This 'Reign of Terror': tragic for the wrong reasons
27 February 2018
I watched this to examine a range of dramatic representations of the French Revolution. It's disappointing to reflect that it was made the same year as the magnificent and moving dramatisation of some of the same events in 'La Terreur et la Vertu', which (to my knowledge) has never been broadcast here in Britain.
The 'Doctor Who' historical adventures were originally intended to be part of the series' 'educational' remit, but 'The Reign of Terror' is perhaps only educational if you are reviewing the literary influence of Emma Orczy on English-language depictions of the Revolution. This adventure is essentially a time-travel riff on 'The Scarlet Pimpernel', with its focus on smuggling people out of Paris, British spies, and the apparent ease with which prisoners can be extricated from the Conciergerie or snatched from execution carts.
Historically, it peddles the post-Thermidore 'légende noire' as popularised in Victorian and Edwardian English-language popular fiction: an interpretation of events and characters popularised by Carlyle and reiterated by novelists. Unfortunately, this was taken up as a kind of substitute historical canon and is the basis for what most people here *think* they know about the Revolution and its protagonists. It might be too much to hope that a popular television series would try to challenge that.
The fact that episode 4 is called 'The Tyrant of France' grated on my nerves even before I started to watch: it is, simply, factually wrong. (Had it been used ironically, the unfolding political drama could have been more effective and poignant.) No-one even pronounces Robespierre correctly in terms of where the 3 syllables are (It's "Rob-ess-pyer", not "Robes-pi-erre" - which is why some engravings of the time misspelled it by putting an 'r' between the 'e' and 's'): Barbara is as bad as my old history teacher at school for that! Napoléon's role is also depicted misleadingly: in reality, he had been helped in his career by Augustin, Maximilien's brother, and would have been in danger had he been near Paris.
I can only bear this if I rationalise it in Whoniverse terms as taking place in some kind of Thermidorian AU or simulation. The fact that a key character uses the name 'Le Maître' does allow for some retconning of the narrative in Whovian terms, which might explain some of the historical strangeness. I recommend 'La Terreur et la Vertu' as a corrective (sadly, there isn't a subtitled version available).
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Polanski may not seem the obvious director for a fairly faithful, sensitive, pastoral Hardy story, yet the result is extraordinarily beautiful. The photography is exquisite, the casting spot-on, and Sarde's score is haunting, with a Vaughan-Williams touch. The film's two-year fight to be generally released is well known, and I am glad that Coppola's idea of cutting the May Day dance at the beginning was stopped. The plot and characters are familiar to all Hardy fans. The film, in animating the source, exposes some of its weaknesses as well as its strengths, but the balance is positive. (Spoilers, but the book came out in 1891 )
Nastassja Kinski is engaging as Tess, if more slender than the book suggests (where she is a more buxom 1890s type). She effectively conveys the quiet resilience behind the "large, innocent eyes" and "mobile, peony mouth", and it's easy to understand her effect on the boys. However, as in the book, it's her judgement on them which is questionable. I must declare an interest: as a litmus-test of acquaintances, "Alec or Angel?" is a good way of sorting wheat from chaff. (Spoilers ahoy!) Angel, superficially the 'good boy', is revealed as a pseudo-intellectual, egocentric hypocrite. Even his repentance, which Hardy judged temporary, precipitates the final tragedy. Alec, who claims to be 'bad' (to pull girls), is essentially generous-hearted, kind and passionate under the rakish pose: he's an immature skirt-chaser at first, but *he grows up*. Victorians might bridle at his open sexual vitality, but he is genuinely concerned for the welfare of Tess and her whole family. The problem is that Tess internalises Angel's judgement, internalises his values and blames Alec, not him, for his rejection of her.
Unfortunately, the film's omissions and alterations try to load the narrative towards romanticising the Tess/Angel pairing. The sleepwalking scene, in which he places her in a stone coffin because she is "dead" to him, for not being a virgin, is omitted. Why? It reflects his twisted values and makes her continued devotion to him all the more horrifying. Similarly, Alec's religious conversion/breakdown and deconversion are omitted. As a result, his reappearance in her life is made even more coincidental: we lose the shock of her rejection of his proposal and her telling him of their child's brief existence, and his distress that she had not told him when he could have helped. (It's important to recall, as the film shows, he did not abandon her: she left him because she realised she didn't love him.) Also, in the build-up to the final tragedy, we see Alec 'provoking' Tess by making OOC sarcastic jibes *at her* while she's sobbing. In the book, she launches into a hysterical diatribe against him, and he responds by (understandably) calling Angel "a foul name". The consequences involve a carving-knife, and this viewer shouting: "No, not him! Kill the other one !" at the screen. The film's alterations, while not as crass as the 1924 version (which made it self-defence), come close to victim-blaming. While Tess is victimised by Angel and her own psychology, she in turn destroys a man who genuinely loves her. The romantic idyll on the run in the New Forest is charmingly done, but lacks the novel's brooding sense of the bloody crime hanging over it. Even so, the emotional struggles are well-conveyed.
Peter Firth's Angel Clare (the name implies the Bright Angel – Lucifer) is all golden curls and chilling self-righteousness, the clergyman's son whose rebelliousness is a sham. Leigh Lawson is excellent as Alec, adorably mischievous in the garden and whistling lesson scenes, determined and loyal and ultimately exasperated by Tess's perverse loyalty to the man who has abandoned her. He has wonderfully expressive dark eyes, and my hurt/comfort complex kicked in over his fate (Never mind the strawberries, pass the bandages!) The secondary characters are brought to life superbly, especially Marian (Carolyn Pickles) and Tess's parents. Sir John's pride and bluster are both comic in effect and tragic in consequence.
In this fairly conventional dramatisation, the pagan undercurrents are muted, but the May dance at Marlott, the spontaneity and fierce passion of the moonlit liaison in the Chase, and stark climax at Stonehenge remain powerful. (I should note that to interpret the Chase scene as 'rape' is a serious misjudgement. Hardy was forced to obfuscate because of the censoring power of the subscription libraries. They are just two young people responding instinctively to "the oldest wood in England", with its "Druid mistletoe", and the drowsing animals and birds are not startled.) The film's hauntingly beautiful images remain in the mind long after viewing.
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Wow! Plamondon and Cocciante's sung-through musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel is stunning: moving, exciting, funny, tragic. The cast is superb, the staging striking, the score melodic and exhilarating. In many respects, it's one of the more faithful adaptations, although the modernisation of some aspects of the setting is not entirely successful. There may be *some spoilers ahead*, as I make comparisons with the book and other adaptations.
Pierre Gringoire's role has been expanded to function as our streetwise narrator and guide through the story: Bruno Pelletier, a wise-cracking, adorable delight, is at his most mischievous in 'Val d'Amour', surrounded by Folies Bergère-style harlots! The other main characters fulfil the roles one expects. Luck Mervil is a dynamic, if youthful Clopin (it's a bit of a jolt when he says he's brought up Esméralda as a father – they look the same age!), and comes into his own in the marvellous 'Cour des Miracles' scene, in which Pierre narrowly escapes hanging. Garou is an impressive and moving Quasimodo. Hélène Ségara is a graceful Esméralda, though perhaps *too* dignified – I was more convinced by Lola Ponce in the Verona recording. Also, script-wise, there are problems with adaptations (like this) which give her a stronger, more mature personality, because, while it's more convincing in terms of her background, the plot hinges on her gullibility and immaturity re: the vain and duplicitous Phoebus (Patrick Fiori). A more plausibly streetwise Esméralda would be more likely to see through him and either avoid or manipulate him. Daniel Lavoie is heartbreaking, and a fine vocal presence, as Claude (although, as in most dramatisations, a couple of decades older than the character). He has some of the best songs, too: 'Tu vas me détruire', 'Etre prêtre' and 'Un matin, tu dansais' – and it helps that the lyrics make powerful use of some of Claude's speeches from the novel. But then, his plight – torn between his desires and his vows, between his traditional ecclesiastical education and the new learning of the Renaissance (here expressed in a duet with Pierre, 'Florence') – is what drives the novel and gives it its tragic heart. He also depicts the Archdeacon's increasing mental breakdown, up to the final hysterical outburst that precipitates his death (dramatically staged). I'm unconvinced by the semi-modernisation making him a racist: the only gypsy with whom he really has a problem in the book is Esméralda, and that's because of his attraction to her. Julie Zenatti is effective as Fleur-de-Lys, here portrayed as an adolescent, but shrewd and scheming: she knows what Phoebus is, and seeks to secure her hold over him by telling him to "hang the gypsy".
The minimalist sets work well in terms of allowing the dance sequences to stand out, and to focus attention on the main characters. However, as mentioned already, I'm not entirely convinced by the partial modernisation. The grafting on of modern political themes – undocumented refugees, police racism and brutality – jars when we also have songs such as 'Florence', which places the action in the Renaissance and anticipates the coming Reformation. A full modernisation of setting might work (Dresden Semperoper did a 'Chicago'-style production of Schmidt's 'Notre Dame', with Esméralda-as-Roxie Hart), or a full mediaeval staging (as done in the Russian youth theatre Sed'moe Utro's production in Novokuznetsk), but this is neither one nor t'other.
Overall, though, this is a magnificent show, and (bar its omission of subplots around Esméralda's real parentage and Claude's relationship with his brother) is closer to the novel than most film versions. Also, it passes the ultimate test for any musical: you will start humming and singing some of the songs afterwards!
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Stunning, pared-down dramatic ballet adaptation of Hugo's classic
25 April 2017
Roland Petit's 1965 ballet 'Notre Dame de Paris' finally made it on to DVD in this stunning 1996 production from the Paris Opéra Ballet. It pares down Hugo's mediaeval urban epic and its large cast to focus on the tragedy of four protagonists: Esméralda, the gypsy dancer, and the three men with whom she becomes involved in different ways – Claude Frollo, the young Archdeacon imploding as his sexuality collides with his vows; Phoebus, the rakish soldier; and Quasimodo, the deformed foundling adopted by Claude and who is now the cathedral bellringer. The corps providing colourful support as citizens, soldiers, outlaws, & c.
Isabelle Guérin, as Esméralda, is more worldly than the book-character (whose naïvety is unconvincing, given her upbringing), more like Petit's other heroines, Carmen and Rosa, and her effect on the men is believable. She's a wonderfully expressive dancer. Laurent Hilaire (who partnered her gloriously in 'Le Parc') is superb as Claude, destroyed by his own desires and destroying all around him in the process. He's one of my all-time favourite tragic heroes, and, allowing for the limitations of what ballet can portray (it cannot show his philosophical and scientific interests), Hilaire's is the best portrayal I've seen of him to date, alongside Alain Cuny in the 1956 film. It helps that he was, at the time of filming, in the right age-group (34), unlike other portrayals of him, which are usually far too old. The intense dark eyes and razor-sharp cheekbones are perfect, too (and perfectly gorgeous): aside from the fact he's not balding, he looks more like the Claude I imagine. I deeply regret that Petit didn't choreograph the prison-scene: a bit of chest-baring cassock-ripping from Hilaire's Claude would have made me a very happy fangirl Nicolas Le Riche is a touching Quasimodo, the role Petit himself originally performed: what is especially effective is that his deformity is not depicted with prosthetics, but through movement, how the dancer uses his body. The ballet enables us to see him swinging on the bells, as described in the novel. Manuel Legris' Phoebus is as insufferably flashy and arrogant as one expects, but his doomed assignation with Esméralda in the brothel is highly sensual.
What are also worthy of note are the costume and set designs: the sets draw on Victor Hugo's own ink sketches of Notre Dame, and the overall look of the production, including costumes and facial make-up, is derived from the cathedral's famous stained-glass windows. Bold, bright colours are intersected with black lines in the manner of window-leading. Yves Saint-Laurent, who designed the costumes, clearly liked this style and also used it in some of his non-theatrical 1960s designs, and it survives also in his packaging design for 'Rive Gauche'.
Whether you come to this as primarily a lover of ballet or as a lover of 'Notre Dame de Paris', this is a wonderful production. As hinted above, it's worth seeing in conjunction with Petit's 'Carmen' and 'L'Ange Bleu', which have related female leads. Indeed, 'L'Ange Bleu' (based on Heinrich Mann's 'Professor Unrat') is pretty much what would have happened if Esméralda/Claude had worked out
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'Brother Cadfael Misbehaves' in a botched Hugo adaptation
25 April 2017
I was disappointed by this ITV adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' when I first saw it on TV 35 years ago, and it still disappoints. There may be spoilers ahead, as I compare it with other adaptations and the source novel.
While it does, at least, retain from the novel Claude's status as Archdeacon and adoptive parent of the founding Quasimodo, much else is derived from the 1939 Hollywood film, with the romanticisation of Pierre Gringoire and the happy ending it gives him and Esméralda (rather than Djali). There are other changes: Captain Phoebus is depicted as already married, instead of betrothed, and (*spoiler*) Claude's death is placed as the climax of the 'Porte Rouge' episode, rather than at the very end of the story.
The chief problems are in the casting. While the actors are mainly well-known and have done excellent work elsewhere, they are not well-cast in this. Derek Jacobi is particularly miscast as Claude. He's too old and the wrong physical type (Tim Piggott-Smith, who plays his subordinate Philippe – an entirely superfluous new character – or Robert Powell – under-used as Phoebus – would have been better in the role). He also comes across as too much the comfortable 'career cleric', not the driven, intense young intellectual and scientist, with his agonising self-mortifications and self-destructive passions. I can't help but see this as more like Brother Cadfael being a bit naughty. In fact, his Cadfael, who has a colourful past, has far more personality than this depiction.
Lesley-Anne Down is a pretty Esméralda, but it's not her fault the role is written so vapidly. Gerry Sundquist makes an appealing lead, but he's not the Pierre I love in the book, more like the 1939 film-version. Anthony Hopkins is a competent Quasimodo, but he's not the most interesting character, despite Shoberl's unauthorised re-titling of the book in English, which film-makers seem to prefer for some reason. Overall, this lacklustre adaptation falls between the two other TV adaptations I've seen: it's inferior to the 1976 BBC version, which had the best ever Pierre in Christopher Gable, but still superior to the 1997 US version, which had a far-too-old Richard Harris as a book-burning Claude and Mandy Patinkin as Quasimodo the secret intellectual and author (Yes, really!) More than ever, I regret the disappearance of the 1966 BBC adaptation starring James Maxwell
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The only Jane Austen dramatisation I've ever enjoyed!
7 January 2017
'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' manages to improve on both versions of the book (the original and the zombie version), with an exciting and entertaining plot, comedy that is actually funny, and plenty of action. I only wish that the book I was forced to study for O Level in 1981 had included zombies and swordfights. The characters were delightfully portrayed (the film gains from being played straight), and the use of so much of the original dialogue gives it a curious air of authenticity – reminiscent of 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'. The locations and costumes are lovely, and Lena Headey is especially stunning as the eye-patch wearing veteran warrior Lady Catherine. Matt Smith as Mr Collins is hilarious, rather than simply irritating. I would recommend this to anyone who was bored out of their mind by the original.
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Personalising the Political: a still-relevant and splendidly faithful dramatisation
24 April 2011
YTV's 1974 adaptation of 'South Riding', scripted by Stan Barstow, is a triumph of literary adaptation – faithful and vivid – which shows up the atrocious 1938 film and the botched potential of the over-abridged 2011 BBC serialisation. The 13 50-minute episodes develop characters and subplots, building a full portrait of community life in the eastern East Riding (Winifred Holtby's fictional 'South Riding') in the 1930s. She subtitled it 'An English Landscape', and this is what we get: a landscape inhabited by people we get to know and love. It's a familiar landscape: I grew up in 'Kingsport' (Hull) and discovered the book as a teenager there in 1980; the setting was the era of my mother's childhood. The real Holderness locations are lovely: Withernsea lighthouse, Spurn Point, flat fields, huge skies, eroding clay cliffs. Never mind the occasional squire, whole towns have fallen off the edge of the world here.
Politics – local, national, international – shape the story, which begins, like the novel, in the press gallery of the County Council in Flintonbridge (Beverley) as two rival councillors – a feudal, reactionary country squire and a consumptive Clydeside Red – compete to be elected alderman. Three years later, one will be dead, and the other sacrificing his health to build a better future. Everything between – births and deaths, breakdowns, blackmail, corruption, poverty, school life, love affairs, marriages and their destruction – is framed in the context of local government. The personal is political, the political personal.
We see how political decisions affect people's lives: the Public Assistance Committee in Yarrold (Hedon) and the implosion of the Mitchells' marriage because of unemployment are especially chilling, given current (2011) UK politics. Lydia – the gifted teenager forced to leave school when her mother dies – still strikes a chord in debates about child carers, poverty and educational opportunity. We see, too, how politicians' characters and personal histories influence their actions. Hermione Baddeley is the definitive Emma Beddows: the first female alderman in the county (based on Alice Holtby), who has made herself indispensable to her community in compensation for an embittered marriage, and is infatuated with a man young enough to be her son. John Cater is also superb as Anthony Snaith, whose manipulations just manage to stay within the law, but who has a genuine desire to improve his community. He is a lonely man (in the book, traumatised by being abducted and abused by paedophiles in childhood), whose only emotional outlet is his love for his adorable cats.
The cast includes many familiar faces: Lesley Dunlop and Judi Bowker as Lydia and Midge; Clive Swift as Huggins, the lay preacher who takes 'lay' rather too literally; Ray Mort as the feckless but amiable Barney Holly; June Brown as Lily Sawdon; Joan Hickson as Agnes Sigglesthwaite. I enjoyed Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport as Sarah, the modernising new headmistress, and Robert, the debt-ridden squire, haunted by guilt over his wife's post-partum psychosis. However, both are rather too good-looking: Anna Maxwell-Martin and David Morrissey (2011 version) are more as I imagine, if a little young. I can't *quite* envisage Tutin's Sarah leaving a trail of unsuitable lovers – she seems too ladylike, too wise – while Davenport's Robert is too genial and does not resemble Mussolini-with-hair. In contrast, Norman Jones is too plain as Joe, the tubercular Scots socialist, who, in the novel, has a "pretty face" and "curling ruddy hair" (Winifred's 'beau idéal' – ditto David in 'Anderby Wold'). I suspect he's been cast less handsome to skew viewers' affections towards Robert as 'romantic hero', but Joe's *moral* beauty still wins my heart. His social awkwardness and earnestness are touching: his chat-up line about Sarah's resemblance to Ellen Wilkinson; a painfully clumsy conversation about concert tickets when you *know* he really wants her to say she'd like his company; the harrowing Public Assistance meeting at Yarrold (Hedon) This is the only adaptation to discuss his background, organising Black South African miners (like Winifred's friend William Ballinger) until his health broke. He is a *real hero*. Unfortunately, Sarah takes this courageous, selfless man for granted as her ever-dependable, platonic best friend, as if his physical fragility desexualises him, and means he's not a 'real man'.
This highlights the most infuriating plot-thread: Sarah's sexual passion for Robert, the antithesis of all she values (and, ironically, secretly even more ill than Joe!). It's a self-betrayal fuelled by a dysfunctional childhood: she's a driven over-achiever, a violent alcoholic's child, needing approval from dominant men with whom she then quarrels *because* of their dominance. She's quite right to call him a "bucolic dictator"! When, at dinner in Manchester, he is flippant about her fears for her German friends, I wanted her to tip her dinner-plate over his head, *not* seduce him! (In her shoes, I'd take the first train home to seduce a delicate Glaswegian in Mrs Corner's garden-shed instead ) I certainly don't mourn Robert's winning the Alexander III Memorial Driving Award (a pity about Black Hussar, though!). Mind, I don't share book-Emma's belief that "it's not politics nor opinions" but the fundamental "things of the spirit" that count: politics and opinions *express* our essential values; one can't truly love someone with inimical values. (But then, Emma, too, is besotted with Robert!) And Sarah herself recognises that a meaningful relationship with him was always impossible.
The ending offers some hope: on the King's Jubilee, after a plane crash and the laying of the foundation stone for her new school, Sarah re-reads Joe's letter, which (uncharacteristically) she has been carrying in her handbag for 3 days. She is smiling – surprisingly, given his worrying news, unless she has come to her senses and has plans The camera then scans the South Riding landscape, and the final shot is of Winifred Holtby's grave in Rudston: a fitting tribute to the inspiring young woman who created this engaging fictional universe and its inhabitants.
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Earthquake hits Rudston: author spinning in her grave
10 April 2011
This adaptation of Winifred Holtby's Holderness-set novel opens with a dedication to the author, who had died tragically young: "To her memory, this pictorial impression of her book is respectfully and gratefully dedicated". Well, the scriptwriters' idea of respect and gratitude is not mine. Winifred was probably spinning like a peerie in her grave, and in danger of toppling the Rudston monolith!
If the 2011 BBC adaptation was over-condensed at 3 hours, this 85 minute film is a caricature. It's sentimental and politically neutered: the book is neither. This is an alternative-universe 'South Riding', primarily for hard-core Sarah/Robert shippers. *Spoilers ahoy, comparing the novel and TV versions.*
The actors work hard, despite the inadequate script. Edna Best is engaging enough, if too beautiful, as Sarah. Marie Lohr, as Emma Beddows, is middle-aged and glamorous, not elderly and matriarchal. Robert Carne (Ralph Richardson) has lost his moroseness and bulky, Mussolini-esque looks to become a more conventional 'romantic hero'. The displaced Clydeside Red, Joe Astell (John Clements), is now English, fairly posh, and surprisingly extrovert – even flirtatious – in comparison with his adorably earnest and awkward book incarnation. However, he is canonically both "pretty" (the otherwise faithful 1974 adaptation failed abysmally on this, casting-wise!) and consumptive, with a hacking cough (omitted in the 2011 version). He also has some witty lines. Although his heroic background (organising Black South African miners – based on Winifred's friend William Ballinger (1894-1974)) is ignored, he steals the film for any viewer with a hurt/comfort complex.
Sarah's shift of affections appears extremely abrupt. One scene, she and Joe are having a fun day out, with lots of flirting and humour; then, all it takes is the birth of the calf on her way home, and eyes meeting under a hideous chocolate-box portrait of Mrs Carne, for her to fixate on the squire. Tsk! Well, if *she* doesn't want Joe, I can think of worse ways to spend an evening than applying his chest-rub... (Ahem! 'Anderby Wold' joke!)
Nuance is sacrificed to melodrama in Muriel's storyline. The deliberate nods to 'Jane Eyre', handled with irony in the book, are played straight here. Ann Todd (renamed Madge, instead of Muriel) is a high camp cliché: riding a horse upstairs, and dramatically dying (yes, really!) at an opportune moment psychically linked to Robert. In the flashbacks, her costumes and hairstyles are extremely odd, considering they represent styles of the recent past. And I'm sure that even in an expensive psychiatric institution, marabou-trimmed satin nightwear was considered impractical for patients
The Holly family storyline is handled superficially. The cause of Annie's death is puzzling: she does not die in childbirth, as in the book; she appears to have a heart problem (borrowed from Robert, who is healthy in this adaptation?); but she dies just before a surgeon can operate (is this derived from Gertie, or has Annie has replaced Lily Sawdon as a cancer sufferer?). Lydia is underwritten and obsequious, far more attention being paid to Midge (Glynis Johns), whose maliciousness is reduced. Essentially, Lydia's role here is to demonstrate Sarah's benevolence, not as a character in her own right. Incidentally, the Hollys' home has an upstairs in this adaptation, being a double-decker bus or tram, not a railway carriage.
There are no real villains in the novel, but in the film, moralising censorship casts its shadow. Snaith is presented as an out-and-out crook, who has to be punished: in the book, he is a more ambiguous figure, damaged by childhood sexual abuse, working for his own advantage and yet *also* a genuine benefactor. Huggins appears to be a widower, so his liaison with Bessie can be treated more comically (although the blackmail and corruption are serious). Sarah and Robert's Manchester tryst is interrupted, not by an attack of angina, but by news about Muriel/Madge, before they get to the bedroom. Sarah later saves him from suicide by shotgun at the moment his wife keels over in Harrogate, thus removing all shadows of adultery and obstacles to the pairing. Part of the point in the novel is that he embodies the doomed, feudal past, so his survival is a bad plot-change.
The ending is literally flag-waving, saccharine National Government propaganda. Snaith's corrupt land deals are exposed, thanks to Sarah overhearing Bessie and Huggins. Robert steps in to save Joe's planned housing scheme and his career. Never mind 'Tullochgorum''s "Let Whig and Tory a' agree" – here Socialists, Liberals, High Tories et al. unite to sing 'Land of Hope and Glory' for the coronation. Midge and Lydia become best friends. Sarah sits between Robert and Joe. Given book-Sarah's racy past, I wouldn't put a ménage-à-trois past her, but it's implied here that she and Robert will pair off, while the far more adorable Joe remains her platonic best friend. He needed rescuing (politically) by Robert, therefore cannot be 'romantic hero' material. This nonsense reflects a popular stereotype of disabled or chronically ill characters as desexualised: men, especially, are portrayed as emasculated by illness, because it makes them fragile, vulnerable and dependent – stereotypically 'feminine' or 'childlike' qualities. By contrast, the novel's ending at the Silver Jubilee is bittersweet with mingled loss and triumph, hope and fear, with hints that Sarah may finally have come to her senses romantically, as she cherishes a heartbreaking letter in her handbag (Usually, she methodically organises her mail into baskets, so this is suspicious!)
All told, the film is disappointing and dishonest. The Cinegram magazine claims that "Readers of the book will recall the story, which, although changed in places – there is a happy ending, for example – still conveys the burning sincerity of its author This intense realism will come as a refreshing tonic to audiences over the world". No: this is a 'South Riding' with teeth drawn and claws blunted. As a "respectful" memorial to the author, a feminist and socialist, it is insulting.
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As an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 'Notre Dame de Paris', William Dieterle's 1939 film is itself malformed, a picturesque travesty twisted out of shape by the demands of the Hays Office. It is the chief source of the 1996 Disney animation of the same title, inheriting elements from Wallace Worsley's 1923 silent adaptation. *Some spoilers follow, as I wish to compare the book and the film, and refer to other film versions.*
'Notre Dame de Paris' is a mediæval tragedy, dominated by Claude Frollo, the young Archdeacon unhinged by the conflict between his sexuality and his vows of celibacy. The Hays Code, which superseded the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', forbade negative, controversial or disrespectful depictions of clergymen. As a result, this adaptation follows Worsley's 1923 film in rearranging the Frollo brothers to placate the Hays Office and the Catholic Legion of Decency. Claude Frollo (Walter Hampden) remains Archdeacon, but is a kindly old fellow, not the tormented young genius of the book. Instead, book-Claude's passion for Esméralda is transferred to his secular brother, Jehan (Cedric Hardwicke) – a spoilt teenage student and party-animal in the novel, but here as a sexually repressed, politically repressive middle-aged judge and adviser to Louis XI. (To anyone who knows the book, the linkage of Jehan with repression of *any* kind is hilarious !) These portrayals directly influenced the 1996 Disney animation: indeed, Disney's 'Minister Claude Frollo' caricatures Hardwicke's chiselled features and chaperon. Hardwicke conveys film-Jehan's not-all-that-suppressed desires – in one scene in Notre Dame, he is clearly ogling Esméralda's cleavage while she is speaking to him (a rare trace of book-Jehan!) – but, as he is not under vows, there is no powerful plot-reason for him to deny them in the first place. (Amusingly, Hampden and Hardwicke later returned to 15C Paris as Louis XI and Tristan L'Hermite in 'The Vagabond King' (1956).)
Without the psychological conflict between religious vows and human passions, the core plot loses its raison d'être. This adaptation therefore shoehorns in a 'political' conflict, making film-Jehan a persecutor of gypsies and a bitter opponent of intellectual freedom, as symbolised by the printing press, which he destroys. This seems to me a wilful misreading of book-Claude's pronouncement, "Ceci tuera celà". Hugo extrapolates how the printed word will kill the 'stone books' of the cathedrals; literature will supersede architecture as an art; freedom of thought will triumph over ecclesiastical domination. In the novel, Claude seems to accept the inevitability of this, ambivalently but calmly. He is a man on the cusp of the Renaissance: a scientist and polymath, as well as a priest, who can see equally the dangers and the opportunities ahead. To make his screen incarnation (under whatever name) a violent opponent of the new learning, while presenting Louis XI as its champion, is a gross distortion. (This was taken to an even more ridiculous extreme in the 1997 US TV version, with Richard Harris's elderly Dom Claude a reactionary fanatic leading the smashing of printing presses, and Mandy Patinkin's Quasimodo a secret intellectual and author!) Only Delannoy's 1956 film, starring Alain Cuny as Claude, has made much of his alchemy. Pierre Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) is transformed anachronistically from the amiable playwright and goat-fancier of the novel into a romantic young rebel, a radical satirist and political pamphleteer, who incurs film-Jehan's displeasure. He would fit more comfortably among the revolutionary students in 'Les Misérables'.
As in 1923, the use of the inaccurate popular English title again promotes the supporting character of Quasimodo to greater prominence. Charles Laughton's Quasimodo is thick-sliced Yorkshire ham. He is lugubrious and self-pitying, more like an elderly man than the young one the script acknowledges him to be during his trial. His spinal curve is overdone: a boy as severely deformed as this would have been unlikely to survive in 15C, and despite his deformity, Hugo's Quasimodo is notably agile. Anthony Quinn's 1956 portrayal was far more credible and vital. Laughton was, I think, simply unlucky with his casting in Hugo adaptations: in the Hays Code-pleasing bowdlerisation of 'Les Misérables', he had played Javert, when he would have been better as Jean Valjean (his physical bulk and presence are reminiscent of Harry Baur, the definitive film-Valjean), a role given instead to matinée idol Frederic March.
Maureen O'Hara makes a spirited and beautiful Esméralda, appropriately still in her teens, but nevertheless seems too intelligent and streetwise to have fallen for the duplicitous and caddish Phbus (Alan Marshal). (Book-Esméralda is alarmingly gullible, given that she has been raised among thieves and cut-throats.) In this version, he is really killed, which weakens the story. Part of the horror of Esméralda's plight in the book is that he recovers from his wound, but refuses to clear her name or lift a finger to help her in any way – while she remains infatuated, precipitating the final tragedy by calling his name at the least opportune moment possible. Again, the Hays Code interfered in depicting injustice: individual officials could be depicted as wicked or corrupt, but the rule of law and authority itself must be upheld. Hence the film depicts the king as essentially benevolent, but badly advised by the hypocritical Jehan, who persecutes Esméralda for spurning his advances.
There is excellent work from the supporting cast, notably Thomas Mitchell as a wily Clopin Trouillefou, and the production values are good. I wonder whether the set of old Paris was the same one used for the 1923 silent version? The happy ending is a final bowdlerisation, far less powerful than that of the novel: of the cinema versions, only Delannoy's 1956 film has taken us into the charnel-house at Montfaucon. Pierre gets the girl, as well as the goat, and Quasimodo gazes down wistfully as they go off together. Perhaps this time, *he* should have run off with Djali as a consolation prize?
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A potential epic cruelly deformed by censorship and Chaney's ape-man
4 November 2009
Visually, Wallace Worsley's adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' is stunning: the lavish sets are atmospheric; the costumes, while not always historically accurate, are attractive; and the film is lively and well-shot, with (on the whole) an excellent cast. It could have been a superb early Hollywood epic. Unfortunately, the script was maimed by censorship, which set the tone for subsequent US attempts to film Hugo's spectacular novel of 15C Paris. *Some spoilers follow, as I wish to compare the book and the film.*
The title itself reflects part of the problem. Despite Victor Hugo's disapproval, since 1832, many popular English-language translations of 'Notre Dame de Paris' have appeared under the 'Hunchback' title, promoting the supporting character of Quasimodo to the leading role. The NAMPI 'Thirteen Points', which prefigured the Hays Code, further fuelled this change of narrative focus. They prohibited the depiction of the clergy in ways that might provoke hostility or loss of respect: a huge obstacle in adapting this novel, which centres upon Claude Frollo, a brilliant young priest who destroys himself and all he loves because he can no longer cope with his vow of celibacy. Other characters were also problematic for the censors: Esméralda's long-lost mother is a penitent former prostitute; the teenaged student Jehan is a drunkard and frequenter of brothels; Phbus is a rake who takes Esméralda to a sleazy 'house of assignation' and almost succeeds in seducing her – indeed, she plasters herself over him more or less begging him to take her! How could the book be sanitised for filming under NAMPI rules?
The script retains Claude Frollo's identity as Archdeacon, but makes him remain the sweet, saintly adoptive father of the deformed foundling Quasimodo. It transfers his passion for Esméralda and his alchemy to his secular brother, Jehan – a spoilt and dissolute undergraduate in the book, but here a middle-aged villain, in league with the king of the underworld, Clopin. Without the psychological conflict over religious vows, the 'thwarted desire' plot loses meaning and intensity. It becomes just another story in which a man ruthlessly pursues a girl who loves someone else. It also wastes the talents of the British actor Nigel de Brulier, whose ascetically handsome features make him one of the best film-Claudes in looks. He could have played Hugo's Claude magnificently, judging by his performance as the prophet Jokanaan, tormented by another provocative teenaged dancer in Alla Nazimova's film of Oscar Wilde's 'Salomé'. Instead, all he has to do is look pious in a cassock. Film-Jehan (Brandon Hurst) is merely a moustache-twirling melodrama villain, or would be, if he had a moustache!
The moustache, however, in one of Hugo's more egregious anachronisms, belongs to Phbus de Châteaupers (Norman Kerry), whom the script cleans up to be a conventional romantic lead (a decision copied by Disney in 1996). Yes, he tries to seduce Esméralda (the delightful Patsy Ruth Miller – young, carefree and charming), but here she resists, and he is won over by her virtue. The film also invents a Cinderella-type scene where she goes to a ball, dressed up as a lady, and captures his heart from his aristocratic fiancée Fleur-de-Lys. And of course, despite the various trials and tribulations, they will be rewarded with a happy ending. Pierre Gringoire's role is minimised to that of occasional comic relief: a pity, as he is great fun when he is on screen. Pâquette/Sister Gudule, Esméralda's mother, makes her only Hollywood appearance in this adaptation, in sanitised form, played by Gladys Brockwell. In flashback, we see her as a wealthy lady (presumably a widow) in a grand house, not as the impoverished young prostitute of the novel. Her death is placed earlier than in the novel and in somewhat different circumstances. The script bungles the drama of the belated recognition and reconciliation between mother and daughter: here, Pâquette recognises her child, then dies – but Esméralda apparently remains none the wiser. Poignant though this is, it seems an odd anti-climax: did this plot-element seem too melodramatic even for 1920s audiences?
These days, the reputation of the film rests chiefly on being a star-vehicle for Lon Chaney as Quasimodo – much overrated, I thought. His make-up was certainly elaborate by the standards of the time – indeed, too extravagant to be convincing. Quasimodo is a twenty-year-old boy with severe disabilities: he is not a human-ape hybrid, which is what Chaney (wearing an alarming amount of false body-hair during the flogging scene) appears to be playing. In a cinematic reversal of evolution, he is more like an ancestor of King Kong: just swap the Gothic towers of Notre Dame for the Art Deco lines of the Empire State Building. The ending, too, prefigures that of the great ape film: the heroic 'monster' is killed off so that the physically attractive young lovers can be reconciled. It's certainly not Victor Hugo! Indeed, having Quasimodo expire in the arms of his adoptive father, Claude, so far overturns the tragic climax of the novel that it belongs in an entirely alternative universe.
Without the distortions of narrative and character imposed by censorship, the talents assembled here could have made a wonderful film. Sadly, the NAMPI restrictions left it picturesque but stunted and deformed – much like Quasimodo himself.
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"So come up to the lab " for some spectacular cinematic alchemy!
4 November 2009
The opening of this film – relating the finding of the word 'Ananké' (which the English-language narrator irritatingly mispronounces as 'Anankh'!) on the wall of the cathedral – signals that Jean Delannoy has given us the best cinema version of 'Notre Dame de Paris' yet. It is the closest in spirit to the book in picaresque colour and in its final tragedies. *Some spoilers follow, comparing the book and the film, and touching upon other film adaptations.*
While international distribution (especially in the US) meant that Delannoy still had to fudge Claude's priesthood (being addressed as "Maître/Master Frollo"), his sober dress and the fact he works in Notre Dame make it implicit – indeed, obvious to anyone familiar with the book, as French audiences are. His younger brother Jehan is thus restored to his (im)proper and impish self as a wastrel student (Maurice Sarfati), who first appears dressed as an imp for the Feast of Fools. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, Jehan became a middle-aged substitute for his brother in his relationship with Esméralda.) There are, nevertheless, differences between the French and English versions. Because of the Hays Code, Quasimodo is made *King* of Fools, *not* Pope, in the English dub, the scene being shot with two different crowns. The French version also includes scenes with Pierre after Esméralda's arrest, and an extended scene of Claude's breakdown, returning to La Falourdel's, corresponding to the book's chapter 'Fièvre' – presumably cut because the English title overemphasises Quasimodo.
Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollobrigida have top billing, but Alain Cuny quietly dominates the film – as he should. Claude, not Quasimodo, is the most interesting central character: the brilliant, tormented scholar and scientist as Romantic tragic hero/anti-hero. Although over a decade too old for the role, Cuny has the right air of anguished intensity and self-destructive passion. Even as he brings suffering on others, he himself suffers still more deeply, all haunted eyes and strong cheekbones. (An acquaintance observed his hairstyle is too 1950s, but the anachronism is less significant than the fact he has so much hair at all: book-Claude's hair has receded into his tonsure!) This is the only film version that shows his alchemical researches, and sets Louis XI's incognito visit, as 'Compère Tourangeau', in his laboratory, rather than in his rooms in the cloisters. This atmospheric scene captivated me when I first saw the film on TV as a child, and as a teenager I fell in love with Claude in the book (recognising a fellow-Aspie). My chief regret is that (as usual) the passionate confrontation in prison from 'Lasciate Ogni Speranza' is omitted: this Claude is certainly handsome enough for some chest-baring cassock-ripping He gives us the film's most memorable moments: his rapt face framed by the broken window of the Grande Salle of the Palais de Justice, while in the adjacent pane we see the reflection of what grips his attention – Esméralda dancing; how he intones her name over his experiments (which reminds me of Ezra Pound's marvellous 'The Alchemist: Chant for the Transmutation of Metals': "Midonz, gift of the God, gift of the light,/gift of the amber of the sun,/Give light to the metal"); his torment at La Falourdel's, watching Phoebus (Jean Danet, suitably smug and flashy) seduce Esméralda; scratching 'Ananké' on the wall, watched by an uncomprehending Quasimodo; returning to the cathedral by moonlight, and crossing himself (cut from the English-language dub) when he sees Esméralda in ghostly white. In his last moments, he stretches out his arms, crucified by his forbidden desires, before falling. It is a superb performance, unshowy, but emotionally wrenching.
Gina Lollobrigida is somewhat mature and overtly sexy to be entirely convincing as a virginal teenager, but she has glamour, vitality, and (with choreography by Myasin/Massine) dances better than most screen Esméraldas. It is believable that an otherwise ascetic and intellectual priest could be driven to crime and madness for such a beauty. Of course, with such a bright and spirited Esméralda, the question remains as to how she can be so stupid as to fall for Phoebus's smarmy charms, but that is part of the tragedy of the book – and, indeed, such calamities happen in life. Her comic relationship with Pierre Gringoire (Robert Hirsch) is delightful, with a very cute Djali as the third party in their 'marriage'. It is wonderful to see so much of Pierre, without him being rewritten as a conventional romantic lead (as in 1939 and 1982). Clopin is played somewhat younger than usual by Philippe Clay: Villon-esque, a figure from Bosch or Breughel. Quinn is the best film Quasimodo: alarming and touching by turns, unsentimentalised, and believable. Unlike Chaney or Laughton, whose deformities were far too exaggerated, he looks as if he could have survived childhood in 15C. He is deaf, and seems to have learning disabilities, as the book implies. Fleur-de-Lys (Danielle Dumont) and her friends, in their henins and colourful gowns, look as if they could have stepped out of an illuminated manuscript. Phoebus is as obnoxious and shallow as written: only in the English dub is he softened slightly by being made to regret that he could not have saved Esméralda himself.
The last part of the story is truncated because of the running-time, hence the change in the events at the Bastille, and in the circumstances of Esméralda and Clopin's deaths. However, it is still far more effective than the bowdlerised 'happier' endings imposed by the 1923, 1939, 1982, 1996 and 1997 versions. The conclusion at Montfaucon is retained, and is movingly portrayed. All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable film, which gives a better impression of the novel than any other cinema adaptation to date, and confirms my belief that French literature usually fares best in the hands of French film-makers.
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If you love the book... this travesty is a penance
3 July 2009
Watching this bowdlerisation of one of my favourite novels is probably the nearest I will ever get to a mediaeval-style penance such as wearing a hairshirt. I'm giving the film 4 stars only for the quality of the animation: the cityscapes and the cathedral are beautifully realised. There are a few (very few) moments of expressionistic power: the 'Hellfire' sequence in particular reminded me of Musorgskii's 'Night on the Bald Mountain' in 'Fantasia', and suggests the story's real tragic, passionate heart, but... It's *not* my beloved 'Notre Dame de Paris'.
What it is is a sanitised, smug, 'feel-good' fable with a happy ending, trying to hitch a ride on a masterpiece by stealing a few character-names and concepts from the novel. It is heavily indebted to previous Hollywood versions which were also far from faithful. It follows the 1923 and 1939 films (which were prevented from depicting the clergy 'disrespectfully' by the NAMPI 'Thirteen Points' and the Hays Code respectively) in turning the Frollo brothers into a 'good' Archdeacon and an 'evil' secular judge, with the latter having Claude's tortured passion for Esmeralda. (Never mind the fact that without a conflict over his priestly vows of celibacy, this plot line is weakened drastically.) 'Judge' Frollo here even looks like Cedric Hardwicke from the 1939 film, down to his chaperon hat, although here he has at least been named Claude. (In the 1923 and 1939 versions, the sexually repressed 'evil' brother was Jehan – hilarious if you know the book!) This film also follows Hugo's stage version, 'La Esmeralda' (1835) and the 1923 film in de-sleazing Phbus and making him the romantic lead. (SPOILERS AHOY) The death of Quasimodo's young mother, hitting her head on the steps, in the prologue seems to me to borrow from Pâquette's death near the end of the novel. In turn, I wonder if the scene of the burning of the miller's cottage inspired Roland Emmerich's 'The Patriot' (2000)?
While these changes are understandable in trying to make a film for children from a very adult novel (and I appreciate that I'm *not* the target audience), I wonder *why* they did it? What was the point? Surely it would have made more sense to write an *entirely original* story to express the desired themes, than grafting it parasitically on to a classic? For one thing, it turns the novel on its head by making a smarmy, shallow playboy into a dashing romantic lead, and the proto-Dostoevskian, intellectually brilliant but sexually and emotionally tormented young tragic hero/anti-hero into a sneering villain old enough to be his father! One of the most infuriating scenes is the adoption of Quasimodo. In the book, he is placed in the cathedral as a foundling, aged about 4. Claude Frollo, already a priest at 19, adopts him out of genuine compassion, because he himself has just been orphaned and left to care for his baby brother. This poignant scene is replaced with a horrific crime. Claude is also depicted as a cruel 'parent', keeping Quasimodo imprisoned in the cathedral and instilling an inferiority complex: in the book, he teaches the boy basic literacy (despite his physical and learning disabilities), and devises sign-language for him when he loses his hearing. The film perpetrates a grotesque distortion of character and tone.
Worse, this film has 'poisoned the well' for at least some younger viewers when they later approach the book, judging by some online book reviews. For every one that has embraced entering Hugo's stunning but heartbreaking universe, there are several who complain that the novel "isn't like the Disney film"; that "none of the characters are sympathetic" or "likeable" (really?! – I read it in my mid-teens and fell in love with the Archdeacon of Josas at first read!), that there's too much about alchemy or architecture or philosophy or human sexuality My sole consolation is imagining Dom Claude anathematising the entire Disney Corporation in full solemn ritual, with bell, book and candle. (I rather think he'd enjoy doing it, too!) I now have this nightmare of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy starring as 'The Krazy Karamazov Brothers': it no longer seems impossible...
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'The Philosopher-Playwright of Notre Dame'? Gringoire steals this show
2 July 2009
I've just got this 1976 BBC adaptation of 'Notre Dame de Paris' on disc from the Netherlands, (why no UK release?), and I now remember that I saw it on TV when I was about 11. It's a solid, faithful adaptation: studio-bound, so more like a stage production, with elegantly inventive sets reminiscent of the stylised architecture you see in manuscript illuminations. Some of the extras, especially the Truands, are pure Villon or Bosch. It also gets full marks from me for using the glorious 'Kyrie' from Guillaume de Machaut's 'Messe de Notre Dame' at the beginning (I am a mediæval music fan!). It follows the book closely, although Quasimodo's fate is changed, and, as so often (bar the 1923 film and the 1966 BBC version), Pâquette and her story are dropped.
It has the best Pierre Gringoire and Jehan Frollo yet (Christopher Gable and David Rintoul respectively). Indeed, this version could be retitled 'The Philosopher-Playwright of Notre Dame', since Gringoire (my second-favourite character) gets most of his best scenes and dialogue, including the scene where Claude, his former tutor, finds him working as a street entertainer! Warren Clarke is a good Quasimodo: his trial is straight from the book. It must always be remembered that, despite the popular English title, he is *not* the main character: English-language adaptations tend to over-emphasise his role. I don't understand the script's claim that he would be hanged: it's not suggested in the novel, and more probably he would be rewarded for saving the cathedral from the Truands. The spoilt young Fleur-de-Lys (Hetty Baynes) and playboy soldier Phbus (Richard Morant) are also splendidly played, and eminently slappable. As in the book, one becomes infuriated with Esméralda for remaining fixated on the latter, even to death. Weaknesses? Unfortunately, these are in leading roles: Esméralda and Claude.
Michelle Newell's Esméralda is young, pretty and innocent enough, but, to paraphrase Raymond Chandler, her dancing would *not* make an Archdeacon kick a hole in a stained-glass window. She wears far too many clothes,(1970s hippie dress), and her dancing would make no-one's pulse race (probably not even her own). Why didn't they use Gable as choreographer, since he was in the cast? (He later oversaw a full-length ballet of 'Notre Dame' as Artistic Director of the Northern Ballet Theatre.) Her goat Djali, however, is an adorable fluffy white kid with a pink nose.
Kenneth Haigh is miscast as Claude, although he tries hard in the brothel scene, watching jealously as Phbus seduces Esméralda. However, he lacks the required physical presence and intensity (book-Claude is tall, swarthy, lean and broad-shouldered, with passionate eyes). Like all but the 1966 BBC and 1996 ballet portrayals, he is at least a decade too old to play a young man of 35-36. We only get a truncated version of 'Lasciate Ogni Speranza', without its most harrowing moments: no version I've seen to date has included him admitting to stabbing himself, let alone baring his chest to show her the wounds. The chapter 'Fever' is omitted entirely, because in this version, he's present during Esméralda's rescue. Nor do we get the emotional build-up to the 'Porte Rouge' scene, so it comes out of the blue, without his feverish delirium (his wounds are infected) and desperate pleading; without the hideous absurdity of a semi-somnambulistic, sexually ignorant virgin attempting rape. (One doubts he even knows *what to do*, physically.) All in all, it's a curiously passionless portrayal of a passion-racked character: even at the end, he seems far too calm and sane, not physically and mentally ill as in the book. Claude is the novel's tragic hero: Romantic, yet proto-Dostoevskian; a brilliant young intellectual, tortured by desire and tearing the world down around him in crime and madness as he destroys himself and all he loves. For once, I'd like to see an adaptation that really put his psychological struggle centre-stage.
So I recommend this production heartily, with a few reservations. Most adaptations of the novel are dominated by one or other of the main characters: this is definitely Pierre Gringoire's show, and he runs away with it (as well as with the goat)!
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I was recently given this film on DVD as a gift, and was unsure at first if it would appeal (although one of my favourite actors has a leading role). In fact, it's on its way to becoming a favourite.
First of all: thankfully, it's *not* the same as the book, the ending of which I think is excessively melodramatic. Secondly: it's one of the best films I've seen about the First World War. "What?" you may ask. "It's not a war film!" True: we see no battles or bombardments, no trenches, no gas. But it shows the cost of war, the damage done to the lives of the men who fought in it, and the impact this had on those close to them.
We first see Helen (Sarah Miles), a baronet's widow, awaiting her release from a mental hospital. All the women in the film appear to be widows: some from the war, but Helen's much-older husband, Sir Thomas (we see him later in a photograph) was taken ill and died while she was at a party, hence her guilt-stricken breakdown. She is lost and lonely. The wire around the hospital grounds evokes POW camps and the trenches: like many of the men in the outside world, Helen is suffering from a kind of shell-shock.
Out of hospital, she has to find her feet in the outside world again: a world we experience through her eyes as bleak, desolate and unfriendly. Her mother is unable to provide her with any real support. Herself a widow, she has put up her own emotional defences, behind which she hides to avoid dealing with her daughter's distress. (Like many people, especially in that time, she seems to find mental illness embarrassing.)
Ledbetter, the hired driver, becomes a supportive presence, and helps Helen begin to adjust to life again, but she does not realise that he is becoming dangerously obsessed with her. This is a superb performance by Robert Shaw. Ledbetter is a former regular soldier, an ex-sergeant-major who runs a boxing club and has set up his own car-hire business. Superficially, he seems tough and strong, dependable, but there are cracks beneath the surface: he has not really adjusted to civilian life. He invents (for reasons he later explains) a family and home life he does not have; he has brutal outbursts with colleagues, and affection-less sex. Getting close to Helen a woman whom, even with the greater post-war social freedom, he could not realistically have hoped to marry exposes psychological fault-lines that tear him apart. These days, one might diagnose PTSD.
The same is true of the other man in Helen's life, aspiring politician Captain Hugh Cantrip (Peter Egan). He is ambitious, handsome, but also very young. Tellingly, his girlfriend, Connie (Caroline Mortimer), mothers him, combing his hair and making sure he has a clean handkerchief before he goes out. He is known to both Ledbetter and Helen: the former had served under him during the war, and Helen had met him in political circles and had thought him a "popinjay". However, he and Helen now begin a relationship, with Helen intending to support his political career, financially and emotionally. Peter Egan, fresh from his stage success as Stanhope in R C Sheriff's 'Journey's End', makes Hugh more than an immature cad. There is a revealing, understated scene in the back of the car between Helen and Hugh, in which they quote Brooke's 'The Old Vicarage at Grantchester'. She asks, of his war experience, "Was it very bad?" He cannot answer. She says: "Well, you're back now." But his softly-spoken reply "Am I? Sometimes I wonder " is the key to his character. As light and shadow flicker across his face, we know that there are some horrors that cannot be put into words. The disproportionate casualties suffered by junior officers of his sort straight out of school or university and expected to lead from the front are well-known. In a nervous speech (during which Helen reassures him) to local political folk at a dinner-party, he reveals that he will stand as an Independent, no longer as a Liberal (the party which had taken the country into the war). His emotional life is as damaged as Ledbetter's. He cannot easily extricate himself from Connie, who depends on him emotionally and financially: reading between the lines, she is probably a war-widow (perhaps of a former comrade?) with a child, whose drawings we see on the wall of her home.
The crisis between the trio builds slowly, with a frightening scene between Helen and Ledbetter in the car, and Ledbetter listening in to Hugh and Connie when he is driving them, as Hugh tries to persuade Connie that, even as his relationship with Helen develops, they can continue theirs; that he will, at least, continue to support her. Jealousy, obsession and his belief that he must protect Helen from a duplicitous gold-digger lead Ledbetter to confront her and Hugh violently in her home.
The ending is entirely different from that of the novel, and is better for it: it is dramatic, but less melodramatic, and maintains an unsentimental tone. We began with one character recovering from a mental breakdown; we end with another suffering one. Helen, one senses, is now wiser and stronger than both the men, who have been unable fully to adapt to the so-called 'land fit for heroes' to which they returned from the nightmare of total war. The new ending is open: one feels that she, at least, will cope with whatever lies ahead, without illusions. In this, it reflects well the reality of the time, in which women (Helen, Connie, and so many others) had to pick up the pieces of a world in which too many men had died or had come home with varying degrees of mental and physical damage.
"Well, you're back now." "Am I? Sometimes I wonder "
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Alan Garner conjures the spirit of the creative process
11 April 2007
This evocative and revealing play has haunted me for nearly 27 years. Seeing it again, at long last, it is every bit as lovely and lyrical as I recall.
Harry (Anthony Bate) is a writer who is suffering from depression, migraines, and writer's block. He lives in what appears to be Alan Garner's own house, the timber-framed Toad Hall (T'owd Hall - "The Old Hall"), near the Jodrell Bank Radio Telescope in Cheshire. The spectre of a beautiful woman, dressed in blue in mediæval style, appears. Her voice dictates to him a new poem – mysterious and mystical, with Arthurian echoes. However, when he reads it to David, his secretary/agent, it is nonsensical, stream-of-consciousness bawdry – not at all what he believed he had written. He goes for a walk to clear his head, reciting repeatedly verses from the traditional ballad, 'Child Waters'. He finds an ancient stone head in a pool (interestingly, his sister later refers to his migraines as "his heads".) The lady appears again, this time in green, and he hears a voice singing 'Child Waters'. Clare, his sister, arrives unexpectedly. Harry realises he is being stifled by her and David alike. The typewriter begins to type by itself, asking for 'HELP'. Alone, after an emotional outburst, Harry tidies his appearance and returns to work, now able to write down the poem that the lady had dictated. She reappears, dressed in red, seated by his fireside.
Harry clearly contains elements of Garner himself: the author has a bipolar condition, and has been quoted on a Radio 4 website as saying that "he finds his creativity in the house (Toad Hall), tapping into an energy that he is only now beginning to understand". Is the mysterious woman a ghost, a Jungian anima figure – Harry/Garner's personal poetic muse (perhaps embodying the house's energy?) – or a pre-Christian goddess, such as have figured in some of Garner's earlier novels? Garner has also said: "A work of art is a product of the unconscious mind". It seems to me, then, that – rather than being a supernatural 'ghost story' – 'To Kill a King' is a depiction of the creative process, as Harry's anima/muse helps him break out of the depression that has halted his writing. It is beautifully filmed and acted, and conveys much that I recognise about writing.
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A picturesque, if patchy, Templar (K)nightmare on Rhodes
12 March 2007
I recently saw 'Dark Side of the Sun' again, and found it as entertaining, if unsettling (for historical reasons), as ever. One of several Ægean adventures by Michael J Bird, it makes good use of scenic locations and local colour on Rhodes, including the castle at Lindos and the Hospitallers' headquarters. Plot-wise, it is fantasy-thriller hokum: it inspired fanfic and fun among my fellow mediæval history student friends when it was first screened at the beginning of our very first term. But it had the potential to be more than that. The Michael J Bird Tribute Site says it "ran out of steam at the end, almost as if Bird had planned eight episodes but partway through had been told it had to stop at six". I know what the writer means: interesting aspects of character and story emerge, but are not explored, and ends are tied up rapidly. Of course, this makes it an ideal inspiration for fanfic!
'Dark Side' was made about the same time that 'The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail' was published, when a-historical, occult notions about the Knights Templar and Masonic conspiracies were becoming fashionable, pre-Dan Brown. The Templars (the far-from-mysterious armed wing of the Cistercians) have been ill-used in fiction from Walter Scott onward, as a result of the dubious charges made against them when the Pope and the King of France decided to seize their money and lands. It was a frame-up: the Grand Master and others died at the stake, proclaiming their innocence, that they had been tortured into confessing. It makes me somewhat uncomfortable, then, when fiction assumes "there's no smoke without fire" (doubtless from the burned knights), even for fantasy purposes. Ironically, the historical back-story owes more to the misdemeanours of the *Hospitaller* Grand Master, Foulques de Villaret, and his deposition.
The plot is pure Gothic: an exotic setting, a mysterious castle, a damsel-in-distress, an outwardly attractive and charming villain, murder, a secret society, and incubus-type supernatural sexual intrigues. There are strong overtones of 'Dracula'. The Jonathan Harker role is split between Don Tierney (Patrick Mower) and David Bascombe (Christopher Scoular). Don's widow, Anne, is both Lucy and Mina, but without Mina's basic strength. She is traumatised, yes; but she was already on the insipid side before her breakdown, and I found her too wet to engage with, although Emily Richard has a likable screen presence elsewhere. Ismini Christoyannis (Betty Arvaniti) makes a far more appealing heroine. She is 'Dark Side''s considerably more glamorous answer to Professor van Helsing: intelligent, interesting, brave. She realises before the others the nature of the powers they are fighting, and is a match for them. I was sorry that we do not get a major verbal confrontation between Ismini and Raoul. The sparks (and more) would have flown. (In fic, they'd make a great pairing!)
Raoul Lavallière (Peter Egan) is an intriguing villain/anti-hero, handsome and with an air of melancholy. However, because we chiefly perceive him through the eyes of the other characters, much about him remain elusive. The seduction plot, reminiscent of Uther and Igraine in Arthurian legend, is ambiguous: a cruel deception, yes – yet with both parties getting something they wanted. And what of his past? What has he been doing for nearly 700 years? All we know is that, until 5 years ago, he had been living in Lebanon – unless that is a cover-story. Did he really kill Agnès? What does it mean to have lived so long, without ageing, in a changing world? Maturin's 'Melmoth the Wanderer', 'The Flying Dutchman', and vampire literature have explored similar characters. It could have been interesting to see more from his point of view. Also, what happens to him between the last scenes in the castle, and his arrival in Scotland?
Despite his record of murder and seduction, Raoul frightens me far less than David, the drippy young historian. As a fellow historian, his method, attitude and manners alarm me, and I would have grave doubts about letting him loose in an archive. The military orders are not his subject, but he is soon making over-confident assertions about them. He believes, without question, Brother Philibert's account of Thibaut's murderous past and what happened at Saint-Theodore/Hagios Theodoros. Yet he knows that the Hospitallers had an agenda to regain the castle and oust the embarrassing Templar refugees, and he has not had time to check the information against records elsewhere. He shows not even a glimmer of scepticism. Tsk! Unprofessional! I could rap his knuckles with a copy of Barber's 'The Trial of the Templars'! I also wondered at the wisdom of Ismini letting him take the role he did in the séance: surely there was a risk that his own feelings for Anne might interfere? His description of Raoul's 'Brotherhood' as "a neo-Nazi Freemasonry modelled on the Knights Templar" is also questionable: "neo-Nazi", when a Sir Joseph Marcus (surely Jewish) is a member? Indeed, conspiracy theories about Masonic and/or Jewish "cabals" taking over international positions of power tend to find favour with the far-Right. I suspect David isn't a lecturer from Durham (a reputable university!) on sabbatical, just a failed postgrad who has exaggerated his qualifications...
'The Dark Side of the Sun' is spooky fun that does not entirely fulfil its promise. Greater moral and narrative ambiguity could have made it stronger: few things in life are as black-and-white as the Templars' Bauçant banner, and the order's demonisation (literal, in this case) leaves a nasty taste. Anne and David are, at times, too stupid to survive. Possible non-supernatural explanations, which could have given more 'texture' to the plot, were not raised. Could setting up a 'Brotherhood' for prominent businessmen and politicians to network in privacy, while pretending to be knights, be merely a money-spinner to fund the restoration and running of the castle? Even a near-immortal Templar needs to keep his roof repaired!
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Stunning dance evocation of the life and work of Federico García Lorca
18 February 2007
'Cruel Garden' is one of the Ballet Rambert's classics, seen here in a television adaptation of its original production, choreographed by and starring Christopher Bruce. It has a beautiful, guitar-led score by Carlos Miranda.
It is based around the life and work of Federico García Lorca, the poet and dramatist martyred by fascists in 1936, at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. Rather than being a biographical dance-drama, it takes images from his works - including symbolic figures such as the Moon, the Bull, and the Nightingale - to weave a mythic image of the Poet continually sacrificed and reborn, an Orpheus figure. He appears as the Bullfighter in a scene inspired by the 'Llanto per Ignacio Sanchez Mejias' (a bullfighter fatally injured in the arena) A flamenco-café sequence set to 'El Cafe de Chinitas', one of the folksongs which Lorca collected and arranged, treats sensitively the Poet's homosexuality (a factor in his murder). He then appears in a 'puppet' version of 'Blood Wedding', and as Buster Keaton, in a silent-movie style sequence based on 'A Poet in New York'.
I hope that either the BBC or the Ballet Rambert will consider releasing this on DVD. It is an extraordinarily moving and beautiful work, which kindled my love for Lorca, and which I still remember vividly after 25 years.
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'El Naser Salah el Dine' is a curious blend of Nasser-era pan-Arab nationalism with plot- elements and characterisations derived from the works of Walter Scott. It is not Islamist in approach: the fictional romantic hero, like the director and co-writer Youssef Chahine, is an Arab Christian, and is named 'Issa' - 'Joshua'/'Jesus' in Arabic. (He is played by Salah Zulfikar.) He is *very* loosely inspired by a historical 'Issa the Swimmer' - in the same way that Ridley Scott's 'Balian' is by the real one. (The name and one attribute are taken from history... and um, that's all! At least there's an excuse that less is known about Issa the Swimmer!) As he explains to the Frankish heroine, Louise de Lusignan (Nadia Lutfi), his loyalty is to his fellow-Arabs, across religious differences. Like 'Kingdom of Heaven' (2005), the film imposes a positive ideology of toleration and peaceful cross-cultural links, all very worthy in modern times, but *nothing* to do with 12C attitudes; in this case, it reflects a secular Arab nationalist ideology. It is never mentioned that Saladin was not an Arab, but a Kurd, and Issa claims, "Jerusalem has always been an Arab land". The depiction of the situation of the Arabs under Frankish rule is clearly intended to echo that of the modern Palestinians. Walter Scott-derived components, perhaps from Chahine's education at a British-run school, include the negative characterisation of Conrad of Montferrat, Louise being threatened with burning as a witch (straight out of 'Ivanhoe'), and Saladin, in person, tending Richard after he is shot with a poisoned arrow (from the 1954 Hollywood film adaptation of 'the Talisman', 'King Richard & the Crusaders', which this film resembles in some respects).
As with Western historical films, there are numerous inaccuracies in fact and characterisation. Guy de Lusignan is depicted as a peaceable elderly man, who wants to negotiate with Saladin, but is over-ruled by Reynaud de Châtillon: he was actually probably in his late 30s, and quite reckless in the 1187 campaign. Reynaud is depicted as being killed in a duel with Saladin: he was, in fact, summarily executed. Richard I (Hamdi Geiss) receives remarkably favourable treatment, partly through the influence of Scott; also, I suspect, because the film may have an agenda of repairing links with the UK, post-Suez. Philippe Auguste (Omar El-Hariri), meanwhile, is depicted as a villain, and is shown giving the order for the massacre of the prisoners from Acre - when in reality he had already set off home to France. It was actually Richard who was responsible for the massacre. Again, I think this reflects contemporary (1963) anti-French sentiment because of the war in Algeria. The siege of Acre itself is depicted as "a picnic" for the Franks, aided by a treacherous Arab governor: in fact, it lasted for 2-3 years, with hard fighting and many deaths (including those of the Queen of Jerusalem and her daughters) from disease in the camp. The hostile characterisation of Conrad of Montferrat - in reality respected by his Muslim contemporaries as a tough warrior and an intelligent diplomat with whom they could negotiate - is Walter Scott-based: Mahmoud El-Meliguy plays him as scheming and treacherous, much as Josef Schildkraut did in Cecil B DeMille's 'The Crusades' (1935) and Michael Pate in 'King Richard & the Crusaders'.
The female leads are both fictional, although one, the villainess (played by the voluptuous Leila Fawzi), is purportedly Reynaud de Châtillon's widow. She is named (surely ironically) Virginia, and depicted as bedding in turn all the movie villains - the treacherous governor of Acre, Philippe, Conrad, and the elderly Duke Arthur, Richard's fictional scheming adviser - in the hope of becoming Queen of Jerusalem! As is usual in the historical adventure genre - in Western films also - she pays a high price for her intrigues, although she seemed to me the most interesting character. Louise is a more conventional winsome romantic lead: again, as is typical in the genre, she is on the other side, but has to be persuaded of the superiority of the hero's cause, and won over. Less conventionally - and rather implausibly - both young women are depicted as donning mail and fighting in battle (although Louise gives this up, for fear of confronting her beloved Issa in action). Louise is, in fact, depicted as an officer of the Hospitallers! (While there were Hospitaller sisters, they were nurses, not fighting members of the Order, and as nuns, romantic involvements would not have been approved.)
'El Naser Salah el Dine' is a very colourful film, and strikes me as a lightweight period adventure in much the same vein as DeMille's 'The Crusades' or 'King Richard & the Crusaders'. In the same way as DeMille, it tries to be portentous and 'deep', but isn't, and only the political baggage is different. The armour and costumes are no more authentic than in Hollywood, and the blond and auburn-wigged Arab actors as Franks are certainly no more or less odd to the eye than Rex Harrison in brown make-up as Saladin in 1954 Hollywood! (While both the leading ladies are attractive, the only really good-looking man in the film is Saladin, played by Ahmed Mazhar.) However, where this film has the edge is some interesting cinematography: use of stills-montage, and a very effective use of split-screen, evocative of mediæval manuscript painting, and cross-cutting during Louise's trial, to compare and contrast Saladin and Richard.
What surprised me most about the film, though, is how little screen-time Saladin himself has: the intrigues of the Franks dominate the narrative, much as in the related Western films. This is unfortunate: the intrigues and battles of his own rise to power are fascinating, although would require a less reverential treatment than is customary with historical heroes in Arabic cinema.
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Walter Scott goes on crusade in an alternative universe
27 October 2005
I haven't seen this since it was broadcast in 1980-81, when I was in my teens, so my memories are less sharp than I would like. However, as I recall, it was a faithful adaptation of Scott's extremely weird interpretation of the Third Crusade. (I know the ailing novelist had been on laudanum just a few years before: if he was still taking it at the time of writing, that would explain a lot about the plot and characterisations!)
The hero is a Scottish prince disguised as an ordinary knight, who then gets blacked up as a Nubian servant (with blue eyes?!). Saladin is a chivalrous hero who seems to spend more time disguised as a doctor repairing his ailing or wounded opponents than he does fighting them. Conrad of Montferrat (whose territorial designation Scott could not spell - misreading 'f' as a long 's', he turned it into 'Conrade of Montserrat' - and this TV script perpetuates the error) is depicted as a treacherous, stereotype-Italian lounge-lizard in league with a wicked fictional Grand Master of the Templars in a plot to kill Richard. (In Scott's version of the mediæval world, Templars are always villains - see also 'Ivanhoe'. They fulfil the same plot-function for him as Jesuits and monks in general in Gothic fiction.) There's also a bit of skulduggery witnessed by a dwarf, although it's perhaps not as strange as the real-life Henri de Champagne, dwarf and window incident... (Read Runciman for details!) And Richard I is, of course, the heroic (if, in Scott's version, somewhat dim) 'Lionheart' of legend. As I say, it was very much an 'alternative universe' 12C: DeMille's 'The Crusades' (1935) was heavily indebted to 'The Talisman' for its misrepresentation of some characters.
The BBC production was visually appealing, with lovely costumes, and some splendid performances, although these could not make Scott's convoluted and fantastical plot any more credible. Egyptian-born Damien Thomas made a particularly strong impression as Saladin: elegant, and more genuinely Middle-Eastern than Rex Harrison in the big-screen version, 'King Richard & the Crusaders' (1954), though too young. However, having been always underwhelmed by Richard's mythology, and already having a rampant hurt/comfort complex, I was drawn instead to Conrad. Richard Morant, although very cute, was somewhat miscast, being too young and brunet; the real Conrad was a handsome blond in his late 40s. When I began to read up on the historical Conrad in Runciman's 'History of the Crusades', I was furious to discover that Scott had slandered a fascinating, indeed dazzling, tragic hero - and the rest, as they say, is mediæval history
So I have this serial to thank for kindling that sense of indignation which led to my long-term passion for the Aleramici dynasty and the trobador music of which they were great patrons...
Just for nostalgia's sake, I'd welcome a DVD release!
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DeMille assassinates the King of Jerusalem (character-wise, at least)
19 August 2005
Having seen Ridley Scott's 'Kingdom of Heaven' and returned to my 12C passions, I decided to check this out (having seen it on TV many years ago). How I survived it without smashing the tape is a miracle. What appeal the film has is in the realms of kitsch/high camp - as unwitting, twisted comedy, for which I'm giving it 5/10. 'Kingdom' is gratuitously a-historical, but this is just as bad, if not worse in some ways. At least I could sort-of recognise three or four characters in 'Kingdom'. What particularly outraged my chivalric instincts was the script's character-assassination of Conrad, King of Jerusalem - over and above the physical Assassination he suffered in 1192.
Imagine Sir Walter Scott's 'The Talisman' spliced with Maurice Hewlett's 'The Life & Death of Richard Yea-and-Nay'. Add to this some 'romance novelette' clichés: the rivalry between blonde, angelic Berengaria and dark, worldly Alice; Berengaria torn between Saladin and Richard; her rôle in reforming and redeeming her selfish, irreligious husband. The religious ethos is a Victorian Protestant Sunday School version of mediæval spirituality (just as un-period as 'Kingdom''s easy-going 21C goodwill to all, which Berengaria prefigures when she pleads for peace between Richard and Saladin). Richard's England is depicted as a bucolic, jolly place, the 19C fantasy of 'Merrie England', and as his main home: in fact, he spent very little time there, being essentially a Frenchman. There are also hints of 19C exotic-erotic Orientalism: right at the start we see beautiful Christian maidens and a middle-aged nun being sold at a slave-market in Jerusalem. Visually, there are some striking scenes, by the standards of 1930s cinematography and special effects: the siege of Acre, a cavalry charge. But the film is rather more character-driven than some of DeMille's other epics, and the characters are the weak link.
Alan Hale does his jovial minstrel/Allan-a-Dale act as Blondel, performing music-hall songs that more closely resemble the uvre of Eric Idle's minstrel in 'Monty Python & the Holy Grail' ('The Ballad of Brave Sir Robin') than the melodic output of the Lord of Nesle. Ian Keith's too-youthful Saladin is more Boston Brahmin than Kurd. According to DeMille, Frederick Barbarossa did make it on Crusade alive (!!!), as did William II of Sicily, and Russians and Norwegians were there, too. However, there's no sign of Guy de Lusignan, Queen Sibylla, or any of the other resident Frankish nobility anywhere! But what struck me most forcibly was the misrepresentation of Conrad, Marquis of Montferrat and King of Jerusalem (c 1145-92), one of the era's most dashing and tragic heroes. This is a result of the Romantic 19C cult of Richard 'the Lionheart' which Walter Scott did so much to foster and on which DeMille was clearly raised.
Conrad is played by Josef Schildkraut as a sleekit, sinister, weedy and somewhat camp schemer, with a bizarre chevron haircut and matching helmet. (The Byzantine chronicler Choniates, who knew him, described him as handsome, courageous, intelligent and strong.) As in Hewlett's novel, he is introduced lurking furtively around Philippe's court in France when the Crusade is preached. In reality, this indomitable, dynamic Piemontese warrior had been defending Tyre - one of the last major cities in Frankish hands - since July 1187, without Western support. His envoy, Archbishop Josias of Tyre (not a simple Peter the Hermit-like 'Holy Man', as played by C. Aubrey Smith), was the source of the appeals that launched the Third Crusade. Conrad saved the remnant of the Latin Kingdom pretty much single-handed, and was lauded as the "Marqués valens e pros" by troubadours such as Peirol and Bertran de Born. Even the Arab chronicler Ibn al-Athir acknowledged him as a man of "extraordinary courage", as well as a sharp political operator. You would not suspect this from DeMille's depiction.
The film also shows him on a visit to England, conspiring with John to kill Richard so that John and Philippe will make him King of Jerusalem. This is arrant nonsense: John had no part in the politics of the Latin Kingdom. We see nothing of the dispute for the throne with Guy de Lusignan, whom Richard was supporting (hence the understandable antipathy). Finally, Conrad is summarily murdered off-screen by Saladin's men for offering to have Richard killed if he will make him King. (Again, this is loosely derived from Maurice Hewlett.) In fact, he was mortally wounded by Assassins (Nizari Isma'ili), days after he was elected King by the barons of the Kingdom. His pregnant widow Queen Isabella was married off to Richard's nephew a week later. Richard is a major suspect in the murder, but again, one would never guess from this film.
Essentially, this characterisation is derived from Scott's 'The Talisman' - a Gothic novel-era racist stereotype of 'sneaky, cowardly and effete Italian' - with elements from Maurice Hewlett. Peire Vidal, who dedicated songs to Conrad's siblings Boniface and Azalaïs, might justly have railed against the scriptwriters as "fals lauzengiers desleials". Conrad's real Assassination was tragic enough; his posthumous cinematic character-assassination is undeserved, and leaves a particularly nasty taste.
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The Man in the Silver Mask steals film from Bloom's anachronistic Bildungsroman hero
10 May 2005
(Now refers to Director's Cut)
In theatrical and director's cut alike, 'Kingdom of Heaven' is a botched opportunity. It has spectacular cinematography, and is highly atmospheric, but would have been better if Scott and Monahan had used more of the real story. It suffers from problems common to historical films and novels: the fictionalised hero's travails are irritating, and the sympathetic characters' anachronistic attitudes break suspension of disbelief. All the heroes express open-minded religious/moral values of a post-Enlightenment, near-Unitarian nature, which would have got them burnt in the 12C; more plausibly mediæval mind-sets belong to the villains. Monahan's interpretation of characters and incidents are based on now-outdated historiography, e.g. the depiction of Patriarch Eraclius, in reality a competent figure. The attempts to make the story an anti-imperialist parable for contemporary Middle-Eastern conflicts fail, too, because they are built on misunderstandings of the 12C situation and modern cultural guilt-tripping. The history is interesting in itself; why strain after 'contemporary relevance'? My chief reason for rating it above DeMille's 'The Crusades' is that at least it leaves my favourite Crusades character off-screen and unscathed!
The battles aspire to the standard of Peter Jackson's Tolkien films: Jerusalem is Helm's Deep and Minas Tirith without the unusual wildlife. (I kept expecting Orlando to skate downstairs on his shield while firing arrows...) His charge at Kerak is Faramir's suicide mission crossed with the ride of the Rohirrim. There is a superfluous shipwreck, yet the dramatic - and vital - battle of Hattin, in which the real Balian and Raymond fought, happens off-screen. The importance of the military orders in the Kingdom's defence is diminished. The personal conflict between Raymond and Templar Grand Master Gerard de Ridefort is replaced by depicting all Templars as 'baddies', in the Walter Scott tradition.
Orlando Bloom's 'Balian' strains credulity. Only his defence of Jerusalem and negotiation of its surrender connect him with the real Balian d'Ibelin. Balian was in his 40s, an Outremer-born baron of Italian descent: not illegitimate, not French, never a village wright and smith. He married King Amaury I's Byzantine widow Maria, and did not have an affair with Sibylla (Amaury's daughter by his first wife). So far, so 'Braveheart', in gratuitous inaccuracy...
Sibylla (played by Eva Green) is equally misrepresented. She was devoted to Guy, refusing to divorce him when pressed to: hardly a casual adulteress. ***SPOILER*** She was not regent for her son, Baldwin of Montferrat - Raymond of Tripoli was. The child was not a leper (leprosy is not hereditary or easy to catch), and she did not kill him: he simply died young. The tacked-on 'happy ending' is absurd. She died in the siege of Acre in 1190. And I'm sure she'd *rather* have died than go to live in a village with a blacksmith. In the feudal 1180s, you didn't 'downshift'.
Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) is portrayed as a scheming villain, dressed as a Templar. 'Scheming' suggests a degree of intelligence few writers associate with Guy: not evil, but over-enthusiastically chivalrous, easily led, and simply unlucky. After Sibylla's death, his claim to the throne crumbled, and by then nobody wanted him apart from Richard Oc-e-Non (a cameo-role from Iain Glen) - because he was one of his Poitevin vassals. (Richard also figures in a script gaffe: Sibylla, teaching her son geography, says he is King of England, having succeeded Henry II: in fact, Henry (her cousin) outlived her son by about 3 years!)
Four characters are vaguely recognisable: Baldwin IV (Ed Norton) is the true hero of the film: a gifted, noble and courageous 24-year-old, dying of leprosy. Even finally seeing the ghastly disfigurement behind his serene silver mask does not erase the viewer's perception of his real beauty: his character. The true extent of his disability is played down, however: in his last years, he was blind and crippled, but still went on campaign in a litter, tended by his mother. Also, he is portrayed as essentially peace-loving; in fact, he was a hard-fighting Angevin warrior-king, Henry II's first cousin. And he would not have spurned the sacrament from the Patriarch.
Jeremy Irons plays Count Raymond of Tripoli - but the film (to avoid confusion with Tripoli in Libya) changes his title to Tiberias (in reality, held by his wife). He looks very much the wise, wily, battle-scarred Raymond I've loved. However, the film strikes a wrong note in claiming he withdraws in self-imposed exile to Cyprus. He fought at Hattin, and died of pleurisy - and a broken heart - in Tripoli, aged 47, during the siege of Jerusalem.
Saladin (Ghassan Massoud) also lives up to expectations: brave, tough, charismatic, and shrewd. It is good to see him played by a Middle-Eastern actor, not - as in previous Crusade films - a Western actor in brown make-up, but his ruthlessness is played down. He would have invaded with or without provocation. Reynaud de Châtillon (Brendan Gleeson) is portrayed as opportunistic and violent as he was, but is dressed as a Templar, which he wasn't. Nor did he kill, or even abduct, Saladin's sister. However, his execution by Saladin is a high point of the film: one of the few scenes taken faithfully from contemporary sources.
There are moments when the film takes wing into magnificence: Baldwin's meeting with Saladin in front of their armies, the True Cross flashing in the sun; Saladin praying over his slain soldiers. (I could have done with more in-period music accompanying these images, too.) But Balian's tedious Bildungsroman and anachronistic moralising drag it back to earth. If the real story is to be changed and fictionalised so heavily, why not change the names and set it in a fantasy universe? Why pretend to verisimilitude? I *might just* forgive Ridley Scott if he makes an *accurate* sequel that opens with a ship from Constantinople pulling into the beleaguered port of Tyre, and a dashing, 42-ish blond Italian coming ashore and taking command of the defences...
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(Spoiler, only if you don't know the essentials of Lermontov's biography.)
At first sight, this appears to be a bit of a vanity project: Nikolai Burlyaev writing, directing and starring in a biographical drama about the Romantic poet Mikhail Yur'evich Lermontov, with his own son playing the character as a child. But the result suggests to me that he's simply an ardent fan making the most of his opportunities. It's a lyrical, rather lovely little film that does well within its budget, and makes good use of historical locations. Dashing young men in gorgeous uniforms, elegant belles, sword-fights, pistol duels, court balls, battle action at Valerik, and decent chunks of Mikhail's poetry (especially his declaiming 'The Poet's Death' after Pushkin's demise) and glimpses of his paintings.
Burlyaev was 40 when he made this, but physically easily passes for much younger (Mikhail was only 26 when he died): he is slight and endearingly handsome, with the large, expressive eyes that so dominate the poet's portraits. Indeed, the casting, even of minor roles, is good: it was nice to see Boris Plotnikov as the feckless Yurii Lermontov, ousted from his son's life by his mother-in-law Elizaveta - diminishing my less-than-happy memories of his performance as Aleksei Petrovich in the ghastly US-financed TV serial 'Peter the Great'.
The film is, however, somewhat handicapped by the ethos of the time in which it was made - a late Soviet-era production. Mikhail's difficult temperament is played down. (I strongly suspect, as an Aspie myself, from his life and work, that he was on the autistic spectrum: the so-called 'bad manners', the hypergraphia of his sketchbooks, the obsessive and futile relationships, the sense of alientation. The 'superfluous man' type seems to me an expression of Asperger psychology as much as of a socio-political situation.) The film suggests that court machinations, rather than his poor social skills, lay behind the climactic duel: an 'Unknown Man' is shown lurking around and inciting the dandified Nikolai Martynov (nicknamed 'Martyshka' - 'Monkey'). For a fuller account of his death, I would recommend Lawrence Kelly's book, 'Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus'. It was the result of a quarrel at a party: lousy social skills and champagne-fuelled macho posturing, rather than conspiracy. At least we get the classic exchange:
Martynov: "I've told you before not to make your wisecracks, especially when there are ladies present!"
Lermontov: "Why, what are you going to do about it, challenge me to a duel or something?"
although not the famous last words, aiming into the air while telling his second, "I'm not going to fire at that idiot!" (The moral of the story is surely never to call someone an idiot when he has a loaded pistol pointing at your ribcage.)
But this is a delight to watch (as well as a major incitement to h/c!), and I'm glad to have found that it's available commercially on video (albeit without subtitles!). I've been a fan of Mikhail - a descendant of the Learmonts of Dairsie and Balcomie - since I was a student in St. Andrews (which his family ran for most of the 16C!), and this film is a splendid introduction to him and his work.
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(Some spoilers, but as the play was written in 1890, it should be well-known!)
'Hedda Gabler' is one of my all-time favourite plays, but I had never seen this version. I recently caught up with it on a secondhand VHS tape. It preserves, or rather, embalms, in a golden glow like Norwegian amber, Trevor Nunn's RSC production, which starred Glenda Jackson. I found it disappointing in comparison with Deborah Warner's 1993 production, with Fiona Shaw.
'Hedda' has beautiful photography (those amber sunsets!), settings, and costumes, but somehow lacks vitality. Some aspects of the acting have dated: some of the delivery seems a bit too arch at times, too self-conscious of being 'classic drama'. Yes, Ibsen was a 19C dramatist, and, of course, the script is a translation, but he aspired to naturalism: in this production I was conscious that I was watching a play, rather than eavesdropping on the lives of real, living people. The incidental music is overly 'romantic', especially when it accompanies the arrival of Ejlert Løvborg, silhouetted against the sunset. I do not think the film intended to satirise Hedda and Thea's romantic illusions about him at this point, but it was very hard to take him seriously after such an entrance. I understand why the designers, wishing to convey Hedda's domestic oppression, depicted the villa as over-cluttered and ornately decorated. Unfortunately, it made scenes too 'busy' visually: it was too easy for the eye to wander from the actors and get lost among various fascinating bits of Victorian bric-à-brac and furniture. Also, the Tesmans have only recently moved in; this house looked far too 'lived in'.
Any production of 'Hedda Gabler' depends heavily on its lead actress. Despite her Oscar nomination, Glenda Jackson did not completely convince me as Hedda. The character can be infuriating, but she is also heartbreaking, like Eustacia Vye in Hardy's 'Return of the Native'. Glenda, fine actress though she is, simply did not move me. Nunn's production had clearly decided to adopt the hard, brittle "ice-queen" interpretation of Hedda; as a result, I did not sense her underlying unhappiness and desperation, which Fiona Shaw conveyed so effectively. Poised and assured, this Hedda did not strike me as a woman falling towards suicide: I would have expected someone of her mettle to shoot the blackmailing Judge Brack (Timothy West), not herself, and run off with Thea, along the lines of 'Thelma & Louise' or (more successfully) Corky and Violet in 'Bound'! Indeed, the most intriguing aspect of her performance was when she reminds Thea Elvsted (Jennie Linden) of her schoolgirl threat to burn her hair off - leaning forward as if to kiss her, but drawing back at the last moment, more than once. This slightly Sapphic note suits Hedda: she is a General's daughter, motherless; she rides and shoots, but has never mastered all 19C conventions of domesticated 'femininity'; she wants to hear about men's adventures; she does not want to be a mother. One of Ibsen's great insights in 'The Doll's House' (1879), as well as in this play, is that society's definition of 'femininity' is largely a cultural construct - learned behaviour, not innate or 'natural' to every woman. Hedda has missed some of the lessons, but is still expected to fit the template; at the same time, she cannot break free of it. I have often thought that she and Thea would have fared better together, without the hopeless men!
Patrick Stewart was dashing as Løvborg, although it was hard to imagine him ever having been drunken and dissolute: he lacked loucheness. This was not his fault as an actor (I have seen him in a range of roles), more a reflection of the reined-in nature of this production - competent but playing it safe and 'classic'. Neither he nor Timothy West's Brack exuded the necessary sexual danger. The low-key approach best suited the 'nice' characters: Jennie Linden's Thea, Constance Chapman's Aunt Juliane, and Pam St Clement's awkward, well-meaning Berte.
The truly outstanding performance in the film was that of Peter Eyre, as Jørgen Tesman (here called George). I would go so far as to say that his was the definitive filmed portrayal of the character. He was perfect: every inch the pedantic, eager PhD scholar brought up by maiden aunts. I felt I knew him: I have lived in halls of residence with postgrads just like him. Tesman is good-natured enough, a likable geek - but he really should never have married, and certainly not a bride like General Gabler's daughter!
I would like to see this film released on DVD, to capture the fine detail of the costumes and settings, but I recommend the 1993 BBC production, directed by Deborah Warner, for a more profound portrayal of Hedda herself.
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"Fight with us for Utopias: there are still some left to defend!"
9 December 2004
****Spoilers only if you don't know 19C history.**** I saw this DVD advertised online, and bought in the shops in France this summer. It was worth the search. At over 5 and a half hours, it is of epic length, but the intimacy of the drama and the exhilaration of its debates make it an inspiring and involving experience. Simultaneously uplifting and heart-breaking, it brings to life one of the greatest stories of 19C which (thankfully) Hollywood has never touched: the 10 weeks of the Paris Commune which ended in the 'Semaine Sanglante', in which 20-30,000 Parisians were slaughtered by Thiers' Versailles government.
Peter Watkins is one of British TV's 'originals', famous in the 1960s for his time-bending approach to historical subjects such as 'Culloden', with modern-day reporters interviewing the characters in the field. Controversy over 'The War Game' led to a permanent rift with the BBC and over 30 years working abroad. 'La Commune: Paris 1871' harks back to the dramatised-documentary style of 'Culloden', but is more sophisticated in form and more appealing in subject ('Culloden' was more about Vietnam than 18C Scotland). It engages with contemporary debates on global capitalism, the media, and social activism versus consumerist passivity. It's a true ensemble-piece: the actors, mostly non-professionals (including present-day 'misérables': the unemployed and asylum-seekers), combine scripted work with improvisation: the debates are real.
We are led into the story by our main narrators, who address us as themselves - Gérard Watkins and Aurèlia Petit - then in character as Communard reporters Gérard Bourlet and Blanche Capellier. Peter Watkins uses the deliberately anachronistic device of having TV stations from both sides - the Commune and Versailles - covering the events, with their reporters interviewing participants in the conflict. Helped by a journalist from the satirical magazine 'Père Duchêne', Joachim Rivière (Joachim Gatti), Blanche and Gérard guide us around the 11th Arrondissement. The Versailles station, National TV, relies on interviews with pundits (including Bonapartist historian François Foucart as himself), and an attempt at undercover reporting which endangers their hapless young journalist when the crowd rumbles his disguise and thinks he's a spy!
Most of the characters are not great names of history, but ordinary citizens of Rue Popincourt, pupils of a convent-school in Rue Oberkampf, artisans, National Guard, a pawnbroker, bourgeois, clergy, soldiers, and Algerians bearing news of colonial suppression in their homeland. Unlike many historical films, 'La Commune' emphasises women's aspirations *without* anachronism, given the real-life importance of the Women's Union, Louise Michel and Elizaveta Dmitr'eva, & c. We meet Françoise Boidard (Armelle Hounkanrin) and Marie-Louise Beauger (Véronique Couzon), two young teachers who want to give girls a proper education, not the needlework, prayers and passive obedience taught by the nuns. The seamstresses, washerwomen and gunsmiths want greater control over their working lives, so form co-operatives. At the town hall, the Women's Union struggles to secure a meeting-room: many of the male Communards still have a lot to learn about female emancipation! The local Women's Union organiser is a dynamic character, vividly realised. Of the actors in identified historical rôles, Catherine Humbert is excellent as Marguerite Lachaise, the 66th Battalion's jauntily uniformed cantinière, as are the men playing Augustin Verdure and the sculptor/subcommittee delegate Charles Capellaro (rather more dashing than his historical original!).
But we also see dangerous problems within the Commune: the tensions between centralisation and grass-roots democracy, authoritarianism and egalitarianism, Jacobinism and socialism. The spectre of the Committee of Public Safety is resurrected. Some Communards turn on the reporters for daring to be critical; press censorship is re-introduced, despite protests. As in Spain in the 1930s, a noble cause, under external threat, stumbles over internal disputes. The government's massacres are answered by the Commune's execution of hostages, including the Archbishop of Paris. But the Versailles response is hideously disproportionate: 'total expiation', including killing the wounded in hospital. As the army slaughters its way through the city, the government of the Commune retreats to the Mairie of the 11th Arrondissement. The people we know are now on the front line, from Françoise and Marie-Louise's little schoolgirls to the aged Jules Thibaudier. Thanks to the long running-time, and lengthy on-screen discussions, we have learned to care for them through sharing their struggles for empowerment. To see them risking death on the barricades or by firing squad is heart-breaking.
Aesthetically, the film succeeds by understatement. The warehouse-bound set conjures a claustrophobic atmosphere of narrow streets, of siege and barricade. The stark black and white photography is reminiscent of 19C photographs: freeze-frame some of the characters, and you could be looking at cartes-de-visite of the era. Although groups of characters sing to raise morale or celebrate: 'La Marseillaise', 'La Carmagnole', 'Le Chant des Ouvriers', and a ferocious war-chant of 'Ça ira', there is no constant musical soundtrack to manipulate the emotions à la Hollywood. The simple staging and shooting, the use of monochrome and the lack of gruesome special effects are the antithesis of modern blockbusters, yet the climax of 'La Commune' - true and tragic - is a more powerful and moving piece of epic heroism than the Battle of Helm's Deep in 'The Two Towers' (I say this as a fan of Jackson's Tolkien trilogy). I also recommend this film to admirers of Hugo's unabridged novel 'Les Misérables': the next generation's story?
Stepping out of character, the actors relate the issues of the Commune to contemporary society: "Fight with us for Utopias: there are still some left to defend!" "...Today it's up to each person to be his/her own barricade!" When Jean-Baptiste Clément's 'Le Temps des Cerises' begins over the credits, I found myself singing along, despite lump-in-the-throat. In this cynical age, the vibrant optimism and courage of 1871 are vital: it's heartening to know that many of the participants have formed 'Le Rebond pour la Commune', to aid in the film's distribution and to carry forward its vision.
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Thomas Hardy visits 'Sleepy Hollow': a moving, disturbing fable, revealing real monsters...
8 December 2004
'The Village' is not the 'scary monster movie' some reviewers wanted it to be. It is a subtle mood-piece, a Hardyesque rustic love-tragedy, a heroic quest, and a fable exploring the use of fear and deceit as tools for social control and manipulation. The 'twists' are, more accurately, keys to the mysteries and apparent anomalies. What is truly disturbing is the conclusion: a chilling 'happy ending' which raises serious moral questions.
The first scene, the funeral of a child, Daniel Nicholson, tells us it is 1897. Covington is an isolated Pennsylvanian village with its own rituals and customs. It is some sort of pacifist commune run by a council of Elders, reminiscent of the Amish, Mennonites and Shakers, or - given the prominence of women - of 19C progressive experiments such as Brook Farm. But the idyll is precarious: in the surrounding forest there are mysterious Creatures which the villagers placate with animal sacrifices and other rituals. Everyone has to stay within the village bounds; the colour red is forbidden, while yellow offers protection. When the truce between the Creatures and the villagers is broken, livestock are found skinned and doors are marked with red.
Against this 'Little House in Sleepy Hollow' folksy/Gothic background, a touching romance develops between shy, hard-working Lucius Hunt and Ivy Walker, a lively and indomitable blind girl. There are complications: Ivy's sister Kitty sets her cap at Lucius; Lucius has to overcome his own emotional reticence; and Noah Percy, a waif-like, mentally handicapped youth has a crush on Ivy. It's Thomas Hardy territory: the spirited young heroine; the quiet, stalwart hero; the rival marked for tragedy. (Imagine Giles Winterbourne or Gabriel Oak competing with Abel Whittle for a visually-impaired Elizabeth-Jane!)
****Spoiler**** This triangle provokes crisis. Seemingly the last to know of Ivy and Lucius's engagement, Noah - distraught, at the mercy of emotions he cannot articulate - stabs Lucius. His wounds become infected, and his only hope is for someone to cross the boundary, to brave the woods and the Creatures, and bring medicine from 'The Towns' beyond.
'The Towns' are forbidden territory, regarded as evil, violent, corrupting. We have already begun to learn that Covington village was founded by people fleeing 'The Towns': the Elders (including the parents of the young protagonists) had all lost family members, and sought to build a peaceful life. They are oath-bound never to return. Earlier, after the death of Daniel Nicholson, Lucius had himself contemplated making the dangerous journey for medical supplies, to prevent other children dying. Now it is Ivy, determined to save her beloved, who sets out on the quest. Her blindness is regarded as an advantage, in that she will not see, and thus not be tempted, by the world beyond the wood - if she can complete the journey.
We are now in the world of folktale: the valiant young girl travelling through the forest in her hooded cape (in this case yellow!), to bring back potions for her lover. But on the way there are several important revelations for us and for Ivy. We learn more of the Elders: of the society which they have fled, and that which they have created. We discover the true nature of the Creatures which manipulate and intimidate the villagers. And when Ivy does reach help, we see what she cannot - what really lies beyond the woods.
Bryce Dallas Howard is splendid as Ivy, a strong-willed and endearing young heroine. Adrien Brody is heartbreaking as the desperately vulnerable Noah: despite the harm he causes (which rebounds on himself), this viewer ended up clinging to a slender thread of hope on his behalf. I was less certain of Joaquin Phoenix's Lucius. He's likable enough, and I was certainly rooting for him to pull through, but 'strong and silent' can veer dangerously close to 'inexpressive and wooden': Joaquin is generally better in more demonstrative roles. Perhaps he and Adrien should have swapped roles? Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt, as Alice Hunt and Edward Walker, sensitively convey a tentative relationship, within the constraints of late 19C rural puritanism (he is married). Brendan Gleeson is also good as the bereaved Nicholson. Both music and photography are superbly atmospheric.
Like most fairytale quests, Ivy's is a success. But to describe the ending as 'happy' would be misleading. It is *disturbing*. The Elders, especially Ivy's father, are still determined to cling to their deceptions. The most frightening moment in the film comes when Walker asks a couple to allow their child's (presumed) death to be co-opted to reinforce the community myth. The real monsters are in the village itself, not the forest: still-traumatised, manipulative adults, who claim to be acting for the good of others - to the cost of the most vulnerable.
Some have interpreted the film as a parable about the US government's use of terror-threats to create a climate of fear in the present, or about its own nationalist mythology. It may also allude to affluent 'white flight' and gated communities (the all-white composition of the village is, I suspect, deliberate). But the deeper themes are international, generically human. Organised religions have used myth and legend as instruments of intimidation and social repression. Yes, urban life is sometimes insecure and haunted by fear of crime, but is a retreat into a simple rural life the answer? Nostalgia for an 'innocent' past can be dangerous (children killed or handicapped by treatable illnesses). But perhaps there is hope for the future, when courage and love such as Ivy's can prevail.
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