Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Masterpiece Theatre: Downton Abbey Series 3

There have been few PBS shows that have truly captivated American audiences like Downton Abbey.  From the beginning, millions of us were sucked into the world of an English Lord and the ever changing world that his family and staff found themselves in.  After two dramatic seasons, the Crawley family is back and just when some are hoping to get back to the way things were, their world is shaken to its core.

This season starts in the spring of 1920.  Though things have begun to settle down into a new reality after the carnage of WWI, there is still a lot of upheaval at Downton.  Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley are finally about to wed, but there is a dark cloud overshadowing the festivities.  Due to some poor investment choices on Lord Grantham's part, Downton stands on the brink of disaster and the family are threatened with having to move to a smaller place.  A chance inheritance puts Matthew in a position to save the estate, but he's not sure if he should accept the money, and even if he does he has ideas about how the estate should be modernized to prevent the problem from happening again.  Ideas that put him at odds with his new father-in-law.

Tradition and modernity clash in many other areas as well.  The now pregnant Lady Sybil and her ex-chauffeur husband find themselves living at Downton after he has a run-in with the law in revolutionary Ireland, and Branson struggles to conform to her family's expectations.  Former housemaid Ethel falls into an unfortunate lifestyle and Isobel flaunts convention to help get her on her feet again.  Lady Edith feels that she has at last found true love with Sir Anthony Strallan, but his age and health give her family pause.  Anna is working tirelessly to prove Bates' innocence.  And things are about to come to a head for Thomas after spiteful plotting on Miss O'Brien's part leads to a moment that will threaten his life at Downton.  All of these problems are eventually overshadowed by two separate tragedies that will change life at Downton forever.

I'm going to go ahead and say what pretty much everyone else already has...this season of Downton Abbey was a bit of a letdown.  The soap opera feeling found in Season 2 became even more prominent here with recycled plots and seemingly endless storylines.  Many plots from earlier seasons were used again with little to no disguise.  And some characters stories just became unbearably long and drawn out.  As much as I loved Anna and Bates in the previous seasons, I began wishing that they would either kill him or set him free; anything to put us out of our misery.  Characters that I had grown to love somehow became caricatures of themselves and seemed to lose some of the balance that they had.  And of course, the loss of perhaps the most likable characters in the whole series was very hard to swallow.  Matthew and Sybil were in many ways the only people we could openly love and relate to.  I have a feeling that losing both in one season coupled with a fairly boring plot overall will cause some formerly enthusiastic viewers to change the channel next year.

Having said all of that, any blame for this rest squarely on the shoulders of Julian Fellows as the biggest problems seem to stem from the writing.  The acting is still superb all around from Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) all the way to the new kitchen maid, Ivy (Cara Theobold) and the production qualities continue to be a highlight.  I especially loved the filming in Scotland for the last episode.  And if there is any bright star in this rather gray season, it is the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).  She continues to give outstanding performances and her witty zingers and compassionate moments make her the most well-rounded character.

Season 4 will soon be in production, and though it will be difficult to move on sans Matthew there is hope for the future of Downton.  This ship isn't so far off course that it can't be righted, but one more season like this one out of Mr. Fellows and there could be issues.  Only time will tell.  If you are already into Downton Abbey, then you will have already seen this season.  If you are new to it, don't let this review totally turn you off.  Though not as good as Season 1, it is still better than just about anything else on television.    

Thursday, February 14, 2013

You Must Permit Me to Tell You...

It's Valentines Day!  Time to celebrate with roses, candy, champagne, and kisses.  If you've been following my blog for awhile, you'll know it has been a tradition over the last few years for me to highlight some of literature's most enduring couples.  Here are this year's picks:

Fancy Day and Dick Dewey in Under the Greenwood Tree by Thomas Hardy

You can't usually look to a Thomas Hardy novel for a couple who happily end up together in the end, but this is one of them.  Fancy's father had much higher expectations for his daughter's marriage, and Fancy herself wasn't sure if life in the village as a poor man's wife was what she wanted.  But the sweet and simple Dick wins her heart and convinces her that a simple life with the one you love is better than any amount of riches.

   "Come here, sir;--say you forgive me, and then you shall kiss me;--you never have yet when I have worn curls, you know. Yes, just where you want to so much,--yes, you may!"

Marianne Dashwood and Col. Brandon in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Col. Brandon was smitten the first time he saw her, but it took a long time for Marianne to see what an amazing person he was.  Impulsive and romantic, Marianne learns the painful lesson that steadfastness and constancy mean more in a relationship than "romance".  Readers the world over rejoiced to see her find happiness in the arms of a man who truly loves her.

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!- and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married,- and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat! 

Marius Pontmercy and Cosette in Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

It didn't take words for these two to fall in love, just chance glances while walking in the park.  Though it seems that circumstances and the tumultuous life of revolutionary France will keep them apart forever.  But Cosette's "Papa" Jean Valjean discovers their attachment and eventually gives his aid to bring them together.  Happiness and hope are found at the end of this dark and tragic novel.

On the day when a woman in passing sheds light for you as she goes, you are lost, you are in love. There is only one thing to be done, to fix your thoughts upon her so intently that she is compelled to think of you.  

Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark in "The Hunger Games" Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Katniss has always been a survivor, life has demanded that of her.  But her time in the Hunger Games proves that sometimes you can't depend solely on yourself.  You need someone to be your support when you feel like you can't go on.  This is what Katniss and Peeta are for each other...a piece of safety and reality in a world gone mad. 

"My nightmares are usually about losing you,” he says. “I'm okay once I realize you're here.” 

What are your thoughts on these couples?  Do you have other favorites?  Celebrate the day with us and share your favorite romantic moments in literature.

Picture Credit:

#1 Keeley Hawes and James Murray in Under the Greenwood Tree
#2 Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman in Sense and Sensibility
#3 Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne in Les Miserables
#4 Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in The Hunger Games

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Faceless Killers

“Justice doesn't only mean that the people who commit crime are punished. It also means that we can never give up seeking the truth.” 

It is no secret that over the last few years Scandinavian crime fiction has skyrocketed in popularity worldwide.  Whether it is Stieg Larsson's wildly popular "Millenium" series or Camilla Lackberg's novels set in her hometown, many people are finding themselves caught up in these stories from the north.  Arguably the most influential writings in Scandinavian crime fiction are by Swedish author Henning Mankell.  His Kurt Wallander series is his most popular and contrasts brutal crimes and deep cultural problems against a pristine and seemingly peaceful landscape.

The Plot:

On a cold winter's night in a remote Swedish village, an elderly couple is brutally murdered in their home.  The horrible crime seems to be without reason, the only real clue being the last word heard from the dying wife's lips..."foreign".  Ystad Inspector Kurt Wallander soon discovers that this case soon has the potential to ignite anti-immigrant feelings in Sweden.

If that isn't enough, Wallanders personal life seems just as tangled and hopeless as this case.  He has fallen out of shape since his wife left him, his daughter has become estranged, his father is getting older and in need of more care, and he is finding himself attracted to the beautiful (but married) young prosecutor he just met.  As he throws himself into solving the murders, he wonders if he will have the strength to face it and all of his other problems.

My Review (Caution-Spoilers):

I had heard about the popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction but had never actually given it a try until now.  I don't read a lot of modern literature and so had never gotten around to it.  I found it much more interesting than I had originally thought it might be.

Kurt Wallander is different from all of the detectives in the other books I read over the summer.  He isn't brilliant, he doesn't have this amazing insight into human nature, and he's not an eccentric homebody with a helpful sidekick.  He is simply human.  He has problems outside of work that eat away at him.  He struggles to connect the dots in the case.  He has run-ins with his fellow officers, the press, and government agencies.  In short, he is just like anyone who might find himself in that positionIn this way, I think it makes his story the most real and easy to relate to.  This doesn't feel like a mystery feels like a true crime solving saga where things don't always come easily or quickly.

I also found Mankell's use of current Swedish social problems in the story to be very interesting.  If you keep up with current European affairs, you will know that ideas like multiculturalism and immigration have become increasingly difficult.  Over the last 50 years or so there has been a huge increase in immigrants to the wealthier European nations, but not everybody is happy about it.  In Faceless Killers, Mankell not only touches on the subject, but also shows how complicated an issue it really is.  The Swedish couple is killed by two immigrants, but another immigrant is killed by a zealous Swede as well.  There is no easy solution for this problem as many nations are discovering.

I truly enjoyed this story.  It was refreshingly different from other stories I have read with a antihero detective and issues that strike a modern chord.  I will most likely be adding more Wallander stories to my reading list.

The Movie:

Over the last few years, the BBC has created a Wallandar series starring Kenneth Branagh as the inspector.  "Faceless Killers" is the first episode of the second season.  I haven't seen any of them yet, but I have heard favorable reviews and intend to watch them soon.                   

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Page to Screen: Les Miserables

It is one of the most beloved musicals of all time, and in 2012 The King's Speech director Tom Hooper brought it to the silver screen.  Based on Victor Hugo's classic novel of the plight of the poor in 19th century France, the film stars Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, and a host of others.  Though I had read the book and was familiar with the story, I had not seen the musical before.  Here are my thoughts on the film:

-I saw this film with a friend who had seen the musical multiple times and owned the soundtrack.  Like many other reviews I have read, she said that the film version lacked the overall grandness and majesty of the stage.  I attribute this to the fact that the stage and the cinema are different mediums with different effects.  On stage, most people won't be able to really see the actors, so they must convey the emotions of the story almost completely through their voices.  We are allowed greater intimacy through the screen, and so the actors can convey emotion with simply a look or an action.  Rather than being the main vehicle for the story as it is on the stage, the music was simply one of many aspects to touch the viewer in the film.

-Hooper's decision to not pre-record the music for the film was certainly a bold move.  Sometimes it works great (Jackman, Hathaway, Redmayne, Samantha Barks) and the raw emotion in the actor's voices move us deeply.  And then there are some who could have really benefited from pre-recording.  One person in particular was Russell Crowe as Javert.  You could tell that it took all of his concentration to simply hit his notes (which he didn't always do).  This caused him to not really be able to act his character out, and unlike with Jackman or Hathaway, he could never really convey the emotion behind Javert.

-The sets and costumes are good most of the time, though there was a sense of claustrophobia in some of the scenes.  There were also some scenes that had overly computerized backgrounds that took away some of the feeling.

-In my opinion, Anne Hathaway deserves an Oscar simply for her "I Dreamed a Dream" scene.  It is so powerful and the emotion so raw that you can't help but be moved to tears.

-Obviously there is no way to get every aspect of a Victor Hugo novel onto the screen, but the main bones of the story are there and flow together very well.

Though this film isn't perfect, it is still wonderful in many ways.  I defy anyone to watch this film and not tear up at either Hathaway's main scene or the grand finale on the barricade.  Hugo's story of the power of love and forgiveness is one of the most beautiful stories out there, and this film is a magnificent tribute to it.  If you haven't seen it, then do so.  If you have, go see it again.  It is very likely that this film, like its stage counterpart, will be popular for many years to come.