Small Island on Masterpiece Classic PBS Survives a Cold Embrace by the Mother Country – A Recap & Review

Image from Small Island: Naomie Harris © 2010 MASTERPIECEThere is a lot of pride and prejudice in the story of Small Island, the new Masterpiece Classic two-part adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award winning 2004 novel. Not the Jane Austen kind of pride and prejudice, but the kind experienced by millions of people whose countries were colonized by Great Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. This particular story involves Hortense and Gilbert, two Jamaicans who immigrate to England in 1948, but could apply to native East Indians, Africans or Asians whose young men and women proudly served their Mother Country during WWII only to experience the cold embrace of prejudice and poverty in their new home. This story plays upon the dark underbelly of postwar racial discrimination in England paralleling the intersecting lives of  one white and one black couple that is painful to experience but uplifting in its conclusion.

This griping story presents two women from modest beginnings born on opposite sides of the Atlantic, each with a strong desire to improve their lives but naïve expectations on how to achieve it. In 1939 Jamaica, Hortense Roberts (Naomie Harris) is a young black woman from a broken home who has been raised by her father’s cousin, a strict minister with a rebellious son Michael Roberts (Ashley Waters) who is a charmer and a rogue. Hortense is an idealistic dreamer who not only envisions Michael as her future husband and savior but wishes to immigrate with him to London where they will live the good life in a house with a garden, electricity in every room and a bell at the front door. Unfortunately, he only sees her as his little sister and channels his affections toward a young married white woman. After Michael’s affair is discovered and revealed by Hortense he is disowned by his family and enlists in the RAF. In London he becomes involved with an unhappily married white woman Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) and is later reported missing in action.

Image from Small Island: David Oyelowo © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Heartbroken, Hortense pines for Michael but continues to study and obtains her teaching credentials while accumulating a small savings and developing fine airs. After the conclusion of the war she is determined to immigrate to England and seizes upon a plan to bribe ex-soldier Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo) into a marriage of convenience in exchange for his passage fare to England with the plan that he will obtain her dream house and later send for her. Meanwhile, Queenie’s stiff and inept husband (Benedict Cumberbatch) does not return to her and their run-down row house in London after the war but bad penny Michael does, resuming their grand passion for a weekend. Gilbert arrives in worn-torn London and reconnects with Queenie who he had met during the war. To make ends meet she continues to take in borders and rents a modest room to Gilbert. Hortense arrives with a packet of luggage and her distorted expectations of her fine new life in England to find him living in squalor and misgivings. Hortense soon discovers that England is not the land that she had idolized and Gilbert experiences an intense racial prejudice from an emotionally and economically drained nation who would prefer he and his wife return to Jamaica. When Queenie’s husband unexpectantly returns home to find the neighborhood scandalized by her inter-racial household and her hidden pregnancy, it will take the birth of her baby and her great sacrifice to heal his prejudice to the Joseph’s and indifference to his wife.

Image from Small Island: Ruth Wilson and Ashley Waters © 2010 MASTERPIECE

As I was writing this synopsis it struck me that whittling down the narrative to its bare bones makes it seem silly and soap operaish. Only with the added embellishment of dialogue, scenery and powerful performances from the two outstanding female co-leads Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson supported by David Oyelowo’s energized interpretation of Gilbert and Benedict Cumberbatch’s unappealing yet sympathetic Bernard save it from becoming trite melodrama. There is no doubt that this is intense drama based on the controversial subject of racial prejudice, oppression and England’s treatment of her colonial children. Even offset with a touch of humor viewers will feel continually on edge and emotionally drained until the last uplifting moments. Director John Alexander (Sense and Sensibility 2008) blends the transitions from present day and flash backs seamlessly and draws out performances from his cast that will garner attention come award season. Despite its dark theme, Small Island does occasionally shine and glitter drawing attention to a period of British history that some would like to forget and others proudly claim as their heritage.  The second episodes airs next Sunday, April 25th on PBS.

Image from Small Island: Benedict Cumberbatch © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Sadly, this is the conclusion of the 2010 season of Masterpiece Classic which brought us two classic bonnet dramas with Return to Cranford and Jane Austen’s Emma, a remake of WWI-era vintage spy thriller in The 39 Steps, two episodes of the exploits of early nineteenth-century British soldier Richard Sharp and a remake of The Diary of Anne Frank. With Small Island, Masterpiece is hoping to reach a younger audience with its more contemporary theme and grittier fare. I can not say that I am thrilled with their decision to move away from adaptations of classic literature that they have become known for, but I admire their courage to push their audience in a new direction.

Images courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Adieu Miss Woodhouse – Emma (2009) concludes on Masterpiece Classic

Image from Emma Episode 3: Box Hill picnic x 450 © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

Episode three of Emma (2009) aired tonight on Masterpiece Classic PBS. I am feeling more than a bit of melancholia setting in!

Spoilers ahead! 

Despite being a “troublesome creature” throughout most of the story, Emma does redeem herself by admitting her misconceptions and blunders. How could we not forgive, admire and love her? After all, Mr. Knightley does and everyone knows he is the voice of reason throughout the story! You can read my original thoughts on this new adaption of Jane Austen’s classic novel at my review, Miss Woodhouse – a nonsensical girl.

Austen has taken us on a great ride from revulsion to delight with her exasperatingly heroine Emma Woodhouse. Screenwriter Sandy Welch may not have included much of Austen’s original language in this new adaptation, but the story and the Austen magic remained. By the third episode our Miss Woodhouse had matured from spoiled and willful to contrite and accepting. What a relief. Along the way, I came to respect Romola Garai’s interpretation of Emma, I suspect because her delivery improved and I just adore Austen’s story. Jonny Lee Miller was not my first choice as Mr. Knightley and I had my doubts, but he shined in the proposal scene and everyone knows that’s what really matters. *wink* I will conclude with one of the most joyful quotes from the novel that unfortunately was not included in this adaptation – but should have been.

“It is such a happiness when good people get together — and they always do.” Miss Bates Ch 21 

Adieu Miss Woodhouse, it was sorely lacking in Austen’s language, but I got over it.

Further Reading:

Images courtesy © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

Mansfield Park (1999) Movie: Musing & Discussion: Day 10 Give-away!

 

MOVIES

Take a controversial classic novel, mix in a liberal filmmaker’s re-interpretation, add in slavery, lesbianism and incest and presto! you have Mansfield Park (1999), writer-director Patricia Rozema’s provocative adaptation of Jane Austen complex novel. I don’t think that I am exaggerating when I estimate that Janeites find this one a bit puzzling. So did critics. It has spawned a rash of conversation since it premiered in 1999. Just Google it and you get 28,000 hits! The reviews where mixed and run hot or cold; no gray area anywhere for this film. Here are a few of the choice opinions.

 Mansfield Park manor house

“Stifled and tedious adaptation of an Austen classic strips the heroine of her usual power of perception and tongue.” CinemaSense 

“Rozema’s point is that Mansfield Park, and the amorous escapades of its wealthy inhabitants, are founded on and sustained by this debased form of exploitation. This is certainly an intriguing opening-out of the novel, but in doing so the film appropriates the moral high ground in a way that further distances it from the delicacy and ambiguity of Austen’s insights.” Andy Richards, BFI 

“what the film represents is the marketing of a new ‘Jane Austen’ to a post-feminist audience now receptive to its reinvention of the novel” John Wiltshire, Recreating Jane Austen (2001) 

“In the hands of a less talented filmmaker, this extensive tinkering and modernizing might seem irritating and pretentious. But in peering beneath Austen’s genteel surfaces and scraping away the Hollywood gloss that traditionally accrues to screen adaptations of Austen, Ms. Rozema has made a film whose satiric bite is sharper than that of the usual high-toned romantic costume drama.” Stephen Holden, New York Times 

“By breaking the seal, Rozema has freed costume drama from the shackles of tradition, exposing its naked flesh. The window that Thompson unsnibbed has been flung wide. Fresh air tastes good.” Angus Wolfe Murray, Eye for Film 

“an audacious and perceptive cinematic evocation of Jane Austen’s distinctively sharp yet forgiving vision” Claudia L. Johnson, Austen scholar

Fanny Price (Frances O’Connor) & Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) riding together 

When Rozema was originally offered the opportunity to direct Mansfield Park she declined stating the script was boring and the heroine annoying. She then proceeded to re-write the script by perking up Fanny Price, adding a political and sexual subtext that Jane Austen would never have broached, and fixing the broken storyline (in her opinion) by working in Jane Austen’s juvenilia stories and personal letters. The results are a thought provoking jumble of reinvention and dalliance that had never been attempted with a Jane Austen adaptation before.

 A bored Henry Crawford (Alessandro Nivola), and a flirtatious Maria Bertram
(Victoira Hamilton) & Mr. Rushworth (Hugh Bonneville)

Austen’s novel seriously contemplates the controversial 19th-century theme of ‘improvement’ of the estate and social values. Writer-director Rozema has overtly taken it yet a step further renovating and expanding the plot and characters so much so that subtly sardonic Jane Austen might have been a bit alarmed at the liberties.

Edmund Bertram & Fanny Price discuss the Ball

Our heroine Fanny Price, energetically portrayed by Frances O’Connor, has morphed from the shy and oppressed glorified servant into an exuberant outspoken aspiring writer – what Rozema visualizes Jane Austen had been! Oh my! Fanny’s mentor, friend and love interest Edmund Bertram (Jonny Lee Miller) is now a romantic, more a Byronic hero that the Bronte’s would have approved of than a pious and clueless minister in training.

Henry Crawford visits Fanny Price in Portsmouth 

The Crawford siblings (Embeth Davidtz & Alessandro Nivola) are as wicked as ever, which suits Rozema’s purpose totally as they are pushed further with lesbianism and seduction. The greatest liberty is taken in the slave trade subtext as we are shown graphic illustrations of the atrocities of slavery that the character Tom Bertram (James Purefoy) witnessed at his father Sir Thomas’ (Harold Pinter) plantation in Antigua. Even though slavery is only alluded to in the novel, this stab brings Rozema’s vision of the injustice of ill-gotten-gains sharply to view. Other notable British actors playing out this theatrical are; Lindsay Duncan (Lady Bertram/Mrs. Price), Victoria Hamilton (Maria Bertram), Hugh Bonneville (Mr. Rushworth) and Justine Waddell (Julia Bertram).

 Henry & Mary Crawford entertain their new spouses
who look more intriged with each other!

If taken as a whole this film does work on the level of art for film making’s sake. Visually it is stunning, the costumes fabulous and the music joyful. I do find it fascinating that people are still debating its merits after almost ten years. If anything, it has stimulated thought and closer reflection on what Jane Austen is about, and how she is interpreted. As a Janeite, I find watching it so distracting. If readers of the novel want to yell at Fanny Price for being so passive, then in turn I want to yell at Rozema’s Fanny for being SO vivacious. This is not Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, but it is a worthy amusement all-the-same.

A happy ending for Fanny & Edmund 

Further reading & viewing 

“It could have turned out differently, I suppose. But it didn’t.” Fanny Price
 

Mansfield Park Madness: Day 10 Give-away

Leave a comment by August 30 to qualify for a free drawing on August 31 for one copy of

 

Mansfield Park (1999)

Written and directed by Patricia Rozema. Major motion picture, 112 minutes. Staring Frances O’Connor as Fanny Price, Jonny Lee Miller as Edmund Bertram and Embeth Davidtz as Mary Crawford 

Upcoming posts
Day 11 – Aug 25          MP Fun with Fanny & Friends
Day 12 – Aug 26          MP novel discussion chapters 33-40
Day 13 – Aug 27          MP 2007 movie discussion
Day 14 – Aug 28          MP novel discussion chapter 41-48

Metropolitan (1990) Movie: Musings & Discussion: Day 6 Give-away!

MOVIES

Anyone who lived through the 1980’s can not hear the term Preppy and not smile! For the rest of you young things who were just a twinkle in your parents eyes, take notice and rent the movie Metropolitan, writer, director and producer Whit Stillman’s witty take on the WASP subculture of young upper-class Manhattanites as they spend their Christmas holiday attending debutant balls and discussing the downward social mobility of the upper class. It will fill you in on many of the cultural references that you might hear from your parent’s or their friends, and give you a good laugh at the 1980’s women’s fashions that today, just look downright overstated and clownish.

(Let’s hope that 1980’s fashion does not resurface soon!)

I adore this film for its clever, snarky dialogue, gentle irony and Jane Austen references. The parallels between her novel Mansfield Park and Metropolitan have been debated by critics and even included in the essay ‘From Mansfield to Manhattan: The Abandoned Generation of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan’ by R. V. Young which can be downloaded in PDF here. The heroine of the film is Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), a shy upper-class socialite who falls for middle-class Tom Townsend (Edward Clements). She is a Jane Austen admirer and the two of them have an interesting conversation about her favorite author and literature. 

Carolyn Farina as Audrey Rouget

Audrey: “I read that Lionel Trilling essay you mentioned. You really like Trilling?” 

Tom: “Yes.” 

Audrey: “I think he’s very strange. He says that nobody could like the heroine of Mansfield Park? I like her. 

Then he goes on and on about how we modern people of today with our modern attitudes, bitterly resent Mansfield Park because…its heroine is virtuous? What’s wrong with a novel having a virtuous heroine?” 

Tom: “His point is that the novel’s premise…there’s something immoral in a group of young people putting on a play? Simply absurd.” 

Audrey: “You found Fannie Price unlikeable?” 

Tom: “She sounds pretty unbearable, but I haven’t read the book.” 

Audrey: “What?” 

Tom: “You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. I haven’t read the Bible, either.” 

Audrey: “What Jane Austen novels have you read?” 

Tom: “None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelist’s ideas as well as the critic’s thinking. With fiction, I can never forget that none of it ever happened; that it’s all just made up by the author.” 

Edward Clements as Tom Townsend

This independent film was produced on a shoe-string budget and used unknown actors, notably Taylor Nichols as Charlie Black the angst ridden intellectual Woody Allen type and Chris Eigeman (who I adore and just think is the most under used actor in Hollywood) as the cynical and smug Nick Smith. This film is grouped together as the Stillman trilogy which also includes Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), another favorite of mine which is unfortunately not available to purchase, rent or steal!

Chris Eigeman as Nick Smith

 

Further viewing & reading 

Mansfield Park Madness: Day 6 Give-away 

Leave a comment by August 30th. to qualify for a free drawing on August 31 for 

Metropolitan (1990)

Written and directed by Whit Stillman. Independent motion picture, 98 minutes. Staring Carolyn Farina as Audrey Rouget, Taylor Nichols as Charlie Black and Chris Eigeman as Nick Smith. 

Upcoming posts
Day 7 – Aug 21            MP novel discussion chapters 17-24
Day 8 – Aug 22            MP great quotes and quips
Day 9 – Aug 23            MP novel discussion chapters 25-32
Day 10 – Aug 24          MP 1999 movie discussion