Sherlock S03E03: His Last Vow

A garbled mess that has no idea where it’s going or why, His Last Vow is the last nail in Sherlock’s coffin; a fall from grace so precipitous and a crying shame so heartrending that the very idea of reviewing it is almost unbearable to me. Her Ladyship has, however, done appalling things for the good of her readers in the past – watching the first episode of School of Thrones and finishing that ghastly intellectual nonentity Labyrinth being among them – so she shall therefore endeavour to write her review without keeling over, screaming or dying. If the latter does occur, however: ‘To God [her] soul. To Rafe Sadler [her] books.’

His Last Vow gets off to a very promising start as we are introduced to our villain of the piece, news giant and serial blackmailer Charles Augustus Magnussen, who has been called before a committee to explain why Number 10 has been blessed with his presence more times this year than has been deemed appropriate. Played by an excellent Lars Mikkelsen, he loves to play on what he calls people’s ‘pressure points,’ and has an icy, creepy, unblinking and utterly revolting charisma about him that reminds you somewhat of Tørk Hviid in Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. We’re soon apprised of the fact that he has a similar lack in scruples as he blackmails committee chairman Lady Elizabeth Smallwood (Lindsay Duncan) to rule in his favour, using some explicit letters that her husband once wrote to a fifteen-year-old girl as leverage. This leads Lady Smallwood to call at Baker Street and ask Sherlock to act as intermediary between them. A fatal mistake, it seems, as this is where the entire episode starts to collapse around our ears; a string of ridiculous coincidences involving Sherlock’s feigned relapse into his drug habits and his seduction of one of Mary’s bridesmaids leading to another string of ridiculous coincidences involving breaking into Magnussen’s office,  discovering that Magnussen is still in his office at the time of the break-in, smelling Lady Smallwood’s perfume on the air, assuming she’s there to kill him, and discovering that the lady with the gun is in fact Mary, who isn’t an adorable nurse, but an ex-CIA assassin who wants Magnussen dead because he’s threatening to blow the whistle. From then on out, the episode is plot point after ridiculous plot point, piled one on top of the other with all the grace of a university student’s laundry pile (or lack thereof); mercifully interspersed with one or two beautiful scenes and unmercifully overdosed with a huge pile of poorly-written, unrealistic, tiresome and pointless ones. Further pandemonium is then brought about by the fact that this is all held together by the spit and prayers of a line of liaison so fixed on where it wants to end up that it doesn’t care which convoluted, nonsensical and utterly stupid routes it has to adopt in order to get there…or at what cost.

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One of the best things about the first two seasons of Sherlock was the scrupulous, almost medical cleanliness of the way each episode was presented: beautifully stark; impeccably precise; complex, yet minimalistic; an indestructible glass house with a baroque darkness about the people living in it; modern London as much a living, breathing predator to Sherlock as Victorian London is to Holmes. The first two seasons embodied everything that is best in British crime drama: heavy on plot, heavy on character, heavy in an inexplicably addictive and redemptive way. They also embodied everything that was best about the Sherlock-John relationship: the infectious camaraderie; the old-married-couple bickering; the almost-always-unspoken symbiosis of it, delivered with minimal words and much action. All of this complexity was kept so perfectly balanced that it probably wouldn’t have collapsed if plonked down on the end of a pin and left to fend for itself.

Oh, the good old days.

Oh, the good old days.

The problem with His Last Vow is that this characteristic sense of control and balance, indeed all sense of control and balance, seems to have disappeared across the board. The episode and its characters are allowed to run riot, and to create scenes of such havoc that one is often left wondering whether one is watching a TV series, or a particularly tedious piece of contemporary art with the aim of demonstrating the chaos that populates a writer’s head prior to a story’s actually beginning to take logical shape. Everything that this episode tries to bring to the fore – the depth of Sherlock’s affection for John, and for Mary; the depth of John’s love for Mary; Mycroft’s true feelings about his embarrassing little brother; Sherlock’s penchant for self-sacrifice and the limitlessness of his brilliant brain – all of it is done in a painfully obvious, lamentably unsubtle, sometimes out-of-character and incredibly over-the-top way that suggests that the script of this episode was not ready to be written, let alone filmed. The whole miserable business is still at the stage where it belongs nowhere but the inside of Stephen Moffatt’s head, or at the very limit, in a heavily-password-protected file in the depths of his computer where it can embarrass no one but him. All writers have one, so why not use it?

It’s all very well to sit here on high complaining about The Last Vow, but it isn’t entirely fair to do so without suggesting possible solutions. How, then, could the mess have been rectified? By a process of intense de-cluttering.

Step 1: Get rid of Lady Elizabeth Smallwood and her husband’s creepy letters. It’s a way of linking Magnussen to Sherlock that is just too round-about, wastes too much time and disappears so quickly into the general confusion that by the time we meet Lady Smallwood again at the end of the episode, we’ve almost forgotten who she is. Doing this would mean compromising on her excellent blackmail scene with Magnussen, and depriving us of the joy of seeing two fine actors like Mikkelsen and Duncan in the same scene, but you can’t have everything, and everything is something this episode already has too much of. So instead of introducing Magnussen through Lady Smallwood and then moving on, make his blackmail of Mary the premise from the start. Do a scene with him and her in which we don’t know who he is (or why he’s blackmailing her), only that she’s there to kill him. Ensure that she is prevented in some way:  do an ‘emails get sent to the press if I die’ thing if absolutely necessary – though with a man of Magnussen’s reputation it would probably take a lifetime for his henchmen to work out which one of the ten thousand ruinous emails he has waiting should be sent in the first place. Anyway, an opening scene of this kind gives Magnussen a chance to show off his initial creepiness, and Mary a chance to show off her new-found mysteriousness.

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Step 2: Get Mary to ask Sherlock for help. Not only will this be an interesting investigation into their relationship (particularly if she blackmails him to keep him quiet; which seems more in character than simply begging him not to tell); but is also a good way to educate the audience about Magnussen without all that pointless mucking about with drug dens; Janine; breaking into Magnussen’s office, and Sherlock getting shot and hospitalised. Also, if you want to be really smart, don’t let the audience in immediately on what Mary’s being blackmailed for. All we need to know is that she considers it momentous enough to end her and John’s marriage, and that the evidence for whatever it is is being held in the vaults beneath Magnussen’s house.

Step 3: So Sherlock tells John, of course; or, as in the episode, finds a way for Mary to unwittingly reveal herself. He does this regardless of anything that he’s been threatened with, and John justifiably freaks out. Don’t switch locations halfway through these two occurrences: if anything, it cuts the tension in half instead of augmenting it. The build up to the conclusion that John’s attracted to psychopaths needs to be re-written completely: Sherlock asking him a bunch of questions and making his conclusions for him just doesn’t really cut it, and neither do John’s responses to him. Actually, since our present state of things doesn’t have Sherlock injured, or clueless as to Mary’s past, leave him out of the scene altogether. Make it a matter between John and Mary, and let them draw conclusions together. A bust-up between them would also be more evocative of character than the somewhat heartless ‘we decide if we want you’ scene. The idea of the flash disk key to Mary’s past is good: keep it.

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Step 4: Find some other way of getting Sherlock and John to Magnussen’s house. That entire Christmas scene, smoking scene, drugging the entire bloody Holmes family+Mary and taking a helicopter ride with Mycroft’s laptop in tow is both too much and too far-fetched for words. Of course this poses the problem of how to get their hands on Mycroft’s laptop without his noticing its absence, and how to barter it with Magnussen without Mary finding out about it (one assumes she would want to know something about how her salvation is being brought about, since in our version of events, she’s asked Sherlock for help). Since drugs clearly have to be in this episode somewhere, use them on Mycroft only and preferably at night, so that the contents of his laptop can be copied onto some mega flash disk à la the missile plans in The Great Game; otherwise onto an external hard drive. Totter off to Magnussen’s place; do the big reveal about his vaults being a mind palace, and hold on to the episode’s present ending if we absolutely have to see Sherlock commit another self-sacrifice. Otherwise, get Sherlock and John into the sort of trouble that usually befalls people who walk into psychopaths’ houses (preferably post-mind palace conversation) and do an ‘unknown shooter’ thing (as in A Study in Pink). Police are called, Sherlock and John go home happy, unknown shooter turns out to be Mary, to whom shooting through the bastard’s window had apparently never before occurred.

Step 5: End off with John saying he’s not going to read the flash disk about Mary’s past. Fin.

This version of events does deprive us of another chance to see Sherlock giving up everything for his friends, but after The Reichenbach Fall, even more self-sacrifice seems a bit excessive.

The Last Vow is not entirely shitty. It has some lovely moments, and a couple of truly brilliant ideas (i.e. Magnussen’s non-existent vaults beneath his home). Unfortunately, the way it’s all executed is so tangled, sloppy and headache-inducing that the good doesn’t even come close to redeeming the bad, and this season of Sherlock suffers for it; ending with a whimper rather than a bang.

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Sherlock S03E02: The Sign of Three

Any wedding episode that manages to be totally lacking in corniness without having The Rains of Castamere on its playlist is a jewel, and while The Sign of Three is without doubt the most atypical of all Sherlock episodes in terms of just about everything, it has the distinction not only of being a jewel, but of being a remarkably well-thought-out and impeccably-structured rendering of a fiendishly-complicated plot, and a moving and hilarious bringing-to-light of everything that is good about the Sherlock-John relationship.

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It’s John and Mary’s wedding day, and Sherlock has found the build-up to the event rather distressing, for more reasons than one. Firstly, because of a deep-set fear (that he insists on denying) that John’s being a married man will spell the end of their partnership and will inevitably consign him to the gallows of haunting crime scenes with only a skull to talk to; secondly, because he has to make a speech as best man. His fears on the first count turn out to be groundless, most obviously because John can’t imagine a life without solving crimes, blogging about it and sniggering when Sherlock forgets his pants, but most importantly (and realistically) because John has had the good (and rare) fortune to fall in love with a woman who actually encourages their bromance (Sidebar: Mary is fucking awesome, she like totally sees that they’re both afraid things will change because of her, and likes to make them sneak around together like naughty schoolboys when she’s actually the person who planted the idea of doing the actual sneaking. But anyway.) As to Sherlock’s fears about the best man speech, well, those do turn out to be justified, and it is when confronted with a hall full of loud, half-drunk, oddly-shaped wedding guests and too nervous to be anything but himself, that Sherlock sets the ball rolling across a barrage of memorable cases, anecdotes and other totally sincere praises of the incomparable John Watson that takes an entire episode to navigate, and that soon transforms into one of the most important deductions of Sherlock’s life as it becomes clear that the wedding day is also one ingenious murderer’s personalised version of judgement day.

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Structuring an entire episode around a best man speech, and managing all the inevitable back and forth craziness incumbent upon such a structure, is a huge risk for any production to take: too much, and the audience can’t follow, too little, and the audience falls asleep. In the case of The Sign of Three, the risk pays off beautifully, and a sizeable chunk of the credit for that success goes to writer Stephen Thompson, who, despite his evident prowess and talent from a technical perspective, is also wildly imaginative and unfailingly good at bringing that imagination to the screen; most especially in the devices he employs to help us see what’s going on in Sherlock’s head; some of them classic, some of them entirely new. The most intelligent, and the most entertaining of these, is the lengthy scene involving Sherlock, a lecture hall full of women, Mycroft providing helpful hints from on high, and a surprise appearance by Irene Adler (defrocked), who is promptly told to ‘get out of my head, I’m busy!’ It’s a fantastic metaphor – and it looks good too.

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Whereas last week’s episode was definitely Martin Freeman’s in terms of acting, Sherlock belongs, this week, to Benedict Cumberbatch. Sherlock is utterly unpredictable in this episode (more so than usual, I mean); acting his charming, high-functioning-sociopathic self one minute, and unabashedly praising his friend with total and complete sincerity the next, to the point of making every person present burst into tears. The language might very well have seemed cringeworthy, and out-out-character in the hands of any other actor, but Cumberbatch delivers such a deadly combination of gravity, coldness, emotion and drama that the considerable amount of gut-spilling he does in the praising of John’s character is beautifully touching, and perhaps most importantly, perfectly believable in a character who prides himself on his own freedom from sentiment. Acting kudos also go to Amanda Abingdon, who is luminous, smart and hilarious as Mary, and to Alistair Petrie, who is tragic and charismatic as John’s ex-commander, Major Sholto.

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A huge improvement from last week across the board, The Sign of Three does nevertheless leave one wishing that something more would have happened, or at least that things might have been a bit less predictable. It’s a problem that also popped up in The Empty Hearse, but The Sign of Three is simply too much fun for me to throw my toys out of the cot about it. And there’s always next week; which, considering the story on which it is based, will more than make up for these rather glaring deficiencies in plot.

Sherlock S03E01: The Empty Hearse (Review)

Her Ladyship takes time off from her wanderings in the dark corridors of fan fiction to watch the premier episode of Sherlock season 3 and to reason from what she sees.

A singularly-strange and enjoyable little episode that feels a lot more like the product of the hugely-hyperactive and oft OTT pen of Steven Moffat than the darkly-intelligent work of its actual writer, Mark Gatiss, The Empty Hearse is big on chemistry, hugely entertaining and very promising of more awesomeness to come; yet falls a little flat in terms of plot, and of the mishandling of a few subtle but entirely basic Sherlock character traits that doesn’t quite seem pardonable in a show run by a pair of Holmes junkies.

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The Empty Hearse has a lot of fun ridiculing the many fan theories (both plausible and preposterous) that have popped up since the deeply-moving rooftop scene in The Reichenbach Fall that had most of us crying and screaming into our pillows for days after it was shown. None, however, is quite so much fun as the one we are introduced to first, in the episode’s engaging and utterly-badass opening sequence that brings us everything from the strategically-placed cyclist, to the bungee-rope-not-bungee-rope in Sherlock’s coat, to the Sherlock mask on Moriarty’s corpse; as well as a range of other awesomeness of which we shall not speak (except Sherlock crashing through the mortuary window and sticking his tongue down Molly’s throat. That part was too much fun not to mention). After the opening sequence, the show loses no time in informing us that Sherlock has been fully exonerated, post-mortem, of the charges trumped up by Moriarty, has spent the past two years dismantling the criminal genius’ network, and has been recalled to London from the depths of a Serbian torture chamber by his brother Mycroft, who wants him to investigate an imminent terrorist threat to the city. This, of course, means being reunited with John, who is newly-engaged, still grieving the loss of his best friend to the point of not having contacted Mrs Hudson for two years, and will probably be none too pleased that Sherlock has knowingly allowed him to go through hell. John’s reaction to the discovery that Sherlock is alive constitutes the main crux of the episode, and it is, most unfortunately, a double-edged sword of a focal point.

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First up, John. Martin Freeman’s acting is beautifully, movingly and vividly realistic. In John’s day-to-day existence he dons the grin-and-bear-it mask that so many bereaved people wear every day of their lives no matter how much it hurts. In his quieter moments of remembrance with his fiancée Mary (Amanda Abbingdon), and in the touchingly-garbled and emotional conversation that he has with Mrs Hudson when he finally works up the courage to visit 221B after Sherlock’s death, he starts to let us in more and more as to what he’s been thinking and feeling in coming to terms with the ‘aloneness’ of a world without Sherlock. It’s in his interaction with Sherlock himself, of course, that all hell truly breaks loose, and the naturally-volcanic chemistry between Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a whole lot of highly-emotional, heartrending and side-splitting scenes together, as John alternates between listening to Sherlock trying (and failing) to explain himself in an acceptable manner; and attempting to murder Sherlock in a variety of ways for what he has done.

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It is Sherlock’s half of the equation, regrettably, that just doesn’t feel right, and the problem lies in the script’s characterisation of him. Yes, we all know that Sherlock is a sociopath and has a near-autistic inability to understand or consider the feelings of others; and this may very well lead us to make the same conclusions, in terms of his character, that Gatiss has made in the script, i.e. Sherlock believes that John will be ‘delighted’ to discover that he is alive; doesn’t display anything that could reasonably be called remorse; is quite at a loss to understand why his friend doesn’t forgive him immediately; and is willing to resort to the most callous (if typical) of theatrics to bring John’s true feelings about him to the fore.

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‘If his theatrics are typical, then what’s the problem?’ The answer to that question is in the Reichenbach Fall itself. The pathos of that scene; the incredible emotion and tragedy of it; Sherlock’s willingness to destroy both himself and his reputation for the good of his friends; the fact that we see him crying towards the end of it; the usually stunted nature of his emotions transformed in the face of death, even though the great detective almost certainly knows, at that point, that he will not die: the idea of those emotions being simulated is, to Her Ladyship at least, absolutely unthinkable. Watching it, you’re really seized with the idea of separation being just as painful for Sherlock as it is for John (even if it isn’t, John not being about to die), and as a viewer, you’re granted a rare opportunity of seeing that, unburied beneath all Sherlock’s usual bullshit. I’m not saying that I wanted Sherlock to break down and be an emotional wreck for most of The Empty Hearse. Emotion is not something he does easily or lightly: but just one, tiny particle of a millisecond of acknowledgment of how hard it must have been for him to know that for two years, his friend was just a text away from being spared complete misery and heartache, would have rendered the Sherlock we see in this episode just a little more human, and would have ensured that the Reichenbach Fall itself, arguably the greatest scene ever between Sherlock and John, was not so shamelessly trivialised.
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The original short story on which this episode is based, The Empty House, succeeds marvellously at this particular aspect of Holmes’ character, even though he is faced with an entirely forgiving Watson who does nothing more alarming that faint at the sight of him. The short story manages to preserve both Holmes’ character, and the uncharacteristic expression of the depth of his regard for Watson. Let’s look at a quote:

“I had only one confidant – my brother Mycroft. I owe you many apologies, my dear Watson, but it was all-important that it should be thought I was dead, and it is quite certain that you would not have written so convincing an account of my unhappy end had you not yourself thought that it was true. Several times during the last three years I have taken up my pen to write to you, but always I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret (…) I came over at once to London, called in my own person at Baker Street, threw Mrs Hudson into violent hysterics, and found that Mycroft had preserved my rooms and my papers exactly as they had always been. So it was, my dear Watson, that at two o’clock to-day I found myself in my old armchair in my own old room, and only wishing that I could have seen my old friend Watson in the other chair which he has so often adorned.”

In contemporary English: ‘I was scared that you’d do something stupid if you knew I was alive. I knew what you must have been going through, I missed you like hell, and I’m sorry.’ The short story preserves Holmes’ charming narcissism and high opinion of himself, while still presenting us with a touching apology and a sincere admission of guilt. Will somebody please explain to me why this could not be done convincingly in The Empty Hearse? True, Victorian men were much more vocal about their affections for their friends than contemporary ones, but the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock could easily have portrayed emotions parallel with those of the Conan-Doylian Holmes even without saying a word, and this could have been achieved with just a tad more attention to detail and subtlety in the script. I find it very hard to believe that a writing and production team working with an actor of Benedict Cumberbatch’s calibre could not find some way of doing this properly.

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But now I’m acting as though the entire episode was ruined by this one thing; and that is very far from the truth. Most of the scenes between John and Sherlock are an absolute joy to watch, thanks to the aforementioned Freeman-Cumberbatch chemistry, and as the original storyline of the terrorist plot on London becomes more and more submerged in the interaction between their characters, we find that we don’t mind very much at all. There is a wonderful scene involving Sherlock, John, a bomb and a railway cart (V for Vendetta?) that makes for phenomenal viewing thanks to its powerful acting (I don’t ship Sherlock and John as a couple, but I must confess to harbouring sentiments distinctly of the ‘just kiss him, already!’ persuasion while watching it). A pleasant surprise is the instant and seemingly-mutual respect that springs up between Sherlock, and John’s fiancée Mary, which should provide us with plenty of interesting interactions in future episodes; particularly in terms of the way it will no doubt develop when the time actually comes for John and Mary to get married. An unpleasant surprise is the recourse to terrible jokes and clichés for no apparent reason (what exactly was the point of making such a terrific fuss about Sherlock getting his coat back, à la Captain Jack Harkness in Torchwood: Children of Earth?). But, ultimately, The Empty Hearse is well-acted enough, and entertaining enough, to keep us wanting more, and to make us give the showrunners the benefit of the doubt thanks to the awesomeness of their previous material. Her Ladyship shall return next week, to find out if the game is afoot, or over.

Parade’s End, Downton Abbey and Dumbasses: A Study in Fandom

Disclaimer: mean comments about Downton Abbey are only directed at fans that unfairly criticise Parade’s End. The rest of Downton fandom who allow people to have their own preferences are accorded this same right by the author of this post.

The genesis of this post lies in a comment made by a certain individual on the Wall of the Parade’s End Facebook page. While its author will remain unnamed, the post will be reproduced in its entirety:

‘Absolutely no match for Downton Abbey. The actors are acting as if it were still the year 2000. Doning (sic) period costumes and using today’s speech patterns, language and words that were never used in those times is off putting. Hell some of the words were never used in my childhood so why use them for the early 1900s? When I look back to the 50s people were slower than these bods let alone the type of citizens they are “trying” to portray here. Can’t watch it, cheap, trashy and very badly done.’

Attempting to decipher many of these remarks can be migraine-inducing.

The Dowager Countess is confused. So am I.

The Dowager Countess is confused. So am I.

Is he talking about swearing? What does all that blabbing about the 1950s actually mean? And why does the author have such a high regard for the language used during his childhood that he’s convinced it couldn’t be used in the early 1900s? Fortunately for us, we’re not obliged to attempt to see light in the fogginess; what ultimately concerns us is the last line: ‘Can’t watch it, cheap, trashy and very badly done.’

That got me thinking. Ever since Parade’s End was announced, the comparison with Downton Abbey has existed, which is understandable, since both shows take place in the Edwardian era. Downton had done a terrific job of robbing the period drama of the elitist mantel it sometimes carries, and many Downton fans were thrilled that a new Edwardian costume drama was coming; the combined appeal of having both Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Stoppard on board creating considerable excitement. Fans of Edwardian literature and of BBC period drama were also thrilled that Ford Madox Ford’s practically unknown masterpiece was getting such glorious treatment, and that it had been decided to adapt such a rampagingly modernist tetralogy. The first episode opened to record ratings (for BBC2), and it’s at this point that the considerable divide between reviews started. On one side, there were the Downton fans: but we can’t follow what’s going on, but it’s not in chronological order, but we don’t understand what the characters are saying. And of course, infinite variations on ‘cheap, trashy and badly done.’ On the other side, there were the Edwardian literature and period drama fans: the series gets the same brilliant modernist treatment as the books; it’s unashamedly intellectual, with complex characters, and bursting with symbolism and subtlety. Episode two arrived, ratings dropped. From that point on, it became acceptable for Downton fans to sling mud unashamedly, some of it very funny and done in the spirit of good fun (there was one terrific meme circulating featuring a confused Dowager Countess and the caption ‘What is a Parade’s End?’). With the might of ratings and of majority opinion behind them, they were met (and are still met) with very little opposition. Parade’s End fans usually ignored them, or felt indignation and simply kept their mouths shut. Let me explain why. Parade’s End fans are literature fans and period drama fans. They’re intellectuals. They’re used to being called elitist snobs; they’re tired of it; so why entertain it again?

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Attempting to explain the merits of Parade’s End to a Downton fan is exhausting and often hurtful. People hear the word ‘intellectual’ or ‘literary’ and a snide comment like ‘Well then I understand why you would like it’ (that once happened to me) is sure to follow. Well, this particular Parade’s End fan was on Facebook, lazily browsing all the glowing comments and praises of all the other intelligent people who love the show in the one environment designed for us to be able to sing its praises unmolested, and the delightful comment cited above popped up. And something snapped.

My fellow intellectuals, I regret that today, I do not possess your self-control or your admirable ability to ignore this idiotic comment and the millions of idiotic people who share similar views. So today, just once, I am hitting back, I’m fulfilling people’s prejudices, and I don’t care if people call me a snob or a nerd or any of the usual ignorant, hurtful things they say.

Parade’s End wipes the floor with Downton Abbey. Once the excellent first series of Downton ended, there seems to have been some kind of agreement between the show’s producers that ‘Okay. We know we’ve got a money maker here. So we can compromise on quality.’ And boy, did they. Overnight, Downton changed from a soaring period drama into a soap opera with pretty costumes. The terribly-written script released an epidemic of ridiculous plots (i.e. Patrick Crawley escapes drowning on the Titanic, loses his memory, acquires a Canadian accent and reappears in the middle of the First World War with his head covered in bandages and Edith is the only one who believes him and oh no one else does and he leaves and she’s so sad and oh!) and positively alarming changes in character (i.e. Lord Grantham and his sort-of affair with that stupid housemaid, something that is so out of character that it would have been laughed out of production had it been proposed by a novice screenwriter). It’s always the same empty-headed nonsense: Thomas and O’Brien plotting to take somebody down; Mr. Bates wrongfully accused of murder, chucked in jail, getting the death penalty, not getting the death penalty; some nasty guy disguised as Iain Glen threatening to publish Mary’s secret in his newspaper (gasp!) and Matthew and Mary dancing around each other like a pair of schizophrenic canaries, of course with a charming and totally innocent Lavinia threatening their happiness. It sounds like an episode of Days of Our Lives! This goes round and round in a whirlwind of appalling script and mediocre acting (and of course, of pretty costumes), with only Maggie Smith and Michelle Dockery saving us from the complete collapse of our mental faculties after watching only one episode.

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In comparison, Parade’s End is War and Peace, but with one notable difference. Parade’s End can actually compete with War and Peace. It can compete with any of the world’s great classics.  Unlike Downton, it doesn’t give us a cute, idealised version of old England, the version that Downton manages to deliver even at the height of the War. Parade’s End gives us old England at its most excruciating and its most cruel. The pretty costumes and the gorgeous drawing rooms hide the blackest human depression and most brutal acts of evil and human selfishness. People are strangled alive by social convention that no one seems to like, but that everyone clings to, because embracing the new would be too frightening. People choose to suffer out of a sense of duty. Its protagonist, brilliant statistician Christopher Tietjens, is rigorously committed to this old world sense of duty, which he calls ‘Parade.’ Married to Sylvia, a scathingly evil woman (yes, evil) who trapped him into marriage through a child who may not be his in the first place, he gladly endures all the misery of being bound to an intelligent but utterly uneducated woman with whom he has nothing in common and who seems determined to hurt him as much as possible for ‘tormenting her’ with his honourable behavior.

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Where honour is concerned (well, perhaps where all things are concerned), Christopher is stubborn as a mule, refusing the entreaties of his friends that he divorce Sylvia after she runs away to France with another man, declaring that ‘only a blackguard would subject his wife to that.’ He even conceals her infidelity from the general public by saying she’s gone to Germany to nurse her mother at a spa. At all costs, even that of his own happiness, he is determined to act in a way that he considers decent and gentlemanly: ‘For a gentleman there is such a thing as…call it Parade.’ Christopher’s sense of honour and duty is rendered all the more excruciating when he literally runs into (well, almost literally runs into) a young suffragette on a golf course who has been demonstrating with a friend, and helps them to escape by chucking a bag of golf clubs between a policeman’s ankles. Some investigation, and fate, reveals her to be Valentine Wannop, the daughter of old Tietjens family friend Professor Wannop. A superbly well-read and brilliant Latinist, Valentine is Christopher’s perfect intellectual match, and they fall in love in an extremely intellectual, almost spiritual way. Christopher’s own honour and loyalty to a woman who hates him keep them apart, Valentine loving him all the more for his scruples. Christopher begins to see the world around him in an increasingly critical way, despairing at the way honour, goodness and service to one’s people have been swept under the carpet in the name of incompetent bureaucracy and money. At one point, Valentine even accuses him of hating England, to which he replies, ‘Don’t believe that. I love every field and hedgerow. The land is England, and once, it was the foundation of order. Before money took over and handed the country over to the swindlers and schemers; the Toryism of the pig’s trough.’ He resigns his post and leaves for the trenches, where he is met with even more misery, lack of organization and a mental hysteria that routinely possesses him, causing a split in his consciousness that almost drives him mad. In Christopher’s struggle, both in his personal life and in the psychological terror and madness of the War, is embodied the madness of the age: what do duty and honour matter when men devote years and years to murdering each other in the most horrible ways for the most horrendous reasons; what exactly is it that all these people with their own lives and loves die for; what are the true consequences of our actions; how far do they reach out, and above all, what is life, war, dying, madness, all for, and why do we continue when we don’t even know? All the sense and reason is drained out of the world, so why have any other goal than to simply love someone and hope you don’t get shot?

Parades End. Call Sheet #11

Tom Stoppard’s twenty year labour of love on the script of Parade’s End captures Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy in all its glorious complexity, and flawlessly conveys the highly psychological, internalized worlds of the characters and how they relate to the outside by maintaining Ford’s flexible modernist chronology, as well as his heady, striking and sometimes incomprehensible imagery. He has a deep understanding of the characters and of their motivations, and he uses those motivations to guide us through their development with as much mastery as Ford himself, only enlightening us of certain facts of plot or chronology as far as Ford himself enlightens us in the books. The star-studded cast is laden with career-defining, deep method acting performances of unimaginable complexity from Benedict Cumberbatch (Christopher), Rebecca Hall (Sylvia) and Adelaide Clemens (Valentine), the chemistry between the three set at perfect pitch. The psychological nature of many of the scenes is evoked through gorgeous cinematography heavily influenced by early twentieth century art, particularly Picasso, giving the entire series an unashamedly artistic, intellectual atmosphere. Parade’s End is a perfectly-made, flawless masterpiece, and people who don’t see that are idiots.

Here’s the truth of the matter. Parade’s End is for people who possess a brain. Downton Abbey is for those who do not. The latter is for people who only need to see a cute girl, or some beautiful dresses, or a big English country house, to think they’re dealing with a masterpiece of human accomplishment. In their tiny, badly-read, usually brainless, uneducated lives, it may very well be. Following Downton is not challenging or interesting. It doesn’t require any thinking or engagement from its audience: what happens in each episode is shoved down your throats like chocolate ice cream down the throat of a five year old. Watching Parade’s End requires the audience to think. It requires the audience to engage with what they’re seeing. When you watch it, there is a lot to think about, because there’s a lot to take in and a lot to admire. There’s a script you actually need to pay attention to in order to know what’s going on. You need to pay attention to the out-of-sequence chronology because the meaning of certain events being out of sequence may pop up later. If you don’t possess a brain, you can’t do it. If you’re just plain thick, you can’t do it. This may indeed be disconcerting for you. So change channels and move on. Why lambast a series and throw endless, completely unjustified criticism at it just because you don’t understand it? This insecurity would be funny if it wasn’t so pathetic. The inability to provide concrete, detailed criticism of a series doesn’t make it bad television. It doesn’t give you the right to have a bad opinion of it. It doesn’t give you the right to have any opinion of it. All it does is make you look indescribably stupid. I don’t care if loads of people do the same thing. Ten million stupid, wrong people are still stupid and wrong.

So. Parade’s End isn’t cheap, trashy and very badly done. It is a masterpiece. It is approximately 10 million times better than Downton Abbey. And the somewhat hellish criticism of it by Downton fans is unjustified, unjustifiable, laughable and rather like E.L. James telling Margaret Atwood she sucks.

Ten Great TV Performances You’ve Never Seen

This is a tribute to ten truly great performances that most of the public have never seen or even heard of, written with the intention of spreading awesomeness.

10.Jonathan Rhys-Meyers – Gormenghast

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The first (and the greatest) performance in an otherwise mediocre career, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is menacingly and toweringly evil as kitchen boy turned master manipulator and serial murderer Steerpike, whose loneliness, anger and sexual frustration send him on a ruthless quest to rule the society that sees him as a bottom feeder. He alternates between black depression, pulsing scheming and screeching laughter. A psychological mess in a world of madmen, he takes an ecstatic, furious joy in the evil he commits that is both awful and delightful to watch.

9.Claire Foy – Little Dorrit

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Claire Foy’s Amy Dorrit is an entirely convincing portrayal of a small person who loves to see other people happy, even at the cost of her own happiness. Having been a resident of the Marshalsea Debtors’ Prison since her birth, Amy harbours nothing but the greatest affection for a father, sister and brother who take shameless advantage of her and often ridicule her for not spending what little money she has on aspiring to their former, upper-class lifestyle. Outbursts of anger are infrequent, and she walks the streets of her cramped, miserable world with perfect contentment and fulfillment, loved by all who know her. Foy’s performance is masterfully realistic and believable, her face and voice the very image and sound of kindness, her enormous blue eyes intensely expressive and carrying the look and responsibility of a person twice her age.

8.Hattie Moran – Sense and Sensibility

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A performance of enormous emotional maturity, Hattie Moran’s Eleanor Dashwood is forced to wear the pants and pretend not to do it when her father’s death seems to deprive her mother and one of her sisters of even the tiniest knowledge of the value of money, a knowledge which is all the more necessary after they are turned out of the house by an entail and plunged into a newfound poverty. Battling with both her family’s new situation and with her discovery that the man she loves has been engaged to someone else for the past five years, Eleanor wears a good-natured mask of contentment and optimism to spare the people closest to her from experiencing any pain on her account. While Emma Thompson’s earlier performance of the role only makes you annoyed at her stuffiness, Moran presents all this stubborn nobility and silence as something genuinely admirable and inspiring, her gorgeous deep voice somehow evoking both the timelessness of the character, and how quickly she has had to grow up.

7.Maxine Peake – Silk

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Maxine Peake fits so snugly and so comfortably into the shoes of barrister Martha Costello that it is sometimes hard to believe she isn’t Martha 24/7. She’s a turning point in legal drama: a barrister who’s interesting without being an alcoholic and who is also a veritable tsunami wave in court while still maintaining an idealistic view of justice. Using her heart where most of her profession are content to only use their heads, she’s an unfailingly kind champion of the underdog (in all his miscellaneous forms) who believes in second (and third) chances, while still keeping us in no doubt that she’s not the remotest bit like a walkover. So intelligent that it shouldn’t be allowed, Peake carries all this complexity with a poise and meticulousness as characteristic as her blood red lipstick and embodies the spirited air of freshness that permeates the entire series.

6. Stuart Wilson – Anna Karenina (1977)

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Stuart Wilson has everything a great Count Vronsky should have: charisma, good looks (regrettably, this is one role where looks are indispensable) and an enviable ability to convey to us Vronsky’s psychological complexity and development. At the beginning, he’s every inch the unredeeming and badly-behaved rake. His transformation, through his love for Anna, into someone capable of selflessness to the point of trying to take his own life, is one of the most difficult things to convince a modern audience of being possible, and Wilson carries it off with exemplary style that is deeply poignant and rather beautiful.

5. Sinead Cusack – North and South

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With one of the most expressive faces in the business, Sinead Cusack’s Mrs. Thornton is one of many great performances in the BBC’s immortal adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. The wife of a cotton mill owner who commits suicide following bankruptcy, the deep, hard iron in her ancient-seeming northern soul allows her to raise two children in abject poverty and eventually, to see their family name restored through her son John, who is able to regain their former prosperity and to repay her for years of hardship. Though we don’t see any of this in the series, the evidence of it runs through every line in Cusack’s face. Her powerful screen presence and sublime acting combined with those of co-star Richard Armitage make for one of the most charismatic mother-son teams in TV history. She’s a fiercely proud, protective mother and a brilliant businesswoman who is rather frightening and seemingly emotionless, but whose moments of affection are all the more rewarding for being rare.

4.Emilia Fox – Silent Witness

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Often mentioned, but not praised half as much as it should be, Emilia Fox’s performance as forensic anthropologist Doctor Nikki Alexander is an existentialist room of mirrors. Possibly the loneliest character in modern TV, she leads a deafeningly silent life outside the lab, even declaring to/goading a half-mad university shooter that nobody would miss her if he decided to kill her. It’s through her work at the lab that we see more of the many sides of her: the ringing laughter, the dazzling wit and the intolerance of any kind of bullshit. She’s spectacularly complex and tragic, and hasn’t stopped developing for all seven seasons that we’ve known her. Consequently, she’s a tremendous acting challenge, and Emilia Fox’s ability to capture all the myriad dimensions of Nikki and make her so beautiful is a moving thrill that’s no doubt a major contributor to the series’ continued success.

3.Benedict Cumberbatch – Hawking

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Diagnosed with motor-neuron disease at the age of 20, doctoral student Stephen is forced to deal with the gradual, heart-rending collapse of his body and the enthralling potential for discovery in an infinitely large universe that he deeply loves…and that he might be forced to leave before he’s 25. A young (and unknown) Benedict Cumberbatch gives a titanic performance as one of the foremost geniuses of our time with all that greatness still ahead of him, his performance resonating with pathos; his character defined by an intrinsic sweetness that sometimes doesn’t notice the shadow of death, only the joy of life and the bitter horror of having to live it this way.

2. Kenneth Branagh – Wallander

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Kenneth Branagh’s Kurt Wallander is like a whisper with a symphony in its depths. Living a somewhat toxic, unhealthy existence in Ystad, southern Sweden, he has a mountain of awful personal issues that should have landed him on the psychologist’s couch ages ago, including an ex-wife he’s still in love with, a hippie daughter with abandonment issues and a painter father dying of Alzheimer’s. He’s a detective genius, has chronic insomnia, doesn’t eat or wash for days when he’s working a case and lives his entire existence in an exhausted, semi-alcoholic haze. Branagh is mesmerizing, drawing on every mode of expression available to him without actually having to speak, his natural (and colossal, I might add) charisma leading us spellbound around the hues of his grey and blue inner world. It’s a masterpiece arthouse role for a very arthouse series.

1.Damian Lewis – The Forsyte Saga

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Lewis plays Soames Forsyte, a despicably possessive and stiff-collared Victorian who makes the catastrophic mistake of thinking that his artistic and free-spirited wife is just another piece of property that he can command at will. When she proves to be a human being, he subjects her to the most painful psychological, and eventually, physical, torture in his attempts to punish her for not loving him, the consequences resonating further into the future than either of them could have imagined, and destroying lives left, right and center. All this plays out against an enormous backdrop of family feuds and intrigues; Soames’ story being but one half of a sprawling whole. Soames is a repulsive, sneering and utterly unlikeable individual who should inspire more hate than love, but Lewis blends the light and dark with such raw humanity that he inspires just as much pity as revulsion. His performance is a masterpiece that should be mentioned more often, but seems to be utterly unknown to many of his most ardent fans.

Parade’s End Book 4 Review: The Last Post

Cover of the Vintage edition.The Last Post is Ford Madox Ford’s Titus Alone: the final book that most readers forget about and that most editors don’t want them to read anyway. It’s very different from its predecessors, and it’s also ‘disappointing’ (please note inverted commas) in that it risks spoiling everything the reader has been through with Christopher and Valentine and makes one realise that happily ever after is a complicated business. The entire fabric of the story is totally transformed: Christopher takes a back seat and hardly features at all, Valentine finds herself fighting off wave after wave of inner hysteria, Sylvia is back, and much of the book is told from the perspective of Christopher’s dying brother Mark, whose presence impregnates the narrative with the same death-saturated clarity and confusion as the masterful final chapter of Giuseppe di Lampidusa’s The Leopard. All this in the same stream of consciousness, impressionistic style that has so vividly defined this remarkable tetralogy.

Poor Mark’s previous actions are catching up with him, and his behavior to Christopher and to his father is slowly breaking his heart. Mute, he lies day and night on a bed in the orchard on the property of the cottage that he and his mistress Marie-Léonie now share with Christopher and Valentine, speculating about the past and torturing himself about his family and about the world. Christopher is absent: he’s gone to Yorkshire to stop Groby Great Tree, the centuries-old symbol of the Yorkshire Tietjens’, from being cut down by Groby’s new tenant, who is firmly in Sylvia’s pocket. Speaking of the odious Mrs. Tietjens, she’s riding just above Christopher and Valentine’s cottage with some horrid pals of hers, trying to think of the most effective way to torment Christopher further now that she’s lost him for good.

One of the things that risks making this book a ‘disappointment’ to the more conventional reader is that you actually see what happens after the happily ever after, and it’s not exactly pretty. Yes, Valentine and Christopher are together at last, and each is 100% percent assured of the other’s eternal love and devotion. BUT: things are so damned hard. The weight of the world has settled uncomfortably onto poor, young, bright and now pregnant Valentine’s slender shoulders, and that weight is causing a disjointedness and hysteria in her thought patterns that is usually characteristic of Christopher or Sylvia. Living with Christopher after the war has put her into the position of something like a carer, except that Christopher doesn’t seem to realise that he needs caring for, and that someone has to keep a constant eye on him to save him from himself. Thanks (directly and indirectly) to Sylvia, Christopher is now ruined socially and financially, and his only source of income is a little furniture business he’s started with an American ex-prisoner of war who may or may not have swindled him. You’d think he’d devote most of his attention to this venture, but he seems to find it impossible to do so: he’s almost pathologically absent-minded, and would almost certainly have been diagnosed with PTSD if he had lived today. He wants the business to work, but has lost the organisational precision necessary to do so. Needless to say, this drives Valentine half-mad with worry: she loves Christopher, but has no idea if they’ll be able to support a child in their present circumstances. She wonders, in her darker moments, if Christopher might take off with someone else, or what her social position might be once the child is born, leading her to into twisting mental labyrinths that she can’t seem to escape from. The only thing that really keeps her sane is the thought of her child and the joy she feels at the prospect of being a mother. The way that Christopher and Valentine live is the cherry on top of the brutal realism that characterises Parade’s End: the world is unjust and cruel. Bad things happen to good people. Love isn’t enough to make you happy. And bad people seem to do nothing but thrive…

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In the BBC adaptation, Rebecca Hall is glorious as Sylvia Tietjens, the most fucked-up character in literary history.

In the BBC adaptation, Rebecca Hall is glorious as Sylvia Tietjens, the most fucked-up character in literary history.

Ford takes ample advantage of this being our last opportunity to get more insight into Sylvia and to determine precisely why she is so fucked up. This she most definitely is: she’s determined to speak to Mark in the hope that the sight of her will kill him, she’s started divorce proceedings against Christopher simply for the public shame this will cause him (she has no intention of divorcing him), she’s cut down Groby Great Tree to cause his sentimental and traditionalist soul as much agony as possible, and she enjoys the thought of tormenting Valentine into a miscarriage (she is later justifiably ashamed of herself for this last one). Who is this woman and what in God’s name is wrong with her? I’ve never before seen a character so inexplicably sadistic and destructive: she’s someone you can actually find yourself mustering genuine hatred for, because her feelings and her desires are so absolutely appalling. She’s boiling over with anger and vindictiveness and seems satisfied with nothing less than smiting her enemies like a Celtic warrior goddess. Fortunately, Ford does (very subtly) provide us with one very simple explanation for all this that does him oodles of credit as a connoisseur of human folly: sex. Sylvia’s sexual appeal has been responsible for her getting her own way for years. It’s how she trapped Christopher into marrying her, amongst other things, and she enjoys dangling it in front of each man she meets when she knows that she’ll cleave to her vow of chastity: it’s just another facet of her charming sadomasochistic personality. Yet the only person she’s interested in having in her bed at all is Christopher, and he’s having none of it: they’re too estranged, they’ve hurt each other too much, he’s fallen in love with someone that’s good for him and Sylvia has hammered each scheming, destructive nail into her own coffin by acting like such a…such a complete psychopath. This state of affairs has triggered a vast escalation in the rage and hatred that she’s treated Christopher with since the commencement of their marriage. By now, the only way that Sylvia can express what she’s feeling is to use that inner tension and frustration to hurt people, and I mean really hurt people. She’s turned misery and hatred into a kind of art, both as concerns herself and as concerns her undeserving victims. Perhaps this is Ford’s way of personifying the concept that sex makes the world go round, but whatever his intentions might have been, Sylvia is right up there with Christopher as one of Ford’s greatest creations, the sheer emotional effect she has on the reader a testament to his genius.

The horrible thing is that none of this really matters anymore. The world has changed. Old England is crumbling to bits around the characters, all the things that have caused so much hurt and grief for Christopher are slowly turning to dust. Yes, many people do still act like arseholes to Christopher because they’re still cleaving, desperately, to pre-war society and all the agonising pretending and hypocrisy that went with it, but as I said, the world has changed. Millions of people are dead. Cities are empty shells. There are still dozens of bombs in every field in Belgium that could explode at any second. People just don’t care anymore. ‘There will be no more parades.’ Does that bode well or badly for Christopher and Valentine’s future? I can’t really decide.

Parade’s End is a masterpiece. It’s hard-going. And, as in the case of Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which is equally hard-going, you often find yourself shaking your head and wondering at the fact that the all-seeing, godlike creature who produced this beautiful thing is actually a human being. It’s not just a mirror of its times, it’s a mirror of everything; of who people are; of togetherness; of separation; of loneliness; of what love is; of what the mind is and of what can happen to it. One could argue that it’s worth reading for its remarkable style of writing alone, but as we’ve so amply observed over the course of these three and a bit weeks, Ford will inevitably show you that there’s so much more to it than that.

The 10 Best Sherlock Holmes Fanvids on YouTube

Artwork courtesy of avikstudio.files.wordpress.com

Artwork courtesy of avikstudio.files.wordpress.com

Let us praise the faceless rock stars and the consummate artists that most of us only know through an alias: the YouTube vidders who open up the many dimensions of Holmes and permit us to see into them as they do. Collected here are my top ten Sherlock Holmes fanvids from the timeless interpretations of Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch in no particular order (I reserve the right to omit the Downey Jnr movies, this being my blog): some of them are hilarious, some of them disturbing and some simply make you cry. Whatever the intention of the vidder was, these fanvids make up the cream of the crop in an extremely crowded online market.

1. Title:  Sherlock: No Light, No Light. (A Reichenbach Fall Fanvideo).

    Vidder: RockPrincessMarta

2. Title: Holmes & Watson- Fix You

     Vidder: givemeanimeanyday

3. Title: two fools in love | sherlock bbc

     Vidder: Deductism.

4. Title: Holmes/Watson My Life Would Suck Without You

     Vidder: B Smith

5. Title: Seven Nation Army- [Sherlock] [Series 2]

     Vidder: Sherlock Whovian

6. Title: Sherlock Holmes – Dangerous Mind

     Vidder: VHunter07

7. Title: Sherlock: I Am Not A Robot

      Vidder: ShortAngryRedHead

8. Title: The Way You Move- Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes

     Vidder: givemeanimeanyday

9. Title: losing your memory | sherlock

Vidder: OMNJJ134•

10. Title: If Everyone Cared

Vidder: MishaFromPoland