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“Madame Bovary” (2014)–a Film Review

14 Jun
Madame Bavary (2014) film poster. Copyright: Aden Film, Aleph Motion Pictures, Left Field Ventures, Occupant Entertainment, Radiant Films International. See Wikipedia page for this image for fair use guidelines.

Madame Bovary (2014) film poster. Copyright: Aden Film, Aleph Motion Pictures, Left Field Ventures, Occupant Entertainment, Radiant Films International. See Wikipedia for fair use guidelines.

Madame Bovary (2014), a film by Sophie Barthes, stars Mia Wasikowska as Emma Bovary, the iconic woman created by Flaubert in his 1857 novel. Wasikowska’s name has appeared on this blog before, when she excelled in two other roles based on Fictional 100 characters: Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland. A little older now, she succeeds once again in embodying the unhappily married Madame Bovary.

As in Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre film, this film opens with a scene of Wasikowska running outdoors, in desperate flight from something. Both films then proceed to tell their stories in flashback. Wasikowska can certainly fill the screen with her resolute quiet; whereas as Jane Eyre this denoted her discretion and strongly principled character, as Emma Bovary, her quiet masks her restless, troubled inner life and her felt need for growing deceptions.  The first changes, though, are not hidden but very visible in her acquisition–on credit–of new stylish clothes for herself and furnishings for the house she shares with her benign, country-doctor husband Charles. At first, she rebuffed the insinuating offers of Monsier Lheureux (l’heureux means “the happy one”), who tempted her to borrow from him for his expensive goods; his success at leading her into debt represents her first seduction.  The romantic affairs that will follow, with “The Marquis” and Léon, are an outgrowth of this first fall from innocence.  She craves the romance of luxury and love, hoping to replace the emptiness and disappointment she found in the stifling constriction of Yonville and her confining marriage. She can hardly breathe, and so her restraint and quiet demeanor break open, becoming in the end a frantic rush to destruction.

This film departs markedly from previous films and especially from Flaubert’s novel. Several crucial elements are missing:

  • Berthe, the child of Emma and Charles, does not appear here. There is no mention of her having a child at all. In the novel, this fact serves to underline another area of life in which Emma could find no satisfaction. Flaubert’s Emma was unable to love or bond with her small daughter, a further wound to her marriage, which made her susceptible to falling in love with other men that crossed her path. Emma’s tragic ending is also more poignant because of the daughter she leaves behind.
  • Rodolphe Boulanger is subsumed in the character of the Marquis d’Andervilliers who gives a ball early in the novel. It made more sense in the novel that farming landowner Rodolphe would be speaking (and flirting) with Emma at an agricultural fair.
  • Likewise, the village of Tostes and the town of Yonville are merged. This misses that Charles was sensitive enough to Emma’s unhappiness to move to a larger, albeit still rural, setting for their life together.  However, it is understandable that the screenplay for a two-hour film must make these kinds of abbreviations of plot.
  • In Rouen, Emma and Léon rendezvous in the Cathedral and take a carriage to a room to make love; however, this director chose not to show us one of the novel’s most famous scenes: in which the couple make love in the closed carriage itself, as it circles around the city; Flaubert brilliantly suggests the passionate embraces inside by the sole detail of Emma’s ungloved hand in the window of the jostling carriage.
  • The pharmacist Monsieur Homais’s character and behavior is sketched so roughly that viewers may not understand that he is in competition with the new doctor in town for patients, which motivates his insistence that Charles attempt a risky operation on a local boy. He is friend to neither Charles nor Emma.
  • Finally, this film chooses to have Emma die alone in the forest after she has taken poison, thereby missing some of the most important scenes in the novel, and the only ones that hint at any rapprochement of the couple and a sort of redemption, in the midst of tragedy.  In Flaubert’s treatment, Emma ingests a fatal dose of arsenic but takes several days to succumb, during which time she tries to comfort Charles, realizing perhaps the depth of his essential goodness and true love for her. “You’re good, not like the others,” she says to him.

Since I have listed elements I found missing in this adaptation, let me finish out this review by praising an aspect of the film that I found illuminating and symbolically satisfying. Twice, Emma goes to the local priest in his church in Yonville, hoping for some sort of guidance and comfort–neither of which she finds.  The first time was especially telling: all the while she is trying to talk to him, a group of unruly children are running in the small sanctuary and the priest interrupts her to reprimand them. After he offers a few, insufficient words urging her to be happy with the roof over her head and food (and a good fellow for a husband), he sends her away, excusing himself to “get these very devils ready for Communion.”  Right in front of him was a troubled young woman, being assailed by devils of her own, tempted by the Devil himself (in the form of Lheureux) and her own passions, and he couldn’t see it. She was the one who needed some real communion with grace–a compassionate confessor and some wise words of faith to strengthen her–and this priest had little to give her.  If only she could have encountered a Monsieur Myriel such as appeared in the path of Jean Valjean at exactly the time when he needed him!  In Emma, Flaubert portrayed some of the cracks that were appearing in traditional faith during the 19th century. His villain Homais was an atheist, and it would take more than good will and going through the motions of religion to stand up to the spiritual crisis of the people at that time (or any time!).  Sophie Barthes handles these scenes between the priest and Emma with illuminating clarity for the audience, although Emma is left to plunge into her own darkness without any supports to grasp.

I recommend the film for Mia Wasikowska’s genuine portrayal of Emma and Rhys Ifan’s scary take on Lheureux. He recently played a secretive, but loyal Mycroft Holmes in the Elementary series for TV, but he is truly sinister here. The film is visually beautiful, punctuated by Emma’s stunning costumes, many of them in a fiery orange.

Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge: Wrapping it all up with a bow!

7 Jan

christmas spirit reading challenge 2014Christmas season was even more fun and festive this year because of the Christmas Spirit Reading Challenge, hosted by Michelle at her gorgeous blog, The Christmas Spirit, which makes life cheerier year-round, any time we need a little Christmas, as the Jerry Herman song says. I enjoyed her posts and guest posts on the theme of “Sharing the Joy: Christmas Around the World,” including Hungarian and Bohemian (by guest Caddy Rowland) customs of food, celebrating, and decorating.

For my participation in the Challenge, I read four books (and reviewed two):

  1. Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett (a well-written twist on A Christmas Carol, recommended to me by Michelle, who also reviewed it here).
  2. Moominland Midwinter, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson (a whimsical wisdom tale for both children and adults, counting towards my Northern Lights Reading Project).
  3. Scandinavian Christmas by Trine Hahnemann (a cookbook, also for Northern Lights).
  4. Shepherds Abiding by Jan Karon (recommended to me by Sharon of Faith Hope and Cherrytea; it’s now my favorite of the Karon books I’ve read).

I didn’t do my usual re-read of Old Christmas, by Washington Irving, but I did pull the book off the shelf and savored once again the illustrations by Randolph Caldecott. I had hoped to finish Lakeshore Christmas by Susan Wiggs, but I’ve only just started it–something for next year’s Challenge!

As part of the Challenge, I watched (or should I say “binge-watched”) Christmas movies served up marathon-style on the Hallmark Channel during the month of December. Here are some of my favorites:

  1. Fallen Angel (2003), starring Gary Sinise and Joely Richardson. Quietly beautiful story of two people who met as children and were destined to find each other again. This one got many viewings at my house.
  2. Christmas Cottage (2008), starring Marcia Gay Harden, Peter O’Toole, and Jared Padalecki. Early life and formative experiences of artist Thomas Kinkade.
  3. Christmas at Cartwright’s (2014), starring Alicia Witt, Gabriel Hogan, and Wallace Shawn. Alicia Witt is charmingly klutzy as a woman who becomes a department store Santa, and stumbles upon true love.
  4. The Christmas Ornament (2013), starring Kellie Martin and Cameron Mathison. Martin is wonderful as a widow who pushes away both Christmas and a new friendship with Mathison because of her loyalty to memory.
  5. The Nine Lives of Christmas (2014), starring Brandon Routh and Stephanie Bennett. Remember Superman Returns from 2006? Its star, Brandon Routh, plays a commitment-shy bachelor, but, hey, he’s on the Hallmark Channel during Christmas, so he’s sure to find lasting love!

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with the “Mistletoe” level of books read and the “Fa La La La La” (!) level of films watched.  I’ll be back for more next year!

Don’t Miss…Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return (2014)

16 May


I saw Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return in a multiplex on Sunday of its opening weekend–Mother’s Day afternoon. I didn’t expect to see many kids in the audience on this particular holiday, but the ones who were there sounded delighted with it, and so was I! This 3D animated musical sequel to The Wizard of Oz was visually inventive, with a charming story, attractive new characters, and some beautiful songs. It pulled in only 3.7 million in box office receipts, coming in 8th for the weekend. I hope those who passed it up on its first weekend will give it another look. It includes plenty of Oziana references, enough to entice committed Ozophiles (Ozmaniacs?), but anyone who has enjoyed the classic 1939 film or read any of L. Frank Baum’s books will get the jokes and feel a tug of nostalgia too.

Legends of Oz loosely follows the plot of Dorothy of Oz (1989), written by Roger S. Baum, L. Frank Baum’s great-grandson (in fact, the original working title of the film was Dorothy of Oz). Just as the MGM musical made some creative changes when they adapted L. Frank Baum’s original story for the screen, Legends of Oz has made some significant changes when adapting his great-grandson’s tale.


Let me set the scene as the movie does: Dorothy wakes up in her room in Kansas, and she is joyfully reunited with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. But their house and surrounding farm buildings are badly damaged by the tornado. The first problem they face will be a visit from a shady appraisal agent, voiced by Martin Short, who wants to condemn their house and force them (and their neighbors) off their property. This Appraiser is the “Miss Gulch” of the film; in Oz, he will appear again, but in the form of a villainous Jester (also brilliantly voiced by Short). Time has passed much faster in Oz. The Jester now wields the wand of his sister, the Wicked Witch of the West, and has used its power to wreck the Emerald City and oppress its citizens. Therefore, while Dorothy is wondering how she might help her Aunt and Uncle and save their farm, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Lion are trying to call Dorothy back to Oz to save them from the Jester.

In any Oz sequel where Dorothy will play a role, some method has to be found to get her back to Oz! For example, in Out of Oz (2011), the last book in his “Wicked Years” series, Gregory Maguire made use of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to open a portal from California to Oz–echoing L. Frank Baum’s own sequel Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz (1908). In the Legends of Oz film (as in Roger S. Baum’s Dorothy of Oz), Dorothy knows that things are getting unusual again when she sees a giant rainbow racing towards her. One end snakes across the prairie and finally lifts her and Toto up, sliding them along on a fast trip to Oz. The rainbow was sent by the brainy Scarecrow who has rigged the machine in the Wizard’s chamber for this purpose, but the Jester and his flying monkey henchmen arrive and interrupt Dorothy’s flight; suddenly she is deposited not in the Emerald City but in the Gillikin Country. In her adventure-filled passage from there to the Emerald City she will encounter the important new characters of this story, including: Marshal Mallow, an officer in Candy County; the China Princess, ruling over her lands protected by the Great Wall of China (!); Wiser, an enormous, loquacious Owl; and Tugg, a boat built with the help of the Talking Trees. Together they will battle the Jester and try to restore beauty, peace, and equilibrium to Oz (until the next sequel!).

The beauty of the art direction (especially all the porcelain people in the Dainty China Country) and the creativity in the animation made it a delight to watch throughout. In one early scene, the Jester demonstrates that he can’t ever remove his parti-colored harlequin costume because of his wicked sister’s curse: every time he tries to pull it off, it just changes to new colors, switching faster and faster without ever releasing him. Marshal Mallow is an adorable creation, genuinely sweet, although he looks like a very stately, uniformed Muppet: the two marshmallows forming his head are hinged to let his jaw work. His character is voiced by Hugh Dancy, whose rich singing voice makes the song “Even Then” perhaps the most memorable of this lovely and lively score. Megan Hilty (from Smash) plays the haughty China Princess perfectly and sings with Dancy. But the story is really all about Dorothy–from the moment she put on her spunky cowboy boots and started to sing, I felt confident of this Dorothy. Lea Michele gave her a bright, youthful voice and a convincing range of emotions; her effective acting carried through her solo song, “One Day,” and all the songs, and this film is fortunate indeed to have the benefit of her vocal power and expressiveness.

On his website, Roger S. Baum wrote:

We have only to look at the fact that Oz has just passed its 100th Anniversary and is just as popular as ever. America’s greatest fairy tale continues to send us on a wonderful journey, from which we never tire.

Perhaps, the secret, why it remains a modern fairy tale after all these years, is hidden within the story. Herein lies the truths of courage, wisdom and heart and to these three we can easily mix a foundation of good faith, love and understanding.

Legends of Oz: Dorothy’s Return respects this tradition and adds to it with distinction. And I’m so glad it was a musical!


Dorothy Gale ranks 83rd on The Fictional 100.


Related post:

Les Miserables (2012) film review: Reboot

9 Sep

I watched Les Miserables–Tom Hooper’s ambitious film of the famous musical–on TV this afternoon, and, as is so often the case, a second look gave me quite a different experience. The first time I saw it in a theater for its Christmas release,  and I  reported (in my first review) being disturbed by the pacing of the film which felt too compressed to me, but this second viewing seemed to repair whatever I had felt was amiss. Or rather, I as a viewer had changed and caught up with it.  To  borrow a line from Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice (describing to Wickham her changed feelings for Darcy): “When I said that he improved on acquaintance, I did not mean that his mind or his manners were in a state of improvement, but that, from knowing him better, his disposition was better understood.”  Knowing this film better now, I understand better how much it accomplished, transferring a stage musical to real settings and yet not straying from the musical’s design or the story’s emotional heart.

Eddie Redmayne, as Marius, stood out immediately as a welcome surprise, and my second viewing only confirmed and increased my estimation of what he brought to the role. His singing was strong and well unified with his acting, which was fresh, flexible, and sincere.

Samantha Barks as Eponine impressed me much more upon second viewing.   Both in voice and demeanor, she conveyed her anguish over every word from Marius about Cosette. She seemed to shrink in size as her hopes were more surely disappointed. Her death scene, being comforted by Marius, was tender and dignified, as she sang the one song that could turn maudlin if not handled well. Here’s a nice still photo from the film showing Redmayne and Barks together.

Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of Jean Valjean improves markedly over the course of the film, reaching its peak as the elder, dying father. The first time I was focused on moments that seemed rushed or jarring but a second screening left me noticing more scenes I found satisfying, such as his mercy and release of Javert at the barricades and his confession to Marius.   Russell Crowe’s Javert still strikes me as grave and deliberate, and perfectly grounded in his character. His singing is solid and at times poignant; because it was never showy, I don’t think he got the credit he deserved.

With a work of art such as Les Miserables, it takes more than one viewing to leave behind other instantiations of the story that one holds dear. Only then can we truly see what is right in front of us.

“Les Misérables” (2012), or, the Problem of Putting an Epic (Musical) on Film: A Review

30 Dec

This season offered moviegoers adaptations of two sprawling, classic novels, Les Misérables and Anna Karenina. They represent two rather different solutions to the inevitable problems of selection and compression when one is dealing with such huge stories. Both novels unfold over some time in their fictional worlds and, likewise, take the attentive reader days, months, or even years to absorb fully. But movies have only two or three hours to lay out the essentials and take the reader from emotional point A to point B, or to points X, Y, and Z.


In Les Misérables, the selection and compression of incident was given in advance by the adaptation for the stage, Boublil, Schönberg, and Kretzmer’s hugely successful musical. The undulating succession of emotional lows and peaks which Victor Hugo wrote are all here with a song to embody each. But is this a help to the film or too big a constraint on the pace of storytelling in a medium so different from the stage?  The stage is a place where scenes can be rotated into view or merely suggested with a backdrop or a few props, where action is limited by space, and where audience and actors agree that a character may stop, lift us up (with the strength of a Jean Valjean!), and symbolically carry us through the emotional journey of a song.  In a film, especially one that is avowedly “realistic” in its aim, the agreement is a bit different. The story is told scene by scene at more or less the pace of life; gaps in time–sometimes huge ones–serve the purpose of compression. The screenwriter’s and film director’s arts involve first selecting the scenes that will piece together the narrative and then setting them up (requiring again a whole universe of choices) for the camera to capture.

In Tom Hooper’s film of Les Misérables, the succession of songs seems to force a certain staccato pace on the events, as if they must be reeled out quickly before the song is over. Because this cuts against the grain of realism in what the eye sees, the film seems oddly rushed and busy, and star Hugh Jackman, as Jean Valjean, mirrors this pace in his valiant, breathy singing.  Fantine’s fall from seamstress to prostitute, after selling her locket, hair, and teeth, apparently occurs all in the same day, in the space of a few desperate hours, while the song that brackets it takes mere minutes.  The cuts and scene changes that permit the illusion of the passage of time, in a fine version such as the 1998 nonmusical film (starring Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman), are not available here.


Perhaps the frenetic pace of Fantine’s degradation conveys its tragedy, but as a viewer I was ironically grateful when the motion ceased while she sang “I dreamed a dream”–this song, both in the musical and in the film, bestowed the gift of time, room to contemplate all her character had undergone and would yet suffer.

Does this mean that a sung-through musical is not possible on film? Not at all. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), directed by Jacques Demy, is successful precisely because it never feels rushed or constrained by the songs; its dreamy quality matches song to action in a way that is awe-inspiring, justifying the admiration this film has received. For Les Mis, Hooper faced the doubly difficult task of adapting an adaptation, and he likely felt an obligation to include all the songs from the musical out of respect for its fans;  but this ready-made “screenplay,” in song form, short-circuited the possibility of making a musical better adapted to screen storytelling.

In Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina, the artistic tables are turned. Other films to this point have used conventional realism and judicious scene selection to solve the problem of compressing Tolstoy’s massive masterpiece. Wright, however, used the freedoms and conventions of the stage to make a brilliantly unconventional adaptation.


Placing his actors on and off a theater stage allowed abrupt scene changes and mere suggestions of incidents that were not out of place but rather served the emotional impact of the story. When Vronsky’s horse suddenly and fatally tumbled off the stage, the viewer was jarred into real shock comparable to Anna’s, and “realism” of a very different sort was managed creatively (such a fall might indeed break a horse’s back or crush its rider). Yet it is not real–it’s a film, and we knew that “no animals were harmed in the making.” It’s an illusion achieved with cuts, special effects, and clever choices, part of the overarching illusion that the whole story can be recounted before the viewers’ eyes. Wright straddled film and theater, moving between them in a way that was surprising and constantly fresh, and a sophisticated commentary on both.

But Les Mis made a different set of choices: film realism and live singing. It has many strengths within those confines, not least of which is a complete realization of the stage musical. It fleshes out the action in epic proportions, to the point of floating a full-size galley (so it seems) for prisoner Jean Valjean to sweat and pull and sing into harbor. On this grand epic canvas, several other performances stood out and deserve mention. Anne Hathaway (Fantine) and Russell Crowe (Javert) found each of their character’s genuine center, and both sang very effectively. Anne will likely bring home many well-merited awards, probably an Oscar. Amanda Seyfried sang the aerial notes of Cosette with natural beauty and sincerity, and I would have wished more screen time for her.  Eddie Redmayne (Marius), hitherto best known for playing Jack in The Pillars of the Earth, was a bracing surprise, for his screen charisma and excellent singing. But the biggest and most welcome surprise was the cameo of Colm Wilkinson as M. Myriel, the saintly bishop whose gifts of candlesticks and forgiveness purchased Jean Valjean’s soul for God, launching the miracle of his new life and pilgrimage of faith. Wilkinson reminds us of the possible heights an actor can reach in portraying the soul of a great man. Hugh Jackman embraces this challenge wholeheartedly and seems to understand the moral choices that beset Jean Valjean as well as the prayerfulness with which he approached those choices. As it did for Wilkinson in the stage musical, Jackman’s best moment arrived in the pivotal song, “Bring Him Home.” And so Jackman fulfilled the role, especially its greater physical demands in the film. Was he a “revelation” in the role? Perhaps not. But like Jean Valjean, he proved himself utterly faithful to it.

Related post:

Breakage and Mending in “Anna Karenina” (2012): A review of the film by Joe Wright

4 Dec

Each new film adaptation of a classic must make choices about the images and symbols that will accompany its characters and help to reveal the significance of what happens to them. This is especially true when adapting a very long, profound, and polyphonic novel such as Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. 


Such choices by a director and by actors will forever color the impressions of a viewer encountering the story for the first time, even if she or he should go on to read the novel or watch other films of it.   For viewers who already know it, from its original or other renderings, a new adaptation is still an exciting opportunity to experience the work in a completely new way. In its boldness, Joe Wright’s 2012 film adaptation of Anna Karenina does not disappoint, with its abundant creativity and fresh emphasis, attributable undoubtedly as well to Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.

I’d like to highlight one motif that struck me as I watched (and listened–sounds are very important in this film too).  That motif is the alternation of breakage and (when possible) mending, mostly concerning the delicate relationships between people but extending to other things as well.  The viewer learns right away that the film will dance between scenes explicitly framed on stage as moving tableaux and “real” scenes, often introduced by spillage of the action over the proscenium or stretching out across an infinite rear stage. This gives the whole film an impressive trompe l’oeil quality, where one can’t always be sure what one is seeing. (The last scene of the film is a particular triumph of Wright’s  technique.) This method yields the first “breakages”–breaking the habitual rules governing the boundaries between stage and life, and breaking with our expectations of how period novels should be told on film.  In effect, the director announces immediately, “This will not be a well-behaved costume drama, so watch carefully!”  And indeed we do, because besides being sumptuous, it is paced quickly with sudden switches and interruptions.  Interestingly, chronological sequence is obeyed, giving the viewer at least one reliable anchor.  Perhaps, since Tolstoy inserted so much foreshadowing into his plot, there is little need to rearrange events to hint at the final outcome.

The early scenes visit the daily life and family strife of Stiva Oblonsky, Anna’s brother, played delightfully by Matthew Macfadyen, who was Keira Knightley’s Darcy in Joe Wright’s 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. As Stiva, Macfadyen turns in an expansive, scene-stealing performance! His arrival at his office is a tuneful, surreal dance that made me wonder if this would be a musical throughout?  But in the first of many abrupt ruptures, the background melody of the characters’ lives is broken by the jangling of tragedy, the death of the train attendant, witnessed by Anna and blighting her initial passing encounter of Vronsky at the station.

Anna comes to visit her brother’s family in Moscow on a mission to mend the marriage whose breakage is threatened by Stiva’s unfaithfulness to his wife Dolly. Anna’s appeal to her sister-in-law to forgive her straying (though loving) husband works, and the breach is mended, despite Stiva’s inability to change his ways significantly.  Anna’s visit, however, gravely disrupts the life of Kitty, Dolly’s 18-year-old sister, who has hopes of marrying Count Vronsky, a young army officer. Seeing Anna so utterly captivate Vronsky at the ball where she imagined he would propose to her sends Kitty into despair and illness.  Before she learns the truth about Vronsky, Kitty turns down a proposal from the progressive farmer and landowner Levin, but that is not the final word for them. Wright’s film handles this counterpoint tale of Kitty and Levin’s redeeming love with extraordinary charm and sincerity. I won’t spoil it with more details, but it unfolds through fine, restrained performances by Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson. Gleeson in particular captures Levin’s mysterious mixture of inner quiet and turmoil.

The rough outlines of Anna Karenina’s tragedy are well known, part of worldwide culture, but for any who are coming to her story for the first time, there are spoilers ahead…

As Anna, Keira Knightley must demonstrate layer upon layer of fragility as the character suffers a series of ruptures in all the major relationships of her life. Knightley does have such acting resources, which she showed in The Duchess (2008; a story with many parallels and some important divergences from the present one) and in the somber fable Never Let Me Go (2010).  But because the actress herself is so young, it is hard for her to show some of the nuances of Anna’s vulnerability and pain as she is compared to the young princess Vronsky’s mother intends for him. It is not only that she may be supplanted, but that she feels time slipping past her.  Despite her undeniable part in creating the fatal string of events, the word “inexorable” seems the only one to describe the cascading breakages–with her husband, lover, son, and her friends in Petersburg “society”–that leave Anna unconnected, like a beautiful marionette with all its strings cut. Although Vronsky and Anna were both judged by society for their behavior, their positions were never equivalent. Vronsky risked some things, notably in his career, but Anna risked everything. He could escape the situation by marrying, but she had no escape, she thought, but the one she chose.  In the end, she allowed herself to break like a fallen bisque doll.

I called “breakage” a motif in the film rather than simply a theme because Wright uses it repeatedly in both sights and sounds. I’ve never heard so many loud, sudden noises in a film that didn’t involve explosions or car crashes! Everyone seems poised to be startled (including the audience). The rapid scene changes and dislocations between stage and “real world” reinforce sudden revelations in the plot or strong emotions.  For example, when Anna flatly tells her husband that he is not mistaken, that she indeed loves Vronsky and is his mistress, the carriage they are riding in registers Karenin’s shock with a screech.  Often, Anna’s voice seems to catch in her throat and she draws in breath audibly.  Her gasp becomes a scream when Vronsky’s horse suddenly falls, in one of the most brilliant bits of stage business–and filmmaking–I’ve ever seen. (We know this is coming, but the surprise and horror are triggered as if we didn’t.)  Vronsky is thrown clear but the horse’s back is broken, and the unbearable shot rings out. Vronsky has lost one of beings he loves most, and the foreshadowing of irreparable brokenness is complete.

Wright’s film made me see Tolstoy’s great domestic novel as an especially poignant study in entropy, the tendency of the universe to increase in disorder: How easy it is for a horse and rider to fall, for a bone to break, or for a marriage to fail.  Mending, when it is even possible, requires tremendous energy and calls forth humility and steadfast qualities, especially love, loyalty, and forgiveness.  Without them, the din of heartbreak can be deafening.


“Elementary” premiere on CBS–a very new Holmes and Watson keep the faith

28 Sep



Although I planned to write next about Andrew Motion’s Silver, his excellent sequel to Treasure Island, I can’t resist commenting on the premiere episode of “Elementary” on CBS last night, with its inspired pairing of Jonny Lee Miller, as recovering addict Sherlock Holmes, and Lucy Liu as Joan Watson, ex-surgeon, now hired by Holmes’s father as a companion to oversee his son’s first months out of rehab.  It is inspired because their chemistry together is strong from the start, both a clash and an attraction of personalities, and not primarily sexual. This clever justification for Watson’s shadowing Holmes’s every move, accompanying him on a case when they have barely met, gives the series a solid premise to build on;  by the end of the first episode, there are already hints that the relationship is growing beyond duty and grudging acceptance to one of mutual interest, usefulness, and even caring.

In his indispensable essay “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes,” Michael Chabon observes that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early Holmes (in the first two novels A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four) was presented as more resolutely strange and nonconformist. He suggests that Holmes was the product of the same Victorian duality that made a Dorian Gray or Jekyll and Hyde. However, as the author turned to writing his detective short stories, some of these darker traits dropped away and a seemingly more conservative (if never quite conventional) Holmes emerged.

“beginning in 1891 with the first great short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Conan Doyle abandoned most of the louche, Wildean touches with which he had initially encumbered the character of Holmes. The outré personal habits, the vampiric hours, the drug use, the willfully outrageous ignorance of ‘useless facts,’ such as the order of the solar system or contemporary politics, gave way to a more conventional and cozy sort of eccentricity.” (from Chabon’s collected essays, Maps and Legends, p. 33)

Readers may argue how much of this side of Holmes truly dropped away—perhaps it merely receded into the background and emerged when the stresses brought about the necessary conditions (especially true of the drug use).  Most writers and adapters of the characters since Conan Doyle have cherished one or more of these eccentricities in their raw state, and “Elementary” is no exception. Its Holmes has quite literally just emerged from drug rehabilitation and he appears to Watson for the first time in an apparently untamed state—shirtless, unshaven, twitchy, restless, and recalcitrant. While he is dismissing the necessity of Joan Watson’s services as “babysitter,” he is also keen to deductively size her up, almost as a compulsive tic rather than a power play. It is a subtle performance and the generous closeups permit ample appreciation of the restraint  and skill of both actors. Naturally, he talks very, very fast. Both updated Sherlocks—this one in New York and the BBC’s Sherlock in today’s London—operate on the premise that speed of expression and mental powers are perfectly correlated (something I would take issue with, in practice). However, it certainly works as a sign to their Watsons and to their audiences at home that one must snap to, pay attention, and try to keep up!

Owing to his recent treatment, this Holmes is in a somewhat vulnerable state, something he shares with Darlene Cypser’s young Sherlock in her Consulting Detective series. Both are in crisis for medical reasons and both are at odds with a disappointed father.  In “Elementary” it rankles Holmes that upon relocating to New York from London, he must accept living in the “worst” of the several apartments his father owns. Fortunately, solving difficult criminal cases proves highly therapeutic (true for Cypser’s Holmes as well). This is very fortunate for the TV viewer too, because a murder comes in his way very quickly and is admirably resolved within the single episode—I hope this pattern continues, whatever development occurs across episodes for the continuing characters.  Aidan Quinn as Captain Gregson of the NYPD is an outstanding touch, though appearing only briefly, and I hope to see his role grow.

A great deal is accomplished in this first episode. Because their relationship begins on a note of distrust, Holmes and Watson must each win some measure of trust and respect from the other, enough for the relationship to persist until the next episode (and then the next). It is fascinating to see how this Watson wins Holmes’s admiration, and this incident leads to the only uncharacteristic move his character makes—claiming to anticipate an outcome that came as quite a surprise to him. I cannot think of an example in the canon where Holmes deliberately claimed he’d deduced something he hadn’t. (Perhaps others can think of an instance I’ve overlooked.) His admission to Watson about this begins paradoxically to kindle in her a greater faith in him, even if it is only the hope that he is actually human.

Michael Chabon, in the same essay I mentioned earlier, takes Conan Doyle to task for not having enough faith in his own character at the outset, perhaps always underestimating his merit and worth as the greatest project of his life. To me, this matter of faith in Holmes is very central. Conan Doyle’s very ambivalence about Holmes may be one answer to the riddle of why Sherlock Holmes was, is, and has remained so compelling. The drama of Holmes needing to win faith and trust from his clients, from skeptical police, even from the occasional perpetrator, is enacted over and over with each new story and novel in the canon, and again with each new pastiche or fresh realization of the character in film or television. Holmes keeps winning readers’ and viewers’  faith, whether his creator could credit their loyal belief in him or not.  Authors from Conan Doyle onward have Holmes demonstrate his powers with such force and clarity, he makes believers out of skeptics of all description.  A show like “Elementary” really only gets one opening chance to inspire faith that this Holmes can be and do what any “real” Holmes should be and do. Watson is our guide, leading us to wonder and then to believe in him.  In the course of this first episode, Dr. Joan Watson learned enough to stay by her Holmes, and I think viewers will keep returning too.


Michael Chabon, “Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes” in Maps and Legends. Open Road, 2011 [kindle edition]. (Original work published 2008)

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Fires Blazing and Suppressed: Fukunaga’s “Jane Eyre” (2011)

20 Apr

Cary Fukunaga’s new film “Jane Eyre” sets off at a run. Our first view of Jane is not in the cold, confining settings of Aunt Reed’s house or the Lowood School, but at Thornfield, at the moment when Jane gathers her things and bolts out of Rochester’s domain, running away from it and him, through the rocky, overgrown fields as anxious perspiration beads upon her straining face. A beginning in medias res, for sure.

After 27 film and television adaptations (by the count in USA Today‘s review), not to mention the wide currency of Charlotte Brontë’s classic 1847 novel, a director approaching the story could count on two things: viewers know the plot almost scene by scene, and many will be looking for something distinctive in the telling. The distinctive entry point for the story that Fukunaga chose proves dramatically effective, especially when it recurs, Groundhog Day-style, in its proper order later in the film. The story jumps back and forth from setting to setting, and so is told out of order on the global scale, but except for Jane’s desperate exit from Thornfield, I believe that the chronological order of events is preserved within settings: at the Riverses’ house, at Lowood School, at Aunt Reed’s, and at Thornfield. This adaptation adds the spice of originality but keeps the main flavors authentic throughout.

Roger Ebert comments on the indispensable atmosphere for Gothic romance: the “costumes, sets, locations, sound design and the wind and rain,” all abundantly present and masterfully set before us in this film. The interiors are convincingly cold and the exteriors threateningly wild. The accents of speech are varied and appropriate–Jane herself speaks with a hint of Irish in her well-controlled voice.

At age 21, but looking even younger than the 19 years possessed by Jane, Mia Wasikowska has already mastered the art of understatement in acting. At times, she is nearly expressionless and one must look for the merest muscle twitch to read her emotions. But look and you will find it. When Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench!) tells Jane that Rochester is returning to Thornfield after one of his sudden, extended absences, she barely begins to smile when her lips fall, almost imperceptibly, at the added intelligence that Blanche Ingram will be among the large party of guests. When Blanche does arrive and play her catty drawing-room scene, she gets almost no attention from the camera. Jane doesn’t look directly at her and neither do we. Why bother, when we know she’ll soon be gone?

Michael Fassbender’s Rochester keeps up a high pitch of “Sturm und Drang”–restlessly active, irritable, and anxious. Despite Jane’s impassive shell, she betrays a stormy luminosity in his presence. I found the attraction between them to be palpable and more physical than is often allowed. Rochester protests again and again that he wants her soul, and that he will not stop till he has extracted it, through every cell of her body. When he begs Jane to stay, in spite of his marriage to Bertha, he clings to her with such force, he draws out from her all the anguish and tears that match his own desolation. I have seen this scene so many times, played haughtily or desperately by Rochester, resolutely or compassionately by Jane, but in this film, I especially felt his acute misery and the terrible pull of her indecision, making it all the clearer that she could not walk out–she had to run.

In my title, I refer to fire as a theme in Brontë and in this film. Fire occurs early and late in the story, both times set by the first Mrs. Rochester. When she sets his bed curtains ablaze, Jane saves her new employer, and their intimacy quickly ratchets up. After Jane leaves, Thornfield finally burns. Rochester can save everyone in the house but Bertha, who falls to her death; he is injured and left blind. His plea to Jane, spirit to spirit, recalls her to him, and their “trial by fire” is ended.

Fire is equally a theme for young Jane Eyre, played with clarity and fervor by Amelia Clarkson. In Mrs. Reed’s “Red Room,” where Jane is locked up as punishment, all her fears reach a fever pitch when black smoke backs up and roars out of the fireplace on its own. Banished to the evil care of Mr. Brocklehurst, headmaster of Lowood School, she is told that rebellious girls, such as she, will spend eternity in the fiery pit of Hell. Jane’s private hell is relieved for a time by the friendship of Helen Burns (yes, Burns), who too soon dies of tuberculosis while sleeping beside Jane, their hands clasped.

Finally (this is, after all, Gothic romance), the “fire” in Jane’s soul never goes out through all her suffering. For many years she suppresses it, she tames it, but she also tends it, hidden from those who would seek to smother it. It blazes out in her speech to Rochester:

Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!–I have as much soul as you and full as much heart!

And again it flares when she must fight to leave him, fight for the flame of inner truth and selfhood she can’t extinguish even for love, even for him. 

Watching this Jane Eyre in a crowded theater on a warm Sunday afternoon, I felt that all these people were here for Jane–drawn not by one particular film (excellent as this one is), but by Jane the character, whose hard life and courageous love story they know so well. Jane is a fictional luminary and also an intimate friend, and she had made another film, so we all just had to be there.

Find more about Jane Eyre at The Fictional 100.

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I Won’t Forget “Alice” on Oscar Night, which includes my high praise for Mia Wasikowska as Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

Looking for the Beast in “Beastly”: A review of the film

11 Mar

The driving conflict in Beastly (2011, directed by Daniel Barnz) is set in high school, that daily battleground for adolescents where fragile identities form, clash, and remake themselves. The film retells the fairy-tale of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as a story of teen rivalries, exclusions, and ultimately romance.

In many ways, it is a perfect choice. Appearance is all-important to teens, and the pain of being different doesn’t need any explanation. So when arrogant class leader and likely prom king Kyle Kingson (or, the prince) is turned from handsome to “ugly” by a curse from an “ugly” girl he has callously tricked and humiliated, no teenager will be surprised that he skips school and hides out, while he figures things out. I put ugly in quotes, both times. The Beastly Kyle (Alex Pettyfer), who now calls himself Hunter, is transformed, but only arguably ugly: he seems to have a seriously punk look–bald with tattoo tracery over his face and scalp, scars, and some neat piercings, and spends much of the movie shirtless to show off his abs, which seem to be intact, ugliness curse notwithstanding. Likewise, Kendra, the girl who curses him, played with menacing aplomb by Mary-Kate Olsen, has a commanding presence as the witch, but it would be a stretch to call her ugly. Different is not the same as ugly, but in this teen universe, as perhaps in our own, these two blur.


Vanessa Hudgens is this film’s Beauty, and her character, Lindy Taylor, manages to be both beautiful and different, the outsider, marginalized by her family’s uncertain income and her father’s involvement with illegal drugs. She has had a rough education for compassion, so her perspective on suffering prepares her to be the Beast’s salvation.  But first he has to convince her to come out of her room! She’s been staying at his lavish New York apartment for protection, hiding out from someone threatening to take revenge on her father through her. (In this small detail, the film adaptation loses a wee bit of magic, because the fairy-tale Beauty goes to the Beast to save her father’s life, not her own.)

The tale is well-known, and the film follows its outline with reasonable faithfulness. The “Beast” learns more about pleasing the tastes and interests of his Beauty, he learns to be less self-centered and more giving, and romance blossoms along with the roses he cultivates on the apartment’s rooftop garden.  With only a hint of any obstacle in their path, restoration follows swiftly upon romance.

Although the familiar shape of the fairy-tale (‘La Belle et la B ête’ by Madame le Prince de Beaumont, 1756) is clearly in evidence, the film seems to lack some of the substance that makes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ one of the most influential and widely dispersed tales, second only to ‘Cinderella’ for its numerous variations in many languages.

It belongs to a general class of folktales about animal grooms (and sometimes animal brides) whose fate depends on the actions and emotions aroused in a human partner. By discovering the truth behind appearances, the human character reaches maturity and grants the animal character a renewed chance at human life. Along the way, the opposites of beauty and ugliness, kindness and brutality, and humanity and bestiality are played off against each other in subtle ways to prepare for the final transformation. (The Fictional 100, p. 190)

Beastly, the film, emphasizes the beauty-ugliness dimension, and to a lesser extent the kindness-cruelty dimension, to the virtual exclusion of the hallmark dimension of humanity vs. bestiality. When he is cursed, Kyle is obsessed with his ugliness, the loss of his radiant looks and the identity and power they gave him. He is “beastly” only in the sense of behaving badly–with thoughtless disregard for others’ feelings or needs. Despite his adopted pseudonym of “Hunter,” the animality of a Beast is essentially bypassed. This eliminates one of the fundamental internal conflicts for the Beast as well as a significant obstacle for Beauty to overcome and learn to accept.

‘Beauty and the Beast’ can be read for its social, psychological, and even political overtones, which critics such as Bruno Bettelheim and Maria Tatar have done with great insight. Yet the heart of the fairy tale seems  to be one of the big questions of philosophy: What makes us human? How do we accept and come to terms with our animal nature, while still cultivating that which makes us transcend it? The Beast is transformed because as a man he was living at a level beneath full humanity. During the period of the curse, his form matches his bestial nature and he must work to regain his personhood. Beauty, the emblem of the fully human, willingly sacrifices her freedom to save her father. After she takes up residence in the Beast’s castle, her compassion for him soon flows from the same fountain of human kindness and empathy, despite facing the evidence of his animality.


This is shown dramatically in Jean Cocteau’s masterpiece of film making, La Belle et la Bête (1946), starring Josette Day as a luminous Beauty and Jean Marais as the most poignantly convincing of Beasts. In one visually stunning scene, Beauty accidentally observes the Beast in the midst of a meal, devouring the prey he has caught. Becoming aware of her, he himself feels caught, and is overcome with shame, symbolized by the smoke rising from his bloodied paws. No other image could so completely capture his dilemma. She is shocked at first, but understands that this is what animals must do.

When the Beast allows Beauty to return to her sick father (in Beastly, Hunter must face a similar decision that tests his ability to be unselfish), he is on the road to recovering his humanity, but he is only released from the curse by grace, the freely given love of Beauty who returns to him. (Perhaps we are all made human by such grace!) Beauty is also transformed by this act, integrating her humanity with her physical nature, thereby enabling the true marriage with her prince–body and soul.

To the extent that the film Beastly bypasses the dilemma of our simultaneous human and animal nature, it misses an opportunity (one that Twilight takes advantage of through Bella and Jacob). Even Disney’s animated Beauty and the Beast (1991) embraced the animal transformation of the Beast. I have not read Alex Finn’s 2007 novel Beastly, the basis for the film adaptation, but what little I have read about it suggests that her teen Beast may have been hairier! I would be interested to have someone who has read the novel weigh in on its treatment of the human-animal theme.

I Won’t Forget “Alice” on Oscar Night

22 Feb

About a year ago, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” premiered, in all its glorious, grey-washed, yet intense color and with the trappings of 3D, vines, tendrils, Jabberwocky, and all. I wanted to see it on opening day (not an effort I usually make). My husband was working, so I went out to our local multiplex in early afternoon, put on my big plastic glasses, and settled in for the experience. Despite a fairly full theater, having no particular companion concentrated my full attention on the screen. Soon, just like Alice running after the White Rabbit, I was running after Alice and tumbling through the hole, down the hollow tree into Wonderland. Tim Burton’s Wonderland.



The color palette grabbed me before anything else, which makes me delighted to see that “Alice in Wonderland” has received three Academy Award nominations for elements of its artistic achievement: Art Direction, Visual Effects, and Costume Design. Only in the Costume Design category is it favored for a win, according to the oddsmakers. I think Johnny Depp’s performance went much deeper than his Mad Hatter’s Hat and makeup; nevertheless, I am glad to see the costumes recognized. I also realize that some of the best films have only garnered artistic or technical Oscars, but were better appreciated later for their excellence overall. A case in point: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. I am sorry that Oscar voters did not place  “Alice” among its 10 nominees for Best Picture, since it was my favorite of the year’s films and the box-office winner worldwide. 

On Oscar night this Sunday, February 27, 2011, I will be remembering “Alice in Wonderland” with great affection for that first magical screening last March. In subsequent months, I found that “Alice in Wonderland” is a film that bears many repeated viewings on cable or DVD, even without 3D, and it seems more perfect and harmoniously constructed each time I see it. But here let me share the review I wrote that day last year, in the passionate throes of first viewing:

Moonlight Becomes Her: A Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland
by Lucy Pollard-Gott (March 5, 2010)

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland looks and feels like a Tim Burton movie, not a pastel-hued, scene-by-scene rendering of Lewis Carroll’s immortal Alice books. But in the end, that is the strength of this bold, visually stunning film. Carroll’s mythmaking and, more importantly, his characters prove they are vibrantly alive by how well they survive and thrive in such transformation.

Transformed indeed. Alice (played by winsome and willowy Mia Wasikowska) has grown up to age 20, but is still dreamy and imaginative, still questioning. After she no longer has the protection of her understanding father, recently deceased, she is nearly pushed into a stifling aristocratic marriage that seems designed to quash her mind and her freedom. When she spies the white, waist-coated Rabbit, she flees in pursuit of him rather than accept such a proposal. Next to that, a frightening fall through an almost endless rabbit hole seems like a welcome relief. As objects and images whiz past her, and she tumbles past them, her descent can’t help but evoke Dorothy Gale’s equally frightening ascent, when caught up by the Kansas cyclone. There is even a flying bed, reminding us of Alice’s recurrent thought that, surely, this must all be a dream.

Alice lands in the faithfully rendered locked room, and by means of just the right key and drink (“Drink me”) and cake (“Eat me”), she emerges–for the first time, she thinks–into Wonderland. This much we expect. Yet this world is not the Wonderland of our childhood memories, and it’s certainly no smiling Oz, albeit a bit more colorful than anything we’ve seen so far in the film. We don’t usually think of Wonderland as a twilight world, even when it is threatened by such creatures as the Jabberwocky or the frumious Bandersnatch. But Burton’s misty and mysterious art direction bathes Alice in moonlight and shadow, and blond as she is, she still projects a liminal beauty between light and dark.

Alice has forgotten, or repressed, her childhood adventures beyond the looking glass, and so she must figure out where she is and even who she is, as she meets one creature after another who takes her measure and finds her wanting in comparison to the old (that is, younger) Alice they remember. Can she really be the one whose return they have been anticipating? As in most adaptations, Carroll’s creatures from several books (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and even a little Hunting of the Snark thrown in) all meet in a conflated jumble to populate the movie Wonderland. After all, who would wish to wait for a sequel to see Tweedledum and Tweedledee?

But as soon as Alice follows the Cheshire Cat, languidly voiced by Stephen Fry, and is reunited with the Mad Hatter (a resplendently batty Johnny Depp), he will lead her to the site of an old attack by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) who snatched the crown from her more pacific sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Burton’s ruined Wonderland is beautiful in its devastation, a type of landscape he does so well (as in The Corpse Bride or even The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, also starring Depp). The Hatter tells Alice that the White Queen needs her to remember who she is and champion the realm, defeating the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky with the Vorpal sword (because of Carroll, a standard issue weapon familiar to many role-play gamers). The moments deep in the burned forest when Depp recites snatches of the “Jabberwocky” poem lift the scene to a higher dimension, 3D or not.

Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), ambushes the Hatter, Alice, and their creature friends but captures only the Hatter. Alice is still unsure about herself, and definitely not sure that she wants anything to do with the dread Jabberwocky, but she knows one thing for certain–she wants to go and rescue Johnny Depp!

How she chooses to deal with the quest laid upon her will determine the quality of the adulthood she has earned. Even with an older Alice, the film retains a certain playfulness, though a little grisly at times; be sure to look for poignant moments that flash back to the child Alice. This film may not satisfy purists, but it is purely magical.

Alice ranks 25th on The Fictional 100 by Lucy Pollard-Gott.

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