It's a Literary Extravaganza!
By Kristin Battestella
Stateside or British, these Victorian, turn of the last century, and post war dramatizations, documentaries, and biographies have heaps of period decorum, famous names, and family friendly bookishness thanks to Agatha, Emily, Louisa, and Sherlock.
Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women – This American Masters ninety minute documentary separates the fact from fiction with first hand accounts, re-enactments, and historical scenery. To the camera recitations add realism while narrations and scholarly interviews create a balanced point/counterpoint detailing Louisa's wild girl childhood and radical upbringing – The Alcotts believed in abolition, women's rights, transcendentalism, and equal education to bloom a child's mind rather than break young spirits. Such religious and racial taboos outcast the family onto tough times and their nineteenth century hippies on a commune Utopian intellectualism leads to starvation, humiliation, small pox, slums, and poverty as the cost of their reform. Louisa wrote of her overworked mother before Concord happiness and hobnobbing with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau – experiences high and low inspiring her determination. Early short stories and attempts at the stage come amid her sister Beth's terrible death, and this depressing time and subsequent gruesome, traumatizing Civil War nursing and suicidal thoughts are reflected in her later fiction. Alcott declined marriage proposals to keep her independence, and therapeutic writings led to literary success in new magazines and paying newspapers looking for her anonymous, fast turn around, serialized thrillers. Louisa herself preferred the vicariously lurid on the page to her mercenary children's literature – women weren't supposed to write that sort of thing and most of this adult material went undiscovered until after her death with evidence of yet more lost works. Trips to Europe and potential flings in Paris become inspirations for some of her famed characters while questions of possible bipolar disorders, manic depression, or undiagnosed lupus linger thanks to her extreme periods of creativity between months of physical inability. The surprise success of Little Women allowed her to enjoy later laurels, but opium, morphine, and other alternative medicinal cures did little to curb the nonetheless prolific Alcott's declining health at thirty-eight. This in depth documentary makes the semi-autobiographical tag of Little Women seem like a small, saccharin sampling, as there is far more to the author indeed.
Mr. Holmes – Ian McKellan's (Lord of the Rings) ninety-three year old detective pursues the case that got away in this 2015 tale opening with superb locomotives, vintage automobiles, quaint cottages, and country mood. The eponymous crusty old passenger is a relic, with bleak music matching the weary toll after a long trip to Japan. There's a hunch to his back, a cane, and a grovel to his voice – feeble friends have gone to live with family but Mr. Holmes is still sharp. He notices a decrease in his bee population and evidence on the stair steps, digging into vintage photographs and cursive notes as he writes down memories he is forgetting and tries to recall one particular client. Holmes is writing the story we see in flashbacks to thirty years prior – but these snippets represent the confused mind, a blurring of fact and fiction as the film also goes back to the recent Japanese quest. Is Holmes forgetting the details or not telling what he knows as he dispels myths about his famous cap and pipe? One must identify the problem and solve it, and if he can't, then is it time to move to a care home? The past shows us a younger, distinguished detective charming his way into a room, smoothing both clients and witnesses and remaining swift even as people doubt the real man because he doesn't match the detective on the page. Despite a terrible accent, housekeeper Laura Linney (The Big C) doesn't want her son too attached to Holmes – an increasingly difficult old man with liver spots once so suave in a top hat but now idle in striped pajamas and clinging to dignity by writing forgotten names on his inner left cuff. The hard facts of a case don't explain a client's behavior or feelings, and upsetting moments help Holmes learn how his acerbic thoroughness isn't always what a person needs. This regret of old and final growth before one's inevitable completion is not an introductory piece. Viewers should be familiar with the character, and the timeline back and forth may be confusing to audiences who can't tell the post war settings apart. The unreliable narrator fictionalizing a past account with other point of views within may also be a frame too many, and some of the storylines are uneven in a busy patchwork of illicit meetings, poisons, false drawer bottoms, and hidden gloves. The art imitating life vice versa works better with Holmes reading Watson's dreadful prose and going to see stereotypical Sherlock Holmes adaptations on the silver screen – putting him face to face with his mortality as he weeps at his inability to recall the truth. Palm readings and the scandalous touching a lady's bare hand are vividly shot as the bittersweet detective looks directly at the screen to say he can't remember it. Such old Father Christmas passing the torch to the New Year babe mature is meant for adult viewers who can understand the frailty, child loss, old habits dying hard, and last piece of unfinished business. Though somewhat flawed in its constructs, the period touches and layered nuance from McKellan keep this little drama charming.
The Mystery of Agatha Christie – Poirot star David Suchet hosts this 2014 documentary hour taking a deeper look at the woman behind the best selling author via lovely on location scenery, tours of the Christie Archive, and sit down interviews with family, historians, and biographers. Private photographs, childhood poems, handwritten notes, and original typed short stories add to the inside nostalgia alongside home movie screenings, memoir readings, and quotes from Christie's writings defining the recluse versus the crime queen. Sit down chats with Suchet and experts waxing on Christie's nightmares and love of swimming are grounded with rare video interviews, audio clips, and drives to the Devon beaches in vintage cars as period newspapers and slides follow the time line from her unusual upbringing at Ashfield and financial difficulties after her father's death to coming out parties, marriage, and wartime nursing in Torquay. Dartmoor inspirations, learning to surf, and the birth of her daughter Rosalind become defining experiences amid the first Poirot publications and future mystery staples such as poison breaking the rules of the detective genre. Christie's global travel is well documented, however the dark emotional crisis stemming from the Nancy Neil affair and the death of her mother remains unexplained in Christie's autobiography, and Suchet and Co. debate her Mary Westmacott novels and the infamous ten day disappearance before Christie's rebirth in Istanbul and subsequent literary heights. The Miss Marple stories and mixing of exotic tales with English comfort helped heal the nation during World War II, followed by renewed paperback masses and more recent manuscript discoveries. One and all describe Christie with warmth, kindness, and gratitude – yet she remains an enigma. The segments here don't go chapter by chapter and book by book, but focus on the insights into the person rather than the literature. Although this may not be anything new for Agatha enthusiasts, this pleasing compliment to the author provides an intimate, personal touch in spite of its shorter, classroom perfect run time. For more fun, also see David Suchet on the Orient Express.
An Unfortunate Skip
A Quiet Passion – Colorful interiors, lovely firelight, charming costumes, and early photography set off Cynthia Nixon (Sex and the City) as Emily Dickinson in this 2016 biopic from writer and director Terence Davies (The Deep Blue Sea). Unfortunately, the trying to be ye olde dialogue is immediately wooden and pretentious. Reading Victorian text isn't the same as speaking it, and every pursed lips conversation is unintentionally humorous with one heavy handed religious browbeating after another dragging the pace. The first twenty minutes of redundant precociousness could have been cut as the so called ungrateful Emily is continually chastised into the adult transition scenes. The unnecessary sassy sounding board BFF says they are trying to be ironic, but the tone is thick with oppression, obnoxious women, and fussiness. The audience feels the bitter we read from Dickinson, however nothing happens to intrigue the viewer – no scandalous publication nor shocking lesbianism. Some pains and health issues are mentioned, but the inconsequential in her own life Emily merely watches time go by amid awkward family marriages or falling flat war drama. Subtly defiant moments are far better, such as Emily asking her father to stay up at night to write in the quiet or smashing his dirty plate because it can't be soiled if it is broken. Voiceover rejections of her too common womanly rhyme lead to feverish writing with one acceptance and an anonymous publication, yet the poetry is apparently not the point of this piece? Should be funny tea with the water only minister's wife and witty arguments about Longfellow or The Brontes are too few and far between, disservicing Nixon by never fully letting the bittersweet come across. Emily's unloved stoicism and ugly feelings because no one wants her poetry anchor the final forty minutes as the eccentricities come to the forefront, and the poetry narrations answer as others question why she thinks her life is so bad, complains about them leaving, doesn't go anywhere, and pushes people away. The dream sequence/veiled masturbation interlude is a bit much, and time transitions leave large life gaps – unless we are to believe that her brother's affair is the most important thing to ever happen to Emily Dickinson. Viewers can't come into this expecting answers, and simply put, reading about Dickinson and her work does far more.