16 January 2020

Brooding Victorians and Moody Costume Dramas

Brooding Victorians and Moody Costume Dramas
by Kristin Battestella

Well, the title pretty much says it all. If you're looking for angst, frocks, pathos, or British accents, settle in for these windswept period pieces and literary flavorings.

Jane Eyre – Lace, candles, bonnets, frills, and waist coasts open this eleven episode 1983 adaptation starring Zelah Clarke (Dombey & Son) and Timothy Dalton (The Living Daylights). The print is flat now and the production values hampered, however the attention to detail accents the gloomy manor house and its cruel family, abusive isolation, and rare comfort in books. Supposed problem child Jane is passed along to a terrible school where the punishment only increases because of her defiance in the face of starvation, illness, fatal friends, and instruments of correction. Often excised scenes are here word for word, and the very British glum and decorum may be boring for some before the warmth and comfort found in the governess position at Thornfield Hall. Kindly housekeepers and friendly chats let Jane express herself, but locked rooms, ghostly echoes, and whispers of the peculiar master build ominous before an enigmatic roadside encounter with a handsome stranger. Aren't all Jane Eyres identified by their Rochesters? Dalton's brooding suave is very much what we think of in a Rochester – smoldering and easily flustered by Jane in debates over tea where dialogue and performance are primary. He's used to having his way but this lowly governess won't buckle despite the unresolved sexual tension before there was even UST. Jane isn't exceptional but won't yield on her convictions, earning a begrudging respect from the melancholy Rochester, who can confide in her about reluctant gentry matches and superiority versus equality. He admires Jane's purity and would seek to reform through her, wearing his heart on his sleeve even as his secrets would corrupt her. Sinister violence and mysterious accidents make happiness too good to be true alongside beds set on fire, fascinating dualities on character and wickedness, and wild versus saintly symbolism. Jealous resentments dampen pleasant outdoor scenes, turning charming one on one banter into angry, looming, and yearning repression. Rochester is not the silent type, and the scene chewing in many ways has to speak for both characters and draw out do gooder Jane. In spite of the deathbed confessions, age differences, be on your guard warnings, and symbolic white veils torn in two – talk about red flags, girl – we're here for it hook, line, and sinker, swept up in the impediments at the altar, scary attic scenes, bitter revelations, and fleeing into the moors to forgo love and be true to oneself. Seriously though, what is St. John's problem anyway? While this is a wonderful story, the finale does rely on sudden relatives and coincidental fortunes, and I for one was always disappointing something more spooky wasn't afoot. Late episodes away from Thornfield drag thanks to odd scenes without first person narrator Jane and this is a little too long to marathon all at once, but this unabashedly takes its time to assure a complete adaptation. I love the 2011 version for its compact, more gothic spirit; however this is delightful for fans of the cast, period piece audiences, classroom comparisons, and Bronte lovers.

The Man Who Invented Christmas – Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey) stars as Charles Dickens alongside Christopher Plummer (Somewhere in Time) and Jonathan Pryce (Hysteria) in this whimsical 2017 account on what really happened during the 1843 writing of A Christmas Carol. Our successful author has toured America to much fanfare, but Dickens is ready to get back to work despite unforthcoming publishers thanks to the poor sales of Barnaby Rudge, negative Martin Chuzzlewit reviews, and gasp – writer's block. It's expensive being a London gentleman when the wife is redecorating, bills are mounting, and everyone wants a donation from the exhausted Dickens, who has no creativity and a deadline to meet. Fancy garb, carriages, quills, candles, and humorous crescendos create charm alongside entertaining children with fairy tales and holiday mentions of veils being lifted as spirits roam between worlds. Grim alleys, dark cemeteries, bitter mourners, snobby friends wishing the poor would die, and humbug revelations inspire Dickens to write about a vile money maker learning the err of his ways thanks to sprites and spiritual intervention. Unfortunately, there wasn't a market for Christmas books back then and no profit in such a minor holiday. Going it alone, Dickens bounces about his bower mimicking voices – because if your find the character's name, he will appear. Similar to Miss Potter, Dickens transcribes Carol quotes from bemusing encounters with the famous characters entering his chamber. Scenes we know and love are acted out before him until an abrupt “That's as far as I've gotten” halt while the players add their opinions on the tale whether he wants them to or not. After starting well, begging for money and mooching relatives slow the spirited possibilities, and we shouldn't leave Dickens' breakthrough once the wonderful frenzy happens. There are hints of darker Dickens aspects, but his debtors fears and realistic problems feel shoehorned in once the fanciful comes to life. It's tough to have the author mirror Scrooge with contrived overnight changes and revelations about Dickens' terrible childhood when we know his life story and anything truly heavy is off limits. Problems are created just for a third act resolution, and one on one confrontations with his father regarding Dickens' lingering shame and brokenness are more powerful. The source here is a non-fiction book, but the film is obviously fiction, and viewers know Dickens had success before and will again. Maybe the real world Victorian issues are meant to parallel the Carol constructs, however the narrative can be uneven, interrupting arguments about killing off characters while they wait about his room or repeating his struggle over what of himself to put on the page before wondering what the point of a story is if there is no hope. After all the forgiveness discourse, a quick postscript with newfangled Christmas trees says everything turned out just fine – although writers today seeing Dickens' need to self publish and inability to get a $300 loan know circumstances haven't really changed amirite? This isn't necessarily a Christmas movie, and the family friendly fantasy may be too much for those seeking a hardcore Dickens biography. Some audiences may be sly to the author within his own story gimmick, too. Fortunately, there's enough charm in the wholesome nuggets and inventive twists on the familiar tale, and I'd also here for Plummer playing Scrooge en masse yes please.

The Turn of the Screw Downton Abbey alum Michelle Dockery joins Dan Stevens (again) and Nicola Walker (MI-5) in this ninety minute 2009 BBC adaptation of the Henry James askew moving the repressed ambiguity to 1921 institutions with post war doctors analyzing our governess' infatuation with her employer, the topsy turvy male shortage, and of kilter Bly Manor. Fashions, hats, sweet automobiles, fine woodwork, and hefty antiques sell the refreshing setting, however the nonsensical strobe flashes look amateur on top of the time wasting, disjointed doctoring add-ons and unnecessary narration. Visions of dalliances that initially upgrade the Victorian scandalous soon hit the viewer over the head one too many times as the governess imagines her master and his saucy approval. She insists she's not the nervous type, but the dark interiors, maze like staircases, and distorted camera angles add to the strange noises and creepy country manor unease. She's in charge, above housekeepers and maids, but there are too many flighty women doing all the work in this house. Parasols and summer white contrast eerie fog and trains as her boy charge is expelled from school without explanation. The cheeky children whisper about their previous, pretty governess – unbothered by screams, accidents, or dying maids. Melancholy piano music, graveyard echoes, dark figures amid the trees, and faces in the window build on the female isolation, yet all insist there are no ghosts – surely she's just hysterical, overwrought, and obsessed with men. Rumors of suicide and a woman ruined by her lover seem proved by hidden pictures of the master's up to no good valet, and tales of his violence among the unprotected women are better than seeing suspect flashbacks. The prim style degrades to loose hair and nightgowns as our governess jumps to dire conclusions and possessive delirium, but the shouting about it afterward with her doctor interruptions break the tainted picnics and frantic tension. We don't need his sounding board to deduce her fears, just let us see the abusive violence and water perils. Crazy laughter and disembodied voices escalate as the phantoms, repression, and projection possibilities culminate in a one on one battle for the truth. The deviations here are flawed, and while the horror lite is fine for gothic period piece fans, some viewers will expect more than the have it both ways attempt at the ghosts and crazy ambiguity. This isn't the best version but thanks to the cast and unique setting, it can be a good introduction for audiences who haven't seen The Innocents.

A Disappointment

Under Capricorn – Ingrid Bergman (Anastasia) and Joseph Cotten (Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte) star in this overlong 1949 mystery from director Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds) with an opening narration filling in the Colonial Australia history and past Ireland secrets before 1831 governors, stiff upper lip politicking, and wooden exposition. Who has money, who's related to whom, who's doing the land deals – it's all clunky and yawn worthy on top of a period setting perhaps obscure for American audiences then and now. Colorful waistcoats, cravats, and frocks alongside muddy frontier streets and carriages attempt an early Victorian meets Wild West tone, but the shrunken heads rolling at their feet is more awkward then shocking. Hitchcock attempts new techniques here in his second Technicolor film – long takes, zooms, and tracking cameras following the players in scene. Unfortunately, the direction is stilted, moving from men talking to other men talking about what the other men just said. The first fifteen minutes of convicts turned businessmen and conversations while bathing in a barrel could have been excised, opening instead with the newly arrived scoundrel eavesdropping on a suspect dinner at the creepy manor house. Iron-fisted housekeepers, beaten staff, and disobedient convicts add to the drinks, whispers, social shunnings, and an intriguingly absent wife – who has some history with the new man in town. So much time is spent talking about the past at the expense of the present, yet people readily drop all their secrets and explain their life stories to folks they've just met. A few sentimental winks and smiles bolster the love story elements, however it's awkward to see Bergman both lighting up the room as well as playing the drunken barefoot and wobbling sickly. Uncharismatic, strong chinned men, swelling crescendos, and fainting women combine for all the things audiences bemoan about period pieces, and the supposedly scandalous love triangles remain undynamic. A stable boy eloping with the master's daughter and killing her brother in the process while the maid secretly poisons the wife would make for an interesting tale, but most of that action is told after the fact rather than shown. The tiara ensemble and divine ball make for the one exceptional, uninterrupted sequence capturing all the guilt and performance lacking in the rest of the film. Despite horse chases, who really shot whom revelations, and deportation threats; the drama never seems to happen before the abrupt happy ending. One can see what Hitchcock is trying to attempt with characters bound to the visual frame as well as their inescapable history. Unfortunately, calling attention to the drama with the camera only shows how thin the story is. Even if viewers leave any Master of Suspense expectations aside and like romantic period yarns, this is really only for the Hitchcock and Bergman completists.

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