Monday, February 25, 2013

Les Miserables the Movie: Notes on the Oscars

Congratulations to Les Miserables for winning three Oscars!  While I was wrong in predicting that Les Miz would win the most Oscars without actually winning Best Picture (that would be Life of Pi with four), I wasn't too far off.  Les Miserables won as many Oscars as Argo, the Best Picture winner, and more than critical darlings Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Silver Linings Playbook.  In fact, Les Miserables has a better win percentage than both Lincoln (2 of 12) and Life of Pi (4 of 11), and is tied with Argo (3 of 8).  Not bad, musical movie, not bad.

Overall, it was a rather strange 3.5 hours, not the least because Seth MacFarlane of Family Guy was the host.  Instead of one movie dominating the night, as many predicted Lincoln would, the awards were pretty evenly distributed.  Argo won despite not having any nominees for Best Actor/Actress or Best Director.  I think I prefer it this way, especially since the field was so strong this year, than to have one movie take over.  *cough* The King's Speech *cough*

It was an evening devoted to music in movies, where ghosts of movie musicals past arose and took the stage one last time.  It makes me wonder if this format was planned at the height of the buzz for Les Miserables, but I doubt it.  Anyway, here are some more random thoughts I had about the ceremony:

1.  Anyone think the only reason the "movie musical medley" was formed was so there would be an excuse for the Les Miz cast to sing "One Day More"?  They wouldn't have been able to otherwise, since "One Day More" would never qualify for best original song.  Man, if it did, though, it would have blown "Skyfall" out of the water.

2.  It must have been slightly awkward for Catherine Zeta Jones to reprise her role in Chicago a decade after last performing it.  Some audience members' reactions -- "What is the cast of Chicago doing here?" -- made me think the musical hasn't aged so well.

3.  I think it would have been better to include past musicals (West Side StoryThe Sound of Music) with the three most recent movie musicals, even if the older ones were only shown in clips.  It would have seemed less random.

4.  I'm not a huge fan of Jennifer Hudson's slightly brittle voice, but she certainly did justice to a song that is meant to be a show stopper.  People were giving her a standing ovation.  She was going to be a tough act to follow.

5.  I don't know if the Les Miserables medley quite met the challenge.  For one thing, it was very strangely edited.  Hugh Jackman started out by singing a truncated version of the only song up for nomination, "Suddenly."  I think he actually sounded better here than in the movie.  Then Anne Hathaway came out and started singing the first lines of "One Day More."  "Nice way to get her into the song!" I thought.  I looked forward to her singing "These men who seemed to know my crime will surely come a second time!", but that was given to Jackman.

6.  Then, randomly, Hathaway sang the first few of lines of "I Dreamed a Dream" in place of Marius's "I did not live until today.  How can I live when we are parted?".  That made the following lines, sung by Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne, sound weird and clashing.  Damn, Seyfried cannot project to save her life.  She would never make it as a stage Cosette.

7.  Samantha Barks sounded great, as did Aaron Tveit, looking mighty fine in his tuxedo and real hair.  Unfortunately, his lines were cut down as part of the truncating of "One Day More."  Why didn't they just leave the song uncut?  I guess because Seth MacFarlane needed more time to talk about boobs with William Shatner.

8.  As part of the cutting, Russell Crowe's lines were intermixed with Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen's.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Crowe's vocals haven't improved with time, but the clapping from the audience said: "That's okay.  We still love you."

9.  Blink and you missed seeing Ramin Karimloo enter with the rest of the chorus, composed of professional stage performers.  Alas, they came on too late and didn't get to stay long enough.  Still, the ending flourish with the French flags was a nice touch.

10.  Did they lower the notes for "One Day More" so that Anne could more easily sing the lines of "I Dreamed a Dream"?  The rest of the cast showed they could sing it in show key.  Maybe it was so they wouldn't have to risk straining their voices?

11.  I have to think that they placed Best Supporting Actress so far after Best Supporting Actor in order to try and squeeze whatever tension they could out of the least tension-filled category (until Best Actor).  After the pre-recorded skit where Sally Fields even admitted that Anne Hathaway would win, I began to worry that Hathaway was being set up for the ultimate cruel prank.

12.  But no, she did win.  And even though she did seem genuinely excited, it was hard for some of us in the audience to match her.  Though I will say that if Fantine were a big enough role for Best Actress, I think Hathaway would have won that, too.  If Hollywood insisted on rewarding a young actress, her performance was much more intense than Jennifer Lawrence's in Silver Linings Playbook (though I think Lawrence is talented and deserved to win for Winter's Bone).

13.  I knew (as did the rest of the world) that Adele would win for "Skyfall" over Les Miz's "Suddenly," but was I the only one slightly underwhelmed by "Skyfall"?

14.  For one brief, shining moment, I hoped that Hugh Jackman would triumph over Daniel Day-Lewis, whom I also love.  Nope -- almost without looking at the envelope, Meryl Streep announced Daniel Day-Lewis as the winner for Best Actor.

15.  Indeed, Hugh Jackman's most memorable Oscar moment may have been coming to Jennifer Lawrence's rescue when she fell on the stairs on the way to accept her award.

16.  Oh, and this is still gold.

Farewell, Les Miserables, until next time, which will probably be when the full soundtrack or the DVD is released.           

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Downton Abbey S3, E7: Farewell, Matthew, As You Go Gently Into That Good Night

Maybe "gently" was not the best choice of words, but you know what I mean.

Damn the gap between airings in the UK and the rest of the world.  Otherwise, I wouldn't have been spoiled about Matthew's death since practically the beginning.  The spoiler that told me about Sybil also tipped me off to Matthew's demise.  Matthew's was less of a surprise because I knew that Dan Stevens would be leaving the show, although initially I thought he would be getting some remote civil servant post that forced him to be away most of the year.  Also, to my chagrin, I realize that I had a hand in leaking the spoiler when I linked to an article about Dan Stevens in one of my earlier posts.  I'm so sorry -- I hope that I didn't spoil Series Three for anyone.

In any event, now everyone knows, and I'm sure there will be much to talk about before Series Four.  Hopefully the U.S. airings will not lag behind the UK next time.

Plot Synopsis

Matthew's death is about five seconds of horror in an otherwise uneventful 90-minute episode.  Before then, the biggest shock is that this episode takes place one year after the previous one, in September 1921.  If you expect to see how certain plot lines resolved themselves, don't hold your breath.  You won't see any sign that Thomas took revenge on O'Brien, or that there is any lingering tension between them; that there is any change in the relationship between Thomas and Bates; that Daisy agreed to be Mr. Mason's heir to his tenancy, or how either of them feel about Downton's modernization; that Daisy no longer cares about Alfred, or Ivy about Jimmy.  You will just have to wonder -- or, more likely, wonder if all of Downton Abbey was locked in a cryogenic chamber for the past year.  Practically the only sign of movement is that Daisy now walks around with her arm linked with Ivy's, a sign that their enmity is over.  The more significant Thomas-Jimmy gets resolved near the end of the episode.  Oh, and Mary's pregnant.

Yes, she's eight months pregnant, yet goes off with the upstairs half of Downton on a trip to Scotland as if early birth or complications weren't a concern.  After what happened with Sybil, you would think the Crawleys would be extremely anxious about Mary's health, but no -- throughout the episode, Mary will dance and ride down bumpy roads to a picnic spot with scarcely a word of doubt from her parents or her husband.    

The Crawleys go to Duneagle Castle in the Scottish Highlands to visit Rose and her parents, Hugh "Shrimpie" MacClare, Marquess of Flintshire, and his wife, Susan.  The only ones excluded are Isobel and honorary Crawley, Branson.  Duneagle is the type of castle that is surrounded by endless acres of glorious Highlands, where men play bagpipes at eight o'clock in the morning and throughout dinner.  Yet all is not well within the castle walls.  Shrimpie and Susan are nearing the end of a decades-long marital cold war.  Shrimpie also admits to Lord Grantham that over the years, he drove his fortune into the ground and now stands to lose Duneagle.  He wishes that he had thought to modernize his estate the way Lord Grantham has with Downton, though I hardly think that the benefits would be apparent so quickly.  Shrimpie will have to sell the ancestral castle and take a civil service post in India.  Meanwhile, Susan is a dishrag who constantly criticizes Rose, driving the latter to despair.  She and Shrimpie both end up begging the Crawleys to take in Rose while they are out of the country, and the Crawleys agree readily, because someone needed to fill the youthful exuberant hole left by Sybil's death.  Especially after the final moments of the episode.      

Edith's editor, Michael Gregson, is also in Scotland with the intent of sketching the Highlands -- an excuse that Mary sees through in less time than it took for you to read this sentence.  He is really there to meet Edith's family, of course, with the hope that they will become so fond of him, they won't mind that he essentially wants Edith to be his mistress.  He still can't divorce his crazy wife, but can't deny that he is in love with Edith.  Matthew, the only other person besides Edith who knows Gregson's secret, tells him sternly to stop his pursuit.  But since Matthew is so cruelly taken out of the equation in the final moments, who will stop him now?  Not Edith, who is so moved by Gregson's profession of love that she decides she will continue to see him.  Where it all leads, we can only guess.

Four of the downstairs crew have accompanied the Crawleys to Scotland -- the two ladies maids, O'Brien and Anna, and the two valets, Bates and Molesley.  Susan takes immediately to O'Brien while dismissing her own maid, Wilkins.  Jealous, Wilkins spikes O'Brien's drink with whisky at a ghillie ball, but O'Brien quickly finds out and pushes the drink aside, only for Molesley to find it and chug it down... with hilarious results.  There is a question of whether O'Brien will be hired by the MacClares to serve as Susan's maid while they are in India, as O'Brien expressed an interest in going abroad.  It would probably be a good move for her, as there is really nothing for her at Downton except continued hostility downstairs, as long as she can put up with Susan.  Meanwhile, Anna tells Bates that she has a big surprise for him, and it turns out to be... Anna learned how to dance.  It is as uninspiring as it sounds, even if Bates's look of adoration as he watches is quite touching.

The rest of the downstairs is back at Downton, and many are under the misguided belief that they can relax a little.  But no!  Carson has a list filled with chores that they can accomplish while the Crawleys are away.  Yet even he can't be a complete killjoy, and thus permits the rest of the downstairs crew to attend a nearby fair.  One of the fair-goers is interested in Mrs. Patmore, which thrills her to no end.  However, when she realizes that he is a flirt who is only interested in his cooking, she is relieved to be rid of him, rather than disappointed.  Even if she doesn't have everything she wants, it does seem as though Mrs. Patmore leads a good life downstairs.

Meanwhile, Branson is alone and very awkward upstairs.  One of the new maids, Edna, takes advantage of this vulnerability to get closer to him.  She reminds him of his downstairs roots and asks him if he is ever "ashamed" of abandoning them to go live upstairs.  Branson says that he is not ashamed, but the expression on his face clearly says otherwise.  Yet after a visit with Isobel, who tells him that as the estate agent, he has the right to socialize with whomever he likes, he becomes a little bolder about spending time with the people downstairs.  He even agrees to go to the fair with them!  Finally Edna finds Branson alone in his room (and shirtless!) one day and kisses him.  Mrs. Hughes quickly finds out and gives Edna her walking papers.  She then has a touching scene with Branson where he admits that he is struggling to live without Sybil, and she tells him that Sybil would be proud of him, and that he would learn to be with someone else someday.

In other news, Dr. Clarkson takes Isobel to the fair and tries to propose to her.  She pretends to misunderstand him, and he realizes that she is not interested and would turn him down.  At least this way, they can still be friends... until Isobel's grief makes them something more, but that's for the next series.

Also at the fair, Jimmy wins some money in a tug-of-war and uses it to become very drunk.  Some of the thugs on the losing end of the tug-of-war decide to attack him under a bridge, but lo and behold, Thomas appears just in time!  He yells at Jimmy to run, before both men tackle him and start beating the stuffing out of him.  Jimmy runs to get Dr. Clarkson, who either breaks the fight up, or finds whatever is left of Thomas afterward.  It turns out that the only real damage Thomas received was some nasty cuts on his face.  Later that night, as he recovers upstairs, Jimmy visits him and finds out that Thomas knew about the fight because his unrequited lust compelled him to follow Jimmy.  Jimmy tells Thomas that he can't give Thomas what he wants, and Thomas acknowledges it.  They agree to be friends.

Finally the heavy drama starts.  At the ghillie ball, Mary experiences signs of labor and takes a train back to Downton, with just Anna to keep her company.  Not even Cora was willing to breach social etiquette to come along?  But I guess it doesn't matter, because Mary makes it safely and has a healthy baby boy.  Only when the rest of the family arrives home does tragedy strike.

Matthew visits Mary and the baby first.  Almost crying with joy, he tells Mary that he loves her and that he knows the "real" Mary is a good person, not the cold, hateful shrew others (like Edith) see, and that she secretly believes herself to be.  The scene is so touching that even if I were not spoiled, I would know that Matthew couldn't possibly survive.  He rushes home in his car, just as Lord Grantham is proclaiming to the rest of the house how happy he is and how right Matthew was about modernizing.  Just then, Matthew sees a car coming in the opposite direction and swerves to avoid it.  That must have caused him to roll over, because the next thing we see, the car is overturned in a ditch and Matthew has been ejected.  As blood rolls down his face, his lifeless eyes gaze at nothing.  Meanwhile, Mary is still basking in the glow of maternity, with no idea how her life has changed.  

Other Observations

Two Shows in One.  These last several episodes, I sometimes felt as though I were watching two different shows combined.  The first show was Downstairs, starring Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Thomas, and Daisy.  Downstairs was a low-key dramedy where significant things might happen (such as Thomas's outing), but characters talked and fought and laughed and worked things out, becoming deeper in the process.  Then there was the second show, Upstairs, starring Lord Grantham, Mary, and Matthew.  Upstairs was a full-blown soap opera, where characters were killed at random, huge fortunes were lost, and men had crazy wives stashed away in mental institutions.  Okay, the seperartion isn't absolute -- the Bates prison plot was pretty Upstairs, as was O'Brien's scheming, while Branson's anguish would have fit right into Downstairs.  Still, it struck me that certain characters were just too good for this show.  How do Mrs. Hughes and Mrs. Patmore even exist in the same universe as dead Matthew lying on the ground with blood rolling down his face?  They need their own spinoff, "The Ladies of Downton," or something, where quiet character-driven dramedy happens every week, and no one dies unexpectedly.    

Still More on Thomas.  I seem to be in the minority -- among viewers and the show's characters -- who thinks that Thomas should have been held more accountable for his behavior last week.  I understand the feeble reasons the characters gave ("We need a good cricket player!"); after all, there needed to be a way to keep Thomas on Downton, and even having him leave with a good reference would not accomplish this.  However, I would have expected a little more fairness from the audience.

People got up in arms after Edna dared to pursue Branson aggressively, and were glad when she was sent on her way.  Yet at least when Edna kissed Branson, he was awake!  But Thomas was so tortured and lovelorn before and after he sneaked into Jimmy's room, that somehow made it okay.  Maybe because tortured and lovelorn characters tend to be forgiven more easily than the ordinary insensitive kind.  The most typical version of this character is a troubled man pining over a woman.  Even though there are plenty of signs that he would not be an easy person to live with, audience members (especially women) too often think: "He just needs the right woman to love him, and then he'll be good!"  Despite the woman never giving him any reason to believe she is interested (in fact, quite the opposite), he sacrifices herself for her again and again.  Ungrateful bitch!  Finally the woman relents and magically falls in love with the "hero."  Audience members are left griping that "she will never be good enough for him."      

In this case, of course, the "woman" is Jimmy.  Last week, Thomas received forgiveness for being so tortured.  This week, Jimmy received scorn for, I don't know, not being grateful enough to Thomas for sacrificing his admittedly fine body for Jimmy's safety.  Thomas told Jimmy to run and Jimmy ran -- though whether straight to Dr. Clarkson or to someone else who could help Thomas, we don't know.  Jimmy could have stayed and tried to fight the bullies, but that wasn't what Thomas wanted and, given that Jimmy was drunk, might not have been the best idea.  Jimmy running to Dr. Clarkson was probably the best thing he could have done.  But I've read comments that gripe about how cowardly Jimmy was, and that he only learned to "respect" Thomas after his sacrifice.  Which is B.S., because until Thomas broke into Jimmy's room, Jimmy did respect him.  O'Brien made him believe that "Mr. Barrow" had Lord Grantham's ear, and so if Jimmy wanted to stay on Lord Grantham's good side, he needed to do whatever Thomas told him.  But since Jimmy is attractive and maybe a little silly and vain, he isn't entitled to receive the benefit of the doubt.  And since he is so attractive, he is also gay and trying to repress it, because all attractive men are gay, or all gay men are attractive, or some such nonsense.  By mid-Series Four, Fellowes will probably have him making out with Thomas in the wine cellar.

What I'm trying to say is that these tired tropes are harmful whether they concern straight men or gay men, or straight/lesbian women.  It's not cool to invade someone's personal space against their will or knowledge, whether you are gay or straight, male or female.  It is exploitative.  It says that you disrespect the other person and the choices he/she has made.  No amount of "sacrificing" yourself for the other person will change that.  And no, just because you did something against the other person's will, then later sacrificed your body or position for him/her does not make you "even."  Because in the second case, you chose to sacrifice yourself, while in the first case, the other person had no choice.

When the offender is a gay man or a straight/lesbian woman, the effect may be to harm the perception of everyone who belongs in that group.  I'm reminded of an episode of Roseanne from the fifth or sixth season, where Roseanne visited a lesbian bar.  Mid-way through, one of the women came up to Roseanne and, after a little chat, kissed her.  After Roseanne expressed concern about the kiss to her friend Nancy, a lesbian, Nancy said nonchalantly that the woman just thought Roseanne looked cute and decided to kiss her, and that it meant nothing.  Because, you know, that's what lesbians do.  All lesbians randomly kiss strangers whenever they feel like it, and Roseanne shouldn't be concerned or offended because it's "their way."  Really, "their way"?  Every lesbian ever thinks that it's okay to come up to strangers and kiss them?  Somehow I doubt that.  Yet here was a case where in trying to be progressive (this episode was considered to be very cutting edge at the time), Roseanne might have harmed the perception of lesbians.

Likewise, many so-called progressive programs that show women treating men in ways that we would never want to see women treated risk harming the general perception of women and feminists.  It's about behavior, and respect for one another.  No one should get off of the hook because it's "their way," whether it's a popular character like Thomas or anyone else.  No one should get a free pass for behavior that takes advantage of a power imbalance.      
Next Time: What can we expect (or hope) from Downton Abbey Series Four?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Les Miserables the Movie: Why the Hate?

Since the Oscars are fast approaching, I thought it worth doing another post on Les Miserables to discuss the thoughts that have accumulated since my movie review.

It seems a little strange to use the word "hate" with regard to this movie, because compared to Evita and The Phantom of the Opera, it is far more critically -- and certainly far more commercially -- successful.  At present, it sits at 70% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  That's not the stellar rating of, say, the very overrated Silver Linings Playbook, but it does mean that more than two-thirds of critics thought that the movie was worth their time.  In addition, Les Miserables was nominated for eight Oscars (compared to Evita's five), including significant nominations for Best Supporting Actress, Best Actor, and Best Picture.  It has already won more Golden Globes than any other movie in 2012.

Yet those who hate the movie have been very vocal about their hatred.  From their outbursts, you would have thought that watching cats get vivisected for two hours was more worth their while.  One critic claimed that throughout the entire movie, he sat cowering, "lost in shame and chagrin."  Another griped that "this fake-opulent Les Miz made me long for guillotines."  More than one critic even created a cutesy song to express his disgust, such as in this review.  The complaints might be easier to dismiss if they didn't come from some well-known publications such as The New York Timesthe New YorkerEntertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, and TIME.  And none of these critics surpass Roger Ebert, whose hatred for Les Miserables is so pure and visceral, he won't even write a proper review to explain his hatred (or, for that matter, why he gave a positive review to Evita).

Many of the complaints can be traced back to plain old dislike of the original musical.  Insipid songs, dull lyrics, bombastic score.  No movie adaptation could entirely fix flaws in the original material, unless it did as one critic wanted, which was chuck half of the songs and completely reimagine the material, like Caberet.  Some critics' gripes even went back to the structure of the novel.  How come Jean Valjean stops being the main focus and all of these new characters (aka the students) are introduced?  The story loses momentum!  It's too complicated!  They were no doubt used to the other adaptations, which reduce Les Miserables to a simple cat-and-mouse game between Valjean and Javert, while the students are a distant roar in the background.   

So what to do?  Do those of us who like the movie simply admit defeat and bow to their superior taste?  How is it that so many intelligent people can hate the movie and musical so passionately, while other intelligent people like -- love -- Les Miserables without irony?  Is it because we first saw it at an age when we were most susceptible?  I first saw Les Miz when I was 13 -- prime Eponine-worshipping age.  But if all it took was seeing a musical when we were most susceptible, then I should have fallen head-over-heels in love with RENT.  There are other reasons to appreciate Les Miserables as a musical, and they boil down to this: if you had to make a musical of a 1,000-plus page classic with dozens of characters and subplots, the current musical is about the best that you can expect.

Are some of the lyrics hackneyed?  No doubt.  "But the tigers come at night!"  "At the barricade of freedom!"  "My race is not yet run!"  But in a three-hour sung-through musical, that is unavoidable.  There are also several really good lines, such as: "He told me that I have a soul.  How does he know?  What spirit comes to move my life?  Is there another way to go?"  If certain characters (like Cosette) get the short shrift, then at least the musical remembers that the student revolution exists, and why, and is able to tie it to a larger theme.  It's not just some background event that gives Valjean something to do when he's not being chased by Javert.  And a lot of the songs are pretty terrific and, yes, memorable.  "Do You Hear the People Sing?"  "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables."  "I Dreamed a Dream."  "Who Am I?"  And is there a better song to take you into the intermission than "One Day More"?             

Yet many of the "haters" of the movie are people who loved the musical.  Their reasons appear to be multifold.  The singing wasn't as good as it is on stage.  They hated the close ups.  There was too much in-your-face emoting.  The barricade scenes weren't as grand as they are on stage.  They didn't like that Eponine's part was so reduced.  Russell Crowe...

All valid criticisms, and all things that bothered me slightly when I watched the movie.  Yet I was still able to enjoy it.  Will I feel the same way in 10 or 20 years?  Who knows.  I guess what I need to address is why I consider Les Miserables to be a Movie Musical That Got It Right, as opposed to one that got it wrong.

In my Evita critique, I cited the following reasons why the musical did not work: not enough real emotion; too many forced attempts by director Alan Parker to make the audience feel; unfocused message, leaving you uncertain how to view the title character; a good-but-not-great performance by Madonna; okay singing and awful lip syncing.  In my The Phantom of the Opera critique, my reasons were: the title character was disastrously miscast; the atmosphere was lacking; and there were way too many silly moments that were meant to be serious.  

So how does Les Miserables compare?

Forced Emotion.  One of the things I hated most about Evita was the way Alan Parker really tried to manipulate the audience into feeling emotion when the movie itself couldn't provide it.  Two specific examples are the close-up of a crying Eva at the very beginning and the flashback sequence during "Don't Cry for Me Argentina."  Yet couldn't you argue that Hooper constantly manipulates your emotions as well?  Whose idea was it again to hold that camera just inches from Anne Hathaway's face?  I would argue yes... and no.

 To some extent, all directors are manipulating the audience's emotions in movies where the audience is required to feel something, whether it's the choice of camera angle, editing, or music.  What annoyed me about Parker's close-up of little Eva in the beginning is that it seemed like an attempt to force a bond with her before we had a sense of who she was or what she was going to do.  Look, a crying child!  LOVE HER.  I tend to find most shots of crying children to be manipulative -- lazy shorthand for directors who want to send a message that something is unjust.  I felt as though Parker didn't trust the audience to empathize with Eva on their own, which is also why he resorted to the flashback sequence during "Don't Cry for Me Argentina."  "The audience certainly won't be carried away by the music and able to reflect upon Eva's journey on their own, so I'll just remind them of what took place maybe 20 minutes ago."

By contrast, Hooper is manipulative, but at least by the time he has those big close-up songs, we've already seen the characters' journey and have some idea of what they've been through.  Before "I Dreamed a Dream," we see Fantine unjustly fired from her factory job, her hair cut and teeth pulled, and raped by a sailor.  The audience already has an idea of how awful her life was, so when she starts belting out her rage in close up, it makes sense.  Likewise, by the time Valjean sings "What Have I Done?", we've seen his life as a convict, how he was mistreated as a free man, and then the Bishop's kind, live-saving act.  By the time Marius sings "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," we have already met the friends he refers to, and have a sense of his loss.  Hooper never resorts to flashbacks or montages to convey emotion, even when I think he should (see "Suddenly").  Instead he trusts the actors to convey their characters' emotions through their facial expressions and vocal choices.

Is that always successful?  No.  I will refrain from stating the most obvious example and just say that after three viewings, I think Anne Hathaway overacts in "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Come to Me."  Meanwhile, Hugh Jackman's performance sometimes walks a fine line between moving and comedy; depending upon your mood, you could see it as either (I see it as moving).  That's not to say that neither gives a good performance, but I prefer Samantha Barks and Eddie Redmayne, who are quieter and subtler, and thus more effective.  Yet on the whole, I think Hooper's approach is much fresher and more genuine than Parker's, and thus more successful at what it was trying to accomplish.

Disastrously Miscast.  In my Phantom critique, I was not shy about stating my belief that Gerard Butler killed the movie.  The movie was actually okay until he arrived -- then it took a steep dive.  The rest of the cast tried to save it, but could not prevail.  Butler's casting was a disaster not only because he was drastically different from the Phantom of the novel and musical, but also because he brought absolutely nothing to enhance the role.  The Phantom was a physically and mentally warped being who was nonetheless a genius and capable of producing angelic music.  He lived in a dark, elaborate underground world of his own creation.  He was mysterious, hypnotic, and deadly.

Butler's singing was mediocre.  He looked solid and blandly handsome.  I no more believed that he created that underground world than that I had.  And don't get me started on his "birth defect," which was basically a bad skin burn.  The problem is that so much of The Phantom of the Opera hinges upon the mystique that the Phantom provides.  Without that, it is nothing more than a pretty-looking, so-so mystery.        

Many people have compared Russell Crowe to Butler, and while his performance disappoints, I don't think it fails spectacularly the way Butler's does.  First, while Javert is a critical character, his role is not as critical as that of the Phantom.  If this version of Les Miserables were just a Valjean-Javert cat-and-mouse game, I might say otherwise, but instead, it has other themes and important characters to hang its hat on.  The most crucial character is Jean Valjean himself, who is embodied quite well by Hugh Jackman.  Les Miserables is mainly his journey, not a journey into the mind and motives of Javert.  Then there is the tragically short life of Fantine, as well as the story of Marius and the student revolutionaries.  Les Miserables is a true ensemble show, and apart from Valjean, does not force one character to carry too much of its weight.

Second, Crowe isn't as much of a disaster as advertised.  His singing pales in comparison to that of stage Javerts, and people have criticized him for being far too stiff.  However, I think he has a rigid solidness that works for the role.  He looks like someone who respects the law, and has the presence to be more than just a thorn in Valjean's side.  Far from being vacant, his eyes frequently look troubled.  Crowe also has some very effective scenes, including one without any singing or dialogue.  Could someone else have done better in the role?  Of course, but you could say that about most of the roles -- about most roles anywhere.  I suppose I will always wonder whether Paul Bettany or Anthony Warlow or Philip Quast or whoever else might have been more suitable.  Yet while the latter two, at least, would have brought the singing, it's questionable whether they would have brought presence and good acting choices.  Crowe doesn't make Les Miserables better, but he doesn't kill it, either. 

Apart from him, I can't think of anyone who rises to the level of miscast, just some whose voices were not as strong.

The Singing.  It's almost an accepted truth that in movie musicals, the singing is never as good as in the stage version.  That applies to Evita, Phantom, and Les Miserables.  That said, apart from Butler in Phantom (and maybe Crowe in Les Miz), there is no really embarrassing singing in any of the three.  Instead, the issues are how genuine the singers come across.  Evita staged a lot of entertaining, elaborate singing numbers, but the songs never seemed to be coming from the actors' mouths.  The effect was especially repulsive in "Eva Beware of the City."  By contrast, the lip syncing in Phantom wasn't painfully bad, but I could still tell it was lip syncing.  The staging tended to leech any tension or passion from songs like "All I Ask of You."  Just watch a stage performance on YouTube to see the difference.  By contrast, the singing and the emotion behind it feel very immediate in Les Miserables.  Actors would sing through their tears, sing while sighing, sound flat one minute and lilting the next.  It doesn't always work, but it is very rarely boring.

The Focus.  I have criticized Evita's muddled focus, and to an extent I think Phantom's is muddled as well.  What exactly is the message of Phantom?  Ugliness is only in your mi-- never mind.  If you are tortured enough, you will soon learn to love your captor?  That's more like it.  Whereas the focus of Les Miserables never seems to stray from showing the plight of the poor, and how unjust and horrible French society was in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Some have argued that the movie loses focus once the student scenes arrive, but if so, that is the fault of the novel as much as the musical.

Miscellaneous.  Les Miserables fares better than the other two movies in all of the categories above.  But what also pushes it over the top are its grand sense of history and the innate dignity that it gives to its characters (even, arguably, the Thenardiers).  The characters don't just pretend to embrace love and social justice because they're supposed to -- they really seem to believe in it.  Whereas Evita is also a historical epic, but you never get the sense that any of the characters believe in anything or are a part of history.  And Che is the-- why is Che there again?  Che is supposed to represent the Everyman, but it never seems like anything is at stake for him.  In Les Miserables, you watch the students sing about freedom and prepare to die for it.  


Other aspects like pacing might have bothered me in all three movies, but it did not feel like a deal breaker in any of them.  Likewise, all three had a vast array of costumes and elaborate set pieces.  What makes Les Miserables a Movie Musical That Got It Right is, again, the actors' passionate, accessible performances, giving the movie a vibrancy that both Evita and Phantom utterly lacked.  Maybe in two decades I'll feel differently, but for now, I am comfortable with my choice.             

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Downton Abbey S3, E6: Where 1920 Is 2013, Only With More Jazz

For whatever reason, Masterpiece Theatre has again merged two episodes of Downton Abbey to create one super-sized episode.  Maybe it was because they were damn determined to make sure there were only seven episodes per series, or maybe they were worried about competing with Oscar night.  Regardless, we are looking at the Series Three finale -- or what UK viewers know as the Christmas Special -- next week.

Plot Synopsis

Count on Downton to deliver generous doses of WTF? each year, as well as completely unbelievable resolutions to problems.  In the first half of the episode, we see Bates emerge from prison looking quite dapper in a three-piece suit.  Anna has been waiting for him in a car, but when she sees him, she bursts out and they share a tender moment.  If there is any sense that their relationship has changed, we don't see it in this episode.  I'm so happy that the prison storyline is over with, I'll squelch any impulse to complain about the unrealistic speed with which Bates was released.

With Bates returning to Downton, there is a dilemma about what to do with Thomas.  Lord Grantham dithers over whether to keep him or fire him while on a walk with Cora.  She's back to clinging to his arm, as if she's not capable of walking on her own.  What bitterness?  What understandable resentment?  It's as if the last two episodes never happened.  She must have taken some strong opiates this time.  The ones she keeps on hand for those occasions where she feels like throwing herself out a window.  Oh good, they're kicking in... I can no longer feel human emotion.

The Thomas plot line will be addressed later.  In the meantime, Lord Grantham's world is in upheaval again as Branson prepares for baby Sybil's baptism as a Catholic.  He invites his brother Kieran, who works in Liverpool, to be Sybil's godparent.  One look at Kieran, and it's clear that he would be at home in one of those xenophobic nineteenth century illustrations of the Irish.  He is scornful of the Crawleys and thinks that their servants are good enough company, so clearly he must be thwarted.  Branson tells him in a terse manner that the Crawleys were very good to invite his worthless drunken self to Downton Abbey, and that Kieran should show his gratitude by dining with them.  So at the dinner table, he horrifies them with his manners and his description of his life in Liverpool -- where Branson and baby Sybil are destined.  After dinner, Kieran requests a beer, though manages to refrain from any loud burping.

Lord Grantham's world is also in upheaval as Matthew goes over plans for modernizing the estate.  The estate manager -- yes, there is one -- is even more appalled.  Apparently part of Matthew's plans involves merging all of the farmland together to create a superfarm, which I imagine will cause tension with tenants like Mr. Mason in Series Four.  Finally, the estate manager quits in a huff, and Violet comes up with the brilliant plan of hiring Branson in his place, on the basis that Branson's grandfather was a sheep farmer.  Branson quickly accepts the new position, and hooray!  He and little Sybil are saved from being too Irish!  Yet it's strange how the Crawleys base their decision on it being "what Sybil wanted."  Yes, Sybil did not want Branson to go backward by becoming an auto mechanic with Kieran, but somehow I don't think her idea of "forward" was him becoming wedded to the Downton estate.  The very estate that she wanted so badly to leave.  I suspect what Sybil really wanted was for Branson to fight the good fight and free the Irish, not "settle," whether in Liverpool or at Downton.  But I guess we'll never know now.

Branson is now so cool with Downton that Lord Grantham has to remind him that he is a Marxist.  Nevertheless, Lord Grantham agrees to be present for little Sybil's christening, and in one hilarious scene, is even trapped in a photograph with the priest.

Meanwhile, Edith has gone to London to discuss the newspaper writing position, which she ultimately accepts.  Her editor is clearly entranced by more than just her writing skills.  Don't mess this up, Downton Abbey!  He and Edith have hair that is exactly the same color!  How could they be any more compatible?

Downstairs -- or should I say, downstairs at Isobel's house -- all is not well with Ethel.  Violet visits Isobel's house and tells her that by employing Ethel, she has made herself the object of scandal and gossip in the village.  Isobel is like, Pfft, so?  But Violet clearly thinks it would be better not for the villagers to learn tolerance and treat Ethel like a human being, but for Ethel to go far away.  What happened to her attitude last week?  And since when is she so aware of village gossip?  She didn't even know that Ethel was Isobel's maid last week.  Even though Isobel remains determined to keep Ethel, Violet goes behind her back and has Edith place an advertisement in the newspaper.

Downstairs at Downton, the tiresome love quadrilateral finally starts to be relevant.  Alfred gets tickets to the "pictures" and invites Ivy to come along.  Exasperated, Daisy asks him why he's taking her when he knows that she doesn't like him.  At this point, I hope Daisy asks herself why she's so hung up on Alfred -- she's too good for him.  On the way back from the movie, Alfred asks Ivy whether she would give him a chance if he could prove that Jimmy doesn't care about her.  Ivy is hesitant, but Alfred decides to go up to Jimmy's (their?) room and ask him.  That's when the shit hits the fan because --

Despite his own doubts, Thomas gives in to O'Brien's insistence that Jimmy likes him.  So rather than, say, talk to him about it when they're alone, Thomas decides to sneak into Jimmy's room and kiss him while he is asleep.  He does this just as Alfred comes in, and when Jimmy wakes up, he immediately freaks out.  Ruh-roh.

The next morning, the three men try to pretend that nothing happened, but there is plenty of tension.  O'Brien learns what happened from Alfred and convinces him to tell Carson what he saw.  Even though she obviously has an ill motive, objectively, her instructions aren't unreasonable.  Thomas's behavior was hardly exemplary, which I'll discuss more later.  Carson brings Thomas in and tells him that he must resign, pretending that it is due to Bates's return, and Carson will write him a good reference.  Carson tells Thomas that his tendencies are not his fault; "nature" twisted him into something foul.  Thomas stalwartly tells him that although he is "not like you," he is not foul.

O'Brien should have left things there, but of course she can't help herself.  She pushes Jimmy to demand that Thomas receive a bad reference, or he will go to the police (as he could have done in those days).  A bad reference means that Thomas would never be able to find work in service again.  Yet as the better of two bad options, Carson has no choice but to take it.  Bates catches wind of what is going on, and knows that O'Brien is behind everything.  No doubt bitter over O'Brien's testimony against him, Bates tells Thomas that he needs to strike back at her, but a depressed Thomas tells him that he knows when he has been defeated.  Bates asks Thomas to give him a "weapon" to use against O'Brien, and Thomas gives him a coded message.  When O'Brien comes to visit Bates and Anna at their new married person cottage, Bates whispers in her ear "her Ladyship's soap," a veiled reference to O'Brien's actions in Series One.  O'Brien immediately agrees to set things right.  Of course the message is so coded, even Bates doesn't know what it means.  The question is how Thomas found out.  I doubt O'Brien told him.

Honestly, I can't recall which of the above Thomas events happened in the first half and which happened in the second half of the episode.  Moving on, in the second half of the episode, for whatever reason, Violet decides to be the temporary guardian of her very annoying 18-year old great niece, Rose.  The storyline is just an excuse to get Edith and Matthew down to London, and to show us that the Roaring Twenties is, indeed, taking place.  The climax of this storyline is set in a club where there are (gasp!) black musicians playing jazz music.

Also in London, Edith confronts the editor of her newspaper.  After he flirted with her, she did some research and learned that he was married.  Outraged (and disappointed), she says that she will need to resign from her newspaper column.  The editor explains that although he is married, his wife is out of her mind in an institution.  He can't divorce her because in the world of fault-based divorce, she is neither the one to blame or the innocent victim.  Edith is both relieved and devastated by his explanation.  At least he didn't wait until their wedding ceremony.

Mary has some goings-on in London, too, in the form of mysterious doctor visits.  One day Matthew catches her, and she confesses that she, not he, was not the one with the fertility problems.  But it's all fixed and now they can have babies.  Yay!  Yawn.

Back on the Downton estate, Violet's advertisement of Ethel's services has led to some response letters. Ethel is gratified, but thinks that only one situation is suitable.  The problem is, that situation is located too close to her son Charlie and his grandparents, whom Ethel assumes want no connection with her.  Violet decides to find out, and invites them (or at least the grandmother) over.  The grandmother assures  Ethel that she wants her to maintain some connection with Charlie (duh -- weren't they initially willing to give her money in exchange for regular visits?), and Ethel agrees to pretend to be Charlie's old nurse.  Ethel is happy!  She gets to stop being Hester Prynne and visit her son!

Finally, the most important event ever is happening at Downton: the annual cricket match between the members of the "house" team and members of the "village" team.  Lord Grantham is obsessed with winning, even though the house team always loses.  To that end, he wants to keep Thomas around, as he is apparently the only decent cricket player in the house.  He also ropes Branson into playing, even though Branson has never played cricket before.

Carson tells Lord Grantham about Thomas's "situation" in the previous episode, but Lord Grantham is dismissive.  If he screamed every time a boy at Eton tried to kiss him, he would be hoarse after one month.  Would Lord Grantham be this blase if Thomas were a terrible cricket player?  Somehow, his desire to keep Thomas leads to him getting a promotion over Bates, even though I'm fairly certain Bates served as a valet for much longer than Thomas did.  How does that make sense?  I don't recall the promotion being Lord Grantham's idea, so why couldn't Carson have given Thomas a position below valet, but above footman?  Or Bates the under-butler position while Thomas remained as a valet?  Now Thomas will not only stay on, but be Bates's boss.  And being Thomas, he will no doubt try to worm his way into Carson's position, with Lord Grantham being just daft enough to give it to him.

Even though O'Brien talked Jimmy out of calling the police, one person at Downton is still noticeably bothered by Thomas's behavior.  During the cricket match, police arrive after Alfred summoned them, forcing Lord Grantham to take Alfred aside and tell him that Thomas was just "born this way."  After his speech, I half expect Lord Grantham to finance the first talkie, "It Gets Better."  I don't think attitudes were this open even in the 90s.  The 1990s.

Alfred tells the police that it was all a misunderstanding and they leave.  Then Branson catches a cricket ball, and the men of Downton share a group hug.  Blech -- reminds me too much of the Gwen-Sybil-Branson squeefest from Series One.

Other Observations

More On Thomas.  It's nice of Julian Fellowes to pretend that 2013 attitudes toward sexuality existed in 1920, and no doubt there was plenty of fluidity where homo/heterosexuality was concerned.  However, by making the Thomas plot line about him defending his sexuality and others coming to terms with it, a few things got lost -- most notably, Thomas's actual behavior.  Even if Jimmy were gay, even if Jimmy did like Thomas, Thomas had no cause to sneak into Jimmy's bedroom and kiss him when he was asleep.  If Jimmy had not awakened immediately after, who knows what more Thomas would have tried.  If Jimmy were female, even a female who liked Thomas, no way would anyone think that this was okay.  Yet because Jimmy is a guy, his feelings of anger and humiliation were just brushed aside.  Don't take it too hard, he was essentially told.  All Thomas did was kiss you (after repeatedly touching you for weeks, during which you were afraid to speak up) while you lay defenseless.  It's not like he had sex with you or anything.  It's just part of Thomas's "nature."  Not only is that attitude a disservice to Jimmy, but it is also a disservice to Thomas.

Thomas had feelings for Jimmy, but he also had a choice about how he could have acted on them.  Specifically, he could have asked Jimmy how he felt when they had a moment alone.  Yes, that came with inherent risks in an age where gay men could be locked up for their sexual activity, but no less than forcing himself onto Jimmy when he was asleep.  Thomas made a choice, and it was a bad one.  One that, even today, could probably get him fired.  Yet Julian Fellowes would have you believe that his actions were really not that bad because they were all a part of Thomas's "nature."  In other words, he couldn't help being predatory because he's gay.  To me, that hearkens back to such a damaging stereotype about who gay people are and how they behave -- a stereotype just as hideous as the ones that Fellowes is trying to shatter.  Thomas didn't force himself on Jimmy because he was gay.  He forced himself on Jimmy because he was Thomas.  Could you see Bates or Carson acting this way if they were gay?  Or are we to presume that being gay would cause them to undergo a fundamental personality change?

Yet More On Thomas.  I have tried to like Thomas.  He has the potential to be one of the most interesting servants, either because of his struggles for acceptance or because of the way Rob James-Collier plays him.  Yet there is something about him that remains so flat and two-dimensional.  In Series One, he wanted to be a valet, yet in Series Two, there was the sense that he had grander ambitions.  Yet in Series Three, it seems like he is happy to remain in service as a valet.  What does he want?  What are his ultimate goals?  Does he care about anything other than self preservation?

No one has received more undeserved chances than Thomas.  He is involved in the Pamuk scandal and never gets caught.  He steals wine from Lord Grantham's cellar and gets to stay.  He survives World War I after purposely getting his finger shot off, while noble William perishes.  He sells goods on the black market, yet gets to return to his footman position.  He is treated as a hero for finding Lord Grantham's dog, which he hid in the first place.  He gets promoted to valet after Bates is wrongfully convicted of murder.  And now this.

Aside from his struggles with sexuality, what makes Thomas sympathetic?  Why should I be pleased that he gets chance after chance, while kinder characters suffer?  I would find him more interesting if he were covertly trying to upend the aristocratic system, but instead, he doesn't seem to have any ambition at all other than to reach the apex of service.  He is just... meh.

If anything, the servant I find to be the most interesting is Daisy.  I am interested to see where she will fit into the Series Four modernization schemes.  Will she give up her position and go work on the farm?  Will she be on the front lines protesting against turning Downton into a superfarm, or will she be working with Branson to come up with something both sides can live with?

Lord Grantham Is Always Wrong.  Did Fellowes have to make Lord Grantham seem like he just fell off the turnip truck?  Was I supposed to feel that satisfied when Matthew yelled at him and reminded him that Cora's money was hiding Downton's woeful mismanagement?  "Hey, I have a better idea: let's invest Matthew's money with that Charles Ponzi fellow!"  *slaps forehead*    

Whereas Violet Is Never Wrong.  At one point, Lord Grantham tells Violet and Cora that he would like them to admit when they are wrong.  To which Violet replies that this is no problem as "I am never wrong."  No, she never is, is she?  And it's getting a little tiresome.  I love Maggie Smith, but not the feeling that I must side with her character on issues where she's not necessarily correct.  Whether it's that Martha Levinson is a classless rube, or that Ethel must leave Isobel's home for the sake of humanity.  At one point, I think Violet was supposed to express a specific social point of view ("What is a week-end?"), but now she's practically the conscience of the show.  When you need her to be progressive, she's progressive, and when you need her to be reactionary, she's reactionary.  She can even make sensible estate management decisions!  I like Violet's acidic comments as much as anyone, but let her have real failings like the other characters.

Next Time: Rose is back and the Crawleys go to Scotland in the U.S. Series Three finale.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Downton Abbey S3, E5: Kindness Is the New Black

The times are a-changin'.  Suddenly it's cool to not humiliate people from lower classes and different religions.

Watching this episode, I felt as though Julian Fellowes were somehow responding to all of our fan criticisms about Series Three, even though that would be impossible.  It felt more satisfying than an episode of Downton Abbey had for a very long time, and was the second strong episode in a row.

Plot Synopsis

In the aftermath of Sybil's funeral, feelings are still quite raw.  A visibly shaken Branson tells the Crawley family that he doesn't intend to stay at Downton forever.  "K thx," says Lord Grantham, but Edith and Matthew try to convince Branson to stay longer.  They discuss the baby's christening, and Branson states that he not only wants to name the baby Sybil after her mother, but also intends to have her christened as a Catholic.  Both choices upset Lord Grantham greatly, especially the latter one.  He invites Reverend Travis to dinner to talk some sense into Tom, but unexpectedly, the rest of the family rises up to challenge his notion that all non-Anglicans are Satan's bedfellows.

Cora seems to take particular pleasure in rubbing it in to Lord Grantham -- almost as much pleasure as I take in watching her.  She still blames her husband for Sybil's death and refuses to let him back into the bedroom.  Meanwhile, Isobel decides to do something kind for the Downton ladies.  She shares with Ethel her plans to hold a low-key luncheon, telling Ethel that all she need do is prepare a salad.  Ethel offers to make something more complex, but Isobel does not want to add food poisoning to the list of reasons for their distress.  So Ethel secretly consults with Mrs. Patmore, who gives her some recipes despite Carson's decree that Downton staff not interact with her.  When Carson learns what she's done, not only is Mrs. Patmore dismissive of his umbrage, but so is everyone else, except --

During the lunch, where Ethel serves shockingly good cuisine to the Downton ladies (including Violet), Lord Grantham storms in and demands that his family leave.  They could be humiliated by their association with a whore!  Even more so than by a Turkish diplomat dying in Mary's bed, or by Sybil eloping with the chauffer, or by Edith being left at the altar for all to see.  Lord Grantham's tantrum is followed by the soft, gentle sound of leaves rustling.  Not one of the ladies gets up to leave.  Lord Grantham has no choice but to huff back out again, alone.

He can't even count on Mary for uncritical support this time.  Not only is she actually opposed to some of her father's reasoning, but she is even supportive of Matthew's goals for the estate.  The two don't have to be mutually exclusive, yet they have been thus far.  Mary has removed the "privileged" mask that she wore through all of Series Three and not only refrained from humiliating Ethel, but also told Lord Grantham that she saw no reason why baby Sybil's only prospects for a good life came from her mother's aristocratic blood.  She even told Anna that "we" could use some good news about Bates, reducing Anna to tears of shock likely as much as gratitude.

Despite my pleasure in seeing Lord Grantham receive some much-needed push back, Violet decides that Cora's war with him can't go on much longer.  She visits Dr. Clarkson and presses him to tell them that Sybil would have had virtually no chance even if a Caesarian had been performed.  Dr. Clarkson is resistant, not wanting to outright lie.  However, Violet believes that if Cora persists in thinking that Sybil could have been saved, she will never forgive Lord Grantham, and they will never be able to grieve properly.  So in the end, Dr. Clarkson -- either having honestly researched the subject or just plain stretching the truth -- tells them that Sybil had an "infinitesimal" chance of surviving the birth with a Caesarian.  All at once, Cora's hostility melts away, and she and Lord Grantham are embracing and sobbing.  It is probably just as well -- the lingering resentment stood to harm Cora as much as Lord Grantham -- but I hope that the other reasons Cora has for resenting her husband aren't just swept under the rug.  Because that rug would become awfully difficult to walk on...

Meanwhile, downstairs, Thomas is still "friendly" with Jimmy, leading Jimmy to suggest to O'Brien that he might call the police.  O'Brien continues to water the seeds of Thomas's downfall by telling him that Jimmy has a crush on him.  Stupidly, Thomas believes her.

The four-square romance continues to percolate, with Daisy interested in Alfred, Alfred chasing Ivy, Ivy chasing Jimmy, and Jimmy showing some interest in Daisy.  Though whether Jimmy is sincerely interested or has an ulterior motive, it's hard to say.  Daisy's prospects improve immensely when her father-in-law, a prosperous tenant farmer, offers to leave her his tenancy so that she can leave service and be her own boss.  Daisy has to think about it because... there has to be a reason to keep her on the show a little longer?  Though I would imagine that even if she left the kitchen, there could be scenes with her learning how to farm.  She could even open up a little restaurant and become the Jazz Age Alice Waters.

Finally, the Prison Conspiracy has managed to get to Vera's friend, who has changed her story.  Bates surmises that they must have intimidated her somehow.  During one of his endless walks around the prison yard, he grabs his cellmate and threatens him until he agrees to make Vera's friend change the story back.  But I thought the issue was that Vera's friend would refuse to testify if she knew that it would help Bates.  Now the issue seems to be that she would have been truthful if not for the Prison Conspiracy's intimidation.  Whatever.  At least this storyline is over.  We suddenly see Anna running across the lawn to inform Mary and Edith that Bates would be back at Downton "in a few weeks."

Other Observations

The Criminal Justice System Has Different Rules on Television.  That almost goes without saying.  Otherwise, how does it make sense that Vera's friend's testimony would result in Bates coming home "in a few weeks"?  I'm not a criminal attorney, let alone one in Britain during the 1920s, but wouldn't they need to file a motion to reopen the case?  And wouldn't that result in a whole new trial, where this new evidence would be weighed along with the rest?  That's if Bates didn't appeal his conviction to a higher court, which -- in the United States, at least -- reviews whether any major errors were committed during trial.  Regardless of the path chosen, it would take more than "a few weeks" to get everything resolved.

Who Is Ivy?  As a lingering byproduct of this show's black-and-white characterization, we know precious little about Ivy, other than that she's the trollop who came between Daisy and Alfred.  But I could have sworn there was a moment during one of the episodes where we saw Ivy reading a letter.  It might have been a letter from home, but why bother to show that?  It makes me wonder if we'll learn a little more about Ivy at some point.  Maybe she was an aristocrat banished to work as a servant.  Maybe she was Jimmy's previous lover, and in an unlikely coincidence, they are working together again.

Misplaced Empathy?  When Isobel mentioned her idea for a lunch, Ethel expressed some heavy-handed empathy with Cora.  After all, she knew what it was to lose her child forever.  Except that her child wasn't dead.  It was tragic that she would (likely) never get to see him again, but she could at least know that he was growing up and getting the best experiences.  Whereas Sybil would never experience anything any more.  Her light was completely snuffed out.  I'm sure Cora would have gladly given up the chance to see Sybil again if it meant she could stay alive.  Ethel meant no harm, but a little perspective is in order.

Foreshadowing?  We got, perhaps, our first loving Matthew and Mary conversation in Series Three.  Among other things, they talked about how horrible it would be to lose one another.  Hmmm.            
Next Time:  Matthew yells at Lord Grantham for being an ass, and more good stuff.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Downton Abbey Extra: One of These Things Is Not Like the Other

Okay, so the song doesn't quite apply, since I'm mainly looking at two things.  Oh well.  It's catchy.

So where does a twerp like me get off thinking that she can criticize the historical accuracy of the great Downton Abbey?  I'll confess that I'm not the most qualified person.  While one of my degrees is in history, I specialized in a different time period.  I have been an amateur historian of the Victorian period (1837-1901) for well over a decade, and recently spent a year doing some intensive research into Victorian reforms and social customs.  But Downton Abbey isn't set during the Victorian period -- it's not even set during the Edwardian period (1901-1910).  From Series One to the present, it has been set during the reign of George V (1910-1936).

However, despite the occasional reminders that "the world is changing!", Downton Abbey seems to be stuck in a time warp.  It's still 1912 on the estate, which might as well be 1892.  In fact, in some respects, it could easily be 1812.  So while I know next to nothing about 1920, the year in which Series Three is set, I know a lot about the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian periods -- enough to know that a lot of people get them confused.

And yes, when your life consists of country estates and entail, it's easy to think that nothing ever changes.  But these eras of history are different in many significant ways, which will be detailed below.  Since I am the least familiar with the Edwardian period (despite knowing a lot about Edward VII himself), I will talk about it the least.  Supposedly, the most obvious "change" from the Victorian period was that social mores relaxed a little.  Edward's moralizing, perpetually mourning mother was gone, and Edward, with his spotty record of fidelity, was in her place.  (I actually think Victoria is quite awesome and would love to devote a whole post to her sometime.)

So what were some of the other differences between the areas?

1.  Industrialization

Industrialization in Britain was heating up from the late eighteenth century through the Regency period (1811-1820), when Jane Austen's novels were set.  You would read about the occasional character (like Bingley in Pride and Prejudice) whose wealth came from industry, and who then bought country estates and tried to wipe away the stain of their origins.  However, you never see the factories and businesses; they are more rumor than fact.  By the Victorian period -- specifically, the mid-nineteenth century -- factory towns and major factory cities were much more prominent.  Northern "towns" like Manchester were exploding in size, going from 75,000 in 1801 to 300,000 by 1851.  Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South does a great job portraying what these industrial cities were like.

Even if you could live out in the country and avoid these cities, you couldn't escape other aspects of industry, such as the railway.  The railway was virtually unheard of in the Regency period, but by the 1840s, it was criss-crossing the entire country, cutting down on travel time and making it easier for all classes to move around.  You remember that famous Violet line: "What's a week-end?"  Supposedly what we know as the weekend came about due to a combination of better workplace regulations (including set hours) and greater ease of transportation.  During the last quarter of the century, more people had time to just get away from it all on Saturday and Sunday.  Lower class people were showing up in greater numbers in holiday spots that used to be mainly the preserve of the upper classes, causing many of the upper classes to flee to Europe in horror.  This may have even included the (then) Sixth Earl of Grantham and his family.

Britain's industrialization peaked in the mid-19th Century.  It would continue to be dominating into the 20th Century, but no longer quite so much.  Germany and the United States began to catch up in the 1870s.

2.  The Enemies

During the Austen Regency period, the big outside enemy was France.  Given that most novels were set during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) or shortly thereafter, it's not hard to see why.  Throughout much of the Victorian period, France remained the Big Enemy.  After Napoleon III's coup in 1851, which turned the French republic into a dictatorship, many English people feared that Napoleon III would finish what his uncle started and launch an invasion across the English Channel.  It was only after Napoleon III's forces got routed by the Prussian-led German forces in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) that the English saw the emperor, ahem, had no clothes.

During the Victorian period, Russia was disliked as well, thanks to the Crimean War (1853-1856), which pitted Russia against Britain (and France) over who should control a piece of the crumbling Ottoman Empire.  After the war, Russia was frequently mistrusted, seen as autocratic and barbarian, big and strong, and too Slavic.  Yet interestingly, I don't know if English/British people viewed Germany as a genuine threat before the 20th Century.  They had that general wariness of Germans as foreigners, aka Not Like Us, which they displayed toward Prince Albert from the moment he arrived.  Yet at the same time, Victoria and Albert sent two of their daughters to live in Germany, and two of their other daughters stayed in Britain to marry German princes, and two of their sons married German princesses.  Germans might have been foreigners, but they weren't enemies, per se -- hell, most of the extended Royal Family had been German for over a century.  English people might not have viewed Germany as a true threat until after 1870, when the German provinces unified under a Prussian king -- now emperor -- Wilhelm I.  Prussia was strong and militaristic, features that it displayed just as prominently in the 20th Century as in the 19th.  Shortly before World War I, France and Russia were allies intended to contain Germany, while Germany, Austria, Italy, and the remains of the Ottoman Empire were enemies.

3.  Women

In 1812 as much as in 1912, male-line entail was a bitch.  It destroyed the hopes and security of half of Jane Austen's heroines, it seemed, as much as it threatened to force the female Crawleys out of house and home upon Lord Grantham's death.  Women during the Regency period could not inherit any entailed property, and once they married, their property instantly became their husband's.  Sometimes their fathers could work out a pre-nuptial agreement, but that usually wasn't the case.  Things did not improve much during the Victorian period, but they did improve.  In 1857, violence was recognized as grounds for divorce.  In 1870, Parliament passed an Act that allowed married women to keep the wages she earned for her work.  In 1882, another significant Act was passed that recognized women as having separate legal rights apart from their husbands.  The Act allowed married women to keep or sell separate property that they inherited during marriage, to sue and be sued, and to be responsible for their own debts.

As for education, during the Regency period, the best an intelligent middle or upper-class girl could hope for was a very intelligent governess, or maybe a father who was willing to tutor them, or a private school with an intelligent teacher.  Otherwise, "education" might consist of a finishing school, where very little of real use was taught.  Which was okay, because women weren't expected to use their minds anyway.  As for a working-class girl, forget any hope of an education, unless by luck you were able to attend a charity school.  Even there, the hours of instruction were few, because the girl's family expected her to be working all the time from a very young age, whether it was minding the younger children or going into service.

All of this was in existence in the Victorian Era, but in the 1850s, the tide began to shift.  In 1853, Cheltenham Ladies' College was founded, which was one of the first schools to treat women like they had brains that deserved to be challenged.  In 1870, the government instituted compulsory schooling for boys and girls, so girls of all classes learned to read and write, and many eventually gravitated toward city jobs, like secretary or "typewriter" or saleswoman.  Women who wanted to attend a British university could earn a degree at the University of London from 1878 onward.  They were admitted to Cambridge in 1869 and Oxford in 1878, but were not considered full members of the university and could not earn degrees until the 20th Century.  Not until 1892 were women admitted at the Scottish universities.

4.  Men's Facial Hair

During Austen's era, they might have sideburns, but were otherwise clean shaven.  It was enough that they were willing to display the hair on their heads -- wigs had finally gone out of fashion after a mere century or so.  By the 1840s, sideburns were still the primary facial hair, though some men wore moustaches.  By the 1850s and 1860s, the sideburns were growing longer and longer.  Sometime in the 1860s, beards started to appear.  However, it was around the 1870s when facial hair really started to get crazy.  Moustaches became more prominent, and it was not uncommon to see men with a sort of half beard known as a "lip curtain," where the moustache connected with the sideburns, but the chin remained clean shaven.  It was also in the 1870s that a particularly ugly beard was in fashion, sported by none other than the future Edward VII.  Instead of being close-cropped, like his later beard, this one looked like a giant shrub was growing out of his face.  I wish I could link to a photo, but I can't seem to find one.  Around the 1880s, some men started growing their moustaches really long and curling the ends.  In the 1890s and 1900s, close-cropped beards (like George V's or the later Edward VII's) were also in fashion.  While there might be the rare man who was completely clean shaven, it was "the style" for men to have facial hair of some kind.  Yet I think it was among those born in the 1880s and later that facial hair finally started to go out of fashion.

That was pretty superfluous, but given my first Downton Abbey post, I felt I had to throw that in there.

5.  Empire    

Britain, of course, had an empire during the Regency period that included British North America (Canada), small parts of South America, the Caribbean, India ruled by the British East India Company, and the beginnings of Australia settlement.  By Austen's time, Britain lost the Thirteen Colonies that would form the United States, but managed to rebound after defeating Napoleon.  During the Victorian period, the British began to rule India outright and started to turn more attention toward Africa.  By the Edwardian period, the sun truly never set on the British Empire, though that wouldn't last long.

So those are some of the main differences between the eras.  There are, of course, many more that I didn't mention at all, not the least of which were technological advances and health reforms.  Still, it's clear that the Regency, Victorian, and Edwardian periods were not all the same -- just different points on a continuum.  Even by 1912, the start of Downton Abbey, many things were much different than they were even 20 years ago.  Even if it doesn't feel that way.