When I'm not plotting my next book, I watch movies and television programs, both new and old, on Acorn TV, Amazon, BritBox, Hulu, Apple TV, and Netflix. Afterward, I write reviews and scatter popcorn kernels. Whatever floats your remote is fine with me.
Howards End is not new to the screen, having been adapted by the book written by E.M. Forester’s into a movie in 1992 staring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. Starz has a new series out that expands on the movie version in four parts, starring Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfayden.
It’s a slow moving and somewhat odd story of three families in the scheme of English society, focusing on the middle-class Schlegels, a wealthy family named the Wilcoxes, and a poor working class family named the Basts.
The Schlegel family, who consist of three siblings, meet the Wilcoxes, and through various interactions and visitations become acquaintances. Margaret Schlegel forms a friendship with Mrs. Wilcox. At her death, she leaves her family home, Howards End, to Margaret. The children and Mr. Wilcox decide that the bequest scrawled on a piece of paper during her illness should not be honored.
As time passes, Mr. Wilcox forms an attachment to Margaret. In the storyline enters the Basts, who have an integral part to play in the tale of the three families. Frankly, it’s a convoluted intersecting of all involved. The story is filled with conversation in every scene, which requires your attention to understand the characters and their motivations for their behavior.
Having watched the 1992 version and this mini-version, I am inclined to prefer the latest Starz television production. It’s well acted, with good choices of those who played the parts of each of these complicated characters. The story is definitely not for everyone, and probably enjoyed more by those who love the Edwardian era before WWI. The sets and costumes are done very well, which helps to immerse the audience into the times and values of the day.
I’ll throw four kernels at the screen for this one.
Once again, I’m back comparing two classics. Who doesn’t love Jane Austen? Well, maybe some biker on a Harley, wearing lots of leather and a skull helmet. Nevertheless, for the ladies of the world who revere her timeless stories, this is one of my favorites.
Like many other Austen tales, there are multiple versions of this first published work of Jane’s in 1811. There was a 1971 TV serial, 1981 TV serial, 1995 film and the most recent 2008 mini-series. Do I have a favorite? The 2008 version is the one that floats my remote, but the 1995 movie version is close behind.
The 1995 version had been my favorite, of course, until the 2008 mini-series came along, consisting of three episodes and 174 minutes. Sense & Sensibility is one of my best-loved Austen tales. The 1995 version is the star-studded, well-known cast of Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Greg Wise (married to Emma Thompson in real life, by the way), Hugh Grant, and the infamous Alan Rickman. Each of these talented actors make up cast who tells this fascinating tale of the Dashwood sisters.
The 2008 TV mini-series is much longer, of course, with a casting of new faces, at least for me, in most of the characters. I had never seen Hattie Morahan (Elinor) or Charity Wakefield (Marianne) before this series aired. Frankly, I loved them and found them both endearing in this version. Kate Winslet, although, probably outshines as Marianne between the two. She is such a spirited actress. “Can he love her? Can the soul really be satisfied with such polite affections? To love is to burn – to be on fire, like Juliet or Guinevere or Eloise.”
Then we have the men who love these woman. Hugh Grant and a young Greg Wise in the movie version make good choices. In the 2008 version, we have blue-eyed Dan Stevens (the Downton Abbey heart throb) as Edward Farrars. A more sleazy Willoughby, in my opinion, was the 2008 Dominic Cooper, who drew from a me a little more empathy in spite of being a rogue. There is quite a bit of sexuality played in the 2008 version with the seduction scene at the beginning. The interaction between Willoughby and Marianne is more tender and seductive as well. However, I’ve read that was a pain point with some critics (read here). Austen and raunchy don’t mix. But in all honesty, there isn’t anything raunchy about the BBC version whatsoever.
Then we have Colonel Brandon, played by the late Alan Rickman in 1995, who did everything well on screen. It’s sad that he has left us and his fans have been robbed of great performances that were yet to come. Nevertheless, we are left with memories of older ones, even in this version of Sense & Sensibility.
In the 2008 version, we have David Morrissey, a handsome Brandon, who I thought more attractive but a bit too stiff in his role. Alan had a little more heart in his performance than David did. Morrissey is no longer wearing cravats and period clothing but has been on Zombie and sci-fi related shows in the past few years. Apparently, he’s working on another long-long-ago period drama set in 45 AD, Britannia. Maybe he’s taking up a toga instead.
Another thing that I like about the longer series version is that it’s not so rushed. You also get to enjoy beautiful coastal scenery of Hartland, Devon, with quite a few shots of rolling waves crashing against the rocks. It brings back to me the quiet life of those time periods, when long walks, picnics, playing the piano forte, and finding husbands were the order of the day.
Both versions are available to rent and stream on Amazon. However, the 2008 version is on Hulu, if you have a subscription there.
Sitting in my watch list for quite some time was Effie Gray, a movie directed and written by Emma Thompson. It is based on the true story of a young woman who married John Ruskin, a man eighteen years her senior. Ruskin (played by Greg Wise and also the husband of Emma Thompson) was a famous writer and art critic in the Victorian era who wed in 1848. Effie aka Euphemia (played by Dakota Fanning), uneducated, poor, and from Scotland, married into a family with wealth and social status. How the romance began between the two is hardly touched upon in the movie except to say they met when she was a child. Ruskin waited until she became of age to wed, and Effie blindly married the man suffering from whimsical thoughts of romance.
The movie paints the Victorian era in a rather dark, dull, and stringent environment. Effie is taken by Ruskin to live at his parent’s home, ruled by an over domineering and smothering mother and strict father who have given their lives to see their son’s success. Effie soon learns that she has no purpose as Ruskin’s wife either in or out of bed. The first night they are alone when she anticipates the consummation of her marriage, she bares her nakedness before Ruskin who runs out of the room. His real life account of that moment is stated in his own words:
“It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it.”
What his actual objection was upon seeing his first naked female are difficult to ascertain. Effie, however, gives this account in her own words:
“He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April.”
It led to a five-year marriage that had never been consummated. Ruskin turns into an emotional brute of a man, demeaning her at every turn. The treatment only leads to her despair, loss of hair, constant illness, and overt melancholy until another man enters the scene. Unfortunately, Dakota Fanning plays a rather dull and unemotional woman who you wish would show some emotion rather than the monotone words that come out of her mouth.
John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge, the pretty boy who played in Far From the Maddening Crowd) is an artist who travels to Scotland on holiday with Effie and Ruskin to paint his portrait. The man he admired shows his true colors during the country escape for Effie’s health, and Millais grows to despise Ruskin. Eventually, Effie and Millais form an attachment and fall in love but there is no sexual encounter. It’s rather an unspoken and untouched recognition that they love one another. In the meantime, Effie’s hatred of John intensifies.
Throughout her ordeal, Effie finds a friend in Lady Elizabeth Eastlake with whom she shares the truth regarding their unconsummated marriage. With her help, Effie visits a solicitor, has a doctor confirm her virginity after examination, and files for annulment of the marriage based on impotence. The movie ends with her letting Millais know that she has left Ruskin but asks that he not come to her until she is free. In real life, Effie does eventually marry Millais.
The story, though fascinating, does languish in this film. It’s a slow-moving narrative, which probably only keeps the interest of die-hard period drama fans. As stated earlier, I thought the portrayal of Effie frankly painful, though Wise and Sturridge do an acceptable but not brilliant job of their characters. Costumes and scenery are enjoyable enough to transport you back into the mid-Victorian world of repressed sexuality. On a side note, I enjoyed the soundtrack immensely.
If you are unfamiliar with who John Millais was as an artist, perhaps this picture off to the side of his famous painting of Ophelia will refresh your memory. It’s often used during the movie to express Effie’s unhappiness as if she is drowning in sadness.
Now streaming on Amazon, it’s worth the watch for the fascinating true-life account of Victorian life. It rated low, however, on Rotten Tomatoes and other written critic reviews.