Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Suspension of Disbelief

To me, there seem to be three stages of creativity in BBC period drama production, or perhaps such quantifying  (three being a favorite number) is only a human construct.  At any rate, this categorization does not include the black and white productions the BBC did every decade from the 1930's through the 1960's.  For one thing, much of the early film has been purged from the archives, or at least is not commonly available.  For another, the color productions seem to be of a higher standard.  It may be that the success of the Granada production of Persuasion 1971, which they did for ITV, spurred on the competition in the boardrooms of the BBC.

The three stages of period drama are: 
 1)  Transitional.  First film attempts that have not differentiated themselves fully from stage drama.  
 2)  Middle or Classic Stage.  Traditional Storytelling at its best.
 3)  Post Modernist.  Experimental and Artistic Interpretations.

In the 1970's, which I will be calling the first stage of BBC period dramas, the films were longer than they are now, allowing for much more of the author's original text in the storyline.  These seventies BBC period productions were longer than the typical modern viewer's attention span will tolerate, but I believe this was part of their appeal at the time.  They still have many admirers today, particularly among those who want a faithful film version of the book.  Nowadays, though, these productions will undoubtedly seem agonizingly slow paced to some viewers.  The BBC offered what Hollywood did not - a slower paced and cultured version of beloved classics.  What they offered audiences was a dramatized version of the novel, as opposed to a Hollywood movie based on the book.  Bleak House 2005, at 465 minutes, is perhaps an exception to this trend toward brevity, but its fast paced rhythm definitely has a modern feel.  The current vogue in period drama is to create an adaptation that deals with issues and concerns facing present day audiences, allowing for considerable artistic license and a fresh interpretation, rather than placing priority on loyalty and faithfulness to the original text.  Audiences in the 1970's were more literate than the computer generation of today, and many more people would have been familiar with the original novels.  Their expectation was to have a visual experience of the books.

Life in the 1970's was slower paced, and people had time to smell the roses.  In Persuasion 1971, the Granada prototype of the BBC adaptations which followed, Anne Elliot has time to recite a passage from James Thomson's poem "To Autumn", as the characters take a leisurely walk through the beautiful English countryside.

The line, "to soar above this little scene of things", quite obviously
contains a meaning relevant to those occupied in the performing arts.
Ann Firbank's portrayal of Anne Elliot is definitely more restrained and repressed than Sally Hawkins' and more assertive than Amanda Root's.  This Anne Elliot, played by Ann Firbank, is soft spoken and refined, although she is confident, a lover of poetry, as she was in the book.  We have time in this production to get to know her better.  Who in this frenetic day and age has time to really appreciate this version of Persuasion, at four hours long?  Who among the population of today would be capable of loving this shy and quiet Anne, who never looks directly at us, but who reveals herself alone in a shady grove, sharing her innermost feelings in recitation:  "To soothe the throbbing passions into peace/And wooe lone Quiet in her silent walks".  Ann Firbank's performance shines in this natural setting, and her stage training becomes a plus.  

The Granada production can be considered an important precursor in this blog discussion, even though it was not created by the BBC, and at times seems alien to the BBC's creative impulse.  The BBC subsequently cornered the period drama market with their charming adaptations of classic novels and has gained a deserved reputation for quality period dramas.  

The chief fault of the first color adaptations of Jane Austen's work is the use of stage sets for the interiors of homes.  In Persuasion 1971, the sets are cheap and so unrealistic as to make it impossible to forget for a moment that what we are watching is not real.  As one early critic of BBC television drama remarked:  "The essence of stagecraft is illusion"  (The Times 1938-08-01 p.6), and one does not want it shattered.  The sets for the interiors of the 1971 Persuasion, particularly Kellynch Hall, and to a lesser extent the great house at Uppercross, are so large and ungainly, that the actors have an awkward time moving about in all that extra space.  Even the furnishings are oddly placed, and do not resemble any normal living space.  The decor is unmistakable late 1960's/early 1970's with garish oranges and pinks, and lots of green fabric and wallpaper.  There is a persistent echo in the sound quality.  These faults are not nearly so marked in the BBC adaptations of Jane Austen's novels which followed on the heels of Granada's Persuasion.  Emma 1972, produced by the BBC, uses sets too, but the interior spaces have been scaled back to resemble real rooms.  The sets in Emma 1972 are much more realistic than the Granada production, and therefore disturb the viewer less, although obviously real homes are ideal, from the standpoint of convincing the viewer that the story is really happening.  Once the BBC did begin to film in real period homes, as in the BBC's Sense and Sensibility 1981, there is an echo to the sound quality, as if the dwellings weren't really inhabited.  This unpleasant reminder of the filming process remains present to some extent in Mansfield Park 1983, also by the BBC, and whenever it occurs, it prevents the viewer from forgetting that what they are seeing is not real.  These failures in production value were gradually eliminated, as BBC production teams gained mastery over their chosen genre.

The BBC showed a genius for stark realism, when constrained by budgets that could not afford lavish sets.  In The Six Wives of King Henry VIII 1970, the sets are extremely minimalist, yet the superb quality of the acting, the stunning costuming by John Bloomfield, and above all the well-researched historical knowledge of the Tudor period, enable this period drama to impress as well as entertain.  It is quite surprising in this series, how little the lack of proper sets impedes the viewer's ability to suspend disbelief.  The success of the series is carried almost entirely by the tremendous skill of the actors and the learnedness and intellectual commitment of the writers and producers.  It is good stage acting brought to the screen.  

Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn and Keith Michell as King Henry VIII.

To mix praise with censure, the wall of modern concrete cinder blocks that is used for the backdrop for the panel of judges during Anne Boleyn's trial, causes a sudden and complete break in the suspension of disbelief.  In every production, quality control is essential.

Annette Crosbie, who plays Catherine of Aragon, is an outstanding actress who won the BAFTA television award for best actress for her performance in this part.  Keith Michell as King Henry VIII is delightful to watch and never tires throughout the entire series.  The scenes between these two actors are powerful and drenched in chemistry, as they immerse us in the reality of every husband and wife's conflict.   

Annette Crosbie as Catherine of Aragon and Keith 
Michell as King Henry - a bitter dispute.  
Henry:  "I can bring a hundred learned men to prove that you are not my wife!"
Catherine:  "Bring your hundred learned men.  I can bring a thousand learned men from all over Europe to say that I am your wife."

The dialogue in The Six Wives of Henry VIII 1970 contains some of the most beautiful and historically learned speeches of any period drama, making this series of some literary value.  In this respect also, the series brings great historical drama to life on the screen.  At moments it can even be reminiscent of a 20th century Shakespeare.  Catherine of Aragon's speeches outlining her views on the sanctity of marriage, and Jane Seymour's criticism of the disbanding and pillaging of the monasteries and abbeys are cases in point.  More recent period dramas on the Tudor period (eg. The Other Boleyn Girl) are utterly devoid of this kind of intellectual content.  Here are three wonderful examples from Anne of Cleves of the quality of the dialogue in The Six Wives of Henry VIII 1970.

Cromwell (played by Wolfe Morris):  

"What other kennel would hold me?"

Anne of Cleves (played by Elvi Hale):  

"Were we not talking of what politics does to men of God?"

Cranmer (played by Bernard Hepton):  

"My dear wife lives in obscurity and danger.  We can meet seldom.  We bear this unhappiness because we think it our duty.  My Lady Anne - Anna - We work for peace and toward a Protestant church.  We think this worth much unhappiness.  Can you not bear your share?"

Such dialogue goes straight to the heart of the issues that defined those times.  

Another very commendable decision by the casting director for The Six Wives of Henry VIII 1970 is that the actors and actresses look very much like the characters they portray.  Catherine of Aragon really does have light auburn hair, as the real person did so long ago.  She, Jane Seymour, and Anne of Cleves resemble the women we know from their portraits so much that the actresses are immediately recognizable to the viewer.  Cranmer and Cromwell bear an uncommon likeness to their real life counterparts as well.  When it comes to bringing well loved novels to life on the screen, obviously there is no portrait to go by.  Yet there invariably exists in the reader's mind, a picture of the characters, no less exact.  It is therefore incumbent upon the casting director to choose carefully someone who will not only act the part well, but who also looks the part.

In the Granada Persuasion 1971, the actors are often talented, but sometimes seem awkwardly transplanted from the stage; however, this is mostly because they are literally on a stage set, and have no natural surroundings in which to move around.  Modern directors understand how to let the personalities of the actors go free to work their personal magic with audiences, but when I saw the performances in The Six Wives of King Henry VIII 1970, I realized how much I missed the dynamism and power that these more traditional actors were able to draw from inside themselves, seemingly without the aid of any magician or director.

Ann Firbank as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1971).

A failure to adhere assiduously to the period, paying the most careful and professional attention to historical accuracy, always causes a break in the viewer's suspension of disbelief.  An example of such a failure in Emma 1972, is the hair-do of Ellen Dryden, who plays Mrs. Westin.  Every time the viewer sees that big shock of hair, so unmistakably from the late sixties/early seventies, they are awakened from experiencing the story as something real, a story from a particular historical period.  The actor plays her part well, but the oversight as to her proper hair-do ruins the effect that all the other actors, and the costuming and setting components, are working so hard to achieve.

Doran Godwin as Emma in Emma (1972) takes a walk in the rain.
Mr. Knightley hands Emma her scissors.
The acting in Emma 1972 has some wonderful and nuanced performances by Doran Godwin as Emma, Donald Eccles as Mr. Woodhouse, John Carson as Mr. Knightley, Debbie Bowen as Harriet, Constance Chapman as Miss Bates, and Fiona Walker as Mrs. Elton.  Robert East is well cast as Frank Churchill.  An example of a scene which achieves a high degree of psychological and emotional insight, is the interchange between Emma and Mr. Knightley, where Emma is upset, and searches for her scissors.  During this conversation with Mr. Knightley, Emma reveals her unconscious fears regarding the affection she supposes Mr. Knightley might have

"So that is what you think, eh?"
for Jane Fairfax.  But Mr. Knightley is kismet with Emma and knows where her scissors are - under the sewing project on the table.  He hands them to her, informing her that he will not be asking Jane to marry him, as he has never felt for her in "that way".  He communicates further to her that Jane is too reserved for him, and that he prefers a more open personality:  "And above all things I love a good open temper".  This disclosure brings a big smile to Emma's face.  The closeness and rapport these two actors have during this scene is quite mesmerizing.  The two characters are extremely sensitive to one another's feelings, and the level of communication between them is acute.  

Another superlative scene is the one in which Emma breaks it to her father that she is going to marry Mr. Knightley.  It shows how much Emma understands her father and how well she knows how to handle him.  Donald Eccles has a remarkable performance throughout the film, but in this scene, both actors reach a psychological intensity and truth that is completely entrancing.  I do not believe there is anything in more modern dramatizations of Austen that can hold a candle to what is going on dramatically in these two scenes from Emma 1972.

Doran Godwin and Donald Eccles - both great actors.
Along these same lines, Constance Chapman's performance, when Emma comes to apologize to Miss Bates for hurting her feelings the day before on Box Hill, is also praiseworthy.  The actress gives an excellent performance in this scene.  Her character, Miss Bates, is in the habit of holding in her emotions.  The viewer can perceive, however, that she has been upset, as she flutters about the room, chattering away, talking nonstop as usual - about other people (the people she loves and lives vicariously through) but never about herself.  Just for a moment, though, the actress allows us to see Miss Bates as a real woman, not a caricature.  As Emma tells Miss Bates she could not sleep for regretting something she said upon Box Hill that may have caused her pain, there is a glimmer of recognition which flits across Miss Bates' face, and it occurs to the viewer that Miss Bates may also have been up the night before, feeling hurt because of Emma's comment.  Then the glimmer of a real self is gone, and the mask is back in place - the kind, self-effacing Miss Bates who feels her lack of status and fallen circumstances, perhaps keenly, but never lets on.  Constance Chapman has invested enough in her character to make this moment psychologically real.  It looses none of it's power through the understatement or subtlety of the acting.   

Constance Chapman as Miss Bates (right).    

The BBC, quick to take a hint from the competition (ITV), and in typical BBC style, outdid the Granada production in many ways.  The BBC Emma 1972, despite its issues, is in my opinion a professional endeavor which so far has stood the test of time, and this is true in large part because of the quality of the acting, but also because the sets and outside locations, although they reveal a budget, are well executed in as far as the pursestrings will allow.  This is a credit to the producers at the BBC.  There is a professionalism and degree of good sense in the making of these early BBC Austen productions which make them of a uniform quality, whereas the Granada version of Persuasion is a gem in places, but incredibly rough in others.  Producers had not yet developed a competency in the medium of film, and were still learning to transfer stage drama to the screen.  In fact, the first BBC work in television in the 1930's was almost entirely plays.  Yet these first "in color" attempts at dramatizing classic English novels nevertheless represented the good taste and knowledge of their audience that the BBC is famous for.
In Persuasion 1971, the production team could not afford the wardrobe they ought to have had.  The characters are decked out in the same old clothes when they are supposed to be wealthy.  This is nowhere more obvious than with Sir Walter Elliot, who is supposed to be consumed with how he and others look, and has so many looking glasses, that one "just can't get away from oneself", as Admiral Croft remarks.  The style and even the fabric of the dresses, as well as the hair styles, are period pieces more in the sense of being made in the early 1970’s.  They jarringly prevent the viewer from entering into the story.  However, the women seem to have gone shopping soon after their arrival in Bath, as there are many fine ensembles in the latter part of the film, especially in Anne's wardrobe.  No doubt the success of the series provided some money, which was reinvested in these costume improvements.

Persuasion 1971 is very notable for it's uneven quality.  The viewer can be impressed with the designs of Anne's new outfits in Bath one moment, and be entering into the story quite well, but then is let in for a shock when a bright aqua blue umbrella appears on the scene, obviously a modern umbrella, chemically dyed, which no one has bothered to even try to match with the Regency period!  These aqua blue umbrellas are literally popping up all over the place in this scene!  Persuasion 1971 is a mismatch of creative impulses (in a different and refreshing style from the BBC),  side by side with the most shocking carelessness. 

One of the worst travesties to the suspension of disbelief in the 1971 version of Persuasion is the pivotal moment when Louisa falls at the Cobb.  This is a famous incident in the novel.  When Tennyson visited Lyme, his friends wanted to show him the place where the Duke of Monmouth had landed, when he sailed from Holland, to launch the Rebellion of the West Country.  Tennyson replied, "Don't talk to me of the Duke of Monmouth.  Show me the exact spot where Louisa Musgrove fell"!  Louisa's fall in this adaptation is horrendously fake, and completely interrupts the suspension of disbelief that the film has been building fairly well up till now in the natural settings of Lyme and Uppercross.  The poor quality of the acting in this important scene also contributes to the severity of the interruption.  The viewer experiences a complete break in the flow of the story, which they had begun to enter into quite fully. 

At this time, the craft of period drama was in its infancy.  The producers did not fully understand the genre of film.  The art of directing and producing has come so far since then, and it is this improvement in direction and production, rather than the difference in actors' skill that is most noticeable when comparing BBC period dramas through the years.  Nevertheless, there are undeniably some issues with some of the lessor actors in the 1971 Persuasion, and with the casting.  

Casting is a pivotal element in a good film.  When it is wrong, the suspension of disbelief is disrupted.  The most stunning example of this is in Andrew Davies' Bleak House 2005 (BBC).  Anna Maxwell Martin, who plays Esther Summerson, is a capable actress who does a great job portraying her character; nevertheless, she looks so utterly dissimilar to Gillian Anderson, who plays her mother, Lady Dedlock, that the effect on the viewer is very grating.  In other points, this is a tremendously talented production, but the marked physical dissimilarity between mother and daughter is a jarring clash that obliterates any hope of the viewer believing in the story.  Esther Summerson in the book by Charles Dickens, is supposed to mirror her mother in looks, so much so that the striking similarity between mother and daughter forms an important element in the plot.  Since Gillian Anderson is perfectly cast as Lady Dedlock, it falls to casting error to have Anna Maxwell Martin play Esther.  The talent of a particular actor, however wonderful, cannot overcome such an obvious misfit where the part is concerned.
Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock (left) and Anna Maxwell 
Martin as Esther Summerson (right) in Bleak House (2005).

One of my favorite aspects of Bleak House 2005 is how real the character of Lady Dedlock feels.  It's as if she leapt off the pages of Dicken's book.  Gillian Anderson brings her character to life vividly in this BBC adaptation.  Bleak House 2005 is one of my most favorite BBC Period Dramas.  

  Gillian Anderson as Lady Dedlock.
The main difference in acting between the older and newer productions can be attributed to the fact that styles and schools of acting change with each generation.  The most recent version of Persuasion 2007 has undoubtedly a more pointed, and almost unearthly capacity to reveal the inner emotions and psychology of the characters and associate them cathartically with our own, but it boils down to a different style of directing, producing, and acting.  Great acting is the ability to reveal the inner emotions and psychology of the characters.  Whether it be learned in a post modern or a classical school of acting, or be it a natural gift, there will always be the same riveting qualities to great acting.  A great actor is able to transcend the limitations and artifice of the stage or the set, and convince the audience that their experience is real.  But this is not to say that their performance should not be enhanced by the skill of an experienced director and production team.

If the viewer is patient enough to keep with the 1971 Persuasion until Charles and Mary, Louisa and Harriet, and Captain Wentworth and Anne go on their long walk to the Hayters, they are guaranteed to become enraptured with this beautiful production.  Something magical occurs when the characters are transported to natural settings, in the countryside, or at Lyme.  The acting quality begins to shine forth, free from the stilted environs of the interior sets.  The modern version of Persuasion 2007 is likewise admirable for the cinematography and mood of Lyme, but in the older version 1971, the leisurely pace of the drama offers some quite nice unexpected moments, such as the conversation between Captain Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove while nutting in the autumn woods.

This production allows the actors time to act and a chance to communicate with the audience.  Bryan Marshall is impressive in this scene, as he develops the character of Captain Wentworth, letting the audience in on his outlook on what went wrong with his romance with Anne, and revealing his thoughts and feelings for the first time.  The pace of the 2007 adaptation of Persuasion is too frenetic for this blossoming of character to occur, and inversely, the 1970's actors of the old school require time and patience to communicate emotion.  Rupert Penry-Jones must be and is able to convey much more in less time.  Time is the essence of the modern age, and has only sped up in the post modern age, but there is something off putting about the dizzying speed of the modern Persuasion from 2007.  It is not as human as the one from the 1970's. 

During the second stage or middle period of BBC period drama production, such classics were being created as Pride and Prejudice 1980 and Pride and Prejudice 1995.  During this stage, the classic art of story telling thrived and reached perfection.  The issue of ungainly length was resolved, so that the story flowed naturally, and held the interest of the viewer (it should be noted that the issue of length may be a matter of taste and appreciation, provided that a longer version is done well in other respects).  Real homes were used, adding immensely to the suspension of disbelief.  The casting in both these productions of Pride and Prejudice was perfect, as well as the acting being of a more reliable quality uniformly throughout the entire cast.  The films were very enjoyable and bore frequent viewings. The classical period is characterized by faultless production by the creative and technical team, and pure enjoyment on the part of the viewers.   

Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (1995).

The BBC is now known and admired for its collection of period costumes.  One of the reasons I love period drama is the costuming.  Everything has been improved upon and perfected, and every effort is made to transport the viewer back in time, so that she (or he) is able to enter into the story without interruption.  

One flaw of the BBC adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma from 1972, and it is only a flaw from a modern viewer's perspective, is that it has no displays of physical affection whatsoever, and the courtship between Emma and Mr. Knightley is only suggested and implied in a reserved, dignified, but subtle way (far too subtly, perhaps, for many modern viewers who are used to a steady stream of wanton physicality moving across the screen).  Perhaps there is a lack of physical affection in our modern lives.  We sometimes live vicariously through our movies.  Emma 1996, on the other hand, may feel more vibrant and alive to a youthful or modern viewer, with brighter colors, and beautiful shots of scenery, as well as a more up front relationship between Emma and Mr. Knightley.  Emma 1996 possesses more of a lively spirit which matches well the personality of Emma's character in the novel.  Emma 1996 is a wonderful example of a classic period film from the middle stage of period drama.  Here is one of my favorite scenes:

This scene demonstrates that, as in the 1972 version of Emma, there are moments of pschological intensity.  When Emma continues to miss aim with her arrows, it shows in a clever and creative way that she is loosing the conversation.  

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 1996 is another wonderful classic BBC period drama (in association with the CBC and WBGH Boston).  The story is faithful to the book, yet skillfully adapted to the genre of film, with haunting music by Richard G. Mitchell.  It is traditional storytelling that deals with what were controversial subjects in Victorian times, domestic violence and women's rights, still very pertinent issues today.  

The camera angle often moves around the characters in a circle, so one can see the beginnings of post modernist experimental period drama in the interesting camera work.  May Sinclair, writer and suffragette, said that "the slamming of Helen's bedroom door against her husband reverberated throughout Victorian England".  Helen leaves her husband, not because of what she has to endure, but because he is a bad influence on their son.  Motherhood is a sacred duty to her, and more important than her marriage.  

Gilbert:  "If you want him to walk honourably through the world, you mustn't clear the stones from his path."

Helen:  "I shall lead him by the hand till he has the strength to go alone.  I cannot trust that he will be one man in a thousand and have that strength as a birthright."

Helen learns to love again with Gilbert Markham.  It is a new discovery for her to get to know a man of character.  

"Would it please you to discover I'm not so very bad as you imagine?"

Pam Ferris's portrayal of Gilbert's mother is a tour de force of acting in the traditional style.  It is so realistic, it has an effect on the viewer that none of the other actors with higher billing can achieve.  I like Tara Fitzgerald as Helen, but it is always just a story, whereas Pam Ferris feels like a real mother.  

Mrs. Markham:  "Is it stewed?"
Gilbert:  "It'll do."
Mrs. Markham:  "It'll do won't do in this house.  Rose make Gilbert some fresh tea."
Rose:  "Mother!"
Mrs. Markham:  "Do it!"

A story is entertaining, but when an actress has the power to drag you into the kitchen in this way, and you can literally taste the lukewarm tea, it is a more intimate dramatic experience that somehow demands your participation.

Rose makes Gilbert some fresh tea.  

It is probably because of the Markhams, as well as the wild beauty of the moors, that the portion of the film that is actually set at Wildfell Hall is the more captivating half.  Many people are of the opinion that Anne Bronte should take her place along side her sisters, as she was a great writer.
Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth in Persuasion (2007).
By the 2000’s, BBC period drama began to enter its post modernist stage.  By this time the BBC had learnt the art of film, and was now a true master of its craft.  Take the 2007 version of Persuasion, for instance.  In this version of Persuasion, there is a heightened sense of realism.  Instead of feeling like I am watching the story unfold, as I do when I watch Pride and Prejudice 1995, with Persuasion 2007 I feel as if I had gone into the story, as if I were really there with the characters, experiencing everything with them.  This movie is characterized by remarkable psychological insight, particularly into the two main characters, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth.  The quality of acting is impressive – there are very few words spoken, yet there doesn’t need to be.  The viewer can see what the characters are feeling just by looking at their faces.  In this sense, the acting style has reverted to an even earlier time, to the Silent Era, or even mime.  In the classic 1995 version of Persuasion (a beautiful BBC film directed by Roger Michell), Ciaran Hinds’ portrayal of Captain Wentworth left me uncertain of what his mental processes were.  Whereas in the 2007 version, Rupert Penry-Jones’ thought processes, his feelings of love mixed with anger and resentment, are revealed in a clearer and more dramatic way.  Nevertheless, in other ways Ciaran Hinds is a more convincing Captain Wentworth than Rupert Penry-Jones.  I never quite believe Penry-Jones is really a seaman, whereas the weatherbeaten Hinds convinces me that he has spent years at sea in the Napoleonic Wars.  Sometimes different actors are equally good, although they each bring different qualities to the role.

Ciaran Hinds as Captain Wentworth in Persuasion (1995).

Amanda Root as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (1995).
She has faithfully kept all of Captain Wentworth's letters.

In Anne Elliot’s case (in the 2007 version of Persuasion), something very interesting occurs.  There are several scenes where Sally Hawkins is looking straight at the viewer, as if she were connecting with us, and conveying her feelings intimately.  I know some people who find these scenes slightly uncomfortable, but the director is doing this on purpose to achieve psychological insight into her character.  Delving into our buried hurts, our repressed feelings, our psyche, is never a comfortable process.  The direct eye contact with the viewer adds an interesting, artistic, and eerie touch to the film.  I especially appreciate how Sally Hawkins' Anne is unhappy and in pain, because her emotional rawness allows the viewer to access and validate their own pain, providing an opportunity for the release of pent up emotion.  Behind this movie is some human understanding and a mission of love for the audience which endears it to all of us.  Anne finds a similar release by writing in her diary.  She smiles a real truly happy smile, near the end of the film, when she looks up at the viewer after writing in her diary, because things are going to work out for her after all.  However much I love Amanda Root's performance as Anne Elliot, I find that Sally Hawkins conveys more pain.  More importantly, the artistic direction in the 2007 movie provides an outlet for this pain in a psychologically profound and intelligent way, which benefits the viewer emotionally.  

Amanda Root as Anne Elliot.

Amanda Root is an excellent actress who shows Anne Elliot's quiet suffering and unhappiness very well, but I personally feel a different, more intense pain coming across when I watch Sally Hawkins' performance, which matches more accurately the acute emotional pain some of the viewers may have experienced in their own love relationship.

Sally Hawkins as Anne Elliot in Persuasion (2007).

This version of Persuasion achieves a level of hyper realism.  It is powerful in its psychological astuteness.  On the Cobb in Lyme, Captain Wentworth looks at Anne and then she looks away, and then when she looks at him, he looks away.  I'm sure many people have experienced a moment like this in their lives.  It's difficult for these two people, who have been separated for so many years, to reconnect.  This is the power of this modern period piece, that it speaks to so many of us about our own experience.  It is therapeutic and healing in this respect, even down to the cool blues and greys of the beautiful cinematography at Lyme.

During the scene where Anne sees Captain Wentworth for the first time in eight years, they both find it difficult to maintain eye contact.  They struggle to interact with each other but begin, step by step, as the movie progresses, to regain the connection they shared long ago.  

"Once there were no two hearts so open, no feelings so in harmony.  Now we are strangers.  No, worse than strangers, for we may never become acquainted.  It is perpetual estrangement."  

Despite the fact that running about in the streets unaccompanied, and without a bonnet, is rather unrealistic for those times, it shows how much Anne wanted Frederick back and the intensity of her determination to not let go of her second chance.  It demonstrates her new strength of character, and her new-found ability to not be persuaded or swayed by others.  Therefore, I really liked the running scene. The idea of the running scene also appeals to modern audiences, who live life at a faster pace.  This is part of why I feel so connected with this film.  It gives you Jane Austen's story with a modern edge, so that it reaches out to people of the 21st century.  

(The running scene ends at 1:53)

I did mention earlier that the fast pace of this new version of Persuasion is dizzying and, to me at least, does not feel as human as the 1971 version by Granada, but perhaps this is intentional.  Life does not feel so human at times, and I think this is especially true in the modern age, when our lives are being padded with technology and we are experiencing less face to face human contact, which may be damaging to us as social creatures.

In the scene where Anne, Captain Wentworth, Charles, Mary, Henrietta, and Louisa are taking a walk, Anne stumbles and falls after walking across a log that lies across the stream.  In the other versions of Persuasion, it seems that it was simply an accident that Anne fell, or that she stumbled because she was tired, but this version almost suggests that she may have fallen on purpose.  At least that was what crossed my mind during the scene.  I find this to be very interesting.  Usually it is the less likable woman in the story that pretends to fall or faint in an attempt to get the attention of a man (as happens with the daughter of the Squeers in a scene from Nicholas Nickleby 2002), but in this case it is the heroine.  I simply love this idea.  It complicates Anne's character a little by lending it another layer, which makes me like her even more.  

One of the reasons I love Anne's character is because of how much I identify with her.  She is often viewed as unimportant, and at times people forget that she is even there.  She feels ignored and put upon.  I'm sure many people have felt this way at least at one time in their lives.  

Something admirable about Anne's character is that she always keeps a cool head.  When Louisa Musgrove falls at Lyme and injures her head, Anne knows what to do at once.  I think this practicality and coolness under pressure is something, like her kindness of character, that Captain Wentworth admires.  

Yet another aspect of this film that I love is how at some moments Anne almost looks like a fairy.      

I believe the ending of this film to be especially meaningful.  When Captain Wentworth brings Anne to see her wedding present, Anne is blindfolded.  She represents many women today who experience a blindness in not knowing why they must be parted from the man they love.  They are confused and misunderstand the moral character and true feelings of their lover.  They suffer such pain in thinking that their love is not reciprocated.  I hope that their blindfolds will be removed in a similar manner to Anne's, and that their homes will be returned to them one day.  Women are patriotic too, especially in a time of war, but their patriotism is accompanied by heartbreaking sacrifice when the men leave for service.  

"But then I’ve never thought that a man on active service should even contemplate marriage...A frigate at wartime is no place for a woman and the long separations are a sore trial to both parties."

Persuasion 1995 is a perfect example of the classical art of good storytelling, an entertainment where we forget ourselves and our problems for a while, and feel the better for it.  The modern Persuasion 2007 transforms the traditional drama into something much more therapeutic in the long run, fulfilling a specific need by not only interpreting the psychological experience, but releasing the emotions of the viewers.  In both cases, the BBC excels in putting their audience first.

Something that adds further to my love of Persuasion 2007 is the beautiful score.  The score is written by Martin Phipps, who also wrote the score for Sense and Sensibility 2008 and North and South 2004.  These films are all outstanding, and the tremendously talented Martin Phipps has contributed enormously to all their artistic successes.  Thank you, Martin, for the beauty of your music, and for being so sensitive and attune to the artistic vision of the overall work.  The soundtrack for Bleak House 2005 has a very important function in that film of transforming a long novel that drags at times, much like the court case of Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, into a fast paced thrilling crime mystery.

The post modernist era of BBC Period Drama has achieved even more than the classical era did.  The post modernist drama not only tells the story, but experiments with the story by twisting and molding the material to add something more.  It is a communicative piece that profoundly touches the viewer.  

Another example of the experimental nature of modernist period dramas is Mansfield Park 1999, which was a collaborative effort between Miramax Films and BBC Films, in association with The Arts Council of England.  Although not strictly speaking a realistic work in many particulars, relying as it does on the heavy use of symbols to communicate psychological truths,  Mansfield Park 1999 achieves a very real and almost searing quality, bringing home to the audience the disturbing aspects of what is undoubtedly the darker of Jane Austen's works.

Fanny and Edmond go out riding in Mansfield Park (1999).
The Politics of Jane Austen by Edward Neill describes the subversive tendency in Austen's novels.  Literary critics have traditionally seen Austen's work as politically conservative, as  reenforcing and reaffirming the social order in Regency England (as when Harriet marries Mr. Martin at the end of Emma, after fantasies involving men who are "her superiors" come to nothing).  I have always felt the undermining force at work in Austen's novels, and her potent criticism of the shallowness and immorality of the English class system.  Jane Austen lived at a time when abolition was agitated for and passed (the film Amazing Grace 2006 does a wonderful job of dramatizing these events).  Jane's father, the Rev. George Austen, had a close association with a plantation owner in Antigua called James Langford Nibbs, so Ms. Austen was writing about something she was familiar with, when she wrote Mansfield Park.  Jane's brother, Frank Austen wrote home condemning slavery after a visit to Antigua in 1806.  Jane 's brothers were in the Royal Navy, which was given the responsibility to enforce abolition, once it had passed parliament.  The novel is not so blatant as the 1999 film, of course, but the Fanny of the book does say:  "Did you not hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?  But there was such a dead silence".  The obvious physical dilapidation of the great house in Mansfield Park 1999 is very unrealistic, yet as a symbol of the moral decay of this slave owning family, whose wealth is purchased by the suffering and oppression of other people, it paradoxically works to heighten the viewer's understanding of the reality of how nefariously these great English families obtained their wealth.  This is the communicative power of symbols, that they can bypass the conscious mind with all the barriers it has set up, to access the subconscious mind of viewers directly.  The rawness and sensationalism of this film by Patricia Rozema (the lesbian overtones in Mary Crawford, for instance - not that lesbianism is sensationalist in and of itself, but it has been viewed as having a certain shock value as far as a traditional audience is concerned) is part of the overall effort of the work to overcome the staid self-complacency of audiences, and penetrate their psychological awareness.  Such artistic license does adversely affect the suspension of disbelief, but if done well, as in this period piece, it can be more of a gain than a detriment to the film. 

A young Fanny and a young Edmond walking
together in Mansfield Park (1983).
Next to the modern sensibilities of Mansfield Park 1999, one would expect Mansfield Park 1983 (a BBC T.V. production in association with Lionheart Television) to be a classic retelling of the story.  However, Mansfield Park 1983 is not without its own set of peculiarities, which rather than interrupting the viewer's suspension of disbelief (as one might expect), actually have the opposite effect of deepening the psychological reality being communicated through the medium of the film.  Therefore, I would say that Mansfield Park 1983 has definite modern tendencies, despite the date of it's production falling within the classic era of BBC period drama creation.  The two main fantastic elements I have in mind from Mansfield Park 1983, are the peculiar wringing and frequent gesticulating of the hands by Sylvestra le Touzel, who plays Fanny Price, and the exaggerated almost imbecilic act played out by Angela Pleasence as Lady Bertram.  We might ascribe these performances to overacting, or perhaps to dramatically heightened character acting, but in any case, these two actresses deliver wonderful performances and original interpretations of their characters, which transcend what could have been a more mediocre and meaningless version of Mansfield Park.  These disturbing performances serve to underscore the thematic content of the film very well.

Soldiers marching down a Portsmouth street with 
laundry hanging up in the background, a realistic touch.

David Buck, as Fanny's father offers a great 
performance in Mansfield Park 1983.  His act as the 
drunk buffoon is in the classic vein.

On whose backs was the D'Arcy wealth built?  Or what acts of cultural and economic oppression did the Norman conquerors (the D'Arcys and the Fitzwilliams) wreak on the Anglo-Saxon population after 1066?  These are not questions that typically disturb the fan base of Pride and Prejudice, at least in any conscious way.  Mansfield Park is a more disquieting novel, and it is natural that even the classic film interpretation of 1983 finds ways to disturb the consciousness of the viewers.  The creative team working on modernist adaptations of Austen's novels clearly recognizes the applicability of her themes to our own times and means to emphasize this.  The psychological blocks we have in place that allow us to go on as we are must be disturbed if we are to dislodge them.  This is the job of film, as it was of books in Austen's day, to jolt the audience or the reader out of the complacency of accepted norms (and defensive psychological positions), and set the wheels of social change in motion.  I wonder if Austen's critique of the bourgeois ethic is less recognized and less celebrated today because we are just as reluctant to look at ourselves in the mirror as people in Regency society were.  We hanker more after Pemberley, as Elizabeth Bennet 
does in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, when she stands up in the carriage upon her first glimpse of it, than we are disturbed by the implications of such vast inequality of wealth.  

Though it was made in the early 90's, I find myself comparing Wuthering Heights 1992 to many of the post modernist period drama films.  In fact, Wuthering Heights 1992 is a quintessential example of the post modernist period drama.  In this film, the suspension of disbelief and traditional story telling are completely sacrificed to the artistic message of regeneration.  The decision to use the same actress who played Catherine Earnshaw to play her daughter Cathy, is meant to create a symbol of the power of regeneration, a theme which is present in the book, but this decision appalled the viewers, disturbing them to the point that it is doubtful whether the message was not lost on them.  I was constantly aware that I was watching an actress act on screen, who had had her hair dyed to look like the daughter.  There is just something so unreal and strange about the decision they made.  Just thinking about the daughter being played by the same actress makes me shiver, and somehow, it even disturbs me on a subconscious level, which might well be the intention of the director/producers.  I loved this film, but I think they made a mistake by using the same actress twice.  In a way, the ending ruined the rest of the film.  Up to that point, the film had been very strong in its traditional story telling technique, but the drastic and sudden change to a high handed art film is too much of a shock.  It shatters the suspension of disbelief that the film had established up to that point and ruins the story.

Juliette Binoche, as Catherine Earnshaw and Cathy 
Linton in Wuthering Heights (1992).
In North and South 2004, there is a modern sensibility, yet at the same time the film is an experience, not a movie, because it makes the viewer feel as if they have gone back in time while watching it.  An example of the modern outlook of this 2004 adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell's novel, is that they did not film the scene where Mr. Thornton lifts Margaret Hale and carries her inside after she has been hit by a stone and has fainted.  Despite the fact that it may be viewed as sentimental, it's a moment that I wish could have been included.  It frustrates me that what is "politically correct" restricts us so much in this way.  It would have been perfectly normal for Mr. Thornton to carry an unconscious person in such circumstances.
"He bore her into the dining-room, and laid her on the sofa there;  laid her down softly, and looking on her pure white face, the sense of what she was to him came upon him so keenly that he spoke it out in his pain..."  (North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell)
This moment from the novel does not fit with the modern day film because we are obsessed with the "strong independent woman", and what we perceive to be the feminist model.  Female viewers almost universally deplore the omission of this scene from the film.  This film portrays Margaret Hale as a strong individual, and in order to keep true to this vision, she was not allowed to appear to be a "damsel in distress" in the arms of a hero.

A scene in North and South (2004) showing Margaret
Hale (played by Daniela Denby-Ashe) viewing Milton.

Therefore, the Margaret of the film mysteriously and inexplicably winds up inside the house, un-carried and uncared for.  I think it was a mistake to curtail the enjoyment of viewers and the satisfaction they would have received from including this scene, just to fulfill a feminist ideological credo.  Margaret as a real person, an individual woman, rather than a feminist prototype, is a far more alluring character, and far more attractive to the viewer, who wishes to get lost in her story.  However, this is the only issue I have ever had with North and South 2004.  I love North and South, starring Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton and Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale, for its wonderful ability to pull the viewer into the story and back in time to the days of the Industrial Revolution in Northern England.

The suspension of disbelief is the core of period drama.  Part of the enjoyment in watching period films is their ability to draw you into the past.  The more real it feels, the more successful the film is in taking you back to that historical period.  Without the suspension of disbelief, the illusion is shattered.  The illusion of being back in time contributes to the enchantment that so many period films hold for me, and is one of the reasons I and so many others love period drama so much.

No comments:

Post a Comment