Monthly Archives: December 2012

Movie Review: Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina movie poster

I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a few years ago, mostly out of a feeling of obligation.  No English major should make it through university without reading one of the huge Russian novels.  This seemed more my speed than War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. I tried unsuccessfully to read The Idiot, but I did at least make it through AK.  Unfortunately, despite liking Tolstoy’s short stories, I did not enjoy the book.  It was just too hard to read, if I’m honest.  Too much work to keep the characters straight (names always end in -sky, -vich, or similar, and several characters have the same first name), and such a long book.  I remember one chapter that–this is not a joke–was just Vronsky balancing his checkbook.  I mean, it had deeper meaning, of course.  But who can stay awake through a whole chapter of a guy just sitting there thinking about money and about his life and doing absolutely nothing.  It was very hard to finish the book.

I thought I might really enjoy this film, though.  For one thing, the character name problem is totally solved in film form. There is no way one can confuse the dowdy (for the first time in his life) Jude Law as Karenin, and the young, mustachio’d Vronsky.  In the book, they are both named Alexei, and there are middle names they sometimes go by, and it’s all confusion.  In the movie, though, one is repugnant and the other…well…not attractive to me, but certainly more young and passionate.  I did glean far more meaning from the film than I ever had from the book.  When you’re bored and frustrated with a book, it’s very hard to follow the nuance.

The film borrows from others such as Chicago and The Artist, in that it is both a live-action movie and a depiction of a play.  I imagine this illustrates the idea of society life all being a performance, and of society people always being watched and on display.  Scenes in AK take place on and backstage, and they use this method to float through time and space and skip over large swaths of the action to hone in on pertinent scenes.  This is immensely helpful when you’re trying to adapt a book that is approximately 5 million pages long, into a movie that is a reasonable length.  I didn’t mind the surrealistic style that allows an office scene to transform into a restaurant scene by following the office clerks as they leave their desks and walk straight into the restaurant with waiters’ aprons under their suits–but it took a minute to figure out what was going on.  I think the movie hopes you’re really paying attention, and probably also hopes you’ve read the book.

The best thing about this film was the visual interest in each scene.  Not only did the changing locations (defying the laws of space and time) keep you interested and alert, but the sets and wardrobe were breathtaking.  It was a really beautiful film, and the whole thing had the air of those pompous Charlize Theron Dior commercials.  Very beautiful and untouchable and people walking around on marble floors in immaculate gowns that cost more than I make in a year.  That sort of thing.  Which works, because that is exactly the society the movie is depicting.  Unfathomably wealthy and focused on aesthetic pleasures. The movie did a great job at keeping visual interest and making each scene, whether an intimate moment between Anna and her son, or a big ballroom scene, really beautiful.  Here are a few stills to prove my point:

new-stills-anna-karenina-by-joe-wright-32058838-460-287 Still from Anna Karenina keira-knightley-anna-karenina anna-karenina-picture02

It was an incredible film to watch, visually.  And for anyone who enjoys Russian culture, Imperial European culture, or 19th-century costumes, it’s a must-see.

For those of you unfamiliar with the storyline, I will give it to you.  For those of you who actually don’t know how it ends, be warned that this will not be spoiler-free.  Since the book has been out for over 100 years I feel okay giving away the ending. Anna is married to a dull bureaucrat (Jude Law) who is a good person, but lacks all passion or romantic feeling.  He is also (in the book) about 10-15 years older than Anna.  They have a son together, who is around 10-ish.

Anna’s brother, Oblonsky, is caught cheating on his wife.  Anna visits to try to convince the wife not to divorce her brother. In the film, Oblonsky is played by Matthew Macfayden. While in Moscow, another group of characters is introduced to Anna and to the audience.  They include Oblonsky’s wife and her sister, Kitty, who is ‘out’ in society, and Levin, a land-owning aristocrat who is in love with Kitty.  He proposes to her, but she is making eyes with Count Vronsky.  Confused yet?  There’s no easy way to explain it…  Anna and Vronsky make eyes at a ball, and the attraction is strong and immediate.

The rest of the novel follows two stories.  One is that of Anna and Vronsky, and certainly this is the most prevalent and memorable of the two plotlines.  They’ve got forbidden love, sex, and tragedy on their side.  The other plotline is that of Levin, who attempts to get over Kitty and throws himself into the life of a day-laborer.  Levin is simultaneously a Christ figure (made very obvious in the movie during the foot washing scene) and a foreshadowing of the communist ideals that would sweep the country during the next 50 years.  In the end, he is perhaps the only character who ends up truly happy, when Kitty agrees to marry him.

Anna and Vronsky’s affair is made public when she becomes pregnant with his child. Anna is stuck. She loves Vronsky with all her heart.  Her husband, Karenin, won’t give her custody of their son in a divorce. Anna refuses to leave her little boy. She is forced to live a life where society will not recognize her, she is openly mocked and judged as a fallen woman. She becomes more and more unstable, unable to live a good life with either man.  Vronsky begins to fall out of love with her, naturally, since she’s gone quite crazy and is taking morphine to dull the pain. The thing I remember most about the book is how ridiculously in love she is with her son, how much he means to her and how she will not leave him–meanwhile her daughter with Vronsky is barely mentioned.  In the end, Anna throws herself under a train in perhaps the most dramatic literary suicide ever.

The film manages to get all this across pretty well, except that it skates over some of the legal and monetary issues and the reasons why Vronsky begins to fade away from her.  The film seemed to be trying to bill itself as a great romance, especially in the marketing but also in its editing choices.  It focused on the story as a love story.  I don’t think that’s what it is.  People who think this story is romantic must be those same idiots that think Romeo and Juliet is romantic.

Consider the scene with the horse race. Vronsky is admiring his brand new horse (after declaring his love for his previous horse a few scenes back) which will lead him to victory in the race.  Going around the track, he beats and whips the horse to spur it on.  The horse falls (I had my eyes closed at this point, so I don’t remember why) and breaks its back.  Vronsky is thrown off, but stands up and tries to beat and pull the horse to its feet.  The horse is broken and in pain, but he considers it an insult that he was thrown and embarrassed.  He shoots the horse–hopefully out of mercy, but it seemed to be more from anger than empathy.  Then again, my eyes were closed so I may be wrong.

This scene is very clearly a metaphor for Vronsky and women.  Kitty is the first horse, thrown away when a better model comes into view. Anna is the second horse, abused and beaten until she breaks, then cast off without much regret.  Vronsky cares only about himself.

And is Anna a good person? Most assuredly not.  Even if one doesn’t consider adultery a terrible sin (it’s certainly not nice, but I don’t think of it as a sin the way they did back then), she is neurotic, selfish, obsessive, and cares very little for anyone other than herself or her son.  She steals Kitty’s admirer away from her, cheats on her husband, favors her son over her daughter unashamedly, and then commits suicide to avoid the consequences of her actions.  There is nothing heroic or good about her.  There is something very real about her, from her self-loathing to her lack of control for her emotions, but nothing heroic.

My boyfriend claims he spent most of the film feeling sorry for Karenin (Jude Law).  I do think the movie made Karenin far more sympathetic than he was in the book.  He does allow Anna to see Vronsky when he thinks she is dying after childbirth.  He allows them to run off together, to be together.  In the book, he does these things, but… There is a much longer period of time that he forces Anna to stay in the marriage and pretend the affair didn’t happen. She wants nothing more than to get out of the marriage, but he is committed to keeping up appearances.  He is using morality to keep them both imprisoned in the relationship.  And when they do split, he is determined not to let her anywhere near their son.  He makes her feel unfit to be a mother, won’t even let her give him a birthday gift or see him ever again.  Cuts her off completely from the thing she loves the most (even more than Vronsky).  All because she had the gall to not be content with a loveless, passionless existence when confronted with an alternative to it.

I could ramble endlessly about this book, but I’ll stop myself.  Back to the movie!  It made the Levin plotline less important and the Anna plotline more glamorous.  Other than that, it stuck to the book fairly well.

The acting was superb from all quarters.  I’m not a great fan of Keira Knightley, but she is good in this, and it seems a role that works for her.  Matthew Macfayden was great, and it was interesting to see Jude Law play someone unattractive.

Jude Law as KareninHe did an interview recently where he talked about how he’s grown old enough to play someone other than the romantic lead, that he can now play less attractive men.  I had no idea what he was talking about, because he’s still Jude Law, but now that I’ve seen this movie I know this was what he was talking about.  And he is good in it. Subtle, quiet, maddening.  Not at all your typical Jude Law role.

My only real complaint with the film is that it is a little heavy-handed.  There is a real sense of trying to make it seem as if the train imagery is following Anna through the entire movie.  It is her destiny, I guess, so we see the train imagery not only in scenes where she is on a train, but also with toy trains, or her just dreaming about trains or train tracks.  If you didn’t know the plot, you might wonder wtf is up with all the train stuff?  I think they could have been more subtle.  In the book, it is clear that she is doomed from the beginning, and the train scenes are all very potent because of that.  But not every scene has her dreaming of train tracks. It was just too much.  A few nods to the train would have been very effective, but the constant appearances of train imagery just takes away from what should be a build-up to an inevitably tragic end.

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The Best British Holiday Films

I was sick a few weeks ago, just a 24-hour thing. I took the day off from work and spent it watching British holiday films, of which there are a surprising amount.  I seem to own most of them, despite not liking holiday movies most of the time.  So I thought this would be a great Christmas post.  Here are my favorites:

Love Actually

Love Actually posterI’m hoping you knew this one would be on the list.  How could it not?  First of all, let’s consider the cast.  Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, Liam Neeson, Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, Bill Nighy, and Rowan Atkinson. Also, not even listed on their little poster is Martin Freeman and Joanna Page.  Yes please! I love so many of these actors. Not to mention that I love them together.  Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman were together in Sense and Sensibility; Hugh Grant and Colin Firth were in both Bridget Jones films.  They work well together and its lovely to see them in the same film.  This movie isn’t perfect. All of the interrelated characters are sort of vaguely coexisting, but the bonds and relationships between them are too tenuous and unimportant to make a really cohesive whole.  And the part I really dislike is when Colin goes to America–to Wisconsin of all places–and encounters some sort of mythical America that does not and has never existed.  American women do, undoubtedly, enjoy British accents. I know this first-hand. But Denise Richards, January Jones, Eliza Cuthbert, and Shannon Elizabeth don’t all share a bed in a house in Wisconsin.  Sorry, men.  That is not reality. But, leaving that bit alone, everything else is wonderful. Hugh Grant dancing around No 10 Downing Street? priceless.

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Colin Firth speaking broken Portuguese and receiving broken English answers to his proposal? Adorable.  Martin Freeman doing anything at all? Yes.  Love this movie.  Makes me feel all happy and warm inside, like a great pair of fuzzy socks.

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Bridget Jones’ Diary

Bridget-Jones-wallpapers-bridget-jones-10347017-1024-768

I loved this book and I love the movie too.  It takes place over the course of an entire year, so it is not a Christmas movie in the traditional sense. More of a Rom-Com with Christmas at its beginning and end.  But there is something delightfully Christmas-y about the entire thing. The book is based roughly on Pride and Prejudice, so the fact that they got Colin Firth (the definitive Mr. Darcy) to play Mark Darcy is fabulous.  Especially because we get to see him like this:

Mark Darcy sweaterThis is a very goofy film, and Bridget is no match for Lizzy Bennet.  Still, she is endearing and real, and that is always reassuring around Christmas time, when your pants are a little tighter and all of the food is so inviting.

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The Holiday

The Holiday poster

Here’s the problem with the Holiday: When people ask me if I like it (as happens constantly in my life) I don’t know what to say.  It’s clear to me that the movie was written by and for people who have never had a single real problem in their lives.  The two main characters, played by Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz, are desperately unhappy with their lives.  Kate is stuck in one of those drawn-out unrequited love stories where you just can’t get over the person who broke your heart.  Cameron Diaz is a workaholic who acts like her parents getting divorced is the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being.  These aren’t fun things, but considering the tragedies that can come up within one human life, they are not bad.  And Cameron Diaz sits there talking about her parents’ divorce and how terrible it was, to a man whose wife has died and who is raising two daughters on his own. I just didn’t have much sympathy for their ‘plight’ because their problems were so negligent in the grand scheme of things.  Not to belittle anyone’s experiences with divorce or a bad breakup, but I think we can all agree there are worse things that can happen in the world.  So the movie bothers me every time I watch it.

On the other hand, I watch it at least three times a year.  There must be something I like about it.  Kate Winslet is adorable, and Jude Law is fabulous in it.  I love Jack Black, but I know he is a very polarizing actor, so some may hate him.  I find Cameron Diaz is a pretty good actress, but the fact that she is a 5’10” size 4 makes it very hard to accept her as an everyday woman.  If they had made her intensely neurotic or something, I would have been more capable of accepting it. I’ve seen her do convincing performances before (In Her Shoes is a great example) but this isn’t one of them.  But with Jude Law in almost all of her scenes, it’s easy to get through her parts of the movie.  It’s an easy movie to sit through and to imagine what a change of location could do to your life.  Plus, Kate Winslet’s cottage is possibly the most adorable thing in the history of the world:

Rosehill Cottage

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Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol 2

Small confession–I haven’t actually seen this one.  How did I make it through my childhood with so little exposure to Muppets? I watched a lot of Sesame Street, but never made the jump to the Muppets.  Why?  Possibly something to do with the absence of Oscar the Grouch from the Muppet gang.  I dunno.  At any rate, I’m putting this on the list because I’ve heard such good things from so many different sources that I’m confident that when I finally do see this movie, I will love it.  Also, it makes me happy to think of it because I once had a conversation with my boyfriend about A Christmas Carol and the ghost of Marley. My boyfriend claimed there were two Marleys.  I immediately asked if this was due to the Muppets Christmas Carol, because that’s the only version of A Christmas Carol he was likely to be familiar with.  He confirmed this movie as the source of his knowledge, and that ‘Marley and Marley’ were played by Statler and Waldorf, the two old men.  Brilliant bit of casting.

Marley_and_marley

At any rate, whenever I think of this movie now, I chuckle because of that conversation.

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Obviously, I haven’t seen all of the Christmas movies or even all of the British Christmas movies in the world.  Let me know which ones you recommend!

The Tower of London: Menageries, Murders, and Ghosts

I’ve read two books lately that both took place in and around the Tower of London.  One was Wolf Hall, set in the mid-16th century.  The other, which I just finished, was The tower, the Zoo, and the TortoiseThe Tower, The Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart.

I have already reviewed Wolf Hall, and want to share my thoughts on TZT, as I will call this book with the overly-lengthy title.  But since they shared a common locale, I thought I might talk a little bit first about the Tower of London in general.

The official name of the Tower of London is Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress, and is located on Tower Hill, a spot directly on the North banks of the Thames, next to Tower Bridge (logically enough).  The names represent the entire complex, from the outer walls inward, Tower-of-London

though most people associate the name with the largest and most memorable of its buildings, the White Tower. The White Tower is technically a ‘keep’ and is one of the largest in the ‘Christian World’ :

White+TowerI imagine most people do not read this blog for their history knowledge, but indulge me while I share a bit of the incredible history of this fortress.

When William the Conqueror won the battle at Hastings (1066 AD) and gained control over England, he wanted a tower to keep away the cursed English people, and to keep them from trying to win back their country.  Actually, William made a lot of castles after he took over, but this is probably the most famous among them. He began to build the ToL at the SE corner of the walls remaining from the Roman establishment in Londinium. Estimates say the White Tower was finished around 1100 AD.

The tower was extended beyond the keep during the 12th century and was a point of contention when Prince John (of Robin Hood fame) tried to seize control of the country while Richard the Lionhearted was off fighting the crusades. Expansion continued during the 13th and 14th centuries, when disputes over succession to the crown or between the royalty and the aristocracy threatened the outbreak of civil war.  Whomever held control of the crown wanted an impregnable fortress to hide behind. The tradition of whitewashing the White Tower (thus giving it its name) began in 1240. Periodically, the tower would be taken by the armies of barons or landed gentry, or given to clergymen. It was always an important strategic possession.

Obviously there was a fair amount of unpleasantness at the Tower. It was a military stronghold and a palatial lodging, but it was/became a prison.  Edward I imprisoned at least 600 Jewish people in the tower, before exporting them out of the country entirely. Charming guy. Later, the tower was reserved for more important inmates — i.e. those accused of heresy or treason, not those accused of stealing bread. Often, the royalty themselves were imprisoned there.  Examples include Richard II, Henry VI, and the two Princes–possibly its most famous residents because no one knows quite what happened to them.

PrincesThe assumption is that Richard III murdered the two young boys so that he could become king. Legend has it that the white rose bushes outside the keep have bloomed red roses since that day.

In the 16th century, the tower stopped being used regularly as a royal residence and its focus shifted entirely to that of military stronghold and prison. The Yeoman Warders were formed in the early 1500s, and still wear the same uniform that existed during that time.  This means an itchy wool fabric that cannot be remotely comfortable.  But look how stylish:

Yeoman_Warder_-_Beefeater

The Yeoman Warders are traditionally called Beefeaters.  This may be because a portion of meat was included with their meal rations.  They still live in the Tower, with their families.  To become a Beefeater, you must have been in the military with a good record for at least 22 years.  It’s a lot to ask of someone who is essentially a tour guide.  Must create a very unique microcosm of society within the tower. But its a far cry from what their original tasks included–chiefly torturing prisoners to extract confessions of heresy, treason, etc.  They employed the Scavenger’s Daughter, the Rack, and the Manacles frequently.

The bloody history of the tower reached its peak in the 16th and 17th century. Beheading was popular at the tower because of its important clientele–for the measly peasants, hanging or burning were popular methods of acting out a death sentence. Those executed on the Tower Green were the most important and high profile of the doomed. These include: William Hastings, Anne Boleyn, Margaret Pole (hit 11 times with the axe before her head came off!), Jane Boleyn, Lady Jane Gray, and Robert Devereux. Most of these were directly related to threats/crimes against the current monarch. In addition to these Tower Green executions, there were numerous public executions (for the less important but equally guilty) on Tower Hill. These included William Wallace (of Braveheart fame), Thomas Cromwell (as featured in Wolf Hall), Guy Fawkes (tried to blow up Parliament) and Sir Walter Raleigh (imprisoned for over 10 years in the Tower before being executed). Ghosts of the two princes, Anne Boleyn, and Sir Walter Raleigh are the most commonly sighted in the Tower.

There were some less horrible things to find at the Tower.  Isaac Newton ran the Royal Mint when it was located there.  There was a royal menagerie in the middle ages where the king kept animals gifted to him by other royalty, including a Polar Bear said to have fished for his dinner in the Thames. It was first opened to very wealthy aristocrats for visiting, but became a bona fide tourist attraction by the end of the 19th century.  Its last use as a prison was during WWII when a few Nazi PoWs were stationed inside. It’s a really cool place to visit if you know some of the history, or if you’re particularly keen to see the Crown Jewels.

If you’re a history buff or planning a visit, here is a link to the official website for more info.  I always wanted to go to the Ceremony of the Keys, when they lock up the tower at night.  The ceremony is about 450 years older than my country, so that’s pretty epic, but you have to plan/request tickets in advance and I never got my act together.

Okay, enough about the tower in general.  What about this book?  I learned a lot about the tower reading it.  The Beefeaters live inside to this day! At first, I thought that seemed really awesome.  But when you have Nazi graffiti in your study, or the ghost of Sir Walter Raleigh blowing up spectral science experiments and stealing your potatoes, and all you do all day is talk to impertinent tourists, it doesn’t seem so glamorous anymore.

Unfortunately, this book was just too light for me.  Not that I need explosions or suicide in the books I read. I expected it to be light, and was looking forward to it after the epic task of Wolf Hall. Still, there has to be some emotional intensity to it.  The characters were cute and likeable, but it was as if I was seeing all of them from a distance, or through a thick fog.  Even when dealing with the heavy material, Julia Stuart seems afraid to commit to raw emotion.  I felt at an arm’s length from the entire book, and that severely lessened my enjoyment.  It didn’t go deep enough into the human psyche for me to feel much of anything. There were a few parts that made me mildly chuckle, but other than that it didn’t make a dent on me.  Disappointing.

The story revolves around a beefeater named Balthazar Jones, who is asked to run the newly re-installed menagerie at the ToL. He is pretty under-qualified for the job (given to him only because he happens to own the world’s oldest tortoise) and the animal rights activist in me was a bit bothered by the idea of completely untrained people being in charge of these animals’ safety.  But it is just a book, so I swallowed my objections.  There isn’t much in the way of a traditional plot, except to have a few people in disarray and later have it all work into a happy ending.

There are a myriad of characters, most of which work in the ToL (Chief Yeoman Warder, Ravenmaster, etc.) and some that work in the lost property office for the Underground. Both of these locations are quirky and give a wonderful sense of color to the story, but again I’m troubled by the lack of depth.

Similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, this book revolves around a couple who have lost a child, and the way that child is lost is eventually revealed mid-way through the book.  Unlike Harold Fry, this book doesn’t inspire a lot of emotion around this terrible event.  I think Stuart wanted to keep the book light, so despite being vested in strong emotional events, it didn’t transmit much empathy to me–and I’m an incredibly empathetic person.  That’s part of why I’m such a passionate reader. I feel everything the characters feel.  Example–At least twice, I have taken a few moments to feel incredible sadness for Andromeda Black/Tonks from Harry Potter.  If you think about it, she loses her husband and daughter and her son-in-law to Voldemort.  All in the same year.  Then she must raise her grandson on her own.  None of this is ever overtly mentioned, but she must have a desperately difficult life in the days after the final battle.

Okay that was a digression, obviously, but the point is made. I am not lacking in empathy, but I didn’t feel much for these characters.  Which not only meant that I didn’t experience the sorrows in media res, but I also missed out on the feeling of relief that comes with a happy ending. I’m sorry to say that even though I was looking for a light, frothy read, this book just lacked substance. Or it kept substance in the background, focusing instead on cutesy turns of phrase and quirky characters.  Yet another reminder that in order to write quality fiction, you have to be incredibly brave. If you’re not scared to reveal what you’ve written down, then you haven’t dug deep enough.

The Royal Baby and the paparazzi

Kate's baby bumpMostly, I don’t really want to write this post, if I’m honest.  But it is a huge event in the course of British events, and will be much talked of over the coming year.  And, of course, it has already been surrounded by controversy.  So, it seems like some comment is necessary.

I speak, of course, of the upcoming royal baby.  Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (her formal title) is pregnant with what will be (boy or girl) the third person in line to the throne.

I searched for ‘baby bump’ photos to put on this post and the above came up, of Kate at Thanksgiving.  Man, look how fat she is! How did we not know?  I’m joking, of course.  I could lose 30 lbs and still look more pregnant than she does.  But no one shows this early, and the tabloids have been speculating since the day of the wedding that she was pregnant, so every shot claims to display a nonexistent baby bump.  Sigh.  Poor Kate.

I am not much of a follower of the royals. I didn’t watch the wedding, though I did watch the Diamond Jubilee, so maybe my hatred of weddings was more of a factor.  At any rate, the monarchy is not a part of British culture that I feel much affection for.  I feel similarly about the House of Lords.  Maybe some girls think about becoming a princess, but this one would rather leave all the responsibility and need to wear ridiculous hats to someone else.  Not to mention the pressure to procreate.

Whenever there has been a new heir expected or needed, Britain has been rather obsessed.  A prime example is Henry VIII and his inability to produce a male heir to rule upon his death. In those days (and for most of British history), the heir was really important.  Wars would easily and quickly break out if there wasn’t a clear next-in-line to the throne.  There were multiple civil wars over the succession, from the War of the Roses to the post-Reformation confusion between Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth. The country is more stable when everyone knows and accepts who will take over when the current monarch dies.

Combine that historical curiosity with the celebrity status of the monarchy.  Ever since Princess Diana, when the stuffy monarchy was injected with something akin to soap opera drama, the press and the people clamor for information on the (attractive) royals.  Will and Harry seem to get the most of the attention, maybe because they are Diana’s sons and the public feels a sense of ownership and a sense of sharing their family tragedy, maybe because they are the most attractive of the royal family?  In the US, those are almost the only royal family members to which we are exposed.  No one knows about Princess Beatrice or Zara Phillips, except for blips here and there.  Zara Phillips and her participation in the Olympics, Beatrice and her hat at the wedding:

6a00d8341c630a53ef0154323ed96c970c-320wiBut I believe as a country we took more notice of Pippa Middleton than the rest of the royals.  Regardless of how things are different in the UK and the US, this royal baby is a big deal as a curiosity and as a potential future ruler.  But the demented need for information driving behavior in this instance is the same that drives paparazzi to lay down next to limos to get shots up the skirt of whatever celebrity happens to have worn a dress. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I have pity for Kate, for William, and for this child-to-be.

This intense curiosity and feeling of ownership over these public figures has already turned outrageous and tragic with a prank by two Australian DJs to invade Kate’s legally protected privacy. A prank which contributed to the suicide of a nurse that fell for their prank.  I hope they’re proud of themselves.  If I didn’t already hate DJs of all kinds, I would begin to now.

With the nude pictures that have surfaced this year of Kate and of Harry, and this invasion into Kate’s medical status and associated privacy, there can be no hope that this child or this pregnancy will be lived under any sort of protection or respect.  Even if 99% of journalists and humans were to agree that, as a human being experiencing a terrifying and not-fun 9-month journey of biological horrors culminating in a presumably rewarding, but simultaneously horrifying event, Kate deserves privacy and respect…there would be at least one person with a telephoto lens or the phone number to the hospital, who thinks only about what invasion of privacy will get them and not what it will do to Kate, Will, or the baby. I suggest a new punishment for these jerks: publish a photo up a woman’s skirt, or of someone with their romantic partner in a presumably private environment, or publicly air their medical status…do anything to violate the privacy of someone because you think their life is somehow a public entity, and something of your life should become a public entity.  Lets post these DJs medical records.  I’m sure they’ll be thrilled if everyone knows if they’ve ever had a yeast infection, or needed Viagra. Right?  They’re public figures, so it should be allowed.  Find the paparazzi and publish nude photos of them.

Of course, I don’t actually think that’s a good punishment, but I do think there needs to be some sort of responsibility.  Kate and Will, and anyone else who happens to be known, are not property of all of us. They are human beings who have to live every day in the spotlight.  Unlike Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, they can’t have a public breakdown, shave their heads, and go into rehab.  They have to maintain composure and a semblance of grace.  Can you imagine how difficult that has to be when magazines are publishing or radio shows are airing your most private and intimate secrets? How would you feel about the people who gobbled up the articles and paid for the pictures?  Or the people who looked at them and claimed it was no harm done? Can you imagine the guilt and the rage that your stay at a hospital would end with a nurse taking her own life because people were desperate to get information about you and your constant vomiting?

I’ve gone off on a rant here, but really, I do feel an incredible amount of pity for Kate and for this baby.  I hope that, if nothing else, the death of that nurse will make a few people think twice about the obsessive need to know the details of this pregnancy.

On that note, here are a few facts about the baby, which do not in any way violate anyone’s privacy:

The rules that previously established the succession of the crown (from 1701) declare that the first-born male child of the monarch will be next in line.  That meant that if 6 girls were born and then a boy, the boy would become king. Sorry, ladies.  The current Queen is queen because she has no brothers.  But, Parliament and the monarchy are working/have worked to change this law to indicate that the first-born (primogeniture) of children will be next in line, regardless of sex.  I have a different suggestion: a man becomes king only if he has no sisters.  Radical, yes, but perhaps a good plan. Let’s look back at the British monarchy over its many year history.  Arguably, the most successful monarchs have been women–Elizabeths I and II, and Victoria.  Victoria, I think was the best monarch the UK ever saw. The men had winners too, of course, but they were very hit and miss. For every Henry V and his valiant Band of Brothers speeches on St. Crispin’s day, there was an AEthelred the Unready.  Just saying.

Experts (who on earth can call themselves an expert on this, I wonder) think that the names Elizabeth and Diana will probably be middle names if the child is a girl.  Royals are typically given 4 or 5 names. Edward VIII was named Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.  So, there are plenty of names to go around.

As to the baby’s title, it’s complicated. Most Americans still call Kate by her name (Kate Middleton) or they call her a title she doesn’t actually have (princess). Because Prince William is not the son of the monarch but the grandson, when he got married he was given the title of Duke of Cambridge, and therefore Kate (now called Catherine) is the Duchess of Cambridge. Their first child will be called His/Her Royal Highness the Prince/ss of Cambridge.  Later children, if there are any, will be called Lord/Lady. Once the Queen dies, all of the children get the Prince/Princess title.  I’m not sure how this all works, but so says the interwebz.

The royal family doesn’t really have last names, because their titles are sufficient.  If a last name is necessary, the name Mountbatten-Windsor is used.

Assuming The Queen lives to see this child, she will be the first monarch to meet a great-grandchild who was directly in line for the throne.  The last was Queen Victoria, who met the future Edward VIII in 1894.  Edward VIII was the one who later abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson.  So let’s hope that isn’t indicative of anything.

Apparently invasion of privacy isn’t all that new.  Historically, the Home Secretary (sort of like our Secretary of Homeland Security in the US) had to attend royal births in order to ensure that the babies weren’t switched at some point. This tradition stopped in 1936, thank god.

Movie review: Lawrence of Arabia

Lawrence of ArabiaUsually, I am not the type of person very interested in ‘epic’ films.  I like classic movies, but they tend to be the sort of film that is very intimate in scale (Twelve Angry Men, Rear Window). The big epics that were popular in the ’50s and ’60s (The Ten Commandments, Spartacus) have never particularly interested me. Maybe this is partially because the action usually revolves around war or religion, two topics I prefer to ignore in life.

I decided to watch Lawrence of Arabia, despite it being set in war, because its a very interesting look at the British in a different context than you usually see.  A British officer who embraces a different culture and sees them (especially a culture that would have been called uncivilized at the time) as equals, and understands their interests.  A look at WWI not from the trenches in France, but from the periphery of the Middle East.  A look at the history of a region still obviously in conflict.  I saw T.E. Lawrence’s portrait when I visited Oxford, and I was fascinated by the legend.

This is definitely an epic film, with multiple battle scenes, a huge cast, and tons of footage shot in amazing and exotic places.  I find that the more ‘epic’ characteristics were irksome to me, but the film had enough human interaction to sate my need for character-driven action.  I think that it actually reminded me a lot of Bridge Over the River Kwai. It dealt with a foreign culture and its relations to the British, and the lunacy that war can create in any man.

So, who was T.E. Lawrence?  A British officer, educated but insolent, stationed in Cairo during World War I. That much is verified by historical accounts. The film takes license with other areas of the history, so I won’t presume to know much about T.E. Lawrence, the man. The character, however, is a very interesting man.  Very interesting and very human.  He’s showy, arrogant, but also very smart and very capable.  I’d wager he’s a great chess player.

Lawrence is given an assignment to meet with a Prince Faisal, a leader of some of the nomadic tribes in Arabia.  He impresses the prince by seeing the conflict and the decisions from the perspective of the Arabs as an independent nation, not just from the perspective of the British as needing their support.  He doesn’t just pay perfunctory respect to the prince, but actually respects and comprehends his difficult position.  The British are offering to supply arms and training to fight the Turks, against which the Arabs are getting completely slaughtered. How do you fight planes with a horse and a sword?  But, in exchange for the weapons and training, the Arabs would become more or less a garrison under the British Army’s control, and cease to be an independent state.

A little note for the sake of political correctness–I realize that Arab is not a term I should be using to describe all of the people in the movie, who were not in any way united, and were from diverse tribes and cultures.  On the other hand, the movie refers to them that way partially because Lawrence’s biggest challenge and biggest hope is to achieve a unified nation that can defend and regulate itself outside of British control.  So, I’m using the term to reflect that and, honestly, to make my life simpler in writing this.  No offense intended.

Carrying on.  Lawrence suggests that the Arabs try to take control of the city of Aqaba from the Turks, and use this as a point from which to defend themselves without falling under British rule.  Consider how amazing this idea is coming from a product of a culture that had literally spent the last 150 years trying to turn the entire map red.  The culture that said ‘The sun never sets on the English Empire’.  It’s an amazingly incongruous idea from a Brit of that era.  But nonetheless.

Lawrence sets across the desert to try to accomplish his goal.  I won’t recount the entire rest of the plot, but here are a few general themes.  As Lawrence sees it, the main problem the Arabs have is infighting–the different tribes kill each other over rivalries, over access to water, over eye-for-an-eye justice systems.  While they fight one another, it is far simpler for them to be ruled by someone else, or to be defeated by the Turks.  Lawrence seeks to unite them in the fight.  In order to do so, he has a few strategies–he (knowingly or naively) becomes a symbol of power and courage, and attracts what are essentially disciples in his war, he offers the spoils of war in the form of the pillaging of supplies (from horses and food to fine clocks and guns), and he does whatever he can to avoid the flare-ups of tribal hostilities.  A pivotal scene is when a man from tribe A kills the man from tribe B.  Under law, the murderer must be killed. But if someone from tribe B kills the man, then that man must be killed. Etc.  Lawrence has no choice.  He kills the man. Justice is served and no further deaths need occur.  But that is the form of justice he must embrace in order to achieve his ends. Eventually, the Arabs and Lawrence do gain control of several key cities (but not without incredible loss and bloodshed of a gut-wrenching variety) and they set up their own government instead of allowing British rule.  But it cannot last, no matter how desperately Lawrence hopes for compromise and peace and something resembling democracy/a parliamentary republic.  It’s a failure in the end, and the British swoop in to gain control over the area.

What this process, this fruitless journey does to Lawrence is very depressing.  He is fairly likeable at the beginning, perhaps because he is a non-conformist who dares challenge authority even while surrounded by feckless bureaucrats with no sense of responsibility for what they are doing in that region. Once he begins to ‘go native’, adopting cultural mores of the Arabs (the wearing of robes) and abandoning those of the British (shaving daily), he becomes almost saint-like.  This is personified by his flowing white robes, shining in the desert sun.  His image begins to tarnish when his guerrilla warfare becomes more dirty and brutal (validating the British sense of fair play). He begins to have blood soaked into his robes. First, by a bullet that grazes his arm.  Then by the blood of others in his brutal assaults on the Turks.  When he is caught in Turkey and whipped repeatedly, blood soaks through his robes for days afterward.  After this incident, even when he returns to his British army uniform, the blood soaks through.  Like Lady Macbeth, it won’t wash clean.  This is a fairly obvious allegory for how his soul is becoming tainted and dirty from his actions. The blood soaking through his uniform is clearly saying that even when he goes home to England, he won’t be able to brush off the blood on his hands.  By the end of the film, when he has bribed and cajoled thousands to their deaths and to participate in the deaths of others, he’s useless to the Brits and the Arabs, and is more damaged than can be described.

So is the message of the movie that this is an uncivilized area of the world unable to govern itself?  I hope not.  Considering what this journey does to Lawrence, I think it means that anyone from outside the culture, no matter how much they know about it or feel they can understand or adopt it, they cannot control or change it. Change, if it should come, must come from within.  It has to be in the minds of the people themselves, and not something which they are steered toward by an outsider.  I think that’s a good message.

People that don’t like Shakespeare might point to the difficulty they have understanding it, but no one can deny that reading/watching Shakespeare can provide endless different interpretations of the same play.  I’m not a fan of the epic movie, and this movie wasn’t really an exception in that arena.  On the other hand, it has given me a lot to think about, and in that way, I think it was a really excellent film.  Very thought-provoking.

A note, though.  IT’S FUCKING LONG.  It’s nearly FOUR hours long.  And bleak.  Just a warning, if you’re thinking about watching it.  Make sure you don’t have anything else to do that day.

There are a million other things I could say about this movie. The locations they chose are amazing and give you an incredible sense of the scale of these massive deserts, and what sort of culture might be able to endure such a harsh climate.  The acting is superb–Peter O’Toole as Lawrence, Alec Guinness as Faisel, Omar Sharif as Sheriff Ali. Some of the best acting I think I’ve ever seen.  I could also talk for an extended period about the utter nonsense of having Alec Guinness play the King of Syria/Iraq. In brown face.  It doesn’t sit well with a modern sensibility.  Not quite as terrible as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan, but pretty bad.  I’ll spare you my ruminations, however. The bottom line: despite its faults, it’s a movie worth seeing.

Book Review: Wolf Hall

9780312429980I had very high hopes for this book. It was the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which is a list that provides me with incredibly good reading every single year.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the second of those books (Bringing Up The Bodies) won the Man Booker prize this year. It’s also historical fiction, which I love.  I was entirely ready to love this book.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t.

Wolf Hall is the first book in the ongoing Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel.  Thomas Cromwell was a true historical figure, a close adviser to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII.  Wolf Hall concentrates on the end of Cromwell’s time with Cardinal Wolsey and the beginning of his close relationship with Henry.

The Tudor period seems very popular in the last decade, from the Jonathan Rhys Meyers series, The Tudors to The Other Boleyn Girl. To me, it’s not nearly as interesting a time in England as the Victorian era, but that’s just personal preference. I think this is the first historical fiction I have read set in the 16th century, and I did learn a lot about the period and the history and about Henry VIII.

I usually start my book reviews with a brief synopsis, but I cannot do so with this book.  And therein lies the problem (one of them) with the book.  Things happen, for certain, but not along a traditional plot line with rising action, a climax, and a resolution.  It seems to be more just a recording of things that happen over nearly a decade in these characters’ lives.  No one event is given more weight, importance, or consequences than any other event.  The book has the pace of real life, with the tragic and epic occurring just alongside the everyday and the insignificant. This makes it very realistic, but I think it does not make for good fiction. I couldn’t tell you a specific reason why Mantel started this story where she did and stopped it where she did.  I can’t tell you what I was supposed to glean from this portion of Cromwell’s life.  Since it is a trilogy, the lack of proper ending is understandable–the very last page leads directly into the next book in the series–but there is just no story arch in this book.  Some of the most devastating events happen sporadically in the middle of the book, such as the deaths of some of Cromwell’s family members due to plague.
I just couldn’t get a handle on this story in terms of a recognizable plot.

The book covers a period in English history of religion and monarchy in extreme tension.

Brief history lesson, if you don’t remember your high school classes/that Simpsons episode: Henry VIII was married to Katherine, the Spanish princess. She gave birth to Princess Mary, but was not successful in producing a male heir.  As she aged, Henry VIII became anxious about having someone to take over as King.  At the same time, Anne Boleyn caught his eye as a possible mistress, but she basically teased him and bribed him until he found a way to annul his marriage to Katherine and marry her instead.

At the same time, the reformation of the Catholic church was spreading from Germany (much of it directly resulting from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses), and there were parties in England interested in reforming the church in their country.  These two interests became united in one solution. The king was convinced to break with the church  after the pope refused to grant him an annulment from Katherine.  So what was kind of a personal thing (marriage) became a huge issue that influenced the religion of everyone in England (and the US if you want to argue causation) for several centuries.  The Anglican church became the official church of England, with the Monarchy at its head. For several hundred years, Catholicism was outlawed (except for brief respites).

Okay, enough history.  So this was a huge, very important thing in England all stemming from/hinging upon Henry’s desire for a male heir.  It’s a really fascinating time in history, and Henry and Anne are a very interesting pair.  It should make for a great book.

Unfortunately, the plot is just non-existent. The action has sort of bookends on either side of the reformation. At the beginning, Cardinal Wolsey is just beginning to fall into disfavor and to have his lands and wealth reclaimed by the crown. The action ends with the death of Sir Thomas More, who was I suppose the last holdout stopping the progress of the English Reformation at the time. Other than that, the action just seems to occur in order and have no significance attached to it.

The writing is not bad, but it is very difficult to follow. Each person has different names/titles, and often they are referred to as one and then the other.  Examples include referring to Stephen Gardner as Stephen Gardner, as Gardner, as Bishop of Winchester, as Winchester, as Master Secretary, etc.  This is all one guy, but she flits between referring to him as one thing, then another, then a third.  Add to that, the lack of dialogue tags in most of the dialogue.  All of Cromwell’s thoughts and quotes are identified by ‘he said’. If you’re lucky, she throws you a ‘he, Cromwell, said’.  It’s very difficult to tell who is speaking and to whom.  I would have to go back and reread paragraphs to decipher what was going on.  What on earth is wrong with just saying ‘Cromwell said’ or ‘Cromwell thought’.  Or ‘I said’/’I thought’. It’s like she didn’t want to commit to first person or third person, and decided instead to confuse the hell out of everyone.  Just pick!

There are also a lot of characters, and the list in the front does include most of them, but not in a very helpful arrangement. Add to that the fact that it doesn’t list all of their titles, despite the fact that people are often referred to by their titles.  There are six or seven dukes running around the novel, but sometimes speech is identified just by ‘the duke said’.  It was really hard to follow.

So there is no plot and it is hard to read.  There were only two redeeming features of this novel, in my opinion.  One was the complexity of the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with so many complex and varied characters. A particular highlight is the mercurial king and his equally capricious Anne.  Their relationship, their mannerisms, the way they affect everyone around them, it’s all very interesting to read and drawn out realistically.  They were the highlight of the book for me.

The other saving grace of the work was how clear it was that Mantel had done her research. I learned a lot about the period and about London, and the book made the history of the time come alive more completely than any history text I’ve ever read. When you read about these things in history class, it seems so brief, concise, and altered. Binary, really. One minute, they were a Catholic country, and the next minute, they were Protestant. But this book shows just how long, drawn out, and completely hypocritical the whole thing was.  One minute, Sir Thomas More is torturing reformists and people who had the gall to circulate the Bible in English (in England… just let that sink in for a minute, that that was a crime) and by the end of the book, More is being executed for treason/heresy.  There are a lot of executions in the book, and almost all of them are for people following their own beliefs about religion, and not the ones that the government was (that day) shoving down their throats.  All I can say is, in this environment, it’s no wonder the pilgrims were headed to the New World less than 100 years later. Being burned alive for saying the communion wafers/bread is not really the body of Christ is a bit extreme, yes?

So, this book was a disappointment. Add to that, the fact that it was really long (604 pages) and I was glad to be finished with it.  I’m disappointed I didn’t like it more, because I thought perhaps I would read the second one.  I don’t think I have the energy, unfortunately.  If you’re really obsessed with the Tudor era, and have a lot of patience to decipher dialogue with no tags, then you might enjoy this.  But expect it to take a while and feel incomplete at the end.

Also, if you’re curious (as I was), the Thomas Cromwell described in the book is distantly related to the Oliver Cromwell who took over England in the mid-17th century.  Oliver was Thomas’ sister’s grandson.  So he was Oliver’s great-uncle, I think.  It’s kind of amazing to think of a family coming from absolute obscurity (no money or noble pedigree) and having one be chief adviser to the King, and then a relative be ‘Lord Protector’ and de facto dictator of that same country.  And they say there is no upward movement in the British class system.