torsdag 18 augusti 2016

Questions raised by the beginning of The Musketeers (series three)

Finally, some new costume drama. My clever TV box, remembering an old setting, has recorded most of The Musketeers series three from one of the more obscure Swedish channels. This will give me a chance to catch up, though I suspect I'll invest in a box set sooner or later. Though often supremely silly, The Musketeers remains an entertaining caper. If you are going to play fast and loose with history, then better to do it this way than with leaden dialogue spiced up (or not) with random sex and violence (yes, I'm looking at you, Versailles).

One reason it's hard to ever get really upset with The Musketeers is the importance it attaches to its villains. This is not to say that they are in any way complex or subtle. Goodness knows you'd be hard pressed to find more black-and-white characterisation in any other half-way ambitious drama. However, for every series there are one or two villains right at the heart of the plot, being given plenty of airtime and displaying considerable panache. It's as if the creaters of the series started each new installment of episodes by asking themselves: "Right, who will be the villain this time, and what charismatic actor are we going to entice into playing him?" (The memorable baddies are not all male, I have to confess: the gutsy Milady, who doesn't feature this time around, leaves quite a gap.) First time round, we had Richelieu, played by none other than Peter Capaldi. When Capaldi had to leave to play The Doctor - and even I will have to concede that that was a better gig - Richelieu was, very foolishly in my view, killed off years before his time. Why didn't they just hire another actor to play the Cardinal? Capaldi's brilliant but not irreplaceable when there are so many top-notch actors around, and we would have understood. However, at least the need for a head villain was immediately met by bringing in Marc Warren's attractive if lamentably bonkers Rochefort. He was dispatched at the end of series two, but villain-lovers need not fret: this time around, we have two head villains, played by Rupert Everett no less (though this casting poses its own problems, as addressed below) and Matthew McNulty (the ghastly Moray's far more appealing business partner in The Paradise).

I must say, though, that the absurdity level of the two first episodes of series three is alarmingly high, and that they raise a great number of questions - few of which, I suspect, will be answered during this final run of the series:

Why cast a good-looking actor like Rupert Everett only to cover him in prosthetics? I know handsome actors sometimes longingly talk about playing someone ugly. Well, that's tough, but just as there are plenty of parts that can only be played credibly by lookers, so there are others where it makes every sense to cast an actor less favoured by nature than, say, Rupert Everett. Everett's character in The Musketeers, Feron, is ravaged and even slightly disfigured by illness (either that or old war wounds: it has yet to be made clear). As a consequence, Everett's pleasing features are covered with a not very convincing mask of prosthetics which severely hampers his acting, as does the sometimes lamentably low quality of the villain-banter lines he's given. If they'd cast someone who looked a bit more worn and weatherbeaten to start with, the make-up department wouldn't have had to over-strain itself and there would have been more room for acting. I'm not going to complain about seeing Everett in anything, though, and the other villain, McNulty's Lucien Grimaud, is an absolute dish - enough to convince any villain-fancier that there may be merit to a dark and handsome brooder after all (as long as there's no scything).

Where's the Dauphin's brother? The most preposterous plot development in The Musketeers - with the exception of killing off Richelieu before his time - is the one involving Aramis, Queen Anne and the future Louis XIV. Yes, it's true: in this series, the Sun King's dad is none other than Aramis the love-lorn musketeer. Mind, Aramis and the Queen really love each other, and they only did it the once, so that's all right then, even if it means that the royal bloodline is messed up completely. As it's hinted that Louis XIII is infertile - I mean, he and Anne are married for ages without a baby, Aramis beds Anne once, and wham! - I was dying to find out how The Musketeers would explain the birth of royal baby number two, the infamous Philippe. Would Louis be allowed to be the father this time around? But that would mean - yikes - that the Orléans branch were the legitimate heirs to the Crown all along! Or is the father Aramis again, on a singularly bad day? Or someone else entirely? In which case, how would Aramis react to his one true love fooling around with yet another man?

It seems these questions proved too hard for the series makers to resolve: little Louis is now four or five years old, and still he appears to be an only child. So have they really written out an actual member of the royal family so as to bolster the claim that a fictional musketeer fathered Louis XIV? Or perhaps they've just played around with the chronology, and we will find out how the Queen's second kid came about later - maybe like this...

Will Feron father the next royal prince?  He's the King's resentful (illegitimate) brother. He's called Philippe. He has a sinister, handsome male sidekick. It sort of fits - the poisonous apple wouldn't fall far from the tree. But how would Feron get the Queen pregnant? They don't seem very pally, and a rape resulting in a pregnancy would surely be too dark for a family-friendly series such as this one. Besides which, the Queen could defend herself against the fit Rochefort, so a wreck like Feron wouldn't pose any problem for her. Maybe Philippe is Feron's child, but not the Queen's? And the royal family take him on for some reason? Admittedly, totally disregarding historical facts opens up fascinating possibilities.

What's the deal with the Red Guard? Even in the original films (no, I haven't read the books), the Musketeers' rivalry with the Red Guard annoyed me. Why waste time on silly one-upmanship when you're serving the same country and the same government? In the series, the Musketeer-Red Guard feud is still going strong, much like the Guard itself whose continued existence puzzles me. I've always assumed that they were the Cardinal's men - hence the colour. But even without the Cardinal his soldiers are still around, serving as minions for whichever villain the Musketeers are facing at the moment. What's the Red Guard's official role, exactly? And how was Constance playing a prank on them in the first episode meant to make anything better?    

All for one, one for all, all for...what? The original Musketeers were proud of being the King's men. In this series, though, they don't display any great affection towards the King - severely caricatured throughout - or even kingship itself. They are too busy pleasing modern audiences with their soulful concern for the plight of the poor, even when the said poor make no bones about wanting the King out of the way. D'Artagnan listens sympathetically to the leader of a group of war refugees (yeah, I know - I told you they weren't subtle) uttering twaddle like "Is it rebellion to fight against injustice?". YES. That's exactly what it is, at least in the eyes of any rebel - who ever heard of fighting against justice? Former Musketeer boss Treville destroys the refugees' seditious pamphlets because if they were found "they would all be hanged". Very probably, Treville, and as a minister of the Crown, you should really be OK with this - why are you protecting people ready to overthrow the government of which you are a member? The Musketeers are patriots, which is all very well, but what do they stand for apart from that? You can either be a budding revolutionary or a good Musketeer - you can't be both.      

torsdag 11 augusti 2016

In vain pursuit of a little light reading

There's no such thing as a foolproof enjoyable read, is there? Not even rereads are quite safe, as there's always the risk that you won't like a novel so much as the previous time/s you read it. My system of "safe bet" authors - if I've enjoyed more than one novel from an author, then I assume I'm going to enjoy all of them - has let me down twice recently, and just as I was going back to work and needed a pick-me-up, too.

True, Dawn French doesn't quite have the official safe-bet status, as I'd only read one of her novels - A Tiny Bit Marvellous - when I started on her latest, According to Yes. But I really liked ATBM, plus I've found much of the French and Saunders material hilarious, so I thought I could reasonably expect great entertainment from According to Yes. And yet the chapters went by without raising so much as a giggle. As I realised, about two thirds through, that the book wasn't going to get any funnier, and as I still hadn't warmed to the heroine Rosie - which it is sort of the point of the story - I gave up on it, after checking that one of the more criticised characters would be all right. He was. They all were. You can't accuse According to Yes for skimping on the feelgood factor, but the feeling good is very much on the heroine's terms. She, a chaotic English nanny, is going to "save" an Upper East Side clan from their humdrum lives and teach them to have fun. Her wit and wisdom are never challenged as one family member after the other are bowled over by her carefree ways. I never thought I could have much in common with an elegant Upper East Side matriarch, but my sympathies were more and more with Glenn, the family's grandmother and the most Rosie-resistent of the characters, especially in passages which were supposedly told from her perspective but which were really criticisms of her (the novel is told in the third person). What do you call those kind of passages - "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head narration"? Does narratology have a good term for it? Anyway, Glenn is going to give in to the reign of Rosie eventually - of course she is - but this isn't my idea of fun.

The second disappointment was Pompeii by Robert Harris. As I've mentioned, I've read quite a lot of Harris's novels by now, and I was a sure as I could be that as long as he kept off the gloomy subject of Nazi crimes against humanity, I would find his writing enjoyable. And then, ancient Rome, which he handled so well in his Cicero books! Alas, Pompeii has so far been quite a different matter from the Cicero trilogy, but then this is an earlier work. For one thing, the author's learning isn't worn so lightly, and the hero is the priggiest I've yet come across in a Harris novel, which is saying something considering he's up against types such as Picquart in An Officer and A Spy and Xavier March (why March? That's not a German name) in Fatherland. What really surprised me, though, was the schematic depiction of the rest of the cast. A dastardly millionaire who feeds one of his slaves to his eels? His fair and innocent daughter? A consistently hostile foreman (the hero is a young engineer struggling with a failing acqueduct)? Really? Honestly, even Harris's Nazis were nuanced compared to this lot.

We even get more examples of "fake-getting-inside-someone's-head-narration" (I really must find a better term), this time with the Bad Millionaire as its subject. I was particularly annoyed about coming across this stereotype yet again (he's an ex-slave too, so not only do we have an illustration of modern society's prejudices but of Ancient Rome's prejudices as well). During my holidays, I twice came across the "let's stick it to the multi-millionaire" plot - and this in chick lit books, which aren't exactly Das Kapital. Is there no escape anywhere from the mindset which makes a virtue of resenting those who are richer than us? I'm seriously considering chucking Pompeii in, too - and I don't think I will be trying Harris's The Fear Index in a hurry.     

lördag 30 juli 2016

Bond confusion

Partly in quest of blogging inspiration, I watched all of two hefty films yesterday, Steve Jobs and Spectre. So, two men with intimacy issues who make an impact on the world: Jobs and James Bond. Which of them is the better blog subject? I'll take the easy route - it is, after all, still my holiday, for two days more - and choose Bond. I may return to Jobs, and why it puzzles me that we should care whether he was a good dad or not, at a later date.

As I've discussed before, Daniel Craig's Bond doesn't really work for me. Nevertheless, Skyfall was a really good film, and I approached Spectre with cautious optimism. Well, I liked it better than Casino Royale (so tedious, in spite of Mads Mikkelsen, that I've forgotten most of it, which is unfortunate as Bond keeps moping over his lost love from this film, Vesper Lynd) and A Quantum of Solace, but compared to Skyfall it is oddly shoddy. Before I go further into said shoddiness, though, a troubling aspect of the Craig Bond films has to be addressed: the reintroducing of iconic Bond film characters as if they were brand new.

There was talk, I dimly remember, of Casino Royale being a "reboot" of the Bond franchise, which essentially means you start all over again and pretend that previous films with the same hero never happened. It's common with superhero films, where a new team may be anxious to distance themselves from creaky or embarrassingly larky predecessors. I can understand reboots in this context - though they seem to come at an alarming rate lately - but Bond is something else. The only reason there was a Casino Royale were the twenty odd Bond films that had gone before. The Bond story has been a continuous one from the sixties onwards, and surely you expect the hero to be the same and carry with him all the experiences from his previous incarnations.

Yes, this poses a credibility problem, to say the least. Bond and some of the key players - Miss Moneypenny, for instance - take on Time Lord properties: they barely age and sometimes change their faces, but remain essentially the same person although the world around them has moved on from the Cold War to the Internet Age. It is just as well that the time bubble conceit isn't overused. Some secret service staff are simply replaced - M and Q for example, where a new character (often successfully) takes over the function of an old one while bringing something fresh into the mix. Nevertheless, I much preferred the Time Lord-y way of handling Bond's timelessness to the idea that we should disregard all Bond films before Casino Royale - especially since Craig is, in my view, the least Bondlike of all the Bonds, while his predecessor Pierce Brosnan was one of my favourites.

At first, I ignored the talks of a reboot - after all Judi Dench's M was the same who was introduced ticking off Pierce Brosnan's Bond in Goldeneye, so how could it not be a continuing story? That Felix Leiter showed up with all arms and legs intact was not enough to alert me to the possibility that the film makers meant what they said about starting over (to tell the truth, since I'm not a Bond expert, I'd forgotten that he was the one being maimed by a shark in Licence to Kill). In the otherwise excellent Skyfall, though, a puzzling thing happened. A fellow agent of Bond's was revealed to be Miss Moneypenny, who had only just discovered that she was more efficient behind a desk than in the field. Sorry? But Samantha Bond (and the game girls who filled the part before her) was Miss Moneypenny! You can't just write them out of the story. What true Bond fan would do that? I've nothing against Naomie Harris's plucky and attractive Miss Moneypenny, who mercifully has a love life of her own. But does she have to be the Miss Moneypenny? Can't she be Samantha Bond's niece, or something?

In Spectre it happens again: a classic Bond character - one of the villains this time - is reintroduced, and Bond has plainly never been up against him before. (Warning: the subtitles give away his identity and ruin the surprise completely.) The effect is extremely weird: we have a prequel situation - an "origins" story to use superhero-film speak - taking place decades after Bond's first tussles with the villain in question. It doesn't help that the villain role is so underwritten not even Christoph Waltz - a safe pair of hands when you need a baddie, as all Hollywood knows - can do a lot with it. His motives for resenting Bond, not to mention for killing his own dad, are weak in the extreme. (I kept waiting for the reveal that Bond killed his dad - now that would have been a motive.) Let's just say, this particular Bond villain has had more impressive outings.

Here's where the aforementioned shoddiness comes in. Not only is a promising villain-hero relationship thrown away, there are other elements to the plot and characters that don't seem to have been properly thought through. When Bond moves in on the widow of a man he's killed (I did like his explanation: "He was an assassin. He wouldn't have taken it personally") he claims that she "stayed loyal to a man you hated". How does he know what her feelings were? Later, the widow says that her spouse"spent more time with them [his partners in crime] than he did with me". Does that sound like the complaint of a woman who hated her husband? And how does it square with her previous statement that members of the criminal organisation in question only meet rarely?

Later, Ralph Fiennes as M struggles with a speech where he claims the double-0 programme is humane (albeit only in comparison with drones and the like). In the first proper hero-villain showdown, Bond rises fresh as a daisy after a session of gruelling torture and blows up the villain base without much trouble. I know the "why don't they just shoot him?" question is a eternal one and applies to practically all action films, but the dastardly mastermind's reasons for keeping Bond alive are foggier than ever, especially as he must know about what happened to his associate in A Quantum of Solace. If Bond gets the better of you, there isn't even a guarantee that he'll kill you nicely. For the sake of self-preservation, if nothing else, you should just put a bullet though him.

My main gripe is the whole reboot setup, though. Does this mean Ralph Fiennes's M is the original M, and Ben Whishaw's Q the original Q? It fairly does my head in.

"You only live twice, Mister Bond" as, erm, someone said. In fact, Bond and the person in question live a great deal more often than twice. Which is fine by me, as long as they live their lives in the right order.

tisdag 12 juli 2016

DreamWorks works – but not as well as Disney’s best

Holiday time – which should mean more time and energy for ambitious blog posts, but never does. Instead, I’ll try to turn lazy hours watching animated films on Netflix to some blogging use. Disney features are thin on the ground here, but I have had the opportunity to catch up on the DreamWorks back catalogue instead.

I have watched some animated films from DreamWorks before, but as a faithful Disney admirer, I’ve not exactly torn the DVDs of its main competitor’s films off the shelves the moment they arrive. This consumer behaviour is not quite as stupid as it sounds, as there actually is – or at least has been – bad blood between Disney and DreamWorks. The head of DreamWorks Animation, Jeffrey Katzenberg, was formerly head of the animation department at Disney but left in 1994 after a blistering row when he was passed over for promotion (google for details). This seems to have led to more hostility than was strictly necessary between the two companies, as shown in the nasty digs at Disney films in the Shrek franchise.

Still, there is no reason for a fan of animated films to take sides in this quarrel, which by now ought to be history anyway. Instead, one should be able to shamelessly take advantage of the fact that there are two big American studios (plus various challengers) churning out animated films rather than one. Here are the DreamWorks films (well, most of them) I’ve seen to date, plus some positive comparisons with Disney films just to show my goodwill:

The Prince of Egypt (1998): I know the genre has old and respectable roots, but I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable with adaptations of Biblical tales. Finding a more or less loosely Bible-based yarn boring makes me feel shallow and impious, and yet they are often on the over-solemn side. The Prince works well, though. Its main focus is on the relationship between Moses and the Pharaoh-to-be Rameses, who grow up as brothers only to find themselves at opposite sides of the mother of a conflict. This tale of brotherly love strained beyond endurance is affecting, the animation is beautiful, the songs good and the religious content sensitively handled. I’m not sure the curse of the first-born is a suitable topic for a family film, though.
As good as Disney’s: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996).

The Road to El Dorado (2000): I like this early, 2-D stuff from DreamWorks a lot: here’s a straightforward, well-animated adventure story with likeable characters, free from take-that-Disney sassiness. Kenneth Branagh makes an impression as the voice of one of the leads, but the voice talent prize goes to Armand Assante as an apocalypse-embracing high priest.
Better than Disney’s: Pocahontas (1995).

The Shrek franchise (2001-): I won’t go too far into why I’m not that into the green ogre, as I’ve addressed the subject before. Suffice to say, the animation is good and the central relationship between Shrek and Fiona often touching. But I’m put off by the knowing “we’re so not Disney” style, and the films have little of interest to say about being cast as the bad guy.
Better than Disney’s: Dinosaur (2000).

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003): I was surprised to learn that this film was released after the first Shrek film. It is very much in the same tradition as The Road to El Dorado: a 2-D adventure yarn, rendered pleasingly unpredictable by the fact that the hero is an anti-hero who needs quite a lot of prompting to do the right thing. The vocal talent is unnecessarily starry, but they do a good job, and Michelle Pfeiffer at least is worth the extra cash as purring goddess of chaos Eris. Good, well-drawn fun that deserved to do better at the box office.
Better than Disney’s: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001).

Madagascar (2005): It says something for my level of enthusiasm for this franchise that I’ve only seen the first film and have yet to catch up on the rest. But I will, eventually, because it was a fun caper. What bugs me here is the computer animation of the film’s animal protagonists, which I found downright ugly. I know they’re meant to be comic animals, but when you remember the beautiful animal animation in The Lion King they become hard to look at.
Better than Disney’s: Brother Bear (2003). The animals looked better but the story…       

Kung Fu Panda (2008) and Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011) Beautifully animated, with a sweet hero  in the good-natured, food-loving panda Po. I especially liked the second film, where Po is pitted against a traumatised peacock villain, and which contains the following exchange:  “How did you find peace?[…] I scarred you for life!” “See, that’s the thing, Shen. Scars heal.” “No, they don’t. Wounds heal.” “Oh, yeah. What do scars do? They fade, I guess?” The film’s message that you have to let go of old grudges to find Inner Peace seems especially relevant for this animation studio. My only problem with this franchise is I’m not really interested in Kung  Fu.
Better than Disney’s: Bolt (2008).             

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009): Again, I was surprised by relatively recent release date. This tale of female empowerment is quite endearing – why marry some self-satisfied loser when you can be a ginormous monster? – and the monster sidekicks unexpectedly un-irritating. The computer animation of the human characters lets the film down, though. Never mind the monsters and aliens: the humans are the ugliest creatures on the block.
Better than Disney’s: Chicken Little (2005).

Megamind (2010): Of all the animated films supposedly from a baddie’s perspective, which was quite the fashion for a while, this is my favourite. It had at least some insightful things to say about a bad guy’s lot (he “never gets the girl”) and highlights the extreme annoyingness of some so-called heroes. Still the premise – that a villainous mastermind would be at a loss and grow eventually bored if he actually defeated the hero – doesn’t feel as interesting as its opposite would have been. Don’t superheroes in particular need villains more than the other way around?
As good as Disney’s: Wreck-It Ralph, which had a similar theme. And way better than Illumination’s Despicable Me.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014): I enjoyed these films: they’re not over-sophisticated, with a sweet central theme of friendship, and again the sidekicks work surprisingly well. This franchise produces nice shorts too. The whininess of the hero is a drawback, but the dragon is darling.
Better than Disney’s: Treasure Planet (2002). Yes, I know, I’m running out of useful Disney comparisons. I’ve tried not to cheat and use Pixar films, but let me just say I liked the Dragon films far better than  Monsters University (2013), which was a major disappointment.     

My overall impression of the DreamWorks films, then, is that they’re of a high quality and trump some of Disney’s lesser works: not everything The Mouse produces is solid gold. Still, they never  quite reach the dizzying heights of most of the films from the Disney Renaissance (like Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King, all produced on Katzenberg’s watch by the way) or of recent Disney hits like Frozen and Zootopia. To use phraseology from Kung Fu Panda, I’m afraid there is a secret ingredient where animated films are concerned, and that Disney’s got it. But there’s no need to mope because you’re not elected Dragon Warrior: you can still be part of the Furious Five (i.e. still be bloody good).

onsdag 6 juli 2016

Caesar is the man

This may not be the ideal time to express admiration for a politician who puts his career before his country, but it can’t be helped. The third part of Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, Dictator, confirms what I already suspected in Lustrum: Gaius Julius Caesar is the Roman for a villain-loving girl like me. He’s intelligent, charming, elegant, multi-talented and keen on handing out strategically thought-through pardons (to Romans, that is, not to Gallic tribes: I’m sad to say they’re pretty much history once their paths cross with Caesar’s). Perhaps most importantly of all, he also has a sense of humour. He enjoys Cicero’s jokes, even when they’re at his own expense, and you suspect that this is one reason why he has more patience with Cicero’s political to-ing and fro-ing than one would expect. Sometimes I could not help thinking that Cicero would have done better to stick with Caesar from the beginning, though I can see why some of his actions – like starting a civil war and, once in power, proclaiming himself a god – would be a little hard to swallow.

I re-read Imperium and Lustrum before moving on to Dictator and was reminded of how much I  enjoyed dwelling in the world of Cicero’s Rome, as told by Harris. It’s mostly down to the author’s skill, of course. He’s a dab hand at both gripping prose and strong characterization, and the dialogues are blissfully down-to-earth and not written in the stilted historical fictionese which blights so much of the genre.The political intrigues manage to be both riveting and educational (did you know there were two Brutuses?). Descriptions related to life in Ancient Rome only occur when they’re directly relevant to the story of Cicero and his faithful slave and secretary (and the trilogy’s narrator) Tiro, who is finally granted his freedom in this last novel. But Harris is also helped by the nature of his heroes. Cicero is far from being a saint: sometimes, he even comes across as a bit of a turncoat. Tiro, who existed but whose personality is in all probability imagined by Harris, is a sweet man and perhaps the most humane of the characters – he is the only one in Cicero’s circle who shows any regret for “Caesar the man” when the latter is assassinated – but his loyalty to Cicero keeps him from ever getting on his high horse in moral matters, because then he’d be forced to judge his wily master as well.

In his sympathetic telling of the career of a man who tries to do the decent thing but doesn’t always succeed (I’m talking about Cicero here: Caesar didn’t care a scrap about doing the decent thing), Harris avoids being bogged down with an obvious moral message. I’ve read three other Harris novels apart from the Cicero trilogy: An Officer and A Spy, The Ghost and most recently, for my sins, Fatherland. They are all good, An Officer and A Spy especially: Harris always delivers on the readability front. But though he’s careful not to preach overtly, I did occasionally feel, in particular with Fatherland, like I was having my fingers slapped by a ruler wielded by a teacher with a moral mission.  Moreover, Harris’s heroes tend to be dour types, intelligent but humourless  – a bit like Octavian in Dictator, as a matter of fact. The more easy-going Cicero and Tiro are easily the protagonists you would most like to spend an evening at a restaurant (or a taverna) with.

Having said that, another of my favourite characters in the Cicero trilogy is Caesar’s polar opposite, the unkempt, uncompromising idealist Cato. Everyone thinks he’s a pain with his unbending adherence to an often wrong-headed moral code, but there is an engaging bluntness to his truth-telling, which has a rhetorical power of his own. Here’s a man whose moral fibre does impress me. Perhaps the trick of getting readers to swallow a dose of morality is not to try too hard.

onsdag 22 juni 2016

Doctor Thorne without the thorns - and all the better for it

It isn't surprising that Julian Fellowes has a soft spot for Anthony Trollope. They operate within the same genre, after all - the (often genteel) comedy of manners. Why Fellowes would choose to adapt Doctor Thorne of all Trollope novels is a mystery to me, though. I read it so I would be able to make a comparison between the novel and the adaptation, and did not only find it tedious - I positively disliked it. Not only did it suffer from well-known Trollopian drawbacks such as long-windedness, superfluous sub-plots and some far-from-fascinating characters, I also found it unpleasantly snobbish.

How, you might ask, can a novel that promotes a match between the squire's son and the illegitimate niece of a country doctor - who also happens to be the niece of an alcoholic ex-stonemason - be called snobbish? Did I miss the satirical thrusts directed at the De Courcys, from whom the squire's wife hails, and at the Duke of Omnium, who can't be bothered to entertain his guests? No, but the kind of snobbishness displayed in Doctor Thorne - I'm tempted to call it the English kind - is more concerned about ancient lineage and customs than rank. Mary Thorne, the doctor's niece, is implicitly on a par with Frank Gresham the squire's son because both the Thornes and the Greshams are old county families. The De Courcys are more recent, and Whigs too (as is the Duke of Omnium), which is why they can be comfortably sneered at.

Early on, there is an apparently irony-free endorsement of the British feudal spirit. Elsewhere, we have the plot-unrelated lamenting of the demise of an old coach town in the uncouth age of commerce and railways. Augusta Gresham's bourgeois fiancé, Mr Moffat, is derided, but to quote Elizabeth Bennet, his guilt and his descent appear to be the same: he is accused of nothing worse than of being the son of a tailor. When he jilts Augusta for mercenary reasons, it is hard to find it so very terrible since her reasons for agreeing to a marriage were equally mercenary. Yet not only are we supposed to like Frank for horsewhipping the absconded suitor, we're supposed to find it funny too.

Then there's the patronising treatment of the Scatcherds. Sir Roger Scatcherd is the drunk stonemason who makes good thanks to his engineering skills and becomes both a baronet and a very rich man, albeit still drunk. He is one of the more memorable characters, but his successes are never given their due: rather, it is heavily hinted that he would have been better off if he had known his place and remained a stonemason. Why, one might ask, as he is destined to die by the bottle anyway? Better then. surely, to die in affluence and comfort than in poverty and hardship? And what about all those buildings, railways and bridges he has built: isn't the country better off with them than without? Why is it so lamentable that Sir Roger's son is not taught to fend for himself, when he receives exactly the same kind of education as young Frank, who as it happens is more in need of gaining his own bread? Why is it a "joke" that the good and honest Lady Scatcherd is called "my lady"?

What's more, the protagonists aren't that easy to warm to. Frank is puppyish and flirts with other women. The possibility of making money rather than marrying it enters his dim brain very late in the day, and then the best he can come up with is a notion to take over one of his father's tenant farms: this in a situation where his family risks losing the estate, tenant farms and all. Mary is accused of pertness by one of the De Courcy ladies, and not without reason. Doctor Thorne himself is supposed to be the moral heart of the book, but it is hard to be too impressed. One of the reasons we are given to think him noble is that he does his best to keep Sir Roger's son Louis alive, when he secretly wishes the wretch could die so Mary can get her mitts on Sir Roger's money and marry Frank. But there is nothing very admirable in suppressing such a wish: in fact it's pretty disgraceful to harbour it in the first place. What earthly right has Mary to Sir Roger's money - Sir Roger, whom Doctor Thorne considered beneath her and never introduced her to - compared to Louis Scatcherd, who though a wash-out is after all Sir Roger's only child?

All this fuming gives me little room to discuss the TV adaptation, but you may have guessed where I'm heading. Fellowes has done an admirable job in excising and smoothing over all the irritating aspects of the book. Gone is Frank's infirmity of purpose and inconstancy and Mary's initial coldness: their love is the real thing from the word go. Gone are the tedious subplots about the feud between Doctor Thorne and another country doctor, questionable campaigning in the local elections and ducal dinners. Chapter upon chapter of exposition are neatly summarised in a few exchanges - though this simplification does land Mr Gresham with a vice he didn't have in the book (gambling) in order to explain the dire state of his finances. Gone is Frank's idiotic idea of taking over a farm. Gone is the horsewhipping of Mr Moffat. And, crucially, the Scatcherds - father and son - are given the time of day. Unlike Trollope, Fellowes seems genuinely impressed by Sir Roger's achievements.

In an interview, Fellowes unwisely invited a comparison between Trollope and Dickens (why do Trollopians do this?) by saying that Dickens's heroines were "whiter than white" and his villains "blacker than black". This implies that Trollope's offerings are somehow more complex. However, the Trollope villains I've come across are just as morally objectionable as any villain in Dickens, while not being half as much fun. In fact, they're a bit rubbish. I would back the worst Dickens can come up with baddie-wise against the best Trollope can come up with any day - even Bounderby would have made a better fist of the Parliament appearances that Melmotte (the most creditable Trollope villain effort I've come across) bungled. Maybe the rubbishness of Trollope's bad guys is deliberate - perhaps he did not wish to glamourise wickedness, even in the interest of good storytelling - but lack of panache is hardly the same as complexity.

Louis Scatcherd, Sir Roger's weak and pathetic son who has inherited his alcoholism but none of his talents, is a case in point. So what does Fellowes do but oomph him up a bit? After all, he knows what a successful villain looks like (which makes the Dickens comment even more of a faux pas). Instead of despising Louis with all his might, Doctor Thorne (Sir Roger's business advisor and Louis's guardian) is uncomfortably aware that he may be guilty of neglecting the Scatcherd interest for the benefit of the Greshams, and shows sympathy towards the wayward young man, as does Mary and ultimately even Frank. Louis is given a bitter diatribe where he flings his justified grievances in the faces of assembled goodies - much like those "blacker than black" Dickens villains, in fact. "Don't you pity me", he spits to Frank, giving the viewer a pleasureable sense of Downton déjà-vu, before he gallops off and is killed not by drink but by a riding accident, which acquits the doctor of wishing the life out of his body. Louis Scatcherd à la Fellowes still isn't much cop, but a considerable improvement on the one in the novel, and as played by Edward Franklin not unfetching.

As costume dramas go, Doctor Thorne is pleasant and well-acted, with all the annoying bits from the novel taken out. What remains, though, is a not very remarkable love story, given a bit of extra polish by the likes of Tom Hollander as Thorne, Ian McShane as Sir Roger and Rebecca Front - always a delight - as firm matriarch Arabella Gresham. In the end, I can't help harbouring the catty suspicion that one of the reasons Fellowes chose to adapt this novel is because it was so easy to improve on.

onsdag 8 juni 2016

Give Theseus a break - he's not that bad

A recent London trip has left me spoilt for choice when it comes to things to spend a blog post grumbling about. The three nights I stayed in and watched telly, I came across an unfunny Midsummer Night's Dream, a costume drama about Louis XIV's private life (Versailles) that managed to be boring, and an Alice in Wonderland film completely devoid of charm. My choice falls on the Midsummer Night's Dream, as adapted by Russell T Davies. My gripes regarding the other programmes can be too easily summarised (Versailles - bad script, Alice in Wonderland - nothing to do with Alice, plus are we really supposed to root for the ghastly White Queen?). Besides, when Theseus in the Dream is turned into a Fascist dictator, I feel a line has been crossed.

I feared the worst for this Dream when Lysander's joke about Demetrius possessing Hermia's father's love - "do you marry him" - fell completely flat. It continued in the same vein: I sat stony-faced through Bottom's grandstanding, the Athenian girls' cat fight in the woods, Titania's infatuation and the rude mechanicals' play. There were nice touches in this adaptation - the feral nature of the fairies; Puck's uncharacteristically disinterested attempt to mediate between Oberon and Titania; a moment during the concluding masque when Puck removes Demetrius's flower enchantment - and he still stays in love with Helena (yep, one does sort of worry about that enchantment and how durable it is). But, as they would have said in The West Wing, they left out the funny.

I love Davies's work on Doctor Who, so this was a major disappointment. His attempts to force some same-sex romance into the Dream were ham-fisted, too. I'm sorry, but Titania and Hippolyta? It simply doesn't work.

Which sort of brings us to Theseus. First of all, if I never see another Fascist Dictator spin on a Shakespeare play, it will be too soon. There's nothing clever about it. There have always been dictators and tyrants throughout history, but that doesn't mean their ideas have much in common with Fascism. Ian McKellen famously played a Fascist/Nazi Richard III, but Shakespeare's Richard isn't wedded to any ideology, however abhorrent. He's simply power-hungry and opportunistic. The parallel didn't make any sense to me, though it had the merit of further distancing Shakespeare's Richard III from the historical one (I have mentioned they have nothing in common, haven't I?). We do not need similarities between historical/fictional tyrants and their modern-day counterparts to be hammered home - we're not stupid. By the way, not all modern dictators have been Fascists, have they?

As for poor Theseus, there's no evidence that's he's a tyrant at all, let alone a Fascist one. He upholds the Athenian law - the "ancient privilege of Athens", so presumably not of his own making - but for a ruler to disobey the laws of his realm on a whim would be to act like - oh, I don't know, a dictator? He reasons quite patiently with Hermia, because he doesn't wish her to die or to join the cult of Diana (Artemis, surely?) and have to abjure the company of men. The scene where her case is discussed ends with him taking away Hermia's father Egeus and Demetrius to talk of "something nearly that concerns yourselves", so it seems likely he tries to reason with them too. Egeus is the character it's toughest for a modern audience - or perhaps any audience - to get their head round. Maybe he has his own reasons for thinking Demetrius a better match than Lysander for Hermia; maybe he distrusts Lysander's motives; maybe he's just trying to call his daughter's bluff. All the same, he does seem quite ready to have his girl put to death (and does not even mention the cult of Diana/Artemis option).

It's often assumed that Hippolyta lends Hermia her silent support and is irritated with her husband-to-be for confirming Egeus's rights. Charles Spencer, the now sadly retired theatre critic of the Telegraph, praised a Dream production where Hippolyta did not, as is the custom, "glower" at Theseus, and I couldn't agree more. Yes, Hippolyta is a strong woman, but she has also been a ruler, and she must surely know the pressures of office. There is nothing in the play to suggest that she is anything but perfectly fine with wedding Theseus. So, he wooed her with his sword. How else would you woo an Amazon? Flowers and chocolate? It stands to reason that she should fall for a successful warrior. There may be different mythological stories about how Theseus came by Hippolyta's hand, and in the end he unwisely ditched her for Phaedra, but the couple we see in Shakespeare's play seem happy enough. Davies's vision of Hippolyta as a strait-jacketed prisoner of war is nowhere in evidence.

There's nothing wrong with having a good think about any of Shakespeare's plays, but the Dream is supposed to be the Shakespearean equivalent of a rom-com, frothy and fun. If Davies gets unstuck over a crustily misogynist piece of ancient Athenian law-making, then I wouldn't trust him with adapting any of Shakespeare's more problematic plays. I'd be glad to see his return to Doctor Who any day of the week, though.