Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Iron Lady - Canadian Reflections

News of Thatcher's death was a shock. She had been ailing for years but I had never really considered her death as a possibility. It's like when Christopher Hitchens died: I knew he had terminal throat cancer but I never processed that he would cease to exist. On the morning of her passing, I received 2 texts, an email AND a phone call to see what my thoughts were. No, I am not connected to Maggie T at all but my research in the past 4-5 years has made her a part of my life in a way that's unlike most people.

I first learned of Thatcher in the 10th grade ... in a Canadian History class. I don't remember how it happened but I was allowed to study her for a independent project. As a young feisty Feminist in the making, I gravitated to this label that the media has been brandishing about for the past couple of days: first woman Prime Minister. She stood as a beacon of possibility amidst a world dominated by grumpy privileged men. (Note: My feminism at this point was of the Spice Girl "Girl Power!!!" wave) Of course, I didn't fully understand Thatcher's legacy as British Prime Minister in my teens. I had yet to become politically aware and neither had I developed my historian super powers (heightened ability to grumble and analyse the past). High school history class, despite an excellent teacher, consisted of
cookie-cutter narrative histories on the forging of "Canadian identity" at Vimy Ridge. So, I glossed over the Poll Tax and somewhat understood that she wasn't well looked upon by miners. I didn't quite get how this well-coiffed lady/"grocer's daughter" could be so hated?

My post-secondary education, at Southern Ontario's bastion of left-wing intellectuals, opened my mind. Thatcher, for all of her conviction politics and tailored blue power suits, was ruthless. She increased inequality in the UK unseen since before the First World War. She was unapologetic about dismantling the Welfare State. She destroyed consensus and made politics in Britain as ideologically divisive as it has ever been.  And, for all those, who seek to re-write her as a feminist icon: she wasn't. Stop wasting your time. There are notable feminist icons from her period in politics that deserve far more attention (*ahem* Barbara Castle!) Thatcher was not a "great" Prime Minister either in the model of Winston Churchill or Clement Atlee but she did leave a mark. I'm not as sure as Stephen Harper though that she will be talked about (in such glowing tones) "hundreds of years from now."

It's a bit strange to me now to watch the world media cover her death. The efforts to be overly-respectful and diplomatic are wholly inadequate.  The closest thing to a fair appraisal so far can be found in this Guardian video obituary. David Cameron's efforts to distract the public/ critics from his austerity politics by stating, that she not only led Britain but "SAVED" Britain (*eye roll*) will have the opposite of his intended aim. I don't think Canadians much care about Thatcher (unlike Americans) because our own Conservative PM from the period never had a "special relationship" with the Iron Lady. This Canadian, however, will mark this historical moment ... and perhaps take advantage of this opportunity to work on and submit that article on Maggie's years as a young politician that has been collecting dust on her desk!!


My friend is certainly much more qualified to discuss the historical import of Baroness Thatcher, Thatcherism, and how she fits into the twentieth-century landscape of British politics than yours truly. For unknown reasons I have never really thought much about Thatcher, it must be said (perhaps because, as suggested, Canadians haven't tended to think about her much) -- either in a positive or negative sense. I haven't the excuse of not having been exposed to seeing Margaret Thatcher in the media as a child, as I made frequent trips to London in the 1980s and remember seeing the riots over the Poll Tax on the telly. Youngster as I was, I did know that such a turn of events did not look good and signalled a highly divided nation. Yet, still, as something of an Edwardian I have seemingly blocked much consideration of Thatcherism out of my mind, pretending that the world still lay along some sort of predictable nineteenth-century lines.

Having said that, I was shocked to see the vehement reaction of many British people to her death. I am, again, ill-qualified to comment on the reasons for this dislike, but the Edwardian soul is nevertheless a bit discombobulated by it all. I would remark that (seeing as this blog comments on the differences between British and Canadian cultural forms) such displays seem almost impossible in Canada. We have commented earlier on the relatively innocuous content of Canadian political commentary or comedy in comparison with the UK. There is, admittedly, a much lower level of spite and vitriol. For better or worse, it makes us a different type of nation, and it is interesting to note how the British example differs. 


Monday, February 4, 2013

Richard III: FOUND

King Richard III's (House of York and last of the Plantagenet dynasty) bones have been found in a car park in Leicester. The king's history is a bloody one: defeated at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 (the decisive battle of the War of the Roses) and linked to the disappearance (murder) of his brother's two sons with Elizabeth Woodville. He's certainly not one of the beloved kings in British history; known and portrayed as the "evil Crookback." Of course, according to the Blackadder series, Richard III has been much aligned by history! (See the Guardian's collection of clips on Richard III). But, this find is an extraordinary one and speaks to one of the reasons I love England. Literally, everywhere one looks, walks and has lunch is a veritable site on which history was made!

Another remarkable thing about this discovery is that they were able to verify the DNA of Richard's remains with that of a Canadian descendent. Joy Ibsen was a 17th century descendent of the king's sister and since she died last year, her son Michael, who works in London, provided a DNA sample. If ever there were a story that showcased Canada's connections to Blighty - this would be it! Of course, there have been waves of British migration and Brits have settled everywhere. So, that a Plantagenet king's descendent decided to make a home in this part of the Commonwealth is entirely accidental. Yet, it's striking that at the exact moment that our PM is bending over backwards to highlight our "British" roots/ origins and inject monarchy back into our understandings of Canadian citizenship, here's a very real connection. Of course, the Ibsen family's ancestry isn't something that every Canadian can relate to but certainly we will be prompted to perhaps revisit this period of English history and (re)discover the story of a controversial king that has been lost for 500 years to the annals of history, myth and legend.

(Note: Thanks to @Joe_Klotzkopp for messaging me about the story!)

I too have watched the Richard III car park "saga" (there is really no other word for it) unfold over the past few months, and particularly the last day or two. This morning the twitter-machine was filled with the sort of simultaneously educated, witty and irreverent banter that only the Brits can truly do. First there was the hashtag #Kinginthecarpark and then an apparently (to professional historians) embarrassing Channel 4 documentary of the Plantagenet king, complete with a sad and weepy commentator. It was a day of both joy and merriment to historians and nerds everywhere.

The Canadian connection has received little comment so far, but no doubt local media will soon pick it up in a "look at us!" moment. My colleague is correct that most Canadians cannot relate to the Ibsen connection to royalty -- most of us are from a decidedly more humble lineage and also much more recently arrived in Canada. But, it is certainly extremely intriguing and demonstrates the transatlantic ties that bind Canadian history with that of Great Britain -- even as we forge our own identity in the twenty-first century.


Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Happy/ Merry Christmas!

When I was a kid, I thought Christmas crackers were for eating. I'd see them on store shelves leading up to and after the holidays and wonder: "What's different about "Christmas" crackers?" "Do people eat them with soup?" "Don't crackers go bad? Why would one want to buy them, on sale, three weeks after Christmas?!?" I've also seen tubes that look like crackers filled with tiny pots of jam so I assumed they were a fancy treat. And, since crackers were not a tradition at my house so I didn't, I admit, learn their function until my late teens.

The tradition of crackers is a British one and shared throughout the Commonwealth nations. Either before of after dinner, these cylindrical tubes are pulled apart by two people and reveal a paper hat (crown), a bad joke, and some sort of toy/ treat. Crackers have not changed significantly from their 19th century origins (originally created as a hygienic way to keep sweets) though they are no longer (or rarely) handmade and are widely available at most retailers during the holidays. While thinking about the post, I googled "Canadian Christmas crackers" thinking some demented individual might have invented crackers with bacon bits and maple syrup (patent pending). Alas. Harrod's, of course, offered a "luxury" version one year that included mp3 players and other extravagant baubles. Who says Harrods isn't classy? This year, my friend Red bought beautiful crackers decorated with cutouts of characters from the Nutcracker. We each received a whistle (of different sizes) and were assigned numbers. The point was that if we all followed the music sheet, we'd be able to play Christmas songs. We gave it the good ol' college try but did not produce any festive melodies ...

Now that I have become a savant in all things British, crackers are an essential part of the holidays. I wonder what my friends get up to in order to spread yuletide cheer?

Have a happy holiday readers!!


My friend has alighted on a Christmas tradition that was a part of my childhood, but which I had somewhat forgotten about. I remember Christmas crackers very well (the paper hat/plastic toy variety, not the Harrods luxury version). In fact, what I mostly remember about crackers is being pitifully unable to properly hold up on my end of the proceedings and proving rather ungainly in the attempt to hear the signature "crack." For various reasons, namely the uselessness of the objects within, the Christmas cracker has fallen out of favour for some years now.

The Night Before Christmas
(Illustrated cover, London, 1904)

Other British traditions continue to be of some holiday cheer in one form or another: pudding, mince tarts, Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge, the Queen's Christmas Message at noon on CBC, and (of course) Boxing Day (sadly now rivaled by the American import of Black Friday, but never replaced).

However much or little one marks the Yuletide, I would wish readers in the immortal words of the classic story: "a merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night."


Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Iceman Cometh: Mark Carney to the Rescue of the UK Economy

This past week a story came along which truly merits inclusion in this blog -- the apotheosis of the Canadian-British past and present colliding, complete with useful stereotypes and colonial baggage. Canadian Mark Carney ("the outstanding central banker of his generation" according to George Osborne) was appointed the next governor of the Bank of England (that's guvnor to you!), with the appointment taking effect in July. Carney is the first non-Brit to hold the post in 318 years -- a measure of his stature, or the desperation of British national finances, or both.

Mary Carney: Next
Governor of the Bank of England

So... how would the appointment of Johnny Canuck play in Britain's green and pleasant land? On the whole the reaction seems to have been rather muted, though The Toronto Star has written of the "fodder" that it has provided for the British press. Yes, certainly fodder in the sense that the British pay scant attention to Canada, and when they do it tends to be in a narrowly formulaic manner. As the story notes: "[there is]  as old Fleet Street joke that “any story with ‘Canada’ in the first line is guaranteed not to get read,” [but] Carney’s appointment has proved an exception."

"From the desolate wilderness" descriptions abounded, including ample references to snow, his love of hockey (ice hockey of course, is there any other kind?) and participation on the Harvard hockey team during his time at the university. To the extent that such a feat could be stretched, Carney was, in a friendly manner, the "exotic other" of the week. Only The Guardian (in that sneering manner it has, entirely of a different ilk than the sneering manner of the tabloids) veered into more scathing territory, publishing this rather startling cartoon with Carney depicted as a moose. (As for what else the cartoon shows, well, one can merely warn you that once you've seen it, there is no "unseeing" possible.) The Daily Mail (of all papers!) deemed him to be as "sharp as a tack," and other publications pointed out that for all his colonial-tundra-hockey-moose credentials he does have a British wife, Diana (also an economist, with properly posh credentials to boot), and four daughters who presumably have dual British-Canadian citizenship. Very much "one of us" then, and hardly a "Bob and Doug MacKenzie" lumberjack figure.  

One can only hope (if somewhat in vain) that this appointment helps revive some feeling of Commonwealth common cause, and the importance of our shared history and outlook. At the very least Carney will help counter the limited imagination that many British people (even highly educated ones) have demonstrated in contemplating Canadian character and society. I wish Mark Carney all the best in the daunting job that awaits him. To Brits: you're welcome. Treat him kindly. From Canada with love.


Dear Britain,

Mark Carney is kind of a big deal in Canada. By that I mean, most people haven't heard of him until he flooded the news last week. Even then, only a few people were properly impressed by this young(ish) Canuck kicking the doors down of one of Britain's oldest institutions. The worldwide recession/ economic turmoil has been felt but certainly not as harshly on these frigid shores because Carney has quietly and assuredly steered us from the brink. Canadians don't know about Carney because they don't have to know about him. But, more importantly, there isn't the same amount of interest in the lives of our leaders and representatives as in Britain. We don't care about  the details of his rather wimpy college hockey career (as Harvard's back-up goalie) or that his wife is an "eco-warrior"
in the same way that your media, for example, loves to shame George Osborne/ David Cameron for their Bullingdon Club days. I, as someone who follows your news moderately, know more about the families/ personal lives of each leader of each of Britain's political party's (front bench MPs as well) than I do of any single Canadian politician. Even when our politicians screw up (*ahem* Bev Oda), they get off relatively lightly. So, while I agree with the Financial Times that Mr. Carney needs to develop a thick skin quickly, I would ask, like the Idle Historian, that you be kind.

Will economic recovery for Britain be swift? I sincerely hope so and, certainly, Mr. Osborne has staked his career on this bold choice. How he has managed to survive until now, I don't understand? David Cameron has a blind spot when it comes to George (Bullingdon and all) or, more likely, there is NO TORY capable to taking over! But, before you revert to your English tendency to only see doom and gloom, have some patience with our Mr. Carney. He can't do worse than Sir Mervyn King, right? He will speak with a strange accent and might not take to cricket right away. He's also brilliant but not a god. He cannot lift austerity and replace it with 1980s-like champagne infused prosperity overnight. If you're not happy with his performance, we'll happily have him back. 

Yours ever,


It seems like Britain's old colonial history is being reversed in the City, with the Bank of England now under the leadership of a Canadian, and that enormous temple of global capitalism (The Shard) being erected with Qatari financing. This, on the back of recent news that Canada and Britain will be sharing some foreign embassies, has led some to observe that "The Empire Strikes Back." Old colonial ties have been dissolved, but some shared interests remain. Members of the Commonwealth, similarly governed by systems of common-law and a shared proficiency in English, conduct trade at a rate 20% lower than with non-Commonwealth countries, says The Economist. With euroscepticism high in Britain, a few have pointed to the Commonwealth as the potential site of new free-trade zone if Britain exits the common market. Exiting the EU would be a great shame, and despite its present condition Britain's membership should be preserved. But, perhaps the Commonwealth could concurrently become more than just an organization with a shared monarch and a quadrennial sporting event. It's an organization with reserves of soft power.  New imaginings of Commonwealth should ONLY begin with the member-states existing in partnership as equals. Between these nations, closer connections through trade, scholarship exchanges, and visas for work and travel could create an international organization capable of holding meaningful summits on climate change, and encouraging the protection of free speech, the freedom of religious expression, greater access to education for both genders, and improved health care. 

Certainly such a relationship would be easiest to build between the former dominions, whose culture and political systems are most similar, and whose memories of Empire are much the same having not experienced repression, but actively repressed (and still to varying degrees repress) the aboriginal peoples whose land they possess. But, for these nations, regional trade ties promise a potentially greater reward, and allow access to a large market. However, as India continues to grow into a powerful world player and the world's largest democracy, there are great incentives to creating another world organization dedicated to the exchange of information, ideas and people, to promote peace and understanding. 


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sherlock vs. Elementary: Whodunnit best?

'Elementary' starring Jonny Lee Miller & Lucy Liu
Anyone who likes to see classics of English literature put on screen as much as we do naturally forms quick opinions about new adaptations. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle have had plenty of telly and film adaptations to please their eyeballs or cause loud, manic grumbles in recent years. We've had the ass-kicking bromance of Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, flavoured with vague historicisms and horrid anachronisms that we shouldn't think too much about because aren't the costumes great and isn't that Rachel McAdams such a plucky young thing? We've been treated to the rebirth of Hugh Laurie as the dark, broody and borderline sociopathic Dr. House, terrorizing med students and solving medical mysteries with nary a Web MD search engine in sight. And, perhaps most beloved by geeks, nerds and superfans, the BBC's charming modern interpretation of Sherlock starring Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch in a nice (Belstaff) coat. 

The controversy about the development of CBS's Elementary starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu is now well known. CBS approached the executive producers of Sherlock to make a spin off but they had brave artistic integrity and refused. So CBS went ahead with it's own modern revamp, and cast Johnny Lee Miller as the famous detective, an actor who famously shared the stage with Cumberbatch in Danny Boyle's Frankenstein, a production where the two shared the lead roles, alternating who played Dr Frankenstein and the Monster on alternative nights. (@SloaneScholar1: I hope the Cumberbatch/ Lee Miller arrangement wasn't anything like this famous Mitchell & Webb sketch) In other words, CBS got the actor closest to Cumberbatch in age, skill and the pop cultural consciousness to play the same part. (Though Miller is sorely lacking in the ridiculous name department... we'll let that pass.) Cumberbatch, no stranger to controversial public pronouncements (see "posh bashing") denounced Elementary as a cheap and tarty knock off that wouldn't come close to the ingenuity BBC version and many fans and critics nodded their heads in agreement. 

But let's have a closer look at Elementary v. Sherlock. First of all, it's good. It's enjoyable to watch and the plots are even a bit less obvious than the ones in Sherlock, though that may not be a trend that can be maintained over a 22 episode season. 

Victoria Coren thinks Lucy Liu's casting as a female Dr. Watson is a placating half-measure to the feminist set. If the producers were really trying to do something revolutionary, they would have put a woman in the deerstalker cap. True. Watson is certainly Sherlock's "helpmeet" and supporter, and even when played by a man the character is represented as maternal. But, I think there is a lot of potential for a strong female representation here. Liu brings depth and... I'm gonna use the word gravitas to the part. Her character has a complicated past and more moral aplomb than a Law and Order Assistant District Attorney or a CSI sex case worker. I don't think she's there to mind the fort and do the laundry while fretting about Sherlock, I think she's there to have a complicated emotional journey of her own. Compared with the total lack of female characters that are not wooden cut-outs in any other crime procedural currently on network TV (I miss Profiler. Remember Profiler??), Liu's role is an advance, though not a complete triumph. 

And personally, as cheesy as it could potentially become, I welcome new the sexual dynamic to the traditional story. Will there be a Dawson-and-Joey-Rachel-and-Ross-Sam-and-Diane-like ramp up of sexual tension until they do it in a season finale and we all weep and clap at our televisions? Don't tell me it's not there in Downey and Law's movies already because I will not believe you.


I am a big fan of BBC's Sherlock. After the first series, I was like a junkie going through withdrawal. How could there just be THREE 90 minute episodes ?!?  I'm sorry - how long do we have to wait for series 2? I was convinced that creators/ writers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt (of Dr. Who fame) were clearly sado-masochists/ gigantic teases of the worst kind who thrived off the collective agony of their adoring audience. But, the series was so smart and so well done that I would endure the 17 month wait as long as I was assured that I would get more of Cumberbatch's sneering alien-like face and "sexy" brains.  I was (as Irene Adler in season 2 "A Scandal in Belgravia") SHER-locked. 

BBC's Sherlock, "A Scandal in Belgravia"
Sherlock was a smash hit for the BBC not only because it satisfied Sherlock Holmes aficionados with smart and subtle nods to the ACD canon but because of the casting and acting. You can't fake the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman. "Jim" Moriarity as a psychopath criminal consultant made the hairs on my neck stand on end. And, I could think of no one better to perform the part of Mycroft than Gatiss himself. In fact, I'm willing to bet that there was a global spike in sales of Sherlock Holmes titles as well as copies checked out at local book depositories by fans of the show who wanted to get Gatiss/ Moffatt's cleverly hidden references and clues ... and then blog about them. 

But, even this rabid fan couldn't help but notice (as Victoria Coren and other feminist minded audience members have noted) the lack of women characters in the series. The cast includes: Molly and Mrs. Hudson. Both utterly charmed by/ smitten with Sherlock that they forgive all manner of sins and wait on his every need. There are fleeting appearances by other women characters: Mycroft's assistant Anthea and Watson's revolving door of girlfriends. Then, of course, there's Irene Adler (*the* woman) who, in this manifestation, worked as a(n expensive) dominatrix for hire (*eyeroll*). I am convinced that the decision to give her this profession was simply to justify the intimate pin-code setting to Adler's personal safe ... and the rude ringtone she  put on Sherlock's mobile.

So, when I found out Lucy Liu would be cast as Dr. Joan Watson for Elementary, you'd imagine that I'd be over the moon, right? WRONG. I cringed at the idea. Not because I'm anti-woman, a racist or a pedantic ACD enthusiast who can't conceive of a lady Watson (all insults which have been hurled at Coren for her tongue-in-cheek article on Elementary). But, because this casting choice screamed of tokenism. It's a lazy way to create sexual tension between the two leading characters. It seemed like a "bold" decision made by US TV execs based on focus group data rather than a thoughtful appreciation of the character. Ummm, do I have to remind you that US networks have badly remade UK shows in the past: Life on Mars, The Thick of It, Coupling?!? It was change for the sake of change. Not to mention, I'm not a fan of Lucy Liu's "acting." So, I get Coren's aversion to Elementary. And, if we're really talking about correcting gender imbalance in tv detective shows, lets bring back Veronica Mars! 

That's not to say I haven't watched or won't continue to watch Elementary because it's not terrible. I like that Jonny Lee Miller has decided to play Sherlock not so obviously posh. But, has anyone noticed that JLM doesn't really have the hands of a master violinist? Just sayin'. Liu's Joan Watson doesn't rival Freeman's Watson. She basically accompanies Sherlock (quietly) as he conducts his investigations. She makes him sleepy-time tea, ensures that he gets enough rest, and eats properly since this Sherlock has just emerged from a stint in rehab. It's Sherlock Holmes lite and I don't think it's pretending to be anything else. 


My colleagues have done an excellent and wonderfully witty job probing the feelings that surround Sherlock Holmes as a character, particularly in the context of the new show Elementary. One thing that appears to be clear is that few of us are truly "purists" anymore. I myself often wish to be but in the final analysis, with so much ripe opportunity for remaking and reimaginings afoot, one melts before the spectacle. As a James Bond fan, for example, I was unable to sustain the commonly felt outrage at the appointment of Daniel Craig as the new 007 (a blond Bond!) through the release of the first production stills and, of course, the fine film Casino Royale.

Jeremy Brett: The Quintessential Sherlock Holmes
And as it was with Sean Connery, so it is with the (seemingly) infinite permutations of the "greatest detective who never lived." One individual provides the template from which later versions evolve. To my mind, the ultimate Holmes remains Jeremy Brett in the Granda tv series that was first produced in 1984 and continued until 1994. His character is thoroughly "old-school": his accent clipped (sometimes too much so, according to complaints I have heard), his dress and demeanour bringing the ACD stories faithfully to life. David Burke as Dr. Watson is also pitch-perfect: long-suffering, steadfast, and perfectly integrated into the script so that he does not distract from Holmes yet when he is absent you feel the loss of his comforting presence.

I was not overly concerned with the obvious liberties taken with the Downey and Law films; I enjoyed the manic freewheeling and zany plot developments in both and suppose that I never really expected them to take the original as anything other than a basis of inspiration. As one review put it: "thoroughly enjoyable, though any resemblance to Conan Doyle's work is entirely co-incidental." What really piqued my gravest suspicions was the announcement of the BBC series -- "modern day" Sherlock? What effrontery was this?? An over-the-top Robert Downey Jr. by all means, but a contemporary Sherlock poking through the streets of Peckham? Going for coffee at Costa? Texting on his mobile? Yet the resulting series, as @SloaneScholar1 has described, was an immediate revelation. I too was enthralled within the first ten minutes. And trust me, the languid Idle Historian, having reached a somewhat advanced age, is not easily "enthralled." The concept proved to be that rarest of things = sheer magic. Elementary is not quite that (yet, anyway), but it is certainly good. And if Gatiss, Moffatt, Cumberbatch, and Freeman taught me anything, it is that the world of literary classics exists to be reinvented, spun and even sometimes sprinkled with a novel female Dr. Watson. 


Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Books on Film

Mr. Pip (2012)

Film and tv adaptations of classic novels never fail to disappoint. Well, that's not entirely true. The 2007 ITV production of 'Mansfield Park,' for example, starring Billie Piper was not good. But, for those who love period dramas, even poorly made/ written/ shot/ acted film/tv adaptation merit at least one viewing. And, the Brits (BBC and ITV) seem to have a monopoly on adapting classics and fiction for television and the big screen. For this reason, we will now be writing feature posts, from time to time, that discuss the best (and blindingly boring) books by British authors made into TV and film!

The source material for these types of productions is endless and, yet, the industry tends to gravitate towards Jane Austen* or Charles Dickens^. The Brontë sisters, of course, have had various versions of their most famous works made into film as well. A rite of passage for every leading man, we know, is to play the broody, grumpy, emotionally manipulative Mr. Rochester/ Heathcliff

This year at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), there were two new creations of note: Great Expectations (Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Feinnes) and Mr. Pip (Hugh Laurie). In the year of Mr. Dickens' 200th birthday, his work seems to resonate still and be gaining in popular appeal. 

Great Expectations opened to great fanfare in Toronto. Not only do cinephiles love "posh old Brits," they flock to the theatre to see Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Feinnes. Sadly, the reviews were lukewarm. The stellar cast has been described as boring and HBC's Miss Havesham was "not batty enough." The 2011 BBC version (Gillian Anderson, Ray Winstone) of the same title garnered better reviews in the UK than US. Disappointing to some, I'm sure, but it's probably difficult to approach this novel in an entirely original way that will satisfy both lovers of Dickens as well as a general audience.

Mr. Pip, based on the novel by Lloyd Jones (shortlisted for the Man Booker 2007 and winner of the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for best book in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific), effectively revisits Dickens' material in a refreshing and touching way. It follows the friendship between Matilda, a young girl on the island of Bougainville, (in the throes of civil war) and her teacher Mr. Watts. Through a shared love of Great Expectations, the two weather the most traumatic episodes in their lives and, in the process, learn about themselves. The movie lulls you into a false sense of security (the breathtaking scenes of the island and heartwarming images of children lapping up Dickens' wordy prose) only to shock you with brutal scenes of war atrocities. Hugh Laurie gives a subtle and restrained performance while demonstrating his flair for zaniness has not diminished (after years of playing the broody Dr. House) when he acts out scenes from the novel for his students.

The best part about this film (and the book) is that the story is told from Matilda's perspective. The characters of Great Expectations, in her imagination, look like her people of her island. They wear colourful Victorian costumes. The characters walk through not the dirty crowded streets of London but the sunny sandy paths of an island metropolis. It's beautiful to see Dickens re-imagined in this way.

If I were in charge of a Canadian version of Great Expectations, I would cast Ryan Gosling (Pip), Rachel McAdams (Estella), Kim Catrall (Miss Havasham ... also considered Neve Campbell because of her wispy/ shaky voice) and the entire novel would be set on a ranch in Alberta. Instant classic. 

* Since 1938, there have been a grand total of 60 different film/ tv adaptations of Jane Austen's novels. There has been one Bollywood version. (See:
^ According to, Charles Dickens' work has been the source of over 329 film/ tv adaptations since 1897!


Alas, I am unable to comment on either of these films, though Mr. Pip really does sound like a brilliantly reconceived version. I must say that the recent BBC version of Great Expectations with Gillian Anderson was very well done - I did not know that UK audiences preferred it more than American ones. This followed on the heels of another Anderson tour-de-force as Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. One must admit a weakness for long, multi-part adaptations of both Dickens (Little Dorrit and Our Mutual Friend spring instantly to mind) and other classic authors... anon...

Wives & Daughters, BBC (1999)
I have previously blogged about the underappreciated works of Elizabeth Gaskell. Richard Armitage has smoldered in North and South, poor little Molly Gibson suffers the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in village England in Wives and Daughters. And, finally of course, Dame Judi Dench leads a stellar cast in Cranford. Some may have thought it "twee," but it was a hugely successful BBC series, inspiring a less successful sequel (and what sequel is not?) Cranford Returns.

The next 19th century author to make it big, one hopes, is Anthony Trollope. Yes, there is He Knew He was Right, The Way we Live Now, and The Barchester Chronicles (with a pre-Harry Potter-fame Alan Rickman as the devilishly odious "Obadiah Slope"). But, there is so much more for future BBC scriptwriters and aspiring young period-piece actors to sink their teeth into.

I have not mentioned any of the Austen adaptations, not only because they really require no reiteration here, but because I think, quite frankly, we could all do with a slight rest from Austen (no slight suggested against her fine works).

Many apologies if my contribution to this discussion is rather like a laundry list. And I've not even delved into George Eliot. The listings are now at an end. But, the fact remains that if you have not had the pleasure of viewing any of the above, the remedy lies directly in your hands!


Sunday, September 16, 2012

London: The Modern Babylon

Yours truly volunteered at TIFF12 (Toronto International Film Festival) and saw some great films this year. Of particular interest to the readers of this blog will be the doc London: The Modern Babylon (directed by Julien Temple).

The film has been described as an "inspirational," "affectionate," yet "unsentimental" ode to the fair city.  The Globe and Mail picked it as one of its top six films of the entire festival! The film is a survey of the city's history since 1900 and focuses especially on the transformation and the tumult that has rocked the capital in a collection of rich archival images and video as well as interviews with those who lived the history. Including 106 year old resident Hetty Bower, "life long Londoner" Tony Benn, and poet Michael Horowitz. Perhaps most striking is that the film does not gloss over the street violence or racial tensions that have an all too prominent role in the history of the city.

The soundtrack opened with the Clash and included the Pet Shop Boys, the Kinks and the Sex Pistols. The electronic hum of Underwold (famous from the Trainspotting soundtrack) perfectly highlights 
the black and white images of horse-drawn carriages and trams on the ever busy streets of London at the beginning of the century. The very English hymn"Jerusalem" made its way into the doc in two spots: recited by a black poet and emanating from a waling electric guitar. This collection of music is modern, loud, disorienting and mirrors the cultural clash/ fusion that took place in society. This was the soundtrack all the "cool kids" grew up to in London. (Check out the soundtrack on Spotify)

We get flashing images of Edwardian debutantes, the monarchy and 1980s yuppies. 
But, the real driving force of London has been "the people" (mischaracterized as "the mob") and popular protest. The narrative of this documentary is punctuated by moments of street violence: the fight for suffrage, Cable Street (1936), Notting Hill (1958), workers strikes, Brixton (1981), Poll Tax riots, August 2011 as well as the Occupy movement. In each instance, Temple seems to argue that the people have only ever protested in the face of inequality and injustice. The people have never been an unruly and irrational so-called mob. 

One of the recurring themes of this doc is that London is an ever changing city. Physically, the city has been destroyed and rebuilt by war and, more recently, further changed by gentrification. Socially the population has been transformed by industrialization, urbanization (and the exodus from London to its suburbs) and immigration. Culturally, London is now home to people who speak over 300 different dialects and practice a multitude of different religions ... and, as one man in the film pointed out, people who don't believe in God at all. 

Yet, with all of these transformations the structure and spirit of the city endures.

The city has always been busy, noisy, dirty. It always will be. It is a place of work and generates vast wealth even in these uncertain economic times. Different groups of people (religion, ethnicity, and class) have always lived side by side. There has always been a gap between the wealthy and the poor. The only difference now is that this gap continues to increase and, as the street riots in August 2011 showed, these tensions are at a boiling point. 

Julien Temple's documentary is an important, real and thoughtful portrait of London. There's little nostalgia but the city has never looked more beautiful. It complements the harmonious and triumphant images of London that we have been served by the recent Jubilee and Olympic celebrations. For anglophiles and general film-going audiences alike this documentary is well worth 1h15 mins of your time.


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