Recent Good, Bad, and Ugly Period Pieces
by Kristin Battestella
Some of these contemporary Victorian movies and period series are impressive with literary oomph and costumed flair. However others are unfortunately disappointing, polarizing, or unwatchable humbug.
Black Field – Lanterns, rifles, and two pioneer sisters doing what they have to do make for an upsetting opening to this 2010 eighty minute Canadian parable from writer and director Danishka Esterhazy. Bleak music, isolated vistas, and empty savannahs befitting the title set off the bare home, primitive details, and Grace said over such a paltry meal. This is a desperate, bitter existence with little dialogue beyond sad lullabies as these two girls fend for themselves. The accents, immigrants, and distant French towns mix – but the nearest farm is eighteen miles away and a handsome stranger wants to earn his keep at our isolated, all female station. Backstories are shared at the table, where this shirtless charmer admits he needs the Lord's mercy and forgiveness often and there's a certain attractive scandal at holding hands for prayer. The audience creates more saucy as several scenes imply each girl orchestrates a solo encounter with their would be protector – the camera doesn't reveal if something happened, however the household balance tips with jealousy and suspicion. Are these girls in over their heads with their farm and in need of a man to help? One has been forced to mother, but the younger is infatuated and ready to rebel despite wearing almost medieval clothes perhaps fashioned from her lone book of juvenile fairy tales. There are no “decent” jobs for women in town, and sans horse, this man is their only ticket to freedom. When one sister inevitably leaves, is it willingly or an abduction? The journey on foot is bleak with storms and an all natural palette mirroring their colorless lives, and the conflict increases without the unnecessary gory dream flashes and brief viewpoint breaks. Unable to help distant neighbors have too much work and too many mouths to feed, and nearby Mounties are in pursuit of a murderer as prejudice, injuries, and wilderness dangers build fear. The chess games moves to an even smaller, meager cabin with nothing but a sheet between rooms as the tables turn. Which sister do we believe as the division makes once good girls do bad things? Although some of the acting is slightly modern, the rivalry is similar to Far North and overall this first feature is well done. Did each girl get what she wanted and will they move on from this – or will the rift change them forever? While certain elements may be obvious, all the audience suspects is revealed in good time with well paced drama and a few unexpected twists.
To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters – This Masterpiece television movie shines the light on sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne as they escape into fiction away from the tolling bells, muddy streets, and embarrassing affairs ruining the family reputation. The ladies must keep up the mid-nineteenth century appearances with capes, bonnets, and frumpy frocks alongside the crestfallen parsonage, Yorkshire cold, and drafty period poor of the on location prairies and authentic settings. In an era when they are trapped by their womanhood and dependent on their hopeless male kin's hypocrisy, these sisters prefer dogs to people – tiptoeing over fears of publishing their poems and hidden creative passions burning fast and bright. Fiery readings of their explosive text contrast their plain, crappy circumstances, but the plot erroneously deviates in favor of the sniveling and tormented at being mediocre brother Branwell, meandering from the more interesting sisters destined for glory. The ladies want to publish and express themselves freely rather than bow their heads, not make eye contact, and sell themselves as mere governesses. However they argue over whether their writings are a private pursuit or something extraordinary worthy of publication – for men write and what they pen is judged, but a woman writing is herself judged. The sisters toil under pen names with panoramic seasonal transitions as they wait for acceptance, but childhood fantasy scenes and drunken dreams are unnecessary. On the go recountings of stories within stories walking faster with speed talking to match also become nonsensical, trying to create tension on top of the stilted brotherly angst when there is enough human interest in the literary struggle. The awkwardness of snatching a letter addressed to Currer Bell is fine drama – especially when it is an acceptance for two of the girls' works, but not the third and unscrupulous publication deals follow. At times the sisters can be cliché, with bossy Charlotte, fiery Emily, and a just sort of there Anne; but the personal insights deepen with rejection letters, buying more paper, old fashioned manuscript packages, first writings of their famous novels, and sitting by the fire for silent sustained writing time. Yes please! A proud father learning of his daughters' achievements make for delightful moments, and this is downright excellent when the ladies must stand up for their publication rights by revealing their identities – after being judged for their accents, stature, and gender. Of course the finale is bittersweet, but this is a charming companion piece to reading the Brontes or for inspiring budding young writers.
An Unfortunate Skip
The Invisible Woman – Ralph Fiennes (Coriolanus) directs and stars in this 2013 Charles Dickens biopic from Bafta winning writer Abi Morgan (Shame) focusing on the forty-five year old married author's affair with Felicity Jones' (Rogue One) eighteen year old actress Nelly Ternan. English coasts, Victorian silhouettes, lanterns, and carriages create a grand atmosphere with period decorum for the fine acting, but one needs to be familiar with the people or the Claire Tomalin source book to understand this slow two hours with an unnecessary flashback frame and more relationship awkwardness. When our lovers first meet, she is smiling at his son and he is socializing with her mother amid busy theater preparations and silly rehearsals restarts signaled with overly serious crescendos. The marital rifts, groupies catching his eye, well delivered dialogue, sense of Victorian protocol, and certain British properness can't completely build thanks to all the back and forth interruptions. While the filming nicely reflects the mood as she looks up to Dickens, he stares at her neck, and they turn away at their conflicted feelings; the unfortunately accurate twenty year age difference between the actors is too weird with unromantic fireside close ups and girly giggles too young to be sensuous. It is neat to see some early mass hysteria over a feisty, charismatic author commanding the crowds, even though this biopic may be trying too much with talk of debtor's prison, voiceover quotes on poverty and charity, and Dickens the social reformer intermixed with his side piece counting the donations. If he doesn't love his uncreative wife, what does he see in a talentless girl playing actress? There's no reason to love the troubled melodrama when the objective camera shows the creepy – she's hunched at the door as he is at her shoulder whispering to be let inside for a silent first touch. The eerily done up Fiennes is a fire and brimstone minister over his tempting flock, but the conflict between literary master and dirty old man is too disjointed with some chaste patty cake in the final fifteen minutes before an abrupt ending and a Victorian sense of shame confusing modern audiences. Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) as fellow libertine Wilkie Collins and concerned mother Kristin Scott Thomas (An English Patient reunion, hello!) are also totally underused, and more time may have been better spent on the terribly mistreated wife Joanna Scanlan (Getting On) – who seems like the real hidden lady. It's tough to look at this difficult subject matter objectively, and this unfocused, close to vest structure where not much happens doesn't help. Is this the tormented Dickens, Nelly's present reflecting on him, his wife's pain? Though interesting for biographers and sociology viewers or Fiennes fans and period propriety, this is simply frustratingly plain to watch.
Didn't Finish 'em!
Downton Abbey: Seasons 4 and 5 – Year Three of this Masterpiece series jumped the shark, and I quit watching then. The 2013 Fourth Season, however, is not a good place to join the show, as names and references from prior seasons are dropped or forgotten as needed, interesting personal developments below are pushed aside for the same above toil, and regardless of the Interwar happenings and historical opportunities, everything always come back to who Michelle Dockery's Mary will marry. Numerous maids, nannies, footmen, relatives, suitors, and royals come and go – wasting time before a typical and totally unnecessary rape as plot device trapping The Bateses (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle) with murder again. Each hour also has Allen Leech's Branson asking if he is truly upstairs or down, treading tires as said to be a writer who's never seen actually writing anything Edith (Laura Carmichael) literally has her romance disappear while she's kidnapping her baby from not one, but two adoptions. Past dalliances and present companionships for Granny Violet Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton's Isobel, and Doctor David Robb are more interesting. All the supposedly progressive plots with Lily James' superfluous Rose meant to introduce the changing times, and it is the elder cast's reflections that better capture the aristocratic upheavals. More loud mouth recurring characters take up screen time in Series Five, which frustratingly repeats itself despite it being 1924. Are people who call this the Greatest British Drama Ever watching the same show I am? I bailed with a few episodes left as reading the summaries to see how Season Six ends was easier than the poorly paced and uneven storylines onscreen. Most scenes only last a minute or two, and intercut whimsical moments disrupt serious conversations – plots on homosexuality are cut short in favor of suspected gardeners stealing letter openers and secret heists over absconded royal love letters. The location, costuming, and period looks are the best part of the show, and such frocks, jewelry, tiaras, and dressing for dinner decorum wrapped in posh accents is what appeals to international audiences most. This era has an embarrassment of riches – I still believe they should have never left World War I – but everything here is really just like every other soap opera. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
War and Peace – 1805 St. Petersburg locales, Moscow estates, and lavish aristocratic balls set the scene for this 2016 adaptation anchored by the likes of Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Stephen Rea (The Crying Game), Rebecca Front (Up the Women), and many, many more. There are numerous introductions, comings and goings from place to place, and explanations of who is who and how they are all related while arguing at the count's deathbed over his will. Similar names and a dash of foreign words will be confusing – viewers need to know the book and the history amid the marrying cousins, matchmaking, creepy siblings, and two faced nobility. The Regency costumes may not always be accurate, the younger ladies look like little girls playing dress up, the military uniforms are too big on the modern boys, and their tricorns look downright silly. Though the tiaras, furs, and feather fascinators are fun, they don't distract audiences from all the British accents overtaking this decidedly Russian epic. Weren't there any continental actors available? Despite the small television scale, ominous music, fog, canons, horses, and gunfire lift the battle action amid a fine religious undercurrent with church blessings and everyone crossing themselves. Unfortunately, it's tough to care about all these lookalike solider boys when they are so gung ho about the revolution yet can't see how they are being played. They run their mouths off and drum up their cowardly wounds – Sharpe was much more soldier-esque in comparison, and Brian Cox seems like he's in a different battle theater than the overly millennial princes, tsars, and REMFs looking for glory. The heady, flashy dreams, drunken saucy, shadowed nudity, whispered seduction, and male butts are unnecessary Tudors knockoffs as the bitchy little girls at home plot for love or money, and the back and forth editing between war action and at home intrigue creates uneven weight – maybe a more linear plot per episode would have helped balance the younger, weaker cast. I feel like I should like this more, but the atmosphere doesn't have that extra period timelessness. I got half way through, but there's no attachment to the numerous characters bottlenecking for the spotlight between all the try hard narrations. One might find it easier to just tackle the Tolstoy direct instead.