Is there a more delicious, meaningful, opaque line of dialogue from Pride and Prejudice? (Quick apologies to those readers who are, like, line analysis from P&P? yawn.)

Even better that it signals Mr. Darcy’s ability to flirt. If pressed, I would argue that this is the moment when their courtship begins, as it proves Darcy capable of a kind of flirtation that can disarm Lizzy’s quick wit.

Pride-and-Prejudice-and-Pianos1

It comes during one of my favorite moments in Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s parlor, shortly after Darcy and his cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam have arrived (and therefore before the marriage proposal and even the information that Darcy might have prevented Bingley from marrying Jane).

It’s a terrific exchange — well worth reading the short chapter in full — premised on mutual teasing. (Is there anything more wonderful than mutual teasing in the early phase of a romance? Much better than a sonnet.) But it also gets barbed, because Lizzy still dislikes Darcy so much, and she doesn’t realize that his feelings are so much the opposite.

Darcy at the piano

I won’t recount the glories of this exchange, because if you’ve read this far, you surely know it. It’s the one in which they riff on Lady Catherine’s suggestion that Lizzy practice the pianoforte more, which she then uses to prod Darcy about his rudeness to the citizens of Hertfordshire. He tries denial, but ultimately he submits to her teasing.

I want to draw your attention to Darcy’s great line:

Darcy smiled and said,  “You are perfectly right. You have employed your time much better. No one admitted to the privilege of hearing you, can think any thing wanting. We neither of us perform to strangers.”

It’s not true, is it? As in, not really true at all?

Lizzy looking quizzical

If anyone knows how to perform to strangers, it’s Elizabeth Bennet. She and Jane take great pride in being the kinds of intelligent, genteel women whom anyone would want at a social gathering, of whom any family would be proud. Indeed, Darcy has fallen for her in part because she moves with such skill and intelligence through a room full of people — skills he admittedly lacks (“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before”).

He knows she performs to strangers. Why would he say the opposite?

Lizzy at the piano

The first thing that always leaps out at me from this line is that it allows Darcy to say we and us in the same sentence, an awfully flirty move for a man so self-controlled. (It also shuts poor Fitzwilliam out of the conversation, but Darcy is flirting hard here, with all his compliments for Lizzy’s playing.)

I suppose you could also say that it smoothes over Lady Catherine’s earlier cringe-making digs at Lizzy’s piano skills. “I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well, unless she practises more,” Lady C pronounces, thereby embarrassing her relations. Darcy’s comment is a wholesale rejection of both Lizzy’s modesty and Lady C’s rude ignorance.

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But most of all when Darcy emits this opaque, confounding line, he undermines all Lizzy’s accusations about his character. She has teased him for being intimidating and rude, and he returns with a spectacular compliment about her playing. Even more artfully, he has defused her complaints about him by asserting that they are the same.

“We neither of us perform to strangers” asserts the similarity between them; and it also establishes an intimacy between them, an intimacy of mutual recognition. Darcy may be largely wrong about Lizzy’s nature, but not entirely; he recognizes that her intelligence goes beyond what she shows in company. This line says, you and I understand each other; but it does something more: it forces her to imagine that intimacy. Delicious.

In the book, Austen lets this line pass through the scene; but in the 1995 miniseries, the director allows this line to catch Lizzy a little short for lack of a response. Also delicious.

Thanks for reading this opportunity for me to let my P&P freak flag fly. No more close readings for the time being, I promise.

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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.

 

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?

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!

The ayes have it: the winner for Best Men’s Hair of Filmic History goes to that romantic, Byronic period of history, the Regency era!

Now, I haven’t studied the actual hair history enough to confirm that this bears strong relations to reality, but there’s at least some evidence to confirm this claim. To wit: check out this portrait of the Prince Regent himself — the Prince of Wales, who served as King of England in place of his sick father, George III until 1820, when he ascended to the throne in his own right as George IV. Now there’s a man who kicks the shit out of artfully tousled hair, pushed forward just enough onto his face. Even Lord Byron was known to enhance his considerable beauty by wearing curling-papers in his hair at night. Let’s sing out a collective “thank you” to costume dramas for keeping those styles alive.

This style is so preferable to all those 21st-century incarnations of hair pushed onto the face — the Justin Bieber, the Korean hottie, the surfer dude — and it’s being used liberally in filmic reproductions and fictionalizations of Jane Austen’s novels (published during the Regency era). To wit: James McAvoy in Becoming Jane (2007), a film I would watch again only for his hair. I find McAvoy impossibly charming in virtually all his films — even when he improbably discusses those “groovy” mutations in X-Men: First Class — but I’d venture to say that he’s never looked better than with this hair. And that forest green velvet.

Ditto all the above for Colin Firth’s hair in the BBC series Pride and Prejudice (1995). I’m still sorry this version had such a contrast between the stellar acting of the two leads and the embarrassing over-acting of every single other character. (Still: I’ll take this version over the Keira Knightley/ Matthew Macfadyen version [2005] any day. Even when you factor in the fact that in the latter version the secondary characters were terrific.) The rest of you can chirp about that scene when Firth dives into the pond, but I prefer him wrapped up, gazing with sparkling eyes at Lizzie from across the parlor at Pemberley, showing off his curls and sideburns.

Let us not overlook Alan Rickman’s version of Colonel Brandon from Sense and Sensibility (1995), less because he’s got curls pushed forward onto his face than because, damn.

Or Dan Stevens’ version of Edward Ferrars in the BBC version of Sense and Sensibility (2008), which makes him much more attractive than when Stevens appeared in Downton Abbey (2010), if you ask me.

According to the movies’ version of history, heroes got darker as the century progressed, and their hair got less purely romantic. In the case of Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton in North and South (2004), the severe hair and those barbed sideburns accentuate his fiercely angular face. They also mirror his own proclivity for abrupt rage, which he always seems to regret. This delicious series shows us that we must measure his growing love for Margaret by those rare moments when he loosens his tie and unbuttons the top button of his white, white shirt rather than by the softness of his curls.

In Jane Eyre (2011), Michael Fassbender’s Mr. Rochester sports deeper and more dangerous sideburns and, I would argue, messy hair that signifies risky and complicated emotions bubbling underneath. If Armitage portrayed a self-made man worried about losing everything, Rochester’s lack of financial concerns was a thin cover for his other worries, making him as unpredictable and changeable as that hair. Oh Jane, beware your feelings!

And isn’t it striking how little we want to reproduce the women’s hairstyles in all of these films! The puritanical buns of the Brontës’ characters, the foolish curls Elizabeth Bennet found herself wearing, the elaborate braids and hats… it was the beginning of a long, long period of bad hair news for the ladies, till they started chopping it all off in the 1920s. Which makes me appreciate the 20s all the more.

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

Sense and nonsense

4 April 2010

When Liz Lemon decides to adopt a child in “30 Rock,” she radically cleans up her apartment to impress the adoption people — even to the point of getting “rid of all my Colin Firth movies in case they consider them erotica,” as she tells Jack Donaghy.  (Jack nods knowingly, “That man can wear a sweater.”)

Erotica indeed.  There are few guiltier girlie pleasures than a great kiss in a great love story.  The kiss in the first “Twilight” film has been viewed millions of times on YouTube; even semi-cult favorites like the end of BBC’s “North and South” have hundreds of thousands of hits.  One can find dreamy montage videos of love scenes posted by fans of virtually any show — from “True Blood” to “Queer as Folk,” “Bride and Prejudice,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” and virtually anything with George Clooney.

But to be provocative, I’m willing to argue that 1) George Clooney has a long career of making films in which the attraction between characters doesn’t quite make sense, and 2) fans have a long history of accepting slightly nonsensical love stories because the kisses are so good, the stars are so pretty to look at, and because we want to believe that love and passion are somehow nonsensical.  I think we should pause to fully appreciate those love stories that make sense.

Take, for example, one of the best Clooney films: “Out of Sight,” with the oh-so-perfect Jennifer Lopez (oh Jen, how far you’ve fallen since 1998).  Stuffed together into the trunk of her car as Clooney escapes from prison and J-Lo waits for a chance to arrest him, they have an improbable conversation about movies: “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Network.”  Most of this scene permits Clooney to demonstrate his skills in hamming it up.  But there’s suddenly a moment when she takes the conversation seriously as they talk about Redford and Dunaway in “Three Days of the Condor.”  “I never thought it made sense,” Lopez says, turning to Clooney. “You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.”  (Ahem: she’s right.)  It’s brilliant:  that very line is the shortcut that allows “Out of Sight” to get Clooney and Lopez together far more quickly than makes any kind of sense.  It jump-starts their mutual attraction; they’re both so gorgeous that dream sequences must suffice till we see their characters finally undress for real.

The movies are full of love stories that simply pair up our beautiful leading men and women as speedily as possible.  But c’mon, people, we can do better.  Taking a quick look at great kissing scenes in the history of film, we quickly see that it doesn’t make sense that Greta Garbo falls in love with ridiculous Melvyn Douglas in “Ninotchka,” Ingrid Bergman with Cary Grant in “Notorious,” or Helena Bonham Carter with Julian Sands in “Room With a View.”  Pleasurable, yes; but baffling in the light of day.  So here’s my list-in-progress of love stories that are so gratifying because they make sense:

  1. Pride and Prejudice.  Apologies for the obvious, but Colin Firth has a full six hours to cease being horrible, pine gratifyingly for Jennifer Ehle, and prove he’s worthy of her; Ehle learns some humility and that you can’t always tell a book by its cover.  Accept no lame Keira Knightley substitutes.
  2. Before Sunset — and considering my distaste for Ethan Hawke, this love story’s got to be good.  If the talkiness and the awkwardness of “Before Sunrise” somehow managed to work on you ten years earlier, it’s downright magical with the wary older versions of Hawke and Julie Delpy.
  3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Clementine and Joel, perfectly flawed characters whose imperfect brains are bound up with each other despite those last few months (and brainwashing).
  4. LA Confidential.  Russell Crowe’s Bud White wears his heart on his sleeve such that Kim Basinger sets aside her Veronica Lake persona to show him the real Lynn Bracken.
  5. Brokeback Mountain.  Again, apologies for the cliché, but the lovely contrast of Jake Gyllenhaal’s eager personability with Heath Ledger’s tragic, laconic Ennis del Mar has to be one of the only opposites-attract stories that makes sense to me. 

There’s got to be more. Tell me.