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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interviewer, bristling a bit: Specifically?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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When someone kidnaps a child — or several children, as is sometimes the case — our tendency is to respond by characterizing that person as the exception.  We tell ourselves he’s a pedophile, a psychopath, a serial killer, a freak.  He’s like the wolf of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale; this is no mere wild animal, but one who systematically sets out to trick a little girl and eat her.

The “Red Riding” trilogy produced by the UK’s Channel Four wants us to think of the wolf differently.  He is no exception; he is us, and he is eating us alive.  These films are scarily brilliant, appallingly violent, and so good I wanted to watch them again even before I’d finished watching.  Moreover, they are beautifully photographed — truly, some of the most creative and provocative cinematography I’ve seen in ages.

The first episode/film, “The Year of Our Lord 1974,” makes all other renditions of the 70s appear ersatz, like what “The Wire” did to “Law & Order.”  This is no “Life on Mars,” with its earnest fights against petty corruption in the Manchester police department of 1973, cross-cut with jumps into a groovy muscle car with the deliciously mouthy Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt.  There is no thrumping rock soundtrack, no glam anthems, not a single moment spent romanticizing the era.  The West Yorkshire of these films is filthy, perpetually raining, and unbearably claustrophobic, filled with dark tunnels, narrow stairwells, and dreary working-class 1970s homes filled with awful furniture and wallpaper.  It opens with the kidnapping of a little girl last seen wearing a red jacket and red Wellingtons, and shortly thereafter she is found dead, tortured, and with real swan’s wings sewn into her tiny back.  (All of the physical violence against children and women takes place offscreen.  This cannot be said for the violence against men — a decision that, frankly, was fine with me.)

Enter the cocksure young reporter, Eddie (Andrew Garfield), just back from starting his career in the South and feeling pretty good about himself as the local boy-made-good.  Who wouldn’t, with that terrific head of hair and his prettyboy pouty lips?  (For which we hate him immediately.)  He soon sniffs out that this is not the first little girl to go missing and pursues the serial-killer line of investigation despite the pushback he gets from the cops.  He’s right to do so — it’s a canny decision.  In contrast, his decision to pursue the little girl’s mother (Rebecca Hall, who won a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress) is a bad choice, just like all his others.

Eddie wants to get to the heart of the problem, just like the well-intentioned Pete in “In the Year of Our Lord 1980” and John and Maurice in “1983,” but there is no wolf to be slaughtered, no exceptional villain, and no heroic woodsman to intervene just in time.  Eddie has no idea how much he’s bitten off.  The webs of corruption stretch everywhere, and these men will do anything to keep it that way.  Here the cinematography does its best work (and I would argue, done most effectively and exceptionally in “1974;” it’s a crime that Rob Hardy went unrecognized for it, though his colleague David Higgs won a BAFTA for his photography in “1983”).  Every single scene is shot from a slightly disorienting angle, moving our eye about these rooms and making us notice the discomfort.  At times the imagery is backed up by, of all things, some very slow and beautiful soul music, even more disconcerting given the grim and soulless world we’re watching.  View that imagery here, as Eddie is invited by the über-skeezy John Dawson (Sean Bean at his skeeziest) to enjoy the benefits of being on the take.  It’s not just the sideways views of the two men’s faces; it’s also the camera’s pauses to watch the rain as it rolls down the windows, both of which somehow don’t allow you to forget the rain after the camera returns to their faces:

By “1980” the corrupt establishment has really accomplished something, and they’re getting very rich.  “To us all!” they toast.  “And to the North! where we do what we like.”  (This line is just not effective textually without that accent.) But by now the cops among them are faced with the still-unsolved Yorkshire Ripper killings of maybe 13 prostitutes, and the Home Office sends Pete (Paddy Considine) and his two most trusted detectives to help.  Instead of helping, however, they find the West Yorkshire police resent them, lie to them, and conceal evidence — and for good reason, as it turns out.  Worst of all, we begin to suspect that a haggard-looking gay teenaged rentboy, aptly named B.J., is not just being overlooked as a source of information — his life is in serious danger for what he knows, although we’re not sure who’s going to come after him.  By “1983,” B.J. is sleeping in his garage space with a shotgun in his lap for fear of his life.

If you had recorded my brain activity while watching these films, all areas of my brain would have lit up:  it was the elements of fable juxtaposed with gritty thriller.  The swan’s wings, the little girl’s red jacket, the fantasy of escape and renewal; even near the very end, a voiceover tells us in a singsong, let me tell you a story voice, “Here is the one / that got away / and lived to tell the tale.”  It was also the perfect performances by Hall, Considine, the seriously under-used Maxine Peake, and David Morrissey (here, concealing his Hollywood handsomeness behind that uninspired ‘stache, glasses, and mousy brown hair), the unforgiving scenery, the shadowy women, the lost children.  And it was the films’ contrast with one of my favorites, “North and South,” in which sharp regional differences are assuaged by the growing understanding and love between its two protagonists.  In “Red Riding” there is no love between North and South; the North is fiercely determined, indeed, to do “whatever we want,” the South be damned.  When one character voices the old saw, “The Devil triumphs when good men do nowt” (again, think of that accent making all the words emerge from the tongue-iest part of the throat), we know that this is mere folly.

One more thought.  The second film opens with scenes of street protests against the Yorkshire Ripper and complaints against the police’s failure to catch him; but there are other signs as well.  Women are filmed carrying signs that say “No Means No,” “Men Off the Streets!”, and “All Sex is Rape,” and graffiti on a wall pronounces “Men Are the Enemy.”  The films have no room for this kind of feminist rage, except implicitly and extremely subtly.  No, this is a trilogy about men, the wolves and the woodsmen who go in search of the little girl in the red jacket and red Wellies.  Oh well.