Poldark

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At first glance from my PBS emails, I didn’t think much of this summer’s Poldark. However, last week there wasn’t much to do in the evenings and I needed to keep awake to overcome my jet lag, so I watched an episode a night. While it’s not a top tier Masterpiece, it has grabbed me.

Poldark, Ross Poldark, had to fight for the red coats because he got in trouble gambling. In Virginia most of his company is killed. Ross survives but it takes him years to return home. When he’s back, he learns that his love, who though him dead, is about to marry his cousin, his richer cousin. Also, his father’s died and the family home and estate is in ruins. Poldark sets to regaining his wealth by reopening a mine and tending to his farm.

Unlike many in the town, Poldark is fair-minded and not blinded by status. He pays his workers well and lends a hand to those who fall on hard times. When he sees Demelza, a young village woman abused by her father, he hires her as a housemaid to work with his two unkempt, often drunk servants.

It’s tough seeing his love married to his weak, insipid cousin and the local society women do nothing but annoy Poldark. As time goes by he’s aware that Delmelza’s more than just a decent housekeeper. Under her rough manners, she’s wise, kind and beautiful. Rashly, he marries her upsetting all social proprieties.

I like that the show presents an era we rarely see on Masterpiece. Poldark’s house is dark and run down, unlike Downtown Abbey or The Paradise. It’s a rougher time, especially for the lower class. There’s a lot about borrowing money and wrangling to gain financial advantage. Even those draped in silk with their walls lined with ancestral portraits aren’t free from worry. It shows how the Crawley’s financial woes were more common throughout time.

The program can get a bit far fetched or descend to the bodice ripper conventions, but that’s easily forgiven. Overall, Poldark entertains and sheds light on 18th century Britain.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold

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Based on John le Carré’s novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold stars Richard Burton as a jaded, used, alcoholic spy, who’s seemingly put out to pasture then pulled back in when the blue bloods running MI-6 need him. It’s a trip back to the cold war. Michael Sragow’s essay for the Criterion Collection aptly captures the essence of the film:

Martin Ritt’s 1965 movie of John le Carré’s first great novel (and first best seller), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, declares “a plague on all your houses” to capitalists, Communists, and ruthless intelligence operatives. It’s one espionage movie that neither comes on like gangbusters nor sneaks up on you like a cat burglar. Instead, it creates an atmosphere of anguish, fear, and rage that intensifies each pause in the action and gesture of the actors, leaving viewers hanging on every word of the sometimes cryptic, sometimes eloquent dialogue.

Alec Leamas (Burton) is a middle-aged, run down spy. His boss called “Control” offers him a desk job, which he refuses leading to a scheme whereby Leamas is to take a boring, low paying clerk job at a library, where he meets the fetching Nan Perry (Claire Bloom, who at one time was romantically linked to Burton). The romance redeems Leamas, but that doesn’t matter to MI-6. They propose that Leamas return to the service posing as a double agent with East Germany.

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He goes along with the plan to be taken by the East Germans and cosy up to Fiedler, an East German Jewish intelligence officer who seeks to convict Mundt, a double agent who’s leaked secrets to the west. The counterpoint of the tender relationship with Nan and the sordid world of espionage add a compelling tension.  The plot twists and turns while engaging in incisive repartee. The unexpected ending chills to the bone.

The Criterion Collection extras include a candid interview with le Carré, who while he didn’t hate the film, didn’t think it was that great and a short documentary on le Carré’s biography focussing on the influence his duplicitous father had on his joining MI-6, illuminate the film.