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Vol. LXV, No. 23
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
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DVD Review

An Embarrassment of Riches: BBC Home Movies From the Princeton Public Library

Stuart Mitchner

It was the best of months and the worst of months. The upside of one of the dreariest Mays in memory was escaping night after night into the literary weather of nine English novels, courtesy of the BBC and the Princeton Public Library. Think of it: nine brilliant period movies made for home viewing, three adapted from Charles Dickens, two each from Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell, one each from Samuel Richardson and George Eliot, all made between 1991 and 2008 by the same production company, each in its own way meeting the highest standard in acting, directing, music, costume, location, and cinematography, and each available from the DVD shelves of the great community resource located at 65 Witherspoon Street.

Except for Richardson’s Clarissa, which was published in 1748 (DVD 1991), the novels in question were products of the Victorian period (1837-1901), from Dickens’s Bleak House (DVD 2005), which was published in serial form in 1852-53, to Eliot’s Middlemarch (DVD 1994) and Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (DVD 2001), which appeared in serial form in the early 1870s and between covers in 1874 and 1875 respectively. Rather than attempt to do justice to all nine series, I’m going to give most of my attention to Dickens and Eliot.

To the credit of the BBC’s Andrew Davies, who adapted six of the nine books, including Bleak House and Little Dorrit (1855-57/2008) and Sandy Welch, who adapted Our Mutual Friend (1864-65/1998), the flavor of Dickens, his vision and his energy, has not been lost in translation. The only author who proved to be in some key respects beyond translation was George Eliot.

Imagining Lydgate

As admirably filmed and acted as it is, the BBC version of Middlemarch, which was also written by Andrew Davies, dedicates itself to the story instead of the task of devising some filmic equivalent for the formidable rhetorical presence of the author. Given the impossibility of creating a moral and intellectual spirit persona for George Eliot through which the major characters would be magically infused, the most likely remedy would have been the addition of a recurring voice-over like Judi Dench’s when, speaking as George Eliot, she narrates the novel’s concluding paragraph.

The closest the BBC’s Middlemarch comes to finding an effective medium for Eliot’s sensibility and intellect is in the character of Dorothea Brooke, who, as Eliot points out, knows “many passages” of Pascal and Jeremy Taylor “by heart,” has a “theoretic” mind, and yearns “for some lofty conception of the world” that might include “her own rule of conduct.” Dorothea is played with requisite intelligence and pitch-perfect sensitivity by Juliet Aubrey. To communicate a full measure of the author’s creative intelligence, however, something comparable would have to be invested in the portrayal of Dr. Tertius Lydgate.

Douglas Hodge’s depiction of the brilliant young doctor’s suffering as he plunges into the abyss of his marriage to Rosamund Vincy can’t be faulted; nor can Trevyn McDowell’s Rosamund. Without some form of narrative guidance from George Eliot, however, the confident, idealistic Lydgate played by Hodge rarely resembles the man of vision Eliot tells us is “fired with the possibility that he might work out the proof of an anatomical conception and make a link in the chain of discovery.”

At this point in the narrative, Eliot seems to lean closer to us as she asks, “Does it not seem incongruous to you that a Middlemarch surgeon should dream of himself as a discoverer?” It would take a daring and inspired actor speaking inspired dialogue to make us believe that the BBC’s Lydgate is grappling with great issues as he’s being dragged to his ruin by debt.

The chapter in Middlemarch (Book 2, Chapter 15) in which Eliot presents her Lydgate is where, speaking from my own experience, the greatness of the book becomes indisputable. Eliot’s Lydgate is in a realm far removed from the brash, proud fellow in a television series enjoying his dreams of medical conquest only slightly more than he does his adorable piano-playing Rosy. The adventurer Eliot imagines for us after her reference to the “chain of discovery” is capable of being among “the great originators,” one of “those Shining Ones” who “walk on the earth among neighbors who perhaps thought much more of his gait and his garments than of anything which was to give him a title to everlasting fame” or “final companionship with the immortals.”

Only after citing the period “when America was beginning to be discovered, when a bold sailor, even if he were wrecked, might alight on a new kingdom” and when “the dark territories of Pathology were a fine America for a spirited young adventurer,” does Eliot come down to earth and the BBC’s more prosaic Lydgate who “was ambitious above all to contribute towards enlarging the scientific, rational basis of his profession.”

Imagining Dickens

Although the Dickensian spirit comes through in the three BBC adaptations without benefit of voice-overs or infusions of Dickensian prose, it would be helpful if viewers have a copy of the original at hand. For instance, the showy, heavy handed, bang-bang editing of the opening sequences of the BBC production of Bleak House might be explained, if not justified, by assuming that the idea was to reflect the rhetorical intensity of the prose in the book’s opening paragraphs about the fog and that forty-foot-long Megalosaurus “waddling up Holborn Hill.” Even so, all the cutting back and forth between rearing horses and crowded law court, the propulsive jumping from image to image, as if the film were being edited by a drunken percussionist, very nearly led us to make an early exit from what proved to be the first of nine memorable viewing experiences.

What kept us watching was the appealing presence of Anna Maxwell Martin as Esther Summerson, a character whose centrality and integrity are the foundation of the whole elaborate Dickensian structure. There she sits in the careening carriage, calm in the midst of that storm of effects, clearly centered in spite of being hurtled into a strange new world. We don’t need much help from Dickens to know and trust in her. Her scenes with Mr. Guppy (Burn Gorman), as pure a portrayal of a Dickens type as you’ll ever see, show the round/flat character dynamic in action. When Guppy makes the first of several rejected proposals of marriage, it’s as if a broad Dickens character were proposing to a round one, an impossible union if only according to type, for character and caricature to marry would be a kind of misguided literary miscegenation.

Gillian Anderson’s Lady Dedlock seems to contain both the round and broad character types. The oddly but brilliantly cast refugee from American TV’s X-Files gives a performance that verges on self-parody, that has you smiling, almost laughing at this bizarre epitome of mysterious ennui, and yet it works. Somehow Anderson is able to be both artificial and humanly vulnerable. Wrapped in melancholy, forever treading on the thin ice of her secret, she seems as much a ghost haunting the story as a character being haunted by it. You realize just how brilliantly Anderson has modulated her performance when she finally reveals herself to Esther, face to face, lost mother and lost daughter weeping together, seemingly the apotheosis of sentimental Dickensian coincidence, where outlandish fate sweeps common-sense reality aside. If anything, the scene on film is better than the scene in the novel; the dialogue is almost word-for-word the same, and there is virtually no commentary from Dickens, and in the film none is needed.

Round Up

These nine television classics, on average about six hours long, have in common vivid, richly atmospheric evocations of time and place and a wealth of period imagery suggestive of, for a start, Vermeer, Rembrandt, Goya, Manet, Sargent, Gainsborough, and Hogarth. The series that stand out as being the most visually stunning are Gaskell’s North and South (1854-55/2004), Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend. There are brilliant visions of the English countryside with its fields, woods, and great estates throughout, but the artistic edge belongs to the urban settings, with London and the Thames and river life dominant in Our Mutual Friend, and the cotton mills at the heart of North and South. Equally memorable are the London and Venice scenes in Little Dorrit, and, most admirably of all, the set designer’s creation of the little world of the Marshalsea, the debtor’s prison where Mr. Dorrit holds court.

Of course superior production values would be merely picturesque surface pleasures without superior acting. Besides Tom Courtenay’s unforgettable portrayal of Mr. Dorrit, you have Michael Gambon. a magnificent Squire Hamley in Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864-66/1999), David Suchet’s virtuoso turn as Melmotte in The Way We Live Now, and Peter Jeffrey’s shattering performance as the scheming banker Bulstrode in total moral collapse at the end of Middlemarch.

Finally, what may be the single most consistently remarkable element in these BBC series is the spirit, charm, and intelligence of the female leads. I’ve already mentioned Anna Maxwell Martin and Juliet Aubrey, but no less touching and true is Daniela Denby-Ashe’s Margaret Hale, who defies convention in North and South and conquers against odds the fierce, handsome, Darcy-proud master of the cotton mills (Richard Armitage). Like Martin’s Esther Summerson, Claire Foy’s Amy, the title character in Little Dorrit, embodies the solid, centered enduring female sensibility. Keeley Hawes makes a wild and wonderful stepsister counterpart to Justine Waddell’s charmingly sensible and spirited Mollie Gibson in Wives and Daughters. Hawes is even better as the sturdy, luminously beautiful Lizzie Hexam, who helps her father drag dead bodies from the Thames in Our Mutual Friend. Her counterpart is Anna Friel’s Bella, another lovely, spirited heroine.

As mentioned, all these BBC classics are available at the Princeton Public Library, the only game in town now that Premier Video is no more.

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