What can bring me out of a blogging rut? Why, the combination of Matthew Rhys, Mr. Darcy and a BBC miniseries!
Perusing BBC iPlayer, as I am wont to do, I stumbled upon Matthew Rhys’ face in a video blog on his experience playing Mr. Darcy. Internal commentary: “Oh, Matthew Rhys! AS MR. DARCY? WHAT. What. Whaaaat…” And thus I discovered “Death Comes to Pemberley” the self-described murder mystery sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Having never heard of this sequel to begin with, of course I was intrigued. And, Matthew Rhys as Mr. Darcy: it’s literally someone I love in real life becoming someone I love in literary life. Catnip.
I quickly got into the three episode series, but with mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. The cast was great: Anna Maxwell Martin (recently of “The Bletchley Circle”) as Elizabeth; Jenna Coleman as Lydia; Matthew Goode as George Wickham (is he not perfect casting?); along with a host of other recognizable faces. It’s enjoyable, especially to imagine this as a potential alternate timeline for Jane Austen’s beloved characters. I’m not willing to accept it as canon (as I’m sure few are) and that is the only way I could accept the plot. (Although I think the author and actors both had a clear hold on the essence of these characters.)
If you love Pride and Prejudice like I do, then I’m sure you’ve mentally extended the ending of the novel into what you saw as the future of Elizabeth and Darcy. But do you really want someone laying it out for you? No, I don’t think so. But envisioning potentials is fine with me. (This reminded me of Billie Piper being included in the “Doctor Who” 50th Anniversary special; I didn’t really want to know what had happened in Rose’s life, because I already have my own ideas. Luckily Moffatt agreed with that and included her differently). This is, I would argue, a story written with the possibility of redemption in mind for George Wickham. With his connection to so many characters from the novel, I think he is an excellent plot motivator for this sequel. Being accused of murder causes everyone in Wickham’s life to question just how bad he is versus being just a scoundrel.
My two biggest problems are personal; I suspect everyone comes with their own checklist of what they want to see in a sequel to a beloved novel. Elizabeth’s parents, Lydia acting crazy, Jane, etc. I obviously wanted a lot of Matthew Rhys brooding, but I really wanted to see their married life. I wanted to see Elizabeth and Darcy happy because we get so little of that before Pride and Prejudice ends. You go through a couple of circles of hell before everything works out and you can let out a happy sigh of relief. Then finis.
But no. This story wanted to echo the original novel by having Elizabeth and Darcy deal with the same BS that was a primary conflict in Austen’s story. AFTER SIX RELATIVELY HAPPY YEARS, I suspect. I threw in the “relatively” to be realistic. Now, Wickham returns and Elizabeth thinks Darcy regrets marrying for love and he thinks Elizabeth married him for the money. I didn’t particularly like being put through the ringer over this again, but in the end I was rewarded.
The other thing that I, personally, need a break from is societal duty and the ruling class. I know it’s a fundamental aspect of this time and place, but…it seems to be a heavy focus on television today. And I’ve got the point now. Georgiana will marry the man Darcy wants her to because it is her duty to do what he asks without question. If someone associated with Darcy gets arrested for murder, it could ruin Darcy’s reputation. And risk the continuation of Pemberley. Thankfully (I say sarcastically), Elizabeth and Darcy already have a son, the line is secure! I don’t know; this is probably related to “Downton Abbey” viewing and the fact I’m currently reading Brideshead Revisited.
Those two criticisms aside, I really enjoyed the three hours I spent checking back in with Pemberley. Matthew Rhys was an excellent Darcy, in my obsessed with Matthew Rhys opinion. I’m tempted to read the novel with him standing in as Darcy. I’d love to see further explorations into the lives of these well-known characters. Hmmm, what about “Pemberley,” a series that follows Bennett/Darcy/Wickham/Bingley shenanigans on a weekly basis?
If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world will come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real…A life spent shaping a world I want [my son] Jackson to inherit, not one I fear Jackson shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth the living.
Cloud Atlas, with the combination of huge buzz and Ben Whishaw, was a significant discovery for me; the novel speaks to me on a level that most books cannot, it reached into my own soul and displayed my beliefs on the page. I was not in Toronto yesterday and did not see the film (which is unfortunate since October 26th is too far away) but the generous five minute trailer is enough to make me believe the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run, Perfume) have really translated the core material into a complex, compelling cinematic narrative. In a surprising move, the Wachowskis even talked about the process of getting the film made.
The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer introduce their five minute trailer:
The trailer itself, massive in scope…
The author, David Mitchell, approves of the script and believes the film could be better than the novel. How rare is that for an author to say? This post mainly serves as a sounding board for my indescribable excitement over the project and its subject matter (and its stars). Ben Whishaw has a tendency to choose projects that simultaneously challenge me intellectually and depress me thoroughly. Ben’s star is ascending, and I hope he finally gets on America’s radar with this and November’s Skyfall. But enough gushing, how about some images/quotes from the novel?
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them
We have reached the end of The Hollow Crown saga, and the end is bittersweet. These plays have a lot to say about power, royalty, duty, war, betrayal, and justice. Familial duty, sovereignty, and divine right. These adaptations had some tough choices to make when they were envisioned, about what to emphasize and how to make these narratives a sweeping 4-part epic. Within the first fifteen minutes of Henry V, it struck me how great a project this undertaking was and how near to perfect it was realized on screen. I read somewhere that before embarking on watching The Wire, you have to keep in mind that you will not realize its greatness until you reach the third season, maybe even the fourth. It is then that all of the knowledge you have compiled, all the characters you have slowly come to know payoff and make you realize how wonderful the experience has become. While not as dramatic with The Hollow Crown (you can most assuredly enjoy the various parts as standalone), the experience of watching the four adaptations strung together as a continuing series gives the story a chance to breathe, and the audience gets comfortable in the time period. By watching the various parts, you come to appreciate the whole and in this case the meaning of The Hollow Crown series. Prince Hal is the primary link here: we go from Bolingbroke asking after his wayward son in Richard II, to his exploits in Henry IV Parts One and Two, and we get to follow into his role as King in Henry V. A fascinating trajectory.
I felt that before experiencing The Hollow Crown version, I should take a look at Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version, just to do a bit of comparing. There are many differences (thankfully, as their should be) and in the end, watching both gives you an even greater picture of the play than the two alone. The first difference is the treatment of the Chorus. In Branagh’s treatment, we have Derek Jacobi dressed in modern garb acting as Chorus. In this version we have the disembodied voice of John Hurt (until he shows up to close out the series). First off, these guys are both greats. I was very pleased to hear and see John Hurt, as I was not expecting it. I did like this usage slightly better because without a physical Chorus forcing your attention on their speaking, a voice over allows more sweeping scenes of our characters as they go about their lives and tasks, according to what the Chorus is telling us.
The story begins with a funeral, Henry V’s to be exact. Here is where more bittersweet comes in. We are about to witness his greatest triumph, and yet, we know that it will be short lived. The final Chorus of the play makes it impossible to ignore the fact that this will happen, and soon, but Branagh’s version ends on the happier note of England and France united as the Chorus informs us. But the funeral gives not only further context to the ominous news of Henry’s death but it also gives us an epilogue to The Hollow Crown. We close out our Harry story fully told, thereby allowing us to see the ends of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V.
I think the King is but a man, as
I am; the violet smells to him, as it doth to me; the
element shows to him, as it doth to me; all his
senses have but human conditions.
But before we get into the story, we see that for all intents and purposes, Harry has retained his joie de vivre. He rides on horseback, seemingly late for his meeting, just in time to grab his crown and saunter in. Unlike how we last saw him, in his coronation attire, he is wearing the same outfit from when he was merely a prince. Cinematic as always, the film allows Shakespeare to breathe, moving us from various scenes and shuffling bits of dialogue to suit its purpose.
Branagh’s version is more typical of what I consider a direct input from stage to screen. This is by no means knocking Kenneth Branagh. The guy is unparalleled when it comes to contemporary takes on Shakespeare. But The Hollow Crown had a different vision, and his film has been given a lot of room to breathe since 1989. And again, I feel like I have a stronger grasp on the character, as played by Tom Hiddleston, to know where certain moments in Branagh’s version wouldn’t necessarily work in the other incarnation. Thus The Hollow Crown’s Harry sounds more like how I envisioned his tone while I read the play, but that may be due to already seeing Tom Hiddleston’s version of the character. For instance, his speech to the ambassador is more as I imagined it (toying with him) than in Branagh’s slowly rising of his voice to the point of malice.
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
The adaptations differ in other ways than mere line deliveries. Branagh’s includes a scene where Harry confronts three traitors, THC does not. Instead, THC finds a way to incorporate a bit where (in disguise) the King challenges another soldier and they exchange gloves, whereas Branagh’s excludes it. Branagh’s highlights the boy (as played by Christian Bale, little cutie) and the slaughter of all the boys as the impetus for the King ordering that all of their French prisoners be killed. THC focuses on the death of York as the impetus for this action, and does not include the slaughter of the boys at all, and “the boy” is not killed. Most interesting, in Branagh’s we get all of Henry V’s famous speeches either from horseback or at some height, as he addresses his soldiers and the major of Harfleur. In THC, all of his speeches are more personal; he addresses select groups of his soldiers, only his brothers and aides, or only small gathered crowds. In my view, this gives the speeches more resonance and strips them of their typical battleground rally premise.
I loved one more thing from Tom Hiddleston’s performance and that was his scene with Kate, his bride-to-be. Branagh (so I have read) has said that the key to this scene is to play it as if these two are falling in love. And that is every bit as he played it in his film version, so although he was saying it was hard for him to woo ladies, he was imploring her for love all the while, obviously smitten. But he missed one aspect that was glaringly obvious to me as I read it: the start of this courtship is overwhelmingly awkward at first. The awkwardness pervaded my mind and made me squirm. And Tom Hiddleston played it like that at all of the necessary moments. It was brilliant.
- In Branagh’s version, he makes the execution of Bardolph much more painful for the King: he is forced to look into his eyes as he is hanged. The Hollow Crown spares Harry from even seeing the execution, only the aftermath, leaving his feelings on the subject guarded.
- I like the scenes that explicitly show how weary the English are becoming on their march across France. We see soldiers being carried, some sick, and some being left for dead (or already dead) on the road.
- One scene that elevates this adaption belongs to the night before the Battle of Agincourt: both Harry and the Dauphin are looking up at the moon. The Dauphin is anxious for morning because he is ready to fight; Harry looks fearfully at it, knowing the morning could bring much bloodshed to his people.
- Unfortunately, both versions excise a speech from the Queen of France that occurs at the end. Most scholars find it unnecessary, as she is a character that shows up only for a few lines. But they are either given away to Burgundy or excluded wholly. This is definitely a feminist take on it, but it is a shame that her character gets the short shrift, especially as she advocates peace and good will.
- Finally, this version puts greater emphasis on the aspect of religion: the King crosses himself every time he mentions God. Crosses are prominently displayed on soldiers, shields, murals. And before the battle, Henry explicitly prays while he explains how he has attempted to rectify what was done to Richard II.
I knew that an Olympic Opening Ceremony where the artistic director was striving for a “personal and cinematic” experience would contain many great pop culture moments. And come on, it’s Danny Boyle, who is responsible for some of the most daring and innovative films of recent memory: Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, A Life Less Ordinary, 28 Days Later…, Slumdog Millionaire, and even Frankenstein at the National Theater. In the end we got a very British presentation, especially with the segment that chronicled history up to the Industrial Revolution. But the overwhelming celebration was that of UK culture: film, music, children’s literature, and social media.
The ceremony began with Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt narrating a panorama of all things UK, making me wonder if someone organizing this just happened to catch Ewan and Emily on a Salmon Fishing in the Yemen press tour. I’m not complaining; Ewan got me pumped for the rest of the show.
If you, like me, thought you spied Kenneth Branagh among the masses, you were pleasantly correct. Although to my eyes he seemed to belong in a Dickensian London, he of course recited Shakespeare’s The Tempest and you cannot go wrong with Branagh and Shakespeare.
The next bit of clashing of classic Britishness and pop culture came in the short film with Daniel Craig as James Bond coming to pick up the Queen from Buckingham Palace, culminating in a helicopter ride that made a joke of the two of them parachuting into the stadium.
Flash forward to JK Rowling reciting from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, introducing a segment that celebrated the NHS and the contributions of British children’s literature. A hospital setting turns into the children going to sleep where we encounter the stuff of their nightmares: the Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, Voldemort, and Cruella de Vil. And who saves the children from these beasties? The best nanny in the world (or in this case 100’s of duplicates of) Mary Poppins! At the end of the segment, the hospital beds turn into one giant baby (Trainspotting, anyone?) and Matt Lauer hit upon my thoughts: “I’m not sure whether that baby is cute, or creepy.” It was creepy.
Our next pop culture reference comes with a London Symphony Orchestra rendition of the Chariots of Fire theme. And who do we get playing the most boring background note? Rowan Atkinson, a very inspired choice, to play up the boringness of that note.
And finally we move into the most cinematic of all the segments, a dual love letter to both the internet and UK popular music through the decades. We have two central actors who depict meeting and falling in love amongst the chaos of dancers and the main “house” that uses screens to show clips from TV shows, films and concerts. At one point during Bohemian Rhapsody, I swear I heard a TARDIS sound, which was random but welcome. And as soon as the beginning of Underworld’s Born Slippy was played we got a Trainspotting scene. Throughout the rest of this segment, as well as during the Parade of Nations, we got a lot of great music and luckily a playlist has already been provided! (I was planning on compiling a playlist of my own, but this is much easier. I’ve included it below.) Finishing off, we got a great cover of Come Together by the Arctic Monkeys and Hey Jude performed by Paul McCartney, a perfect sing along song for the multitudes at the stadium. Powerful stuff.
To conclude, I just want to give a special shout out to Gabby Douglas, the “flying squirrel” gymnast for the US. She is from my hometown community and I will be keeping a close eye on her. I also *actually* know a girl swimming for the Czech Republic so I can’t wait to see some video of her competing.
Standouts for me: New Order, Underworld, and Franz Ferdinand.
I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
The most important thing about Part Two? I finally realized what this project is trying (very deftly) to accomplish: a very smooth, cohesive narrative from these history plays (excepting perhaps Richard II, which suffers from being the most cutoff from the rest of the action). There is an age-old argument over whether Henry IV Parts One and Two are meant to be accepted as two separate, divorced narratives or an over-arching 10-act play. This adaptation is attempting the latter, with my guess being that the cohesiveness will continue into Henry V.
Play vs. Adaptation
For my money, I am a huge fan of Part One and sort lukewarm towards Part Two. Both plays mirror each other (Hal messes around, the threat of rebellion looms, confrontation, King Henry and Hal reconcile) but Part One is much more successful while Part Two ends up being a weaker re-hash. All of the action in Part Two feels like filler, keeping time until the king dies. It is as if Shakespeare was looking for any excuse to utilize Falstaff again (and in this case, 50% more) as well as recapture some of the main antagonism from Part One. If you don’t like Falstaff, this play is a problem. Like a case of “too much of a good thing” gone literary. While the formula for Falstaff was perfect in Part One, the sequel fails to harness the same appropriate level. What this leaves us with is a Part Two where less than half is significant in the long run.
The film adaptation attempts to fix some of the errors of the play while also shining the edges to make it fit better as a continuation. And talk about continuity from Part One to Part Two: Hal still has visible injuries from the Battle of Shrewsbury; where he is stabbed in the shoulder is still clearly nasty and unhealed, his lip scabbed over. It benefits not only from the emphasis on making it flow as an actual sequel to Part One, but it also juggles around a few scenes to make it more balanced. For instance, in the fourth act of the play, King Henry IV inquires after the whereabouts of Prince Hal (who is supposed to be hunting) and discovers from Hal’s brother Clarence that he is actually at the tavern; Hal shows up soon after this exchange. In the film, this exchange shows up about 15 minutes in, thus making the scene follow more logically while also balancing out the representation of various main characters: the next scene involving Hal places him in a position that will directly lead to him to the tavern, confirming his brother’s information and making the story flow significantly better.
It also makes more sense in the film because the story and actors strive to make the audience see Hal’s changing perception and feelings toward Falstaff. Warwick (Iain Glen, who inevitably pops up in everything I watch) defends Hal after the King learns he is at the tavern and his analysis of Hal’s behavior (that he is studying his tavern friends) is proven more or less to be true by the final act. At the end of Part One, you can help but imagine that Hal must feel palpable resentment toward Falstaff for taking the credit of killing Hotspur. So in Part Two, Tom Hiddleston’s Prince Hal is much more guarded and curt with Falstaff. His jabs seem meaner and cold, setting us up for Hal’s rejection.
I spake unto this crown as having sense,
And thus upbraided it: “The care on thee depend-
Hath fed upon the body of my father.
Therefore, thou best of gold art worst of gold.
Other, less fine in carat, is more precious,
Preserving life in medicine potable,
But thou, most fine, most honored, most renowned,
Hast eat thy bearer up.”
The fundamental piece to making these two plays work as one is eliminating a portion of Part One where Hal saves the King’s life and they reconcile. I was upset at the removal (especially due to its status as a pivotal moment in the play) but because this process is basically repeated in Part Two, this is more evidence for the plays being two separate entities. To correct this, the adaptation removed this crucial bit in order to make their eventual reconciliation in Part Two flow better and remove the redundancy that would have occurred otherwise. Although I much prefer Hal saves the King’s life in battle vs. Hal is accused by the King of stealing the crown. Oh well.
To conclude, the BBC did Henry IV Part Two all kinds of favors by treating it as a true sequel and ironing out many of the kinks that make the play less successful at the same story. It made the experience more enjoyable, and the actors were definitely up to the task of presenting the ever-changing moods and emotions of Shakespeare’s characters.
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Okay, this was pretty awesome. This adaptation was leaps and bounds better than Richard II. I felt like I was actually watching a film as opposed to a play that was staged on real sets. It gives more life to scenes of Prince Hal at the tavern than a play version ever could and lets the action breathe a little with these glimpses into everyday people’s lives. More so than in Richard II (where they utilized this trick a little), this adaptation endeavored to represent some of the most important monologues as INNER monologues. In many plays, you do get the sense that you have been awarded temporary telepathy to access these private character observations. A voice over takes this to the next logical level, showing the viewer that we are privy to something no one else is hearing. To be fair, Henry IV Part One is much more fun than Richard II could ever be; the plays really shouldn’t be compared tonally. Henry IV is gifted with many entertaining scenes and is downright hilarious but at the same time packs an emotional punch whenever those scenes turn to the serious matters at hand.
The cast: I love, love, love Jeremy Irons. In my eyes, he can do no wrong. Shakespeare from his lips seems as natural as breathing. Who else do I love? Our Lady Mary, Michelle Dockery. She certainly managed to breathe life into a character (Lady Percy) that I only gave cursory regard to while reading the play. Among a plethora of fantastic character actors, I have to single out Harry Lloyd as Mortimer. Mainly because this is literally the first time I have not felt an overwhelming urge to punch his character in the face. Re: as Viserys in Game of Thrones, annoying-weird side-grin posh kid from Doctor Who’s “The Family of Blood” and “Human Nature.”
But the spotlight must be put on Tom Hiddleston. Yes, I am a super fan of his and I am dangerously close to devouring his entire filmography but, Prince Hal is also a literary character close to my heart. And Tom somehow perfectly captured all of the emotions that resonate the most for me when it comes to the character. Best moment: when the king calls Hal to court and the news reaches him at the tavern where he had just been toying with Falstaff over their latest caper. Hal’s face falls at the weight of the news that war is brewing: on his face I read this is it, the time for games is over, I must now become the person I have been running from…but before he sinks into his despair we get a glimpse of Falstaff’s worth as well. He knows the way to cheer Hal, to put on an impromptu scene where they both get to play at being King Henry. This serves for a while but sooner than he’d like Hal’s thoughts return to the problem at hand: the end of passively playing his role as Prince. I think everyone (even those that are not the crown prince) can find some commonalities with Hal. He’s just a young dude trying to ignore the fact that he already knows what his destiny is by having a bit of fun. But when the time comes to step up to the plate, he realizes that there is no way to ignore destiny; what matters is how you handle yourself when that time comes.
For every honor sitting on his helm,
Would they were multitudes, and on my head
My shames redoubled! For the time will come
That I shall make this northern youth exchange
His glorious deeds for my indignities.
The juxtaposition of Hal with Hotspur is another excellent thing about Henry IV Part One. The way Shakespeare writes it (and not necessarily the way history would have it) Hal and Hotspur are just two young guys who don’t get the privilege of making youthful mistakes. Hotspur cannot undo this rebellion and Hal cannot undo the fact he is Prince of Wales. At the outset, King Henry bemoans the fact that Hal is his son and not Hotspur; Hotspur has numerous achievements in battle under his belt and a doting wife while Hal has Falstaff and the hunt for constant amusement. They are both the talk of the country: Hotspur for his prowess and Hal for his tavern-hopping. The difference between the two being that for Hotspur, his activities must end in his death and for Hal, he must sacrifice what he enjoys to live up to his title. And similarly to Richard II, I started out being largely annoyed by Hotspur but by the end I had heaps of sympathy for him; it is particularly heartbreaking that he never hears the king’s pledge to stand down. Yeah, obviously I am not naive enough to believe he would have been able to get out of his rebellion unscathed (or even alive really) but he deserved to know that he received the king’s love on the battlefield.
If I had one gripe, it would be the particular brand of fighting they used to stage the final battlefield scene: it was of the blurry, no idea what is going on variety. And when you really want to know what is going on, that is frustrating. I assume it was budgetary but yeah, frustrating. But everything else I loved. The humor, the heartbreaking moments, and especially all of the great character moments that make up the play. Hotspur challenging the crazy beliefs of Glendower, the rapport between Hotspur and Lady Percy, Hal and Poins tricking Falstaff, every quiet Hal moment encompassing his acknowledgement of the outrageous life he leads to the point where he sees just how his behavior has affected his father’s opinion of him. Great, great stuff. On to much heavier stuff (namely, betrayal!) in part two.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings —
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed,
All murdered. For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court…
Unlike most of the schlock that America parades out for summer television, the BBC is debuting new adaptations of Shakespeare’s most prolific history plays: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV, and Henry V. I have somewhat promised myself to get through as much of my complete works of Shakespeare as possible this summer and the incentive of these adaptations has certainly helped. And since Prince Hal and Falstaff represent my first experience with Shakespeare (picture a “gifted” class that I attended in fourth grade where my teacher was obsessed with the Battle of Agincourt and Joan of Arc, from what I remember…) I am very excited to revisit these plays in particular.
I entered my viewing of Richard II with much anticipation: it was nearly 2 and a half hours (signifying to me that only a few bits would be excised) and Ben Whishaw, as the titular King Richard, was sure to impress. In fact, the credits were a roster of well-known talent: James Purefoy, David Morrissey, and Patrick Stewart, among other notable faces. And largely, I wasn’t disappointed. On performances alone it was great (save for Tom Hughes as Aumerle…I’m not sure what he was aiming for but it didn’t translate for me). Other than pretty much every monologue by King Richard, I also love John of Gaunt’s (Patrick Stewart) description of England, his glittering praise even making this American wonder at its magnificence:
This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessèd plot, this earth, this realm, this
Now, on to Ben Whishaw and his portrayal of King Richard. I don’t have much experience with his career (although I watched the first episode of The Hour to get a clearer, non-Shakespearean view) and he is talented, fo sho. As one would hope with a title character, he is the most compelling presence in the adaptation. I am absolutely not an expert on British history so the pampered, almost fairy-like demeanor that Whishaw exudes was in stark contrast to what I pictured when I was reading the play. According to the greatest of all quick Internet sources, Wikipedia, I guess Whishaw was going for a more historically accurate portrayal of Richard II? He “lacked manliness” and most likely had a narcissistic personality disorder, something that must be hard to avoid when you spend your childhood being groomed as king.
I do have a few gripes. First off, the lack of a defined time span didn’t really work for me. In the play, the acts serve as a mental jump for your mind that allows you to insert however many months in between that seem appropriate for the action. Richard must go to Ireland and stay long enough for Bolingbroke to return and amass his army — and more popularity, etc. Without the benefit of these time gaps, and with no indication by what is going on onscreen, it almost looks like Bolingbroke is banished only to return on the same boat the next day. Also, the transitions and staging weren’t the smoothest; this is where adherence to the play was too strict. [Cut to: beach scene; the Welsh force has given up on waiting for Richard’s return.] I just watched Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, so I may be coming to this adaptation with too much in the way of innovative expectation. I mean, there is a movie where all of the scenes were fully realized for cinema, versus simply moving the acting from the stage to a few standing sets and shooting locations. I almost signed audibly at the number of times action simply took place on what appeared to be the same beach in Richard II.
And finally, I think the shades inherent in Bolingbroke’s character are lost in translation from page to screen. In the play, he is a bit more murky — he claims he only wants what is rightfully his, but the idea that he might go for the crown is always there, even if it is also only in the back of his own mind. In the film. he says he only wants his due but doesn’t look surprised that Richard so willingly agrees to step aside (once again, things that are a bit clearer when you allow for the movement of time).
BUT, what I value most about this play is the way that Richard II slowly transitions from apathetic and heartless despot into sympathetic and downtrodden former king. That is very much on display in the film. I actually don’t think the play works if you miss out on this, if you don’t get through the majority of it and begin to feel for Richard in his defeat. Ben Whishaw and company aptly demonstrated this reversal of fortune and I had a grand ol’ two and a half hours.
I am content to sit and write about my favorite sitcom quotes from this week, what Ewan McGregor movie I have seen 500 times, and even what show decided to annoy me for the last time. But in real life, I am very interested in the role that pop culture can play in changing perceptions and informing the general public. The use of popular culture in this way is not surprising and two news items from this week help illustrate my point (and after I get sad about the world, I attempt to identify some positive utilities): North Carolina and Maurice Sendak’s Brundibár. And I shoehorn The Whistleblower in at the end.
The majority of North Carolinian voters have agreed on an amendment to their constitution that bans same-sex marriage. Sigh. I only heard about this amendment a few days leading up to it (when various tweeters got to work to motivate voters) but I wish it had been more nationally newsworthy months ago. North Carolina needed help, clearly. But no, I am not surprised about the results, which in itself speaks to one of the many problems with U.S. regional politics. Winner for most frustrating remark, Tami Fitzgerald, chairwoman for a pro-amendment group: “…you don’t rewrite the nature of God’s design for marriage based on the demands of a group of adults.”
One thing that is bothering me is the rampant disparaging remarks against “North Carolina” as if it is monolithic. It may be in part due to the fact I grew up in geographical proximity to the state, but obviously not everyone voted “Yes” to the amendment. Just think how horrible it is to love your state and yet, see that you are surrounded by people that disagree with your views on such a fundamental level. I am Virginian, I know a thing or two about this feeling.
Pop culture bright spot #1: Twitter really is a social media monster; it allows for loud, instantaneous reaction to any bit of news. Naturally, my feed was engulfed by outrage and disappointment over the results in North Carolina. Hopefully many apathetic individuals are slowly coming around to formulating their own opinions, based on outcry.
Pop culture bright spot #2: On the same day the New York Times discussed the North Carolina issue, it was also analyzing how vastly the entertainment industry has changed, in a mere decade, over portraying LGBT characters and storylines. Edward Schiappa, a professor at the University of Minnesota believes that “TV and movie representation matters.” He has found that gay characters on TV have decreased prejudice among viewers.
Pop culture bright spot #3: People like Jack Antonoff and his band fun. get to utilize success as a platform to discuss LGBT issues and highlight the optimistic romanticism of their lyrics. Seriously, seeing them live was a celebration of equal rights and diversity. They have deservingly won many fans not only in the LGBT community but from all walks of life. If their fans (and particularly the high schooler set) truly believe in the lyrics that they scream back to Nate Ruess, then we can chalk up another positive influence to kids these days.
UPDATED Overall life bright spot: President Obama has gone on record promoting marriage equality. I am impressed. It is almost Newtonian (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction…) when viewing it with North Carolina’s vote. Never would I have dreamed this would come up before the election. So glad Obama got to finally back something he has likely been in favor of for decades. Politics.
In the wake of so many tributes to Maurice Sendak, his work with Tony Kushner on Brundibár (as a book and opera) has been mentioned a few times. Brundibár is a children’s opera originally conceived by Hans Krása at the onset of World War II. The show had begun initial performances at an orphanage in Prague before the Nazis came knocking. Being a Czech Jew, Krása was sent to the Theresienstadt (Czech: Terezín) concentration camp in1943 along with many of the children who had rehearsed for the opera. Brundibár was performed 55 times at Theresienstadt before Krása and most of the children were deported to Auschwitz; upon arrival, most of these prisoners were immediately killed.
I toured Terezín in summer 2009. It is a powerful, transformative place and it remains hard to pin down my emotions on the visit. I got to see what it meant to be a “model” concentration camp, if you pretend not to see the execution wall. The model was meant for the Red Cross, sent into the camp to investigate the treatment of the prisoners. There they found pristine looking bathrooms, a swimming pool and a cinema (with the pool and cinema being for German officers). An oasis in Central Europe during the height of World War II? Of course not, these things were for show. In fact, the bathroom was so pristine because it was never used. To avoid the look of overcrowding, many Jews were deported to Auschwitz before the tour. The Red Cross was also treated to a performance of Brundibár. In the ghetto I took a peek into the schoolhouse where the children spent their time and saw their drawings. The adults in the ghetto were dedicated to the children’s continued education despite their conditions. That night, I was a little more reckless, and embraced carpe diem as an escape. It is really difficult to wrestle with the terrors of a mere 60 years ago.
Pop culture bright spot: The opera contains many anti-Nazi sentiments and the Brundibár in the play is a stand-in for Hitler. While the opera was a vital tool in giving the Terezín children something to preoccupy their time, it also gave the adults a platform to remain resistant to their circumstances. Performances of Brundibár increasingly provide an opportunity to remember what happened at Terezín and to celebrate the lives that were lost.
A brief discussion on The Whistleblower:
This is one of the most depressing films I have seen this year. I only want to quickly mention it because I struggled with finding the bright spot here. The film is informative about human trafficking and the fallibility of organizations we put our trust in to defend universal human rights. A scant pop culture bright spot could simply be that this film exists; it is a gateway to discussion and enlightenment about injustice. But seriously, it wasn’t marketed to be a major film. It has been propelled via word of mouth, the Rachel Weisz fandom and possibly, the discount I got on renting it from Amazon Instant Video. I hope it makes the rounds because it is especially disturbing if you are committed to peacebuilding. Mismanagement and misconduct in missions is a problem facilitated by the “aid chain” and no one is close to finding a solution.
And just to lighten the mood, no, I will not neglect to mention that Benedict Cumberbatch is also in the film (the whole cast is basically Brits playing Americans, hello Liam Cunningham!). Benedict is literally in two scenes and effectively plays a douche. I got the feeling he was involved in the cover-up but the film provides no reason as to why he even exists. Maybe there are scenes on the cutting room floor? This is another issue – I have to applaud a first time female director, but the film needed polishing.
Entertainment Weekly posted last week that Lois Duncan’s book Down a Dark Hall will be adapted by Stephanie Meyer, creator of He-Who-is-Shiny Edward and the rest of those people. Like many, I was excited to see a book I enjoyed in my teens being thrust back into prominence. But I am anxious about Stephanie Meyer and what her influence will do to it. (Shuddering at the thought.) Serendipitously when I discovered my cache of Lois Duncan books in the attic, I decided to sit down and see what I had in store – and how Hollywood would likely adapt the story for our modern age and movie-going expectations.
My obsession with Lois Duncan books fell sometime in between devouring everything Nancy Drew and scouring used bookstores for Christopher Pike titles. My version of I Know What You Did Last Summer ties in with the movie version as the cast from the film is on the cover. That’s right, the film led me to the novel, but at least it was the gateway to more Lois Duncan fun.
Apparently (disclaimer: my source is Wikipedia), Duncan was none too pleased to see her YA novel turned into a horror movie. Which actually makes sense because (spoiler alert) I was stunned when reading the book that neither Helen nor Barry (Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe’s characters in the movie) die. As a SMG obsessive at the time, I was actually pleased with this alternative narrative. Her book Killing Mr. Griffin was adapted into film in 1997 and again under the title Teaching Mrs. Tingle in 1999. I remember the previews for the Katie Holmes and Barry Watson-helmed Teaching Mrs. Tingle well, but do not remember Helen Mirren playing the titular Mrs. Tingle. I haven’t see it, and why, Helen, why?!
But if true, her outlook is sort of a shame: even if they are gearing toward the Twilight crowd, Down a Dark Hall has all the ingredients necessary to pull off a spooky, atmospheric horror film. In fact, throughout the book, there are many elements reminiscent of horror movies that came out after Down a Dark Hall was published. What jumps out immediately? Suspiria; in fact, I could almost see some people (not knowing it was a book) thinking of DaDH as a modernized take on Suspiria, although the film came out 3 years after the book. If a script, and director, could put together a film as creepily haunting as Argento did with Suspiria, this could be awesome. In Suspiria, an American ballet dancer travels to an elite academy in Germany only to discover it is run by a coven of witches. Like main character Kit in DaDH, Suspiria’s Suzy is often woozy and falls asleep unexpectedly while strange events happen around her.
Some aspects reminded me of Evil Dead. One girl in particular, Lynda, appears possessed by the spirits that compel her to paint. Similarly, a possessed Kit throws a broken pencil at her friend Sandy, evoking memories of this scene in Evil Dead and this scene from The Faculty. Pencils are deadly. Similarly, when Ruth throws her notebook on the fire and howling voices emanate from it, I couldn’t help but think of the Book of the Dead when Ash throws it onto the fire. Briefly, I also thought of A Nightmare on Elm Street, if only because of the evil that awaited when the characters slept. Kit repeatedly fails to stay awake to prevent the spirits from taking over – if only she took a page out of Nancy’s book and kept a coffee pot under her bed (I remain envious of this).
My takeaway: I identify – a lot – with Kit. She looks around the small town (that she doesn’t even get to visit) and remarks “There isn’t even a movie theater!” (When I went to college, the sight of the local Regal made me feel instantly better about life.) And her newly remarried mom and step dad dropping her off at boarding school so they can take an extended European honeymoon?: that is straight out of my worst fears as a child. This quote in particular from new dad Dan, annoys me: “I know your position in the family has been different from that of most girls; with just the two of you, your mother has treated you as an equal rather than as a child. You’re strong-willed and independent and very used to running things. But you are not going along with us on our honeymoon”. All of that uttered as if it is a bad thing! To be fair, I think Duncan wants us to feel as slighted as Kit; the real perpetrators of evil in this book almost seem to be Kit’s mom and Dan: guardians surreptitiously pointing Kit towards Blackwood and ignoring her fears because their honeymoon was so damned important. I would feel so much satisfaction from being able to tell my mom how wrong they both were and how miserable I was in part due to their inattention. To think my mom would let anyone talk to me like Dan talks down to Kit is just unfathomable. Thankfully, I also believe that my mom would never have left me anywhere for that long of a time, especially if I voiced misgivings about it and pleaded to leave immediately.
There are only a few things I think Stephanie Meyer should change in the adaptation.
- Kit should be older than fourteen. She certainly acts older than that in the book and any flirtation that she will get to have in the movie with Jules, a recent graduate of a European music conservatory will be less creepy. Duncan does a pretty good, Stephanie Meyer-esque, job of describing Jules as the hottest guy, like, ever. But as Kit faces some tough revelations about Jules, she re-evaluates and no longer finds him attractive – not sure if this is in Stephanie’s wheelhouse.
- There is the obvious need to update technology. One of the biggest reveals in the book that something is up at Blackwood occurs when Kit notices neither her mom nor her best friend are receiving her letters anymore. This will not fly in this day and age, especially with Skype. How can the movie get the students so isolated for so long? And the whole “ugh, no signal” trope will not work for many parents.
- I Know What You Did Last Summer, at the end of the day, was a horror movie, making the deaths of two of the characters all but necessary. Had the book been adapted in the vein of Twilight, they could have stuck to the main plot instead of creating the Ben Willis character. With Stephanie Meyer taking the reins on DaDH, I assume (and hope) that there will be little derivation from the book in this regard.
- Finally, the book stops abruptly: we know that Kit has escaped and she will be rescued almost immediately after the conclusion. It is fairly satisfying but — at the risk of book purists getting up in arms — I would love an epilogue to these events. The book ending denies us the chance to see Kit’s mom’s reaction to what happened at Blackwood. We fail to find out what happens to Madam Duret and if her deceits, forgeries, and abuse are uncovered for the world to see. Would Kit forgive Jules after he stands up for the girls against his own mother? Questions I would love to see answered on the big screen.
Time just released its list of the Top 100 Most Influential People in the World. Some people are very deserving and the mere recognition of their efforts should be lauded. And in the case of others I fail to see what they are purported to influence. Chelsea Handler? Rihanna? Luckily there are worthier entertainers on the list:
E L James: Typing worthier entertainers and then seguing to E L James even makes me question myself a bit…but Fifty Shades of Grey is continuing to grow in popularity for a few reasons. Its most recent success stems from word-of-mouth buzz. The book is everywhere and people are increasingly reading it to join in on the conversation. But more importantly, it has generated new discussion around what women read. I am not talking about the ridiculous misnomer “mommy porn”; Fifty Shades has proven that all kinds of women respond to what is depicted in the book. I definitely would not consider it the best read of my life: it is repetitive, the Britishisms that James employs are very distracting, and it would be better served with edits for plausibility (Ana is an English major WITHOUT a computer?). A few things did hold my interest: the S&M rules and explanations were fascinating; not something I have extensively read about in any novel. The other thing was this: Christian’s inaccessibility. Ana can’t touch him, can’t have him in the way a normal relationship works. And I think many women respond to this, the just out-of-reach guy, and along with Ana we hope to heal Christian, thus we race to the end of the book. The bottom line: hopefully James has paved the way for more writers to approach novels geared toward women in new, innovative ways. I think this is a big opportunity to find new stories to tell centered on romance that avoid the sappiness of a Harlequin paperback; novels about relationships that also teach, inform, and generate discussion.
Kristen Wiig: Bridesmaids is genius. And I think the idea to not do a sequel to Bridesmaids is genius. So, yeah, I can agree that Kristen Wiig is on top of the food chain in the female comedy world. With women writers/performers generating such great material, it is a new dawn in a world previously dominated by the Frat Pack. Unfortunately, this trend towards female-centered comedy is resulting in more misses than hits. I understand that everyone can’t be Kristen Wiig and her writing partner and not every movie will be as surprisingly refreshing as Bridesmaids. I just hope that female comedy is further encouraged, and not hindered by, the onslaught of pretenders to the Bridesmaids throne.
Louis C.K.: If Kristen Wiig is bolstering female comedy, Louis C.K. is revolutionizing the entire comedy scene. I honestly think that people will be looking at his career, years from now, in order to chart the changes in the field. Much credit should be given to FX for giving Louis C.K. what amounts to carte blanche in the industry. Although he has given up some of his original duties for his show Louie, he has simultaneously starred, written, directed, and produced. He has drafted friends to participate and stuck to a specified budget. And he started the trend of releasing his standup special from his own website instead of working with a distributor. Louie is a fascinating show; it can be outrageously funny in one episode and ruminate on Catholic guilt in the next. It is never boring and it is never repetitive. And hey, can’t ignore someone who feels the same way that I do about Ewan McGregor.
Asghar Farhadi: The Iranian film A Separation took Hollywood by storm this year, becoming the shoe-in for Best Foreign Film. Its reception is more evidence that tough topics and messages can be communicated through film beautifully and transmitted on the global level. And yet, I have not seen it because it is not available (to rent) in the United States. Making a good movie is one thing. We have to work on outreach and accessibility. This isn’t the cure to ignorance but I truly believe that promoting films such as A Separation is the gateway to a better informed world.
Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy: In a similar vein, Saving Face brought home Pakistan’s first Oscar. The film raises awareness of acid-related violence against women and Sharmeen is currently touring Pakistan’s towns and villages with an educational-awareness campaign. A talented filmmaker, she has left a trail of award winning films. This kind of large-scale outreach program is exactly what I am talking about: we need more of this in the West. We need to find new methods of mobilizing the populace to watch these groundbreaking films in order to promote global awareness and understanding.
Claire Danes: I nodded my head enthusiastically to the inclusion of Claire Danes and her portrayal of bipolar, anti-hero Carrie Mathison on Homeland. There seems to be a double standard in the television world where audiences eagerly accept our male anti-heroes (of which there are many) but are quick to judge or even attempt to utilize women in similar roles. Carrie bucks that trend by introducing us to her world: she is beyond brilliant but catastrophically impulsive. We get to watch as she implodes relationship after relationship, all in the pursuit of her hunches. She doesn’t let anyone get close, save for us viewers. I think television is getting the hint: we don’t need our ladies to be likeable; we just need them to be compelling. (The overwhelming divisiveness of Girls, however, seems to indicate that the room for maneuver with unlikeable women is very limited.)