Tag Archives: 19th century

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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Manuela Sáenz (2001)

“If you wonder about Bolívar, it’s enough for you to know that I loved him when he was alive, and now that he’s dead, I praise him.”

Set in the 19th century, Manuela Sáenz from director Diego Rísquez is the story of the lover of Simon Bolívar, the Venezuelan revolutionary who fought against Spanish rule and united a number of South American countries into La Gran Columbia. Manuela Sáenz played a significant role in Bolívar’s life but seems largely lost to history. This film is the perfect companion film for the Columbian political satire, Bolívar is Me.

Manuela Sáenz begins in the year 1856 with the arrival of a whaling ship in Paitu, Peru. On the ship is the young Herman Melville (Erich Wildpret) who’s heard that Manuela Sáenz lived there at one time. He’s astonished to learn that she is still alive, and he seeks her out. Now partially paralyzed, she lives with her two faithful servants and a number of dogs named after Bolívar’s enemies in a primitive hut which overlooks the ocean. Impoverished, she’s managed to survive by translating and also selling tobacco. Melville meets and talks briefly to Manuela (Beatriz Valdés), but he only seems to stir unhappy memories (this actually happened btw). She asks him “Why do you want to meet this ruin of history?” He replies: “Well, I’ve always been interested in legends and you are one of them.” Meanwhile diphtheria arrives in Paitu and the death toll begins to climb….

The film is told with flashbacks and the ‘present’ is filmed in sepia while the past is in colour. Through the flashbacks we see a few glimpses of Manuela’s early life. She was a bastard child, the product of an Ecuadorian woman and a Spanish officer and grew up in a convent–although those 2 latter details are not made clear. Later her family arranged marriage with a British merchant, Dr. Thorne, but her life changed drastically when she met Simon Bolívar and they quickly became lovers. Scenes show how she left her outraged husband, and she was later made a Colonel in Bolívar’s forces. Other scenes depict how some officers were appalled by her behaviour and resented her presence while others embraced her commitment.

This is primarily the tale of the love story between Manuela and Bolívar, and the emphasis is on their relationship rather than the events that took place, so when revolts and battles occur, there’s little detail which really is a pity. The film doesn’t emphasise that in sympathy with the revolution against Spain, she’d already left her husband in 1822 before she met Bolívar. The sexual passion between Manuela and Bolívar is evident, and when circumstances force them to be apart, their correspondence keeps the relationship alive. Manuela’s greatest treasure is a box full of his letters.

When Bolívar is finally overthrown and sent into exile, Manuela remains behind, but her presence is a dangerous reminder of Bolívar. Bolívar’s enemies considered her capable of starting a counter-revolution, so she too is sent into exile. Scenes show a long arduous trek with her loyal supporters (former slaves) before she finally settles in Paitu where she  remains until Melville’s ship sails in.  

The film quality is spotty; some scenes appear more faded than others. One of the scenes depicting the burning of a body is a little over done, but apart from that, this is an interesting film in spite of the fact that it left this viewer dissatisfied with the patchy history of Manuela. While her passion for Bolívar is evident, her defiance of social laws, which includes leaving her husband and dressing in men’s clothing, hints at a fascinating woman. Other scenes however leave a lot unexplained. She holds a mock execution, for example, which angers Bolívar and he ultimately bans her from his presence–not a permanent ban, I should add.

Manuela Sáenz, a Venezuelan film, is an entry into Caroline and Richard’s foreign film festival.

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My Cousin Rachel (1952)

It’s been years since I first saw the 1952 film, My Cousin Rachel, and a rereading on the book written by Daphne du Maurier sent me on a hunt for a copy. Du Maurier is probably best remembered for Rebecca, and while I think the film adaptation of du Maurier’s novel Rebecca is excellent and much glossier, it seems strange that the film should hold such a premier position in film history (there’s even a Criterion version) while its poor relation My Cousin Rachel– has almost disappeared from view. Rebecca starred Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine and George Sanders and was directed by Hitchcock. The film won Best Picture and Best Cinematography at the 1941 Academy awards. My Cousin Rachel, directed by Henry Koster, racked up a number of Academy Award nominations in 1953 but no wins. One of the Oscar nominations went to Richard Burton for Best Actor in a Supporting Role, but he lost to Anthony Quinn for his role in Viva Zapata (Burton won a Golden Globe Award for New Star of the Year). My Cousin Rachel was Richard Burton’s first American film, and the film’s salacious trailer calls him a “newcomer.” Burton is young here and doesn’t yet have the screen presence to dominate–but then again perhaps it’s because the character he plays, Philip Ashley, is a very confused young man whose judgement is clouded by sexual desire.

My Cousin Rachel is set on Daphne du Maurier’s beloved Cornwall coast, and most of the action takes place there with just a short sidetrip to Florence. The story opens (as does the book) with Ambrose Ashley (John Sutton) taking his small orphaned cousin and ward, Philip to see the corpse of a hanged man swinging in the wind. Ambrose admonishes Philip that the dead man’s fate is the result of out-of-control passion–a dire and prophetic warning as it turns out.

Fast forward to Ambrose now a middle-aged man and Philip (Richard Burton) in his twenties. Ambrose’s health necessitates a winter abroad, and the two men part–somewhat reluctantly. Ambrose’s winter abroad extends into the spring and the summer along with the news that he’s made the acquaintance of a distant cousin–a widow named Rachel Sangalleti. This is shortly followed by the astonishing news that Ashley, a confirmed bachelor, has married the widow. Some months later, Philip begins to receive strange incoherent letters from his cousin which indicate not only that he is seriously ill but also that he suspects Rachel of poisoning him. 

Alarmed, Philip rushes off to Florence, but he’s too late. Ambrose is dead, and with a new will unsigned, all of Ambrose’s property falls to Philip….

Then some time later, Rachel arrives in Cornwall at Philip’s estate ostensibly for a short visit. When she first arrives, Philip is primed to accuse her of murder, but he’s immediately stunned by her sweet pliant nature and he’s soon won over by Rachel’s persistent, gentle charm.

The premise of both the film and the book is whether or not Rachel killed Ambrose. There are certainly clues that argue both points–although I think that ultimately the book was far more ambiguous. This is due, no doubt, to du Maurier’s skill as a writer, but perhaps the visual aspects of the film and some of the facial expressions caught by the camera add a dimension that is, of course, absent from the book. Gothic film frequently explores the vulnerability of women and the predatory nature of men, and this film cleverly plays with that idea, so as the drama unfolds, we see both Rachel and Philip as predator and victim depending on our view of the events.  Olivia de Havilland is perfect as Rachel–at times she appears youthful and innocent, but at other times a flicker of an expression passes across her features, and we wonder–as Philip does–just what she is capable of. Meanwhile neighbour and now guardian Nicholas Kendall (Ronald Squire ) and his daughter Louise (Audrey Dalton) are reluctant onlookers and have no doubt that Rachel’s conduct is questionable at best.

There’s no small amount of sexual manipulation afoot, but all those involved have some degree of self-interest, so when Kendall tries to warn Philip about Rachel, is he perhaps unhappy to see his daughter, Louise (Audrey Dalton) cast aside for Rachel? 

Camera shots make great use of shadow to enhance the drama and unexpressed fear of the characters, and some of the action set against the back drop of the wild Cornish coast emphasizes the depths of hidden, explosive and destructive passion. One of ideas implicit in the film is that Rachel’s somewhat unconventional behaviour (she continually invites Philip into her boudoir) is due to her ‘Italian ways,’ and indeed her open and easy affectionate manner with Philip sets his head spinning. Underneath this sexual tension, however, is the idea that Philip’s repression, once unleashed, will lead to destruction. Anyway, I know where I stand on the subject of Rachel’s innocence or guilt, and for those interested in the book or Gothic drama, the film really is a marvellous little gem and well-worth catching.


Filed under Drama, Period Piece

Vénus Noire (2010)

Some stories need to be told, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that those stories–transcribed to film–result in an enjoyable or entertaining experience. This of course brings up the whole question of just what we expect when we place a DVD in the player. I know that I want to be entertained. If I’m educated in the process, then that’s great, but while Vénus Noire (Black Venus)  tells an incredible story, I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it. Am I glad I watched it? Yes.

Vénus Noire begins in France with a scene of eager young doctors at the Royal Academy of Medicine. It’s 1815 and this is a lecture hall filled with young men studying medicine. The lecturer proceeds to hand around a jar containing the unusual genitals of a “Hottentot” woman, and he also has a life size cast of the woman’s body. The upshot of the lecture is that the Hottentot woman resembles the baboon–rather than the human. That sort of gives you an indication of what you are in for with this story.

Vénus Noire is Saartjie Baartmann (Yahima Torres), a former servant from the Cape who in 1808 travelled with her entrepreneur employer, Hendrick Cezar (Andre Jacobs) to London. Lured by the promise of riches and the possibility of owning her own farm in the Cape, Saartjie becomes a highly successful draw and a big moneymaker. Hundreds squeeze into the shabby little theatre and watch the so-called Hottentot Venus who is dressed in a sheer costume, paraded around in chains like a wild animal, and managed with a whip. Off the stage, Saartjie smokes cigars, knocks back booze and even shops followed by two black attendants, but Saartjie and Cezar’s performance outrages certain members of the African Association (Britain saw the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807) who see Saartjie as horribly exploited. Saartjie and Cezar end up in court with both of them arguing that she performs of  her own free will. She’s not a slave, and yet due to racial inequalities, it’s easy to argue that the act which is in extremely bad taste, also exploits Saartjie–after all what other choices does she have?

When Saartjie is more or less forced to leave England due to the messy trial, things go downhill. They hook up with animal trainer Réaux (Olivier Gourmet) and Jeanne (Elina Lowensohn) and become the entertainment for various Paris salons, kink shows, and brothels. If Saartjie was exploited before, it’s nothing to what awaits her in Paris….

At 159 mins. Vénus Noire is a long film, and throughout the course of the tale, Saartjie’s act doesn’t basically change–although it is modified to include even more degrading exhibitions. During the performances, Saartjie objects occasionally, and most of the objections occur when she’s fondled by the audience or required to exhibit her genitals–either at kinky parties or for French doctors. Films which require the audience to accompany the protagonist on a journey of degradation can be extraordinarily painful and even an exercise in masochism. As the endless scenes from Saartjie’s act continue, I’ll admit that I had a difficult time watching performance after performance of this poor woman who is trotted out for ‘entertainment’ repeatedly.

Vénus Noire is most interesting for its blurred boundaries. Is Saartjie, for example, performing of her own ‘free will’? Well, if ‘free will’ means that she agrees to walk on stage, then, yes, she’s there of her own free will. But if ‘free will’ means that Saartjie wants to perform for a leering, groping crowd, then the answer is ‘no,’ Saartjie is not acting through free will. There are several other instances of the blurring of boundaries in the film–Saartjie is forced to exhibit her genitals for the pervs of Paris and for the doctors of the Royal Academy. Is there a difference? Both lots pay for the pleasure, and one lot may be drooling, but for Saartjie, who’s on the receiving end of the voyeurism, there’s little difference.

And of course, finally, the Royal Academy, measuring every angle of Saartjie’s body (reminds me of the Nazis)  make note of her genitals and extraordinary buttocks, yet panning the audience of Saartjie’s shows, we see only crowds of freaks–the ugly, the deformed, the pock-marked–a race of imperfects who squintingly point a finger when noticing the differences of others.

From director Adellatif Kechiche (Secret of the Grain)


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The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (1938)

“You’ll have a hard life, but don’t surrender to anyone.”

The Childhood of Maxim Gorky (Detstvo Gorkogo) was released in 1938, Gorky (whose real name was Peshkov), the man on whose life (and books) the film is based died two years earlier. The Childhood of Maxim Gorky is the first of a trilogy (the other two titles are My Apprenticeships, & My Universities) all directed by Mark Donskoi and adapted from Gorky’s autobiography. These three films are all from Russico, and apparently all three were available at one time with English subtitles, but so far I’ve only been able to find the other two films in Russian only. 

The film is set in the 19th century and begins with the arrival of Aleksei Peshkov (Aleksei Lyarsky) and his mother by boat to join his mother’s family. Although it’s not expressed, the idea is present that Aleksei and his mother Varvara Peshkova (Yelizaveta Alekseyeva) have returned to her family due to harsh necessity. It seems that Aleksei’s father was not popular with Varvara’s irascible contentious father, Vasili Kashrin (Mikhail Troyanovsky), but Aleksei’s father is now dead. Structurally, the film follows Aleksei’s early life concentrating on the people and incidents that influenced him.

Varvara and her son Aleksei return to a viper’s nest. The problems within the family are glaringly apparent, and most of the squabbles arise over the question of inheritance and how the family dye business will be divvied up among the three children. Aleksei’s two uncles engage in endless battles of recrimination, but they shelve their quarrels for the most part in the presence of their domineering father. The uncles, Mishka and Yashka (Aleksandr  Zhukov & Vasili Novikov) are unpleasant and stupid, and according to the grandfather, when they inherit they “will squander everything on drink.” Given the few scenes involving the uncles, there’s not much reason to argue with the grandfather’s assessment, and in some ways this pathological family situation is very stereotypical. The grandmother (Varvara Massalitinova) is viewed as indulgent, excusing her sons’ behaviour and pestering the grandfather to share the inheritance while he is still alive (reminds me of Zola’s The Earth), and of course, the grandfather reacts by arguing that his wife coddles the sons and has made them into loafers. Basically the family members are at each other’s throats for a battle over the limited resources.

The film shows Aleksei’s relationship with two of his grandfather’s workers: the nearly blind Gregori (K. Zubkov): a good man who’s worked for the grandfather for 37 years. Being in close contact with the dyes has caused Gregori to lose his sight, but there’s no sense of obligation felt by the grandfather towards the man who’s served him for almost four decades. Another huge influence on Aleksei is the Ivan the Gyspy (Daniil Sagal): an employee, a kind, vigorous young man whose zest for life is squashed by Aleksei’s revolting uncles. The grandfather regrets the Gyspy’s death as he would have been “priceless in 5 years.”

A major influence on Aleksei is his wonderful grandmother, an avid storyteller, a woman who loves her home and her family and suffers mistreatment & beatings from her husband. The grandmother is obviously the glue that holds the family together, but when adversity strikes, even she cannot fix the situation, and Aleksei lives with his grandparents, moving and sinking farther and farther into poverty.

Living with his grandparents, but left more to less to his own devices, Aleksei learns to scavenge to earn enough kopecks for food. As their fortunes decline, Aleksei’s grandfather, who is apparently not the most stable of men, vacillates between petty childish tantrums and vicious attacks on his family.

A lodger (S. Tikhonravov) becomes another tremendous shaping influence on Aleksei. Through the lodger, who’s a revolutionary, Aleksei learns that “a man with learning can be anything he likes.”

Various animals appear throughout the film, and clearly they have an important role in Gorky’s life. The film includes moments of whimsy in its depiction of Aleksei running wild in the streets and fields with a band of equally wretched boys (see the DVD cover). But underneath these sentimental touches, there’s the clear message that all these poor people have are their bodies and their ability to labour. There is no social structure to buoy up the blind, the elderly, or the infirm, and those who cannot work must beg for a living or starve. The grandfather recalls how he pulled barges for a living, but in the grandfather’s case, adversity makes him meaner and less likely to share a crust of bread with a passing beggar. The film does not touch on the upper classes but stays firmly with the peasants.

Gorky, a founder of Socialist Realism, is a problematic figure in the history of Russian literature. I don’t want to spend a great deal of time on Gorky’s politics–although it seems impossible to review the film and not mention Gorky’s position in both Tsarist Russia and Stalin’s Soviet Union. At first a supporter of the Revolution, Gorky became disillusioned, as many did, with the outrages of the Bolsheviks. Censored under the Tsar, Gorky found himself censored under the Bolsheviks too. Gorky lived abroad for some years but then returned to the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of Stalin. There are photos of Gorky and Stalin together, and I know I wouldn’t want my mug to go down in history next to Stalin’s.  Gorky was given a mansion and a dacha by Stalin, but by 1934 he was back under house arrest. I’ll admit that one of the reasons I didn’t watch the film earlier is because I connect Gorky with Stalinist propaganda. Gorky knew what was happening in the Soviet Union; he knew that writers, such as Gumilyov were being executed, so Gorky didn’t even have the excuse of ignorance when he returned and effectively endorsed the Stalinist regime. No matter what Gorky’s motives were in returning to Stalinist Russia, his legacy to Russian literature suffered as a result. Many Russian emigre writers suffered in exile and many poets and writers were slaughtered in Stalinist times. My sympathies are with them.

At the same time, to wipe out The Childhood of Maxim Gorky as pure propaganda seems nonsensical. This was Gorky’s childhood, and his childhood mirrored the lives of millions of Russians who depended on their health and their strength to eke out a living. The quantification of humans into the volume of labour they can produce is horrifying (makes me think of factory farming). Watching the film brings to the fore the tremendous waste of human potential under such a system. And of course that brings us back to the idea of revolution….

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A Hero of Our Time 2006 (clip)

To date (2/10) there’s no version available of the 2006 film A Hero of Our Time (Geroy Nashego Vremeni) with English subtitles. But here’s a clip (Pechorin’s Duel) from youtube:


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Gervaise (1956)


 You haven’t seen the last of me, Bitch.”

Gervaise, a 1956 film set in 19th century Paris is based on the Zola masterpiece L’Assommoir. The film’s main character is Gervaise Macquart (Maria Schell), a beautiful, blonde laundress whose wholesome youth and beauty is marred by a slight limp. When the film begins, Gervaise lives in a dingy room with her lover Lantier (Armand Mestral) and their two young sons. Even though they are not married, Gervaise calls herself Lantier’s wife unaware of the ridicule that this brings her behind her back.

Lantier, it seems, is in the throes of an affair with a neighbour. Everyone in the Parisian slum knows about it, and the news forms a sort of gossipy thrill which explodes into titillating entertainment one day when Gerviase fights with the other woman’s sister, Virginie (Suzy Delair). This incident has long-term ramifications for Gervaise. Eventually Gervaise moves on from her grief at losing Lantier and she meets and marries affable roofer Coupeau (Francois Perier).

At first Gervaise thrives in her marriage to Coupeau. They have a child together, Nana (Françoise Hery) and Gervaise has a goal of managing her own laundry. This dream is put on hold temporarily when Coupeau has an accident that takes away his ability to earn a living, but long-term, devoted friend Goujet (Jacques Harden) lends Gervaise the money, and she goes into business for herself. Gervaise’s troubles begin, although it takes her a long time to realize it, when Coupeau has his accident. Then the arrival of Virginie and the parasitic Lantier seals Gervaise’s fate.

The film, while good entertainment, unfortunately, falls short of Zola’s marvelous novel, L’Assommoir. In all fairness, I don’t think a film format (just under two hours) is the right setting for the novel. This needs to be a miniseries. Before watching the film, I was curious to see just how a film in the 50s would cope with some of the more salacious details of the novel–Gervaise’s peculiar domestic arrangement with Lantier and Coupeau, for example. The film chooses to gloss over much of this savage degradation and only lightly touches on the subject. Interestingly the film glosses over most of the book’s savagery: the viciousness of Gervaise’s former friends and neighbours, Gervaise’s slide into alcoholism (it’s touched on in the film) and her eventual wish for the oblivion of death. The film simplifies while avoiding the highly detailed feeding frenzy that takes place over Gervaise’s body and her ability to work–whereas the novel is wrenching in parts as it describes Gervaise’s gradual slide into degradation and oblivion.

The film from director Rene Clement tries to maintain a sense of faithfulness to the novel–it includes the wedding scene, for example, and Gervaise’s grand dinner for her ungrateful neighbours. But when it comes to showing the details of the viciousness of life among the working class, the film falls short. Perhaps it was considered too depressing to create a film that went into some much detail of the moral depravity and cruelty of its subjects–although the film does show in a couple of scenes how naughty Nana became while still just a wee tot. The film rather interestingly also accentuates the way that Lantier and Coupeau are somewhat similar types, but by glossing over the more sordid, savage aspects of the novel, the story loses its grandeur and becomes more of an average love story. What we need is a BBC miniseries or a French television miniseries to do Zola’s masterpiece justice.

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Balzac: A Life of Passion (1999)


“Spare me your base reflections.”

The French made-for-television film Balzac: A Life of Passion chooses to concentrate on the two great passions in Balzac’s troubled life: writing and women. This is not a wonderful film, but if you are a Balzac fan (me), a fan of French costume dramas, or a fan of Depardieu and Fanny Ardant (me again), then you’ll want to catch this 180-minute drama.

balzac2Framing the film is a scene in which the young Balzac rushes to his sour, cold and disapproving mother, Charlotte-Laure (Jeanne Moreau) and she rejects his attempts for affection. Apparently Balzac is near the bottom of his class–hence no affection and certainly no parental approval. And this scene sets the tone for the rest of the film’s theme: Balzac’s lifelong quest for love, affection and approval.

The film explores the significant relationships with the women in Balzac’s life: his unpleasant mother, of course, as well as the much older, tragic Madame de Berny (Virna Lisi), the capricious Laure d’ Abrantes (Katja Riemann), and the final great love of his life Eva Hanska (played by the spectacular Fanny Ardant). Over all of his love affairs, Balzac’s mother reigns with her sour disapproval and her conviction that she’s destined for hell thanks to her son’s blasphemous books.

Balzac’s supreme masterpieces take a back seat to the love affairs in this tale. There are, however, some great moments, for example when Balzac explains to Laure d’Abrantes that he fears thousands of “blank pages.” Moments such as these reveal a glimpse at a man haunted by the fear he would die before finishing La Comedie Humaine. And Balzac was a workaholic–a man chasing his own demons while trying to avoid debts and debtors’ prison. To Balzac : “The Imagination is an impatient mistress,” and the film tries to examine Balzac’s conflict between love and art, but largely fails and instead the idea seems to be that Balzac wore himself out chasing women while juggling his writing career.

In spite of its stellar cast, the film, from director Josee Dayan fails largely thanks to the portrayal of Balzac. He just isn’t a very interesting character here. Apart from a few scenes that reveal a thinking, brilliant mind, for the most part Balzac comes off at times as eccentric and brutish, at others as a bit of a nutter. Take the scene for example when he hunts for the Countess Hanska at the masked ball. He careens through the ballroom like a buffoon dressed up in someone’s old curtains. Ardant is, frankly, the best thing in the film: luminous and complex, she steals the film even as she spins circles around the seemingly slow-witted Balzac.

There are a few references to Balzac’s novels: The Chouans, Modest Mignon, Cousin Bette, Colonel Chabert, but overall if you want to discover the genius behind La Comedie Humaine, well you won’t find that genius here. Coincidentally, the film adaptation of Colonel Chabert also stars Depardieu but that film makes my top ten list of all time. That said, Balzac’s death scene is painfully accurate. I was disappointed in the film, but still glad I saw it, and now I’m going over to my bookshelf to pick out a Balzac novel to reread.


Filed under Fanny Ardant, France, Gerard Depardieu, Period Piece

Mansfield Park (1999)

Ordinarily, I’m a bit of a Jane Austen snob….

In Mansfield Park–a film adaptation of the Jane Austen novel–young, poor Fanny Price is sent from her overcrowded and squalid Portsmouth home to live with her widowed Aunt Norris. The invitation from Aunt Norris was based on a fleeting, charitable whim, but the whim is already gone when Fanny arrives. Fanny is quickly passed to her wealthy relatives, Lord and Lady Bertram, who live at Mansfield Park with their 4 children–Tom, Edmund, Maria & Julia. Fanny’s loneliness is compounded by Aunt Norris who is determined that Fanny should never forget her humble place in the Bertram household.

Fanny grows up at Mansfield Park and remains in touch with her impoverished family in Portsmouth. Dreadful Aunt Norris more or less rules Mansfield Park by default–this is partly due to Lord Bertram’s interests in the West Indies and partly due to Lady Bertram’s inertia and inebriation. Maria is engaged to the doltish Mr Rushworth, and while Maria acknowledges that her future husband is a fool, she is willing to overlook this fault as it is ameliorated by a large fortune. Fanny’s sole friend is Edmund–the younger son, and he is slated to become a clergyman. But then an attractive and worldly brother and sister–Henry and Mary Crawford join local society, and their presence sparks everyone’s dormant passions.

I was prepared to dislike this production from director Patricia Rozema–Jane Austen is close to my heart, so I intend to be a bit picky when it comes to screen adaptations of Austen’s novels. I did not, for example, like Emma (the Gwyneth Paltrow version), and I couldn’t abide Sense and Sensibility (Emma Thompson). I do like the BBC adaptations of Austen’s novels, however. I must admit that I almost didn’t even bother watching Mansfield Park as I dreaded yet another disappointment. However, encouraged by another Janeite I decided to give this DVD a go.

The strength of this production is in its acting and in its humour. All of the actors and actresses are top notch, and the script flowed forth with a light, ironic touch. Henry and Mary Crawford were simply perfect. Unfortunately, the script writer did seem to mingle Jane Austen (the real person) with Fanny Price when creating the Fanny Price for this film. This gave Fanny Price pertness and wit that was largely absent from the novel. Also, many excellent parts from the novel were cut, and the PC additions to the script were–quite frankly–out of place and slightly ludicrous. However, overall, I enjoyed this film version of the book–it’s not perfect, but for perfection, I can always go and read Mansfield Park yet again.

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Daniel Deronda (2002)

 “I shall be better for having known you.”

derondaThe marvelous BBC mini-series Daniel Deronda is based on the George Eliot novel. Daniel Deronda is a weighty, problematic novel, and it is not considered to be Eliot’s best. The BBC adaptation is excellent, well-paced, and truly elegant. The Victorian, multi-plot novel is far better suited to the series format–there’s just too much plot to expect the story to squeeze into a standard 90-120 minute film. If someone tried to squash the novel Daniel Deronda into a film, it simply wouldn’t work as effectively.

The major theme of Daniel Deronda is the pursuit of the spiritual versus the pursuit of worldly gain, and this theme is worked through the characters, Gwendolen Harleth and Daniel Deronda. Gwendolen Harleth is the eldest daughter of a impoverished widow, and so the hopes of Gwendolen’s mother rest upon the chance–slim, though it is, that penniless Gwendolen will make a good marriage and provide for her younger sisters. Gwendolen’s mother and uncle promote Gwendolen in society with the idea that she will make a good match, and in fact they consider her a sort of investment. Gwendolen’s horse-riding, for example, is encouraged even though the family cannot afford it, but she is indulged as an ultimate pay-off is expected. As a result, Gwendolen becomes an accomplished horsewoman, excelling at many sports, and outshining all the other girls (including the rich ones). But as the product of indulgence, Gwendolen’s sense of self worth is grandiose, and her character suffers as a result–she isn’t a particularly good friend, and she isn’t a particularly nice person.

All of the hopes for an improvement in the Harleth family fortunes seem to bear fruit when Gwendolen catches the eye of the wealthy and arrogant Henleigh Grandcourt. It is with a sort of perverse intensity that Grandcourt drops his interest in a local heiress–Gwendolen is better looking and more accomplished than the heiress–and yet there is something not quite right in Grandcourt’s interest. Grandcourt seems to be on his best behaviour when first courting Gwendolen, but it is clear that he is a rather unpleasant fellow. No one likes or respects Grandcourt, but he does have money, prospects and position at his command. There is something quite dark about Grandcourt, and this sense of the unpleasant is not alleviated by the fact that he is always accompanied by his obsequious and equally unpleasant henchman, Lush. Grandcourt desires Gwendolen, but he does not love her. Gwendolen is attracted, at first, to the very unpleasantness of Grandcourt’s odd nature, and she prefers him to her other suitors because he isn’t as easy to manipulate. She sees him as a challenge and imagines that she will rein him in just as she has controlled other suitors.

Daniel Deronda–the main male character–is the very earnest and serious young man who is rumoured to be the illegitimate son of Lord Mallinger. Daniel is the antithesis of Grandcourt, and some rivalry exists between Grandcourt and Deronda as Grandcourt is Mallinger’s heir. Daniel meets Gwendolen when she still has the choice of pursuing material gain above all else. Gwendolen recognizes that Daniel is an unusually good and superior man, but at the time, she lacks a true appreciation of his character. Daniel rescues a young Jewish girl, Mirah Lapidoth, and it is through Daniel’s acquaintance with Mirah that the truth of Daniel’s past is revealed. Mirah is the antithesis of Gwendolen, for Mirah has experienced and endured terrible hardships. Whereas Gwendolen’s nature and character accept luxury at any price, Mirah refuses to sell herself for material gain. Mirah’s steadfast character and serious nature are in complete contrast to Gwendolen, and so the two main female characters serve as perfect foils for one another. There are several plot twists and turns–this is, after all, based on a Victorian novel, and as such, one must expect co-incidences and parallel storylines.

The BBC series is broken up into three sections, but the film flows very smoothly. The acting is all quite superb–although Barbara Hershey is a bit out-of-place in her role of Contessa Maria Alcharisi. The development of the characters is the very best part of both the book and the BBC series. Gwendolen Harleth isn’t exactly a shallow person, but due to the nature of her social position and the emphasis placed on the desirability of wealth above all else, she fails to gain any moral perspective about herself, her behaviour, or the choices she eventually makes. Adversity is the making of Gwendolen, and through suffering, she becomes a decent human being. If you enjoy BBC costume dramas, or if you are a fan of Victorian literature or George Eliot (one of my very favourite writers), no doubt you will enjoy this excellent adaptation. From director Tom Hooper and a screenplay from Andrew Davies.

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Filed under British television, Period Piece