cotton-snowflakes-north-and-southThat’s right, bitchez — period drama-palooza.

The ladies are coming over tomorrow for the conflict of social and economic mores that is North and South, and I’m planning to win over new converts. This has happened before.

North-and-South-north-and-south-32024170-1920-1080I find it helps to offer cocktails, spicy food, and some kind of creamy and fruity dessert.

(Because it is four hours long.)

north-and-south-endingSo by the time the ending arrives, and fortunes have shifted, and new reconciliations made, we’ll all be full and happy and less inclined to think that the moody Thornton will likely make a difficult husband for Margaret, and that the stern and judgmental Margaret will closely resemble her mother-in-law.

We’ll just focus on that kiss. Ahh. Summer is here.

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Michelle Williams’ mouth is the thing I stare at when I watch her. As an actress she can be a chameleon — I mean, Marilyn Monroe! — but in the end her mouth alone does so much to convey complicated emotions. Her mouth is what always makes her performance so distinctive.

Her mouth has gravity. Her mouth shows her disappointment, her struggles. Michelle Williams has the mouth that belies all her other beautiful attributes. Even when she enacts (very effectively) the lusciousness of Monroe, her mouth brings us back:

Whereas the real Monroe’s mouth only confirmed our mythos about her (tongue is in evidence):

Readers will know that I’ve always got my eyes open for actresses who break out of the ridiculously strict Hollywood standards when it comes to noses, mouths, body size, and other body parts so frequently adjusted by plastic surgeons. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m certainly not saying that Michelle Williams’ mouth is unattractive or shaped oddly — far from it. Williams is a beautiful woman in many, many conventional ways.

And yet. Her full cheeks and mouth do things that render Williams’ conventional beauty so much more interesting. Her mouth almost makes me think that she doesn’t truly know how beautiful she is.

Her mouth can do things that Monroe’s refused to do: be hard, express shame or blubbering lack of control, convey a lifetime of disappointment. Whereas it seems impossible for Monroe to appear plain, Williams is at her brilliant best when that mouth draws downward and all we can see is her bald emotions, her character’s true despair.

Think about her role in Brokeback Mountain (2005) as Alma, that ordinary little thing who marries Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) knowing they’ll have a hard life together. They’re both quiet (bordering on silent, really) and dirt-poor, and once the babies start coming they’ll be poorer. That’s okay with her. It’s not like she expected anything else; she knows they’ll get old and stiff long before they ought to. But then she sees her husband kissing his friend Jack with a passion, sheer hunger and the attention she’s never gotten from him, not even once:

That bottom lip of hers is so full, so heavy. At first she’s just registering all this new information — she’s so stunned she doesn’t know how she feels. Then she knows only that she’s hurt, and the mouth drops. She’s so close to becoming ugly, and she knows she’ll be ugly if she cries.

She lets herself be ugly when they fight. She’s too angry to care anymore. She doesn’t know whether to be afraid or dare to believe that she’s the one with the power now.

That’s Williams at her most extreme, the far end of the spectrum from her Interview Face. When she sits for interviews, she disguises her expressive mouth behind a lovely and enigmatic smile. She is very good at appearing so self-possessed as to be quite evasive, as if she’s an ideal 19th-century demure heroine.

Get it, people? She is just beautiful — a woman with spectacular cheekbones and an ability to pull off that pixie haircut. If this was all we ever saw, I’d have nothing much to say.

If I’m going to be honest, I’ll admit that what I find so great about her mouth is that it has the same natural droop as some of those older women in my family — you can see it in photos of my hardworking, stone-faced granny when she was middle-aged and saddled with an alcoholic husband. You can see it in the family photos of those other abuelas who picked cotton and had too many children and worked in canneries and stayed poor all their lives.

So maybe part of my love for that mouth is the fact that she can harness it in her acting to evoke other lives.

Williams is still too young (she is 31) and too sweet-cheeked to show the lines around the mouth that my granny had, of course. But with characters like Emily Tetherow in Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and even Cindy in Blue Valentine (2010) she shows that she can look far older than she is, far too aware of the dark side, caught in vise-like gender traps.

She has that capacity to look emotionally bruised, resigned, on the brink. She somehow encompasses both fragility and a growing hardness.

I never watched her first big role in Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003) as Jen, the city girl who grew up too fast and got sent down to live with her grandmother in a more restrained setting. From the photos I’ve seen, she appears as a far more glamorous pretty girl than I’ve seen her from her career as the darling of independent film. I prefer the latter-day Williams, discovered and used to such effect by Kelly Reichardt in Wendy and Lucy (2008) and later in Meek’s Cutoff. To find someone to inhabit the roles of these quiet women who wrangle with overwhelming problems, Reichardt needed someone with a face. 

Reichardt needed someone with a face that could indicate a complicated personal history because her films don’t belabor those back stories. You need to be able to look at Wendy’s face (below) and know that, when things get complicated, she might not have the strength to face it all, partly because she’s had to face hard things before.

I’ve been marveling lately at an emotion you don’t often see on American actors’ faces, but which British actors in particular excel at: self-disgust. Nor is this emotion limited to character actors with funny faces. This emotion is most striking when it appears on the face of a strikingly attractive person. I think I first noticed it when I saw Helen Mirren in Prime Suspect (maybe even that first series, all the way back in 1991), but I’ve seen Tilda Swinton, Richard Armitage, Pierce Brosnan (of all people) and even Hugh Grant (when he’s not being a toothy douchebag) show us that they can be susceptible to the same private self-loathing as the rest of us. Mirren and Swinton are especially good at showing us that expression when they look at themselves in bathroom mirrors.

Michelle Williams hasn’t quite gotten all the way to self-disgust. Or at least I haven’t seen it yet. But we see other dark moods cross her face that aren’t quite so clear-cut. And when they do, that’s when her acting becomes most lyrical.

She’s so good at becoming that character who goes inside herself, who shuts herself off as in Blue Valentine, or who flits between her fear of uncertainty and her temptations to adultery in Take This Waltz (2011). She’s one of those actors who fosters an extraordinary relationship with her viewers (perhaps even most her female viewers, who recognize those facial expressions?) because of her seeming isolation, her impulse to make herself invisible, and the emotional gymnastics it takes for fragile people to deal with isolation.

Sometimes it just takes a small purse of the lips. To allow one’s eyes to get a bit more hooded.

Which brings me back to the odd choice of opting to portray Monroe. Why would an actress do that to herself? Why would an actress be persuaded to step into the shoes of a woman so iconic, so famed for her beauty and full-to-bursting sensuality?

For Michelle Williams to take on the role of Marilyn Monroe is not equivalent to Meryl Streep’s roles as real-life/ historic figures. Honestly: to me it sounds like a nightmare. Who among us could survive the inevitable comparisons, the naysayers who say she’s not beautiful enough to play Monroe?

Yet after thinking so extensively about Williams’ mouth and its frequent on-screen plunges downward, its gravity and its evocation of disappointment and pain, I have now determined that this must have seemed like the most extraordinary physical challenge for an actor. She has spoken extensively about gaining weight for the role and learning how to wiggle across a room with curves (whereas Williams is normally a tiny slip of a thing, like all actresses these days).

Yeah, whatever. Actors are always gaining/ losing weight and making a big noise about it, like they want to be congratulated for how hard it is. If you ask me, the real challenge was to use her mouth differently, and thereby the rest of her face. She had to loosen up her mouth, widen her eyes, adopt a new openness and insecurity to convey a wholly different breed of fragility.

In a Vogue interview, Williams said some fascinating things about stepping into this part by thinking about Monroe’s relationship to the world:

Someone once said that Marilyn spent her whole life looking for a missing person — herself. And so she cobbled together what people thought, felt, saw, and projected onto her and made a person out of it. She had no calm center inside herself that she could come home to and rest.

The challenge was to play a person so eager to please, so eager to be visible. Marilyn’s mouth always conveyed her availability; even 50 years after her death, a photo of her will make you want to run your tongue all over her beautiful open lips. What could be a better challenge for an actor like Williams — who’s prone to such a rigid private reserve — than to try to become that woman who “had no calm center inside herself”?

It’s too bad My Week With Marilyn wasn’t a better film. But that’s really beside my larger point. Someday soon I’m going to rent it again just to watch again how Williams loosens up the bottom half of her face for the role, and think again about how it contrasts with her versions of hard, disappointed, downtrodden women like Alma and Wendy.

Is there another actor out there whose mouth does so much of the heavy lifting in her acting? And in the meantime, have you gotten around to seeing her in Take This Waltz yet?

Here is how it usually goes: in the middle of chit-chat with a friend about, say, Downton Abbey, I say: “It’s good and all, but you know what’s a really great series that no one knows about? North & South. Do you know it?”

Argh! this is NOT the series I'm talking about!

The other person, looking at me as if I might be insane, replies, “Is that the one in which Patrick Swayze fights for the Union Army against his brother?”

Regrettable but true: there is only one American context for the idea of a North/South divide, and it always involves the Civil War. But I’m not going to talk about this 1985 series, nor am I going to talk about Patrick Swayze.

Argh! What was the BBC thinking in coming up with this uninspired DVD cover?

My North & South has a much more appealing male lead — Richard Armitage, who’s being celebrated at the center of this FanstRAvaganza — I mean, nothing against Swayze, but Armitage leaps off the screen in this, his breakout role.

But I also want to get to a broader subject: how the series seems to address real and abiding social problems, the most overriding of which is the conflict between middle-class morality and an Adam Smith style “the market takes care of us all” ideology. It’s surprisingly hefty for a period drama, and I get absorbed every single time.

No wonder Americans don’t know the real North & South: the series never appeared on American television. This 2004 BBC series is based on the 1854-55 Mrs. Gaskell novel about the differences between the pastoral, patriarchal English South vs. its gritty, individualistic, industrialized North. Doing itself no favors, the BBC reproduced it using an uninspired DVD cover with lackluster photographs of its stars that belies the series’ high quality. Despite a campaign spearheaded by fans of the series’ star Richard Armitage to air the series, American PBS has thus far resisted — and thus, most of my peers have never heard of the series.

That’s where I come in. I have recently acknowledged to myself that I am an evangelist for North and South.

Who doesn’t enjoy spreading the good news about something that seems practically a secret?

Until now I would never have copped to such a self-description, because evangelist is just not how I see myself. I grew up in a family of atheists in a small town where my sister and I were the only kids in that category; my first memory of school is having other kids ask me what church I attended. (I also learned quickly that my answer, “I don’t go to church,” was not the right one.) There were points in seventh grade (i.e., age 12-13) when I really, really wanted to believe in God or have Jesus come to me in an ecstatic moment, but both of Them ignored me. (To be honest, my eagerness for Their attention can be chalked up to my eagerness for attention from the cutest guy in school, who was some kind of Baptist.)

But when I think about it, I suspect I protest too much. After all, isn’t teaching is a kind of missionary work? “This semester I am going to sing to you of the virtues of finding love, truth, meaning, and happiness in the form of cultural anthropology!” you might say to the assembled 250 students on the first day of class. Maybe I’ve always been an evangelist — and now that I think about it, I’m quite certain that I’ve tried to school people at cocktail parties with the 1001 reasons why they should be watching The Wire, and probably with the same unblinking religious fervor of those poor saps who knock on my door, wanting to talk about my immortal soul.

****

When I talked my Texas next-door neighbor into watching North and South with me, she was silent through the first 30 minutes or so until we got that glimpse of Mr. Thornton in the mill, looking down on the workers at their looms. “Oh, yeah,” she said approvingly.

This shot is closely followed by the one of Thornton beating up a worker who’s trying to catch a smoke. Every time I watch the series with neophytes, I almost jump for the brutality of the violence, as if I’ve never seen it before. My neighbor watched that scene and said, “I’d like to see how our heroine is going to win up going out with that guy.”

Considered solely for the romance between Thornton and Margaret Hale, you might say it’s a more serious version of Pride and Prejudice insofar as we watch through the heroine’s eyes as she hates him at first sight and reluctantly but completely changes her mind throughout the course of the show. It’s not an easy sell. I’ve seen the series about 12 times and each time Thornton’s early brutality, as well as his strange subsequent self-revelations about his family’s past, make him an oddly moody brute of a man.

Armitage is so good in this role. It’s the first thing that leaps out at you. We like Margaret (Daniela Denby-Ashe) right away — who wouldn’t, with those slightly sleepy eyes and arched eyebrows? — but she remains a far more private, unknowable character. Even if you layer on everything you know about nice middle-class girls in the mid-19th century, it’s hard to know what she expects for her future. When I finally got around to reading the Gaskell novel, I wasn’t surprised to find Thornton the protagonist and Margaret the sphinxlike, closed-off character whom he adores. Thornton’s waters run deep and he does, indeed, “have a temper,” but somehow we come to trust the guy.

Chalk that up to Armitage’s capacity as an actor.

My most successful inductee to the religion of North & South is Servetus, who became the Armitage super-fan and blogger – but it wasn’t watching it with me that did it. We had a great time watching, mind you. It was late summer and school hadn’t started yet, and it was a chance to forget the hellishness of the upcoming semester.

It was at the end of that semester that she borrowed a dvd copy from a colleague and spent a good deal of that winter watching it over and over that made her realize what a terrific actor Armitage is, and it got her started on following his career so closely. When she posts an image like this (a recent one, from Recognise Magazine), I can only feel that my job as an evangelist is complete.

You’ve got to admit — isn’t that just about the most beautiful man you’ve ever seen?

*****

Just recently I showed the series to a group of three academics I met here while on my research leave, two of whom I’d met at a holiday party back in December — people I’d grown closer to during Downton Abbey season. None of them had heard of North & South, nor had they read the book.

We ate a big dinner of bread, salad, and a hearty soup (in honor of Mary’s mill cookhouse near the end of the series), and sat down for the first two hours. I heard them murmur with approval when we got to the mill, and Margaret walked through the snowlike world of the loom floor:

They grew quiet as we watched the rest of the first two hours, at which point we took a break. Harry had made a fairly extraordinary trifle for dessert, so we spooned out lovely big globs of whipped cream, fruit, and rum-soaked cookies. He then asked about Richard Armitage.

Within five minutes he had not only finished off his own portion of trifle, but had updated his Facebook photo as Mr. Thornton, and had done several searches for more images of Armitage. “He’s going to appear in The Hobbit!” he squealed, and Merry and Ursula clapped their hands with delight. [See here for La Loba’s photos of locations, BTW.] When we sat down for the final two hours of that plot — the drama of Frederick’s appearance and departure; the growing body count; that marvelous moment when Margaret leaves Milton forever and, from his upstairs window, he begs her to “look back at me!” — my friends burbled with approval.

Some of my friends (aka “unsuspecting targets”) are taken aback by the darkness and seriousness of this series, particularly because at first glance the story deals with labor conflicts and social misery so much more serious than that in Downton Abbey. And the clothes, sadly, are just not as luscious. (That latter series seems so much more like a trifle, whereas North & South is more like a hearty boiled pudding.) But it’s the seriousness that ultimately appeals. Also: Mr. Thornton has excellent sideburns, which my new friend Harry has replicated in the weeks following our viewing.

When she left, Ursula said, “Would you mind if I borrowed the dvd? I’d like to think about whether I can use this in a class next year.” The rest of us teased her, but she wouldn’t be the first to find good use for it with undergrads.

*****

I’ve got only one more thing to say about my newly-acknowledged role as an evangelist for North & South: costume dramas were meant to be watched in groups. My history with costume drama goes way back: when I was a kid during the early 80s, my mom and I got in the habit of watching virtually everything Masterpiece Theater had to show us. The first of these — and therefore most memorable to me — was a BBC miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice (1980) with the wonderful Elizabeth Garvie as Lizzie Bennet (above) and David Rintoul as Darcy.

Sure, the 1995 BBC version outstripped this one. Early BBC costume dramas look prehistoric now, with their immovable cameras and bad lighting. I did a lot of group viewing of the 1995 Pride and Prejudice too — including one memorable weekend with all my best grad school girlfriends, piled together in a friend’s apartment, loading up on Colin Firth like too many candy bars. (Aldine, I haven’t forgotten that, nor the fact that you’re the one who introduced me to North & South.)

I’m always so conscious that when I write this blog, I do so anonymously — yet part of the pleasure is trying to find the right style and voice to allow you to know me. I’ve confessed all manner of odd things about myself here, but the real way I open myself up is not by giving you clues about my identity but by showing you my voice, the voice I show only to my close friends.

So here’s what I want to suggest: find someone new to show North & South to. It’s easiest to spread it out over the course of a couple of nights (4 hours, after all, is a lot of TV) but mix it up with some nice food and drink. Enjoy those rare light bits of humor, as when Thornton and his mother share a wry laugh at Fanny’s expense.

Feel what it’s like to be an evangelist for a series — that is, you’re not invested in having them fall in love with Armitage, any particular character, or any other specific aspect of the plot. Just enjoy the unfolding of a great tale in the company of friends. Don’t be surprised if one or two of them become super-fans like Servetus or my new friend Harry, whose sideburns are so barbed and delicious now (and they combine with his green vintage velvet jacket for such effect at St. Patrick’s Day gatherings!)

It feels like the best kind of religion, if you ask me — the kind that gives its adherents pleasure and comfort, and also pushes against their sense of comfort. It brings you back again & again. The next thing you know, you’re talking to someone new at a cocktail party, and they say, “Isn’t that the one in which Patrick Swayze is a Confederate soldier?” and you say, “Oh, no, my friend — let me tell you the good news.”

Cheers to all the FanstRAvaganza people out there! In particular Phylly3, who like me is writing today about her experience as a fan of Armitage. Check her post out below, as well as many other writers’ experiences!

Hey all, keep following the Richard Armitage FanstRAvaganza! Phylly3 reports on her fandom experiences In the Hobbit chain, Ana Cris writes on her recent film location visit Mrs. E.B. Darcy speculates about what our hero will do in An Unexpected Journey (spoilers!) King Richard Armitage chain begins with Maria Grazia on a film adaptation of Richard III Beginning the fanfic chain, fedoralady explains fanfic’s mainstream appeal Annie Lucas woos us with a Guy of Gisborne one-shot, “One Chance” In the freeform chain, Fabo files an eyewitness report on Richard Armitage’s visit to U.S. accent school jazzbaby1 wonders “what were they thinking?” re: Lucas North’s women and ChrisB opens the Armitage Alphabet, with “A is for Action” Links to all FanstRA 3 posts appear here at the end of each day

I’ve had the banner on this blog’s sidebar for a couple of weeks now — just what is a FanstRAvaganza 3, you ask? It’s the combined efforts of 34 different bloggers to celebrate the talents of a British actor you may not know, but you should: Richard Armitage.

Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, now there’s a nice bit of eye candy. You’ll be forgiven by the bloggers participating in this blogfest, who know perfectly well that one of Armitage’s great gifts is looking good. Just don’t underestimate his acting skills. I know him best from North and South (stay tuned for more on that subject), but he also starred as Guy of Gisborne in the British TV series Robin Hood, Lucas North in Spooks (series 7 & 8), and John Porter in Strike Back; he’ll appear as Thorin Oakenshield in the forthcoming The Hobbit films.

Blogfest organizers have found a way to do something quite innovative (and organizationally complicated): each post will link to another post via what they’re calling a tag-team, allowing readers to move through shared ideas from blog to blog, almost as if they’re conversations about a theme or a performance. Because, of course, it’s intended to be a conversation: a way for 34 different writers and their many readers to chime in and think about these topics. What a terrific idea, and what a nicely democratic way to get everyone talking to everyone else.

Maybe the whole idea a fan-oriented blogfest makes you want to vomit: maybe you’ve never heard of Armitage, or you look down your nose at fan blogs. Again, let me suggest you pop in on this one anyway, because these writers run the gamut of great weblog philosophizing. They might admire his shoulders in one sentence and ponder the nature of objectification in the next; sing the praises of his sensitivity in a scene and then think about why the dynamics of that particular scene might speak so profoundly to a viewer dealing with the crap and trauma that life throws at us. Readers of this blog know that’s my own impulse as a writer: the personal is political, and the filmic is both personal and political.

Starting March 12, the following bloggers will start tag-teaming and conversing — join me in the chat, won’t you?

A is for Armitage
An Obsessed Fanatic
Avalon’s Realm
C.S. Winchester
Cerridwen Speaks
Crispin’s Eclipse
Do I Have a Blog?
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Country Life
Fly High!
Funky Blue Delphinium
I Want to be a Pinup!
Just Another Armitage Fan
La Loba
Me, My Thoughts & Richard Armitage
Melanie’s Musings
Mr John Thornton
Musings & Other Enigmas
Phylly’s Faves
Searching for MY Mr. Darcy
Something About Love (A)
Thearmitageeffect
White Rose: Sincere and Simple Thoughts
Y que iba yo a contar

And the whole thing with be anchored by the following:

Confessions of a Watcher
Bccmee’s Fanvids & Graphics
CDoart: Richard Armitage & History & Spooks
Distracted Musings of One ReAlity
Jonia’s Cut
Me + richard armitage
RA Frenzy
An RA Viewer’s Perspective from 33 0′ South of the Equator
Richard Armitage Fan Blog
The Squeee

You’ll see right away that this is not all BBC and Jane Austen. Once I started constructing this list, I realized that there’s no material difference between The Godfather, Parts I and II and The Forsyte Saga. They’re usually literary adaptations (which range from cynical to gritty to romantic to eminently silly). They almost always tell intense, character-driven tales of families or communities to throw the reader into a moment in the past — not just for history geeks or people with weird corset fetishes. Period drama ultimately addresses issues of love and power, adventures and domestic lives, self-understanding and self-delusion, and the institutions or cultural expectations of the past that condition people’s lives. Class boundaries, sexism, political institutions, and (less often) race — seeing those things at work in the past helps illuminate their work in our own time.

Most of all, it makes no sense that period dramas are so strongly associated with “women’s” viewing. Okay, it does make sense: PBS is dribbling Downton Abbey to us every Sunday, and my female Facebook friends twitter delightedly afterward. But that’s just because all those dudes refuse to admit that Deadwood is a costume drama, too. This is a working draft, so please tell me what I’ve missed — or argue with me. I love arguments and recommendations.

  1. American Graffiti (1973), which isn’t a literary adaptation but was probably the first film that wove together pop songs with the leisurely yearning of high school kids into something that feels literary. Who knew George Lucas could write dialogue like this? An amazing document about one night in the early 60s that Roger Ebert calls “not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.”
  2. Cold Comfort Farm (1995), which functions for me as true comfort on a regular basis. This supremely silly film, based on the Stella Gibbons novel and directed by John Schlesinger, tells of a young society girl (Kate Beckinsale) in the 1920s who arrives at her cousins’ miserably awful farm and sets to work tidying things up. I can’t even speak about the total wonderfulness of how she solves the problem of her oversexed cousin Seth (Rufus Sewell); suffice it to say that this film only gets better on frequent re-viewings. (Right, Nan F.?)
  3. Days of Heaven (1973), the lyrical film by Terrence Malick about migrant farm workers in the 1910s and narrated by the froggy-voiced, New York-accented, cynical and tiny teenager Linda Manz. Beautiful and elegant, and one of my favorite films ever — and a lesson about how a simple, familiar, even clichéd story can be enough to shape a film and still permit viewers to be surprised. (The scene with the locusts rests right up there as a great horror scene in film history, if you ask me.)
  4. Deadwood (2004-06), the great HBO series about Deadwood, South Dakota in its very earliest days of existence — a place with no law, only raw power. Fantastic: and David Milch’s Shakespearean dialogue somehow renders that world ever more weird and awful. Excessively dude-heavy, yes; but hey, by all accounts that was accurate for the American West in the 1860s. And let’s not forget about Trixie.
  5. The Forsyte Saga (2002-03), the Granada/ITV series based on the John Galsworthy novel which I wrote about with love here. Those turn-of-the-century clothes! The miseries of marriage! The lustful glances while in the ballroom! The many, many episodes! 
  6. The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974). I still think Al Pacino’s work in these films is just extraordinary, considering what a newbie he was to film acting; and the street scenes with Robert De Niro from turn-of-the-century New York in Part II! spectacular! Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and based on the Mario Puzo novel, of course, with political intrigues and family in-fighting that matches anything the 19th-century novel could possibly produce.
  7. Jane Eyre (2011), again, a film I’ve raved about numerous times. I’ve got piles of reasons to believe this is the best version ever, so don’t even try to fight it. ‘Nuff said.
  8. L.A. Confidential (1997), a film by Curtis Hanson I’ve only given glancing attention to considering how much I love it. At some point I’ve got to fix this. It won’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by all accounts the sprawling James Ellroy novel about postwar Los Angeles was far more offending in that regard; and despite all that, Kim Basinger’s terrific role as the elusive Veronica Lake lookalike is always the first person I think of when looking back on it. She lashes into Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) mercilessly, and he wants her all the more. Of course.
  9. Little Dorrit (2008), which saved me from one of the worst semesters of my life — shortly to be followed by two more terrible semesters. This was a magic tonic at just the right time. Charles Dickens at his twisting, turning best; and screenwriter Andrew Davies doing what he does best in taking a long novel and transforming it for a joint BBC/PBS production. Oodles of episodes, all of which are awesome.
  10. Lust, Caution (2007), which I only saw this month. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a sensual, dangerous, beautifully-acted period film. And that Tang Wei! I’m still marveling over her performance. Ang Lee directed this WWII resistance thriller, based on a novel by Eileen Chang.
  11. Mad Men (2007-present). It’s been a while since Season 4, which I loved; they tell me the long-awaited fifth season is coming back to AMC this March. Oh Peggy, oh Joan, oh Betty, and little Sally Draper…whither goes the women in Season 5? I’m not sure there’s a modern director amongst us who cares so much for both the historical minutiae (a woman’s watch, the design of a clock on the wall) and the feeling of the early- to mid-60s as Matthew Weiner.
  12. Marie Antoinette (2006), surely the most controversial choice on this list. Director Sofia Coppola creates a mood film about a young woman plopped into a lonely, miserable world of luxury and excess. The back of the film throbs with the quasi-dark, quasi-pop rhythms of 80s music — such an unexpected pairing, and one that really just worked. Kirsten Dunst’s characteristic openness of face, together with her slight wickedness, made her the perfect star.
  13. Middlemarch (1994). Can you believe how many of these films & series I’ve already written about? Juliet Aubrey, Patrick Malahide, Rufus Sewell et als. just bring it with this adaptation of George Eliot’s sprawling (and best) novel. Marriage never looked so foolish, except until Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga. It’s yet another BBC production and yet another terrific screenplay by Andrew Davies.
  14. My Brilliant Career (1979), the film that initated me into costume drama love, and which gave me a lasting affection for Australians. Judy Davis, with those freckles and that unmanageable hair, was such a model for me as a kid that I think of her as one of my favorite actresses. Directed by the great Gillian Armstrong and based on the novel by Miles Franklin about the early 20th century outback, this still stands up — and it makes me cry a little to think that Davis has gotten such a relatively small amount of attention in the US over the years.
  15. North and South (2004). The piece I wrote on this brilliant BBC series is very much for the already-initiated; at some point soon I’m going to write about how many times I’ve shown this little-known series to my friends practically as a form of evangelism. “The industrial revolution has never been so sexy,” I was told when I first watched it. You’ll never forget the scenes of the 1850s cotton mill and the workers’ tenements; and your romantic feelings about trains will forever been confirmed.
  16. Our Mutual Friend (1998), which I absorbed in an unholy moment of costume-drama overload while on an overseas research trip. You’ll never look at actor Stephen Mackintosh again without a little pang of longing for his plain, unadorned face and quiet pining. Another crazy mishmash of Dickensian characters, creatively named and weirdly motivated by the BBC by screenwriter Sandy Welch for our viewing pleasure.
  17. The Painted Veil (2006). Now, the writer Somerset Maugham usually only had one trick up his sleeve; he loved poetic justice with only the slightest twist of agony. Maugham fans won’t get a lot of surprises in this John Curran film, but this adaptation set in 1930s China is just beautifully rendered, and features spectacular images from the mountain region of Guanxi Province. It also features terrific performances by Naomi Watts, Liev Shreiber (slurp!), and especially Edward Norton, who’s just stunningly good. 
  18. The Piano (1993), written and directed by the superlative Jane Campion about a mute woman (Holly Hunter) and her small daughter (Anna Paquin) arriving at the home of her new husband, a lonely 1850s New Zealand frontiersman (Harvey Keitel) who has essentially purchased them from the woman’s father. As with Lust, Caution you’d be surprised how sexy sex in past decades can be. And the music!
  19. Pride and Prejudice (1995). Is it a cliché to include this? Or would it be wrong to snub the costume drama to end all costume drama? Considering this series logged in at a full 6 hours, it’s impressive I’ve watched it as many times as I have. Jennifer Ehle, Colin Firth, and a cracklingly faithful script by Andrew Davies — now this is what one needs on a grim winter weekend if one is saddles with the sniffles.
  20. The Remains of the Day (1993). I still think the Kazuo Ishiguro novel is one of his best, almost as breathtaking as An Artist of the Floating World (why hasn’t that great novel been made into a film, by the way?). This adaptation by Ismail Merchant and James Ivory gets the social stultification of prewar Britain and the class system absolutely. Antony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and that Ruth Prawer Jhabvala script!
  21. A Room With a View (1985), which I include for sentimental reasons — because I saw it at that precise moment in my teens when I was utterly and completely swept away by the late 19th century romance. In retrospect, even though that final makeout scene in the Florentine window still gets my engines runnin’, I’m more impressed by the whole Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala production of the E. M. Forster novel — its humor, the dialogue, the amazing cast. Maggie Smith and Daniel Day Lewis alone are enough to steal the show.
  22. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1996). This novel runs a pretty close second to Jane Eyre in my list of favorite Brontë Sisters Power Novels (FYI: Villette comes next) due to the absolute fury Anne Brontë directed at the institution of marriage. And this BBC series, featuring Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens, and the darkest of all dark villains Rupert Graves, is gorgeous and stark. I haven’t seen much of Fitzgerald lately, but this series makes you love her outspoken sharpness.
  23. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011), Tomas Alfredson’s terrific condensation of a labyrinthine John Le Carré novel into a 2-hour film. Whereas the earlier version — a terrific 7-part miniseries featuring the incomparable Alec Guinness as Smiley — was made shortly after the book’s publication, Alfredson’s version reads as a grim period drama of the 1970s. I dare you to imagine a more bleak set of institutional interiors than those inhabited by The Circus.
  24. True Grit (2010), the Coen Brothers’ very funny, wordy retelling of the Charles Portis novel that has the most pleasurable dialogue of any film in my recent imagination. The rapid-fire legalities that 14-year-old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) fires during the film’s earliest scenes; the banter between Ross, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and La Boeuf (Matt Damon) as they sit around campfires or leisurely make their way across hardscrabble landscapes — now, that’s a 19th century I like imagining.
  25. A Very Long Engagement (2004), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s sole historical film and one that combines his penchant for great gee-whiz stuff and physical humor with a full-hearted romanticism. Maybe not the most accurate portrayal of immediate period after WWI, but what a terrific world to fall into for a couple of hours. 

A few final notes: I’ve never seen a few classics, including I, Claudius; Brideshead Revisited; Upstairs/Downstairs; Maurice; and The Duchess of Duke Street. (They’re on my queue, I promise!)

I included Pride and Prejudice rather than Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility and I’m still not certain I’m comfortable without it. But secretly, I think I liked Lee’s Lust, Caution a little bit better.

There are no samurai films here, despite the fact that I’m on record for loving them. Why not? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s because I have no grasp whatsoever of Japanese history, and the films I know and love seem to see history less as something to recapture than to exploit. I’m certain I’m wrong about that — tell me why.

I reluctantly left off 2009’s A Single Man because it’s just not as good a film as I would have liked, no matter how good Colin Firth was, and no matter how gorgeous those early ’60s Los Angeles homes.

That said, you need to tell me: what do you say?

He first appears in the dream-world of the weaving floor. His posture is impeccable. Whereas the wage workers have bits of cotton fluff sticking like snow to their hair, eyelashes, (lungs) and clothing, Mr. Thornton’s black hair, black suit, and black tie appear untouched.

You hardly have time to think, now that’s a fine-looking man, because within seconds he will race down from his perch and brutally beat the worker he catches trying to light a pipe. Did I say brutally? I should say savagely. What are we to do with such a man?

You’d be forgiven if at first you mistake North and South for a ramped-up (and less witty) Pride and Prejudice. The contrast of temperaments, regions, and classes between nouveau pauvre Margaret Hale (Daniela Denby-Ashe) and nouveau riche John Thornton (Richard Armitage) proves more obstacle than frisson of potential love. Yes, they are beset by problems of pride and prejudice — but this series is far more concerned with the real-life costs of industrial and financial change, making P&P appear much more a never-never land outside of history.No one could have done a better Thornton than Richard Armitage — and in the spirit of my Dear Friend (and after being assured she had not already covered the subject) I’d like to indulge here in a close reading of Thornton’s language of clothes. Even the most casual viewer will have noticed, even if only subconsciously, the way Thornton’s high starched collars, long frock coats, and, especially, the wrapped-around neckties help to cement our image of him as a man who feels acutely his responsibilities, a need for control over the business. I think his clothes do more — and they beg (beg, I tell you!) for analysis.

Let’s start with the big picture — and let’s be honest: his clothing undergoes only minute alterations throughout the four episodes. At first glance his clothes may appear synonymous with the drab greys, blacks, and dark blues of the North, which contrast so much with the vivid sunlight and colors of the South. In the first two episodes Thornton usually looks as he does here: hatless, but fully garbed in frock coat/perfectly tied neckcloth/white shirt and collar. Being hatless is important in the series’ first half: it helps us see more clearly how conflicted he is, because the severity of his costume is always contrasted by the waves of emotion crossing his face. He can appear enraged, prideful, agonized, ashamed, earnest, and infatuated — and that’s just while having tea at the Hales’ and finding it necessary to explain his riches-to-rags-to-riches tale. Being hatless in the first two episodes becomes a contrast to Episode 3, when he dons the hat far more frequently after being refused by Margaret. It signals his becoming more shut off emotionally, and also more beset by financial worries. There’s nothing much more severe than a stovetop hat, which accentuates his height while helping to cloak his face, which he now fixes in a poker-face glower.So if we have a pattern here — Eps 1 & 2 hatless, Ep 3 many more shots in hats — the small variations from the pattern are the most telling of all. Let’s start with that early scene in which his mother adjusts his tie on his way out:It’s our first glimpse into Thornton domestique, and that look on his face makes you remember why to end up with a man who loves his mother. (And I should note here that although I know their relationship might seem unnaturally close to some 21st-century viewers, I’m so impressed that the series showed the intimacy between mother and son that was so important to the Victorian age. Every time I watch it I marvel that they got it right). When I see this tie-tying scene, I think the filmmakers are showing us that a man who loves his mother is capable of truly loving a wife — and he’s also prone to respect women, as he can acknowledge a need for and reliance on women’s strength. Plus, I just like this little give-and-take between mother and son:

Thornton: Don’t worry, Mother — I’m in no danger from Miss Hale. She’s very unlikely to consider me a catch. She’s from the South — she doesn’t care for our Northern ways.

Mrs. Thornton: Airs and graces. What business has she? A renegade clergyman’s daughter — who’s only fit to give useless lectures to those who have no wish to hear them. What right has she to turn up her nose at you?

Personally, my favorite tie is the ivory linen one he wears at dinner, again chez Thornton, looking the contented domestic man, perhaps because of his growing thought that Margaret might eventually stand by his side:And let’s pause here on the complex semiotics of ties. More varied than in later eras, the 1850s neckties Thornton wears are wound two or three times around the neck, making the neck appear fuller especially at the throat. Even during a pre-Freudian age, variations on the knot had strong sexual connotations, as this slightly tongue-in-cheek illustrated 1818 sheet shows us. (One version here is called the trone d’amour for “its resemblance to the Seat of Love” — i.e., women’s genitalia — and the author advises that when utilizing that style, one should choose a fabric in the color of “a young girl’s eyes in ecstasy.” Note: click on the image to get a much clearer view of the details.) See also the 1828 Art of Tying the Cravat (which on Google Books sadly lacks the illustrations).

Even if they didn’t always serve as a code for rakish men’s sexual proclivities, ties were well-regarded as bearing a relationship to the throat, the voice, creativity, and one’s temper. “A tight cravat will cramp the imagination,” Lord Byron believed; singers carefully wrapped their throats to protect their voices. Positioning Thornton in tie after tie evokes in our minds a man torn between self-control and temperamental rages because it brings our eyes back, again and again, to his throat — that narrow channel where sustenance goes down yet where bile can bubble up; where the voice can be modulated or let loose. Not to get all anachronistically Eastern on you, but I can’t help but think about yogis’ views of the throat chakra. All of which brings me, obviously, to that rare moment after the riot, after Margaret has been struck by Boucher’s rock and has left the Thornton’s to return home. It’s a crucial moment for Thornton: he’s been juggling the police, his Irish scab laborers, an angry mob of Union workers, and serious financial concerns, and meanwhile his mind is still swimming after Margaret rushed down to try to protect him. Suddenly he appears at his mother’s side without tie and with his shirt open just at the top — all of which shows how vulnerable he is, how much in love he’s fallen. Of course at this moment his voice here cannot be impeded by a tie; he steps away from all those competing problems, and with the safety of only his mother close by, he abandons his carefully-won propriety and self-control to admit his feelings.Mrs. Thornton begs him not to go to Margaret’s, but she also persuades him that Margaret’s actions have effectively declared her love for him. He’s skeptical but acknowledges this is his dearest dream: “She did save me … but Mother, I daren’t believe such a woman could care for me,” he says with the barest, nakedest of emotions. Within a few moments he will wrap himself up to propose to her — and then, rejected, he leaves the Hales’ but forgets his gloves (and what a classic Freudian move — signaling by those abandoned gloves how much he had hoped to remain there with a different narrative) — but in this moment with his mother, we see for the first time the open-hearted, open-throated Thornton, ready at last to acknowledge his feelings.

With all of this in mind, you can see why it seems so cruel to us that by Episode 3, Thornton would appear so hard, so remote in his stovetop hats:Even when he smoothes over Margaret’s run-in with the police detective during the dramatic sub-plot surrounding Margaret’s brother’s visit (none of which Thornton comprehends), he tells himself that his motives are straightforward:

Margaret: Mr. Thornton, wait. I have to thank you —

Thornton: No. No thanks. I did not do anything for you. Do you not realize the risk you’ve taken, being so indiscreet? Have you no explanation for your behavior, that night at the station? You must imagine what I must think.

Margaret: Mr. Thornton, please. I’m aware of what you must think of me — I know how it must have appeared, being with a stranger so late at night. The man you saw me with, he — [she shakes her head, hopelessly]. The secret is another person’s — I cannot explain without doing him harm.

Thornton: I have not the slightest wish to pry into the gentleman’s secrets. My only concern is as your father’s friend. I hope you realize that any foolish passion for you on my part is entirely over. I’m looking to the future.

Who believes proclamations as harsh as those? Not us! And sure enough, in Episode 4 we measure his emotional vacillations and vulnerabilities by his changeable dress. He dramatically removes his hat before knocking on Nicholas Higgins’ door in what might be seen as the first sign of Thornton Thaw: he agrees to hire him, and they speak on frank and equal terms about their new relationship. Then, as his finances collapse, we see him much more frequently at the mill in shirt sleeves, including in the new mill-yard canteen where he swallows Mary Higgins’s excellent stew. Worse, he cannot seem to leave his office, where the news is only bad:

Thornton’s business fails while he’s in shirt sleeves, but it’s also in that costume where his spirit revives — in the green, sunlit field at Helston:And his transformation is complete by the time his north-bound train accidentally meets Margaret’s south-bound train halfway in between both regions. As improbable as it may seem that such a man would appear without jacket or tie at such a public place, it again shows us how open he is now to both love and change [insert involuntary gurgling noise here]:

All of this just goes to show how much more important Thornton’s clothes are than Margaret’s — at least insofar as they serve as codes to the narrative and the portrayal of his character. I’ll end with only one nice moment in which Margaret’s talk about clothes tell us a great deal about where her character is at that moment. She’s in Bessie Higgins’ tiny apartment after having a brief conversation with Thornton in the yard at Marlborough Mills under the watchful eye of his mother. She and Bessie are laughing, and we can see how much Margaret has finally learned about these Northerners’ senses of humor:

Margaret: And all the time, there she is, looking down on us like a great black angry crow guarding the nest! As if I would ever consider her son as a suitor.

Bessie: C’mon, don’t say you haven’t thought about it. — Mind you, you’d have to get some smarter clothes if you want to mix in at Marlborough Mills.

Margaret: Thank you! I’ll have you know these were new last year!

Bessie: You don’t stand a chance. There’s loads o’ girls after him!

Margaret: Well they’re welcome to him — with my good wishes.

Oh Margaret, how much you have to learn. If Victorians spoke an elaborate language of flowers that appears strange to us now, at least us modern viewers can learn — after frequent viewings of four-hour BBC series — can learn to translate the language of men’s clothes as a means of understanding a man’s emotional register.

One final note: many thanks to the many Armitage bloggers whose beautiful screen caps helped me decorate this post — I’ve lost track of where I got each one, but I mightily appreciate it.

I am in an airport (which I hate) with a delayed flight, observing the array of human folly around me: people barking on cell phones, wailing toddlers, the sickly smell of sweetened pretzels and frustration. George Eliot would have had a field day with this material. No one ever treated the subject of human folly with such sympathy and wry observation as Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-72) — as well as in the beautifully staffed 1994 BBC miniseries Middlemarch. (And speaking of folly and pleasure, my Dear Friend came over with beer and cupcakes for viewing last weekend!) In this small midlands town everyone marries the wrong person for the wrong reasons, virtue goes unrewarded, promises of change remain unrealized. Yet it somehow avoids cynicism. Eliot makes us fall in love with these characters and feel for them even when they’re acting stupidly or despicably. That’s why I like the French term, la folie: it signals madness as much as folly, and gets at something more deeply human. In fact, one can’t look at Rufus Sewell in this series without experiencing one’s own propensity for folly.

Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw

Sewell is delicious as the dissatisfied Byronic artist Will Ladislaw who takes a turn as a journalist on behalf of parliamentary reform (the story is set in the years before 1832); he gains most of his appeal, however, because he recognizes in his cousin’s lovely wife, Dorothea (Juliet Aubrey), a shared sensibility. They also share a sense of tragedy. Dorothea grew up sheltered but dreams of being truly useful to society, associated with some great work. She’s not in it for the credit. When she meets the aging, dour Casaubon — a scholar hard at work on what he calls A Key to All Mythologies (speaking of folly) — she’s entranced by the possibility of being useful to him, even learning Greek to do so. They marry, a decision that proves almost immediately to be a stupid one, and we watch Dorothea’s hopeful face turn dark and disappointed.

Juliet Aubrey as Dorothea

The inhabitants of Middlemarch are foolish about many things — money, politics — but marriage is the worst. What was Casaubon thinking when he married? To be sure, Dorothea is pretty and serious, yet he doesn’t really like women or want a wife; perhaps it was the appeal of adding her youthful face to his collection of heavy books in his dreary home. When the dashing but somewhat aimless Ladislaw stumbles across Dorothea on their utterly miserable Roman honeymoon, he forms a bond with her over their shared unhappinesses, not knowing exactly what he wants from her. In Ladislaw’s pursuit of her friendship and trust, he finally has a true goal if not a profession.

Patrick Malahide as Casaubon

In marrying Dorothea without any real desire for a true marriage, Casaubon was no less self-aware than the young doctor, Tertius (!) Lydgate, who’s come to Middlemarch with the plan to cure cholera and other fevers at the hospital — and perhaps to get his work on the map of cutting-edge medical research. Buttressed by his ambitions and determination not to earn easy cash by selling quack “strengthening formulas” to little old ladies, he’s doing all his work on a shoestring salary. More fool him that he thinks he can flirt with Rosamond Vincy with no consequences. Rosamond knows just enough from her fancy education to disapprove of her parents’ manners and to flirt prettily with the handsome young doctor. She believes town gossip about the doctor’s family wealth and aristocratic connections, so she flirts with absolute seriousness. The very moment Lydgate pronounces he has no plans to marry, he finds himself caught in Rosamond’s carefully-spun web: she weeps, begs to know what she’s done to lose his affection — so he proposes.

Trevyn McDowell as Rosamond

Nothing is more depressing — and probably realistic — than Lydgate and Rosamond’s marriage. With her finishing-school training, she knows how to be an ornament to the home and a lively conversationalist, but little else. Her blonde hair twirls and transmogrifies into ever more ridiculous designs, and she still uses her big blue eyes with good effect, but mostly she adds expensive new things to their house and helps to run them deep into debt. When Lydgate tells her of their financial troubles she throws a tantrum, not wanting to know of such things — yet she secretly tries to use her feminine wiles to wheedle cash out of the relations as if she might be a kind of good fairy to her husband. When that plan makes everything worse, she retreats to what she knows: how to be the little girl-child version of a wife she was taught in school.

How is it possible that watching people make such bad choices can be enjoyable, especially when they hurt one another so viciously? Perhaps it’s Andrew Davies’ streamlined script, which somehow transformed a 900-page novel into a neat six hours of television without using too many over-the-top caricatures. It seems to me that Eliot would be a hard source to translate: her wisest insights about a character or a situation are often revealed in the middle of a dense paragraph of prose. But it’s also the beautiful cast, who embody their characters so perfectly. I loved every minute — and while Dear Friend noted that Rufus Sewell does not possess the same acting subtlety and complexity of a Richard Armitage (and she is most surely right), he was perfect for the role, like all the rest of the cast.

Most of all, Middlemarch has given me that Eliot-esque perspective and humor for observing the world around me here at the airport. As the crowds stagger by carrying half a house’s worth of carry-on bags and I listen to the constant bleating of the intercom system, I know that Eliot would have refrained from turning sour and cranky — and would have spun it into narrative gold.