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As I mentioned in Sunday’s WRITING CHRONICLE, I’m taking an online course on writing fiction to learn to compose more structured literature. Last week, we learned about Developing Characters: detailing, often using ordinary words in uncommon ways, to create images and bring characters to life. This week, we learned about Editing: simplifying the details until only relevant materials remain in order to keep readers focused on the character. [Ouch.] Read the rest of this entry »
WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS #04 – Jane Austen’s Persuasion starring Sally Hawkins, Alice Krige, Anthony Head and Rupert Penry-Jones
Title Persuasion (A BBC adaption of the Jane Austen novel of same name)
Starring Sally Hawkins, Alice Krige, Anthony Head and Rupert Penry-Jones
Director Adrian Shergold
Screenplay Simon Burke
Genre Romantic Satire, Drama
Release Date January 13, 2007
Filming Location Bath, Somerset, England
Parental Guidance PG – General viewing, but parental discretion advised
IMDB Rating 7.6
Synopsis: Anne’s (Sally Hawkin) life has been led by others. She lives with a narcissistic father, Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head), and a self-absorbed elder sister who leave her to handle all household responsibilities but give her none of the credit for it. She has a younger sister married off but who always calls for her ministrations whenever fancying herself ill. And her only confidant is her deceased mother’s best friend, Lady Russell (Alice Krige), who has only her “best interest” at heart but may love her a little too dearly. At twenty-eight, Anne has resigned herself to spinsterhood and obscurity when the return of a former paramour sends her heart once again aflutter. Once almost engaged to Fredrick Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones), Anne’s love affair had been halted by Lady Russell’s advice on the unsuitability of their stations and connections in life. But Wentworth returns to their lives as an exalted Royal Navy captain who made a sizeable fortune serving the nation and Anne must eat crow. As a series of circumstances keep pushing the former lovers into each other’s paths, each struggle in their own way to be not affected. Anne does not believe she has another chance with Wentworth because she rightly discerns that he still blames her for being so easily influenced away from his proposal in the past. And then there is also the sudden entry of a distant cousin who is to eventually inherit her father’s baronetcy and who seems to fancy Anne. Any chance of reconciliation and rekindling affection between Anne and Wentworth, therefore, seems hopeless.
Experience: I always feel that whenever a Jane Austen novel is adapted into a film, people start comparing it to the epic 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. So I consciously switched off my parity tool because let’s face it – there will never be another flawless masterpiece like Pride and Prejudice or such a dedicated collection of cast and crew to turn a literary work into a 06-hour cinematic indulgence of an author’s genius. So with a deep breath and a mind as unbiased as possible, I sat down to watch Persuasion. For a 1.5-hour TV movie, it was a pretty good attempt to emulate and entertain. And not only because it had Austen’s clever storytelling style to fall back on.
Definitely, the strongest facet of the movie was its mechanics. The direction, the cinematographic techniques, the queueing of the scenes and music all swelled and dissipated to match the ethos of the story as it progressed. From the first scene where the camera circled Anne and followed her about as she rushed from room to room auditing items in preparation for the time when the Elliot family will move out to lease their home to strangers to that when she rushes all through Bath in search of Wentworth so she could tell him she accepts his proposal to that in the privacy of her room as she records in her diary her romantic success and secretly smiles into the camera to allow the audience to bask in her happiness, Burke and Shergold perfectly captures the protagonist. As to the protagonist herself, Hawkins may not have been my first choice for the role of Anne, a girl in her late twenty’s that has lost some of her bloom but still remains adequately pretty, but Hawkins manages to flirt with the camera in a subtle way that gives Anne life. While in the book, Anne’s character is more subtle, the movie-Anne does not suffer for the little boldness inspired by Hawkins.
Moreover, Hawkins manages to portray the drama that revolves around Anne’s character. She allows herself to be shuffled between her family members and is often led by Lady Russell’s advice, but it does not make her unobservant or unfeeling. She watches and notes her surroundings acutely but accepts her lot in life for the most part. But there are moments when she does not allow herself to be bid, moments where her logic prevails. This aspect of Anne’s character is well-turned out by Hawkins in the movie in the manner with which she moves. In the novel, Austen did not give the docile Anne much dialogue but Hawkins very intelligently trounces that challenge with her body language. Comparatively, Penry-Jones did not pick up on the subtlety of Austen’s depiction of Wentworth. Rarely do I say someone has underacted but Penry-Jones playing Wentworth is one of those times. I can only assume he did not read the novel, which for an Austen fan like me is unforgivable. However, he is handsome and just enough handsome to be adequately cast as Wentworth.
Another notable portrayal is of Sir Walter Elliot by Head. Now, I must admit I am a bit biased towards Head from his Buffy the Vampire Slayer days but, again, I tried not to be while watching the movie. I found Head to portray Sir Walter with just the right level of ridiculousness necessary to make him unlikeable. I initially thought Head was disappointing me with overacting until I remembered Sir Walter and the rest of the Elliot clan were meant to be comic relief. They are the characters that are the butt of Austen’s satirical wit. So, yes, when Head does literally huff and puff at the possibility of having to rent his family seat to people of “inferior birth” and potential “coarse countenance”, it is the required precedent.
The one character I felt that could have gotten more screen time was Lady Russell’s. Lady Russell plays an indispensable antithetical role to Anne-and-Wentworth’s relationship in the novel. More so than the fact that she openly discourages Anne from pursuing a relationship with Wentworth (in the past and present), it is the nature of her influence, the subtlety that is wrought in her relationship with Anne, that makes Lady Russell a centrifugal force in Anne’s actions in abandoning her desires, and later in her polite decline to subjugate. While Anne’s tendency to be persuaded to do the biddings of her family members is the surface manifestation of her character, it is Lady Russell’s persuasiveness, albeit, in good faith that does the pertinent harm to Anne’s happiness. It is especially more disappointing Lady Russell’s character is not more explored in the movie because Krige has proven in past performance that she is able to deliver the necessary gravitas for such a role.
The other smaller parts are played relatively well and relevantly ensures the smooth flow of the plot depiction. In particular, the characters of Mary (Amanda Hale), Anne’s younger extracting and fretful sister, and Charles Musgrove (Sam Hazeldine), Mary’s husband and Anne’s once upon a time admirer, are performed suitably well. Interestingly enough, the role of William Elliot (Tobias Menzies), the distant cousin who aims to sweep Anne off her feet, is played better than one would expect. The novel mostly portrays Mr. Elliot’s character via the grapevine, yet Menzies brought out the character with mastery.
Recommendation: If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do. If you are a Jane Austen fan, do it right now! After BBC’s 1995 versions of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility [too many ‘and’s but you’ll figure it out], I found this to be the next best Austen rendering.
Title The Book of Love (originally titled The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea)
Starring Jason Sudeikis, Maisie Williams, Jessica Biel
Director Bill Purple
Written By Robbie Pickering and Bill Purple
Release Date January 13, 2017
Parental Guidance PG-13 for thematic content, language and drug materials
IMDB Rating 5.5
Synopsis: Henry is your average joe, his creativity only peeking out when he is off designing architecture for his real estate developer company, which is what he is brilliant at. The only thing that keeps his life from fading into the mundane is his oddball wife, Penny, whom he monikers hurricane. Penny tries to stamp her mark on Henry’s life by pushing him to do the eccentric things she lays out and simply “be bold!” Penny is expecting to deliver their first born in the coming month and he just gets an offer to be made partner at his office when Penny has a fatal road accident and Henry’s life is turned upside down. Recovery comes in the form of Millie, a homeless girl rummaging through his garbage. They interact over a cabinet he is ready to dispose of that she could use and she comments that the magenta sneakers he is wearing with his suit “is the shits”, which is what Penny had said to convince him to put them on the morning before she died, and he suddenly remembers that the last promise he had made to Penny was to help out the homeless girl who goes through their garbage. After a bit of harmless stalking, Henry discovers Millie is trying to build a raft to cross the Atlantic Ocean and he decides to dedicate all his time in helping her and in the process rediscovering his reason to go on.
Experience: Given the number of book-turned-movies playing at the cinemas these days, amazingly The Book of Love is not a book turned into movie. I walked into this movie without having seen the trailers or reading the synopsis, which in itself is very unusual for me. But I have always loved that Peter Gabriel song “The Book of Love” and find Jason Sudeikis one of the more versatile but underrated actors of Hollywood so it wasn’t difficult to hit the play button with so little nod to movie prerequisites. It turned out to be one of those uncalculated risks that provide the exact morale your life needs at the time.
While the plot was not something I would call riveting, the script has been very well written. Despite the lack of brief on its premise, I could pick up on the cues of what was about to come early on. The director cut straight to laying out who the lead characters are, that something was about to happen to render upheaval into this young couple’s lives. In fact, I could tell Penny (Jessica Biel) would die soon as she made Henry (Sudeikis) promise he would take care of the homeless girl if he meets her. I could also tell how much Henry doted on Penny by the way he gave in to her every whimsy regardless of the level of contrast they drew to his personality as well as work life (wearing the magenta sneakers with his suit to a major career altering meeting). I could smell the devastation brewing but not in the way that the end was given away. I did not feel like, oh! It’s just another movie about a guy getting over his wife’s death, I was intrigued by the idea of how… how will Millie (Maisie Williams) the homeless girl help him get over her death, how did he come to love her even? Obviously Millie is too young to be of romantic interest, which would have been just abhorrent so soon after Penny’s death.
The cinematography of the movie also sets the mood. The color scheme, mostly muted tones to set the atmosphere of loss with the only contrast allowed in the spaces of the house where Penny, who was also an artist, spent most of her time, like the kitchen or the bedroom. There is a lot of clutter everywhere that Henry goes, as though he needs to find a way to draw himself out of the rubble. The director used a lot of montages in the movie to pace the travel through time, both in flashbacks as well as how Henry’s life progresses. There are two junctures of the movie portraying the moments of changes in Henry’s life that really resonated with me. First, at the wake at the house, where everyone moves in slow motion, discussing the death matter-of-factly while Henry sits ignored until he really attempts to isolate himself. The other is when Julia (Mary Steenburgen), Penny’s mother triggers him into a panic attack when she pushes him into realizing that he might be having a breakdown as he risks his career to build a homeless girl build a raft to cross the Atlantics. Pivotal moments when Henry is both at his worst and his best because after each panic attack, he works out a puzzle, somehow left behind by Penny.
Which brings me to the overall theme of the movie. A bit of study online showed that the most highlighted quote from the movie is “Sometimes, things are better when they’re not perfect.” But I felt what defined the movie best was “Death ain’t about the people who died anyway. It’s about the ones who have the shit luck of having to go along without ‘em.” The central trope of the movie depicts how each character deals with Penny’s death. There is Henry, who after withdrawing into himself focuses his energy into fulfilling his last promise to Penny by helping Millie and thereby pushing further the moment when he must truly accept her absence in his life. There is Julia, who strives for control in Penny’s death just as she has during her life, and focuses on the minutest details involving the funeral, the obituary, charity, etc. as though it is just another responsibility she must take care of – clearly, her daughter leaving the world before her is a burden, especially given the guilt of never cherishing the time she had her. There’s Henry’s boss, Wendell (Paul Reiser) who lacks even the basic sense of empathy to put aside the company goals to allow Henry the time to grieve but you can also see how he is embarrassed by this lacking. There are even “Dumbass” (Orlando Jones) and Pascal (Richard Robichaux), the guys who were working on the renovation of the house and who were endeared by Penny who took care of them while they were around, who take it upon themselves to help Henry through his grief. Without revealing too much, in the end you get to see even Millie had a reason to deal with Penny’s death. But there is a likeness in the way both Henry (for Penny) and Millie (for her father) use fulfilling promises and the lost dreams to get over their own losses, which sort of answers the conundrum of the movie. I enjoyed how this theme remains consistently throughout the movie as each character’s arcs are developed.
When speaking of the characters, of course something must be said about the actors’ portrayals of them. First and foremost, I was thoroughly convinced by Sudeikis. Despite being a comic hero, he was able to invoke the tragedy Henry undergoes. In fact, I especially enjoyed the nuance he rendered the role with subtle moments of comic disaster he ends up in. Initially, I felt it a bit unbelievable that he could be propelled to fixate on the raft-building so soon after Penny’s death but his motivation came out to dispel that disbelief. Another actor I felt did a good job was Jones. He took what minimalist role he had and really bit into it. Williams, on the other hand, though played the other lead role, did not come into character until halfway through the movie. However, that might also be because her bayou drawl was a bit contrived and unnecessary even to the plot. Also, I could see how narration by Millie created bridges to allude to each segment of the movie, I did not really see why it had to be there. The only actor that really was the oddball was Biel’s. But while Penny the oddball was a necessary and endearing element, Biel was something the movie could have done without. Biel just did not have the ethereal quality that Penny needed to make her peculiarities blossom. In fact, Biel looked a bit haggard all through.
Recommendation: Again, if plots are dead important to you, I would suggest skip the movie. It is a bit whimsical yet ordinary, which the narrator warns of in the prologue of the movie. However, if you just like good character building, acting and enjoy a good script and direction, you will enjoy this movie like I did