The Miniaturist

Based on a novel, The Miniaturist has been adapted by the BBC and PBS. Set in 17th century Amsterdam, it’s the story of  young Petronella Brandt, who agrees to be married off to a rich merchant to pay off her late father’s debts and save her mother and siblings from poverty. A Vermeer beauty, Petronella finds herself in a weird family. Her husband Johannes is never around and after almost two weeks hasn’t the energy, or so he says, to consummate the marriage. Her sister-in-law Marin is Puritanically devout and has a strange obsession with her brother. Marin’s behavior suggests there could be something incestuous between Johannes and her, but by the end of episode one, I think that was a diversion.

The two servants are Otto, whom Johannes bought from slave traders and Cornelia. I’d expect such a wealthy man to have more servants.

There’s a lot of mystery once Petronella’s wedding gift arrives. It’s a miniature version of her new home. She’s told to hire someone to decorate it and finds an artisan, a miniaturist, to make a few new objects for her. The odd thing is that she’s presented with additional objects she didn’t order, such a baby cradle and a box with keys. Somehow the miniaturist knows all the family secrets.

I find the plot annoying because it’s so overtly manipulative. I feel like the writer is toying with me. Also, despite a lot of research and detail, much of the dialog and themes are very modern or a modern person’s projection on to the past. Stereotypes, like the cold, rich friends and the pious sister also distance me from the story. I wish there were more characters who spoke. It seems like they’re keeping the budget down by having such a small cast, but perhaps that’s now the books was. I’m not sure I’ll watch the rest. The Victorian Slum Home show was much more interesting.

It’s a pity because I think this setting is fascinating. It’s no Poldark or Victoria. I wish there were a few more characters who were warm blooded.

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Victorian Slum House

I discovered the absorbing Victorian Slum House series last night and was blown away. It’s a British reality show, which like PBS’ Frontier House took a number of modern people and put them back in the past. The participants of Victorian Slum House go back to the late 19th century to live in poverty in a Victorian slum.

One family  of 5 lives in a one apartment. Another is a tailor’s family and the four of them live in two rooms. As a tailor, they expected to make clothes from scratch. What they learn is their assigned to buy highly worn used clothes and fix or modify them. During the 1860s, when episode 1 is set, poor people didn’t buy new clothes. They bought what was patched up.

There’s a single man who’s a rent collector and also does some woodwork. He did opt to switch his modern protheses for one that resembles what was used back then. The producers did add some material that made it more comfortable than what people of his class had. There’s a couple that are shop keepers and they live on the top floor of the slum. They have better clothing and furnishings. Yet their finances are precarious because they depend upon their customers being able to pay up at the end of the week. No one knows for sure what they’ll earn in a week so their fear is real.

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Sleeping on benches, Victorian era

Finally there’s a single mom with ten year old twins. Her lot is the most precarious. She works from home making fancy gift boxes. She starts with lots of optimism, but bought more food on credit than the others and her earnings fell far short of what she planned. So she’s very close to being evicted. In fact, in the 1860s, my guess is that she would have been and she’d have wound up down stairs in the sleeping room, where people slept on benches sitting up.

The program is full of interesting facts and the participants comments are enlightening.

Fanny’s Journey

Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s true story, Fanny’s Journey shows a thirteen year old girl who must lead her sister and friends out of WWII France into Switzerland. This powerful film captures childhood very naturally. The direction and acting are authentic and captivating.

Fanny and her sisters have been sent away from their parents to live in a boarding house that secretly protects Jewish children. When a priest informs on the boarding house, Madame Forman, one of the adults who run the place, manages to arrange for the children to go somewhere safer. She gets them all fake passports and schools them on what to say to anyone asking them questions en route. Each child is given a new name and Madame Forman tests them on them day and night.

From the start it’s touch and go. Germans are everywhere and Vichy French police are an equal threat. At first an older boy, Eli is in charge of the children, but after he’s arrested, Fanny’s thrust into the lead. She must figure out where to go and what to do next once their train is redirected and they lose touch with Madame Forman. As the going gets tougher and tougher the children feel like giving up and have plenty of complaints. Some are so young they have no idea why Jews must flee or what was happening to Jews throughout Europe. Their ignorance showed their wisdom.

The tension is maintained throughout the film and you’re heart will go out to these children. Fanny’s Journey is destined to be a classic.

In the final credits, you’ll see the real Fanny, who is still alive and has lived in Israel since the end of the war.

Pamplona

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I was lucky to get to see Pamplona starring Stacy Keach at the Goodman Theater. Set in a hotel room in Spain, Pamplona shows Ernest Hemingway struggle with writer’s block as the tries to write an article on bullfighting for Life magazine. As he struggles, Hemingway looks back on his life – all four of his marriages, his conflicts with his father and mother, his writing career and his love and respect for bullfighters and their sport.

Throughout the play, vintage photos are projected on the hotel walls placing the set in history. Pamplona is staged in Goodman’s smaller theater, which resembles Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater so every seat provides a good view in an intimate setting.

Keach brings Hemingway to life and is wonderful in this show. You have to be a powerful performer to captivate an audience for 90 minutes. Kudos to Keach.

I enjoyed learning more about this writer and was pleased with the surprising ending. Just masterful. The play was one of the best of this year’s season.

The Wings of the Dove

I’m reading the novel The Wings of the Dove with my friend Bill. We’ve been discussing novels in more or less chronological order. I’d never read a Henry James novel and I’m not enjoying this one so I thought if I saw the movie, I the plot would be clearer as I read.

I have not been won over. This story about Kate, a plotting middle class girl who falls in live with middle class Merton. Since the rich aunt who supports Kate financially won’t let her marry down, Kate manipulates Milly, a dying rich, American girl she meets and Merton. Her plan, which the wimpy Merton agrees to, is for her lover Merton to cosy up to Milly with the aim to getting into her will. Despicable, n’est pas?

The film stars Helena Bonham Carter, who’s moody and and sort of dark, as Kate. Elizabeth McGovern plays Milly’s companion Susie and Merton’s played by Linus Roche, who was an ADA on Law and Order for several seasons.

The film isn’t doesn’t go into each characters’ psychology as the novel tried to but the poor people weren’t that poor and their plot was doomed from the start. I just had no sympathy for Kate or Merton and very little for Milly, who was dying of some unspecified aliment and had little sense. It wasn’t clear to me whether she was an orphan. If her parents were living, I’d expect them to keep better tabs on their naive daughter. Susie is a fine companion, but had little sway over Milly.

The film was pretty, but the story itself was a non-starter for me. Watching the movie hasn’t spurred me to dig into the novel. I’ll continue to trudge through it.

Red Beard

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Red Beard performs surgery as Yasumot o looks on

I had imagined the premise of Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) incorrectly for years. I assumed it was some samurai film with lots of sword fights so I never bothered with it. Then when I listened to the commentary on The Lower Depths, I realized that it was a drama. I had to right this wrong so I picked up the DVD at the library.

Set in 19th century Japan, Red Beard isn’t just about the curmudgeon older doctor so nicknamed, it’s equally about young Dr. Yasumoto, who has just finished medical school and arrives Red Beard’s clinic. Yasumoto is not happy about working in a clinic that serves the poorest of the poor. He had his heart set on treating high status samurai. Surely, this is a mistake the arrogant, obstinate  young doctor believes.

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Yasumoto (Kayama) and Red Beard (Mifune) with director A. Kurosawa

Yasumoto refuses to put on the clinic uniform or to abide by any of the clinic rules. He’s horrified by the outward appearance of the poor. He almost gets killed when he flouts a rule about avoiding the hut in the back where a deranged, wealthy woman is housed. All the while Red Beard is gruff, wise and patient. He sees so much more than Yasumoto can.

I loved Red Beard’s gruff ways. He was gentle with the patients who needed it, but tough with those who were foolish. He was wise in dealing with Yasumoto, allowing the young doctor to figure life out on his own and smiling when he finally donned his uniform and took on treating the poor of his own accord.

The plot twists and turns. Sometimes Red Beard is the focus, often Yasumoto, or a poor girl who’s rescued from a brothel. So many characters are given the spotlight and they all deserve it. The film has an emotional depth on par with The Human Condition, and one that few films bother to attempt. Kurosawa doesn’t beat you over the head with a message, but he does make you muse on how you should be kinder or more compassionate, how you should stretch beyond your comfort zone. It’s a film I could watch again and again. I’m so glad my misconception was dispelled. Red Beard is a treasure.