Saturday, 22 October 2011

Reading 'Emma' by Jane Austen

As she was writing 'Emma' Austen may have had little idea that this would be the last novel published in her lifetime, but she was certain about one thing: "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." She undeniably succeeded - the best thing about Emma is that she is such a caricature. She feels she has a right to interfere with people's lives and is always right. Even when she is shown the catastrophic consequences of her actions, she still doesn't learn. Unfortunately this means when Austen gives her a happy ending, it feels both anti-climatic and, in want of a better word, undeserving. She is not deliberately mean and she clearly has the best intentions, but Austen's biased favour for her character does mean Emma is intolerable at times.

However the overall tone is one of frivolity, well for the 19th Century anyway, which allows for some forgiveness for the melodramatic aspects of the novel. The characters are all lively and make many humorous quips. Indeed, it is in the dialogue that Austen is at her finest. Each character has a distinct way of speaking, which writers often find difficult to achieve. Miss Bates' babble in particular stands out, often filling a whole page on absolutely nothing; by far my favourite character. This is probably because all the rest are generally snobs, albeit entertaining ones. There are many of them, and almost all of them have their own sub-story. As such this means that it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the more minor characters, but they are usually not very involved in the plot. And there is the major fault I have - the plot.

I have already expressed my disappointment with the ending, but actually it doesn't feel like an ending. The whole story is just a series of events, based around the social occassions of the village. As such if you have no investment in the characters, the novel will become unbearable. As with any social occassion, there is much organisation required and Austen spends far too much time explaining the meticulous preparations. Even though the events themselves are of some interest, like when you know the secrets to a trick, they lose the initial impact. The romances between the characters are also drawn out a bit too much, which is a shame: particularly as when the characters discuss these relationships, Austen's flair for dialogue provides some biting commentary and luscious imagery,

To Austen's credit, she doesn't openly state, as narrator, 'Aren't these characters ridiculous?'; she simply shows us their attitudes and behavior, and allow us to draw our own conclusions. Personally, I enjoyed it's light touch and lack of overarching drama. As my first Austen, it wasn't too overwhelming but I did feel that because of when it was written (1816), it's lightness feels excessive nowadays and uses more words than perhaps seems necessary to tell the story.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Watching and Reading 'Jane Eyre'

Novels with a classic status which were written in the 19th century are assumed to be of a high quality and worthy literature. The undeniable difference of writing style can jar with a modern audience, as they will be more aware of the ideas and themes that the novel created. So the concept of the unreliable narrator and the mad woman in the attic (pretty much the only thing that made me want to read the novel) cause less of a shock then when originally published. So is 'Jane Eyre' still worth reading, and what impact has the recent film adaption made on it's popularity?
 Jane is a child who is constantly mistreated and misunderstood by adults. Then at 18, she enters the household of Mr Rochester and encounters a very different kind of gentleman. Despite being a very simple story, the novel is not an easy read and does take a long time to get through. But as with all these period novels the length is justified by creating well-rounded characters. They all have a distinct personality that prevents confusion, and as such easily allows the reader to either loathe them (such as Jane's adopted family as a child or John Rivers, a later guardian) or love them (her aid Mrs. Fairfax and Jane's childhood friend Helen). However it is clear from their first meeting that the focus of the story and our emotional involvement is with Jane and Mr. Rochester.

By having Jane narrate the story, we are allowed an insight into two seemingly impenetrable characters. Apart from with Mr. Rochester, her relationships with the other characters rarely allow her to release her emotions and thoughts, due to her low social status. They do not expect great things from her or any sense of humanity; she is just a governess, a servant, a woman. But neither does she appreciate being patronised or insulted; she has a strong personality and force of will, which only the reader and Mr Rochester are aware of. On the other hand, Mr Rochester is impenetrable because everyone wants to know and understand him but he chooses not to - except for 'plain' Jane.

It is very difficult not to be enraptured by their blossoming romance, especially if like me you are a sucker for that type of thing. It is possible to take a completely different reading and claim that their relationship is mostly based on tension, particularly with the mood swings and secrets of Mr Rochester. However this tension is often read as merely the romance being left unstated by the characters, which you wouldn't know was there if Jane didn't suggest it in her narration.

 While this is relatively unclear in the novel, the recent film adaption captured it perfectly. Like the book, by far the best thing about the film is the performances by Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender in the lead roles. For some peculiar reason, I had never imagined Jane with a Yorkshire accent, but Wasikowska was so fluent that it seemed natural and makes perfect sense, emphasising her separation to the rigid higher members of society. Throughout you are completely devoted to her character's plight, especially as we are introduced to her fleeing from the house of Rochester - a brave move but very effectively allows the story to feel fresh to those who already know the story, and provides a dramatic start for new comers.

Initially I became worried that the depth of the character would not be explored. It's innovative structure means it glosses over, perhaps too quickly, her school days. While the focus on the major set-pieces are captivating (the death of a friend, her punishment by her 'headmaster') we gain no sense of how important this environment was to her development, making her departure seem rushed and unmotivated. Nevertheless this approach pays off when the story ups a notch with the introduction of Rochester in a breathtaking Gothic sequence. By focusing on the major set pieces of the novel, with character development in between, the film provides the story with brevity that hopefully will pique the audience's interest in the novel, which provides a more detailed exploration of the characters.

The real highlights though are when the themes of the book are visualised on screen. They both explore the idea of humanity in nature, and how Jane in particular cannot resist what feels natural to her, rather than what is expected from her. While this is referenced in the book through Jane's inner conflict, the film actually places her in the middle of wilderness and moors - the images naturally recalling those depicted in 'Wuthering Heights by Charlotte's sister, Emily.

I could spend far more time describing the similarities between those two novels, but it's all been done before. Even though I prefer 'Heights' for it's unashamed Gothic darkness and ferocity, I did enjoy 'Jane Eyre' despite it's relatively lighter tone. It is well worth reading and deserve it's classic status purely through producing two captivating characters involved in a timeless and enduring romantic relationship.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Watching 'Hidden' - Episode 1. Thursday 6th October

In rcent years, it has struck me that the mystery/spy genre has undergone a transformation. Partly this is because I have only in the last few years taken a interest in it, but these were relatively straightforward mystery stories such as Jonathan Creek and Agatha Christie's novels. While these are both terrific, recent examples on TV and film I've seen have made much more of an effort to provide style with the substance. Both 'Case Histories', starring (Hello to) Jason Issacs as Jackson Brodie, and 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' (which I will discuss in more detail sometime soon) had gripping plots fantastically intertwined with interesting characters and dynamic direction. It is with some earnest that 'Hidden' tries to achieve a similar outcome.

Phillip Glenister stars as Harry Venn, a detective / private eye sort of character, who is trying to move on from the tragic death of his brother some years ago. Only for a mysterious figure or two suggesting a different outcome, but this information requires some legwork from Venn, guaranteed to get him into trouble. And this is only scratching the surface. There has been some sort of unspoken revolution recently, where the audience is expected to have some intelligence and are more willing to watch programmes that don't necessarily follow a linear style, and the fragmented style has produced some remarkable productions.

Unfortunately not in this case. I found this a mess of ideas, which are all interesting in their own right. The mystery story runs parallel with an attempt at social commentary, with a coalition on the point of collapse as London is filled with rioters. I have no problem with having different stories playing out along side each other, but neither kept me gripped. By trying to do too much, it ends up doing very little of anything. The detective story is riddled with cliches and even Harry's personal background failed to strike new ground - having a relationship with his ex-wife while failing to control his son. This should be dramatic but fails to rise above mediocre. 'Case Histories' was also susceptible to a stereotypical dysfunctioning family, but the conviction of the performances and strength of the writing there made them intriguing. Compare the two put-upon receptionists: CH's was sarcastic and lively woman who actually challenges Jackson's authority, while in 'Hidden' he is a bland and annoying caricature who leaves little impression on the viewer.

Phillip Glenister succeeds in shrugging off the overbearing Gene Hunt from 'Life on Mars' and 'Ashes to Ashes' that made him memorable. He is clearly playing a different character, but a far less interesting one. Try as he might, he aroused no interest in me and I found myself caring litle about his difficult encounters. And then there's the political subplot that seems like it's come from a completely different show. I was very dissapointed with this as the mystery is still of some interest, if badly under developed. No matter how inventive the direction and visuals, if the story isn't up to scratch, I'm not interested.

16th October: In addition I attempted to watch episode 2 earlier and found that it was much the same as before, with little development that was of any interest. It says a lot when even David Suchet cannot tempt me to continue.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Nebulous Series 1

1. Night of the Vegetarians                                  2. The Loverly Invasion
3. The Dust Has Landed                        4. Madness is A Strange Colour
5. The Coincidence Machine              6. The Man Who Polished The Sun

There is always something about Mark Gatiss' work that feels old-fashioned, whether it is pastiche (Crooked House, his take on M. R. James-like stories) or tribute (A History of Horror, a fascinating exploration of his favourite eras of horror films). As such it is not surprising that in his Doctor Who stories, there is a definite feel that he is attempting to recapture the 'classic' magic the show had - where storytelling and scares was the main focus rather than the spectacle now deemed necessary in modern television. Gatiss' loving fan loyalty to the show has been well documented within his numerous Who books, audios and television stories to such an extent that even he parodies his near-obsessiveness in this terrifying but hilarious sketch.

Nevertheless, Gatiss got involved with one more Who-related project, which ended up as Nebulous. A blatant parody of many aspects of the old series of Doctor Who, it is occasionally difficult to try and judge it on it's own terms. So that is what I hav tried to do and unfortunately it means that it's not as fun as it could and, perhaps, should have been.

First of all, it is very silly. Really silly. But knowingly so, which makes all the difference. Not only does the script constantly laugh at it's own plot, the cast give very exaggerated performances, with Rosie Cavaliero and writer Graham Duff terrifically and successfully fulfilling the sterotypical love interest and smart-arse involvingly. Gatiss in the starring role is brilliantly deadpan, refusing to camp up too much the technobabble and ridiculous observations ("I refused to listen to my brain or my eyes or the facts") The numerous guest apperances also get the tone spot on with David Warner being his usual brilliant self in unsual circumstances, as well as the three aliens in 'The Loverly Invasion' including a subdued Nicholas Briggs - a rare sight much appreciated.

So on a performance level it succeeds, so why the dissapointment? It's so determined to parody the science-fiction that nothing else is really that involving. There are very good jokes within and I laughed enough to leave me happy when it finished. yet ask me the plots and I'd struggle. They aren't complicated but they're just not that interesting. It is primarily a comedy rather than science fiction, which doesn't stop it adressing interesting ideas such as the titular 'The Coincidence Machine' But when it's strength is in jokes about the rubbish side of old sci-fi, attempts at comedy about the ridiculous characters' relationships don't really work.

This was the first series of three and while I will listen to the other series if they are broadcast, this is not a series I am desperate to hear again. Truly a show to listen to if your ready for a silly, light-hearted half hour or more, but not a lot else.