Tag Archives: Germany

Downton Abbey, season Four

downton-abbey-season-4-cast-photo

Before I even begin to talk about this season, which just ended in the UK and premieres on PBS this January, I have to say that if you have not seen this season, do not read any further.  To say there are spoilers would be an understatement.  I do not want to ruin all the pain you’re going to experience, particularly at mid-season.

You have been warned! Past here there be dragons spoilers!

There’s one even that is of premiere importance in this season, but I’m going to start with some other thoughts that occurred to me as I watched this season.

1-This season, and this season alone, changed my mind about some of the male characters.  For one thing, Lord Grantham is a big ole pain in the ass. He got on my bad list in the very first episode. In a callback to season 1, once again Mary’s place as an heir to Downton is in doubt.  And, despite all that she’s been through, and her undeniable abilities, Lord Grantham doesn’t think she’s capable–or just does not want to share power with anyone.  I know this is the 1920s, and women had just gained suffrage in the UK and in the US.  But Julian Fellowes has portrayed Lord Grantham, not as a sexist, but as someone who just doesn’t want other people interfering in what he views as his own responsibilities.  And he tries to do it once again, planning to skip Mary as a partner in the estate and only turn over his ‘powers’ to her son when he comes of age.  I think I find it all the more insulting and annoying that he either can’t see or doesn’t care that Mary a-needs this and b-is completely capable of excelling at it. I found my affection for Mary growing by just as much as my dislike for Lord Grantham.

And Bates?  I’ve heard chatter before that he and Anna don’t belong together, because she is young and wonderful, and he is old and a killjoy. I never understood it before, because I quite liked their story.  But now, I totally get it.  In mid-season, before the …event… Anna was having a good time, having some fun! What did Bates do?  Sulk and be angry and not join in.  And what did Julian Fellowes do?  Punish Anna, obviously.  More on that later. But after the event? I felt some sympathy for Bates–he doesn’t know what’s wrong, he’s done nothing but his wife is just gone from him.  But when he finds out? Instead of doing what Anna needs (supporting her, helping her to move on), he focuses on what he needs: revenge.  And he gets it.  I suppose there are people who think he didn’t do it, but I’m not one of them.  I was never entirely certain he didn’t kill his wife, and now this?  We know he’s violent, we know he’s single-minded.  Anna, you deserve better.

2-The one character I disliked for the entire season was Rose.

Lilly-James-as-Lady-Rose-in-Downton-Abbey-set-to-star-as-CinderellaI get that they needed to inject some youth and optimism into the cast, because they killed off lovely, wonderful Sybil, and turned Mary into a widow.  Edith never was cheerful.  But didn’t Julian Fellowes learn anything from Cousin Oliver on the Brady Bunch? No one likes the new kid.  Rose is no Sybil. Rose is vapid and willfully naive, with the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old.  Sybil was kind and thoughtful, rebellious when she believed in something, but not rebellious for the sake of rebellion.  Rose only wants to shock; it’s a desperate cry for attention from her disinterested parents, and it is boring. Get rid of her.

To be fair, she didn’t annoy me too much at the beginning of the season.  But by the end I was rolling my eyes, and truly a bit disturbed by her desire to marry someone out of a combination of youthful infatuation and to anger her mother.

3-Can we talk about Mary’s suitors?  First, there’s Lord Gillingham

198200-lord-gillinghamHe didn’t seem too bad, at first.  I don’t think he’s a villain, at least.  But you can’t go from saying ‘Oh, Mary, I only want you’, then immediately become engaged to someone else, but still hang around frequently hoping Mary will change her mind.  That has me very suspicious. At best, he’s wishy-washy and lacks courage.  At worst, he cares very little for the feelings of either woman in question.

Then there’s Mr. Napier

-Evelyn_napierHis character is too bland and flimsy to ever have a remote chance with Mary, but unfortunately he doesn’t seem to know that. His chief function in this season (despite boring me to death) is to introduce his friend, Mr. Blake, to Mary.  Mr. Blake is the obvious choice for Mary’s next beau.  Of course, they claim to dislike each other passionately at first. Mr. Blake is very cynical about the upper classes, and thinks they don’t deserve their wealth.  Mary is (understandably) offended by this, and dislikes having him around.  Remember season 1, when Matthew and Mary got off on the wrong fit along similar topics?  Matthew’s middle class background, his insistence upon working, his reluctance to have a valet…it’s all echoed in Mr. Blake.  downton-abbey-series-4-charles-blake

And, like clockwork, the two begin to feel differently about one another.  Mary earns Blake’s respect when she proves that she is willing to change and adapt in order to keep Downton financially successful.  Her active role in the estate, along with Tom’s guidance, bring Downton into the 20th century (against Lord Grantham’s wishes).  It’s easy to see reasons why Blake and Mary will continue to be thrown together, and that’s who I’ve got my money on.

4-Edith.  I didn’t mind her this season!  I am really confused about why her beau just went missing at random, apparently as soon as he arrived in Germany!  Germany wasn’t a particularly good place to go at this time, I think, but I find it hard to believe he disappeared without a trace.  Edith kept mentioning that private detectives and the police were searching for him, but we never seemed to see any proof of that–correspondence with them, or with his office in London.  It was just sort of an undercurrent to the latter half of the show, without ever being brought to the forefront.  I found that very strange, and am very curious.  One assumes that he’ll turn up at Christmas, but then I expected him to turn up at the last episode of the series, so that proves my instincts are generally wrong.  Either way, her story line made me extremely grateful to live in a time with birth control.

Well, there’s nothing else to discuss except the big thing this season.  No deaths, no war, no Spanish flu or miscarriages.  But what Julian Fellowes did to Anna seems worse than all of them.  I (and a lot of people who watch the show) felt that it was like a slap in the face. So, let’s talk about why it does and does not make sense for rape to be a feature of this show.

For one thing, it absolutely did happen, and it was covered up.  When you have a society that prizes secrecy as fervently as the Victorians & Edwardians did, you are never going to even be able to estimate how prevalent a problem it was.  And when you have girls in positions of submission, as maids in houses owned by powerful men, they don’t feel capable of speaking out.  Even if the crime wasn’t perpetrated by one of the family, a maid would probably lose her position if she admitted what had happened. The family wouldn’t want any shame brought on them.  So…we can be sure it happened, and we can be sure it happened far more than we could ever prove.  The majority of the time, the perpetrators probably faced no consequences.  Is that an important topic to cover in a history of the period? Sure.

On the other side of the coin, this is not a nonfiction.  This is a primetime soap opera. In the past, it has shown no remorse in exploiting tragedy and death to garner ratings and accolades. But it’s also an idealized version of past reality.  Shows and their show-runners have a pact with their audience.  An agreement among the two parties.  The show-runners provide titillation and excitement, depression and happiness.  They are allowed to play with our emotions, because we like it.  We enjoy a cathartic cry over the deaths, and we smile at our television sets when the hero and heroine finally get together.  We get enjoyment for watching, but we are giving a bit of ourselves to the show, being vulnerable to whatever happens next.  The same pact exists between writers and readers.  As I said, we expect to be tossed and turned a certain amount; that’s what we want.  But it’s a delicate balance, and when the powers-that-be go too far, we feel hard done by, used and abused. I can’t adequately describe how furious I was when I read Atonement.

Julian Fellowes has done a good job, up to this season, creating a safe but believable world. A world where bad things do happen, but usually because of huge ineffable forces like war or disease.

And has Julian Fellowes broken our contract this season?  I think he has.  I feel cheaply thrown about with no real purpose or reason.  Other times, he has stretched believability to create a safe and acceptable version of actual history. The most obvious examples are the ways the family dealt with Thomas’ homosexuality, or the black bandleader, Jack.  We like watching Downton Abbey because the 1920s seem more polite, more elegant, less harsh and grating.  Undoubtedly they were, if you were a rich, white man.  In truth, very few people would have been accepting of gay people in their homes, or black Jazz musicians performing for them. It’s the sad and terrible truth of it.  We overlook it when Julian Fellowes fibs to us, because it makes it easier to enjoy the world he’s created for us.  But, as is often the case, a lie that placates us is twice as acceptable as a truth that hurts us.

He punished Anna, the best of the lot of them, and destroyed all her happiness.  And there is something truly disturbing about a man, with his own share of power, writing a rape scene for a young girl.  And then a real woman has to act out that horrible scene.  It’s almost like a mirror of the attack itself. It reminds me of tales of Alfred Hitchcock, who tortured some of his actresses (notably Tippi Hedron) with horrible scenes and multiple takes in the Birds, who wanted to tear her down and used his scripts and his direction to do it. I’m not saying Julian Fellowes is a vile pervy old man, but when I think about the scene in this light it is even more difficult to accept.

I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt this was too much to deal with from what has been a safe space.  In reality, though, if you kept watching past that episode, you’ll keep watching the rest of the season.  And on to the Christmas special! I think it would have been a better season without the rape, but it was still good enough that I kept tuning in and wanting to watch.

Spies of Warsaw

Spies of WarsawBBC America aired this 2-part miniseries in April, though it aired in the UK in January.  The miniseries was based on a spy novel by Alan Furst, and takes place in Poland (obviously) and throughout central Europe in the late ’30s. David Tennant plays Colonel Mercier, a French aristocrat and spy. Janet Montgomery plays Anna Skarbek, an official with the League of Nations and Mercier’s love interest.

I can’t say I loved it, to be honest.  I think there are a number of reasons for this –some my own preferences and some general problems with the miniseries–and I’ll run down them briefly.

First, I’m not crazy about the subject matter.  Almost all thoughts of World War II make me so upset as to be nauseous. The only thing that terrifies me more than Nazi uniforms are Hitler Youth uniforms.  But this is my own personal preference, and doesn’t reflect on the quality of the series.

Second, the format left something to be desired.  This was two 2-hour episodes; 2 full movies in other words.  I think there could have been a lot more tension built around the characters’ fates if it was split into maybe 4 parts.  I wasn’t entertained enough by it to focus solely on it for two entire hours.  And this isn’t just my attention span that is the problem–each episode of Sherlock is 90 minutes long, and I’m riveted for most every second.  I couldn’t fathom picking up my iPhone and doing solitaire while watching that.  I spent good chunks of my viewing time for Spies of Warsaw playing a geography game on my phone.  Hey, anyone need to know where Guinea-Bissau is? Because I’m hoping that knowledge will bring me the big bucks in life.  The point is, it was too long and moved too slowly for 2 hour blocks at a time.

I think that the miniseries has something in common with Parade’s Endwhich was on HBO a few months ago.  Each dealt with the lead-up to war.  Each featured a smart, strong male lead convinced that war was coming.  Both protagonists struggled to make their compatriots understand the catastrophe Germany was about to unleash upon Europe.  Stylistically, both featured long (long for a modern film audience) shots of not much action, interspersed with more tense and action-filled scenes.  Each had good acting and good writing, and yet each suffered from the problem of not quite connecting emotionally with the audience.  And I’m not enough of a film student to comprehend what about each fails to really move me.  I liked Parade’s End a lot at times, but with Spies of Warsaw, I found it difficult to care much about what was happening.  I think my apathy came partially from not having a vulnerable or relate-able main character.  Mercier sees what his coworkers do not, he’s a great spy, he cares about people, he is too good and too capable.  It takes away from the tension of what might happen to him, because even in moments of distress and danger it seems impossible that he won’t come out of it just fine.

I will say that these two miniseries (plus Casablanca) have utterly convinced me that love affairs are really difficult in situations of World War.  Note to self.

David Tennant’s acting is great. I’ve seen him play serious before (Hamlet, for example) and he’s really good.  The female character, Anna, has almost no personality in it, so they didn’t give Janet Montgomery much to work with. In response to finding out her new boyfriend is a spy, she…doesn’t say anything, really.  I would have liked both characters to be far more flawed, unsure, stumbling along through ridiculous times.  It does an audience no good to think of anyone existing at that time as a paragon.

I remember watching a great but horribly violent movie, fittingly titled A History of Violence.  Viggo Mortenson plays some sort of ex-mafia criminal who starts a new life in a small town and is completely reformed.  When someone tries to rob his restaurant, instinct kicks in and Mortenson’s character kills the robbers in self-defense.  From that moment, his past starts to come back to haunt him. His wife (Maria Bello) finds out who and what he was, and she has an incredible reaction.  Vomiting, shouting, running out of the room, and then they have this crazy, scary, exciting sex scene.  It’s a real and varied and unnerving response to finding out your beloved is not who or what they said they were.  When I think about Anna Skarbek’s character, I don’t expect the same reaction, but it almost seemed like there wasn’t one.  She finds out her new beau is a spy and she….just kind of accepts it and moves on.  I suppose you could argue that everyone in the series is someone other than who they pretend to be.  After all, if you were inclined to disagree with Germany (or Russia, for that matter), you wouldn’t be inclined to advertise it.  Perhaps Anna is used to it, but I found it off-putting that she had such a monotonous emotional landscape.

To her credit, she does get properly angry with Mercier later when she thinks he ordered the French to turn her defector ex-boyfriend over to Stalin.

Confession: I am not a spy novel aficionado.  I don’t think I’ve ever read a spy novel. Maybe that’s part of the problem–I don’t speak the lingo.  On the other hand, I’ve seen Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and at least one other Bogart movie.  And I followed those just fine.  I think they were just better.  Also, I really liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which falls right in there with great spy films.   Spies of Warsaw has the music of a great spy film, and some of the quintessential visuals, but none of the tension.  And tension is everything.  Have you seen Strangers on a Train?  Hitchcock can make a tennis game the most tense and suspenseful thing in the world.  This was no Hitchcock, unfortunately.

They did a great job recreating a bleak and terrifying Central European landscape for this miniseries.  Security checks and random searches, the Poles sandwiched unhappily between the Gestapo on the west and the Russian NKVD (later, the KGB) on the east.  France being still (at this point) a relaxing place nicely separated from all the riff raff on the other side of the Black Forest.  Parties in Paris…but still a feeling of the doors closing in, for the Jews particularly.  The costuming, the set design, and the cinematography all made the world really believable.

I think the fault must lie in the pacing and the writing (two things that I imagine are closely intertwined when writing a movie/mini-series).  There’s not enough tension or enough direction in the plot.  It feels disconnected at times, and the ending is thoroughly confusing.  It tries to make you feel uplifted that they’ve escaped Poland (which is good, obviously) with a bunch of Polish gold to keep it from the Germans (also good).  But they’re headed to France, so the modern audience knows that this isn’t the end; this isn’t a happy ending, even though they almost literally walk off into the sunset.

Also, it is a bit confusing for an American audience to have two Brits with British accents playing a Frenchman and a Polish woman.  I kept forgetting Mercier was French.  Maybe this wouldn’t bother me if the actors were American, because I wouldn’t register their accents as something already foreign.  I doubt it bothered Brits.  Still, when you have David Tennant playing a French man with a British accent meeting an English aristocrat with an English accent, it’s difficult to remember they are supposed to be from different countries.  Others, like the Russian ex-boyfriend has a proper Russian accent.   Tennant explained the action choices in this Joycean quote:

There is actually an internal logic to the concept. Since the main character is French, but the audience is English-speaking, we hear him speak with a sort of a neutral English accent, and anyone else speaking English is actually speaking French, and the other nationalities speak English but with their natural accents, and the Germans speak German with English subtitles – which I suppose makes [the subtitles] French. I can see your eyes glazing over.

I think my brain just glazed over.  Sorry David, I love you and I don’t blame you, but this just wasn’t very good.