The Real Jane Austen

The Real Jane Austen - Anna Chancellor

Presenter Anna Chancellor

The Real Jane Austen a 2002 one hour documentary of the life of Jane Austen is currently being re-broadcast on BBC 4.

It was presented by Anna Chancellor who you may remember as Caroline Bingley from the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice but who is also an eight times great niece of Jane Austen.

Jane Austen herself is played by Gillian Kearney – the 2008 BBC TV film Miss Austen Regrets also portraying her life had Olivia Williams in the Jane Austen role and who has become in my mind Jane Austen! – but Gillian Kearney presents a very convincing Jane Austen too. You being I presume an Austen Aficionado will know there is only one picture of Jane Austen and of which there are doubts to its accuracy – but in any case the measure of Jane Austen is her personality and spirit which is abundantly clear to all who read and understand her works. Both Olivia Williams and Gillian Kearney capture this.

The Real Jane Austen - Gillian Kearney

Gillian Kearney as Jane Austen

Her close sister Cassandra is played by Lucy Cohu.  Lucy Cohu was to have a small part in another Austen film. the biopic Becoming Jane, and which had Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen – I can feel another blog post about all the on-screen (and radio) portrayals of Jane Austen!

Their mother going only by Mrs Austen, is played by Phyllis Logan. Their father going only by Mr Austen, is played by John Standing. Neither as far as I am aware have ever acted in a Jane Austen screen-play – I note this only because most prolific British actors, as these two are, have usually acted in one such at some point in their Thespian career!

This illustrious cast of British actors also included Jack Davenport as brother Henry and Wendy Craig as Aunt Lefroy.

The program was directed and produced by Nicky Pattison.

The program explores her life in detail – her upbringing and education, her immediate family and various significant relatives. Then the upheaval of having to leave her Steventon family home for Bath which she could not endure before settling with her sister Cassandra and their mother in a cottage in Chawton on their brother Edward’s estate.

The Real Jane Austen

The Real Jane Austen, maybe!

Naturally her literary life is detailed too – her prolific precocious output and the routines and processes for her writing, to the publication of her first novel Sense and Sensibility by ‘A Lady’ – as alas at this time writing was not seen as a fit profession for a woman – with the second Pride & Prejudice by the ‘Author of Sense and Sensibility’ before the mystery of its author could be hid no more and her name finally put to her seminal works.

By the time of Emma her fame was such that the Prince Regent himself was a huge fan and wanted Emma to be dedicated to himself! Though, like many of her fellow country, she did not like or respect him, she could hardly refuse and settled on a compromise dedication.

The Real Jane Austen also addressed her love life – a brief youthful romance with Tom Lefroy, a nephew of her neighbour and who was to become the Lord Chief Justice of Ireland, where he eventually abandoned her due to her not being seen as a respectable match owing to her relative poverty. Speculation also that he was source material for Mr Darcy!

Then later a marriage proposal from a brother of her friends, Harris Bigg-Wither, which she initially accepted then having slept on it rescinded the following morning. She could have had much wealth and position had she accepted but declined as could not endure a marriage without love let alone affection.

The Real Jane Austen - sister Casandra

Sister Cassandra by Lucy Cohu

She, like her sister Cassandra, whose own husband died whilst they were engaged, was destined never to marry, never to have children. Though Jane Austen often refers to her own books as her children.

The Real Jane Austen makes clear that she did eventually experience recognition of her great talents in her lifetime and some degree of fame but she can hardly have expected to become such a posthumously popular, beloved and significant author in British Literature – rubbing shoulders with both Shakespeare and Dickens.

Finally the latter stages of her life and her premature death aged 41 to an undiagnosed illness are played out.

The program reminding us that she left six great works and then asking how many more might she have written had she lived a longer life.

This program is an informative insight into the heart and mind of Jane Austen.

Miss Austen Regrets presented I think a more fitting tribute as it treated Jane Austen’s life as one of her own novels but The Real Jane Austen manages also to capture her sense and sensibility.

A Good Woman – every saint has a past, every sinner has a future

A Good Woman - The Windermeres - Scarlett Johannson

A Good Woman – The Windermeres

Some women bring happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.

And so this marital tale proceeds.

The dialogue crackling from start to finish with one-liners dispatching crisply and smartly and as movie script-writers are not usually this aphoristic I beginning to wonder if this was in fact a literary adaptation eventually cottoning on a little too belatedly that this is indeed being from the cup runneth over creative pen of Oscar Wilde, his ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan, a Play about a Good Woman‘. And it is quite clear who the good woman is and as notable that the bad woman gets far more of the best lines.

Scarlett Johansson is playing Meg Windermere but even then I did not make the immediate connection! In slight defence to myself the film is shifted in time and place – from its 1890’s original time-frame to 1930, their titles republicanized to Mr and Mrs Windermere and their origins Americanized to New York and their locations shifted from London to the Amalfi coast in Italy. Still a more die-hard Wildean than me would not have been I am sure deceived by these temporal and spacial liberties.

A Good Woman - Mother and Daughter

Mother and Daughter

Despite having read much of his works ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ I confess is not a play I have seen or read in its entirety instead familiar with it from oft told quipped quotes from the mouths of many others.

A Good Woman the 2004 Mike Barker film follows then as you would expect a similar trajectory as Lady Windermere’s Fan if taking its own celluloid contoured detours along its way. An apparently orphaned child who several decades later upon her twentieth birthday is visited upon again by her mother – and will the maternal secret be shared? – just how much of this tale can I spoil, just what are the chances that this tale is unknown to you anyway?! Likewise whether her masked motivation is maternal or material? She meets often and in private with her daughter’s husband Robert and we like the rest of the cast are left to buy in to the gossip and think the worst. (‘You’re so fond of gossip you don’t give the truth a chance to put its pants on’).

A Good Woman - Opera scene

Gossip is alright. It’s the moralizing that is in poor taste

They have been parted and nurture has overcome nature perhaps – like mother, like daughter does not appear to be so – daughter orthodox and moralistic, mother a law unto herself her own scruples fast and loose. And the bond between them too long rent asunder?

This Wildean tale explores a number of themes if primarily marriage and other romantic human relationships – can marriage endure, can men and women ever be friends. ‘Bigamy is having one wife too many.’ explains a character ‘So’s monogamy’ is the instant rejoinder from another, Lord Darlington. And following on ‘A man can be happy with any woman – so long as he does not love her’.

On love itself  ‘Undying love is like a ghost in a villa – everyone talks about it but no-one has seen it’ – you really cannot go wrong with Wilde!

On friendship ‘If everyone knew what everyone said about each other there would not be four friends in the world’. And I should add even less if we knew the thoughts of our friends!

A Good Woman

You know what I find worse than being talked about? Not being talked about at all.

The Wilde quotes are so good that I am trying very hard to resist shoe-horning them into this post!

So many humorous lines and no less insightful for their levity. Contrast the gravity of Nietzsche who warned to be careful looking into the abyss less the abyss looks back upon us – and which advice is why I do not read The Daily Mail – against Wilde who varies this equivocal aphorism to comment that we all straddle the abyss and if we never look down we can never know who we are. Mmm – do I really have to follow Sarah Palin on Twitter to get the measure of myself!

This 2004 film adaptation of this play stars Helen Hunt as The Lady Windermere absentee mother Mrs Erlynne and Scarlett Johansson the aforementioned Lady Windermere. Other notable performances are Lord Darlington played by Stephen Campbell Moore and Tuppy played by Tom Wilkinson – each romantically engaging and entangling with the mother and daughter Windermeres. Helen Hunt runs Stephen Campbell Moore close in being blessed with the character with the best lines but no character outshines the other I feel rather an ensemble acting performance prevails.

A Good Woman - Mrs Erlynne

Women don’t want to be understood. They want to be loved.

The difficult if enjoyable task of adapting the script was given to screenwriter Howard Himelstein, a new name to me. There are plenty laughs to be had but the film is not solely played to amuse us – it engages us cerebrally and viscerally too. Clearly the witty quick-fire exchanges are Wilde’s, the more prosaic slow-burn exchanges Himelstein’s. And this works taking the script off the stage and making it live and breathe on screen.

Many that are familiar with the play have disparaged the film. I though am not as familiar with the play and taking it on its own terms wonder at the purism and snobbery of such critics – most unWilde like.

It is sumptuously set and shot – it has the look and feel of a costume period drama but none of the sentimentality often associated with that genteel genre. The fashions and interior and exterior décor are a pleasure in themselves.

The film ends with a maternal exchange and a revelation, not to the daughter that she had a living mother standing there before her, but to the mother that her daughter had always been guided by her – if by an ideal of her. And the mother decides to leave the daughter with that ideal intact.

A sad if admirable choice. A satisfying literary ending perhaps but realistically believable too. A grown-up Hollywood ending.

A Good Woman - Mrs Erlynne and Tuppy

I like America. Name me another society that’s gone from barbarism to decadence without bothering to create a civilization in between.

Atonement

Saoirse Ronan Briony Tallis Atonement

The Young Briony

A butterfly flaps its wings…a tell-tale is told and the lives of those concerned are inexorably and irrevocably altered. As is the Tallis tittle-tattler who has to live with the consequences in a way those told on do not due to reasons later to be revealed – in the 2007 film and in my review.

Atonement shifts in place and time like Tarantino but in a more hazy and unpredictable way – a number of times I got caught out believing a new scene was being played out only to find it was an old scene relived from another’s perspective.

The film starts to the clatter of type-writer keys in rural Shropshire, England in the late 1930’s soon to be engulfed by World War II – though for the key characters engulfed by something else seemingly far more trivial yet of a far more fatal outcome.

Robbie and Cecilia Atonement Keira Knightley James McAvoy

Robbie and Cecilia

The precocious young writer completes her play. In another scene the object of her childhood affection types another piece this time a briefer but far more deadly and significant prose – two letters – one an innocent  explanation of his behaviour and request for forgiveness and one more blunt in jest not intended to be shared – ‘In my dreams I kiss your cunt. Your sweet wet cunt’ all typed out to the delirious ardour of Jussi Bjoerling’s version of ‘O Soave Fanciulla’ from Puccini’s La Boheme playing on the record player in his room – but it is that one that is to get shared and its messenger the aforementioned young writer who first reads it – and espies the C word in duplicate. And for that word all this trouble unfolds?

Robbie & Cecilia Atonement

Robbie and Cecilia caught in the act

He is imprisoned but is allowed his freedom if he becomes a British solider in the second World War to be stationed in France – he regains his liberty at the cost of his life.

His beloved estranged from her family because of this accusation becomes a nurse to care for the wounded victims of this War. We believe they are ultimately reunited in her Balham flat only to belatedly discover this was a fabrication of the younger sister whose story this film is. Instead the elder sister is herself a victim of the war – of a bomb and gas explosion killing the sheltering inhabitants of the Balham underground station.

Briony Tallis Romola Garai Atonement

The Teenage Briony

The younger sister wants to atone for her lie to her sister and her now husband by retracting her statement. And she knows and remembers now the culprit only to discover that he has married the victim of his crime making her testimony null and void.

At the end of her life we discover she has finally written and confessed all in her 21st novel – Atonement – but why wait until her twenty-first we wonder – until we discover that the two lovers had never been atoned in real-life as their life had in fact ended in the War and only she had to live with her shameful secret the rest of her life. Only now she decides she must reveal and unburden herself also made more keen by the discovery that she is dying – her brain is diseased and her memory and words will begin to desert her.

Her elder sister is Cecilia Tallis played by Keira Knightley and the object of both sisters affections and love is Robbie Turner played by James McAvoy.

Briony Tallis Vanessa Redgrave Atonement

The older Briony

The younger sister on the other hand is played by three actors because unlike the doomed couple she gets to live out the full span of her life – the youthful Briony Tallis who makes the accusation is played by Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai takes on the coming of age period of her life and the end of her long life is finished off by Vanessa Redgrave who finally writes the book and shares the secret, in effect with all as the interview is on live TV. All and sundry that is but the two most needing to hear it the victims of her tale Cecilia and Robbie.

All Briony’s give striking performances – Saoirse Ronan a very convincing and compelling performance as the younger and Vanessa Redgrave a typically memorable and charismatic finale to the life of the younger Tallis. Captivating too again is Romola Garai in yet another impressive literary adaptation (on TV as Jane Austen’s eponymous Emma and as Sugar in Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White) as the coming of age, innocence-ending Briony.

Dunkirk Atonement

Dunkirk

The war scenes both in the hospital wards and on the fields of battle around Dunkirk were very moving, visually striking and unsentimental.

There were a number of other good cast performances if mostly supporting and fleeting – Olivia Grant played a probationary nurse but blink and you may well miss her! Gina McKee playing the head nurse Sister Drummond you would not miss but still a fleeting performance. As also Robbie’s mother played by Brenda Blethyn. Fans of the recent BBC Sherlock Holmes adaptation Sherlock get to see Benedict Cumberbatch in an early role – with a name destined not to be forgotten!

I am not familiar with English author Ian McEwan‘s novel on which this film was based and certainly now want to become so. I cannot comment then on how the narrative treatment by English director Joe Wright compares to the novel – whether it is faithful to it or strays in any notable ways. Joe Wright himself the longest in a line sure to get ever longer of those bringing Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice to our screens – his version also starring Keira Knightley and indeed Brenda Blethyn. He has begun work on another literary adaptation this time Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – and guess who plays Anna – yes you guessed it Keira! The youthful Briony Saoirse Ronan also gets a recall too. A film director who is developing a reliable pedigree of intelligent and worthwhile book to film adaptations.

Atonement is a romantic tale with as much high sense as deep sensibility, a moving doomed romance told and recalled without sentiment.

A romantic tale which remains lodged as much in my mind as my heart.

Cecilia Tallis Kiera Knightley Atonement

Cecilia in the Balham Underground

Tipping the Velvet Underground

Tipping the Velvet - Sarah WatersJust finished reading Sarah Waters‘ 1998 novel Tipping the Velvet. A real page-turner. In part for me because I was I think as blind-sided as Nan King was at Kitty Buttler’s betrayal-liaison with Walter Bliss and expected a resolution and reunion between the two with each subsequent chapter before belatedly resigning myself against this. There was a happy romantic ending – a number indeed – but not telling between whom as do not want to spoil for those who are not familiar with it! – a real tear-jerker the ending was too following on the emotional rollercoaster of Nancy after Kitty.

I now want to watch the BBC and Andrew Davies 2002 adaptation (which also was the cover of the version of the book I read so Rachael Stirling and Keeley Hawes were already indelibly imprinted in my imagination as Nan and Kitty) – and I want to seek out everything else on TV and in print from Sarah Waters such as Fingersmith and Affinity and am awaiting the 2011 Richard Laxton adaptation of The Night Watch with eager anticipation.

Tipping the Velvet TV cast photo

Though the ending was romantically a happy one the politics of the book made me a bit rueful. Not the sexual and equality politics – there have been significant developments in Britain since the time of its setting in the late 19th Century – rather the labour and economic politics of the book as exemplified by the Florence Banner character and her brother Ralph.

Sarah WatersAt this time socialism was still a hopeful dream of working people. The 20th Century saw it become a nightmare with the Capitalism it sought to replace flourishing and stronger than ever come the end of the 20th Century. But here we are in 2011 with Free Market Capitalism itself now dead following its demise in the 2008 financial crisis and what to fill the vacuum? A pauperization of the middle-classes now seems in place and the Karl Marx observation that

Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks

remains as pertinent as ever. Only social democracy can perhaps save us now but will the crony capitalists relinquish their reigns – they have prevailed for an awfully long time.

However lest you have not read this book and now thinking it a dry political tract don’t let my tangential musings mislead, the political and economic travails of working people is but a part of this rich and many layered story. The wilful Victorian love-child of Charles Dickens and Emily Bronte. And then some!

Women In Love – Episode Two

Episode Two begins with a brutal scene between a British and German soldier in a World War I trench and does not dwell on that war much beyond that – its horror has been starkly encapsulated in that one act of kill or be killed.

Women In Love then returns to the peace if a broken and haunted peace.

Father and daughter BBC adaptationThe idealism of the first episode replaced with dreams broken yet accommodated – for all of the main characters the Brangwen sisters themselves and Gerald Crich (the brutal and brutalised soldier) and Rupert Birkin.

Their hearts and minds are stripped even more naked in this ending episode. Gudrun Brangwen who gave the appearance at least of frivolity in the first episode deepened considerably in this second and I thought Rosamund Pike who played her turned in the most impressive of all the performances.

Women In Love’s preoccupations of love and sex, the purpose of art and how we should live our life all felt very modern and I had to remind myself that DH Lawrence wrote this story the best part of a century ago.  I am glad that the BBC brought it to wider attention.

Lark Rise to Candleford – no more

Lark Rise to Candleford has been a real treasure from the trove that is BBC Television.

Each episode was a pleasure in and of itself whilst enriched by watching as a series as the characters and plot developed – it lasted four series and forty episodes.

There will be no fifth series as the BBC have decided not to re-commission one.  This has caused a popular outcry and I can understand why.  I have not read the Flora Thompson trilogy of books on which the series is based and if the series ended in step with the trilogy then I can understand its ending – but this does not appear to be the case and the BBC explanation for its demise I find vague and very puzzling.

I enjoyed so much about this program – from its opening theme composed by Julian Nott, its narration by Sarah Lancashire (as the adult Laura Timmins and sounding uncannily like Olivia Hallinan the actor who plays her on screen), the acting of all the Lark Rise and Candleford residents and the observational and subtle writing.

There were some impressive male performances most notably for me Brendan Coyle as Robert Timmins before he disappeared in Series 4 – for employment as Lord Grantham’s valet at Downton Abbey it seems!

Julia Sawalha as Dorcas Lane

The women though I thought made the show. Dorcas Lane played with consummate skill by Julia Salwalha was the centre-piece of the program – not just its post-mistress but the moral anchor of Candleford as Emma Timmins (outstandingly performed by Claudie Blakley) the moral anchor of Lark Rise.

Olivia Hallinan was another formidable performance as Emma’s daughter Laura.  I have been enjoying her as Kim in the re-airing of Sugar Rush on 4 Music where again she also serves has that program’s narrator and beating heart.

Matilda Ziegler and Victoria Hamilton were memorable too as the Pratt Sisters – owners, designers and dress-makers of their own women’s clothing store. The fashions of the period were another pleasure for me of this series – though I think I enjoyed the fashion of Dorcas more than that of Ruby and Pearl!

I found the writing sharp, funny and moving and a fascinating social history of English rural life at the end of the 19th Century.

I will miss Lark Rise to Candleford very much.

And another set of books to add to my never-ending reading list!