TV Review: BBC’s Cider with Rosie and Lady Chatterley’s Lover

BBC iPlayer is a godsend. It has saved my life more than once.

Like when the TV was juddering and I couldn’t tell whether Paul Hollywood’s dubious frown resolved into a positive comment or not.

Like when I was on the train home after a weekend away and wasn’t going to get back in time for the start of Poldark.

Like when I didn’t know the BBC was doing a series of 20th-century literature adaptations until it was almost over simply because I don’t watch enough TV in order to find out about these things. (Only on Wednesdays at 8pm for the last ten weeks…)

Cider with Rosie and Lady Chatterley’s Lover are two books I have on my lengthy to-read list. Their bucolic, time-gone-by settings are just the kind of thing I like to indulge in now and then, so, naturally, I turned to iPlayer for my fix.

Cider With Rosie, BBC

Source: BBC

At the immediate entrance of a horse-drawn cart trundling through a field, I had a good feeling about Cider with Rosie. The settings throughout – fields, woodland, the wildly overgrown cottage, the picturesque village – were idyllic, heightened by Timothy Spall’s voiceover of Lee’s text, full of beautifully poetic observations.

While these things enjoyed their screen time, however, the story began to bustle on through insensitively. The film soothed us into its handsomely painted environment and yet we were suddenly expected to be emotionally primed for when Laurie is on the verge of death! …and then better again! …and then when Frances dies! (…who?)

Throughout the whole hour and a half, I felt quite detached from Laurie. Rosie’s defiance amused me, but that only partly made up for the fact I felt sorry for Jo (Laurie’s first love interest), who was a relatively undeveloped character anyway.

Laurie’s mother, Annie Lee, played wonderfully by Samantha Morton, was the only character towards whom I was truly sympathetic. The strength of this adaptation is its representation of what must have been a physically and emotionally draining experience for her.

The first few minutes of Lady Chatterley’s Lover also tore through what seemed to me to be a sizeable helping of storyline. Yet the cleverly interwoven stories of the marriage of Constance and Sir Clifford Chatterley and Sir Clifford’s later experiences in the war immediately stirred my concern for these apparently doomed lovers. I briefly thought he would not survive, but it was worse: he returns, disabled, and promptly attempts suicide.

This sequence establishes the tone that runs throughout, the tone that has been criticised for not being that for which the novel is notorious. Knowing that Lady Chatterley would soon have a lover, I began to acknowledge how the strains of her marriage would drive her to this, despite clearly still loving Sir Clifford.

It matters not that this particular adaptation lacks full-frontal nudity, as the 1993 adaptation apparently boasts. We have Game of Thrones for that. In the words of director Jed Mercurio, what was titillating in DH Lawrence’s novel is no longer ‘groundbreaking’ and therefore his interest lay in the love triangle.

Lady Chatterley and Oliver Mellors… fully clothed.

So my expectations for Cider with Rosie are left sadly unfulfilled and my enjoyment of the DH Lawrence adaptation is nevertheless besmirched by the awareness that the story was told through a 21st-century tinted spectacle.

In both cases, I feel a need to reform my opinion by reading the books themselves. Never judge a book by its adaptation… no matter how good.

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Week E – Endings

I know someone who read the first six Harry Potter books but not the last one. This same miscreant also chooses not to watch the final episode of a favourite TV series. Bizarre, yes? But there’s a reason: she doesn’t want it to end.

Not wanting your beloved series to end is understandable – it’s like saying a final goodbye to a friend. But after getting so far, refusing to complete the experience is an insult to all the hours invested already.

Choosing to not eat the final square of a chocolate bar doesn’t mean the chocolate bar-eating experience will never end. It just means that it ends sooner, and that there is some chocolate left un-enjoyed.

Not everybody hates endings to this extreme, but there is something poignant about closing a book’s covers for the final time. We are left at a loss, with a sense of emptiness. The world we have inhabited for days, weeks or months closes its doors to us, and we are sent back to reality.

Reality. That is what we are left with. Reality never ends. It changes, fades in and out of phase after phase, but never reaches a full stop.

A story will always reach its final full stop, but, like reality, can it ever really end?

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The best fictional endings are, in essence, no ending at all. The Italian Job’s famous last line – “Hang on, lads. I’ve got a great idea” – as the choice between saving the gold and saving their necks hangs in the balance (literally), does not indicate an ending, but the beginning of a new venture: a new idea.

Those millions of us who have devoured the final tome of Harry’s adventures know how Rowling puts this particular tale to bed. Not where she ‘ends’ it, but where she lays it to rest.

The final chapter projects us forward in the lives of our three hero(in)es. We enjoy the nerdish satisfaction of seeing who ended up with whom and what they named their children. As Harry and Ginny and Ron and Hermione chivvy their children onto the Hogwarts Express, the full circle is completed: the technique that satisfies all audiences of classical music and comedy sketches alike. And as we absorb this cheerful conclusion, we ask ourselves what adventures lie ahead for these young witches and wizards. It is simultaneously an ending and a beginning.

But not everyone enjoyed this finale. Was it perhaps too happily-ever-after? Even JK Rowling admitted that partnering Ron and Hermione was ‘a form of wish fulfilment’ on her part. So although the final chapter implies a continuation to the wizarding world we have known for seven volumes, the final picture we get is unrealistically convenient.

Unrealistic convenience is what is objectionable with so many happily ‘ended’ stories. The story stops in a nice place, leaving little or no doubt as to what will happen beyond the final curtain. But even a perfectly resolved narrative is merely an impressively choreographed tying of loose ends.

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” – Frank Herbert

Week A – Alice in Wonderland

It has been too long since my last post, so what better than a writing challenge to clear the blogger’s block and put my keyboard (read ‘ink well’) to good use.  I’ve decided on an A to Z theme, which isn’t particularly limiting, but provides an encouraging structure for a 6-month post-a-week challenge.  Twenty-six letters, twenty-six weeks, you do the maths.

So, welcome to Week A!

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Alice in Wonderland (dir. Tim Burton) is a film I’ve intended to see since its 2010 release, but it wasn’t until I found out that a friend of mine stars as an extra that I actively sought out the DVD, by adding it to my LOVEFiLM rental list.  Unfortunately I never identified my friend amongst the crowd of beige-clad guests at the garden party of the opening scenes, but I did discover a very enjoyable film.

Burton’s film is neither a remake of nor a sequel to the original film or book. He takes the characters created by Lewis Carroll and gives all of them – including the eponymous Alice – a new adventure.  He probably likes to think of it as an ‘improvement’, and I can’t say I disagree.

My first reaction to the news that this revival of Alice was to be directed by the iconic Tim Burton was ‘but of course!’  Lewis Carroll, best known for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is famed for the depth, brilliancy and ridiculousness of his imagination. Similarly, Tim Burton is known for his quirky fantasy films, and so the match seems perfect.  In respect to the Carroll-Burton partnership, and with their shared peculiarities in mind, I particularly liked the film’s attitude towards ‘madness’:

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
Alice: I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.

It only seems natural that Burton should defend the eccentric style he has in common with Carroll.

The main difference in the treatment of this bizarre story, as identified by renowned critic Roger Ebert (who sadly passed away only last week), is that Burton brilliantly interprets Alice as an “adult hallucination”, rather than as a reality of pure nonsense.

In Burton’s film, Alice is no longer simply a little girl seeking to avoid boredom through her vivid imagination, but a young woman who accidentally falls into a world that she believes to be her recurring childhood dream.  When Alice arrives in ‘Underland’, she is unaware that she has ever been there before in reality and so is convinced she is dreaming again.

Burton’s approach blurs the line between imagination and reality in a way that has repercussions for other aspects of the film, as I shall return to later.  The renaming of Wonderland as ‘Underland’ underscores the persistence of Reality’s battle against Imagination throughout.  Wonderland is no longer a place simply of wondrous imagination, but a fantastical place with a harsh reality.

Part of this harsh reality – and what I believe to be one of the major strengths of the film – is Alice’s destined involvement in the overthrowing of the cruel Red Queen (played, of course, by Helena Bonham-Carter).  In Lewis Carroll’s book, Alice’s adventure in Wonderland is more or less a discovery of its peculiar inhabitants, whereas Burton structures his film with a plot that incorporates Carroll’s brilliant inventions.

By introducing a stronger narrative, the film produces a closer bond with the characters and an emotional investment in their welfare, which Burton has quoted his motives.  The ‘prophesy’ that identifies Alice’s important role in the politics of Underland, a world that has been thrown into darkness through the reign of a cruel but powerful woman, is a successful strategy, but unfortunately smacks a little too much of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

However, by giving Alice this new purpose, not only an adventure, Burton introduces the ever-touchy subject of gender roles.  From the very first scenes of the film, Alice is characterised as a young woman who hasn’t accepted the stifling manners and expectations forced upon her by society.  She refuses to wear a corset or stockings, much to the distress of her well-refined mother.

The reason Alice finds herself in Underland is that she is running away from an unwanted marriage proposal that everyone expects her to accept.  As many girls would appreciate, Alice feels disinclined to be forced into a loveless, purely ‘convenient’ marriage; she has witnessed the unfaithfulness of her sister’s husband, and shuns the prospect of being similarly abused as a woman and a wife.

In Underland, as in reality, Alice’s identity is called into question; Tweedledum and Tweedledee (two perfectly chubby portrayals by Matt Lucas) debate whether she is “the right Alice”.  The role of “the right Alice” is a stereotypically masculine role – she must act as champion for the good White Queen and slay the Jabberwocky, champion for the evil Red Queen.

Alice-in-Wonderland-001

By escaping reality just as she is proposed to, Alice enters a world where she is undefined by her femininity. As a consequence of the tension between reality and dreams in Underland, it is difficult to determine whether this gender-neutrality is being represented as a far-fetched ideal, or as a genuine possibility.

Either way, when Alice returns to the garden party from whence she came, she has found the courage to make her own decisions and not be pressured by the presumptions of society.  She kindly and confidently refuses the proposal of marriage, but I do wish the extent of her epiphanies ended there.  As she turned to members of her family and imparts some of her newfound ‘wisdom’, I suppressed a veritable cringe.

As I believe has been identified by many others, the proposal for Alice to become an apprentice of her late father’s company is somewhat anachronistic, considering the Victorian setting.  Alice’s masculine role within Underland is accepted on the basis of its unreality and also because Underland is a timeless place; its presence in ‘reality’ is only objectionable in terms of its historical inaccuracies.

Aside from a few such niggling instances in which my critical stance drew me out of the drama, I enjoyed the extent to which I was submersed in the plot that Burton fashions for his Alice.  Whilst I adore the wonderful and puzzling tales in Carroll’s original books, I can’t deny that Burton’s reworking is a successful one.

The Cinephile Club

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

If a film references another film but there are no cinephiles around to notice, is it still there?

Can something exist without being perceived?

Along a similar line of philosophical thought, there is a famous quote from Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, that you may or may not know:

Knowledge is a curious thing.  To extrapolate, Rumsfeld’s statement suggests that a fact, though unknown, still exists as a fact.  It can exist without being perceived.

This is rather circumlocutionary groundwork to reach what I actually want to discuss: films that reference other films.

As a consequence of watching more and more films, I am acquiring a heightened sensitivity to traces of films that are subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) dropped into other films.

It’s as though there is a secret society – a sort of club for cinephiles – that you’re either in or you’re not.  You don’t really know it exists until you’ve earned your membership badge and you begin mutating into one of those people whose know-it-all laugh is the audible tumbleweed in an otherwise silent cinema.

Now that I have started noticing how many references there are, I am beginning to wonder about all the other film tributes I have been completely oblivious to.

Without knowing the film that is being referenced, you won’t perceive the reference.  It will pass, unnoticed and unappreciated, as if it were never there.  It will remain the “unknown unknown”.  The falling tree that no one heard.

In some cases, even if you know about the existence of such filmic references, you won’t be able to track their every move.  You might know you’re missing out on something, but you won’t know what, when, or where.  It is the “known unknown”.

But some enjoy only the “known known”.  As patronising as it sounds, I like to see filmic references as rewards given by the film industry to its trusty and committed patrons.  Such references add an additional dynamic to a film, not only embedding and situating it within the history of motion pictures, but also by providing another point of interest, perhaps another message or symbol for those who notice.

At the end of Casino Royale (2006) – which I have only just watched for the very first time and thus only just discovered – there is a reference to Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same nameBond follows the red figure of Vesper through the narrow Venetian streets in just the same way that John Baxter chases the elusive red-cloaked dwarf that he mistakes for his dead daughter.  To me, the reference seems explicit and anticipates the revelation of Vesper’s true identity that is brought by the following scene.

I know I’m an English graduate, but these references aren’t thrown in haphazardly without any concern about their implications.  Don’t forget that film directors were most likely humanities students too!

Intentional filmic references are rife.  If you don’t notice them, they are still there.  If you do notice them, they are beautiful treats.

Please comment below with any inter-film references you have noticed.  I want to know what I’m missing!

Page and Screen: The Symbiotic Relationship

Watching TV gives you square eyes.  This is a common “truth”, supported by strict parents and any cynics whose childhood was already a distant memory by the late-50s, to sway impressionable children and grandchildren from the lure of the screen.

TV and film, by absorbing an average of four hours of each citizen’s day, are accused of the crime of tearing the nation away from old-fashioned books, thus breeding a generation of illiterate children, causing reduced concentration spans, the inability to absorb large quantities of text and even weight issues.  I don’t disagree, but I don’t think it’s all bad news.  Can these forms not reopen doors for the discovery of literature?

The television and film industry of today practically gorges on the publishing industry of the last few centuries.  We all know that Bridget Jones’ Diary is based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and that 10 Things I Hate About You mirrors Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew.  And there’s about a billion TV dramas based on nineteenth and early twentieth century classics, such as Cranford, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Lark Rise to Candleford, Brideshead Revisited and so on.

These productions may be perceived as indulgences or guilty pleasures, but the idea that the literary connections legitimize their mass consumption is not an unreasonable one.  It is argued that people don’t have the patience or ability to consume these stories in their original form, and instead settle for the easy option.  Conversely, I believe that these adaptations can encourage a rediscovery of the classic texts on which they are based.  They provide the link between never even considering reading a particular book and inquisitively picking it up off a shelf in a bookshop.

Contemporary adaptations make classic literature seem accessible, relevant, and consumable.  By breaking down any previous negative assumptions, the only thing left to conquer is the more time-consuming text.  But the beauty of books is that they release their pleasure more slowly; watchers who were sad to see a story end, can – with their newfound readership – experience it again, but differently, and indulge in it at their own pace.

Yet it is not only adaptations that can pull back the dusty gates of literary avenues.  And now comes my primary motivation for approaching this subject at all: I am completely hooked by Gilmore Girls.  Miles behind the bandwagon, I know, but it’s true and I can justify it.

Anyone who has ever watched an episode will be aware of the bombardment of literary references, both overt and veiled.  Books and films are referred to in every single episode and although I cannot speak for everyone, I know I am not alone in being inspired and intrigued to read and watch things I feel that I probably should have already.  In fact, a quick Google search will demonstrate that there is even such thing as ‘The Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge’, and I was quite disappointed to find that I wasn’t the first person to have this idea.

Nevertheless, I have just begun reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar; last week I watched Casablanca; this week I borrowed a copy of Proust’s Swann’s Way from a friend.  And it is thanks to this “American trash” that I renewed my desire to one day read War and Peace.

Gilmore Girls is proving to be great for recommendations; I’ve begun compiling a list, which is turning into a full-blown reading project.  So over the next few weeks and months I am going to be reading and reviewing books and classic films that I have been led to through what some may refer to as the ‘cruder’ media and art forms.

Excessive TV watching might give you square eyes, but it might also encourage you to have a well-rounded cultural knowledge.

Blazing Saddles

I walked in on my housemates watching Blazing Saddles some time ago, but being uninformed and probably half asleep, I failed to grasp that it wasn’t a traditional western film.  I stood, utterly bemused by the famed tollbooth scene, with questions running through my mind faster than The Waco Kid’s bullets.  This incident led to a mockery that lasted over a year, until I watched in from start to finish last week, and dispelled the theory of my lacking humour!

Blazing Saddles (1974) is a western satire directed by, and starring Mel Brooks, so it’s following in the wake of the western genre’s 1930s to 60s peak.  Set in 1874, the film mirrors a traditional plot outline, wherein the sheriff and the townsfolk fight against the men who want to build a railroad through their town, but deals with this material in its own unique way. 

For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, the tollbooth scene depicts the successful attempt of the sheriff of Rock Ridge to delay the approach of the corrupt Attorney General’s army of rogues and criminals.  But his methods are peculiar.  A tollbooth (garnered from somewhere) is installed in their path towards the town.  Not only does the tollbooth stand out as a comical anachronism, but also it is dealt with so beautifully deadpan.  Taggart, the leader of the group, requests someone to head back to ‘get a s**t load of dimes’ so that they can pass through one by one on horseback, which they do, apparently oblivious to the fact that they could easily go around it.

In a way, this scene epitomises the humour of the whole film – dry, self-mocking, and based on the sheer randomness of the situation and the characters’ idiosyncrasies.  Meta-cinema plays a large part in the comedy; the film’s western tributes are self-consciously transformed to satire, as it parodies, twists, and pulls apart the generic features with little restraint. 

In the most striking instance, the sheriff rides his horse in the country, beaming with success, with cheerful jazz music setting the mood.  Viewers always buy into this convention, unaware, or at least not thinking about the fact that soundtracks are a convention… until the sheriff rides past the band performing, led anachronistically by none other than Count Basie.  Suddenly I’m aware of the conscious effort behind all film soundtracks, and at this point of minor enlightenment, the film is simultaneously comical and astute.

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In contrast, the character that appears purely to point out the obvious or to fully explain the plot developments does not emphasize any filmic trope.  Rather, he undermines the convention of ‘implication’, by thoroughly explaining what the audience would otherwise be left to infer.  I am specifically thinking of his long-winded explanation of why they are going to build a replica of the town – basically that the oncoming attackers will think it’s the town, but it’s not the town, but only they will know that it’s the fake town… to paraphrase.

Blazing Saddles is a brilliant film, and I have only touched on a few of its highlights.  The racial commentary is acute, and delivered with taste, and there are so many meta-cinematic features scattered throughout the whole film.  As baffling as it is, I cannot think of a better finale to the film than the mass destruction of the fourth wall that ensues.  This film is finely crafted, and I implore you to watch it!