One, the 2007 A Room with a View, from E. M. Forster’s novel, as yet unrecognized as a rewrite of Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Davies was a crucial contributor to the two Bridget Jones movies, like the 1995 Pride and Prejudice, were so commercially successful that they became significant much-discussed sociological events. All seven are revisionist re-tellings of Austen’s novels dependent on his sharply perceptive engagement with the texts.

Elinor (Hattie Morahan) coming into the library, she returns Edward’s gaze

With their Austen matter producing recurring motifs, these seven films form a consistent fabric whose underlying patterns are found across and actuate Davies’s huge corpus. I have tried to write about some of these, especially romance, since Sarah Caldwell’s otherwise excellent study (Andrew Davies marginalizes his romances. As a script-writer of all these various mini-series, Davies is of enormous importance in shaping how modern viewers will see many 19th century and Neo-Victorian novels too.

Rosamund (Trevyn McDowell) showing Lydgate (Douglas Hodge) her Keepsake album: “Beautifully idiotic” he pronounces (Middlemarch)

Molly and Squire Hamley (Justine Waddell and Michael Gambon) and read Roger’s letters from Africa (Wives and Daughters)

Davies’s movies include a considerable body of melodramatic romance, and a number of predominantly satiric films whose crowded scenes explore capitalism and class structures, wars and political regimes, specific regions (where the story is set) and niche worlds: academic, medical, journalistic (the writing career), archaeological, parliamentary, commercial, financial, and (continually) familial. At least half of these are TV mini-series, and, often of pre-mid-twentieth century books, much is adaptation that functions to speak to our own era in the manner of historical fiction. Yet varied as they are, and products of team-work, most of these films may be studied as complicatedly artful film that dramatizes and pictures Davies’s individual consistent world view, one which exposes realities of human desires (especially sexual) and losses that matter in a sensitively intelligent way, to, in so doing, question the soundness of our sexual and social, and by extension, political and economic arrangements.

If you study the plot-design of many of Davies’s melodramatic romances other than those based on Austen you repeatedly find a story of one or more significantly vulnerable heroines caught up in a jealous rivalry, often Oedipal between two men. One of this pair or another male character is susceptible to abjection or (startlingly conversely) seemingly coolly malevolent and/or contemptible. An agon which may take the form of a dark night of self-examination, or cowardly flight or long siege of drunkenness (not always on-stage), ensues. We experience an unusual triangulated quest for identity because most of the time Davies’s males do not end up clearly in charge, but rather dependent on the strength (or money) of heroines whose favor they have had to actively solicit and who seem free actively to choose or reject them.

The continuum includes male types outside Austen’s range, from the tragic (e.g., John Leigh played by Kevin McNally, 1984 Diana), to the psychopathic (Henry Kent played by Michael Kitchen, 2005 Falling), but who nonetheless function in the stories in ways that connect them to the lighter variants within Austen’s range, from introspective sensibility figures, strong depressives (Colin Firth as Fitzwilliam Darcy, Dan Steevens as Edward Ferrars), to shallow and (for a young girl) dangerous cads (Raymound Coulthard as Frank Churchill, Mark Dymond as Captain Frederick Tilney).

From the 1984 mini-series Diana Jan (Kevin McNally) watching Diana

Diana bathing (Jenny Seagrove)

From the earliest of his films (when it was even discreditable to do so), Davies’s scripts called for frequent use of flashbacks for both male and female characters to show us the inner evolution of characters during the story: we are confronted with memories, dreams and fantasy, dramatized moments from the past, sometimes with the image of the past having the present older character doing the dreaming turning up in place of the younger person who was there at the time. Continuity and strong emotions are kept up by much voice-over and pulsating non-diegetic music.

In the five Austen movies written wholly by him, and in a number of romance movies not from Austen but from a text susceptible to transformation into a women-centered movie close in mood, perspective, character types to his Austen set (e.g., 1999 Wives and Daughters, 2004 He Knew He Was Right, and 2007 Fanny Hill), we find a continual balancing counterweight of movement-images or sequences of scenes placed across the movie (yet not closely plot-driven) which dramatize aspects of intimate supportive and/or false women’s friendship (sisters, potential sisters-in-law, cousins, friends, maternal or governess figures), interwoven with the Oedipally-understood heterosexual romance plot-design.

Many Davies’s movies, including political and satiric movies and thrillers, manifest an equivalent male counterbalance: intertwined second stories dramatize ambiguous homoerotic male friendships (1992 Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, 2001 Othello and The Tailor of Panama [Andy and Harry unexpectedly go dancing in a gay bar], 2005 Bleak House [Sergeant George and and Phil Squod], 2008 Little Dorrit [Miss Wade and Tattycoram], 2009 Sleep with Me). Further movies dwell on the absence of this psychologically-needed relationship (a mother, a distanced father) as central to the movie’s tragedies (Wives and Daughters and the 2005 Bleak House).

Amanda Ooms, from the extraordinary werewolf film

If we add to these, movies which substitute homosexual for heterosexual romance (2002 Tipping the Velvet, 2006 Line of Beauty) or include episodic homosexual romance and incestuous familial relationships (1996 Emma and Moll Flanders, 2007 Fanny Hill), movies which depict naturally indifferent or hostile mothers and protective mother-governess figures (1984 Diana, 1989 Mother Love, 1995 Pride and Prejudice, again Moll Flanders, 1996 Wilderness, 1998 Vanity Fair, again Little Dorrit), we see the Davies’s Austen films belong to a set of movies which insist on the centrality of friendship in people’s lives, break the ban on dramatizing the ubiquity of homoerotic relationships, and look equally at loving support and fierce incestuous possessiveness and rivalries within families.


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