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Archive for the ‘costume drama’ Category


Natasha McElhone and Jodhi May as Mary and Anne Boleyn (2003, BBC The Other Boleyn Girl, written and directed by Philippa Lowrthorpe)

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve just been watching the powerful 2003 BBC film adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, written & directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, with (most notably or memorably) Jodhi May as Anne Boleyn, Steven Mackintosh as George Boleyn, Natasha McElthone as Mary Boleyn and Philip Glenister as William Stafford. This is part of the term’s work I’m doing with a class in order to delve with them Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as a A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter. Anne Boleyn is presented far more sympathetically in this movie than in Philippa Gregory’s book; we are allowed to understand how Anne came to be so ambitious, angry, rigidly vindictive, envious — if indeed she was all or any of these things: we must remember this is the same woman who worked with Thomas Cranmer and her brother to spread an evangelical Catholicism among many people. The one non-fictional historical text to do real justice to Anne Boleyn is still The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives.

Anne Boleyn gets such a hostile interpretation so often, that I can’t resist putting onto this blog a proposal (which has been rejected) I wrote for a panel on feminist approaches to the work of Henry and/or Sarah Fielding, for the upcoming ASECS conference in Denver, Colorado. One third of it was to have been on Anne Boleyn as a figure in mythic, literary, film, feminist, and anti-feminist writing.

Anne Boleyn, Jenny Jones, and Lady Townley: the woman’s point of view in Henry Fielding

I propose to give a paper discussing Anne Boleyn’s self-explanatory soliloquy at the close of A Journey from this World to the Next, Jenny Jones’s altruistic and self-destructive constancy to Mrs Bridget Allworthy across Tom Jones, and in the twelfth book of said novel, the character of Lady Townley in Cibber and Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Husband as she fits into a skein of allusion about male and class violence and marital sexual infidelity in Punch & Judy and the Biblical story of Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:30-40). I will argue that the Boleyn soliloquy is probably by Henry Fielding and fits into Fielding’s thinking about women’s sexuality, and other female characters’ soliloquies in his texts; that Jenny’s adherence to a shared set of promises parallels the self-enabling and survival behavior of other women, which is seen as necessary and admirable in a commercial world where they have little legal power. I will explicate the incident in Tom Jones where Cibber and Vanbrugh’s play replaces the folk puppet-show to argue that these passages have been entirely misunderstood because the way they are discussed omits all the immediate (what’s happening in the novel) and allusive contexts from the theater and this Iphigenia story. I will include a brief background from Fielding’s experience and work outside art. I will be using the work of critics such as Earla A Willeputte, Laura Rosenthal, Robert Hume, Jill Campbell, and Lance Bertelsen. I taught Tom Jones to two groups of retired adults in a semi-college in the last couple of years and will bring in their intelligent responses to a reading of this complicated book in the 21st century. My goal is to suggest that Fielding dramatizes out of concern for them and a larger possibly more ethically behaved society the raw deal inflicted on women by law, indifference to a woman’s perspective, and custom.

These are the three areas I was going to show Fielding’s brand of feminism through. They are merely sketched here; I was going to do much more research for each:

In the case of Fielding’s Anne Boleyn, she speaks at length to justify her entry into peaceful oblivion or Elysium this fiction, to the judge Minos, who stands guard over the gate. She explains how she came to withhold sex from Henry VIII for so long, then as his wife treat him shrewishly and domineeringly, and finally (only perhaps) betray him with other males at court. She never loved him. It was a relationship coerced by her family. Fielding believed woman will willingly have sex with men when they care deeply for a man as a center to build a new family around (such a woman might not demand marriage first), but they won’t or are very reluctant to have sex when they do not love the man who wants or has married them. Who then did Anne Boleyn love? Henry Percy. They were betrothed, their love consummated directly after the wedding was over, and then they were dragged apart by Wolsey’s disapproval (he wanted to use Anne another way), and forced to deny what had happened. Fielding gives Anne a long poignant soliliquy. It echoes the opening section of Amelia by Miss Matthews. There is no reason to believe this is by Sarah Fielding; she has not the psychological acumen nor would have made this type of male-oriented love.

The happy out come of Fielding’s novel, Tom Jones, is the result of Jenny Jones having kept a promise, a pact she signed to with Miss Bridget Allworthy who had a love affair with a young clergyman, Will Summers, who dies before they can marry. The outcome of the book depended on these two women’s promise and contract whereby Jenney offered to present herself as having become pregnant outside marriage to enable Bridget Allworthy to keep her illegitimate baby under her blind and rigid brother’s nose. Mr Allworthy continually scolds lower class people (Partridge) and women for having sex outside marriage: he predicts dire things; he says it dehumanizes them, they become animals. In fact in the novel, only through having sex secretly or for money can most of the women survive. Tom is suddenly lifted up from being a victim of capital punishment or transportation to the liberty of a gentleman because (it is discovered when such a legitimate heir-type is needed) because he is found on the spot to be a bastard nephew of Mr Allworthy.


Joyce Redman as Mrs Jenny Jones Walters (1966 UK United Artists, Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson, written by John Osborne)

Fielding’s Tom Jones plays a part in my third example of Fielding’s empathy with women. I separate it out as it is a bit more complicated even in a sketchy outline.

At first we assume we (and our favorite friends) are going to watch on the street or in a countess’s public rooms in her house, a puppet show of Punch and Judy (Book 12, Chapter 5). A puppeteer at said inn after Upton refuses to use his puppets to put on a Punch and Judy show because it is “idle trumpery” and “low.” Instead he has his puppets perform a “fine and serious Part of The Provok’d Husband.” Much of Book 11 is taken up by Mrs Fitzpatrick’s story of how her husband married her for money, took her to Ireland, had a mistress, abused her; she is likened to a “trembling hare” fleeing him and his servants. Men were allowed to lock up their wives; they could beat them; a woman was supposed to obey, and people did marry for money sheerly (it was the only way to become rich if you were not born to it). Harriet tells Sophie her “companions” were “my own racking Thoughts, which plagued and and in a manner haunted me Night and Day. In this situation I passed through a Scene, the Horrors of which cannot be imagined …” – a childbirth alone, and childbirth in this period was a hard ordeal often ending in death (Book 11, Ch 12, p 320).

Vanbrugh and Colley Cibber’s The Provok’d Husband is a play which runs on lines similar to Fielding’s own The Modern Husband and is a companion piece to Vanbrugh’s The Provok’d Wife and one of Cibber’s plays about the same brutal male character called The Careless Husband. Repeatedly we find ourselves concerned over a couple who treat one another as commodities; they live in an adulterous world and to find any status, compete with one another over everything, including adultery. There’s a scene between Lord and Lady Townley where she says he is so abusive she will leave him and he replies, leave this house madam, and you’ll never come in again and I will give you no money whatsoever. She is subject to him. At its close there is a moving dialogue between husband and wife where she reasons with him – oh she’s had a lover but so has he had a mistress: “what indiscretions have I committed that are not daily practiced by hundred other women of quality” (II: 675).

No critic I’ve read mentions the Punch & Judy is misogynistic farce — and clearly the play substituted stands up for women’s rights (however ironically). Right afterward the scene we hear the landlady’s maid defend herself from being beaten by her mistress on the grounds that her betters are not better than she; “what was the fine Lady in the puppet-show just now? I suppose she did not lie all night out from her husband for nothing” (p 563). As the characters talk, the landlady remembers when good scripture stories were made from the Bible (as opposed to either Punch and Judy or The Provok’d Husband), and she refers to Jepththah’s rash vow? (p 564). Jephthah vowed to sacrifice his daughter on return from battle if God would only give him a win (it’s an Iphigenia story, note p 946). Before he sacrificed her she sat around bewailing her virginity. The idea is she wouldn’t have minded had she had sex, married, had a husband.

Partridge is one of the few companions on this road to prefer the play to the farce. Partridge told the cruel story of the London hanging judge, is himself an abused husband. Once they get off the road, we find ourselves in the story of Lady Bellaston, a female libertine who hires males for sex, but is herself deeply unwilling to marry for then she will be subject to a master. The chapter ends with the gypsy incident (where a husband uses his wife to decoy a gull) and Jones going off to mouth his muff — which stands in for Sophia’s vagina. There is a curious wild hilarity behind this final moment, something I’ll call uncanny. I was going to show Fielding is our puppeteer showing us how women get a raw deal from men, and is not as indifferent to violence or delighted with violence as is sometimes supposed.


Mrs Francis Abington as Miss Prue in Congreve’s Love for Love; she played Lady Townly in Vanbrugh and Cibber’s Provok’d Husband

As I said, my proposal was rejected, which I heartily regret because beyond my initial focus on Anne Boleyn, the first and last third parts of my argument are original, go against the grain of consensus about Henry Fielding, and it would have been fun to discuss the frank disillusioned drama of the 18th century stage.

Another though was accepted, on topics I’ve often written about here: historical fiction and Winston Graham’s Poldark novels. This time I will talk about the art of blending fact and fiction:

The Poldark Novels: a quietly passionate blend of precise accuracy with imaginative romancing

While since the 1970s, Winston Graham’s 12 Poldark novels set in Cornwall in the later 18th century have been written about by literary and film scholars as well as historians because of the commercial success of two different series of film adaptations (1974-1978; 2015-2019), very little has been written about these novels as historical fictions in their own right. They emerge from a larger oeuvre of altogether nearly 50 volumes. Most of the non-Poldark books would be categorized variously as contemporary suspense, thriller, mystery or spy novels, with one winning the coveted Golden Dagger award, and others either filmed in the 1950s, ‘60s and 1970s (e.g, The Walking Stick, MGM, 1971), or the subject of academic style essays. One, Marnie (1961) became the source material for a famous Hitchcock movie, a respected play by the Irish writer Sean O’Connor, and in the past year or so an opera by Nico Muhly, which premiered at the London Colosseum (English National Opera production) and is at the present time being staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Some are also set in Cornwall and have been the subject of essays on Cornish literature. But a number are also set in other historical periods (early modern and late 19th century Cornwall, Victorian Manchester) and Graham published a non-fiction history of the Spanish Armadas in Cornwall. His historical fiction is usually identified as verisimilar romance, and he has been given respect for the precision of his archival research and his historical and geographical knowledge (especially of Cornwall).

It is not well-known that Graham in a couple of key passages on his fiction wrote a strong defense of historical fiction and all its different kinds of characters as rooted in the creative imagination, life story, and particular personality (taken as a whole) of the individual writer. He also maintained that the past “has no existence other than that which our minds can give it” (Winston Graham, Memoirs of a Private Man, Chapter 8). I will present an examination of three of the Poldark novels, Demelza (set 1788-89, so the fall of the Bastile is woven in, written in 1946); The Angry Tide (set 1798-99, year of the Irish and counter-revolutions in France, strong repression in the UK, written 1977), and The Twisted Sword (set 1815, partly a Waterloo, written 1990), to show Graham deliberately weaving factual or documentable research with a distanced reflective representation of the era his book is written in. The result is creation of living spaces that we feel to be vitally alive and presences whose thoughts and feelings we recognize as analogous to our own. These enable Graham to represent his perception of the complicated nature of individual existences in societies inside a past that is structured by what really happened (events, speeches, mores that can be documented) and an imagined space and credible characters who reach us today.


Elinor Tomlinson and Aidan Turner as Demelza and Ross Poldark (from the first season, 2015 BBC Poldark, scripted Deborah Horsfield)

This is my third paper given at an ASECS conference.

The first was just on the books and it was EC/ASECS (“Liberty in the Poldark Novels: ‘I have the right to choose my own life!'”) and the second at a LA, ASECS, on the two TV series (“Poldark Rebooted: Forty Years On”).

I’ve been watching the fourth season of the 2015 Poldark series once again, and will be blogging about it here soon. I’ve never been to Denver, so now I’ll see a new city for me. Winston Graham and his fiction and characters no longer need vindication but I shall try to make the books more genuinely respected as well as both film adaptations (the one in the 1970s and the one playing on TV these last four years).

Ellen

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Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn, terrified because she has had another miscarriage (Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as dramatized by Peter Straughan, BBC 2015)

Friends and readers

I have been so surprised at Austen’s vehement defense of Mary Stuart in her History of England, that I’ve tended to read her words as ironic, playful, or somehow not really meaning it. But in conversation on the Net here I’ve learnt that Samuel Johnson also empathized with Mary: more, some of the terms in which he put his defense, or one reason he singled out for indignation on her behalf are precisely those of Austen.

She writes in the chapter, Elizabeth

these Men, these boasted Men [Lord Burleigh, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the rest of those who filled the chief offices of State] were such Scandals to their Country & their Sex as to allow & assist their Queen in confining for the space of nineteen Years, a Woman who if the claims of Relationship & Merit were of no avail, yet as a Queen & as one who condescended to place confidence in her, had every reason to expect Assistance & protection; and at length in allowing Elizabeth to bring this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death.

Johnson, said my friend, reviewed William Tytler’s book on “the casket letters.” This is scheduled to be published in the final volume (20) of the Yale Edition of Johnson’s Works (so it is not yet on the Yale Digital Site), nor (alas) can I find it ECCO, but in a conversation with Boswell recorded in Boswell’s Life, Johnson retorts:

BOSWELL: ‘I here began to indulge old Scottish sentiments, and to express a warm regret, that, by our Union with England, we were no more; — our independent kingdom was lost.’
JOHNSON. ‘Sir, never talk of yourr independency, who could let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity, and then be put to death, without even a pretence [sic] of justice, without your ever attempting to rescue her; and such a Queen too; as every man of any gallantry of spirit would have sacrificed his life for.’ (Life, 5:40)

I took down from one of my bookshelves (the one with books on Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots) and found in Jayne Lewis’s Mary Queen of Scots: Romance and Nation that Lewis has a section on a painting Boswell commissioned by Hamilton of Mary Queen of Scots for which Boswell wanted Johnson to write an appropriate inscription. Johnson would not as the painting is a travesty of what happened.


Gavin Hamilton, The Abdication of Mary, Queen of Scots (Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

Her captors (says Lewis) are in classical, she in historical dress.  Looking at the image, it does seem to me man is in armor, another in a clerical kind of outfit, with a 16th century cap on his head, and a third is some kind of white cape or overcoast.  Lewis remarks they are absurdly “restrained,” and I agree it’s not shown this was coercion. Johnson sent an inscription which ignores the falsely bland (decorous?) picture by Hamilton Boswell paid for, which is (in Boswell’s words) “a representation of a particular scene in her history, her being forced to resign her crown.” Johnson instead produced lines which referred to Mary’s “hard fate,” i.e. her execution.: “Mary Queen of Scots, terrified and overpowered by insults, menaces, and clamours of her rebellious subjects, sets her hand, with fear and confusion, to a resignation of the kingdom.”

Lewis provides an image by Alexander Runciman much closer to Johnson’s response:

Lewis says the review Johnson wrote of the book on the casket letters was “glowing” and that Johnson “reprimanded” the Keeper of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh for his countrymen in having “let your Queen remain twenty years in captivity and then be put to death.”

Johnson “understood, even felt the fatal role that the symbols and signs which reduced her to a thing — and thus potentially to nothing — had played both in Mary’s own tragedy and in the patriarchal farce so recently re-enacted by the artists, critics and collectors of Georgian England … it was the will to freeze her in symbolic form (through ‘insults, menaces, and clamours’) that once stripped Mary of her sovereignty, and that does so as she becomes again a sacrifice to the modern frenzy of renown” (Lewis, 118-19)

According to Lewis, Johnson felt personally (“especially”) close to Mary, perpetually aware of how her predicament could be re-enacted in the present. Austen too sees Mary as affecting her close friends and neighbors and about how her family deserted her: readers have been distracted and puzzled by the lines referring to Mary’s Catholic religion:

Yet she bore it with a most unshaken fortitude, firm in her mind; Constant in her Religion; & prepared herself to meet the cruel fate to which she was doomed, with a magnanimity that could alone proceed from conscious Innocence. And yet could you Reader have beleived it possible that some hardened & zealous Protestants have even abused her for that Steadfastness in the Catholic Religion which reflected on her so much credit? But this is a striking proof of their narrow souls & prejudiced Judgements who accuse her

But these lines show the personal identification that actuates her:

Oh! what must this bewitching Princess whose only friend was then the Duke of Norfolk, and whose only ones are now Mr Whitaker, Mrs Lefroy, Mrs Knight & myself, who was abandoned by her Son, confined by her Cousin, abused, reproached & vilified by all, what must not her most noble mind have suffered when informed that Elizabeth had given orders for her Death!

And this footnote remembering Charlotte Smith’s first novel, Emmeline, or The Orphan of the Castle reinforces Austen’s sense of Mary and Elizabeth’s contemporaneity. Austen writes of Robert Devereux Lord Essex.

This unfortunate young Man was not unlike in Character to that equally unfortunate one Frederic Delamere. The simile may be carried still farther, & Elizabeth the torment of Essex may be compared to the Emmeline of Delamere. It would be endless to recount the misfortunes of this noble & gallant Earl. It is sufficient to say that he was beheaded on the 25th of Feb:ry, after having been Lord Leuitenant of Ireland, after having clapped his hand on his Sword, and after performing many other services to his Country. Elizabeth did not long survive his loss, & died so miserable that were it not an injury to the memory of Mary I should pity her.

So when Johnson tried to convince Hester Thrale not to marry Piozzi, that “only some phantoms of the imagination” could “seduce her to Italy,” “eased [his] heart” “by reminding Thrale of Mary Stuart’s fateful flight from Scotland into England:

When Queen Mary took the resolution of sheltering herself in England, the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s attempting to dissuade her, attended on her journey and when they came to the irremeable stream that separated the two kingdoms, walked by her side into the water, in the middle of which he seized her bridle, and with earnestness proportioned to her danger and his own affection, pressed her to return. The Queen went forward. — If the parallel reaches thus far, may it go no further. The tears stand in my eyes” (quoted by Lewis, 119)

Johnson and Austen bring Mary into the present, and also acknowledge her distance from them, Austen by alluding to a novel which sets Mary in the world of “the fancy” (imagination), Johnson by saying “the parallel can go no further.”

Lewis goes on to say Mrs Thrale herself copied one of Mary’s poems into her private journal (244, n42). I don’t know which one but offer this as an example of Mary’s use of the sonnet form in a poem

First the original French:

Que suis-je hélas? Et de quoi sert ma vie?
Je ne suis fors qu’un corps privé de coeur,
Une ombre vaine, un objet de malheur
Qui n’a plus rien que de mourir en vie.
Plus ne me portez, O ennemis, d’envie
A qui n’a plus l’esprit à la grandeur.
J’ai consommé d’excessive douleur
Votre ire en bref de voir assouvie.
Et vous, amis, qui m’avez tenue chère,
Souvenez-vous que sans coeur et sans santé
Je ne saurais aucune bonne oeuvre faire,
Souhaitez donc fin de calamité
Et que, ici-bas étant assez punie,
J’aie ma part en la joie infinie.

Then a good modern English translation:

Alas what am I? What use has my life?
I am but a body whose heart’s torn away,
A vain shadow, an object of misery
Who has nothing left but death-in-life.
O my enemies, set your envy all aside;
I’ve no more eagerness for high domain;
I’ve borne too long the burden of my pain
To see your anger swiftly satisfied.
And you, my friends who have loved me so true,
Remember, lacking health and heart and peace,
There is nothing worthwhile that I can do;
Ask only that my misery should cease
And that, being punished in a world like this,
I have my portion in eternal bliss
— from an excellent Mary Stuart site.

For good measure Lewis shows how “in private life” David Hume reacted spontaneously, personally and viscerally to aspects of Mary’s character and in his printed History did all her could to make Mary’s suffering present to readers (120-21). To all these later 18th century people Mary had not yet become wax-work, or an abstract site of scholarship.

I see close parallels in thinking between Austen and Johnson — how people are oblivious, dismissive, show a total failure of the imagination when it comes to the injustices towards the suffering of others — which offers another explanation for why Austen so devotedly and vehemently favored Mary Stuart.

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Hitherto when I’ve discussed Austen’s History of England or her ardent defenses (and attacks) on Tudor queens, I’ve tried to show a fervent feminism at work (For Austen’s birthday: what she said about Tudor queens, especially Katharine Parr).

But this does not help us understand her particular reactions to particular figures, e.g., “Lady Jane Gray, who tho’ inferior to her lovely Cousin the Queen of Scots, was yet an amiable young woman & famous for reading Greek while other people were hunting.” Now I’m thinking the analogy to make for Austen’s History of England is also our modern historical romances and historical films, where women writers especially mirror women’s modern experiences of victimhood.

The scene of Anne at the window parallels one close to it in time in the film where she looks out to show Thomas Cromwell how her beloved dog, Purkoy, has been cruelly killed in an act of surrogate threat:

Honestly, I look forward to when the 20th volume of the Yale edition of Johnson appears with that review of an 18th book on the casket letters. I still remember what deeply moving use Stephan Zweig made of them in his biography of Mary, and how by contrast, Antonia Fraser acted as a prosecuting attorney whose interrogation demonstrates Mary could not have written them (at least as is). Gentle reader you also owe this blog to my having begun to teach Wolf Hall: A Fresh Angle on the Tudor Matter and how much in love I have begun to be with Mantel’s first two novels of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell. I think very highly of Bring Up the Bodies too.


Mary Queen of Scots by Federico Zuccari or Alonso Sanches Coello — an image from yet another era.

I will go back to my notes on Scott’s The Monastery and The Abbot and see what they yield. Scott is of Austen’s era, historical fiction begins with his Waverley (1815), though I admit the one early illustration for The Abbot I could find seems to encapsulate all the failures of historical imagination Austen, Johnson, Hume, Hester Thrale and now Hilary Mantel work against.


Getty image

Ellen

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Kate Winslet as as Myrtle (Tillie) Dunnage sewing (The Dressmaker, written & directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, 2015)


Annie Starke as the young Joan Castlemain “helping” her professor husband, Joe, writer (The Wife, directed Bjorn Runge, script Jane Anderson, 2018)

Friends and readers,

Finally at the end of summer, four good women’s films. Two weeks ago The Bookshop and Puzzle, where in each a heroine seeks a new life, and now, The Dressmaker (based on a novel by Rosalie Ham) and The Wife (based on a novel by Meg Wolitzer), where in each two heroines wrest back what they have lost. They were gripping because was kept happening next was unexpected as women broke through taboos to become or take back herself after a long endurance. I recommend going to The Wife and renting or streaming (or buying) The Dressmaker as strongly as I did seeing The Bookshop before it leaves the theaters. In order to convey why they are rivetingly or quirkily surprising as we move along, I tell the stories but it’s the acting out as each turn comes that will hold you.


Glenn Close as the aging Joan Castlemaine reading The Walnut, a novel attributed to her husband as fiction, but one she wrote about her life with him

The Guardian says Glenn Close delivers the best performance of her career. She does make the movie the emotionally affecting experience it is, but I can think of other movies I’ve seen her in where it was she who made them extraordinary (Alfred Nobbs, with John Malkovitch, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Paradise Road, the box office winner Fatal Attraction).

It’s done through flashbacks with two sets of actors: we begin in present time with Joe Castlemaine (the character somewhat based on Saul Bellows) played by Jonathan Pryce, winning the Nobel Prize, and the couple going with their son to Stockholm for the award ceremony. They seem to be joyous over this crowning recognition, but have an intensely strained relationship as a couple. Through irritants, and promptings of memories at her husband’s bad behavior He denigrates and treats with mild contempt the son’s, (Max Iron as David Castlemain) writing; he incessantly controls her eating, drinking, smoking, being by herself at all, when he is the one who is ill, taking pills to stay alive, and (as we see) promiscuous with young women wherever he can be. Joan’s mind moves back to how they met (Harry Lloyd as the young professor and Starke as student at Smith College), how he seduced her while he was married, and their first successes: she is working as a secretary at a firm seeking good authors and brings his (it seems) books in. The cyclical weaving is very much a woman’s structure and we gradually realize we are seeing and feeling everything out of her older mind.


On the plane Christian Slater as Nathaniel Bone, biographer, approaches the Castlemains

The real story is also dragged out because the couple is stalked by Nathaniel a young man determined to write a truthful biography, to make a career out of exposing this celebrated author. He follows the Castlemains on the train, and begs for permission and is rejected, told to go away. He remains at the bar of the hotel they are staying at and when she escapes Joe for an afternoon she is lured into drinking and smoking with him, as we listen to him ask her to tell him the truth that she wrote the books, not Joe. Joe (we have seen) doesn’t even know central characters in the stories. Then when the son escapes, Bone insinuates himself into being a companion, telling the young man who then startled with this explanation for his bad memories, confirms Bone’s theory.


Nathaniel Bone talking with David Castlemain

Unfolded before is a Laura Ingalls and Rose Wilder story: what began as the husband writing poor novels and the wife being taught (perhaps wrongly) that women’s novels are ignored, not read, will not sell, or if they do, not be respected. This is conveyed by Elizabeth McGovern as the embittered women writer:


Elizabeth McGovern is memorable in her brief appearance

It at first seems the writing turns into collaboration and then (since he does not know what makes a good book, is dishonest about himself, superficial) an acted out lie: she hides away from children and world writing the novels while he takes (less than adequate) care of the children, cooks, makes money as a teacher, and takes all the credit for the books. What we see at first grating is the way he thanks her for enabling him to find time to work, devoting and giving up herself to his art, his creativity. The incessant gratitude as a cover-up drives her wild; it’s about as much as she can endure on top of his continual domineering demanding (he wants sex when she doesn’t) condescending ways. She has to smile and smile at the phony admiration, the adulation he receives so ecstatically.


In the car alone her face frozen, the husband trying to make up to her

Lying is at the core of this woman’s life, lying as an enabling and silencing mode of being. The movie made me think about what Rose Wilder might have felt because her books were attributed to her mother. The situation was so different: Rose Wilder chose to re-write and then write her mother’s books to project an Ayn Rand reactionary vision, to cover up the abysmal poverty of her childhood in rural America, and she got away with this because her publishers did all they could (as much of the media at the time) to castigate FDR’s turning the US into a more decent society for all (the New Deal, now in its death throes), to tell the false myth that anything is possible in individualistic uncontrolled capitalism. Closer are the faculty wives who spend years next to their husbands in libraries taking notes, typing his manuscript, perhaps “helping” him collaborating, who knows writing for him, and then thanked in a concluding line of acknowledgements. We see at first hand what pain this can be for such a woman, especially if he is someone who has affairs with his students or other faculty.

But there is continual ambiguity, different valid angles. The situation was more complicated than merely a bad husband, all self-sacrificing wife. As the days wear on, and she finally explodes and says she has had enough and is leaving him, they quarrel fiercely and it emerges she was complicit; he is accurate when he charges her with having liked being hidden, having liked getting rid of the children, of being rich (which as a woman writer and without a professorship she would have been), of him caring for the children, cooking and doing everything they pretended that she did. We see the beautiful houses they had.


Jonathan Pryce is pitch perfect in his easier role ….

We have seen how complacent she can be, and again how fierce in anger. How pained. She weeps at the end hysterically because when he suddenly as a heart attack. She is so persuasive and strong at that moment, I found the falling snow in the window behind her a false overdone note. Yet in the last scene on the plane with her son she tells the biographer if he tells the story of who wrote the books she will sue him as malevolent, and then turns with a look in her eye we see she is at the same time at long last free. She turns to her son and promises to tell him the truth of her life and the books when they get home. Will she? She fingers a notebook. Will she begin to publish under her own? or carry on writing producing books she will say were unfinished and are now coming out posthumously. She was ferocious with the biographer on the plane.

It’s arguable though that The Wife is a conventional movie in comparison with The Dressmaker. At the time it was in the theaters while it garnered many awards, non-professional and many professional critics alike lambasted it as peculiar, not making sense, erratic, unbelievable, and yes improbable and meandering (the last two charges commonly hurled at women’s movies). And at first I was startled and felt an urge to turn it off: why should this super-successive costume designer return to a filthy impoverished shack of a home with her hateful aging sick mother, Molly Dunnage played brilliantly by Judy Davis (a persistently fine actress, ever in good movies, unrecognized because not iconic).


Judy Davies when first pulled out of her lair by Tillie

Why go to a small town picnic dressed for the Oscars? What could be the point? Well give it a chance and you begin to see and then are on her side, wanting to see her get revenge on what was done to her and to her mother.

It’s a strange film, bizarre: Tillie begins to gain power because these dowdy jealous women want her to dress them the way she dresses, and she begins to make money as she determinedly ignores or over-rides her mother’s protests and cleans the house, her mother, and sets up a daily decent routine of life for them. What women seem to want, what they dream of themselves looking like is when seen startlingly artificial and grotesque


The movie ends with an album of all the actresses in all the (a cornucopia) dresses made and worn over the film (costume design Margot Wilson and Marion Boyce)

What emerges, in jarringly odd scenes is a female gothic story. When Tillie was small, she was bullied cruelly by a Evan Pettyman’s (Shane Bourne) mean stupid son, Stewart, and she was accused of murdering him in retaliation. She was hounded out of town and her mother disgraced. What gradually emerges is Tillie is Everyman’s illegitimate daughter by Molly; that Pettyman’s present wife has spent her life drugged by this husband before and worse after the son died. In flashbacks we see how the child was ostracized and harassed and when the boy tried to smash her head, she stepped aside and he rammed his head into a brick wall. Another reason she has returned, is she does not know what happened and is determined to discover how the boy died. The town is exposed as bigoted, hypocritical and brutally indifferent to anything but each person’s own ego pleasure. Tillie had a young man who was liked her; grown up now, Liam Helmsorth as Teddy McSwiney slowly reveals he has a mentally retarded brother whom the town despises and mocks, a mother who (like Molly) is impoverished and they live apart, in a tin shack with him making what money they have as a mechanic.

Needless to predict, Tillie and Teddy fall in love and become lovers, Molly emerges from her shell to show she loves her daughter after all, or can love her. They sew together:

There are wonderfully comic moments where Molly calls herself a hag and her daughter a spinster in need of such a man:

The three go to the movies and make fun of what they see: there is an older movie shown which probably is meant as an allusion but I couldn’t make out which one it was.

Wedding scenes, church, as the story is exposed, scenes of intense anger, scene where Pettyman hires another woman as a dressmaker to rival Tillie, only this dressmaker is nowhere as daring, bold, good a seamstress. But colluding and frightened people are exposed as knowing and hiding the truth, Pettyman’s wife awakened to the truth tries to cut his feet off (this reminded me of how Stella Gibbons’s mocked the gothic), and just as we think the evil people who hid everything will get their comeuppance and our trio (Teddy, Tillie and Molly) live happily ever after, Teddy too full of himself, slips down a man hole, gets caught in a vise and is killed. There is a moving funeral. This means his brother and mother can escape the town’s obloquy only by leaving. Molly determines to help her daughter and now dressed respectably, sets forth for help from those townspeople with hearts (they are some):

But in a tense tiring public scene, recalling or anticipating what happens to Bill Nighy as Mr Brundish assailing the witch power-center of the town in The Bookshop, Molly has a heart attack and dies before she can see justice begin to be done. So we have another funeral. The heart attack of the aging weakened person who sallies forth to help the heroine is not the only parallel with Fitzgerald’s tale as filmed by Coixet. In a final scene of rage, while the mostly indifferent town is caught up in another social public event, all of the women now dressed by Tillie, Tillie sets fire to the old cabin she and her mother had lived in, and takes a long red carpet and fills that with lighter fluid, hurling it out towards the town, where it slowly sets the central streets of the town on fire. The movie ends with Tillie re-dressed as the Parisian dressmaker she had become and leaving:

An important character in the drama is Australia itself. The film is made by an Australian film company and was filmed there. It’s filled with stunning shots of the bare and hard landscape, which the camera nonetheless seems to have a love affair with. We first see Tillie against this hard backdrop:

One of the good or remorseful characters, Hugo Weaver as Sergeant Farrat takes blame for Tillie as policeman, seen against the same landscape at another time of day:

A townspeople scene: they look up at Tillie and Mollie’s ruined home:

It is as deeply satisfying a film as one can hope to see, and it uses the power of a woman through one of her most characteristic skills: sewing. Moorhouse is unashamed to both caricature and celebrate high fashion and sexy dressing. It is also unsentimental in just the way of The Bookshop.

Two more women’s films not to miss, to revel in.

Ellen

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Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell (Wolf Hall, scripted Peter Straughan, directed Peter Kosminsky)
Wolf Hall

It is all very well planning what you will do in six months, what you will do in a year, but it’s no good at all if you don’t have a plan for tomorrow” — Cromwell to his son Gregory as they leave the princess Mary in her cold room at Hatfield, Mantel, Wolf Hall.

The past is not yet dead; it is not even dead — Wm Faulkner

A Syllabus

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: Eight Wednesday mornings, 9:40 to 11:05 pm,
September 19 to November 8
Tallwood, 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course

In this course we’ll read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & discuss Bring Up the Bodies. Our context will be non-fictionalized biographies of the Tudor/Stuart courts, the better historical romance fictions, and the immensely popular film adaptations of the Henry VIII Tudor matter in general, with the first two books of Mantel’s trilogy focusing on Thomas Cromwell, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl our particular examples. Our goal is to explore historical fiction, romance and film, and biography and history and ask why this particular era, its politics, its culture, its characters have appealed so strongly since the Tudor stories emerged in the 19th century.

Required Texts:

Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009. ISBN 978-9-312-42998-0
(Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. Audio CD reading by Simon Slater. London: Macmillan Audio, Unabridged, 2009. Recommended if you have any trouble reading the book.)


Claire Foy as Queen Anne Boleyn

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion. Its material the Tudor Matter books & films.

Sept 19th: 1st week. Introduction: The Tudor Matter: History & biography, historical fiction & romance, Hilary Mantel. Linda Simon essay on Hilary Mantel’s life & works thus far (sent by attachment).

Sept 26th: 2nd week: Wolf Hall, Parts 1 & 2. Clips from Pt 1 of BBC WH. Serial drama. Early modern history: early modern women. For next week: Emily Nussbaum, a movie review comparing BBC Wolf Hall with HBO Casual Vacancy (Rowling)

Oct 3rd: 3rd week: Wolf Hall, Part 3; Clips from Pt 2 of BBC Wolf Hall. More on serial drama. Reading the text. For next week: Lettridge on a man for this season, and Mary Robertson on “the art of the possible” (sent by attachment).

Oct 10th: 4th week: Wolf Hall, Parts 3 & 4. Clips from pt 3 of WH; Bolt’s Thomas More, Mantel’s Thomas Cranmer; religion and politics.

Oct 17th: 5th week Wolf Hall, Part 5 & 6. Pt 4 of WH. Henry VIII and sexuality.

Oct 24th: 6th week Bring Up the Bodies, Part 1. Pts 5 & 6 of WH. Ghost stories. Beheading, treason trials. What happened?

Oct 31st: 7th week: Bring up the Bodies, Part 2. Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl. Clips from the two Other Boleyn Girl. The psychodramas.

Nov 7th: 8th, last week: The Tudor mattter elsewhere; a clip from A Man for All Seasons; the as yet unwritten final phase of Thomas Cromwell.


Jonathan Pryce as Thomas Wolsey

Supplementary Reading and Films:

A Man for All Seasons. Dir. Fred Zinnemann. Script: Robert Bolt. Featuring: Paul Scofield, Leo McKern, John Hurt, Wendy Hiller, Susannah York. Columbia, 1966. Cinema release, adaptation of play.
Bolt, Robert. A Man for All Seasons. 1960; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, in Two Tudor Lives, edd. Richard Sylvester & Davis P. Harding. New Haven: Yale UP, 1962.
Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001.
(Gregory, Philippa. The Other Boleyn Girl. CD Audio reading by Susan Lyons. Recorded Books LLC, Unabridged, 2006)
Groot, Jerome de. Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture. London: Routledge, 2009.
Ives, Eric. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004/5
Mantel, Hilary. Bring Up the Bodies. New York: Henry Holt, 2012.
(Mantel, Hilary. Bring up the Bodies. Audio CD reading by Simon Vance. Macmillan Audio, Unabridged 2012.)
Mantel, Hilary. “Frocks and Shocks,” London Review of Books, a review of Julia Fox’s Jane Boleyn [a biography], 30:8 (April 2008):18-20.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir, Script: Phillipa Lowthorpe. Consult: Andrew Davies. Featuring: Jodhi May, Steven Mackintosh, Natasha McElhone, Jared Harris. BBC, 2003. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Other Boleyn Girl. Dir. Justin Chadwick. Script. Peter Morgan. Featuring Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Eric Bana, David Morrisey. Cinema release. Adaptation.
Schofield, John. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell. Stroud, Gloucester: History Press, 2008.
Weir, Alison. Mary Boleyn. New York: Ballantine, 2011.
Wolf Hall. Dir. Peter Kominsky. Script: Peter Straughan. Featuring: Mark Rylance, Claire Foy, Jonathan Pryce, Damien Lewis. BBC, 2015. 6 Part Adaptation


Damien Lewis as Henry VIII

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Hattie McDaniel, Olivia de Havilland and Vivien Leigh 1939 in Gone with the Wind

Diary

Friends,

Day 5/10 of books that influenced me (growing up lasts a long time), that had a discernible impact.

Again for me this is problematic. Between the ages of 13 and 15 I read and reread four books to the point I knew many scenes by heart and can today still conjure them up vividly in my mind. Undeniably (surely we are to to be truthful, or What are we doing in such an exercise?), the first up in time (I was 12) was Gone with The Wind. It came into our house as a book-of-the-month club special for my mother, and I sat down and began to read. I was so entranced (with a four column page) read it so much and so often that the copy fell into pieces. The cover illustration was a collage of scenes from the GWTW books (hence not like the one I find) but my copy was a reprint of the first edition, the ample book behind this older cover:


Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover

The problem is that even then I knew it was a racist book and I am today deeply ashamed of myself that I ignored this. (Note the confederate flag on the side of the paper cover.) It was wrong and racist behavior on my part as the book has functioned perniciously in US culture. Still I am not embarrassed in front of GWTW. I have seen this reaction when I used to assign to students to read a book from childhood and the young adult was embarrassed to realize what the book he or she so loved was. I regretted when that happened. My father tried to read The Secret Garden to me when I was 10 and had to give it up so mortified was he to see the agenda of Burnett’s book. These books answered to what we were then

I was Scarlett in my earliest readings. GWTW led to my reading a helluva of lot of Walter Scott in my earlier teens.  In later years I have decided the heroine of GWTW is Melanie. I shall never forget her standing at the top of the ruined stairs of Tara with a rifle, having killed the marauding soldier, and now determined to lug the corpse to the field to bury it. When Ashley comes home, Scarlett’s wild desire to run to him, and Will saying, “he’s her husband.” I’ve expanded the heroes to include Rhett Butler, Ashley Wilkes and Will Benteen.  I remember so many scenes from GWTW; they formed a backdrop of women’s key emotional moments in my mind. Scarlett in her mother’s green velvet curtains trying to charm money out of the imprisoned Rhett.

It’s women’s historical romance first and foremost.

I’ve never given up this type of book and some are leftist and liberal. My most recent wallowing has been in the distressingly pro-violence Outlander (the first three books) and the brilliant voyeuristic film adaptation: I find irresistible the central love relationship of Jamie and Claire, and I bond with Claire in book and film. I find irresistible still her fierce adherence to Jamie, I bond with her in book and film.


Claire and Jamie starting out together …

People disappear all the time.
Young girls run away from home.
Children stray from their parents and are never seen again.
Housewives take the grocery money, and a taxi to the train station.
Most are found eventually.
Disappearances, after all, have explanations.
Usually.
Strange, the things you remember.
Single images and feelings that stay with you down through the years

I know the Poldark novels by Winston Graham belong to this genre so my study of the Poldark novels began here when I started to read Ross Poldark after watching a few of the episodes of the 1970s serial drama. It’s deeply humane in its politics.


My first copy of Ross Poldark, the 1970s reprint of the 1951 cut version, published in anticipation of the 1975 serial drama starring Robin Ellis

There were three other authors I read & reread around the same time, getting to know by heart key scenes: the second chronologically was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I recently reread it once again and am convinced it is a poetic masterpiece of l’ecriture-femme, one of the great novels for women and one of the world’s great novels in all languages. Who can forget countless passages like this: “I can live alone, if self-respect and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure, born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld; or offered only at a price I cannot afford to pay.” Contra mundi.


This is the copy of Jane Eyre I now own

At the time I was not alive to the crucial differences in language between Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Daphne DuMaurier’s RebeccaRebecca was another “extra” from my mother’s subscription to the US Book-of-the-Month Club. Like Bronte, like GWTW, DuMaurier’s books satisfied a need in me that recent Booker Prize women’s romance (Anita Brookner, Hotel du Lac, A. S. Byatt, Possession) also satisfy. Bronte and DuMaurier explicitly make visible a woman’s vision using techniques found in l’ecriture-femme, but there were only 5 Bronte novels that I could read (JE, Villette, Agnes Grey, Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Wuthering Heights) so DuMaurier functioned as yet more of the same: My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, Branwell Bronte and above all King’s General. Last summer I reveled with a group of people in a class I taught at OLLI at Mason in reading together King’s General (17th century civil war, crippled heroine) and Susan Sontag’s Volcano Lover. However vastly more perceptive about the nature of reality, Volcano Lover is still of this genre. All versions of the same kind of underlying deep gratification of soul.

I had found my copy of Jane Eyre in a local drugstore for 40¢; I went back a few weeks later, and found imprinted in the same cheap way Austen’s Mansfield Park. Another 40¢ and home I went to read and reread MP. My fourth and nowadays favorite book of all these. When I got to the end and heard the moral of struggle and endure, I turned back to the first page and read the novel over again. I’ve never stopped reading it. It has never been far out of my mind, always at the edge of consciousness to be called up. I’ve never forgotten the cover of this MP: white, with 18th century type stage characters, and the blurb telling me this is a “rollicking comedy.” In my naivete I couldn’t understand why this blurb so false was there. But no matter I was Fanny, and this was a somber strong book.


The colors dark and distorted this is nonetheless the second copy of MP I owned

Since then I’ve seen all the film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Mansfield Park available.


Fanny and Edmund growing up at MP (1983 Ken Taylor BBC)

With GWTW, Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park I began my love affair with women’s great books, historical romance, and historical fiction. I’ve never stopped reading these and nowadays want only to write about them. And for me they include the great classics (in 19th & early 20th century beyond DuMaurier, English Anne Bronte, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, Virginia Woolf, Rosamund Lehmann, Margaret Drabble).


Ruth Wilson as Jane Eyre (Sandy Welch’s JA, 2006)

Ellen

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Hattie Morahan, near the end of S&S thinking that Edward is married, and will never come to her, enduring it, my Elinor Dashwood

I’m joining in on a meme on face-book where people ask and answer, What 10 books influenced you more than any others in your life? then you are to put its cover on face-book. No 1: Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.

That’s not the cover of the very book that I read at age 12: it was brown, and part of a set of books my father owned, originally produced by an organization meaning to do good: perhaps the Left-Book Club. I am not sure. But it is the copy I have most read in my life: it is now frail and although no pages have yet fallen out, the binding is loose and worn.

This morning I woke and I was thinking of how with Jim’s death the joy and comfort of my existence is gone; that daily staying alive is such a strain, so wearing that sometimes when I’m out for a long period I come home in a state I call nervous (for lack of a better word) and have such a hard time calming down I need that glass of wine badly. How he sustained me with jokes, his perspective, his companionship. How I would say he was the blood that flowed through my heart; a metaphor.

Then I thought of course of this passage in S&S: Without shutting herself up from her family, or leaving the house in determined solitude to avoid them, or lying awake the whole night to indulge meditation, Elinor found every day afforded her leisure enough to think of Edward, and of Edward’s behaviour, in every possible variety which the different state of her spirits at different times could produce,—with tenderness, pity, approbation, censure, and doubt. There were moments in abundance, when, if not by the absence of her mother and sisters, at least by the nature of their employments, conversation was forbidden among them, and every effect of solitude was produced. Her mind was inevitably at liberty; her thoughts could not be chained elsewhere; and the past and the future, on a subject so interesting, must be before her, must force her attention, and engross her memory, her reflection, and her fancy. I first read the book when I was 12 and to this day I couch my thoughts in Jane Austen’s words as personated through Elinor Dashwood, through her perspective (S&S, Chapter 19).

Among my very favorite films are the 1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility scripted by Emma Thompson, directed by Ang Lee, produced by Lindsay Doran, co-producer Laurie Borg and James Schamus and the 2009 BBC Sense and Sensibility scripted by Andrew Davies, directed by John Alexander, produced by produced by Vanessa de Sousa and Anne Pivcevic. Now among my favorite actresses are Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan, Kate Winslett, Charity Wakefield, Janet McTeer, Gemma Jones ….


Emma Thompson as Elinor Dashwood writing her mother about how things are going in London for her and Marianne

I also reserve a place in my heart for Tabu [Sowmyra, Elinor character], from the 2000 Sri Surya Kandukondain Kandukondain or I have found it, produced by A.M. Rathnam and Kalaippuli S. Thanu, directed and written by Rajiv Menon; Irene Richards (Elinor), from the 1981 BBC Sense and Sensibility, produced by Barry Letts, directed by Rodney Bennett, a script by Alexander Baron developed in new ways from Denis Constanduros’ outline; and Joanna David (Elinor) from 1971 (Jan) BBC Sense and Sensibility, produced by Martin Lisemore, directed by David Giles, written by Denis Constanduros.


Tabu as Ashimar in the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Namesake

But it is the book, the book, the book, gentle reader, always and endlessly this book and Jane Austen as filtered through this her first mature character put before other readers and writers, Elinor Dashwood.

Ellen

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Claire Foy and Matt Smith as the young Elizabeth and Philip in the first phase of marriage

Friends,

Peter Morgan’s (with a little help from Stephen Daldry) strangely powerful The Crown has been for the past two years among the best serial dramas in the subtle naturalistic BBC English style anywhere. It was nominated for and won a number of prestigious awards and if the critical response was at times ambiguous, those who praised praised strongly. I put this first on my Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two area, but over the two days I’ve had it up, I decided to move it here — as a woman’s film even if the script writer and chief producer are men.

The films depict slowly, at length and consistently a development of inexorable embedded emotional burdens each of the major characters finds he or she has to bear as a result of engaging in life with others. There seems to be no retreat for anyone, and as they age, they grow harder or more silent in order to survive. The individual situations of these privileged people are made to resonate with experiences the ordinary person can identify with, or watch Writ Large. Thus catharsis is achieved, at the same time as the British monarchical system is justified.

It belongs to a large number of films this year where a woman who has a questionable power is at the center of the film: from the PBS Victoria (with Jenna Coleman), Spielberg’s The Post with Meryl Streep as Katharine Graham, Gabaldon’s Outlander with Caitriona Balfe the central core strength of all the stories. All tell the same tale of hidden power, power welded quietly, stubbornly and when at a price, still successfully. They descend from the old queen tragedies in the Restoration theater, the 17th century French romances by women, Shakespearean heroines all.

The key characters are Elizabeth (Claire Foy) with Philip (Matt Smith) as her partner, and their performances are extraordinarily convincing. At first I saw the films as a portrait of Elizabeth but by the end of the second season, he had emerged as important in the films as she (if not as powerful), because his presence constantly affects her, hurts her, leads her to betray herself (as does her staff).


Pip Torrens as Tommy Lascelles: he plays the repressive killjoy controlling the royal family (for their own good) — rather brilliantly, convincingly

It is curious how the villains and obtuse people in episode after episode are this household staff, as if the family and many politicians are helpless against them.

The two begin with an idealistic love, and after years where she is driven to not keep her promise to Philip to let him fulfill his desires and have a say in his choices equal to hers, and betray others like her sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), Peter Townsend (Ben Miles). Elizabeth allows herself to be bullied, as when she lets Philip force their son Charles to go to a school singularly unfitted for his character, so as to vicariously re-live own hard-won unexamined success over a wretched boyhood (Paterfamilias), they are barely able to endure one another. He humiliates her and threatens the monarchy by his semi-revengeful liaisons. She has made some wrong decisions (when she agrees to leave the house Philip was setting up for them and move to Buckingham palace, agrees to control his airplane flying, agrees to forbid Margaret’s marriage to a divorced man), but she remains queen (which is why she obeys) and that controls and gives her space and power.

Matt Smith is the program’s sly satyr, giving Claire Foy rare opportunities to know the pleasures of the appetite (including sex) divorced from duty. We see them come close together and then be driven apart. His advice, often cynical, is often proved right. For me the most moving scenes occur when they interact or their stories are told in tandem (as when at the beginning of the second season he is sent on a world tour). In the closing scene as he kneels and they bend over one another hugging, there is an acknowledgement of also a permanent estrangement, a gap never crossed again.


Ben Miles as Townsend, and we see in this photo how calm Margaret is with him

The other over-arching or major secondary story, which carries on through both seasons, depicts Margaret Windsor as thwarted from developing what talents she had, as not allowed to marry the man she loves and who loves her (except she give up her position and large income, which is of course unthinkable), and thus driven, as it were, forced makes a poor choice of an aristocrat, glamorous, cold, a cad, Matthew Goode as Tony Armstrong-Jones.


He renames her Beryl (second season)

Lesser characters contribute more over-the-top or overt drama. The Churchill myth is kept up by John Lithgow, with Kate Phillips as the in-love girl Friday, Venetia Scott. The Churchill matter seems to have stayed in the public consciousness (if recaps and commentary online tell us anything), and Lithgow is a powerful memorable presence. He fills the screen; like Ralph Richardson, our eyes immediately revert to him.


John Lithgow as Churchill charming Kate Phillips as Venetia Scott (who dies in the episode so eager is she to go to work in the fog)

But riveting also are the episodes featuring the resentful sneering de-throned Edward VIII (Alex Jennings); Alex Jennings is a Duke of Windsor unable to accept the position he choose; his clothes show him as pampered, perhaps rightly bitter at the way his family treats him, but also having lost perspective:


All Alex Jennings and Lia Williams as the ex-Mrs Simpson’s outfits are lavishly appointed and elegant

Maybe the most historically important episode in the series was the revelation of the Duke of Windsor’s knowing collusion with Hitler (Vergangenheit, second season): this is one of several episodes to include real film from the era, this case this Duke and Duchess and Hitler reviewing troops.

Some of the present debased or demeaning outlook on some of the prime ministers, such a Macmillan (Anton Lesser) was a weak cuckold (Sylvestre Le Tousel shows her continuing strength as a capable varied actress, here she is the appallingly mean adulterous wife), or Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) eaten up by jealousy of Churchill — all remind me of the way older historical Tudor dramas work. An re-enactment of Beyond the Fringe shows the public laughing at the ridicule the young intellectual actors threw at them, but the men (prime ministers) are too sensitive and become scapegoats. Emasculated males; once again, it’s the women who become the stoics holding on. On the other hand, the reactionary Mountbatten (Gregg Wise) is presented as kindness, gentleness itself, especially to the young Charles where Philip is asking too much with a narrow definition of manliness.

The expected is preferred, except curiously in the case of the Kennedys where an attempt is made to de-mystify them, which ends in scornful put-down of Jacqueline as utterly phony.

Among the tertiary recurring characters my favorites are the older women, especially Victoria Hamilton as the continuing to quietly grieve Queen Mary. One of my favorite episodes is about her attempt to retreat to a castle in the Scottish highlands and brief friendship with a minor aristocrat there who is not told who she is so that she can have an ordinary relationship with him (Pride and Joy, first season).


Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother, Elizabeth

Note how in most of the cases the men are seen with women, with women as protecting, taking care of, or importantly mocking or undermining them. I love all the stills of Harriet Walter as Clementine:

Claire Foy’s face reminded me of Elizabeth Moss in Handmaid’s Tale, Caitronia Balfe in Outlander, Merryl Strep as Katharine Graham in The Post. All nominated or noticed for awards. They are all initially more trusting than most of the people around them. Then a mask forms round their tight jaws. Margaret is the woman gone neurotic, a common type in soap opera:

The two years of this serial drama have been rightly criticized on several grounds. First for the kinds of changes in real history and politics continually set in place. Of course history will be heightened, personalized, and our protagonists made somewhat sympathetic. But the very subtlety with which the actual historical record is interwoven with false perspectives suggests truer perspective could have been put in place.


Elizabeth with Jeremy Northam as Anthony Eden consulting her

Throughout both seasons Elizabeth is made to seem more pro-active than she was, and more compassionately concerned about the average person living in the UK. What is put before us is sometimes the opposite of what happened: thus it was not she who insisted on going to Ghana to mend the relationship but her gov’t ministers who insisted she go. In the first season (damningly), Clement Atlee, the man who did more to reform and make the UK into the decent social democracy with opportunity for all in a large community it became (until Margaret Thatcher put her hatchet to it, and the Tories and then Blair’s gov’t followed suit), Atlee is made into a minor non-entity in one episode, with Churchill’s time as prime minister becoming what was important and the key over-arching secondary story. Elizabeth is made to seem innocent or at least not at all to blame for the understandable revolt of the empire against the English, and that revolt not explained with any sympathy.

And of course it’s a white world: Nasser, the African leaders, I cannot find any stills online of these. It is unblushingly Anglophilic, even if there is perfunctory criticism of how the UK reacted to Nasser nationalizing the Suez canal. Eden’s behavior is seen as well-meaning and a political error. He is misunderstood and he misunderstands a new post-colonial world. A tremendous idealization of George VI goes on, astonishing speeches put into the mouth of the queen grandmother (Eileen Atkins) about the monarchy as if it were a mythic realm placed on earth by God for the good of the English people, far exceeding any divine right exegesis I’ve ever come across.


Eileen Atkins impeccably over-the-top theatrical as the Queen Grandmother — smoking on

I don’t find if marmoreal because of performances like these. Don’t underestimate Jared Harris playing the cancerous George VI, still slaughtering birds as he weeps over his daughter’s “hard” fates and sings “In the bleak midwinter.” Drenched in the sentimental.


Children with George VI admonishing them

All that said, the films function to build compassion and understanding, reciprocation as a basic stance towards experience. The good characters hold onto some kind of integrity and honesty not just because to make the public think they are so keeps them in power. They mean well, they feel guilt, they see themselves as involved in bargains. Each of the episodes is character driven, and while different recurring characters emerge as dominant in this or that or a couple of episodes, there are major presences we care about and watch age and mostly harden or grow old and move into retreat, often stubbornly trying to hold onto what they thought their lives were about when younger.

The scripts are superb and found online. One of the curiosities of the films is how little happens in any given one, at least outwardly. Yes sometimes there is a Suez crisis and we see much action, but more commonly we watch Claire Foy drink coffee. I often cried over a resonating pair of lines towards a given closure, such as Pilgrim’s Progress. This is typical of the woman’s film based on a woman’s novel. Elizabeth gives a new turn to old lines about how she is paying a heavy personal price for the sake of some larger whole or ideal, and I find myself unbearable touched.

The first season shows us the making of a woman, Elizabeth into a queen, from a young girl in love, engaged, dependent on her father (Lilibet), to her walking alone, alienated from those she loves in order to be this symbolic figure. The second season traces a gradual hardening where she is presented as now and again scolding (in effect) her prime minister and urging them onto a course of action she thinks the wiser: they don’t always obey but they don’t ignore her either. She grieves alone.


Elizabeth in the last episode, pregnant with Andrew, aware Philip has not kept his word to be sexually faithful

Even if by logic and space, we actually follow Philip’s story (including his young years in flashbacks) as much as Elizabeth, and the outer political world whether through the weather or political or economic crises, it is Elizabeth the film focuses on again and again, at each stage of her life. Here she is reading Walter Bagehot as a child and learning about the theatrical, the ceremonial (her) and the efficient, the legislative, the instrumental (everybody else):

Even if there are major parts for males, they are seen as the domestic woman experiences them, from a home-perspective. Other favorite episodes: on safari (Hyde Park Corner, the first season)

When Elizabeth hires a tutor to improve her academic knowledge (Scientia Potentia Est, the first season): I loved the actor who played the mussed-up uncomforable tutor clutching his briefcase.

The episode where we see her relationship with Porchester amid the horses today with memories of what was meaning a great deal more to her than him (she phones him, and he puts her off as an American lover walks into his room). This episode also includes the painting of Churchill in old age by Sutherland and Clementine’s burning of the canvas (Assassins, first season).


The Queen and Porchie

Some may like the episode where Mike Parker’s wife rebels and sues him for divorce based on adultery (A Company of Men, second season). What emerges for me are women standing alone. The bitterness of Margaret when what talents she had are not wanted and she finds herself living with a cold cad (Mystery Man, second season), so she renovates her quarters without regard to others. Most evidently Elizabeth by herself, apparently surrounded by aides, servants and of course swathed in money and protection, and yet somehow isolated and holding on. Finding herself pushed and prodded by conventions, turned into a statue, and having to pick out which customs are still operative and which no longer.

When I first started to watch the films, I loved the 1950s outfits,so carefully studied and accurate but gradually they are just the way one dresses, un-costumy.

I’m reading slowly the excellent thorough study of the time and film, Peter Lacey’s The Crown: The Official Companion. The history is corrected there. The changes justified. One of the pleasures are the photographs of the actual historical people juxtaposed to the actors: we see how closely aligned the choices for actors were, how their costumes are often recreations of the originals.

Some representative reviews, mostly ambiguous: The Telegraph rounded up a bunch and linked them in; from the New York Times on the second season (Goode was born to play the seductive Armstrong). Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair wanted to dislike the film but found it bloody compelling


Not quite gawdy?

I look forward to the third season, with a little trepidation that the change of actors will change the chemistry of the films too much or in directions I won’t care for. I don’t know the work of a number of the new actors: when I do, as Helena Bonham Carter for the aging Margaret, I can see it. I loved Olivia Coleman in Night Manager and can see her as a warm fundamentally sound older Elizabeth. Tobias Menzies (late of Outlander) as Philip when older is worrying: he often plays hard mean and cold people, yet he has his gentle psychological side as Frank Randall too (Paul Bettany said to have been considered would have been better at that).

It has emerged as something of a scandal that Smith was much much better paid than Foy; both my daughters informed me he is much better known, a star, while she with her superb performances as Amy Dorrit in Andrew Davies’s Little Dorrit, the younger Nazi sister in the return of Upstairs Downstairs, as good as unknown. Even Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall doesn’t match Dr Who. I wonder. At any rate we are assured next year salaries will not be so gender unequal.

Ellen

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