Poldark, Final Season, Premiere

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It’s a bittersweet time with Poldark returning, but for the last year. What will 2020 bring from the BBC and PBS?

As I was viewing I was wondering if the storylines were based on the Winston Graham’s novels. I enjoyed the episode, but something seemed off. I was right. Deborah Horsfield explained that:

“we knew at the end of Season Four that we were not going to be able to finish all of the remaining five books, because the cast were only optioned for five series. So the options were to stop after Season Four, or to have a look at some of the events that might have taken place, some of which Winston Graham refers to in The Stranger from the Sea, and to cover a kind of similar time period that he would cover in each book, a period of about two years.”

So, we are getting a Horsfield story this year, which should be fine.

The episode began with a flashback to the American Revolutionary War when Ross is shot and a new character, his colonel and comrade Ned Despard finds him. We then move to Despard in jail giving his African American wife a note for Ross, his only hope. The governor of British Honduras, Despard is an abolitionist. He’s married his kitchen maid, Kitty. Kitty goes to England to get Ross’ help.

Geoffrey Charles has returned to Nappara and since his mother, Elizabeth has died has decided to quit school and enter the military academy. That takes money (seems there’s no GI Bill or ROTC yet). Ross takes him to see George, who sends his stepson packing. No surprise there unless you count Ross’ naivety. Who thought George would be generous.

Grief has driven George crazy. He’s isolated himself and left the Poldark estate. He’s seeing Elizabeth at the dinner table and hallucinating that the nursemaid is Elizabeth. While I’m glad to see Heida Reed back, I can’t buy her ghost. TV programs often have the ghost of a dead character and it rarely works for me.

All’s well with Demelza and Ross in terms of their marriage. When Kitty arrives asking Ross to accompany her to London to champion Ned’s cause Demelza knows she can’t stop him and I think admires his decision to stand up for what’s right. We’ll see a lot about abolition this season, which is set in 1800. The date emphasizes how long it took for slavery to end.

Another new character, Tess is the Norma Rae of the village. An out of work kitchen maid, Tess resents Demelza and tells her off. Tess is the spokeswoman for the unemployed miners who worked for George, but won’t accept his stingy lower wages. thus these poor folks are starving or close to it. Demelza promises to help and Tess replies with sarcasm. Not much later Demelza offers Tess a job, but the jaded maid snaps that she doesn’t want charity, forgetting that a job really isn’t charity.

It’s unclear whether Tess is involved soon after Ross leaves for London, a fire strikes late one night. Luckily, no one’s hurt and the fire’s put out, but Demelza (and the audience) wonder whether Tess is at all responsible. Tess should be watched. She’s hard to read.

Caroline is still mourning the death of her baby daughter and Morwenna recoils from Drake’s touch. Both women’s psychological states make sense, but I hope this season we seen them heal and move on. Both have exemplary husbands now and it’s nice to see their patience and love.

Two more new characters are Ralph Hanson, a merchant, and his daughter Cecily, who’s of marriageable age. Ralph is cut from a Warleggen cloth and I wouldn’t trade with him for all the tea in China. Cecily is a question mark. She’s shrewd and at first I thought trouble, but she shows up at the lecture against slavery so she may have some good in her. George’s uncle wants George to marry ASAP and clearly thinks Cecily would make a good match if only for her father’s money. Yet she bristles at such talk. A strong woman, Cecily is not about to do someone else’s bidding.

The premiere has set up some interesting themes and plot lines. I’m unsure about a story not based on the books, but I’ll be back this week and hope for the best.

Les Misérables, Episode 4

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In a blink of an eye, Cosette has blossomed into a young lady. Her friends at school are dreaming of romance and marriage and make it clear that it’s awful that her Papa has agreed that Cosette become a nun and they continue living in the convent. Evidently, Cosette hadn’t thought much about that. She’s appalled and convinces Jean Valjean that she needs to see the real world.

He takes her out to the “real world,” the world of beggars, thieves, prostitutes, urchins and scoundrels. It’s pretty frightening. Jean Valjean didn’t need to go far to expose Cosette to these realities. They were right out their cloistered doorstep.

Jean Valjean finds housing in a poor neighborhood where the same nosy concierge with the bad powdered wig, who ratted out Cosette before she left Paris to find work, works. Hugo creates such a tiny world.

Marius learns all about how his grandfather has lied to him about his father. After confronting gramps, he leaves and finds his own room adjacent to . . . the Thenardiers. Ugh. Yes, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier are just as unctuous as before, if not more so. Their oldest daughter Éponine becomes smitten with Marius, but it’s a one-sided love. Ce Marius cultivé n’est pas exactement beau dans mon livre, donc il est difficile de croire que les filles vont tomber pour lui. 

Javert continues to brood over Jean Valjean. It’s amazing since he must have known and knows hundreds if not thousands of prisoners, but this makes the story work. Hugo voulait nous montrer un pharisien (Javert) comparé à un disciple du Christ (Jean Valjean).

We meet Marius’ friends. They’re young men eager for political change and more egalité in society. Peut-être que s’ils aidaient effectivement des gens pauvres eux-mêmes, ils verseraient une partie de l’égalité qu’ils désirent. These boys are a rougher bunch, in terms of bearing and language, than we saw in the musical, but they’re alright.

Valjean felt badly about shocking Cosette with the real world so he takes her to the Luxembourg Gardens, where Cosette crosses paths with Marius and they immediately fall in love. This part of the story was sped up quite a bit compared to other productions and I think that’s a shame. Jean Valjean notices this love connection and he’s not ready for his dear Cosette to grow up like that.

I was surprised by the many changes from the book in this episode. Some were long-winded explanations, that I didn’t think were needed. In fact, I think they weakened the story. One change was that Jean Valjean explains his criminal past to Cosette. This should make the later parts of the story less dramatic so I can’t see what’s gained.

The episode ended when after getting tricked by Monsieur Thenardier and fighting his way out of the ambush, Jean Valjean and Cosette narrowly escape getting captured by Javert. Each week ends with a real nail biter of a scene.

Yet, it’s impossible for me to not love Les Misérables and I haven’t had a good drama to watch on Sundays since Victoria ended in February, so I am pleased with the show as a whole. I admit I miss the songs, though.

Les Misérables, Ep 1

It’s no secret that Les Misérables is one of my favorite stories of all time. I’ve read the book and seen the musical, the film with Liam Neeson, the film with Jean Gabin and the one with Harry Barr. I’ve loved them all.

I lost track of time and missed the premier of Masterpiece’s newest Les Mis, but fortunately, I taped it and am now ready for episode 2.

Beginning with Thénardier (Adeel Akhtar) robbing the pockets of soldiers killed at Waterloo. As luck would have it, Pontmercy, a solider, wakes up and mistakes Thénardier for a savior. Then in the prison where Jean Val Jean (Dominic West) toils away while being abused, beaten and tricked by the guards and Inspector Javert (David Oyelowo), a 19th century French Pharisee. Early on we also see Pontmercy’s wealthy father-in-law who’s taken custody of his grandson when the boy’s mother died. Vehemently opposed to Pontmercy’s politics, the grandfather forbids Pontmercy to see his own son, Marius, a cutie pie in velvet and frilly collars.

Fantine’s story of meeting Felix, Cossette’s father, this production starts earlier in the book than the musical. We get to see the slimy, philandering Felix who loves and leaves poor, naive Fantine. Interwoven with Fantine’s story, we see Jean Valjean get freed from jail and encounter hostility and injustice till he’s welcome by the saintly Bishop Digne.

I’m thoroughly enjoying the story. It’s a lush production. I always have an odd feeling about computer graphics. I can tell it’s not real (or faux real). I sense something lacking in the vast settings that must be computer graphics.

The story spans decades and contains several plot lines. Victor Hugo dedicated each section of the book according to a main character. The screenwriter has woven several sections together and the chronology’s changed. Some things seem to be simultaneous here, when they weren’t in the book. For example, at the end of episode 1, Fantine’s holding her daughter Cossette, who looks like she is at least a year old. Yet Felix just abandoned her a few hours before. I thought Fantine got pregnant after Felix left her. Also, Jean Valjean has just left the Bishop’s. It seems the timing is off between Fantine, whose story doesn’t need much time to progress to the next stage, and Jean Valjean, who took many years to get to the next point when he’ll meet Fantine.

Even though there are some differences between other productions and these do bother me, the annoyance is small and Les Misérables is a story that can’t be ruined. (Knock on wood.) So far this series is off to a good start.

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.

Renoir’s The Lower Depths

Before Kurosawa adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957, Jean Renoir made a French version. Well, sort of French. He kept the Russian names of characters, but set the film in France so it’s gotten a blend of Russia and France.

This film portrays a softer poverty. All the actors wear clean, apparently ironed clothes. Most have an air of dignity and polish. Most could pass mustard in any middle class social event.

The cast again includes a drunken actor, a venial husband and wife, who’re slumlords and the wife’s sister, whom Pepel loves. He believes if only Natasha would marry him, he could give up his life of crime and become a better man. He believed she was his only means of improvement.

Natasha is almost married off (sold off, essentially) to a official of means. Her sister, aware and jealous of Pepel’s interest in Natasha, orchestrates a dinner with the unctuous, over-stuffed official, for whom I felt a sort of pity as his attraction to Natasha and his treatment of her was both caring and sincere. A big scene is when Natasha gets drunk at the elegant restaurant where the official has taken her and Pepel bursts in and starts a melee.

One character, who wasn’t in the Kurosawa film, was the Baron. An aristocrat who’s gambled away his fortune meets Pepel and learns about the tenement. Accepting his lowered state philosophically, he moves in and makes esoteric observations of his plight and joins in the card playing, finally meeting the players he can best. C’est la vie.

The film does look at poverty, but at a cleaned up easier to endure version of it. Renoir offers a pastoral view of poverty through this motley crew. I’m not sure what the aim of doing so was. I doubt it would change people’s minds or actions the way Charles Dickens, Émile Zola’s or Upton Sinclair’s work did.

Man in Grey

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James Mason’s debut movie, Man in Grey (1943) is part of the Criterion Collection. I wasn’t sure what I was getting when I picked it up at the library. Certainly, it would be a love triangle and it was described as a melodrama, so I expected big emotions.

The film opens at an auction in a mansion where a dashing WWII soldier More than anything Man in Grey focuses on a friendship between the kind, popular, generous Clarissa and Hester, a skeptical, poor girl who meets Clarissa at a boarding school where she’s taken on as a charity case. Clarissa is a friend to all and makes a point of reaching out to Hester, who’s aloof and snubbed by the others.

Hester runs off with the first boy she meets and brings a little scandal to the school. Clarissa somehow loses her fortune and her godmother encourages her to marry the wealthy, cold hearted Lord Rohan (James Mason). Rohan spends his time fighting and betting on dog fights and ignores Clarissa telling her right after their wedding that once they have an heir, they’ll live separate lives.

Later Clarissa sees Hester, who’s become an actress with a mediocre theater troupe. She convinces Hester to come visit her to relieve the boredom and isolation she suffers. Clarissa’s also brought Toby, a servant at the boarding school home with her.

Clarissa appreciates staying in Clarissa’s mansion and when she meets Lord Rohan is attracted to his dark, brooding personality. They’re more or less kindred spirits and an affair ensues.

As chance would have it Hester’s co-star, another 2-bit actor, is smitten with Clarissa and pursues her by taking jobs that put them in contact. He sees through Hester’s schemes.

Unwilling to play second fiddle to Clarissa, Hester takes action to get her out of the way.

I had an odd response to the film. I can’t recommend it, it seems dated and isn’t so bad it’s good. Still it was interesting enough to finish and see what would happen. Clichés abound as the dark haired woman, Hester is bad and unlikeable throughout and Clarissa, the blond is more virtuous. Toby is meant to be Black, but weirdly enough they hired a white boy to play the role and covered him in make up that looked like shoe polish. Clarissa has him dressed as if he was at an Indian court or like a 17th century footman.

The film was melodramatic somewhat like a cheap romance novel. I didn’t understand why this was a Criterion Collection film. I did read on their website that it was a highly successful film due to the racy story, which seems pretty tame, though most Hollywood films now don’t show the “fair-haired girl” cheating on her husband.

The essay on Criterion’s site offered this explanation:

With its overheated emotions and air of bodice-ripping unrefinement, The Man in Grey both flouted new guidelines from Parliament encouraging studios to produce tales of nobility and sacrifice for wartime audiences and disgusted critics, who saw it as the stuff of cheap paperbacks. This mattered little to moviegoers, who not only gobbled up the film’s plot twists, making it one of the year’s ten highest-grossing films, but also delighted in its fresh crop of stars, especially Mason, whose sensually cruel Rohan made him an overnight sensation. Despite its guilty pleasures, though, The Man in Grey is hardly frivolous: beneath its pulpy exterior, there’s a sophisticated depiction of the ways class and gender inform social interaction.