Posts Tagged ‘Laycock’

I love old-fashioned, sentimental movies filled with likable characters and well told stories. I like films that take me out of time and place and land me smack dab in another world. I adore ensemble casts made up of famous and not so famous British actors. Ergo, I am wild about Cranford, which will air at 9 pm tonight on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic

This early Victorian tale, based on the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell, is about change and resisting change. Cranford is a sleepy town that time passed by until the coming of the railroad. It is ruled by women – Amazons, as Elizabeth Gaskell described them.

Eileen Atkins as Miss Deborah Jenkyns and Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow are at the pinnacle of Cranford society: the former rules over poor widows and spinsters, and the latter commands everyone’s respect as the lady of the manor. These two powerful women are suspicious of anything that upsets their well-ordered lives. Miss Jenkyns cannot abide Charles Dickens’s modern stories, or suck juice from an orange in front of others, since to her the very thought of the word ‘suck’ is abhorrent. News that a railroad is coming to ruin her perfect town is so distressful that it brings on an apoplectic fit.

Lady Ludlow firmly believes that people should remain in their station and behave accordingly. She will not hire servants who can read or write, declaring that too much education upsets the natural order of things and would foment a revolution, as it did in France. This subplot sets up the film’s dramatic ending.

Simon Woods as Dr. Harris, represents new ideas and innovation. A frisson goes through the community when he elects to save Jem Hearne’s injured arm rather than amputate it. After the young doctor’s successful but revolutionary treatment of setting the bone and stitching the wound, his partner Dr. Morgan (John Bowe) declares testily, “Cranford has been disturbed by you.” The old doctor, thinking to relieve his work load and to turn his practice over to a younger physician once he retires, is completely taken aback by his assistant’s newfangled ways. “Cranford is a town that knows itself, he admonishes the doctor. “It is a town at peace.”

Cranford is also a town that takes care of its own. The staid ladies of Cranford donate their expensive candles to allow the doctor to practice his modern surgical techniques on the young carpenter before it is too late. They are charmed by this single man, a rare commodity in a town filled with spinsters. Many of the plot’s developments and misunderstandings that ensue are caused by their wishful thinking.

The people of Cranford are adept at hoarding scarce goods, such as candles and coal for fire. The lace incident, which, next to the cow incident, is one of my favorite scenes in the film, is all about recycling. Hand made foreign lace was a precious commodity, especially for a widow living on a meager income of 100 pounds. Any article of clothing that still had value was laundered, mended, or reworked rather than thrown out. When the cat swallowed the lace, along with the buttermilk that was bleaching it, it led to a series of events that had me choking with laughter. The ladies’ expressions as they watched a cathartic mixture being forced down the poor cat’s throat and listened to the ignominious expulsion of milk and lace into a boot were priceless.

Careful attention to detail was paid in this production, from costumes, such as the frayed bonnet of the impoverished widow (played by Julia McKenzie with Imelda Staunton at left), to the setting (the British Heritage village of Laycock), to props (two footmen huffing and puffing as they run while carrying their mistress in a sedan chair), to the plaintive wails of the cat as it expels the sadly abused lace.

As a drama, Cranford has it all: young romance (Kimberley Nixon as Julia Hutton at right), old romance, sweet comedy, dreadful calamity, deep sorrow and profound happiness. The town is populated with individuals who do what is right for themselves, their families, and their fellow man, even if it means breaking the law. I’ve read the book and was struck by how well Heidi Thomas’s script holds up against Mrs. Gaskell’s novel, which was actually a series of vignettes written for Household Words, a magazine published by Charles Dickens. Oh, the story is melodramatic and there are a few too many coincidences to be believed, but the characters are so well defined and likable that one forgives the script’s treacly overtones and neatly tied up ending.

Jane Austen’s novels were never so sugary sweet, but this film production offers us an interesting glimpse of a world that Cassandra Austen, Jane’s beloved sister, must have known before she died. Changes caused by the industrial revolution had swept England, and new inventions in manufacturing, machines, science, and travel caused wholesale changes in how people lived and worked. Jane Austen only caught a glimpse of what was to come, but Cassandra lived long enough to see macademized roads replace dirt roads, gas lights put up on public streets, and steam engines overtake stage coaches as public transportation. Other aspects of society remained the same, such as the plight of widows and spinsters whose income was inadequate, and a high mortality rate among children.

Post Script: Winning her first BAFTA award at the age of 73, Eileen Atkins edged Judi Dench for best actress for her performance as Miss Jenkyns. Eileen wasn’t sure about the role at first, saying, “I didn’t think it was too good a part – I thought she was the only one who wasn’t funny.”

More about Cranford:

  • Penny for Your Dreams features a series of great Cranford reviews. Here is the link to Episode One if you don’t mind spoilers, along with the other four posts.

I would also like to direct you to Laurel Ann’s Cranford review on Austenprose, and Kay Daycus’s take on this movie adaptation. Mrs. Elton offers a unique perspective about this first episode on Jane Austen Today. Learn more about Elizabeth Gaskell in Jane Austen in Vermont. See you next week for the second installment!

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Is Sunday night’s broadcast of the 1997 A&E version of Emma on Masterpiece Classic worth watching? Absolutely! Even those who liked Gwyneth Paltrow’s elegant interpretation of 20 year-old Miss Woodhouse as much as I did, will find Kate Beckinsale’s bossy Emma satisfying in a more down-to-earth way. When Kate made this film she had just completed her role as Flora Poste in Cold Comfort Farm, a surprise cinematic hit.

Miss Emma Woodhouse, 20-year-old self-satisfied spinster

Kate plays the part of an interfering, well-meaning young woman with youthful ease and assurance. In addition, this actress is truly British, and she moves, talks, and acts naturally through the English landscape. I am always delighted to see a British actress play a British character (My apologies to Gwyneth, Renee Zellweger, and Anne Hathaway). I know many will disagree with me, but at times Gwyneth reminded me too much of a beautiful high fashion model with her uber thin, attenuated figure and modern facial features. She was as lovely to view as an Ingres line drawing, but I could relate to Kate’s old-fashioned prettiness better.

As you can see from the photos below, Kate’s range as an actress, when compared to supporting actress Samantha Morton, is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, she possessed sufficient acting chops to tackle this challenging role.

In these images (from left to right, top to bottom), Kate as Emma expresses 1) interest in Harriet when speaking to Mrs.Goddard, 2) a mixture of hurt and anger when listening to a lecture by Mr. Knightley, 3) proud admiration in viewing Mr. Knightley’s house, 4) disbelief and tender joy when Mr. Knightley proposes to her, 5) horror to Mr. Elton’s proposal, 6) envy listening to Jane Fairfax’s superior performance at the piano, 7) dreaminess after she and Mr. Knightley have declared their love for each other, and 8. polite and covert interest in Jane Fairfax as Miss Bates extols Jane’s virtues.
I love this reaction shot of Kate (below), whose expressions conveyed several emotions at once. Here, Emma has walked into Mr. Knightley’s sitting room, where she encounters her father by a small fire. Her face captures the combination of love, patience, forbearance, and puzzlement that Emma must have felt toward her father, as he once again frets and worries over minor points of comfort.

Miss Harriet Smith, 17-year old natural daughter of a gentleman

Movie buffs require no introduction to Samantha Morton, an actress so talented that one’s eyes immediately turn to her when she enters a scene.

Samantha’s Harriet Smith is all about innocence, naiveté, and puppyish eagerness to please. Her will – weak and easily persuaded – is sweet and passive. Emma couldn’t have found a more tractable person for her next project in matchmaking. Samantha’s artless Harriet, however, does not come across as dumb, for she often, though softly, questions Emma, and one senses throughout the film that she is unwilling quite to let go of her dream of living in a pretty yellow cottage with her yeoman farmer, Mr. Martin, and his two friendly, well-educated sisters. In Samantha’s interpretation of Harriet, we finally see a young woman worthy of Emma’s attempts at improvement.

While Toni Collette is a fine actress, whose turn as Cole’s frantic mother in The Sixth Sense moved me to tears, her plump, dumbed down Harriet left me perplexed and wondering what the elegant Gwyneth/Emma ever saw in her.

Mr. Knightley, 37-year-old gentleman, owner of Donwell Abbey, and Emma’s brother-in-law

Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightley sets the movie’s serious tone. His hawk-like features are dark, almost sinister, and his lithe, athletic figure moves with animal grace. In fact, Mark’s Mr. Knightley is dangerously and forcefully handsome, but not in a classical sense. His interpretation of Emma’s friend and lover is more vigorous than Jeremy Northam’s. Under repeated viewing and scrutiny, Mark’s performance holds up well. His angry encounters with Emma are a perfect foil to the moments when he is caught off guard tenderly watching her or smiling at something she has done or said, and after he proposes to her.
The change in Mark’s Mr. Knightley is most evident at the Harvest Ball, where he cannot contain his love for Emma. Many critics thought that this particular Mr. Knightley was too forceful, however I found that once he expressed his feelings for Emma, the change in his demeanor contributed to a completely satisfying romantic ending. The wolf has been tamed, and while we suspect that this Mr. Knightley will always be an exacting and demanding lover (ooh la la!), we also know that he will cherish Emma forever.

Critics of this movie will say it is too dark in tone, that the light-hearted spirit of Jane’s comedic novel was better captured by the 1996 theatrical film. Frankly, I prefer this film’s meatier fare. While Emma’s generous spirit and sincere interest in her charity work are largely ignored in this film version (and emphasized in Gwyneth’s Emma), Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are allowed to play out their charade under everyone’s noses, Bernard Hepton as Mr. Woodhouse is given free reign to explore his character, and the backdrop of regency life and manners is filmed in minute detail.

One of the film’s most important characters is the village of Highbury (played by Laycock, a National Trust village in Wiltshire.) This village is peopled with gentry, artisans, craftsmen, servants, and laborours going about their business. As the protagonists move through this landscape, the evidence of regency life playing itself out fascinated me – from Emma’s courtesy visits to Miss Bates – to the ball at the Crown Inn – to the seating at table, with Emma in the position of hostess, and Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Weston at the head of the table with Mr. Woodhouse – to the footman holding the candelabra up to Harriet’s picture so that everyone could see it better – to the farmers and their families harvesting grain before The Harvest Ball.

I found Gwyneth’s world overly beautiful, refined, and Hollywood-sanitized, but Kate’s world showed some rough edges, most particularly when depicting exactly how much hard labor was involved in supporting the lavish lifestyle of the landed gentry. Who can forget the strawberry picking scene at Donwell Abbey where footmen dressed in livery (an extreme sign of wealth) stood by each guest, moving the kneeling cushions along the rows of strawberries; or the servants laboring to cart furniture, dishes, and food up Box Hill in order to provide a bucolic outing for the guests? Or Frank’s gift of the piano being hoisted up to the second floor of Mrs. and Miss Bates’s rooms, because the stairs were too steep, winding, and narrow?

These typical touches of an Andrew Davies script influenced my decision: I prefer this cinematic version of Emma. Oh, please do feel free to quibble. As I watch Gwyneth’s version of Emma again, my preference just might swing back to that movie. When it comes to all things Jane Austen, I am known to be fickle!

Watch Emma tonight on Masterpiece Classic at 9 p.m. Read the reviews about Emma on PBS’s Remotely Connected, and details at this PBS site.

Can’t get enough of Emma? Please click on the following:

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