Category Archives: British television

The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister (2010)

I can think of quite a few films that deal with the subject of leading a secret homosexual life, but not so many that deal with the problems facing lesbians. BBC’s The Secret Diaries of Miss Anne Lister is based on a real life woman (1791-1840), a young Yorkshire woman living with her uncle and aunt at Shibden Hall when the film begins. Anne (Maxine Peake) is often in the company of lovers and friends Mariana (Anna Madeley) and Isabella ‘Tib” (Susan Lynch) and the three young women enjoy a great deal of freedom in each other’s company. This all comes to a screeching halt when Mariana is married off to elderly widower Charles Lawton (Michael Culkin). Up to this point, Mr Lawton’s presence, and his obvious hunt for the next Mrs Lawton, have provided the raw material for jokes.

Anne is heart broken and begs her lover Mariana to call off the marriage, but Mariana, who clearly knows what society expects of her, refuses. Anne wears black to the wedding, and afterwards tries to move on to a new love. Tib tries to console Anne, but the spark isn’t there.

Years pass and a few communications pass between Anne and Mariana. They swear a solemn vow to be true to each other, and Mariana assures Anne that her elderly husband is inching, daily, towards the grave. Meanwhile Anne, capable of great sexual passion, records her loneliness in coded diaries. She longs to share her life with the woman she loves and seeing Mariana under various pretenses just isn’t enough.

Set against the beautiful countryside of Anne’s home, we see how Anne progresses through her life. While Mariana calls Anne, “Freddy,” she also has the nickname of “Gentleman Jack,” and after Anne refuses to marry a local landowner, his spite makes sure that the rumours spread.

Anne, Tib and Mariana are allowed quite a bit of freedom, which included sharing beds with one another. But all this was approved of in the context that these young ladies were doing exactly what society expected them to do–and that included taking the husbands arranged for them and ‘doing their duty.’ (Sex and children). There are clues that some people were quite aware of Anne’s sexual orientation, but either chose to ignore it or else they imagined that it would pass once she found a suitable husband.

It’s interesting to note that no-one is suspicious of the sexual orientation of Anne’s aunt and uncle. The uncle is a substantial landowner, but there’s no mention of a wife, and of course the sister acts as a housekeeper. But they are passed the age of sexual queries. They may both be gay for all we know, but it no longer seems to matter to society. Also of note in that while the mingling of the single sexes was monitored and scrutinized by polite society, two or three girls alone together was …. well no big deal until one of them refused to marry a suitable husband.

As the film, which cut out some of the most interesting parts of Anne’s life, continues, we see Anne become increasingly masculine in dress and behaviour. There’s one scene when her hair has been curled and it looks god-awful, yet still the femininity garners compliments.

A lot more could have been done with the subject matter, but it’s well casted, well acted and pretty to look at. Sally Wainwright’s Gentleman Jack is currently posted preproduction on IMDB

Director James Kent

Writer Jane English

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Criminal Justice II (2009)

Well it had to happen. After getting some great entertainment from Criminal Justice I, I decided to watch Criminal Justice II even though some of the reviews weren’t quite as glowing. This is a 5-episode made-for-British television series released on a 2-DVD set.

Criminal Justice II begins with a prominent barrister Joe Miller (Matthew Macfadyen) nailing a murder conviction in court. With the case over, he meticulously stores his wig and gown, goes for a stress-releasing jog and then returns home to his family–wife Juliet (Maxine Peake) and 13-year-old daughter Ella (Alice Sykes). The film does an excellent job of setting up ambiguity through these initial scenes. Joe attempts to call his wife several times on his cell phone and then a very harried, flustered Juliet dashes in the house only to miss the call. She takes a speedy shower and then cleans up (or tries to) all evidence of this. Does Joe call to tell Juliet of his success or is something else sinister afoot? What is Juliet afraid of? What is she trying to cover up?

And then there’s the Miller house. It’s immaculate–blacks and whites like some sort of designer home from a magazine, but there’s also a sterility to it. This could be a lab for all the lifeless within these walls.

The evening ends with Joe stabbed and rushed off to the hospital while a bloodstained Juliet wanders the streets, eventually ending up at the emergency room too. She’s arrested and taken off for questioning. It looks like an easy conviction with no real doubt that Juliet was responsible for stabbing her husband. The big question is why?

Criminal Justice II is strongest in its depiction of the relationships between the characters involved in the case. There’s Anna Klein (Zoe Telford), the defending barrister who is backed up by Juliet’s intelligent, sympathetic, savvy, solicitor, Jackie Woolf (Sophie Okonedo). Detective Chief Inspector Faber (Denis Lawson) finds himself troubled about the case–in spite of the overwhelming evidence against Juliet, and married detectives Chris and Flo Sexton (Steven MacKintosh and Kate Hardie) find themselves on opposite sides of the moral divide as the case stretches out. Then there’s Ella who is left with no parents, but she does have a godfather Saul (Eddie Marsan) whose idolisation of Joe is a bit unhealthy. Dedicated social worker, Norma (Nadine Marshall) frequently oversteps her bounds and is accused of being “too involved,” as she becomes bound up in Ella’s fate.

Criminal Justice II, while ostensibly a police case, is much more about the muddy morality surrounding the crime, and it’s an emotional issue that ripples out to everyone involved and creates strong feelings on all sides of the fence. Juliet used to be an outgoing, happy person, but now she’s a neurotic, pill-popping mess. Was Joe a devoted, caring husband, or was he a control freak who robbed Juliet of her identity?

Criminal Justice II is at its weakest in the case itself. As the court date approaches, no one has asked Juliet WHY she did what she did, and then it seems to suddenly occur to Klein and Woolf that there’s no “story” for the courtroom. At that point, the pressure builds, but it seems a little forced when the story eventually trickles out as part of the courtroom drama. It’s all so well-acted and well-cast, however, that it’s still very entertaining in spite of its flaws. Some moments carry a  powerful resonance. Juliet, at one point, for example, expresses the opinion that she wishes that Joe had hit her as physical violence would have been irrefutable proof that he was an abuser while mental abuse is so much more elusive, difficult to prove, and hard to understand.

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Criminal Justice (2008)

“They come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which story they like the best. The best story wins.”

It was with the introduction of Ralph Stone (Con O’ Neill) that I knew I was going to really enjoy Criminal Justice, a 2008 BBC mini-series. Up to that point, Criminal Justice seemed to heading into fairly familiar crime territory, but Stone’s appearance got my attention and kept me focused. This is not a tale of a crime and its solution (although that does happen along the way)–rather this is a story of how the criminal justice system works, and how those wheels grind on when someone becomes caught up in a web of crime.

 The story begins with a young, thin asthmatic man called Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw) playing football and scoring a goal. Hyped up and feeling good, Ben goes out for the night to meet a friend. When his car doesn’t start, he doesn’t hesitate to ‘borrow’ his dad’s taxi. Ben finds it funny that he can’t disable the taxi’s “for hire” sign, but then when he stops, a young girl, Melanie Lloyd (Ruth Negga) jumps into the back seat of the taxi.

With Ben’s friend cancelling their plans, Ben has nowhere to go, but Melanie, who’s so obviously the stronger, more dominant character of the two, suggests they go to the seaside. They enjoy each other’s company and end up spending the night together. The next day Melanie is dead. Given the weight of the forensic evidence, it looks like an open and-shut case with Ben, who couldn’t possibly look any guiltier, rather pathetically trying to clean up the crime scene and then even fleeing the scene.

Stone, the duty solicitor reeks of the ambulance chaser. His clothing is rumpled, his hair could do with a good wash, and to top it all off, one of his feet is wrapped in bandages, but we can still see the naked irritated skin which oozes with eczema.  If Stone showed up to defend me, my heart would sink, and it doesn’t help Stone’s image that he almost immediately tells Ben to “shut up” and that he doesn’t want to “be stuck with the truth.” Stone has a point. Yes he may be a nightmare when it comes to image and confidence-building, but and here’s one of the best points of this mini-series, he’s intelligent, cunning, and a brilliant strategist. Stone really can’t be bothered with the truth. It simply doesn’t matter. He understands that all he has to do is create a reasonable doubt in order for his client to walk, and that is Stone’s intention.

There are five episodes to this mini-series. The plot delves into alternate strategies tackled by Ben’s barristers, the snooty, autocratic  Alison Slaughter (Lindsay Duncan) and the inexperienced Frances Kapoor (Vineeta Rishi). While Ben’s case builds to the courtroom scenes, Ben’s life inside jail is a major part of the story. Ben becomes friendly with cellmate Hooch (Pete Postlethwaite) who offers advice on learning to live in the joint. Meanwhile, Ben racks up enemies. Freddy Graham (David Harewood), the con who runs the jail, owns a piece of everyone, and his attention settles on Ben.

When the story began, I expected the plot to become a police procedural, and that probably says quite a bit about the formatting of films. After all the murder is committed, the suspect is arrested, so now the hunt is supposed to begin for the person who is responsible. But Criminal Justice doesn’t immediately take that well-worn path. It’s a nice twist to Criminal Justice that Ben screams suspect so loudly that the police think they have their man. And perhaps they do. While some reviews state that Ben is appealing, I did not feel that way. Under Ben’s frailty, there’s something a little odd. But does that make him a murderer?

On the positive side, the script included good and bad prison guards (a nice mix) and then an entire range of those who work within the criminal justice system–those truly interested and concerned, those who just want to get the job done, and those who get too involved. The courtroom parts were excellent, and we see witnesses who can be led, those who can be bullied, and those who do not stand up well to cross-examination.

On the negative side, and I think this was the poorest part of the film, the plot went a tad overboard on the jail scenes. Hooch was well…not to spoil the plot, but a character who was developed in an unfortunate way…

On another note Criminal Justice has a nice underlying thread which reveals the class system at play. Stone feels the class barrier between him and the barristers, and there’s a great scene in which the investigating officer, “talented oppressor”  Box (Bill Paterson) and Slaughter assume that lowly PC Jeary (Sam Alexander) cannot speak French and patronise him accordingly.

At almost 4 hours, this was great entertainment except for part of episode 5 which went too sentimental in its Lone Ranger bent, but the final shots were a pleasant blend of what was lost tinged with a muted and stained optimism.

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Mosley (1998)

“Pardon me for asking, but what do you know about the working class?”

I never thought I’d find myself watching a film about Oswald Mosley–let alone that I’d really, really enjoy it. I recently came across Mosley, a  four-part made-for-British television biopic based on the life of the man who was a member of parliament, formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF), and later was interned during WWII. The film is based on two books written by Mosley’s son, Rules of the Game and Beyond the Pale. Part One: Young Man in a Hurry covers the years 1918-1920, Part Two: Rules of the Game covers the years 1924-1927. Part Three Breaking the Mold covers the years 1929-1933, and Part Four: Beyond the Pale covers the years 1933-1940.

Mosley very effectively shows the rot within the British upper classes through its depiction of Mosley’s life and political ambitions.  The film begins on Armistice Day when young Lt Mosley is in London watching the celebrations. Mosley (Jonathan Cake in a terrific performance), fresh out of WWI is determined to make a difference and believes that another war should never be fought. As an aristocrat (Mosley was the eldest son of the 5th Baronet of Ancoats), he very quickly finds a spot in British politics. Invited to the best houses and the best parties, he’s introduced to Lloyd George (Windsor Davies) and makes the older, married American Maxine Elliott his mistress. Mosley becomes the youngest member of parliament–not a bad start to a career that ended in infamy.

Mosley makes a beeline for “Cimmie” Lady Cynthia Curzon (Jemma Redgrave), the daughter of the wealthy and influential Curzon family, and he’s assisted in his courtship by Cynthia’s stepmother–yet another mistress. In real life both Cimmie’s older and younger sisters became Mosley’s mistresses too, and the film depicts Cimmie as rather naïve and severely out-of-touch with her husband’s true character. But these are all aspects of Mosley’s personal life, and he is established rather quickly as an unpleasant and rather cruel egoist with little or no thought of other people beyond his ability to use them to his advantage.

As for his political life, Mosley had many ideas for England which involved a great deal of change. He’s portrayed as a young “man in a hurry,” in direct opposition to the establishment. At first Mosley is a member of the Conservative Party and is the MP for Harrow. The film depicts his impassioned speeches, “crossing the floor,” and his outrage at the Conservative government’s so-called Irish policy. The film tracks Mosley’s switch to Labour and his supposed interest in socialism and the ‘working classes.’ The use of the word ‘supposed‘ is intentional as the film includes many scenes of Lady Cynthia and Sir Oswald delivering speeches to the working classes. She’s wearing her fur coat and they’re ferried around by chauffeurs. In one scene the couple actually squabble about who is going to get the nicer car when they toddle off to lecture the masses. But while Lady Cynthia seems genuine (if a naïve Champagne Socialist), Mosley is depicted as much more calculating, ready to use women silly enough to fall in love with him and to exploit the working classes silly enough to vote for this wanker. ALL politicians do this sort of thing, of course, but Mosley was much more naked about it.

Mosley is highly entertaining and if it fails, it fails to show what is going on in Mosley’s head at crucial moments. At one point, for example, Mosley has formed the BUF and while his underlings labour to create a financial policy, they seem to go into one direction (heavy leanings towards Communism) with no idea that Mosley is headed towards fascism. We see Mosley’s eyes glinting with delight when he glimpses Mussolini for the first time, and there’s a giant hint that Mosley has gone off the deep end when he shows up in Italy wearing a black shirt. The film depicts Mosley’s political switch occurring largely in his head with those in his inner circle oblivious and rather shocked.

While the film spends a good amount of time on Mosley’s affairs, and his first marriage, a relatively small amount of the film is spent on his affair with Diane Guinness (nee MITFORD) one of those oh-so-famous Mitford sisters who mucked about in the politics of the time.  The film shows Mitford’s (Emma Davies) influence quite well, and before we know it this notorious pair are off to Berlin to be married at the home of Goebbels with Hitler as one of the guests. 

The film also depicts the Battle of Cable Street and one of Mosley’s explosive BUF rallies. Amazing really that he wasn’t locked up until 1940, but that’s one of the bennies of being an aristocrat–you can get away with more shit.  Unfortunately, the film does not explore Mosley’s life after internment, and that’s a shame. Still this was a highly entertaining look at Mosley, and he doesn’t come off well at all. While the film emphasises his personal relationships, the point is made that Mosley was a chameleon–ready to wear whichever political skin got him the votes, and more importantly, THE POWER. There seems to be a traceable line, in Mosley’s case, from aristocrat, adulterer, autocrat and fascist–his way or as the old saying goes–or the highway. Fascism seems to be the natural state for Mosley to devolve to as it bypassed any notion of humanity & equality and simply made it easier for him to pass off his ideas without modification from anyone else.

From director Robert Knights.

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Wallandar (2008)

Things are tough in Sweden….

wallanderThe DVD Wallander features Kenneth Branagh as the middle-aged beleaguered detective Kurt Wallander. This release is a 2-DVD set–with two films on the first disc and a third film–One Step Behind on the second disc. The first DVD features episodes Sidetracked and Firewall and these tales are based on the novels by Swedish author Henning Mankell. This DVD had been in my netflix queue along with the long wait notice since its release in June 2009, and when it finally arrived, I was very interested to see it. So Netflix finally sent disc one, and I watched it. I should mention that I’d read my first Henning Mankell crime novel earlier this year–didn’t love it, but then the first novel in the series is often the weakest, but since Branagh is such a good actor, I really wanted to see this DVD.

Any detective series (novel or film) has the delicate task of producing interesting crime stories that feature a regular character we care about. So there’s a balancing act between the crime at hand and the details of the detective’s life and character. I should add here that it’s not necessary to like the character in order to find him or her interesting. In fact, the more flaws the better (take Detective Inspector Rebus from the novels of Ian Rankin, for example). These series characters become acquaintances in a way–we want to see what they are up to in the next episode, and the theory is, of course, that if we are so interested in the character, we will come back to read the next book, or in this case, watch the next DVD.

So will I return to Wallander?

Doubtful….

The first episode, Sidetracked, begins with a startling, attention-grabbing act of self-destruction which leaves detective Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) feeling both responsible and helpless at the same time. But the attention grabbing beginning dwindles down into a sordid tale of corrupt kinky powerful men and a slew of horrific, ritualized murders. Yawn. It’s been done 100s of times before.

In the second episode, Firewall, Wallander investigates the seemingly senseless brutal stabbing of a taxi driver by a disaffected teen, and soon bodies  are popping up everywhere and he’s involved in a fanciful tale of cybernet terrorism.

The second episode showed a lot more energy as the story tweaks details of Wallandar’s pathetic personal life. The poor sod is separated from a wife he thinks he still loves, his bitchy, bratty daughter demands attention, and his father–already irritable and difficult to please–is sliding into Alzheimers.

At first, Wallander comes off as depressed, depressive and exhausted. He doesn’t even have the energy to shave apparently, and after seeing him wake up in chair, I was beginning to wonder about showers. The one relationship in his life is with his daughter, and it consists of her hounding him about various issues and in Firewall she pesters him to start dating. Wallander’s personal life doesn’t sucks as much as it’s non-existent. Branagh as Wallander seems to find even the smallest tasks associated with living to be too much to bear. And all things considered, I found him a bit depressing to be around….

The film may please fans of Branagh and the cinematography is gorgeous, but for me, and I may be in the minority here, I’m not exactly eager to see what happens to Wallandar in succeeding episodes.

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The Spoils of Poynton (1970)

Henry James CollectionThis 1970 BBC version of the Henry James classic The Spoils of Poynton begins with houseguests Mrs Gereth (Pauline Jameson) and Fleda Vetch (Gemma Jones) meeting at Waterbath, the ostentatious home of Mrs Brigstock (June Ellis) and her daughter Mona (Diane Fletcher). The houseguests meet by accident as both women marvel at the bad taste of  the Brigstocks blatantly displayed through the various garish ornaments and stuffed birds that litter every corner of the house. Mrs Gereth tries to tease criticisms of the Brigstocks’ taste from Miss Vetch and confesses that she’s there to meet Mona, her son Owen’s (Ian Ogilvy) love interest.

Just as Mrs Gereth can’t stand the Brigstock’s decor, neither can she stand Mona, but the weak-willed Owen is too besotted with Mona to take any notice of his indomitable mother. The implication is that Owen would probably normally bend to his mother’s wishes, but in this instance he’s come under the spell of an equally formidable woman. Mrs Gereth is convinced that if Owen marries Mona, then Mona will ruin Poynton’s elegance by bringing her own appalling taste to the house.

Sensing that the delicate, introverted Miss Vetch has good taste, Mrs Gereth invites her to Poynton, one of two houses she owns, ostensibly to show her the house and its treasures. It’s soon clear that Miss Vetch loves Poynton and its contents with the same sort of reverence as Mrs Gereth–a woman who’s spent her lifetime collecting treasures for the house. But there’s another reason Mrs Gereth has invited Miss Vetch. Mrs Gereth acknowledges that when it comes to preserving Poynton she has a vicious streak, and her plan is to shove Miss Vetch  into Owen’s path and divert him from Mona.

The plan to sever Owen from Mona becomes an imperative after Mona’s visit to Poynton. Mona is there to visit before she gives Owen an answer to his recent marriage proposal, and this includes her assessment of Poynton as her possible future home.  While Mona makes suitable noises about Poynton’s grandeur she also lets slip plans for substantial change.

As the film’s title implies–a battle ensues over the Spoils of Poynton, and Owen’s affections become the battleground for Poynton and its contents. Owen’s desires fade into the background as his mother battles for ‘what’s best for Owen’ and that of course is coincidentally what’s best for her and will ensure that Poynton remains intact. Owen is like a ball tossed around by these three equally steely women–Mrs Gereth, Mona and even Miss Vetch although her mettle isn’t obvious until the plot develops.

This is a marvellous and sensitive story brought to life by an incredible screenplay and superb acting. All the subtle nuances of character and human motivation remain intact and at times as the struggle for power sways one way and then another, sympathies too shift. At first, Mrs Gereth seems just to be a selfish snob who places too much emphasis on possessions, but then it becomes clear that Poynton is a physical embodiment of the past life she shared with her husband. And this certainly explains why Poynton is more like a musuem than a home. Similarly, at first Mona is seen as just a loud-mouthed bossy woman who happens to have bad taste, and yet in her struggle for power and control of Owen, Mona is prepared to go just as far as necessary to win. And then there’s Miss Vetch–a woman who falls in love with a house but then seems strangely reticent when it comes to physical passion. Finally there’s Owen–a weak willed pliable man who remains largely confused and used by the passions, jealousy, steely moral decisions and seething desires of ownership that define the women in his life.

The Spoils of Poynton is part of the Henry James Collection.

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A Rather English Marriage (1998)

“You are a prissy, tight-arsed bastard, aren’t you, Southgate?”

The made-for-British television film A Rather English Marriage is an enjoyable character study of two widowers thrown together by circumstance. Reggie Conyngham-Jervis (Albert Finney) and Roy Southgate (Tom Courtenay) have a great deal in common, and yet they are totally opposite. Reggie and Southgate, both WWII veterans are both widowed when their wives die just moments apart in the same hospital. While Southgate is devastated by the loss of his wife, on the other hand, Reggie–or Squadron Leader, as he prefers to be called, seems to be barely touched by the event. Southgate returns to his modest little house, with its shrine of photographs of his wife, Grace in her youth, and Reggie returns to The Cedars, the large country mansion he shared with his wife–the long-suffering Mary (Ursula Howells).

rather english marriageAs the two men adjust to life without their wives, a social worker comes up with the idea of bringing the two men together in their grief to help each other and share the household burden. This seems to be a great idea to Reggie who now seems to think he has an unpaid servant in Southgate. Reggie is very comfortable with maintaining the hierarchal role of Squadron Leader to Southgate’s servant/batman/sergeant. And what does Southgate get from the arrangement? Well Reggie overlooks the fact that Southgate has his own home and seems to imagine that Southgate should be grateful for the opportunity to live (for once in his life anyway) in a splendid country mansion.  There’s one great scene when Reggie is waxing on about the glory days on WWII and Southgate rather timidly marvels at the fact that he’s finally met ‘one of those’ people who looked at WWII–‘the best years of their lives.’ The impression is that Reggie’s WWII was a very different sort of experience for Southgate. 

The film draws its characters sharply within the first few scenes. Reggie is bombastic, selfish and insensitive, superficially and happily blustering his way through life as he tramples on the meek and mild-mannered. Southgate, on the other hand, is a bit of a dark horse, and flashbacks reveal slivers of both men’s pasts. While Southgate rather slavishly adored his wife, claiming they had sex every day of their married life, there are hints, mainly from Southgate’s incarcerated son, that things were not as Southgate says.

Within days of moving in together, the men basically establish a relationship with one another that replicates the relationship they had with their wives. Southgate becomes the housewife and Reggie stuffs himself at dinner and then goes off to the pub to get drunk at night. The roles these men play with each other undergoes a shift when golddigger Liz Franks (Joanna Lumley) arrives on the scene….

All three of the main characters give knock-out performances. Joanna Lumley as Liz Franks is a middle-aged woman who knows the years are slipping away and sees Reggie as the last opportunity to grab wealth. Hints of homosexuality in the relationship between Reggie and Southgate remain unexplored, and while the question hangs unanswered at the film’s conclusion, it’s an unimportant issue that’s transcended by devotion and friendship. From director Paul Seed and a marvelous screenplay from Andrew Davies. The story is based on the novel by Angela Lambert

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