Mia Wasikowska, the 21-year-old actor who appears in virtually every shot of this beautiful film, is a wonder — and that’s saying a lot. I’ve seen many Jane Eyre adaptations but have always felt that I needed to bring a knowledge of the book to understand the depth of feeling Jane experienced. Whereas in the book we have her narrating her life, it’s hard for actors to convey how much Jane has learned through hard and lonely experience to suppress her feelings, maintain feminine reserve, and quietly inhabit her social rank, at least when with others. Wasikowska, however, has a preternatural capacity to let waves of emotion cross her face while also remaining placid; yet when she allows her true feeling to come forth in words and expression, we see how hard the effort of suppression is — and how much a brilliant mind lies behind that “plain and little” face. Oh my god, it’s amazing.

Here’s what I’ve noticed lately about the serious women actors of her generation (and I leave out the non-serious ones who act in teen comedies): even at their most excellent, they bury themselves so deep in a part that they don’t allow the viewer to see their inner conflicts. Take just two of them who earned so much praise last year (including from me): Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone and Hailee Steinfeld of True Grit. Their performances were truly excellent, yet between the nature of those roles — which demanded a high degree of stoicism — and the actors’ relative inexperience they ultimately demonstrate an extraordinary degree of actor’s modesty, especially when surrounded by male actors willing to appear far more vivid, fascinating, horrific. As a result, Wasikowska’s actorly range and bravery is amazing. (Not that I’m surprised after watching her on season 1 of In Treatment, which was so amazing I’d watch it all over again even though it’s got to be one of the most painful things I’ve ever seen.)

When I saw the film with my Dear Friend, she complained about Michael Fassbender (above) as Rochester, saying he drew too much attention to himself by using his eyes so much that it undermined the effect of his scenes. She also mentions that it’s hard to understand why Jane loves him (a shortcoming in the book, too, if you ask me) — and I want to suggest that these two things are related. Certainly Fassbender captures Rochester’s hard, bitter edge and the misogyny I always felt was part of his character; why else would he toy with Jane in that ridiculous attempt to make her jealous by flirting with Miss Ingram? My feeling is that Rochester is a tough role that’s too often played more softly as if he’s a romantic hero rather than a reluctant one; in that respect Fassbender does a great job. (It’s worth noting how much Fassbender has a scary propensity to play these slightly misogynistic roles, after his brilliant and somewhat horrifying turn in Fish Tank.)

More important, I thought the use of his eyes was crucial to the role — and maybe that’s because, for me, the love story is fundamentally about how Rochester truly sees Jane’s inner character, her intelligence, her unexpected strength, her soul. Even though she feels she’s concealing all of it behind that stoic mask she’s learned to wear, Rochester sees early on that she’s exceptional — no wonder the story works so well as a romance (don’t we all want to be seen for our true selves?). I want to suggest that we see through his huge, cruel eyes how much Rochester really doesn’t have control over his feelings, and that he wrestles with his own demons, his own tendency to bury himself in self-pity and hardness rather than open himself up to feeling for others. Jane expresses her emotion through her increasingly visible efforts to suppress it; Rochester expresses it through his increasingly uncontrolled eyes that don’t want to believe there could be such a woman for him. So, Dear Friend, I need a response to this claim!  

A final note about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s directing and Moira Buffini’s screenplay, which captured the intensity of gothic horror and the passion of feeling so well. Having loved Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre (2009; and what a different film!) I knew this would be something to see; and it’s no easy feat to wrangle all of a 19th-c. novel into a neat 115 minutes. They achieve it by privileging the central tale of Jane and Rochester rather than her childhood and her time with the Rivers siblings — and I think it’s wholly successful, even for those who haven’t read the book and don’t know the litany of horrors she experiences before coming to Thornfield Hall and meeting Rochester. It never felt Harry Potter-ed, that is, like one of those excessively literal adaptations that labors to hit every key scene of a novel. It was scary, heartbreaking, dark, beautiful, compelling, and I can hardly wait to see it again.

“Downton Abbey” (2010)

15 January 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a professor staring down the gun barrel of a new semester must be in want of an English costume drama. Clearly, the ITV series Downton Abbey has been offered for medicinal purposes — if for no other reason than the 1910s costumes themselves, which are the most luscious I’ve seen since The Forsyte Saga. (Need to get caught up? You can see the first episode here at the PBS website; the following episodes will air Sundays on most local affiliates.) Many thanks to my Dear Friend whose post got me started.

If period dramas and great outfits aren’t enough on their own to titillate your interest, there’s Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, and a large cast of faces familiar even to those of you who only make occasional forays into British film and TV. It seems that all period dramas are necessarily oriented around a courtship story; and all courtship stories set in the past seem to revolve around money and inheritance — in those respects at least Downton Abbey treads familiar ground. But it also adds the Upstairs/Downstairs (aka Gosford Park) element by throwing much of its attention to the estate’s many servants, individuals who can be loyal to a fault but who also harbor resentments and agendas of their own. The show’s producers have planned a second season and will reportedly start filming in March — so the medicine keeps coming, baby.

The family is in mourning for two cousins who died on the Titanic — and not just any cousins. One was the male heir due to inherit the Downton estate upon the death of the current Lord Grantham (Bonneville), and his son was due to marry Grantham’s daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery, above) to keep the estate within the family. The need to mourn their deaths means that within the first 30 minutes we find ourselves gazing at the best mourning jewelry ever — those deep black chiseled beads that signaled one’s sorrow, yet were elaborate, sexy items on their own, thus undermining the whole “mourning” thing. And indeed, Mary was a reluctant fiancée, so she’s not sorry to be released from an arranged marriage (and she can hardly wait to get out of her black clothes at the end of the mandated 3-month mourning period). We can look forward to more rebellion from her, it’s clear — as well as from her younger sister, Edith, whose disapproval of Mary has the potential to grow into something well-nigh treasonous. Even more important is the arrival of the new heir, a young lawyer raised in a solidly middle-class setting who holds no truck with having butlers, valets, and maids do all the work for him.

Plot developments like those prompt more exploration of the unique hierarchies, politics, and intrigues of the downstairs staff. American films virtually never explore the psychological micro-effects of class on the people who work for the wealthy — we rely on film imports for those stories — so watching these tales is fascinating. And even better that the wonderful Brendan Coyle (above, also known for his work as Higgins in North & South) plays John Bates, the new valet whose presence causes such a stir downstairs. Coyle is so good at showing us his quick intellect even when he’s expressing perfect deference to social superiors — he clearly brought his brain to work with him on this series, as usual.

This Sunday night appointment makes a great excuse to get those damn syllabi under control by then; hope you enjoy it, too.

Viewers of “Mad Men” are a tetchy lot, quick to express outrage at the show’s hairpin plot curves or that odd episode that didn’t seem to scale the heights one expects.  Not me.  This show sings to me — and I found this season especially riveting, with its emphasis on an emerging proto-feminist anger — especially by Peggy and Joan in the agency’s offices, and an even more deep-seated anger expressed by little Sally Draper suffering back home with her mother, Betty.  Which leads me to address two (related) kinds of criticism:  those who say the show glamorizes rather than observes the easy sexism of the 60s, and those who say it displays a fetishistic concern with period detail — detail that emphasizes style over cultural criticism.  SPOILER ALERT:  I’ll discuss details from Season 4 — and I’ll warn you again when I get to the season’s final episode.  

The show has only one true protagonist, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the brilliant ad man who exhibits fleeting attractions to smart women but ultimately opts for far less challenging game.  Yet the story of Don helping to elevate Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) from secretary to copywriter is mirrored in the show by the growing emphasis on Peggy’s interior life, such that she’s become the show’s full-fledged Number Two.  This season Peggy has taken on new degrees of responsibility, even oversight of other male copywriters.  Moss shows extraordinary acting gifts in tracing that transformation:  for the first time this season we see her begin to feel comfortable in her own skin (and clothes:  she finally seems to be able to afford outfits she actually likes), and we find her navigating her career with far more physical assertion than in earlier seasons.  Sure, she’s still stuck with inferior men, but no one’s surprised by that scenario.  When she arrives at Don’s office to argue about a pitch, she’ll put her hands on her hips in a way that indicates how much effort it takes to challenge him, and how important it is that she do so.  More than any other woman on the show, Peggy Olson explores what it means to be a woman in a man’s world, and it’s never easy.

It’s not easy because she’s surrounded by utter jackasses on her team of writers, who posture their male fraternity before her with alternate fun and aggression.  (This post is hereby dedicated to Anita Hill, who’s still being harassed 19 years later.)  One of them, Stan, insists that she’s repressed and ashamed of her body, so she strips down to her awful 1960s bra-and-slip set — and then down to nothing — to prove herself and get the upper hand in their work relationship.  But if Stan is an obvious boor, the cutie-pie freelancer Joey is an even more insidious problem.  Joey resents it when the fantastically curvacious executive secretary Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) displays her managerial power over these boys, so he sketches a cartoon of Joan giving a blow job to a male employee — and he posts it on the wall for Joan and Peggy to find.  Joan dresses them down unforgivingly, but Peggy is still incensed.

Despite a chorus of whiney male pleas that “it’s a joke!” Peggy fires Joey, who spits back at her, “Y’see, this is why I don’t like working with women.  You have no sense of humor.”  Nevertheless, firing him feels like justice to her and a triumph for both women, such that at the end of the day when she enters the elevator with Joan, she looks up hopefully and says, “I don’t know if you heard, but I fired Joey.”

Joan, patronizingly:  “I did.  Good for you.”

Peggy, shocked:  “Excuse me?”

Joan:  “Now everybody in the office will know that you solved my problem and that you must be really important, I guess.”

Peggy, shaking her head:  “What’s wrong with you?  I defended you!”

Joan:  “You defended yourself.”

Peggy:  “Fine.  That cartoon was disgusting.”

Joan:  “I’d already handled it.  And if I’d wanted to go further, one dinner with Mr. Kreutzer from Sugarberry Ham and Joey would have been off [the account], and out of my hair.”

Peggy:  “So it’s the same result.”

Joan:  “You want to be a big shot.  Well, no matter how powerful we get around here, they can still just draw a cartoon.  So all you’ve done is prove to them that I’m a meaningless secretary, and you’re a humorless bitch.” 

Moments like that make it all the harder for me to understand the criticism by some that the show glamorizes the sexism of the 60s.  The show doesn’t make sexism sexy (except to some, um, throwbacks); rather, as Stephanie Coontz claimed recently, it looks unflinchingly at the sexism of the era and shows how it affected real-life women without losing its subtlety or getting preachy.  In fact, I don’t see how any working woman today could watch that scene between Peggy and Joan without thinking, “I’ve been there.  Wait:  what year is it?”   Journalists have written about how the sexist world of “Mad Men” is still alive and well in some business worlds, and not just due to the gender pay gap.  It’s also worth noting that the show has a relatively high number of female writers, producers, and directors, especially after Season 1.  This record is not without highly notable glitches, as when creator Matthew Wiener fired the Emmy-Award winning, Peggy Olson-esque writer Kater Gordon a year ago, claiming patronizingly (and obscurely) that she had “reached her full potential.”  Still, the record is impressive:

  • Season 1:  5 of its 13 episodes were written or co-written by women; 1 episode was directed by a woman.
  • Season 2:  9 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 3 episodes directed by women.
  • Season 3:  10 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 6 episodes directed by women.
  • Season 4:  6 of 13 episodes written or co-written by women; 4 episodes directed by women.  

The show isn’t just a workplace drama, of course.  Even though Betty Draper’s role was diminished this season, the show revealed chillingly how angry and dissatisfied she is, and how much she has replaced Don with a paternalistic new husband who chastizes her and demands that she behave.  In fact, when Betty (January Jones) confesses to her friend Francine that they’d had a fight the night before, she says, “I misbehaved.”  Her deep-seated childishness and awful petulance have roused bitter hatred among fans, but I can only express my admiration for Jones’ pitch-perfect, icy performance.  Betty is trapped inside the hell of her own small-minded expectations; to get out of it would mean jettisoning everything she ever learned as a child, everything she witnessed at her mother’s knee, every lesson that taught her that sulking gets you what you want.  Of course she’s not a sympathetic character — in that respect she’s much like Sandi McCree’s perfect performance as De’Londa Brice in “The Wire.”  Things are not going as Betty had been led to expect, so heads must roll — as in this horrific scene only available at AMC.com.  You can just imagine what it’d be like to have such a woman as your mother.  Or, rather, we don’t have to imagine, because 10-year-old Sally Draper emerges as a complicated character in her own right this season via extended conflicts with her mother.  And what an actor Kiernan Shipka proves to be in that role.

These are hardly the only ugly things shown by “Mad Men.”  We see the execrable Pete Campbell rape an au pair in his apartment building, yet he experiences no consequences.  In a parallel moment, Joan’s husband rapes her to remind us that there was no such thing as “marital rape” in the 60s.  [SPOILER ALERT:  I'm coming close to discussing the season finale now!]  Viewers are made irate by these scenes, but they seem to feel that by showing them the series is endorsing such violence.  (Which reminds me of a story I heard recently:  a university professor is getting hate mail from parents because she teaches a class on the history of witchcraft — which, parents believe, amounts to advocating witchcraft.  Remind me never to teach a class on the history of slavery — and just imagine a world in which no one teaches students about the Holocaust for fear of appearing to endorse violent anti-Semitism.)  During the final episode of this season, Don abandons the first worthy girlfriend he’s had since the divorce — the lovely, savvy consultant, Dr. Faye Miller, who had seemed to be a true partner for him — and he gets himself engaged to his secretary instead.  It’s one of the creepiest sequences of scenes they’ve ever shown:  after several episodes of finally coming to grips with his lies and self-deceptions, Don makes one of those 180° turns back toward self-delusion, just like Roger Sterling (John Slattery).  Heartbreakingly, a critic at my beloved Bitch website decries this as an endorsement of Don’s choice.

So how can anyone mistake the show’s darkness for glamor, you ask?  I’ve decided after much scholarly consideration (hem hem!) that it’s not the show’s obsession with getting every single detail right, though I know some complain that that obsession is overly distracting.  Rather, it’s the way the show is filmed.  Every shot establishes a scene that seems so stilted, so self-consciously staged, that it attains an air of surreality and demands close attention as if it’s being shot via microscope.  This is as far from neo-realism as you can get:  it’s a kind of theatricality we don’t see elsewhere on TV.  A scene in the back of a cab erases all New York City street noise to focus up-close on the micropolitics of the end of a date; a scene of Don alone drinking in his perfect office evokes the quiet desperation of those men in grey flannel suits.  After four seasons, we’ve grown accustomed to the show’s visual style, but we shouldn’t overlook it:  it’s so important as to nearly constitute a character on the show.  The show’s filming should remind us, constantly, that we are being asked to look on these scenes with a particular set of eyes; it should remind us to see every scene as a subtle, and often horrible, analysis of a world of men and women that lacked the language of feminism.  These scenes emphasize deep divides between people, a profound loneliness, and the way certain kinds of architecture and design might make the world cold rather than warm and homey.  “It’s lonely in the modern world,” the blog Unhappy Hipsters reminds us – “Mad Men” is doing the same in narrative form.

In this positive review don’t accuse me of abandoning my blamer credentials, for I most certainly aspire to the wicked keyboard stylings of Twisty Faster — and it’s not that I don’t have my own criticisms of the show.  But it deserves quick and firm defense against the most facile interpretations.  Even after four seasons, I’ve never seen anything like “Mad Men” for its subtle writing and dead-on historical accuracy.  Now I just need to teach a class on it.

Now, friends of Feminéma will know she’s no fan of marriage.  Long story, but I maintain that no one who’s ever considered the history of the institution and the way it squashed women’s rights for so long can feel otherwise.  And after watching the Granada/ ITV series “The Forsyte Saga” I feel not only confirmed in my prejudices, but as if I’ve been handed a visual record of evidence to support them.  As much as I maintain a ridiculous weakness for 19th-century courtship melodramas and romances of all kinds (I’m a big fan of romance and relationships, just not marriage) this tale of 19th-c. marriage hell is utterly riveting and believable.

Irene (the beautiful Gina McKee) agrees to marry the lovestruck Soames Forsyte (both above) not because she loves him, but because she’s penniless, strongly pressured by her pragmatic stepmother, and bereft of any better offer.  She sees it from the beginning as a marriage of necessity.  Even in the late 19th century women like Irene might liken such marriages to prostitution — implicitly or explicitly — for she was most certainly in it for the comfort and respectability.  But when she finally agrees, she makes Soames promise that he will “let me go” if they cannot be happy.  He agrees, but we know he’ll never do it.

Damian Lewis does no favors for other ginger-haired Englishmen so mocked in that country (speaking of odd prejudices) in the role of Soames.  He manages to combine a despicable aristocratic coldness with a smothering possessiveness that Irene can hardly bear.  On those nights when he “exercises his duties as a husband,” to use the parlance of their time, Irene sneaks off to the bathroom afterward to douche rather than risk pregnancy.  Sex becomes so onerous that she demands they sleep in separate bedrooms — gossip about which quickly flies around the family, mortifying Soames.  Their chilly détente of a marriage might have continued indefinitely but for the appearance of Philip Bossinney, a young architect (Ioan Gruffudd, who can design my house any day), newly engaged to Soames’ winsome cousin June.  Bossinney is smitten with Irene, and she begins to melt under his gaze.  Who wouldn’t, really, given those eyes and that wide, sensuous mouth of Gruffudd’s?  As Irene falls hard for the young architect, her distaste for her husband hardens into a bitter hatred and her lifelong obedience to social rules begins to crumble.  One night at a ball, wearing a vivid, strappy red dress, she dances with Bossinney with such pleasure and such a smile on her normally placid face that everyone knows precisely what is going on.

Glimpses of the couple’s mutual attraction drive Soames to distraction.  Always given to jealousy, he now emanates a white-hot fury in most of his interactions with his wife.  And as if their interactions aren’t awful enough, one night as she sleeps he sneaks into her bedroom and rapes her as she cries out in anguish, “No!  No!  No!”  The housekeeper who hesitates at the bedroom door with a tortured expression, not knowing where her loyalties lie, ultimately stays out of the room and follows her duty — Soames, after all, is the one who pays her, even if she sympathizes with the woman.

John Galsworthy’s five-volume Forsyte Saga attacked many aspects of high society and social convention, not just marriage.  But in boiling the books down to ten 70-minute episodes, the screenwriter Stephen Mallatratt seems to have found that the problem of marriage — centering on the private horrors of Soames and Irene, but mirrored in other marriages, too — offered the tale a vivid immediacy that could serve as a metaphor for the more abstractly hypocritical qualities of 19th-century society.  Moreover, with bad marriage so prevalent, true love could offer some of the series’ characters the possibility for redemption.  Perhaps with those themes in mind, the cinematographers offer us the richest, most enjoyable close-ups of the characters’ faces as their emotions and repressions and furies wash over them, twisting their hopes and damaging their relationships.  This series teaches us that true love occurs outside of marriage; bad marriages drive families apart and make women miserable, enslaved.  (And honestly, I’m okay with that.)

My own lovely partner refuses to watch these shows with me anymore, ascribing this aspect of my Netflix queue to a particularly stereotypical girly propensity of mine.  Whatever.  I maintain that “The Forsyte Saga” is more akin to gothic horror — and it reminds me why we call ourselves “partners” rather than “spouses.”

The movies are no place for angry women.  And I’m not just speaking of characters onscreen; female writers and directors can’t be angry, either.  We’re very clear on this:  men can get angry and get even, but women can’t behave in any way that might stop us from thinking they’re sexy — and dang, girls, anger is a real buzzkill.  Now and then one of them slips through in disguise, though.  I’m thinking here about Nicole Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” (2006) and “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996), a great BBC adaptation of the Anne Brontë novel.  Earlier this summer I overdosed on 19th-c. novels, but it’s hard to stay away when it comes to the Brontës, especially if one has watched this great YouTube video 23 times:

The Brontës were pissed off, and “Tenant” — which tells the story of a young mother who’s escaping her abusive husband by hiding in a remote Yorkshire village — might be the angriest of all their novels.  The producers couldn’t have found a better lead than Tara Fitzgerald, whose fierce face and husky voice (and those severe 1850s up-dos) epitomized the character of Helen Graham.  Her husband wasn’t just a philandering, drunken, abusive beast who despises her; he also tried to raise their son in his image.  Her disillusionment with him makes her ever more willing to express her strong opinions when she’s chit-chatting with her clueless new neighbors, who find her child-rearing practices alarming:

Mrs. Markham:  “He’s a boy, my dear.  You don’t want to spoil his spirit — you’ll make a mere Miss Nancy of him.”

Rev. Millward:  “True virtue, my dear lady, consists in a conscious resistance to temptation, not ignorance of it.”

Gilbert Markham:  “Teach him to fight, Mrs. Graham, not run away.  If you want him to walk honestly through the world you mustn’t try to clear all the stones from his path.”

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

Gilbert, teasing her:  “You do not think very highly of us, then.”

Helen, growing exercised:  “I know nothing about you.  I speak of those I do know.”

Gilbert:  “Is it not better to arm your hero than to weaken him with too much care?”

Helen, angrily:  “Would you say the same of a girl?  Must her virtue be tested in battle?”

Rev. Millward, pedantically:  “I should say not.  A woman’s virtue is her modesty; a man’s, his strength of will.”

Gilbert, more seriously:  “I would wish a woman’s virtue to be shielded from temptation.”

Helen, furiously:  “Why?  You would have us encourage our sons to prove all things by their own experience, while our daughters remain in ignorance until it is too late?”

Gilbert, confused:  “Too late?”

Helen, with finality:  “I tell you, Mr. Markham, if I thought my son would grow up to be what you call a man of the world, I would rather that he died tomorrow.”

Not knowing Helen’s true situation — that her own ignorance led her into an impetuous marriage to a self-indulgent, selfish man — her neighbors first disapprove of her forthrightness, then gossip that she’s having an affair with her landlord. 

So how did Anne Brontë sneak this one by her readers (and the BBC by its viewers)?  By hiding the tale in the Trojan Horse of a romance.  And damn, if you’re going to create a Trojan Horse, get the actor Toby Stephens to play the infatuated Gilbert Markham.  He’s the son of Maggie Smith, eminently watchable as an actor, and so ridiculously pretty as to look almost cruel but for the auburn whiskers and freckles (and yes, he played Jane Eyre’s Rochester a few years ago).  Lesson:  if you’re angry and want to make a point about women’s subjection, it’ll go down easier if you create a hot, sensitive guy who’ll serve as our heroine’s reward when she comes out the other end of her miserable marriage. 

Okay, that was the 19th century; what about the 21st?  Sure, rape-and-revenge movies keep popping up (like Jennifer Lopez’s “Enough” of 2002), but I want to talk about a different kind of female anger.  The question that’s rattled around my brain since seeing Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” — which I think of as a perverse retelling of “Sex and the City” — is why Jane (Frances McDormand) could direct her rage in the most petty ways at everyone around her, while the far more oppressed Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) couldn’t express it at all.  Unlike their 19th-c. ancestors, these women don’t suffer from all-powerful husbands and fathers — in fact, they’re not entirely sure what they’re suffering from.  Jane, a crazily wealthy clothing designer, gets mad at everything but none of it really matters, like when someone steals her parking place.  She doesn’t stop to think why she feels so angry, but the most vivid symptom of this rage is that she stops washing her hair — making one of those Holofcener moments onscreen that remains on your frontal lobe for weeks afterward.  In the evening she returns home to her husband and goes through the motions.  Is the writer-director Holofcener trying to tell us that women can’t deal with their own anger?  If so, why doesn’t she show us that women’s anger isn’t always directed at the mundane?

In contrast, Olivia has lots of reasons to be angry, but she opts for passivity.  She quit her awful teaching job a while ago and now suffers the indignities of cleaning other people’s homes.  As if that weren’t bad enough, she’s the only one of the four friends who isn’t married, leading the others to set her up with truly awful blind dates — like Mike (Scott Caan), a personal trainer, who not only dresses her up in a French maid’s outfit during one of her work days to spice up the sex they have in other people’s beds, but convinces her to share her income with him (because he “helped”).  Her passivity is punctuated by the tiniest of rebellions — amassing dozens of samples of face cream from cosmetics counters, smoking a joint at night, and dialing the number of the married man who abruptly dumped her years ago.  Why doesn’t Holofcener let Olivia express rage?  Is this contrast of the two characters intended to show us the range of vague dissatisfactions in women’s lives?  Or is it because Jennifer Aniston is such a totem, an actor who vacillates between the lachrymose and rom-coms, never tackling a more interesting range of complex emotion? 

I wish I could say that Holofcener was even angrier than the Brontës when she made this film, because at times you sense it.  But she, too, ultimately tries to tidy up the story by stifling their real problems inside the Trojan Horse of a tacked-on resolution at the end.  Jane finally articulates her sense of futility and washes her hair, and Olivia goes on a pity date with an overweight, penny-pinching, unattractive client only to find him refreshingly kind, sweet … and rich!  The weak, strange concluding scenes in the film — so eager to reassure us that the future will be better than the past we’ve witnessed — make for a modern twist on the Brontës’ use of romance to sugar-coat their messages.

What Holofcener has really put her finger on is a new Problem That Has No Name.  But because she can’t name it, her slapdash resolution can’t work; Anne Brontë had the great benefit of being able to name her problem.  Now that we proclaim women to be equal to men, feminism to be dead, and all our female characters to be mild-mannered, what happens to women’s anger?  The four women in “Friends With Money” see their anger misdirected, turned into an strange kind of comedy, and diluted with the need for an ending to the story.  I guess that Problem will just continue on undiagnosed, quietly eating away at women who don’t feel they have a good reason to be angry.

I have dived into Dickens.  It started, of course, with the 2008 BBC miniseries a few weeks ago; now I’m reading the copy of David Copperfield I found in my summer rental apartment.  Meanwhile, I’m scouring Google Videos for a Dickens back catalogue available online — and have found a muddy copy of what is obviously an excellent four-part version of “Our Mutual Friend” (1998) on YouTube, disappointing only in that I have to ingest it in 9-minute increments.

Ordinarily this would strike me as strange — doesn’t Dickens sound more appropriate for a winter break?  All those hungry children, conniving lawyers, brittle old women, and cold garrets.  Maybe if I were in sweltering Texas I’d find this too much.  I think the appeal of Dickens right now reflects the fact that doing research makes one strange.

I’m looking around the research library right now, noting how many of them are of the same type:  disheveled (I’ve counted five with bed-head hair), shabbily dressed, poor posture — and absolutely preoccupied with their work.  Don’t get me wrong:  I am exactly the same, sans the bed head.  The woman across the desk from me has an expression on her face as if she’s simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the materials she’s reading. The woman next to me whispers unselfconsciously as she reads aloud over her magnifying glass.  The man on the other side is surely a grad student — he can’t be more than 26 — yet he already has the perceptible disappointment and self-defeat of a 50-year-old.  An atom bomb could go off and these people’s eyes wouldn’t lift from their books.

Given this cast of characters, it seems entirely appropriate that I’d be watching a show about a family that made its fortune in the dust business, and an “articulator of bones,” Mr. Venus (Timothy Spall, whose face guaranteed him a lifetime of Dickensian parts; he’s also appeared as Peter Pettigrew/ Wormtail in “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” and the uxorious Nathaniel in “Enchanted”).  The faces of the people in the library with me aren’t that different than those of Noddy Boffin, Betsy Trotwood, or Sloppy.

So here’s to a summer of talking to myself in the library, and then racing home to consume another couple hundred pages of social satire and condemnation of society obsessed with money and status — by an author who knew that no matter how much he criticized the world around him, the worthy man and virtuous woman would always marry in the end (and probably wind up with piles of money), and that his readers would weep as a result.

Dear Nan F., THANK YOU for sending this recommendation, because there is nothing better designed to end all of those end-of-semester pains than a 452-minute BBC mini-series (for the math-averse, that’s about 7 ½ hours. 7 ½!!).  At some point during the final episode last night, I turned to my partner and said, “I have no idea where this is going!” with utter delight.

the dastardly French murderer, Rigaud (Andy Serkis)

Ah, the Dickensian aspect, as they called it in “The Wire.”  A tangle of characters, high and low; base greed and social posturing contrasted with utter selflessness and love; fools, knaves, and murderers — oh, THANK YOU for “Little Dorrit” during what felt like the 75th week of the semester.

Charles Dickens was a master at writing diverting tales for the serials; early installments of these stories invariably introduced a crazy range of characters at all levels of society.  “Little Dorrit” tells us right away that there is a mystery surrounding the hard-on-its-luck Dorrit family:  William Dorrit has been locked in the debtor’s prison, Marshalsea, for so long that his children know no other home.  Although he retains pretentions associated with his former social position, his older son and daughter have adopted the working-class accents and weak characters of the low-born.  But not his youngest, Amy, or “Little Dorrit” (Claire Foy).  One look at her enormous blue eyes and we know she’s our heroine, especially because she deals as lovingly and generously with her family’s weaknesses as with that of the snobbish Mrs. Clennam, who hires Amy to sew for her. 

Little Dorrit (Claire Foy) and her actress-sister, Fanny

We also learn right away that Mrs. Clennam has hired Amy out of some kind of misplaced guilt for her role in bringing about the Dorrits’ misfortunes.  Moreover, her son, Arthur Clennam (Matthew Macfadyen), back in London after twenty years in China, begins to suspect the same on seeing his bitter mother’s uncharacteristic kindness to Amy.  Arthur undertakes to learn the Dorrits’ history as a means of obeying his father’s cryptic deathbed wish:  to “make it right.”  Yet when he presses his mother for more information, she angrily shuts him out from her life.

Matthew Macfadyen as the noble Arthur Clennam

The series was directed by a team led by Emmy Award winner Dearbhla Walsh, and written by Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who’s apparently never found a nineteenth-century novel too lengthy or convoluted to tackle as a miniseries.  To wit, his credits include:

  • “Middlemarch” (1994)
  • “Pride and Prejudice” (1995)
  • “Wives and Daughters” (1999)
  • “The Way We Live Now” (2001)
  • “Bleak House” (2005)
  • “Sense and Sensibility” (2008)

…and he’s now reportedly taking on more Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Henry James, as well as other projects.  Davies seems to have a love for the language and narrative flow of a nineteenth-century rambling novel, and exhibits a faithfulness to them designed to please the novel’s fans as well as mere television viewers. Granted, he often opts for broadly caricaturing his secondary characters; I bristled at the gratuitous fat jokes directed at poor Flora Finching, once engaged to Arthur but now merely a comical, overweight, desperate middle-aged fool.  But let’s not be small.  Faced with a cast of dozens of important figures, each with shadowy motives and personal tics, Davies leaves no doubts in the minds of his wide audience as to who’s who and how we should feel about them.  No one who saw Francesca Annis as the excrable Hyacinth Gibson in “Wives and Daughters” can ever forget her.

And speaking of the tendency to go over the top, Amy Dorrit is one of those ridiculously selfless nineteenth-century heroines so out of fashion by the twentieth century.  She quietly and lovingly tends to her slightly mad father just as she does for anyone else who might need her, never putting her own desires ahead of another’s.  Unlike the long-suffering heroines of Jane Eyre or The Wide, Wide World – women who couldn’t resolve their own suffering because they are women – Little Dorrit is the epitome of goodness and contentment; her only source of misery is her unrequited love for Arthur.  In fact, Arthur is her perfect mate, as his motivations are similar to Amy’s: to resolve others’ unhappiness.  Matthew Macfadyen (“MI-5″ and the appalling recent film version of “Pride and Prejudice”) plays the role of Arthur to perfection: at middle age he is neither so slim nor so marriageable as he once was, and he finds himself drawn far more seriously to his charity work than to his occupation or love life.  I even thought during “Little Dorrit” that Macfadyen has reached that stage when he must make a switch in roles, for rather than grow in handsomeness over time like Richard Armitage or George Clooney, his face has become goofier somehow, making me hope he might take on comedic or character roles rather than persist in trying to be the handsome young lead.

So for those of you facing stacks of research papers, bluebooks, and complaints about grades, please consider indulging in a few evenings of Dickensian diversion. And once again, Nan F., thank you.

Love, Feminéma

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