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.


Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Last Night of the Proms in Blighty

Tonight, September 8, 2012 is the famed Last Night of the BBC Proms in London.....
[The following is a version of a post originally on my Idle Historian blog]

On May 30th the Idle Historian attended such a performance in Vancouver, Canada -- a performance of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and its incomparable maestro Bramwell Tovey (an expat Englishman).

The Last Night of the Proms, for the uninitiated, is the lighthearted and patriotic final night of the Promenade Concerts, which have run during the summer at the Royal Albert Hall since 1895. The best-known elements of the second half have been in place since the 1950s and include: Rule, Britannia; the Fantasia of British Sea Songs; Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance No. 1 (Land of Hope and Glory); and Jerusalem -- the 1916 Hubert Parry composition of William Blake's poem (which serves as the unofficial anthem of England). It is intensely patriotic with simulcasts in huge open spaces such as Hyde Park -- attended by thousands of fans. It is also peculiarly English, with the patriotism taken a bit tongue-in-cheek so as not to mimic the seriousness of the "humourless and earnest" foreign types. There are silly hats, costumes, balloons, kazoos, and a pantomime of bobbing up and down during the Fantasia of British Sea Songs.

[Royal Albert Hall, Kensington]

The Vancouver concert, which I have attended previously, has a particular poignancy. It is, in a sense, “more English than England.” The average age of attendees seems to hover somewhere around 80, with a good proportion of attendees remembering the War – some, I am sure, even having actually  been childhood evacuees to Canada. Its Englishness is very much “under amber” – the Englishness of longing and nostalgia. Though many of these individuals immigrated to Canada in the bleak postwar days and have never really demonstrated an interest in returning to Blighty, the sense of an idealized Englishness is palpable. It mimics the Englishness of John Major's famous description: "a country of long shadows on county cricket grounds, warm beer, green suburbs, dog lovers, and old maids cycling to holy communion through the morning mist."

[Quintessential Englishness - cricket ground, North Devon coast]

I identify, as you have probably figured out, with these sentiments though I am not of their generation, nor am I English. My feeling for England is somewhat second-hand though no less "real," and perhaps no less idealized. But, of all the faults that one could possess, I do believe that anglophilia/nostalgic Englishness is among the more benign. Such feelings usually come part and parcel with elevated ideals: a sense of fair play, consensus-building, a respect for rights and freedoms, tradition, individualism, and the like. The fact that they are often unrealized ideals makes them no less admirable. There is something perpetually optimistic about singing the line to "build Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land." It evokes a longed-for utopia that appeals to the universal human sense of good. For the Idle Historian it is bound up with the splendour of the occasion, the music, and the absolute good fun that is The Last Night of the Proms.


The Last Night of the Proms, Land of Hope and Glory:

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