May 22, 2002
Note: these postings on the film were written 11 years ago and I've changed my mind about the film a lot. I've studied films and Davies's work carefully; also written professionally and blogged a great deal on film. I leave these there as a record of how I did once understand the mini-series and how the others who contributed to the threads understood the mini-series.
Re: Yates and Davies's TWWLN: A Magnificent Ending
I watched Part Four of Yates and Davies's TWWLN last night. Part Three moved away from grotesque distancing comedy and into psychological melodrama and (I now see) forms a transition to this effective dark and ironic conclusion. David Suchet as Melmotte and Shirley Henderson as Marie Melmotte finally came into their own -- as did a number of the actors and actresses. Matthew MacFayden as Sir Felix was kept to his controlled ironic role as male satyr, the kind of male much public discourse today admires, finds funny, puts in other movies as admirable macho-male starring roles: here we see him for the hollow heartless egoistic really useless and lazy sexual animal the type is. The closing scene of this young man still playing cards, about to be lured away from the table but yet an alter ego female was a comment on what (with smug glee) is publicly admired now. (I read in this morning's papers that the present US president pleased during his campaign because he was such a "cut-up", the image of a "frat-boy".)
The screenwriter and director could probably only have pulled off their double-pronged approach to Trollope's book through separated episodes. They used the form rather than trying to produce four episodes that ideally would be watched in a row -- which is what is sometimes done. Why pretend? This made a problem which Suchet rose above: for two episodes he was a dark comic grotesque whose meaning was communicated to us through the gestures, clothing, larger than life disjunctive photography; this began to change in Episode Three when we began to have scenes of him talking, to Georgiana Longestaffe, Breghert, Montague, and most importantly Croll. It was not easy to take this variant on what is falsely admired (in every sense, meaning hypocritically -- that is, people admire the money and luxury when they pretend to admire the person who has grabbed it somehow or other) and turn him into a somewhat sympathetic and intensely suffering figure, a scapegoat. The film-makers did it partly through Alan Corduner's Croll as Melmotte's life-long business friend and support who sympathizes with the man; they used stereotypes of upper class aristocratic snobs (the men in Parliament who jeer, who are themselves as ruthless, and more mindless than Melmotte), of lawyers and money-lenders as leering leeches. But it was Suchet's strong performance of a man going to pieces, coming out of his shell as desperate for status among people who aren't worth talking to, much less getting status among that did it. He was larger than life; he went over the top with his nervous drunkenness, strained and increasing failed attempts to domineer. The staging of the scenes around him was superb too: like frames. The camera- man in this production deserves commendation -- this individual rarely turns up in the leading credits and yet it is such people who make the films for real. I think he had in mind Charles Laughton as Quasimodo in the last scenes the way he lurched his body around
Shirley Henderson did not end up happy or with a man as she does ironically in the book with Mr Fiske -- but that struck me as right for the vision of the film. Like Suchet she had to make a transition from mocking the admired totems of our society (women buy their daughters Barbie Dolls -- a huge fortune has been made on this icon of sexualized happy compliance) to a bitter hard woman who turns away from all, and can do so because she's hung on to her money. The type corresponded to the women in dark clothes we see in the Godfather films: Angelica Huston at the close of Godfather II came to mind as I saw Henderson's face turn to stone. This is what our society can turn a woman who wants love into. I would say one of the flaws of the production is the buying into scorn for Roger Carbury character (Douglas Hodge). In the scene where Mirando Otto as Mrs Hurtle sneers at emotional sensitive kind the ethical self-abnegating type of male so common in movies as a secondary or primary hero (Douglas Hodge played him as Lydgate in the 1994 film adaptation of Middlemarch), the film-makers were mouthing cant; if Paloma Braeza as Hetta prefers Cillian Murphy as Paul it's not because as a rule we should scorn and kick out as worthless and boring people who have depths of decency and thought. In fact it's as a reaction to a society which scorns what the Sir Roger type stands for and which Marie Melmotte dreamed she found in Sir Felix (mistaking outward beauty for inner, a naive sexual responsiveness) that Marie Melmotte's turning to stone makes sense. How else protect yourself from these mean selfish self-exulting and ultimately bullying types?
The story of Paul and Hetta took another turn which linked this film adaptation to the recent film adaptation (also written by Davies) of Gaskells' Wives and Daughters. They left for America! As in Wives and Daughters, England is seen as a corrupt, repressive, stifling place, a place where manners are a false veneer for coldness and shutting others out, where people can't breathe. I do not suppose that Davies has read Trollope's North America or Mullen's take on it; rather in both Wives and Daughters and TWWLN, a society where hard physical work and freedom from oppressive hierarchies is seen as a place individuals can make some contentment and experience release for themselves. The pictures of vast physical landscapes in both films stands for this idea. Once again one sees how films are to be seen in terms of films: the filmic vocabulary is the picture. Both these two films speak to the present day audience; they find an equivalent term for the vision of what is happiness in these older novels in films and stereotypes of our day. Really the one happy moment of the film is when Hetta rushes after Paul and he turns and they kiss; they have come near to losing what makes life worth while and what Marie Melmotte has been twisted to the point that she can never trust again to know. And again there had been a transition through Episode Three to provide for our taking Murphy and Baeza seriously, for respecting them.
Helen Schlesinger as Madame Melmotte came into her own. The still of her bathed in a curiously white light from the side as Suchet breaks the news of his bankruptcy to her -- her hands clutching one another, at loss, not knowing now where to go or what to do as this society would tear someone like her with her background and lack of negotiating hardness to pieces -- it was moving, effective, and true to life. She was the woman who ends up on welfare, the psychological type our great US reforms have found new forms of intimidation to make miserable so they "fit in."
The film did as much as it could to erase the implicit anti-semitism many have seen in Trollope's novel. Croll was a friend to the end except when he was asked to do something illegal which would have ended him up in jail. He is last seen placing Madame Melmotte in Marie's carriage. Jim Carter as Breghert took over something of what Douglas Hodge's role used to project: the sensitivity and decency is muted and comes out indirectly as someone who at least keeps to the law in partnerships and will not allow the woman he wants to marry to exploit him as sheerly a money-pot for her. We may liken Anne-Marie Duff (Georgiana)'s vision of happiness as the well-heeled husband who pays for her days in a country club, the children stashed away in some upper-class boarding school where they are taught how to make the right contacts and play the smiling, bullying game which will enable them to imitate her or keep someone like her someday. Breghert was the one completely noble character in the film.
It's curious where the older idealized pair of types who dominated the 1970s Pallisers series can be glimpsed. In the scene where David Bradley as Mr Broun asks Cheryl Campbell as Lady Carbury to marry him, Campbell produced facial expressions (of shy coyness, of sudden submissive gratitude) which reminded me of Susan Hampshire's facial expressions, gestures and even way of holding her body out, just enough but never really sexually aggressively (sweet). In Part One Nicholas McGaughery as John Crump had a scene with Ruby where he gets her admiration and respect for a moment and there recalled the gestures, facial expressions and even a phrase from Philip Lathan's Plantagenet. These types are simply marginalized in these new films. A kind of atrophied cliché (rather like our appendix). The older Palliser film was strongly patriarchical and anti-women having freedom and the new Lady Carbury and the new Ruby took over the roles of women grateful for strong monied male with a respectful niche in the order.
In the end the film-makers did not know what to do with Mirando Otto, Mrs Hurtle as Blanche Dubois, with the significant difference that no sympathy, no understanding is allowed for understanding how a woman can come to enact the roles she does in the film (and literally too in the book). They had a good moment in the first of two encounters between Otto and Baeza. In that one they reversed what happens in the one encounter Trollope allows his Mrs Hurtle and his Hetta. Trollope's scene between his two women is itself a Victorian stereotype: those who have read Middlemarch will remember an analogous one between Dorothea Brooke and Rosamund Vincy where the two women confess their souls to one another, feel better and one hands the hero over to the other. Trollope's use of this stereotype in his novel contradicts his portrait of Mrs Hurtle as a woman who has learned not to bare her soul, especially to another woman. In Yates and Davies's film their Mrs Hurtle does what is more probable: in the book you can assume she did not have sex with Paul so if she told she had sex, she lies to Hetta; but the film makes it almost clear they did, so she simply tells her she and Paul certainly had sex, what else could you possibly imagine? She says they are still involved. This is a powerful true to life emotional scene between two women.
Unfortunately given the sop to female pride which still is common in these adatpations (despite the male-oriented point of view of women as sex objects or fodder for marriages and motherhood), that left the story at a standstill: supposedly in order for Hetta to make up with Paul she's got to hear he had no sex with Mrs Hurtle that weekend, or at least is not involved with her sexually any more. So a second scene becomes necessary where out of character Mrs Hurtle suddenly does what she can to bring the hero and heroine together: now she does lie since we saw in Episode Two that Mrs Hurtle and Paul did indeed go to bed. The film-makers are aware of the psychological improbability and rigidness about Hetta such a band-aid would imply. So they make Hetta say the sexual weekend is not the point, and the scene turns to bad-mouth the one male in the film who shows some tenderness and loyalty as very boring (Sir Roger). The scene is bad because unreal and yer the ironic point is made that Hetta's marriage is based on a lie, on deceit, on illusion. And then after it, what to do with Mrs Hurtle? As the film has seemed to refuse to exhibit any sympathy for a vulnerable woman of Mrs Hurtle's type (who loses out in the sexual competitive bullying games of our world all the while pretending she's complacent and even enjoying her role), the final scene of her shows her just sitting in a room alone, taking off the ring Paul gave her and putting it on a table.
The ending of the film contrasts the hard mean desperate and fixed face of Shirley Henderson finally closing the shuttered doors on the rich rooms where the ball and luxurious goings on for which Melmotte gave his soul (and he has one in Parts Three and Four of this film adaptation), and the satyr face of Matthew MacFayden about to quietly follow yet another women into a bedroom. David Suchet as Melmotte who had some brains, some depths, some understanding has self- destructed laughing madly at himself as he went down, pushing at the threshold of a room -- recalling Samuel Becket's play about kicking against the pricks being of no use. Douglas Hodge as Roger is despised and ravaged, left alone while the "happy" couple of Crumb and Ruggles (the unexamined life?, those watching TV by the hour), ride by. And Murphy and Baeza suitcases and bundles in hand head for that train which opened each of the episodes; they are getting outta here now and express the needed relief the viewer longs for.
Yates and Davies have produced figures for our time which translate Trollope's dark satire of the way they lived then to the way we live now. Their film is remarkably bold for a commercial product; if it doesn't live up to full expectations, if it panders to today's publically honoured cruelties, we could say that's interesting too. The disclosure itself is worth watching -- if from my point of view a bit grimly.
PS. I forget to say Breghert represented business morality on a high plaine: he returned the forgery. Ruby ended up pregnant and presented in the manner of Susan Hampshire as Lady Glen. It was the same joyful compliancy all over again. Happy hens with their father-husbands.
And then back in time to when the BBC aired the films in winter 2001:
Date: Wed, 5 Dec 2001
I watched the final episode of this on Sunday night and although I enjoyed the series as a whole my final feeling was one of slight disappointment. Certainly I felt (as did a colleague of mine at work) that the last episode was very much a matter of tying up all the loose ends and getting all the sub plots sorted out. I can't remember if the book is like this.
We both thought the outstanding portrayal ended up being the actress who played Marie Melmotte, she really made you care about her. We both agreed that Frank and Hetta came over as a bit wet, my colleague at work was disappointed that Hetta ended up with him - she thought that Hetta should have done a Lily Dale on him.
We were also in agreement that it was a shame that the actress who played the American woman (I've already forgotten her name!) didn't do the part justice, in particular her accent seemed very phony.
I still thought that David Suchard was OTT as Melmotte. The most shocking scene in the whole series was when Georgina rejected her old Jewish suitor and says that she sureley wouldn't expect her not only to live in Fulham (which is of course dead fashionable today) but also look after his Jew children. We are used to being politically correct nowadays that it really came as a shock to hear someone on TV say something like that. My colleague commented about this scene that it was amazing how much, although repressed, women could get away with - even after insulting him, he was a gentleman to her whereas I don't think that would be the case today.
December 6, 2001
Re: TWWLN: The Film Adaptation, Our Coming Read
This is written in response to Roger,
I was really curious about how the film-makers would treat Breghert. To me he is the noblest character in the book, and one of those places in Trollope's fiction where those of us who would like to believe his anti-semitism (which is there) is a shallow thing can take some comfort. It is at any rate arguable that the antisemitism of The Prime Minister (the ways in which Lopez is castigated) and Eustace Diamonds and Phineas Redux (the queasily names Josef Mealyus) are tropes for a castigation of values Trollope wants the reader to dislike, though a convenient target is still a target. In Breghert he makes up for this.
However, I asked myself if the producers wouldn't overlook the incident. For example, it comes to the reader mostly through letters -- and it is Breghert's nobility in the letters that strikes home. Georginia is a female sleaze, petty, stupid; she deserves her fate: to carry on living with these mean vicious people who pride themselves on their class niche. Would the producers show the English upper class at the time as brutally racist. They apparently did. It takes courage for there will be there will also be the sort of person who takes offence at a depiction of antisemitism as an instance of antisemitism :(
I am gathering Mrs Hurtle was not given much play. She is the other noble soul of the book -- beyond Sir Roger Carbury. Maybe the actress wasn't given enough to bring the character out. I would have thought modern attitudes towards sex and divorce would have found that one comfortable. Marie is a victim who attempts to fight back. I wondered if we would get the scene where her father beats her and what would be done with Felix Carbury. Lady Carbury (we are told at the beginning of the novel) was also beaten by her husband. The rough lout-type (that's what he is, excuse the expression, lout being an ugly word in US English) who marries the young servant maid is also a man capable of beating people. The book has much contained and then explosive violence. Was the servant-country girl whom Felix seduces marginalized? No one has mentioned her.
I am really looking forward to our coming read of the novel. We should get there by February.
Date: Wed, 5 Dec 2001
Rather more so than Roger, I found the BBC production disappointing. The first and last episodes were not badly done, but the two in the middle were dreadful. The acting was mediocre on the part of many of the leading characters, with the depiction of Mrs Hurtle being worst. Again, like Roger, I found her American accent unbelievable, and would welcome the views of a native American speaker as to whether anyone in the United States talks like that. Perhaps in Oregon they do...
I also found the accent used by the actress who played Marie Melmotte very difficult to follow. What I could understand made her out to be an unsympathetic character, and the programme totally failed to bring out her final association with Hamilton Fisker, and their departure together to the United States, where I am pretty sure they got married. I agree that David Suchet as Melmotte was rather OTT, I think because he had Robert Maxwell in mind rather than Trollope's Augustus Melmotte. Nevertheless, I thought that it was a memorable performance, and one of the reasons that I shall probably play the tape over again when I can find the time.
Answering Ellen's queries, I think that the Breghert/Georgiana Longestaffe affair was handled very well and sympathetically. It is clear that the Longestaffes and many others in society were profoundly anti-Semitic, but Breghert was portrayed very fairly, and his noble behaviour to the appalling Georgiana came over well. The one thing that has never been clear to me in the novel is why he considered marrying her in the first place. She clearly would have made a very unsuccessful replacement mother for his children, she, her family and her friends were totally prejudiced against Jews, and Breghert, who was convincingly acted in the programme, could hardly have found a reason to propose to her in the first place.
Ruby Ruggles, the country girl seduced by Felix, appears prominently throughout the four programmes - indeed her behaviour with Felix is shown with a degree of freedom which would undoubtedly have shocked Trollope. Her real lover, John Crumb, gives Felix a sound thrashing, and the last we see of them is that they are prosperous and presumably married. Without going back to the novel, it seems to me that Felix gets off extremely lightly, and is last seen looking over a serving girl in a bar.
Finally, Hetta Carbury was shown fairly reasonably, but I found that the actor who played Paul Montague (where did Frank come in, Roger?) distracted me by the extraordinary sideburns that he wore, which looked neither Victorian or twentieth century. His struggle with Melmotte about the setting up of the railway was well depicted, but he was always overshadowed by David Suchet as Melmotte, so that he didn't seem to be making a good case for honesty in business.
To summarise, I thought that it was not a patch on the BBC's Barchester Chronicles or Palliser series, but I would urge any list reader to see the production if and when they have a chance, if only to see whether they agree with my views or not.
Date: Thu, 6 Dec 2001
I hadn't read TWWLN before, at least not all of it, and enjoyed the BBC production. Although with a few reservations. Paul, even with the OTT sideburns looked far too young to have enough experience either to run and develop a railway, or to have an affair with Mrs Hurtle. Somehow this made his character unbelievable. It upset the balance of the story, made it difficult for Hetta, and gave Mrs Hurtle nowhere to go.
This actress is not American and it sounded as though unfamiliar accent was constricting her performance. A pity because she is a good actress.
I tried to think how I would have judged the series if I knew nothing about Trollope. The story was clearly told. It had many resonances for today. The story of the price fixing in Christies auction house, reported in today's paper, comes to mind. It was beautifully costumed and set, and, in the main, well cast. It was a good production, but like many others on this list I found it not entirely satisfying. Perhaps because there is so much depth in Trollope, and this could not be explored properly in a four part serial.
Nevertheless, it is worth seeing, and has certainly brought the name of Trollope to the fore once again. As they say, all publicity is good.
Date: Sat, 08 Dec 2001
I was disappointed in the TWWLN productions but think I ought really to try to see them as a fresh take on the novel. This was achieved by putting Melmotte in the centre. I wonder whether this was done in order to attract an actor like Suchet into the role or because they had got him? It took our attention away from the Carburys and made these characters look very minor in comparison to Melmotte and his daughter. (who were both superbly played I thought).
I imagine too that modern readings and parallels were important to the producer and director so they prefered things going wrong in the city, as that is very relevant now, to the publishing world depicted in the novel.
And forward in time to when Judy Geater announced that Andrew Davies had written the screenplay for the coming film adaptation of Daniel Deronda. This exchange occurred on WomenWritersAndRomance, another list owned by Joanne Pope and I where a group of us were then planning to read and to discuss Daniel Deronda together.
Date: Sat, 01 Jun 2002
Subject: [Womenwriters] Andrew Davies's latest film adaptation
Although not discussed in the popular media, the attention paid to Andrew Davies' work (partly a result of its success) is development filled with hope for people seriously interested in film. One of the most formidable obstacles still in place for anyone who wants to study a film is the rarity with which screenplays are printed. There was a movement in the 1940s to begin printing these as one does regular plays, but the money riding on the original novels (it is against the original author's interest to have the screenplay printed, for people it has been found will prefer to buy a screenplay if the film has interested them in the story of the book), the lack of attention, much less respect and prestige given to the screenplay writer until very recently, and the studios' fear of what would be done with these plays put a stop to the publication of such books. Then there was World War Two. Nowadays if a film achieves real respect and interest or the novelist whose novel has the same title as the film is a cult figure (e.g., "Jane Austen" as two words sells screenplays) you can purchase a screenplay. Otherwise it's very rare to find them -- some are coming onto the Net but very slowly.
One of the books I read when I was doing my essay on film adaptations of "classic" novels by 19th century women was on the deals that go on between BBC, Masterpiece Theatre and Mobil Corportion (to be specific a group of people in charge of their PR relations). The original Daniel Deronda was one of those films which did not make it onto US TV and the reasons for this are very revealing when it comes to what these "leaders" of establishment groups think actuates the TV viewing and tastes of the differing populations who watch BBC TV and Masterpiece Theatre in the US. It was by Laurence A. Jarvik and called Masterpiece Theatre and the Politics of Quality (Lanham, Maryland and London: The Scarecrow Press, 1999).
Cheers to all,