onsdag 30 november 2016

Time to be a grown-up with The Crown

Sometimes I worry that, what with all my wallowing in animated films, sci-fi, fairy-tale-inspired fantasy and not least youtube clips commenting on these phenomena, I will no longer be able to appreciate more mature and sophisticated ways of entertainment when they come along. What if I've devolved into a mere "beast", like the Macra in Doctor Who? Is it maybe a bad sign that I know who the Macra in Doctor Who are?

My fears seemed to be confirmed when I started to watch the undoubtedly-for-grown-ups Netflix series The Crown, which has been praised by just about every costume-drama viewer in the world. The first scene shows the present Elizabeth II's father, George VI, coughing up blood in the bathroom, and my first reactions were childish enough: "Eugh!" and "Right. Bored now."

Luckily, things picked up from there. There's no denying - and who would want to? - that the series is very well done indeed, and can easily hold a candle to anything BBC or ITV at its most lavish produce. The acting is superb - once again Claire Foy shines, this time as the main character Queen Elizabeth - the setting breathes authenticity and the script creates entirely believable scenes for the characters. You keep thinking "yes, it must have been exactly like this". There's not even clunky exposition camouflaged as dialogue of the kind you otherwise always get even in the best costume dramas: this means that some bit-players' identity remains a mystery until it is natural for someone to mention their name, but it's worth it as we then don't get stilted explanatory remarks such as "Ah, Mike, my dear cousin/friend since childhood" (yes, I'm still not sure how Prince Philip and Mike know each other) or "do you really think I can take on Churchill, Lord Salisbury, also known for unfathomable reasons as Bobbety?". Peter Morgan also wrote the script to the film The Queen and the play The Audience - both of which I've seen and enjoyed - and you trust him implicitly when it comes to capturing the personalities of the Queen and her entourage. The tone is even more assured in The Crown than in the other Elizabeth II-themed pieces mentioned, where some things would grate (the too-laboured stag metaphor in The Queen and some PMs in The Audience who were caricatured rather than convincingly portrayed).

But - to be honest - not a lot happens, does it? I've watched six episodes out of the first ten to be released, and though, thanks to the smoothness and believability, the story doesn't creak, it certainly moves at a rather majestic pace. Maybe it is partly my devolved Macra brain: the timing for watching The Crown could undeniably have been better, as after the sugar rush of two seasons of Once Upon A Time, it felt very much like slow-carb TV. All the same, I'm starting to wonder whether Elizabeth II's reign is that interesting a chunk of English history, and whether (whisper it) the characters are as fascinating as all that. They're certainly likeable: The Crown ought to give the senior members of the British royal family a well-deserved popularity boost. Even so, inveterate consumer of royal gossip as I am, I still fail to be engrossed by the small niggles of the Queen's and Prince Philip's essentially stable and happy marriage. Each episode features one main plot-line with not many sub-plots to speak of, and I did find myself thinking more than once that they weren't really worth all the time and attention lavished on them.

Of course it's a good series. I don't even feel resentful when people call it "the new Downton", because I know what they're driving at. This is period drama of the highest quality, plus an enjoyable way to learn more about recent British history (I had never even heard of the killing London fog of 1952). But Downton (not being hampered by reality) had more intricate plot-lines and a larger cast of characters to engage in. With the risk of sounding like the philistine Emperor in Amadeus complaining about the Marriage of Figaro having "too many notes", I'd say that for me at least, The Crown has too few storylines and too few main characters to be truly addictive. Not to mention no villains whatsoever (an amusingly catty Duke of Windsor doesn't count).

In spite of its level of ambition, I think the rest of the series will do well as post-gym watching, when I feel in the appropriate calm zen mode. Right now, though, Once season three awaits: maybe Neverland is the best place for me.

onsdag 16 november 2016

Fairy tales, mash-ups and villains = magically addictive viewing

That idea I had about mixing escapist viewing with serious stuff like Danish crime dramas? Stuff that. Lately it's been escapism, in the shape of the TV series Once Upon A Time, all the way. I'm now halfway through season two, and planning to invest in the remaining seasons available on DVD in the very near future.

So what's it about? Well, there's this town in present-day Maine, Storybrooke, where the Evil Queen from Snow White has entrapped various characters from different fairy tales, plus the odd character from other tales with a fantastic dimension, using a curse which wiped their memories and halted time, so that the town folk neither age nor have any memory of their previous fairy-tale existence. The only one who can break the curse is the daughter of Snow White and Prince James aka Charming, who was smuggled out of a magic portal before the curse hit. Once grown-up, she is brought into town by her son, whom she had given away for adoption, but who has figured out what's going on with the aid of a book, and so goes out to find her. The heroine, Emma Swan, naturally doesn't believe her son's fairy-tale fantasies, but she quickly grows attached to him and stays in the town for his sake. The big problem is, his adoptive mother is the Evil Queen herself, also known as Regina Mills the town mayor. And that's just season one.

Yep, it does sound extraordinarily geeky. When I try to explain the series' premise to an outsider, I usually drift off in the middle, embarrassingly aware of the fact. But then I am geeky, and fond of fairy tales and mash-ups/cross-overs where fictional characters from different stories interact. For anyone who feels the same, I think I can guarantee that a good time will be had with Once.

The series' attractions? Let's start at the top:

1) Rumplestiltskin's in it! Yeah, they basically had me at "You can't go to him. He's dangerous." Rumplestiltskin's my favourite fairy-tale villain, even if, in the original Grimm story, his appearance is not impressive (he seems to be some sort of gnome) and his motives unclear (what did he want with that first-born anyway? Eat it?). You can't fault that M.O. though - giving some hapless fairy-tale character exactly what they want, but at a price. In the words of the voodoo spirit friends of another purveyor of magical deals, Dr Facilier in The Princess and the Frog: "Well, you got what you wanted/But you lost what you had". It's the diabolical pact without the too-scary diabolical bit, and it works a treat as a villain storyline. Even Rumplestiltskin in Shrek Forever After, lisping silliness notwithstanding (one more reason why I'm no big fan of the Shrek franchise is that it tends to poke fun at its villains) managed to be the most formidable antagonist the green ogre's come across. It's hard to withstand an enemy who can use your own desires against you.

Rumplestiltskin in Once is the best version of the character one could hope for. For one, they've scrapped the gnome bit: originally, he's a man very much down on his luck who gets hold of almost unlimited dark magical power and is then understandingly reluctant to let it go, even it does turn him into a malicious, greenish kind of goblin. The goblin version of Rumplestiltskin may be a teeny bit OTT, not that I'm not still thrilled every time a character - especially the really good and worthy ones - is suckered into making a deal with him. But his Storybrooke persona, the wealthy businessman cum lawyer Mr Gold ("'He owns this place.' 'The hotel?' 'The town.'") is just perfect - gangly, sardonic, super-clever, and with a deliciously impenetrable master plan. It is also worth noting that, like the original character and unlike, say, Facilier, Rumplestiltskin/Gold always delivers on his side of a deal. He doesn't cheat and fulfil your wishes in some horrible way. Many of the characters' happiness is dependent on deals they once made with him, which explains why they keep falling into his traps.

2) The Evil Queen has a case: Like most of the fairy-tale characters in Once, the Evil Queen Regina (not Grimhilde in this version, then) is nicely fleshed out with a strong back-story (the storyline in Once is split between Storybrooke and flashbacks to Fairyland). It provides the perfect villain motive in that it's good but not too good: you're not made to feel yourself that Snow White deserves all she gets, but you can see why Regina might think it. Her strongest case, though, is her present-day one against Emma. Imagine the natural mother of your adopted child showing up after ten years, settling down near you, getting all the affection of your boy, encouraging him to think of you as a wicked character from a fairy tale... And then to top it all your lover starts to make eyes at her. You wouldn't have to be an evil queen to be furious. In fact, if it weren't for the fairy-tale thing Regina would have right on her side, and for most of season one Emma doesn't even believe in the fairy-tale thing, which makes her feelings nicely conflicted.

3) I actually like Snow White: Who'd have thought it? Films like Snow White and the Huntsman and Mirror, Mirror have tried to make something of Snow White, but not particularly successfully in my view. Simply giving a girl martial arts skills doesn't make her a memorable heroine. Snow White aka Mary Margaret Blanchard in Once, on the other hand, is just the right mixture of sweet and spunky to be likeable. Though essentially a good person, she has flaws which make her endearing, and you end up hoping she and her man will come together, even if a lot of potentially tiresome fuss is made about their "true love".

4) "Evil is made, not born" I recently rewatched all the Harry Potter films and was so fed up with the relentless smugness of the good characters by the end that I almost saw the point of joining up with the noseless one. In Once, both good and bad characters grapple with their motives, which prompts some discussion about what constitutes good and evil. In spite of the quote (a statement made by the two head villains, and they would say that), evil turns out to be very much a matter of choice. The wicked characters tend to go for the wrong choices - though redemption is possible, they pull back out of vindictiveness or love of power - but that doesn't mean the good characters always make the right ones. Simply, the characterisation is more nuanced than what one is used to in fairy-tale-themed stories.

Look, I'm not saying it's The West Wing. But the script is sassy, the cliff-hangers are effective and both the fairy-tale part and the small-town soap opera part work well. I'm not sure kids would enjoy it much, though, fairy-tale content notwithstanding: not that it's too scary, but relationships play a large part in the story, which I imagine could get boring for a child, as could all the am-I-a-bad-parent agonising. It's fairy tales for adults, then: nerdy adults, ideally with a penchant for villains. Does that description fit anyone but me? The series is a hit, so possibly yes.

Oh, and just for the record: I'm not at all keen on the matinee idol version of Captain Hook who turns up in season two, but I imagine those without my bias in favour of his (metaphorical) crocodile will probably think differently.                          

onsdag 2 november 2016

Let Maleficent be Maleficent

Poor Maleficent. She's not my favourite Disney villain by a long chalk - in fact, she's not even my favourite Disney villainess (that would be Ursula the sea-witch in The Little Mermaid). However, she deserves far better than she got in the live-action film bearing her name which was released in 2014 and which I've now finally watched.

I have to admit I was prejudiced against Maleficent from the start. Reviews of it suggested that the film was an attempt to rehabilitate the main character in the same manner as the book and later musical Wicked did the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. This seemed to me to defeat the very reason the film was made in the first place. Maleficent had been voted the villain Disney fans wanted to see more of, and the film was a consequence of that - but if you're an admirer of the bad fairy in the original animated Sleeping Beauty, chances are you're not interested in seeing her portrayed as not so very bad after all. What the original Maleficent has is style - she goes about her villainous business with panache and without a trace of regret or vulnerability. To attempt a whitewash would be to take away the only thing she has going for her.

Still, there's no denying that there's room for development as far as Maleficent's character is concerned. In the original fairy tale, the (nameless) fairy who curses Sleeping Beauty only appears at the beginning of the tale, and her curse is the result of her being miffed at not being invited to the christening. This is classic folk tale logic - according to them, supernatural beings are often notoriously thin-skinned, and you commit a breach of etiquette against them at your peril. Now, Disney's Maleficent in the original animated film not only curses the infant Aurora, she also sticks around to make sure that what she's foretold is fulfilled (which makes you wonder - why not just sit back and let the magic run its course? Doesn't she trust her own curses?). Her continued active efforts to ensure Aurora gets no happy ending do make the "not invited to the party" motive seem a tad threadbare. Maybe giving the character a back-story and a more credible motive to go with it would not be such a bad thing after all?

I hadn't seen much of Maleficent, however, before I realised that it fulfilled my worst fears. It wasn't only an attempt to whitewash Maleficent, but a singularly bad attempt. A pompous female narrator tells us of two neighbouring countries, one peopled by selfish, greedy humans, and one an idyllic place full of magical creatures whom the humans envy. Argh - please not the "greedy humans versus peaceful species living in harmony with nature" plot, one of my all-time pet hates! It gets worse. We see a young Maleficent - why is she even called that if she's not evil yet? - flying over the enchanted woodlands and sunnily greeting various revoltingly cutesy CGI critters. She's plainly as good as good can be, so her descent into baby-cursing must be entirely due to those pesky humans. True enough, it's when her childhood sweetheart Stephan betrays her that she goes off the rails. When the King decrees that whoever kills Maleficent will succeed him, Stephan drugs her, steals her wings - he can't quite bring himself to kill her, though with hindsight that would have been wiser - and becomes king on the strength of it. On the plus side, no-one hunts Maleficent any more, as it's assumed Stephan killed her when he nabbed the wings. On the minus side, she's really upset.

You'd think the whole betrayal-and-wing-stealing setup would prove a better motive for Maleficent than not being invited to a christening, but it's so clumsily done it adds nothing to the original story, quite the reverse. Maleficent's back-story is for the most part narrated rather than built up by potentially character-developing dialogue - it's a schoolbook example of telling rather than showing. I found myself far preferring the old, un-reconstructed Maleficent: she was plainly a bad fairy by profession, and cursing newborns is the kind of thing bad fairies do - all part of a usual day in the life of a fairy-tale villain. New Maleficent, on the other hand, seems to think she has some moral justification for making sure Stephan's child fell into eternal sleep on her sixteenth birthday - but fond as she was of her wings, this is a wildly disproportionate retaliation. By making the newborn-cursing part of a revenge-on-the-ex plot, Maleficent actually manages to highlight the horror of it rather than making it more understandable.

The film then gets even sillier as Maleficent warms to Aurora and eventually tries her darndest to break her own curse - at this point, there's no longer any attempt made to align what's happening with the plot in the animated film. And in the end, I kid you not, it is not the Prince's smooch that wakes Aurora, but Maleficent's repentant kiss (on the forehead - there are limits). She's grown to love her, see, so this is "true love's kiss". Not that that's much of a comfort to the girl's real parents - her blameless mother who's died not knowing what will happen to her child and her increasingly unhinged father (and wouldn't you be if someone cursed your kid? It's not paranoia if it's real). And don't get me started on Maleficent's treatment of the three good fairies - charming comic sidekicks in the original Disney classic, inept and woefully unfunny in this film.

Fleshing out the character of fairy-tale villains is a tall order, as they're pretty hardcore, and the original tales - not being exercises in psychological realism - don't give you many hints regarding the inner workings of their mind. But it can be done. I recently watched the first season of the TV series Once Upon A Time and was completely sold on it - which, let's just say, is not particularly surprising. I'll be gushing more about its attractions at some later date. Suffice it to say, for now, that the fairy-tale villains in Once may be rendered more complex by a tragic back-story or two, but they are nevertheless still villains - they choose to become bad, and to remain bad. Real affection towards a select few people in their lives doesn't make them less of a menace to everyone else. This, I think, would have been an approach which could have worked with Maleficent too: an attempt to enrich her character without prettifying or excusing her obvious malevolence. In fact, Maleficent does appear in Once, but only as a minor character: it will be interesting to see if she is reintroduced later, and what in that case this franchise's take on her will be.

As it is, I will let yet another version of Maleficent have the last word: the cheerfully messy teenage romcom Descendants shown on Disney Channel, about the second generation of Disney villains navigating high school, features a thoroughly rotten-to-the-core Maleficent, interestingly not the least bit inspired by the 2014 film, only by the animated classic. She tries to persuade her increasingly doubtful daughter (there's no clue as to who the father is - the film doesn't really address where villain babies come from) to carry out her wicked plans in a catchy musical number which includes the lyrics (abbreviated): "Don't you want to be evil? Don't you want to be cool?" In its simplicity, I think this sums up the character of the bad fairy - at least in her Disney version - far better than anything in Maleficent.   

torsdag 20 oktober 2016

Why so glum, haute couture chum?

It's the first autumn without a new series of Downton, and yes, I do miss it, if not as passionately as I'd anticipated. As regards the future of Downton's characters, I've pretty much settled it in my imagination to my own satisfaction. What I miss most about the series is my level of engagement in it. I have a number of series piled up for test-watching purposes, and not a few turn out to be well-made. However, there's no way any characters' troublesome working or love life (or lack thereof) will turn any of my hairs white (which, I swear, actually happened with Downton series six).

If no absorbing fictional universe where you'd happily spend hours, first actually watching the series then speculating about what may happen next or has happened before, is forthcoming, then can one at least hope for a little dose of escapism? I know I'm not really entitled to too much of it at this time of year. In January, I needed escapism to get me through the beginning of the new year; in February, to get me through the post-Downton slump after having watched last year's series a second time; in June, to temper pre-holiday grumpiness; in August, to alleviate post-holiday sadness. If there was ever a time for more ambitious viewing and reading, this is it. Plus I have discovered one escapism series on the nerdy part of the scale (rather than the costume-drama one) which will do well to mix up realistic Danish crime series and grim adultery thrillers with. All the same, just one teeny frothy costume drama with romances and pretty dresses, even if sadly free from under-butlers, would not go amiss.

So I had some little hope for The Collection, which has started airing on Swedish television - especially as it was touted as "the most glamorous series ever" by one TV presenter. Alas, though, the pilot turned out to be unexpectedly gloomy. It started unpromisingly with a silent scene - no dialogue, no music, just sinister tinkling from a couple of rusty cans hung up to scare away birds from a long-forgotten vegetable garden - where a corpse is buried, and very inexpertly if I may say so. I have an aversion against silent scenes in TV and films, especially at the very beginning: they usually signal pretentiousness and lack of pace. We then jump back a few days in order to get an explanation for the corpse, but when it comes it is not nearly good enough. I like crime drama, but I just have to ask: does every series have to include a murder now, even when there's no good reason to murder anyone?

Yes, there are a few pretty dresses - the series is after all about a fashion house trying to make its mark in post-WWII Paris - but they don't make up for the general downbeat feel of the plot. The fashion house in question is led by Paul Sabine, and the chief designer is his brother Claude. In a nice stereotype-busting role reversal, scrubbed-up, besuited Paul is the straight one, advantageously married to a beautiful and well-connected American. Whereas scruffy, macho Claude, who lives and rarely works in a Bohemian flat with his cat is the gay one - he's dangerously into rough sailors. Neither of them is a barrel of laughs, though. Paul is glum because he has business problems - it's hard to feel too sorry for him, as he unnecessarily rubs his new business partner up the wrong way, which leads to an entirely avoidable "succeed with your next collection or else" ultimatum. Claude is glum because his family play merry havoc with his love life in the most misguided "get the lazy brother to work" drive I've ever seen. Other glum characters include a pretty seamstress who has had to give her illegitimate baby away (the series takes ages exploring her grief on the train back). A new career as a dress model beckons, but after a couple of happy pictures around Paris to gay accordion music it all goes pear-shaped, and the shrinking violet refuses ever to try again, in spite of getting three separate pep talks (I did enjoy Claude's Beauty and the Beast-inspired one). Frances de la Tour puts in a characteristically classy, scary turn as the matriarch of the Sabine family, but not even she is happy.

If the pilot had been less down in the mouth, I would more easily have forgiven some shoddy plotting: for instance, an unsuspecting Paul buys the very derelict cottage next to which his mother's loyal thug of a chauffeur has buried Claude's sailor boyfriend (victim of the scantily explained murder mentioned above). Seriously, what are the odds? The corpse has not been dicovered yet, but as I heard those cans tinkling forebodingly yet again I'm not sure I didn't groan aloud. As it appears now, The Collection isn't frothy enough for light entertainment, but neither is it deep enough for serious drama.

I'll give it another try, though. The pilot of a series rarely shows it at its best. As Paul waxes lyrical about fashion collections symbolising Paris rising from the ashes like a phoenix, one can hope the phoenix bit is still to come. We've certainly had the ashes bit.        

tisdag 4 oktober 2016

My top 10 list of (male) Dickens villains, part II

I'll continue my list without further ado: for my top five and explanations of the rules of selection applied, see below.

6 Fagin in Oliver Twist I like Fagin a lot, but I've never been attracted to him, which is why he isn't higher on my list. I can usually disregard questions about a villain's personal hygiene (though Carker is very scrupulous about being clean and neat - only saying), but something about imagining Fagin's beard makes this impossible in his case. It must be absolutely filthy.

For all that, he's a great character and surely the most popular Dickens villain of all time. That is enough in itself to earn him place number six. Additionally, he's clever, funny and well liked by his employees (except Bill Sikes, that is) and suffers so memorably at the end it's hard to imagine that Dickens himself didn't pity him a little. I've written about both the wonders and the problems with Fagin before, so let's move on.

7 Daniel Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop Two of my favourite scenes in the old TV series Dickens of London (creaky, but worthwhile for the really nerdish) featured Dickens exclaiming "I love you, Daniel Quilp!". The first time was when he was caught up in getting under the skin of the character, the second when he got the sales figures for the latest installment of The Old Curiosity Shop. These scenes acknowledged both that Dickens had a special bond with all his characters including the wicked ones, and that he recognised that villains were good copy.

I was entranced by Tom Courtenay's portrayal of Quilp in the 1995 TV adaptation of The Old Curiosity Shop (the one that also featured Peter Ustinov as a rather vacant grandfather to Nell). On the page, though, Quilp can be a bit... much. There's an awful lot of monkeying about and face-pulling. He also relishes the discomfort of others in a way that not even I can find attractive. Nevertheless, he is an energetic and charismatic presence, and a scene with Quilp in it is never dull - a great plus in a novel as uneven as The Old Curiosity Shop. His marriage to a still devoted, pretty young wife - though her love for him, "one of those strange infatuations of which examples are by no means scarce", has taken its toll during years of ill-treatment - is one of the very few instances where a Dickensian villain (of the clever kind) has actually managed to land a girl. It may also to some degree explain why Dickens's other female characters tend to steer well clear of villain unions.

You wouldn't want to become Quilp's number second, but he's good fun, and another example of a Dickens villain viewed with some fondness by the general public, though many may only know him from the TV screen (apart from Courtenay, there's also Toby Jones's nicely understated Quilp in the more recent ITV adaptation). He's good copy, is Daniel, then as now.

8 Vholes in Bleak House Now I've worked through my favourite head villains in Dickens, it's time to squeeze in at least three of the secondary ones, and it's no easy matter. There are plenty of great minor villains in Dickens - while I leave out some top-billed baddies for a reason (like thick Bounderby, brutish Sikes and shadowy heart-breaker Compeyson), many of the secondary ones miss out merely through lack of space. Anyway, here goes.

I've always had an extra soft spot for Dickens's lawyers, and while Tulkinghorn is the prime example of the villainous kind, Vholes isn't half bad either. Dry, precise and level-headed, it's small wonder he takes the tempestuous Richard in. How many treacle-slow workdays have I not thought of his maxim that it is not what is done that's important, but what is doing. Dickens appears to have created him partly to illustrate why it's no good argument to say the law must work the way it does so the lawyers can earn a decent living. Vholes may prey upon Richard not only for his own sake but for the sake of his three daughters and his aged father in the Vale of Taunton, but that doesn't make him any less of a parasite. What a parasite, though - I'm not sure that keeping Vholes, the Misses Vholes and Vholes senior in the Vale of Taunton in the manner to which they have become accustomed isn't a perfectly good reason for going into law.

9 Littimer in David Copperfield Before darling Thomas in Downton, before Caxton in From Time to Time (and the original book), before Edgar in Aristocats and scores of other Bad Servants, there was Littimer. In his typically understated way, Steerforth's respectable-seeming valet embodies many of the anxieties of the middle class towards the superior form of servant. He knows how to exploit both the arrogance of his employers and the nervousness of manservant-unaccustomed house guests like David for his own ends. The manner in which he puts a dampener on a party in David's apartment - intimidating everyone while cooking the food and cleaning up to perfection - is a good example of how he manages to spread general unease while efficiently fulfilling his valet tasks. He even succeeds in fooling the worldly Miss Mowcher into thinking that David, not Steerforth, is set upon Little Emily and inspires her to one of her few quotable lines post-conversion to good character: "'Young Innocence' (so he called you and you may call him 'Old Guilt' all the days of your life)". The reader never sees Littimer's mask slipping - even the combined contempt of David and Rosa Dartle leaves him unperturbed - but there is another, more vindictive side to him. The fact that he helps Rosa find Emily, although she is so lacking in respect towards him, shows that he has not forgiven Emily for slighting him, and even in prison he still remembers the "young woman [...] that I endeavoured to save" and her "bad conduct" towards him. It is only to be hoped that the section of Australia to which he will be deported is a long way away from Port Middlebay.

10 Bitzer in Hard Times An underwritten character from Dickens's next-worst novel (yes, Martin Chuzzlewit is even worse) with only one, or let's say one and a half good scenes? What's he doing on this list? Well, it's my list, and I fancy him. Plus, that one scene - where he explains why he's determined to hand Gradgrind's son Tom over to the police, using the purely logical and self-interested arguments he was taught in Gradgrind's own school - is seriously good. Bitzer's tics and Dickensian characteristics - the forehead-knuckling, being so pale "that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white" - appeal to me. Then he's so young too (a class-mate of Sissy's, remember), and I can't help wondering how exactly Mrs Sparsit knew about him making a sound like a Dutch clock when sleeping; I'm not sure I buy the whole falling-asleep-at-his-table-on-long-winter-nights rigmarole. The very absence of explanations for some of Bitzer's behaviour invites further speculation. Why is he so dead set against the circus people, i.e. "the horse-riders" (the only strong emotion he exhibits in the whole book)? Is he an albino? Did he nearly end up as an exhibit in a circus freak show? Or could it be that this Gradgrind pupil is inspiring me to some seriously far-fetched flights of fancy?

Honourable mentions: considering my pseudonym, it could be considered a shame that I don't include Alfred Lammle from Our Mutual Friend on my list. I am vastly fond of him, but the reason I didn't include him, or Sampson Brass from The Old Curiosity Shop (another favourite of mine), is that they're both part of double-acts where the female  - Alfred's wife Sophronia Lammle and Sammy's mannish sister Sally Brass - is the stronger character of the two. Well, in the case of the Lammles it's arguable, but nevertheless, without their female support these two ingratiating rogues would be nowhere. For this list, I've prioritised bad guys who can stand on their own two feet. But who knows - I may do a "top 10 villain double-acts" list in the future (I don't think I can restrict that one to merely Dickens), and then they will both be guaranteed a place.

tisdag 27 september 2016

My top 10 list of (male) Dickens villains, part I

Inspired by far too much time spent looking at Youtube top 10 villain clips (Disney's the goldmine - interest in villains and interest in Disney films seem to go hand in hand pleasingly often), I thought I'd try a top 10 list of my own, on a less common theme. Where can you effortlessly find 10 villains and more worth mentioning if not in Dickens novels?

Like the inspirational youtubers, I'll have to set out some rules and restrictions: as I don't want to have to clog up my list with Miss Havishams and Rosa Dartles, only male villains will be included (which leaves me scope for a top 10 villainess list in the future - there are plenty of worthy candidates). The villains listed will mainly be my personal favourites, but in two cases they make the grade due to their greater service to the villain-loving community. These are not the most evil villains you find in Dickens, but the ones I like best and find most interesting. Also, as ten is rather a lot and I have a fair amount of gushing to do about each entry, I'll have to divide the list into two blog posts. From the top then, and in descending order:

1 James Carker in Dombey and Son "Carker has everything", a writer of a splendid article on Dickens's villains (which I've been unable to locate again, annoyingly) once stated, and I can only agree. Here we have the Dickensian embittered social climber in his most exquisite form. What gives Carker the edge is that he's not only tremendously intelligent and adept at villain rhetoric (both ingratiating-ironic speeches and the odd why-I-hate-the-world rant), but also attractive and socially successful. He can play any game well - he can win a chess game without even looking at the board ("it is a mere trick"). He converses knowledgeably about art and is even (according to Dombey) no mean painter himself. He is the only one who gets along both with Mr Dombey's guests from the business world and Mrs Dombey's guests from high society at their dismal "house-warming" party. He is even handsome in a sly, feline way. Yes, like Jane in Pride and Prejudice he smiles too much, but otherwise he is free of the kind of Dickensian character-tics that could lessen his formidableness as a villain. Carker has the character of Uriah Heep hidden by the outer trappings of a James Steerforth - and yes, I do mean that as a compliment.

2 Uriah Heep in David Copperfield  Rooting for elegant, fair-faced Carker sometimes hardly feels like a sport at all (though judging by the continuing Warleggan blindness, the general public are slow to catch on to the charms of feline villain handsomeness). Now, if you see the point of Uriah, on the other hand, you really have what it takes to be a villain-lover. David Copperfield, who is repulsed by him, paints no pretty picture of his demeanour. Even I, who genuinely like pale, cadaverous men and redheads, would not have minded if Uriah had writhed rather less or if his fingers had not left greasy trails "like a snail" when he's reading a book. For all that, though, he's fiercely clever - once again, as in Dombey and Son, the villain is easily the most intelligent character in the book. There is a dry, cynical edge to his conversation, when freed of the professions of humility that only serve as garnish, which the chafing David, wrapped as he is in his moral superiority, has a hard time responding to. Uriah is a good example of the old Dickensian theme of how bitterness can be bad for you: he's intelligent enough to be able to make his way in the world honestly, but blinded as he is by anger at the (by no means imagined) contempt in which his so-called betters hold him he resorts to theft and fraud instead, and so the law gets him in the end. I bet he did really well in Australia, though.

3 Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House Sometimes, mostly depending on which novel I've read most recently, Mr Tulkinghorn changes places with Uriah and comes second on my list. He's certainly always in the top three. Dickens's villains are often a fiery lot, but Mr Tulkinghorn is pure ice, and that (as in a lesser degree with my number ten which I'll be addressing next time) leaves the door open to fascinating speculations on his real motives. Love of power would be my guess, coupled with wintry discontent at being patronised by the likes of dim-witted Sir Leicester and sneered at by the likes of haughty Lady Dedlock. Again, we have an extremely able man having to kowtow to his intellectual inferiors, and though he doesn't hate it with the passion shown by Carker or Uriah, he doesn't seem to like it. Tulkinghorn isn't led astray by his animal instincts, which makes him a particularly dangerous enemy. It's questionable whether anything short of a bullet would have stopped him.

4 Sir John Chester in Barnaby Rudge  Here, at least, I can be brief, as I have already covered Sir John at some length in a previous post. He is the only one of Dickens's dandyish villains I have any time for, and consequently the only one who makes it to this list. The snooty put-downs of men like James Steerforth, James Harthouse (the first name James in Dickens's universe appears to signal "lock up your wives and daughters") and worst of all the ghastly Eugene Wrayburn only make me want to punch them, perhaps because I sense that the kind of person these layabouts would despise the most would be exactly the industrious social climbers (and villains) I have most time for in the Dickensian universe. It's a bit unfair, as only Wrayburn actually insults the designated clever social-climbing villain of his novel (if you can call poor Bradley Headstone a villain, or indeed clever). Anyway, Sir John is entirely without fault in this regard, as he actually conspires with an embittered social climber - Gashford - in order to get at the dour, honest-to-a-fault Haredale who is an entirely legitimate object of baddie scorn. His laziness is mostly a pose, too - in fact he's an active and wonderfully manipulative villain.

5 Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby This is not one of Dickens's more successful novels, in my view, and this affects the villain too. Ralph too often acts in a certain way only because the plot requires it, not because it makes any sense from his point of view. Why does he take so violently against his nephew? (Not that I don't agree with him, mind, but at first sight?) Why wouldn't he protect his niece Kate from his predatory aristocratic acquaintances if he's fond of her? Surely, Lord Verisopht's custom can't be that important? The plot devices creak noticeably, and poor Ralph is stuck in them. The reason he still makes it to my list is partly his terrible fate - so tragic surely only the most hard-hearted hero-fancier could fail to feel pity for him - and partly his gift for suitably biting villain conversation, especially the why-I-hate-the-world rant mentioned above. No-one rants like Ralph.         

torsdag 8 september 2016

The Night Manager or Stereotype City

"He's sleeping with the nanny. The cliché."

Yes it is, sweetheart, and that's not the end of it. Look around you and you will see plenty more. How about the ruthless capitalist villain; his eye candy the vulnerable blonde who sends money, Fantine-like, to her hidden-away child; the camp henchman; the libertine toff (that would be your hubby sleeping with the nanny); his embittered wife (that would be you); and, for that matter, the strong, silent, troubled hero you're talking to. What's more, back in London, we have a fearlessly crusading, underfinanced female agent (she's also pregnant), struggling with male superiors such as the well-meaning but intimidated one and the obviously crooked as a pin one. By the end of episode four, I realised why I cared so little about the characters in the TV series The Night Manager: each and every one of them was a stereotype.

It was still entertaining enough, mind you, because it's well-paced, well-directed, well-produced and very well acted indeed. But I didn't expect a drama based on a work by a famous name such as John le Carré to be as frankly shallow as this. Maybe I did suspect that Richard Roper, the seemingly philantropic businessman who is really a vile illegal arms dealer (well of course: a businessman helping refugees? We can't have that!) would not turn out to be a wonder of complexity. Still, I thought there would be some interest shown in the psychological forces at work in an undercover operation where, however worthy the cause, there's always an element of betrayal. But no: the audience's main interest is supposed to be simply whether Jonathan Pine, the eponymous night manager, will manage to nail the dastardly Roper. Not what drives them, what they really think of each other or if they're actually that dissimilar. Basically, The Night Manager is Bond as TV, with a side-helping (mercifully not too owerpowering) of moral indignation. All Roper needs to fit the Bond villain template is a white cat.

It's a pity, because Hugh Laurie does such excellent work as Roper, dispelling all memories of Bertie Wooster (mind you, I think even Bertie would have sussed who the mole in his operation was before Roper does). He's suitably world-weary, authoritative and charismatic, but he gets precious little to work with. In spite of the odd villain monologue, we never really discover what makes Roper tick: just like Pine himself, he remains oddly remote. Does he love his vulnerable blonde girlfriend, for unknown reasons called Jed, for example? Does she ever love him, before she finds out what he does for a living and falls for Pine instead, or is she only in it for the money? Does Pine love her? I know it's hard to interact with stereotypes, but the leading men in this drama could at least have been given a chance. Instead, Roper talks a great deal without saying anything revealing, and Pine doesn't even talk much. He just stares intently.

Another problem with Roper, as I've already hinted, is that he's a such a complete blockhead it's a wonder the crusading agent Angela Burr hasn't caught him ages ago. First, he elbows aside his oldest friend on the say-so of a shady lawyer who's been got at by Angela (and not in a very angelic way either, incidentally: she manipulates him when he's distraught over his daughter's suicide), in order to make room for Pine whom he has known for five minutes and who, oooh, just happened to be there to foil a kidnap attempt on Roper's son (staged, what did you think?). In no time at all, Pine is privy to Roper's darkest secrets and his new straw man. The shady lawyer is discovered to be a mole: Roper smells no rat. Pine starts an affair with Jed: his boss notices nothing amiss. Another leak is suspected: Roper suspects his best friend, his next-best friend and his girlfriend (at least he's not far wrong there), but not the new guy, who joined the team at around the time when the leaks started. I mean, seriously: it's hard to have any kind of respect for a head villain, however stylish, who's so incredibly gullible.

What's a villain-lover to do? I, for my part, took to rooting for Roper's displaced-by-Pine sidekick, Major Corkoran aka Corky the camp henchman. Yes, he wouldn't look too out of place as one of the hitmen in Diamonds Are Forever, but he has a bit more going for him than his dim mate-cum-boss: he's suspicious of Pine from the word go; he quickly guesses Pine's interest for Jed; Tom Hollander, who plays him, milks every line and every pause, and as Corkoran starts to come apart at the seams he manages to transcend the stereotype at least a little bit. Go Corky, say I, and if that makes me predictable at least I'm in good company.

A lot can be said about how Olivia Colman admirably manages to make Angela not too unsufferably virtuous, but you don't expect me to waste too much time on a mere goody-two-shoes, do you? Instead, let me ponder, as a last reflection, the conundrum that is Tom Hiddleston as Jonathan Pine.

Is Hiddleston really that attractive? Seeing as 1) he played Loki in the films about Thor (reimagined as a superhero) 2) played him quite superbly if clips from the films are to be trusted then 3) if you are into villains and the least bit acquainted with old Viking mythology, it follows that yes, Hiddleston must be attractive. His eyes are too close together for him to be conventionally handsome, but they are very intensely blue, and he does look clever. He can pass for the thinking woman's crumpet - but as Pine, he's supposed to be everyone's crumpet. Even after tanning and workouts Hiddleston looks a bit out of place as a taciturn action man, and it's a mystery to me why he's gone to all this trouble to land a part like this. With his pixie-like face, he could have got all kinds of new meaty villain roles: instead, as Pine, he has to scowl purposefully while all the opportunities for dripping sarcasm and menace go to Hollander and occasionally Laurie. Enjoying the career change yet, Tom? I do hope that Bond bid proves worth it.