Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland) 2019

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Biographical historical costume drama is a relatively specific genre of movie, but one that is in vogue at the start of 2019, with “The Favourite” and “Stan and Ollie” also getting UK release in January this year. Colette captures the zeitgeist in other ways too, it is about female empowerment, we watch Colette slowly grow in confidence and competence after entering Paris as a young ingenue, the wife of a powerful and authoritarian man about town. The storyline about gender fluidity and sexual freedom is timely too, as her relationship with Missy is treated in an honest and positive manner.

The film is set in Paris and Burgundy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. It concentrates on the early life of Colette, the time of her first marriage, which was to Henry Gauthier-Villars a renowned Parisian socialite. It ends with the publication of the first Colette novel, although she was successful and notorious throughout the rest of her life, she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

The film is lovingly made and the dialogue is beautifully written, Wash Westmoreland obviously cares about Colette and admires her writing, the film is directed in a manner that reflects her style, unhurried and descriptive, although aside from a few double entendre witticisms the film is less racy than her books. Giles Nuttgens is the cinematographer – the rooms, houses and gardens all look lush and inviting. The acting throughout is wonderful. Keira Knightley gives us a great performance in the title role, we watch her grow in courage and independence as the film goes on. Timothy West is brilliant as Willy, her despotic yet hugely charismatic husband. A lovely combination of good writing and good acting makes you understand how this dictatorial man held sway over Colette’s strong personality for so long.

The cast is of the highest quality throughout. Denise Gough is wonderful as the convention defying Marquise de Belbeuf, Missy. She plays the part sympathetically and with gusto. She is shown as a major influence on Colette’s courage and bravura. Jake Graf has a nice cameo as Gaston de Caillavet and Fiona Shaw is lovely as Sido, Colette’s mother.

Colette is a beautifully made and beautifully written biopic about a strong revolutionary woman. It focuses on a specific period of her life and we get the story very definitely from her point of view, however as she herself says in the film “The hand that holds the pen writes history”. The film is uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable.

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This Charming Man, Marian Keyes, 2008

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It seems to me, from reviews that I have read, that Marian Keyes is not regarded as a serious author. I suspect that this comes from her novels being easy to read. “This Charming Man” is indeed easy to read, but that is because it is well written and not because it does not approach difficult subjects.

The main subjects of this book are abusive relationships, alcoholism and corruption in politics, with brief forays into living with a cancer diagnosis and isolation of cross dressers in rural communities. Marian Keyes has a deftness of touch and a sense of humour that manages to make this book engaging while still keeping the reader aware of the difficulties of the characters lives.

This is no less literature than Dickens or Austen, she has a great deal in common with Jane Austen in that the book is a good insight into society and the social norms of the time in which it is written. This story is told from the points of view of four different women and this is a structure also favoured by Austen. They also have wit in common and both poke gentle fun at their heroines as a way of pointing out the foibles of the culture in which they live. This novel is set in Dublin, London and County Clare.

Having said that, this particular novel is a little darker than some of her other books, although it is remarkable, maybe even a bit of a stretch, that she managed to tie up the loose ends quite as well as she did.

This Charming Man won the Popular Fiction Prize at the Irish Book Awards. I think it should have been considered for other more seriously regarded literary awards also, because there is no doubt that Marian Keyes’ books are going to be regarded as representative of late 20th, early 21st century literature in hundreds of years time.

 

Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen, 1818

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Northanger Abbey was actually written in the final years of the 18th Century but was not published until after her death in 1817. Although it has similarities in style and content to “Sense & Sensibility” and “Pride & Prejudice” there are also some major differences.

It is a comedy of manners, but it is more a satire of the gothic novels that were fashionable at the time. So, it does make gentle fun of the contemporary styles of the day, but this book is more specific in its target than her first two novels. This is not to say that she is not just as funny when pointing out the differences between what is said and what is meant in genteel society at that point in history, but this is not the main thrust of the novel.

The story is laid out in the style of a gothic horror novel, with many things foreshadowing dark happenings in the imagination of Catherine, our heroine. These intrigues usually turn out to be much more mundane, such as her discovering that the scrolls found in the desk are only an old laundry list. The books mentioned in the Northanger Abbey are real novels that were popular at the time and, Austen’s knowledge of their content and style shows that, she must have enjoyed reading them herself.

Catherine Morland is much more the ingénue than the usual lead character in a Jane Austen novel, she takes longer to notice when people are behaving badly towards her. This gives the author the opportunity to write some particularly materialistic and vain characters, she is merciless and sharp with these.

This book feels much less a Regency romantic comedy and more the story of an imaginative 17 year old girl leaving home for the first time. Catherine comes of age by realising that the world she has read about in her books is not quite the same as the world she occupies in real life. This gives it a universal truth that is just as true today as it was when it was first written.

In conclusion, although Northanger Abbey, would probably not be my first recommendation as an introduction to the novels of Jane Austen, it is nevertheless, a fine book and worthy of its place as a classic of English literature.

 

 

 

Sense and Sensibility (dir. Ang Lee) 1995

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Sense and Sensibility is a good film, but I believe that it is almost false advertising to call it by that name. The story is so changed from the book that, although the characters have the same names and the final result is the same, it is totally unrecognisable in places as the same story. Some quite major characters have been killed off.  John Middleton is now a widower and their young child no longer in the story.  Lucy Steele’s sister, who blabs the whole story if the illicit engagement, is not in the film. Hugh Grant is far too affable in character for the grumpy Edward Ferrars in the book. Alan Rickman too easily wins Marianne over after her disappointment in Willoughby.  In fact, in this film, almost the least charming character is Willoughby, who in the book wins over Marianne, and her mother, by his easy false charm.

The acting is good, Hugh Grant and Alan Rickman are very good playing the romantic leads in a costume drama set in the 18th century. Emma Thompson is full of repressed emotion and Kate Winslett is fine as an impulsive teenager falling in love easily and recovering easily. Imelda Staunton and Hugh Laurie are wonderfully funny as Mr and Mrs Palmer.

There are some great moments of humour, the script has some wonderful lines. It is visually very attractive and there is much to admire in the period detail. A great deal of care and attention went into the making of this film and it shows throughout the movie.

It was nominated for seven Oscars. It won the one for best adapted screenplay. It was hugely popular and led to a revival of sales of Jane Austen’s novels and for these reasons it must be celebrated. I would probably have liked it more had I not read the novel itself so recently.

The film itself is most enjoyable but do go to see it as a Hollywood representation of upper class England in the late 1790s and not as a  faithful adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, the book.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813

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“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” is probably the most famous opening line to a novel in the whole of the English language.

Pride and Prejudice is one of the most loved books as well, it recently came second in a BBC poll of Britain’s best loved books and first in a major Australian poll of theirs. It was the second of Jane Austen’s novels to be completed and it is even wittier than Sense and Sensibility, her first.

Jane Austen gives a great idea of what it was like to be middle class in England in the late 18th century. She manages to portray the hopes and aspirations of the time, while gently poking fun at them. She has a fantastic talent for writing characters and, even though every one of them is slightly caricatured, we care about them despite their faults. She has a wonderful art of showing how people fool themselves into believing what they wish to believe, and this has a timeless quality, just as true today as it was over 300 years ago.

First and foremost, Pride and Prejudice is a romantic novel and there are 4 wonderfully different romances going on here, from the quite inappropriate, through the mildly shocking, to the wildly romantic and we have insight, as it also a comedy of formal manners, into how polite society looks upon them all.

The language is relatively concise, less of the longwinded descriptive prose that was fashionable at the time and more of the pithy epigram. It is easy to read, the story pulls you along, each chapter leaves you wanting to know what will happen next. The ending is wonderful and I’m sure this novel is at least partly responsible for the popularity of costume drama even today.

There are many good reasons why this is still one the most popular books written in English and, if you wish to become acquainted with classic English Literature, there is no better place to start.

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Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811

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Jane Austen was one the early successes of the self-publishing phenomenon. Sense and Sensibility was her first novel to be published and she underwrote the not inconsiderable costs of the first print run of 750 copies herself. Luckily they all sold and she made a reasonable profit.

Sense and Sensibility is a romantic novel about the coming of age of two sisters at the end of the eighteenth century. It gives a very good insight into the manners and the lives of the rich and of the upper middle class of that time.

This book is easy to read, it eschews the flowery, verbose writing of the time and is succinct and to the point. It is surprisingly funny; Jane Austen pokes gentle fun at the attitudes of her characters and she demonstrates very cleverly, how they convince themselves of their prejudices.

I enjoyed this book as well for its historical information on London. I loved that it is possible to tell which areas and streets were fashionable and which ones were more racy, in the 1790s, by the characters that lived there.

The language has changed slightly in the 200 years since it was written, but Jane Austen’s thoughts are simply put, so the differences are interesting to notice rather than difficult to understand. A case in point is the word sensibility in the title; this is a word that not much used any more, we would be more likely to use the word sensitivity, these days.

As an introduction to classic writing of the late 18th century, Jane Austen is as easy and enjoyable a venture as you are likely to find. I am looking forward to reading her next novel, Pride and Prejudice, and to watching a film adaptation to this one.

Indignation (dir. James Schamus) 2016

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Indignation was first shown in London as part of the Sundance London film festival. Based on a Philip Roth novel, it is set in Columbus, Ohio. It is the story of a New York boy’s first semester at college. The whole film is a flashback to 1951, showing how decisions made at that time, led to the position that he is in now.

This film is James Schamus’ first as director and he does an amazing job of immersing us in the milieu and mindset of the day. The sets and costumes are beautiful, with a lovely eye for detail.

Logan Lerman is excellent as Marcus Messner, an idealistic young man, setting out on life. His exchanges with the dean of the college and his relationship with his first girlfriend, adroitly show both the attitudes of the time and how they are about to change. Tracy Letts and Sarah Gadon are very good as the dean and the girlfriend.

Indignation is a precise, deep film and a brave choice as a directorial debut.

James Schamus’ self-confidence has paid off well.