Finished my last week of classes.

Hence, my afternoon will have two things in it: as much as I can get through of 1995’s deliciously 6-hour-long Pride and Prejudice …

Pride-and-Prejudice-1995-pride-and-prejudice-1995-16731552-728-409… and a shaker full of this:

sidecarKa-blam! Then, to be honest, there will probably be a nap. Best day ever.

 

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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?

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.

 

I spent a week this summer absolutely riveted by the classic 19th-c. gothic mystery/ psycho-sexual thriller, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. What a great read: originally published in 1859-60 in installments, this novel begs for a top-shelf interpretation with great actors.

It seems, at first, to be a love story between a poor drawing teacher named Hartwright and his wealthy, lovely pupil, Laura Fairlie, a love forbidden by the class gulf between them and, even more so, by Laura’s engagement to Sir Percival Glyde. But don’t be fooled. The real story features Laura’s half-sister, Marian Halcombe, a woman so intelligent, pragmatic, and adventurous that graphic novels should make her their heroine. Her counterpoint is Sir Glyde’s best friend and consigliere, the insinuating evil genius Count Fosco, surely one of the most iconoclastic villains in novelistic history.

What are Marian and Count Fosco fighting over? The very soul and freedom of women.

It’s got to be a miniseries, because the plot uses too much minute character analysis, requires hairpin plot turns, and demands certain set-piece scenes — like when Marian climbs onto a roof during a raging storm to overhear Fosco and Glyde laying out their evil plans. I reckon it demands a full six hours. The only decent treatment it ever received was a five-hour series in 1982 with Diana Quick doing a superlative job as Marian, but the low-budget stationary BBC cameras and poor film quality of that time, as well as the disappointing Alan Badel as Fosco just seem dated today. Don’t even get me started on how disappointing the 1997 version was, despite starring the fabulous Tara Fitzgerald — it butchered the plot to winnow it down to two hours.

So, to begin: can I recommend Jennifer Ehle as Marian? She’s too pretty, of course, but we know from her sneaky turn as Lionel Logue’s middle-aged wife Myrtle in The King’s Speech (right) that she’s still willing to do period work; and what we really know from the six-hour Pride and Prejudice (1995) is that she can do a lot of screen time while being riveting in every single scene, and that she can manage the subtle psychological cues in 19th-c. conversation.

I’m at a loss for the right man to play Fosco. He’s got to be fat, good with an Italian accent, and a consummate actor. Most important — and this is where both Badel (from the 1982 version) and Simon Callow (from 1997) went wrong: he needs to show how he completely controls his own wife with a combination of evil misogyny and gaslighting, and he needs to show that he falls for Marian — but it’s not love, exactly. That’s where the psycho-sexual drama gets the most creepy: Fosco is the one man who realizes Marian’s true genius and admirability, yet he’s also the one man you are most afraid of. It’s a rare opportunity for a male actor, if you ask me: to show how he observes her with a combination of erotic desire, feeling challenged intellectually, and feeling the need to exert full mastery over her, like a cat who wants to kill a mouse, yet also wants to play with it.

What I want to see with my miniseries, in the end, is that the pat love story between Walter Hartwright and Marian’s sister Laura becomes overshadowed by that fun-house mirror version of a love-hate story between Marian and Fosco.

The gothic creepiness of the story — the occasional appearance of the titular woman in white, who bears a weird resemblance to Laura; the way Fosco and his wife are gifted with poisons and drugs; Fosco’s skill in manipulating everyone from servants to his friend Glyde — all of this unfolds in a way that would make for the most delicious of all mid-winter miniseries indulgences. It shows that recurring theme of 19th-c. literature, the marriage plot, in its darkest shade. It’s a radical story hidden inside a gothic mystery, which a clever director and screenwriter can unpack.

Producers: believe me, this is TV gold. In case Andrew Davies isn’t available to write the screenplay, my email address is didion [at] ymail [dot] com!

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.

Revenge!

7 December 2010

Greetings from a world in which final papers and exams cover me like a heavy snow — and hence my long silence.  And because the end of the semester always mounts a serious test of my general good will, I’ve found myself in the mood for a few good vengeance films.  Who doesn’t love revenge?  Writers, filmmakers, and actors have been exacting it satisfactorily for years.  For those of you who haven’t quite mustered a holiday spirit just yet, I offer you Feminéma’s patented Film Therapy.  (Ahhh.  I feel better already.)  I’ve got three very different films here, as we’ve all got different revenge fantasies and therapeutic needs — and I thought I’d throw a few in your way that you might not know about. 

For those of you in the mood for something quirky, funny, and lacking in much physical violence:  Shirley Barrett’s “Love Serenade” (1996).  Who’s the most cringe-making:  shy, weird Dimity (Miranda Otto, very much before her “Lord of the Rings” makeover) with her poor posture and her waitress job at the world’s most pathetic Chinese restaurant; her sister Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith), a hair stylist in their dingy little Australian town whose face screams, “I am desperate for a boyfriend”; or their new neighbor, a radio DJ/personality named Ken Sherry, kicked out of Brisbane after a messy divorce (George Shevtsov), who plays a lot of Barry White and who’s so sleazy that one needs a towel?  (Sidebar:  why do Australians so love to watch cringe-making people onscreen, perhaps even more than the English?)  He seduces both of them but insists that there be no repercussions.  He is so wrong.

For those of you who really need to snarl at the world before you’re ready to face all that Christmas music:  The BBC miniseries of “Vanity Fair” (1998).  Near the beginning of “Vanity Fair,” Becky Sharp (Natasha Little) says to her friend Amelia, “Revenge may be wicked, but it’s natural” — thereby summing up the differences between the two women.  Whereas Amelia is a boring and note-for-note embodiment of all women were supposed to be (sweet, unimaginative, propertied, mannered), Becky…well, where does one begin?  After being treated like crap due to her low upbringing, she feels a lot of anger; but she’s also a lot smarter than the wealthy people around her.  Her eagerness to climb the social ladder manages to be transparent to most women, yet her shameless use of her beauty and sex appeal cloaks it for men.  She’s no heroine; Thackeray makes sure of that with his subtitle, A Novel Without a Hero.  The sneaky thing about that line is that it’s really Thackeray who exacts revenge, and the target is us — readers who expect happy endings, evil punished and good rewarded.  The miniseries isn’t quite so bleak as Thackeray intended, but you find yourself enjoying the misery of its vain and foolish characters nevertheless.  Script by the indomitable Andrew Davies.   And for those of you who want a feminine version of old-school Clint Eastwood without the utter bloodbath that is “Kill Bill,” you clearly need Park Chan-wook’s “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance” (2005), the final film in his Vengeance Trilogy (which includes 2002’s “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” and 2003’s “Oldboy”).  Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young Ae) is finally out of prison, and still has the angelic face and gentle manner that baffled everyone 13 years ago when she was found guilty of kidnapping and murdering a small boy.  What they didn’t know was that the real murderer — a dastardly schoolteacher named Mr. Baek (Choi Min-sik) — threatened to murder her baby daughter if she didn’t comply.  But Geum-ja is no angel.  She’s had vengeance on her mind for years and has done a pretty good job of settling other scores along the way.  She circles her eyes with red eyeshadow; dons a pair of red high-heeled pumps; hunts down her daughter; and gets to work finding Baek.  Okay, maybe it’s not quite Eastwood’s The Man With No Name trilogy … in fact, the film combines an unholy alliance of influences from David Lynch to Quentin Tarantino, without indulging in their excesses.  But you’ll watch every single minute and feel pretty good in the end.

And with that, I’m prepared to return to those pages and pages and pages of student writing.  This is hardly a comprehensive list, but perhaps it’ll cleanse your palate of whatever bile is keeping you from feeling generous.  Finishing these movies even took me out of my office on a tour of my neighborhood’s cheesy holiday lights display — and now I’m prepared to answer the most annoying email requests for extensions, special accommodations, and outright gifts.  But I might think about a different shade of eyeshadow for tomorrow.

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