“South Riding” (2011), in which the feminism goes down easy

17 December 2011

Have I ever mentioned how much I hate films about teachers and students? Barf. It’s not just that the genre is so clichéd, and so designed to make its audiences weep a few joyful tears when that student finally figures it out and the self-sacrificing teacher looks on with pride. (One time on a plane I refused to buy the headset to listen to/watch Mr. Holland’s Opus [1995], yet found myself crying just at the muted images. Gawd.)

So why does that storyline in the BBC miniseries South Riding, based on the Depression-era novel by Winifred Holtby, seem inoffensive to me? Two reasons: because the feminism is taken for granted (and coated with a bit of sugar), and because the leads — Anna Maxwell Martin as the new school headmistress and David Morrissey as the dour local gentleman farmer who’s losing his financial and personal battles — are just so utterly wonderful to watch. Set in a poor seaside area of Yorkshire during 1934, this 3-hour series is so appealing that even my anti-costume drama partner watched the entire thing with me.

I’ve had my eye on Maxwell Martin ever since Bleak House (2005) and her small  but very neat part as Bessy Higgins in North and South (2004). Her face makes me want to be her friend; her quick tongue makes her acting shine in these roles, even as she speaks with a distinctive lisp. And who does handsome, tortured, and yearning better than Morrissey? Remember him as the traumatized, crazed Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend (1998), and more recently as Maurice Jobson in Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1980 (2009) — two parts among his many terrific performances.

My greatest regret is that South Riding feels rushed. It’s just a crime that so many miniseries now get crammed into the shortest amount of time possible, given the costs of filming — budgets seem now to dictate such abbreviated, hustled-along tales. (It also seems that screenwriter Andrew Davies seems to have given a little less love to this adaptation than he usually does.) So it’s a good thing that Maxwell Martin, as the brash, attractive, feminist headmistress, hits the small town with so much verve and so many new ideas about educating girls to think for themselves, and to think beyond the gender expectations placed on them by the old generation.

She feels that imperative so strongly because, some 16 years earlier, she lost her fiancé during the Great War. Even as she thereafter transformed herself into a professional educator, his death left bullet holes in her personal life, a fact that she dishes out to keep the kindly Scottish-brogued, Marxist Joe Anstell (Douglas Henshall) at a comfortable arm’s length. She’s stunningly frank about the fact that she’s been with men since, but insists her dead fiancé was the love of her life.

This makes her educational philosophy all the more poignant, as she lays it out in her interview:

Sarah: I want my girls to know that they can do anything. That they don’t have to repeat the mistakes the previous generation made.

Interviewer, bristling a bit: Specifically?

Sarah: Blindly sending their sons off to be killed in the millions, without thought, without question. I’m determined that the girls I teach will not be the wives and mothers of the next generation of cannon fodder.

Sanctimonious interviewer: Miss Burton, wouldn’t you agree that the greatest calling for any young woman is to become a wife and mother?

Sarah: No! I would not! [catches herself] Not necessarily. But I do know that the wives and mothers of today and tomorrow are going to have to know as much as they possibly can about the world they’re living in. I mean, this is 1934! The world’s changing! And the future is going to be very different, and it’s our responsibility to prepare these girls to meet it. Well, that’s what I think, anyway.

She directs that feminist ethic not just at the (predictably) brilliant, impoverished Lydia (Charlie Clark, above), whose family lives in The Shacks in squalor, but also at Morrissey’s neurotic daughter Midge (Katherine McGolpin) who may or may not have inherited some of her mother’s tendency to madness. The girls’ lives are given only a truncated treatment in the series — the show seems eager to hustle along a romance between Maxwell Martin and Morrissey, and who’s complaining? — and are the most regrettably clichéd of all.

Look, it’s winter break time — we’re all slowing down during these darkest days of the year, when some of us (hem hem) find ourselves spluttering about workplace injustices and brewing enduring resentments. What we all need is a femi-tastic, fem-alicious period drama in which whatever strident feminism and socialism may have appeared in the original novel have been coated in a lovely cotton-candy costume miniseries. This is the medicine we need now, and by we I mean me.

But let’s also note that next on my list are the resolutely anti-heroic Charlize Theron in Young Adult and Rooney Mara kicking men from here to kingdom come in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The feminism might go down easy here, but just wait.

 

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