The Paradise (BBC): The Complete First Series (Review)

Last month, Her Ladyship published a cursory review of the first episode of BBC’s The Paradise and was left interested, rather than addicted. Having now had occasion to watch the entire series, she is delighted to announce that her attitude to the show, which transfers Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames to Northern England, is now the latter instead of the former.

Denise Lovett (Joanna Vanderham) is a native of the small, freezing cold village of Peebles, and has been promised a job at her uncle’s draper’s shop in the city. When she arrives, she finds a majestic white edifice called The Paradise opposite her uncle Edmund’s shop. This new department store stands in stark contrast to the shabbiness, misery and poverty of the rest of the street, a poverty that now leaves Edmund unable to fulfil his promise to his niece and that forces her to seek work at the very place that is responsible for destroying the livelihoods of every shopkeeper on the once-bustling street. But The Paradise proves to be a glorious destroyer. Red carpets, chandeliers, marble staircases, parquet floors, delicately-lit rooms and crystal cabinets filled with all manner of temptations; it is a paradise for Edwardian women that Denise soon grows to love when she is accepted there, making easy friends with delightful fellow employees Sam and Pauline (Stephen Wight and Ruby Bentall) and easy enemies with soon-to-be nemesis Clara (Sonya Cassidy). She displays early brilliance as a saleswoman in the ladieswear department despite a very rough start, and it is after an initial lightning-bolt moment of chemistry and an ingenious rescuing of a disastrous sales pitch to the imperious Katherine Glendenning (Elaine Cassidy) that she first catches the eye of John Moray (Emun Elliott), the shop’s charismatic owner and Katherine’s on-and-off fiancé. From the moment Denise is summoned to Moray’s office after her probation, however, it becomes evident that we’re dealing with two people that are intensely attracted to each other, not just on a physical level but on a spiritual one as well, making the connection between them powerful and, unfortunately for Katherine, absolutely unstoppable.

Artwork by averycapsblog on tumblr.

Artwork by averycapsblog on tumblr.

The Paradise shows customary BBC brilliance when it comes to casting, each actor masterful at portraying the psychological complexities of their own character and in making us understand their connection with other characters. Emun Elliott’s Moray is a widower who blames himself for his wife’s untimely death and is not much given to talking about it despite the portrait of her that hangs in his office: it is a part of him that he keeps for himself alone, a constant ache that he believes settling down with Katherine may assuage. He wants to be kind to himself and to allow himself to love, but cannot bring himself in that direction without an internal stab of pain. In his day-to-day existence, however, he allows his work to consume him; he is unfailingly polite and pleasant; charming the pants off his customers and his staff; and constantly on fire to expand the shop and to make the money to be able to do it. Elliott plays these two levels against each other with such stirring genius that the viewer can sometimes not believe that the sweepingly diplomatic businessman negotiating loans with Katherine’s father is the same Moray sitting behind his desk in his shirtsleeves, too emotionally exhausted and consumed by grief to be capable of bothering with pretence. He is equally good at making us understand how differently Moray feels in his relationships with Katherine and Denise. His dynamic with Katherine is fascinating: there is a great deal of sexual tension and feelings of possessiveness on both sides, and the two dance around each other with inevitable frequency, Moray often giving the impression of squirming to free himself when their intention to get married is mutual, and of being insanely jealous when it is not. His wife haunts him continually when it comes to Katherine, but with Denise, this guilty aspect of his existence evaporates, simply because she awakens something in him that is too profound to be guilty about, something too right to be wrong. Katherine gives him the possibility of being happy again once he marries her, settles down and somehow learns to forget about his wife, something that Katherine demands continually. Denise, whom he affectionately calls his ‘little champion,’ gives him that sense of fulfilment, and of there being goodness in the world, simply by existing. It’s a cliché, but she really does complete him. All this is conveyed to us by an excellent script, but also by the wealth of evocative facial expression and body language that characterise Elliott’s mesmerising performance.

Artwork by princessofbabylon on tumblr

Artwork by princessofbabylon on tumblr

Joanna Vanderham’s Denise is one of the most interesting Edwardian heroines to come out of BBC Drama in years; her innocent, country girl façade concealing an inexplicable magnetism when she begins to speak, a fine, creative head for business, a formidable sense of justice that doesn’t exclude the possibility of self-sacrifice, and, we learn, a firm belief that all people are equal that would scandalise many customers if they knew about it. Vanderham’s performance is so movingly sincere and heart-warming, and all the more so for being grounded in believable realism, but it is in later episodes, when Denise’s love for Moray causes her little but constant agony, that she truly excels, her feelings conveyed to us with raw emotion and stunning conviction that make us want to hug her and whack Moray on the head. As we mentioned in our previous review, it is a refreshing change to have a working class heroine in a usually upper-class-dominated genre, and she is a character that young working women today can genuinely relate to.

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On that note, let’s not fail to observe that The Paradise is one of those rare period dramas with a social conscience and a distinct minority of upper-class characters who are not particularly likeable. The classist attitude of the times is frequently investigated, analysed and upbraided, and capitalism itself shown in a less-than-flattering light by the misery of the shopkeepers affected by The Paradise’s success. It’s a period drama at street level that shows us that the great trials and passions of human existence are not experienced any less intensely by the poor or by the working class.

A highly addictive, beautifully-written and beautifully-acted tale of workplace drama and of being human that makes its second season seem cruelly far off.

Featured image is by likethehepburns on tumblr.

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What Sansa would have done in Arya’s place.

My dear friend the Lady Héloïse and her inestimable sister the Lady Catherine recently planted a delightful seed in my head following my defense of Sansa Stark entitled What Arya would have done in Sansa’s place. Why not do it the other way round? I jokingly responded that the post would only have to be three words long: ‘Scream. Cry. Die.’ But then I began to think, as I do sometimes. Actually lots of times. Sansa is as strong as her sister, so why shouldn’t this work? Here is the horrifying and somewhat wacky barrage of ifs, ands, pots and pans reflections on the events of A Clash of Kings only, since going any further would pose a serious threat to Her Ladyship’s sanity.

Being a boy

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in the HBO series.

Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in the HBO series.

The first and most immediate problem is how a beautiful and very conventionally feminine girl like Sansa could possibly convince as a boy. There are many examples in literature, however, of even very feminine women passing for boys in a variety of circumstances, from The Merchant of Venice to Les Misérables, so such a thing must be possible, at least in the world of fiction. But could Sansa do it?

To start with, she would cry her eyes out about her hair being cut short, probably not at the moment of the actual shearing (she’d still be in shock), but plenty of times after that. Unlike her little sister, she has breasts, so these would have to be continually restrained: having to do this on the road with no privacy could be a massive problem, but then we should also consider that Arya doesn’t take a bath once while in the same situation, a strategy that Sansa would also be forced to adopt. To call attention away from her face, she’d also have to be extremely dirty and almost supernaturally inconspicuous: even the most basic conversation or movement could blow her cover wide open unless she’s continually on the alert, something that she simply won’t be accustomed to and might not have the energy to do. We do know, however, that Sansa is admirably good at keeping her mouth shut, and would therefore be a whole lot better at taking Yoren’s advice that she keep to herself and not speak to anyone than her fiery little sister. We should also consider that fear and brute survival make thespians of us all. Sansa is a smart girl, if not particularly observant, and she’d soon realise that it would be in her interest to try as hard as possible to keep up the charade.  If she did not realise this, then Yoren would inevitably beat it into her. If this method worked with Arya (well, up to a point), then it’s not difficult to imagine that it would work with Sansa too.

On the road

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark.

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark.

Once she’s a boy, we need to think about how Sansa would adapt to life on the road, if she adapts at all. To give us a very general idea, let’s look at how Daenerys, of roughly the same age and social standing, coped with it at first after a lifetime of living in various palaces. Daenerys initially finds very little comfort in the considerable benefits of a tent at night, three Dothraki handmaidens to bandage her up, and horsemeat and sweetgrass on tap. She gets saddle sores that make dismounting and sitting down an agony, and endless blisters on her hands from holding the reins. But then she also has the comfort of Khal Drogo being a spectacular fuck, and the fact that she eventually gets used to being constantly on the move and even comes to relish it. We can put Sansa into roughly the same position: there’d be no fucking (sadly), but plenty of saddle sores from riding the mule and blisters on her feet from walking. She’d be absolutely miserable and would probably cry until she had no tears left. She’d soon recognise the need to stop crying following the inevitable ridicule and physical abuse from the other boys that would result and against which she’d be pretty much powerless, not having much of a will to fight back. Or she’d simply continue to cry and the whole situation would end with the boys somewhat morbidly accepting her constant tears, à la Weasel (the crying girl). A third possibility, and a bit of a foregone conclusion, is that Gendry would inevitably end up telling the others to lay off, him being a soft-hearted darling with a keen sense of justice, and that he’d probably take her under his protection, something that he tries multiple times with Arya with usually disastrous/hilarious results. Sansa’s first instinct would be to turn her nose up at him because of his low birth, but something tells me her circumstances wouldn’t permit this for long. Furthermore, if Gendry managed to work out that Arya was a girl, then doing it with Sansa should be child’s play. A fourth possibility is that Sansa’s wolf blood would emerge when stuck in a situation with people she’s allowed to hit without it being treason, and would eventually be pushed far enough to jump on someone and cause them grievous bodily harm. This would result in a beating from Yoren, but would also ensure that Lommy and Hot Pie leave her alone for the rest of her life. Whatever happens, constant tears, constant bullying and the horrifying memory of her father’s death would work havoc with Sansa’s untested fragility and she’d learn to take refuge in her mind very quickly, something that we know she’s prodigious at.

Captivity

Assuming that she somehow survives the Night’s Watch’s skirmish with Ser Amory Loch and company, which would be almost impossible for her without help from Yoren or Gendry, the subsequent capture of the survivors would inevitably lead to her being exposed as a girl. Once this is revealed, it would take a miracle amount of mud on her face and in her hair to prevent her from being raped on multiple occasions, which would make her more emotionally-dead than murder and torture made Arya, because both her body and her soul will have been violated. The result, taking into account that the foundations of Sansa’s mental strength are sturdier than those of Casterly Rock, would be the emotional repression of her experiences and the creation of a dangerously numb individual who could explode at any second, exactly how dangerous her numbness is being contingent on whether or not she is sexually assaulted.

Jaqen

Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen H'ghar.

Tom Wlaschiha as Jaqen H’ghar.

I subscribe to the ‘Jaqen is Syrio/the Faceless Men are watching Arya’ theory, so the chance of Sansa even meeting Jaqen is pretty slim. If we look at the situation outside this theory, however, it’s not difficult to imagine Sansa being induced into a conversation with him. Sure, she won’t detect the whiff of blood and death on him that attracts Arya, but Sansa is invariably good at detecting a handsome face. But would the acquaintance proceed beyond there? This depends on whether or not she decides to save Jaqen, Rorge and Biter, thereby instigating the three kills situation. So would she save them, were she in a position to do so? Personally, I think the answer is a bit of a no-brainer: Sansa has a good heart, and wouldn’t let anyone burn alive if she could do something to stop it.

But if Sansa has such a good heart, would she agree to return three lives to the Red God in exchange for those she stole? This depends on an awful lot of speculation based on more speculation done in the preceding paragraphs, but let’s give it a go. Sansa doesn’t have Arya’s eye-for-an-eye mentality, but if she’d been raped on the road, she simply wouldn’t be in a position to approach her experience with the awe-inspiring disinclination to murder or castrate her rapists that one sometimes sees in modern-day victims of rape. She will have experienced the horror and the sheer evil of what has been done to her with no chance of help, comfort or justice. If we think about how Joffrey narrowly escapes being pushed into the dry moat in A Game of Thrones, we can see that Sansa is all about taking revenge, and bloody revenge, if the motivation is strong enough. Jaqen can give her that revenge. If, on the other hand, she decides to use her kills to fry bigger fish, or if, by some miracle, she has escaped being raped, then that very same incident at the dry moat leaves us in no doubt that she’d be more than willing to wait as long as it takes and send Jaqen off to King’s Landing to murder Joffrey, Cersei, and probably Ilyn Payne as well.

Harrenhal

Artwork by peteandco on fanpop.

Artwork by peteandco on fanpop.

It isn’t a stretch to imagine that Sansa’s attitude to being a servant at Harrenhal would be much the same as Arya’s: scrubbing floors till your hands bleed and getting the occasional clout around the head is better than being brutalised, but not so much better that escaping is not to be considered. We could also argue that the Sansa of the show would probably go red and pass out instead of protesting Gendry’s fighting technique while surreptitiously eyeing his abs, but let’s be serious now. First things first: would it occur to Sansa to use her three kills to blackmail Jaqen into helping her get the Northmen out of Harrenhal? Sansa isn’t the kind of person to actively chase down trouble, as Arya is. Furthermore, this particular incident positively sings of the natural creativity and ruthless cunning that are an integral part of Arya’s character, so no. Let us not imagine Sansa as a purveyor of Weasel Soup. But what about escaping? Arya’s escape with Gendry and Hot Pie in A Clash of Kings is an entirely spur-of-the-moment decision, arrived at when Arya, sparring with herself in the godswood, hears the sounds of wolves howling outside the castle walls and becomes convinced that they are calling to her. All the Stark children share this affinity with wolves, but Sansa is the least wargish among them because her direwolf is killed, thus cutting off the most basic mental link with wolves, and eventually with other creatures, that Arya and Bran both learn to exploit. Lady’s being a shade, however, doesn’t remove the primal connection with wolves that exists in Sansa, and it’s rather nice to think of both Stark girls being pushed towards freedom by that same affinity with the North that runs deep in both of them. Should we choose to be cynical, however, precisely the same type of escape (trick a groom, steal some swords and food, kill a guard) is possible on any night of the week, howling or not, and can be accomplished by any group of people with one individual of moderate intelligence among them. The murdered guard does pose a slight problem, as A Clash of Kings puts the knife that kills him in Arya’s hands. Would Sansa do it, though? Here’s the answer: Sansa would do it if she was desperate enough, Gendry’s Baratheon blood would probably make him cave the poor man’s head in with his hammer at the first sign of trouble, and Hot Pie, well…no. Hot Pie couldn’t kill anyone.

Here ends the craziness and the insanity. Valar Morghulis, all.

Featured image is by peteandco on fanpop.

The Bear and the Maiden Fair: Game of Thrones S03E07 (Review)

A mostly character-based little oddity of an episode that leaves one thinking that this entire season could have been done in eight episodes instead of ten, The Bear and the Maiden Fair strews a lot of building blocks along its merry way, some of them haunting and many of them perplexing. We are nevertheless rewarded for our patience by the long-awaited, all-too-short and frankly terrifying bear pit scene and by Daenerys’ scaring the pants off the potentate of Yunkai in a stirring scene that brings her ever closer to embracing the inherent genius/madness of her House.

In the Riverlands, Jaime is finally well enough to leave Harrenhal and to continue his journey to King’s Landing, regrettably sans Brienne, who is left behind at the mercy of Locke and his gang of hooligans. In a rather silly move that represents this season’s first deviation from the books that has left me well and truly pissed off as opposed to clapping my hands in admiration at the show’s creativity, Jaime returns to Harrenhal for Brienne following a chance conversation with Qyburn, in which it is stated that Brienne will no doubt be brutalised for sport now that Lord Bolton is also absent from the castle. This seems a rather inadequate substitution for the books’ vivid fever dream that transports Jaime to the bowels of the earth beneath Casterly Rock, where the sense of belonging and wholeness that he feels in the presence of the shades of his ancestors, and of Tywin and Cersei, rapidly metamorphoses into gnawing, anguished fear as he is cast away from them into a darkness that is his alone. His sword, and Brienne’s presence at his side providing the only light, he watches helpless as his twin, whom he sees as the other half of himself, abandons him to his fate, the darkness around him rendered all the more terrible by the sounds of some beast out there in the black, its snarls drawing ever closer. ‘I mislike this place,’ Brienne quips, and he heartily agrees. It’s at this point that he wakes up and blackmails Steelshanks into returning to Harrenhal. Replacing such an important, and indeed beautiful, dream sequence with a slight tête-à-tête involving a creepy ex-maester just doesn’t have the same effect, and makes one wonder if the show’s producers are uncomfortable with dream sequences, a possibility that we got a distinct whiff of last season in the changes to Daenerys’ visions in the House of the Undying. All is not lost, however, as we’re gifted, perhaps by way of compensation, with the deeply moving scene when Jaime goes to visit Brienne in her cell before his departure. Brienne, valiantly fighting back tears on what she clearly believes may be her last night in this world, charges an equally-emotional Jaime with fulfilling the task she is now unable to, and to return Sansa and Arya to Catelyn. Jaime promises to do so with a sincerity that is simultaneously astonishing and completely unsurprising. It’s the best-acted scene in the episode, and only constitutes further proof of what we touched on last week; that the real truth of Jaime and Brienne’s friendship, as it genuinely is beneath all the wisecracks and insults, is something that runs so deep that neither of them acknowledges it, ever. Brienne’s voice cracking slightly as she stiffly recites ‘Goodbye, Ser Jaime,’ and Jaime’s staring awkwardly at her, then at the floor before leaving without a word is in itself indicative of how difficult it would be for them to put the nature of their connection into words. Despite the incredible odds against such a bond existing between an innocent, idealistic young woman and a shattered, increasingly pessimistic man of the world that is almost twice her age, each understands the other in ways that they will never experience with another human being, and for both of them, that doesn’t need saying. They both feel it, and know it, and that’s enough. This in itself is a possible reason for the elimination of a sequence that would eventually require Jaime to say ‘I dreamed of you,’ though it’s certainly not a good enough reason to prevent both myself and millions of YouTube vidders from tearing their hair out.

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The bear pit scene itself is quite spectacular; the books’ lavish, three quarters empty auditorium replaced with a crude wooden structure as savage and casually dismissive of human life as the shouting and singing Brave Companions that are crammed around it, looking down into the pit. Brienne ignores the cacophony and faces the bear down with all the focus and poise of a consummate professional (wooden sword, dress and all), but Gwendoline Christie’s exquisite face reveals to us that despite Brienne’s innate bravery, she’s terrified. Things get a lot more frightening when Jaime himself ends up in the pit, the bear undaunted by the presence of two people  and seeming only too delighted to get two for the price of one, and there are plenty of positively hair-raising, blood-curdling moments once the dear man realises he has no clue what the fuck to do next. All in all, it’s an almighty test of the viewer’s nerves and should be finding its way onto plenty of ‘greatest moments’ lists in no time at all.

Meanwhile in King’s Landing, both Tyrion and Sansa are absolutely miserable, a state that both of them will regrettably be trapped in for some time to come. Peter Dinklage is at his heartbreaking best, Tyrion’s attempt to pacify Shae blowing up in his face by virtue of its sheer Lannister typicality (golden chains? Tyrion, darling). He grasps desperately at the chance of having something like a normal life with Shae, even going so far as to assure her that any children they might have will want for nothing. While his devotion and desperation make us want to weep, Shae pulls out all the stops of her talent for argument to disguise how frightening and how moving she finds this, eventually reducing their relationship to something that it only is on the surface: a lonely little man with a whore he calls his lady, and whom he will eventually cast off when he becomes bored with her. Tyrion’s wedding is bringing Shae closer and closer to the Shae of the books who will eventually betray Tyrion in the most despicable, humiliating way, and while the show takes a risk by romanticising that betrayal, it’s also a good way to make Tyrion’s isolation and hurt all the more acute, which should make for terrific acting when the time comes.

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On the other side of the soon-to-be marriage bed, Sansa, who is still red-eyed following her betrothal, has a fascinating girl talk with Margaery, in which the future Queen makes the case for Tyrion as a prospective husband. One could even say she makes the same case that every intelligent reader or viewer has made a thousand times in their head: that Tyrion, compassionate, loyal, sensitive, fiercely intelligent and terrific in the sack, would be an excellent husband to any woman who took the trouble to see past his height. Sansa’s reaction to marrying Tyrion and her behavior to him during their marriage is one of the hardest things for Sansa fans, in whose ranks I am proud to stand, to defend in her character. Let us merely consider that teenaged girls capable of seeing inner beauty are rare as obsidian and are usually of considerably greater intelligence than Sansa, and that it is difficult to blame her for being incapable of rationality when it comes to Lannisters, even one who has treated her kindly, since she has come to expect that all kindness is part of some cruel trick to get her punished. We can only watch and wait as to whether the show will mirror the agonising misery business of the books, or whether these two vastly different creatures will somehow manage to find some common ground in their mutual need to be comforted and valued.

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Down in Blackwater Bay, right beneath the Red Keep itself, Melisandre and Gendry, whom we are relieved to see alive, bond unexpectedly as the Red Priestess tells the bullheaded bastard boy who he really is. It’s an unexpectedly marvelous treat of a scene; Melisandre hypnotic as ever as she declares both her and Gendry’s humble origins to have no bearing on the role they will play in shaping the world. Gendry’s eyes are beautiful in this scene as he looks up at the Red Keep, awe overcoming the fear that he knows he should feel, unable to reconcile his smallness with a great legacy that marked him before he even knew it existed. This also leaves readers of the books completely incapable of knowing what’s going to happen next, since the obvious course (Dragonstone) has not been taken, a very healthy state for us know-it-alls to be in. But as much as it interests us to see Melisandre and Gendry find common ground, however, we still fear constantly for his longevity.

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A beggar queen no longer, Daenerys is regal, confident and a master of diplomacy as she demands the freedom of the slaves of Yunkai. The perfumed and rather pathetic Razdal mo Eraz is sent to bribe her with gold, the prospect of ships and a polite request that this Westerosi barbarian should not meddle in what she does not understand. Emilia Clarke plays this scene with perfect balance; terrifyingly beautiful, icily diplomatic in a way that would make Tywin Lannister squirm, and surrounded by her dragons, whom she entertains by throwing scraps of meat into the air and watching both the resulting catfight and the growing apprehension on Razdal mo Eraz’s face with delight. She’s scornful and unpredictable in all the right ways, but has a kind of confidence that weds well to her natural charisma. As she pleasantly observes ‘I have a gift for you as well. Your life,’ one feels, not for the first time, that Clarke’s interpretation of Daenerys is a mesmerising improvement from the Daenerys of the books, and that she will prove a formidable player in the Game should she ever get round to returning to Westeros.

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Meanwhile in other Westeros news; cultural differences, guilt and fear are beginning to make their mark on Jon and Ygritte’s relationship, but not badly enough to stop our hearts glowing at this beautiful quote straight from the books: ‘You’re mine, Jon Snow. Mine as I’m yours. If we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first, we’ll live.’ This leads straight into Osha becoming increasingly hysterical at Bran’s desire to go beyond the Wall with Jojen and Meera, and we’re given insight into Osha’s fear of the North through a monologue that would have been moving if Natalia Tena had the acting ability to perform it convincingly. In King’s Landing, there is an electrifying scene in which Joffrey’s intention to chastise Tywin for not keeping him up to date on small council meetings does not have the impact he desired, Charles Dance thrilling us with his charisma as he effortlessly commands that entire hall, including the cringing boy on the throne, from the moment he enters it. Theon is once again tortured in such a yawningly predictable way that he and Ramsay make you want to get up and make tea. On the road to the Twins, Robb and Talisa have a pointless, boring and overly-long sex scene that ends with Talisa announcing that she’s pregnant. This is either going to be the source of a great deal of nausea or of a great deal of hope in episodes to come, depending on whether or not Talisa survives the Red Wedding. It’s probably the latter, since the presence of a Stark grandchild would only complicate things further, and Talisa surviving (by not attending), then simply dropping out of the story, as Jeyne Westerling does in the books after being accepted back into the Lannister fold, just wouldn’t work on screen, though we should also consider the possibilities of miscarriage or suicide (or both) once the Red Wedding takes place. Let’s face it: this idea is a mess. Let’s allow the producers to dig themselves out of it. And finally in the Riverlands, Arya Stark gets sick of the delays in the Brotherhood’s journey to Riverrun, announces to Lord Beric that the Red God is not her lord and master and, when asked who is, she replies, in a deathly whisper, her eyes blazing, ‘Death,’ before sprinting out of the cave and running straight into the Hound, the next stage of her journey to the Faceless Men about to begin.

A few good scenes make this episode watchable; the rest of it is tolerable merely because of the future its more action-less scenes will bring. Let’s hope that next week’s wedding will succeed in jolting things back into action again.

Stoker (Film Review)

‘My ears hear what others cannot hear. Small faraway things people cannot normally see are visible to me. These senses are the fruits of a lifetime of longing. Longing to be rescued; to be completed. Just as the skirt needs the wind to billow, I’m not formed by things that are of myself alone. I wear my father’s belt tied around my mother’s blouse, and shoes which are from my uncle. This is me. Just as a flower does not choose its colour, we are not responsible for what we have come to be. Only once you realise this do you become free. And to become adult is to become free.’

Stoker is the tale of how some lucky boys and girls are just born with a talent for violence, of the deep, inextricable link between sex and death, and of how the acceptance of both leads to the coming of age of a killer. Park Chan-wook’s psychological thriller shimmers with the intense visual beauty of the poetic everyday and of the grotesque, and, complimented by a stunning performance from Mia Wasikowska and a gorgeous, if flawed, script by first-time screenwriter Wentworth Miller, it is an infinitely more satisfying cinematic experience than The Great Gatsby.

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Mia Wasikowska pushes her considerable command of facial expression to the next level to play India Stoker, a pathologically austere eighteen year old whose father is killed in a car accident on her birthday. This shifting in the balance of her world leads to a near-complete breakdown in her already shaky relationship with her prim, proper and irritating mother (Nicole Kidman) and a skin-crawling, borderline sexual and almost entirely sub-text identification with her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode), a prodigal son returned home following the news of her father’s death. As the viewer comes to discover Charlie’s proficiency in charming India’s mother and in putting a belt to deadly use, India begins to discover how acting as a silent, and sometimes unknown observer of Charlie’s crimes and other antics can heal not only the loneliness that she feels after her father’s death, but the isolation from other people that has tortured her entire life, and from which her father, and her hunting trips with him were a welcome respite. Through the shedding of blood and the participation in murder, India wakes up inside and becomes alive in every myriad dimension of what the concept implies, from childlike contentment to orgasmic ecstasy.

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Mia Wasikowska is extraordinary, capturing both the boundless delight and the nauseous exhaustion of a person who sees and hears everything in the world but still feels detached from it. Her character remains an enigma till the last moment, her actions impossible to predict, but none of them surprising us: she’s a genuine, entirely contradictory human being. Most of the film’s demanding acting rests on her slender shoulders, and her ability to carry a film in this way at such a young age is testament both to an innate greatness and to the constant progression of it that one finds only too rarely in actresses and actors of similar age. Matthew Goode is creepy in all the necessary ways as Charlie, more nauseating than charming, but nevertheless combining the two in a very effective way; constantly delighted but more often baffled by India, whom he sees as an extension of himself, but whom he is never quite able to capture or tame. The film is rather a waste of Nicole Kidman, her performance an uninteresting specter of her equally uninteresting character in Australia. She nevertheless serves quite adequately as a character whose primary function is to look glacially beautiful and to make us want to slap her.

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It is its penetrating yet delicate visual universe that this film will most likely be remembered for. Shooting the film from India’s perspective is conducive to exquisitely artistic cinematography, the world transformed into an intensely sensual place that can caress you or cut you open. Apart from an unforgivable recourse to cliché in the film’s third act that will mortify attentive viewers, Wentworth Miller’s script is highly intelligent, provocative and questioning, the sheer beauty both of its ideas and of the mere combination of words working in perfect counterpoint to the film’s stunning heightened visuality.

Stoker is a film that was meant to be felt and thought as well as watched, and the ideal way to experience it is to simply relax in your seat and to open your eyes and ears to this broken concave mirror reflection of a transition from girlhood to adulthood.

The Great Gatsby (Film Review)

Fearless, sexy, creative, and yet more to be admired than loved, Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby is a well-written, well-acted and gorgeous experience for the eyes that almost perfectly juxtaposes respect for a well-loved classic with the willingness to do new and interesting things with it. Sadly, it does lack that X-factor spark of the divine fire that makes great cinema, and tends to drag for perhaps twenty minutes too long.

Much of the film’s action is narrated by Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carraway, who, while seeking treatment for depression, writes of the doomed and ultimately tainted love affair between his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and the enigmatic, tragically optimistic Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose parties attract those seeking to indulge in non-stop, near bacchic revelry and to celebrate at the altar of alcohol. Gatsby’s parties merely reflect the general frenzy of a very frenzied, drunken and violently sexed-up era that is inevitably responsible for Nick’s seeking treatment on the grounds that he has been seized by a fierce disgust of everyone and everything. It only takes the film’s duration for the audience to end up feeling exactly the same way, perhaps because we’ve finally seen the suffering, the emptiness and the desperation that clings to this lifestyle, making the living of it a permanently claustrophobic experience.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby and Carey Mulligan as Daisy.

As far as acting goes, the film is miles away from being DiCaprio’s best performance, but he tackles Gatsby with his usual subtlety, insight and knowledge of character, blazing onto the screen like a firecracker, yet still leaving us wondering if we’ll ever find out who he is. Serene calm, flamboyant hospitability, hopeless love and hysterical desperation are vividly and, most importantly, believably, to be found in the same character at precisely the level of intensity we have come to expect from him. Carey Mulligan is as sweet, and eventually as punchable as her character Daisy; superficiality jostling against the desire for something more; superficiality winning the fight when ‘something more’ actually turns out to be difficult. Tobey Maguire’s performance as Nick is perhaps the most memorable despite his speaking voice being most inappropriate for extensive narration: he is perfectly balanced, his face more evocative than any amount of dialogue; he reaches lovingly for Gatsby’s light, but is never blinded by it; insightful enough both to tell Gatsby when he’s wrong and to continue to see Gatsby’s goodness when forgetting about it would have been much better for him. Joel Edgerton is utterly forgettable in his role as the utterly forgettable Tom Buchanan, and Elizabeth Debicki is mesmerising and magnetic as Jordan Baker, boasting a powerful screen presence that satisfyingly makes one constantly aware of her presence in a scene, even if her role in it is relatively unimportant.

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker.

Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway and Elizabeth Debicki as Jordan Baker.

And now for some general issues. The 3D medium accomplishes almost nothing in this film, and those expecting Baz Luhrmann to have demonstrated the correct use of the medium, as Martin Scorsese did in Hugo, will be sorely disappointed. The Great Gatsby would have been a feast for the eyes at precisely the same level without being filmed in 3D. Apart from the obvious artistry of its party and high speed driving scenes, it also produces many wonderfully artistic and achingly beautiful visual moments that appeal gloriously to the senses, notably the scene in which we meet Daisy for the first time, lounging as she does on a couch as a strong wind blows each white curtain in the room inwards, creating a sea of fresh whiteness ushered in on a breeze so strong you almost feel it on your skin. The breathtaking costumes and makeup only add to the sprawling beauty of the film’s art direction, spectres that heighten in colour and in appeal with alcohol and with dance, increasing our willingness to ignore what lies beneath them.

While the film more than meets its visual obligations, the same cannot be said for its auditory ones, its much-hyped soundtrack not putting in much of a noticeable appearance beyond the over-using of Lana Del Rey and the under-using of Florence and the Machine.

I cannot vouch for the film’s accuracy as an adaptation from the book, the last time I tried to read it having alternated between snoozing, wincing and throwing it against the wall, but the script is beautiful and unusually well-structured, giving both the story and the actors room to breathe, and to be.

A film of sweeping and kaleidoscopic beauty, but by no means a great classic in the making, The Great Gatsby is a film with a hole in its heart. It might grab your attention, entertain you or impress you, but it will not move you. This, regrettably, is its ultimate weakness.

The Climb: Game of Thrones S03E06 (Review)

Westeros blows off steam following last week’s festival of constant high emotion and tears in this little intermezzo of an episode, many beautiful, tiny scenes circling the great central melody of the wildlings’ climb of the Wall like a double helix. In some of the highlights within this helix, Tywin Lannister continues to destroy happiness left right and center and goes up against Lady Olenna with surprising results, the Red Wedding is tantalisingly hinted at, Joffrey uses Ros for target practice and Gendry is torn from Arya’s side in a gut-wrenching, magnificent deviation from the books that stands as further proof that people who spend their lives complaining about the show’s every change to canon are incapable of appreciating how this exquisite thing that we all love is not set in stone, but set in flux, forever evolving and playing by no rules but its own. Episodes structured in this way are the devil to review because of the way they flit from one very short scene to the next, leaving you little to comment on except the content. Her Ladyship shall try her best not to be a bore.

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A central theme of this episode is the condition of ‘foot soldiers in the great war,’ of people, soldiers or not, who are jostled about like pawns in the Game their masters play with no mind to what may happen to them. It is the curse of ordinary people that they are incapable of seeing the world in this way: they will always see people instead of pawns. The first to point this out is Ygritte. The chemistry between Jon and Ygritte has improved exponentially since last week from the moment we first see them preparing to climb the Wall. Their relationship begins to feel a lot more like fate as they openly and sincerely discuss loyalty and fear, Ygritte spicing things up with characteristic subtlety by threatening to chop Jon’s cock off and wear it around her neck if he deserts her, and expressing a seemingly casual wish to ‘see the world from up there’ that reminds us somewhat of Tyrion’s former desire to stand on top of the Wall and piss off the edge of the world. The climb itself, however, is not something to joke about. It’s terrifying to watch; a huge expanse of petrifying whiteness that makes you want to whisper ‘not today,’ under your breath, the wildlings tiny as ants on its rigid and unpredictable surface, the wind and the ice screaming into every part of their bodies, the Wall itself a living, breathing thing that casts off intruders as though they were flecks of dust.
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Ygritte barely has time to quip ‘You staring at my ass, Jon Snow?’ before things start to go wrong, the first horrific accident bleeding straight into Jon and Ygritte themselves being cut loose. While we are treated to a few moments of hair-raising panic as Ygritte falls screaming into the empty air, both miraculously survive, embrace, and keep right on going, like true children of the North. And when they reach the top! Rose Leslie has not been given much time to shine beyond torturing Jon with her innuendo-laden wit and the odd ‘you think you’re better than me, crow!’ argument, but as we know from her work in Downton Abbey, moved to tears is something she does very well. When faced with the breathtaking view of the world from the top of the Wall, she has no words and doesn’t need any, the shivering rawness of her facial expressions bringing us right into Ygritte’s experience.

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While Jon and Ygritte experience such searing joy and relief in their togetherness, Arya Stark, angel of death and all-round badass, must once again come to terms with aloneness; an archery lesson with Anguy resulting both in the soon-to-be immortal declaration ‘Face. Tits. Balls. I hit them right where I wanted to,’ and the Brotherhood running into Melisandre. Once I’d picked myself off the floor after falling off my chair, I watched, spellbound, but thoroughly confused, as Thoros and Melisandre debate religion and Lord Beric’s resurrections at Hollow Hill, before heading straight back to camp and seizing Gendry. As Arya cries ‘Let go of him!’ it hits us. Fuck. They’ve replaced Edric Storm with Gendry. It’s an awful moment. Arya is both merciless and fearless in her criticism, tearing right through Thoros’ gentle explanation that gold is required for their cause and through Lord Beric’s cold-blooded assertion that the boy is needed by the Lord of Light: ‘did the Lord of Light tell you that or did she?’ Gendry is in such a state of shock at this betrayal that he’s barely capable of anything but weak struggling and pitiful naivety in his protests. Arya is anything but, and we are unexpectedly gifted with a volcanic scene between two obscenely charismatic actresses that we never thought we’d see face to face. As Arya follows Melisandre and violently turns her around, almost pushing her into her own horse, the dialogue is blood-chilling.

Arya: You’re a witch. You’re going to hurt him.

Melisandre: (cups Arya’s chin) I see a darkness in you. And in that darkness, eyes staring back at me. Brown eyes…blue eyes, green eyes. Eyes you will shut forever. We will meet again.

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The atmosphere between Carice van Houten and Maisie Williams is electrifying, Arya silenced by the undisguised horror on Melisandre’s face that resembles that on the face of Gaius Helen Mohiam contemplating Alia Atreides for the first time in Dune. For Arya fans, it’s both a thrilling and a deeply satisfying moment, pointing to Arya’s future among the Faceless Men. But then Arya turns around just in time to see Gendry being carted off; not a word of farewell having been exchanged between them. Williams’ face is devastating, mourning as another part of Arya turns to ice right before our eyes as Gendry is taken from her. From the point of view of Arya’s character, and of Gendry’s, this change is a truly exquisite idea. As for us, it changes everything and creates an infinite number of new questions. It would be relatively easy to transplant poor Gendry into Edric’s shoes and get him as far as Dragonstone, before Ser Davos ships him off to the Free Cities to stop Melisandre burning him alive. Then what? This gets us into post-A Dance With Dragons territory, and, considering that the last time we saw Gendry (in the books) he was a member of the Brotherhood, could bite everyone badly in the arse should Gendry eventually reappear, a prospect that appeals enormously to me as an ardent Arya/Gendry shipper (though I’d also jump for joy through hoops for a week if she hooked up with Jaqen). Whatever is going to come out of this brilliant idea, GRRM is in on it, so we should just sit back and let the great man do his thing. As for the divine Maisie Williams, if she is not nominated for an Emmy this year, I shall be most seriously displeased.

Meanwhile at Harrenhal, another great partnership is also breaking up, albeit temporarily, in a short but funny scene in which Jaime and Brienne dine with Roose Bolton. Brienne recites her courtesies through gritted teeth as Jaime stabs continually at his steak with his left hand, eventually provoking Brienne to impale it on her fork so he can cut it. Jaime is able to repay Brienne’s kindness seconds later by laying his hand on hers, thus saving her from the unpleasant repercussions that would no doubt result from her using her steak knife to decorate the room with Roose Bolton’s brains. The casualness of both gestures, and the fact that no word is exchanged between the two on either subject is delightful, the unspoken playing a greater role in Jaime and Brienne’s friendship than anything else. As for the scene, Jaime is back at his devastating, hot-blooded best in his conversation with Lord Bolton, the threat of Lord Tywin’s wrath saturating each crisply-annunciated syllable as Jaime protests Lord Bolton’s decision to send him ahead to King’s Landing and to keep Brienne at Harrenhal as a prisoner. As a very amusing precursor to the bear pit scene, it’s also a very revealing study both of Jaime and Brienne’s characters and a hint at their attitude to each other once the bear pit scene is over. Jaime is all tyrionesque (did I invent a word?) banter and open threats, Brienne is all smoldering looking daggers and icy courtesy, but their attitude to the world as regards each other will soon be exactly the same: threatening one of them inevitably provokes the wrath of the other.

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Speaking of precursors. At Riverrun, Lord Frey has sent envoys regarding Edmure’s marriage to Roslyn Frey, and demands that the marriage take place in two weeks. Though those two weeks could easily drag on till the end of the season, this will no doubt send one half of fandom into complete hysteria that we’re going to see the Red Wedding so soon and the other half into feverish anticipation of the carnage. Season finale?

Apart from another torture scene, Bran chastising Osha and Meera for fighting before getting the life scared out of him by Jojen (again) and Sam adorably singing a song for Gilly’s baby, there is nothing much of interest going on in the North on either side of the Wall this week (all the action’s happening on it). In King’s Landing, however, Tywin Lannister duels deliciously with Lady Olenna over his proposed marriage of Cersei to Loras, eventually only getting her to agree to it by threatening to make Loras a member of the Kingsguard. Olenna doesn’t behave at all like someone who’s just been bested at a Game she’s terrific at. On the contrary, she seems exhilarated: ‘It’s a rare enough thing. A man who lives up to his reputation.’ Cersei and Tyrion have one of their rare heart to hearts while they spy on a radiant Sansa, who listens to Loras Tyrell discuss the material, colour and embroidery of her wedding gown and still, incredibly, fails to realise he’s gay. Tyrion finds himself in the awkward position of having to propose to Sansa with Shae in the room, his habitual sarcasm hiding the anguish he feels for being the cause of both women’s misery. We are happily spared from watching the carnage. Then we get to Varys and Littlefinger, once again alone before the Iron Throne, once again threatening each other in the softest tones imaginable.
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Aidan Gillen is terrifying in this scene, the anger that we saw in his eyes last week reaching full fruition now as he reveals that he knows it was Varys who instigated the plot to marry Sansa to Loras Tyrell and that Ros has been handed over to a patron with exotic tastes to do with as he sees fit. While we’re reeling from this, they discuss the beautiful lies that people tell and that people believe for power, to get it, to keep it, to ignore it or to throw it away, the power that is the driving force behind the actions of most of the show’s characters: ‘Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder. Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some are given a chance to climb, but they refuse. They cling to the realm or the gods or love. Illusions! Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.’ As he speaks, we are granted a vision of Ros, tied to Joffrey’s bed, stone dead and peppered with quarrels, His Grace relishing the power of his new toy. And with that, the intermezzo comes to an end and the symphony begins again. Margaery Tyrell will never have full control of Joffrey; his lust for cruelty is impossible to control. Sansa Stark watches, distraught, as Littlefinger’s ship sails away, leaving her to a fate she thinks is worse than death. Jon and Ygritte reach the top of the Wall, two nobodies at the edge of the world, free, together, the monstrosity they have ascended together not even the first rung in the ladder that rules their world.

North and South (2004): Review

‘I wish I could tell you, Edith, how lonely I am, how cold and harsh it is here. Everywhere there is conflict and unkindness. I think God has forsaken this place. I believe I have seen hell. And it’s white. It’s snow white.’

So ends the dazzling first episode of North and South, the BBC’s 2004 drama of love and social upheaval in the cotton mills of Victorian Northern England. Adapted from Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel of the same name by Sandy Welch, the genius who brought us the 2006 adaptation of Jane Eyre, it was immortally designated as ‘Pride and Prejudice with a social conscience’ by someone, somewhere, and this continues to be the way it is seen by many fans.

When southern clergyman and part-time classicist Mr. Hale unexpectedly decides to abandon the church rather than reaffirm his belief in the Book of Common Prayer, he uproots his wife Maria, his daughter Margaret and their outspoken servant Dixon to Milton, a miserable industrial town in the North of England that is famed for its cotton mills. All three suffer from violent culture shock, but it is Margaret, the series’ heroine, who finds their new home the hardest to deal with. Not only must she present an outward appearance of calm for the good of her parents, she is incapable of ignoring the misery of the town’s workers, who fight starvation on a daily basis, begin to work in the mills from an extremely young age, are treated cruelly by their masters, and stand a good chance of coughing themselves to death by the time they’re forty because of the strands of cotton fluff that stick to their lungs. Her own prejudices make it impossible for her to see that John Thornton, the owner of Marlborough Cotton Mill and her father’s pupil, does not fall into the same category as the masters she comes to despise, this despite his austere demeanor and apparent heartlessness. Their consequently rocky relationship simmers with sexual tension across the class divide, Margaret dealing increasingly more hurtful blows to the feelings of a man who does not deserve it, who is not afraid to hit back, and who falls more deeply in love with her each time they meet.

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale.

Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret Hale.

North and South’s ultimate strength is the way in which the problems of the opulent rich and of the abjectly poor are given equal attention and dealt with with equal pathos. Through Margaret’s friendship with Bessie Higgins, we are given a chilling and moving insight into the everyday lives of the Victorian working poor, Margaret and Bessie’s entire friendship played out in dank, lightless rooms with scarcely threadbare blankets keeping out the cold. The actors who play mill workers are powerful and charismatic; they give their class a voice, and when these different classes collide, the viewer is never seized by the idea that one class is superior to another. The same is true of the inevitable collision between North and South, symbolised by Mr. Thornton and by Margaret. In Northern Victorian England, we may indeed feel suffocated by the smog and the perpetual lack of colour, but we eventually realise that the South is just as suffocating and claustrophobic: northerners simply aren’t interested in hiding the truth.

Richard Armitage as John Thornton.

Richard Armitage as John Thornton.

The series’ magnificent script relieves Gaskell’s unforgettable and too-often forgotten novel of some of its more overt sentimentality, choosing instead to emphasise the rougher, less dressed-up side of human emotion that she so successfully evokes in her prose. This is then brought to the screen by a dedicated and untouchably brilliant group of people cast with characteristic BBC brilliance from the top down.

Daniela Denby-Ashe makes an effortless transition from comedy to drama in her portrayal of one of the most important female protagonists in Victorian literature: a defier of gender roles, but extremely well-bred; a rebel against the class system but not quite revolutionary enough to escape panicking when she’s proposed to by a ‘tradesman’. Her journey is long and painful. She’s sometimes an angel; sometimes a brat; and grows to truly know herself, her world and what’s important, through love. It’s not an easy development to endure, or to portray, and Denby-Ashe pulls it off in a mesmerising performance that remains her best to date. Richard Armitage is subtle, charismatic and hypnotic in his breakout role as Mr. Thornton. Not only does he dethrone Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy, but succeeds in bringing out the many facets, light and dark, of Mr. Thornton’s complex personality: surly, stubborn and iron-willed, he is also lonely, doubtful of himself and a perfectly sincere wearer of his heart on his sleeve. The walls around him crumble more and more the deeper into the story you go, and Armitage is masterful at revealing the gradual bringing to light of his emotions and his humanity without losing the austerity that has become a part of him. Mr. Thornton’s own experiences with poverty have led him to a greater understanding of and sympathy with the nature of his workers’ daily lives, but have also caused a certain hardness in his attitude towards them when they do not treat the business with the respect he believes it deserves by going on strike. This attitude is shared by his formidable mother Mrs. Thornton, his partner in the business played by a volcanic Sinéad Cusack. Mrs. Thornton has been brutally hardened by the experience of being left destitute with two children by a bankrupt husband who committed suicide, and she can often give the impression of being completely without emotion. Cusack’s immensely expressive face and voice, however, enable us to get to know Mrs. Thornton better, and to appreciate that this is a woman of enormous integrity who is utterly devoted to her children’s happiness and cares little, if anything, for her own. There is a particularly strong bond between her and Mr. Thornton, with whom she shares the experience of their early poverty. Brendan Coyle is mercurial as union leader Nicholas Higgins: fearlessly devoted to improving the condition of the working man, he’s frightening when he’s angry, an inspiring leader and extremely intelligent with a good head for business; his loving, family-oriented side brought out by his relationship with his dying daughter Bessie (Anna Maxwell Martin). It is through Nicholas and Mr. Thornton’s working relationship and subsequent bromance that the divide between merchant class and working class begins to be breached: achieving the ultimate communication across class barriers by bringing the upper class to the table completely depends on Margaret.

Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins.

Brendan Coyle as Nicholas Higgins.

Gritty and harshly psychological, North and South stands alone among period dramas: utterly lacking in Jane Austen’s delicate prettiness, its passion more grounded in cold reality than any of the Brontës; it’s Dickensian social misery without the quirks, but still has an aura of hopefulness about it through its two protagonists who set the rules for their changing world.