The Hollow Crown – Henry V (BBC; 2012)
As my analysis of the previous films in the The Hollow Crown series anticipated, the BBC’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Henriad tetralogy of plays builds towards a fever pitch of heroic nationalistic triumph in Henry V. The closing narrative of the four-play arc quickly dispels the ambiguity and conflicted doubt about the impossible weight of the crown that roiled so eloquently in the speech of Henry V’s predecessors in Richard II and Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2.
The Prince Hal who balked at the burdensome responsibility of kingship to revel in proletarian taverns has grown into a monarch of supreme self-confidence who overmasters the fields of battle, of rhetoric, and ultimately of romance as well. Henry V is the victory lap of an indefatigable king forged in the crucible of late medieval power politics and in the opposing interests of Henry IV and Sir John Falstaff, the literal and figurative father figures (respectively) whose most useful qualities Henry V (played again with nearly arrogant poise by Tom Hiddleston) synthesized into his shooting-star reign of foreign military conquest.
Henry V commences with the expression of doubts about the young king’s mettle, but these are all external; he never doubts the reach of his own arm. A herald of the Dauphin (Edward Akrout), the heir to the throne of France, conveys a mock tribute to Henry consisting of a chest full of tennis balls. Although we know that Henry is already contemplating a continental campaign in pursuit of a claim to the French crown, this jesting slight at his expense gives him a convenient excuse to invade France. He replies with the most sabre-rattling set of tennis analogies ever unleashed and raises an army of conquest to spite the snobbish French aristocracy.
Considering the confident proclamations of Harry the King and the successful siege of Harfleur, the pro-English propagandistic trajectory of Shakespeare’s adaptation of the history of Henry V’s campaign makes it a little unclear how exactly the great commander’s forces wind up greatly outnumbered and compelled into a battle he may not have longed for just outside a tiny village named Azincourt. Of course, as both history and one of Shakespeare’s most famous history plays has made inescapably widely-known, Henry V and his ragged band of Englishmen win the day (largely thanks to the use of longbowmen). Shakespeare exaggerated the discrepancy in numbers between the English and French armies to make the unlikely-enough victory even moreso, and imperialistically surrounds his hero-king with regional representatives from across the royal realms, actual and claimed.
Although only the Welsh captain Fluellen (Owen Teale) is prominently featured in The Hollow Crown version, the tone of nationalistic fervour around the campaign (especially in contrast to the hated French, the photo-negative opposite of all that the English conceive of themselves as being) is quite preserved. The martyr’s end of the most prominent English noble casualty, the Duke of York (Paterson Joseph), accomplishes retroactive unifying of fractious historical and regional interests as well as providing a hint of post-modern (if historically laughable) multiculturalism in this particular version. A century following the divisive internecine power struggles of the War of the Roses, the Bard hearkened back to a Duke of York dying nobly in the service of a king from the House of Lancaster, a representative of the ever-restless and rebellious North defending national interests with his life. In The Hollow Crown, this Duke is even played by a black Briton, which despite the historical inaccuracy is a nod of the head to a modern, multiracial Britain (non-white men also appeared in the earlier Hollow Crown films).
But let’s not get bogged down in the supporting figures on the sidelines. The king runs this show, and Hiddleston’s Henry V assumes every role required of him and others besides. Every mask he dons suits him, and he moves from one aspect of idealized masculine kingship to another with the masterful command of one of Elizabethan stage’s star actors. He is as heroic in war as he is charmingly hesitant in the comical wooing of Catherine of Valois (Mélanie Thierry), promised to him as his future bride in the post-Azincourt negotiations with the beaten French King (Lambert Wilson). The common touch learned from his Eastcheap education from Falstaff and his circle does him credit, as he moves disguised among his men the night before the great battle to gain the measure of their morale; he even refrains from punishing one such soldier for an unrealized insult to the clandestine king.
But Henry is not afraid to get his hands dirty to consolidate his power, either. Although his exposure and execution of traitors at Southampton is left out of the early acts as an instructive object lesson in his newfound cold calculation, this king does forbid looting and wasteful foraging by his army in enemy lands (no wonder they were hungry and demoralized on the eve of battle; unpaid and scantily-supplied medieval armies relied on such activities to fill their purses and their bellies). When one of his old acquaintances in Falstaff’s circles, Bardolph (Tom Georgeson), is caught red-handed stealing from a church and good Harry sees him swinging from a tree branch, the king not without feeling but not moved to special treatment either. There are rules, firm lines of demarcation between the king and his subjects now, and though he will inspire and lead them, he is now inescapably above them, as it must be.
This vision of the role of the King of England is symbolized most clearly in The Hollow Crown‘s staging of Henry’s famed St. Crispin’s Day speech before the Battle of Agincourt. Compare it with two prominent previous film adaptations of the speech, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 take on the material. Olivier’s rich vocal performance rises and falls even as it tips into Received Pronunciation haughtiness, providing its own unique music (there is no score, only the voice of the king). Henry, in plain period dress (and with his ridiculous yet historically accurate haircut), walks among his troops, making occasional eye contact, speaking to all but also to each, predicting a collective memory of glory instead of a brutal, violent end. Olivier, also the director, shoots the whole speech in a single take and never once cuts to a close-up, as the camera approaches the speaker no nearer than a 3/4s view and mostly keeping the speechifying figure and the army pressing around him in medium range, with a subtle pullback as he finishes. Henry ends the speech standing on the bed of a humble cart that nonetheless elevates him above them like a campaign pedestal. The nationalist politics of the speech had to have been impossible to ignore in 1944, as Britain strove against Hitler’s war machine. When he closes with his final flourish to a mass cheer, the populism of the king’s appeal is undoubtable, but he remains above and apart.
Branagh’s pompous proclamatory tones, on the other hand, are more cornily theatrical and spittle-flecked. The visual composition is very much influenced by Olivier’s, and Branagh likewise sets himself as Henry among his men, this time arrayed over a small ridge, even employing a cart-as-platform in what must be a direct homage to the 20th Century’s great Shakespearean actor and filmmaker. But his speech contends with a stirring, memorable score from Patrick Doyle which emphasizes the mythic quality of the words. And Branagh’s vision is even more inclusive than Olivier’s. There’s much more cutting, from wider shots of the army around the king to his own impassioned face to the rapt visages of supporting characters listening with attentive admiration to this rhetorical tour-de-force from their leader (watch for a young Christian Bale as Boy). The climaxing cheer is much the same, but there is a note of togetherness, of the collapse of boundaries achieved by the shared sacrifice of war, that Olivier’s more class-conscious mounting of the material does not admit.
The Hollow Crown‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech sequence constitutes a radical break from these populist interpretations, though it also likely represents a more true-to-the-text staging. Hiddleston’s Henry V delivers the famous words not as a mass pep talk to thousands of foot soldiers but as a sincere but muted encouragement to his aristocratic captains. His speech begins with brave rhetoric in reply to the Duke of Westmoreland’s expressed wish for more troops, arguing that the determination of the men who remain to fight makes them preferable to an army twice the size. He asks Westmoreland to “proclaim it… through my host” that any man who cannot face up to the horrors of battle should say so and leave freely.
Taken as rhetorical framing by Olivier and Branagh, director Thea Sharrock views this line literally and her onscreen staging reflects that reading. Westmoreland must proclaim Henry’s words through his host because that host is not there listening to those words, only his generals are. “We happy few” are indeed quite few, not the scant hundreds aligned against France’s impressive thousands but barely a dozen representatives of the ruling elite (faithful to the Elizabethan stage, which would not have been able to contain the armed multitude). Henry speaks not in throat-scraping oratory but in a mild if passionate conservational tone. It’s an inspirational speech not for the 99% but for the 1%; not an amplified crowd-pleaser from the hustings but a composed parlay with the chaps down at the club. It’s a fair interpretation of the Shakespearean text, and fits with the approach of the rest of The Hollow Crown. In an epic tetralogy focused on the difficult role(s) that a king is expected to play, this scene and Henry V in general finds a solid conclusion: a king must rule, must impose his will upon his subjects from above them.
The Hollow Crown: Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 (BBC; 2012)
Although William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 are chronological narrative sequels to Richard II, they are its continuation to a much greater extent in thematic terms, an interpretive angle that is especially evident in the adaptation of the plays for The Hollow Crown television film series. Comprising the elder years of the titular king who deposed the titular king of said previous play, the Henry IV stories feature a jaded and belligerent monarch (Jeremy Irons) defending his precarious usurped crown from rebellion while attempting to coax his immature son and heir (Tom Hiddleston) away from low associations and into the more serious role of a future ruler. But they also present the modes and styles of kingship of Henry IV and Richard II as opposing traps that the young man who would be Henry V must nimbly avoid. Prince Hal (the embryonic Henry V) must also assimilate and adapt the useful elements of these models to create a potent new hybrid conception of monarchy that the tetralogy-closing sequel that bears his name demonstrates most floridly.
Henry IV is likewise (and much more prominently) a psychodrama over the fate of Prince Hal’s kingly unconscious. Young Hal is pressured throughout both parts by a pair of father figures to choose between them and the elements of his psyche that they represent. His actual father the king is the superego, lurking in his drafty, greyscale stone palace, grasping tenaciously at power and legitimacy with a grim and humourless determination (“Heavy is the head that wears the crown” and all, and Irons’ skull is a veritable ton of bricks). Hal finds this oppressive milieu of duty and obligation absolutely stifling, and responds to its imposition with flight. Much to the chagrin of the elder Henry, his heir retreats often to a sack-soaked tavern in Eastcheap to rabble-rouse in the company of a dastardly troupe of ne’er-do-well commoners under the impish direction of the corpulent personification of the id himself, Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale).
Both the kingly superego and the tavern-dwelling id tempt and urge the annointed Hal to follow their example, although Falstaff realizes his beloved protégé’s fate leads to the throne of his father and only hopes his rule includes generous patronage to good, true Jack Falstaff. King Henry’s expectations of Prince Hal are play-acted on the tavern’s humble stage in a well-known scene, and The Hollow Crown‘s version of it is a centerpiece of the production. Hal plays the king, while Falstaff plays Hal, and ironies and foreshadowing abound in the dialogue between them. Hiddleston provides his first great thespianic moment of the series with a dead-on, hilarious impersonation of Irons’ iconic imperious tones, and Beale is moving in the scene-closing beseechment to the king/the prince not to banish Falstaff, lest he banish all the world (Falstaff contains multitudes, and that’s not another fat joke).
The tug of war reaches its apotheosis in the climax of the aforementioned rebellion, lead by the Earl of Northumberland (Alun Armstrong) and his fearsome warrior son Harry Percey, a.k.a. Hotspur (Joe Armstrong, real-life son of Alun). The king’s forces overwhelm the rebels at the Battle of Shrewsbury, and Prince Hal kills Hotspur in single combat, thus overcoming the vigorous, warlike proxy-heir figure that Henry IV idealized and urged Hal to approximate. The dissembling coward Falstaff, who watches the clash of heroes from behind a tree, stabs and drags Hotspur’s corpse and grubbily takes credit for the kill. Hal is superficially amused and lets Falstaff have the glory, but Hiddleston plays it as an epiphany of disillusionment with the lusty, witty knight-vivant from Eastcheap.
Those familiar with the text are aware that Hal reconciles with his father in Part 2, taking the crown before the old man dies before convincing him that it was a statement of a resigned yet resolute acceptance of his duty to the throne rather than an impatient and ungrateful power grab. The new King Henry V then haughtily rejects Falstaff when his remaining father-figure begs for acknowledgement during the coronation procession. Beale (the greatest stage actor of his generation, or so says Wikipedia) is heartbreaking in this much-anticipated scene, although his brief, wordless, shattered cameo in Henry V conveys just as much pathetic sadness and tragedy with less emotional pomp.
Falstaff has been embraced as the most richly beloved of Shakespeare’s characters due to his id-ish characteristics: his earthy desires, shameless appetites, and self-aware, self-effacing wit. A modern Western culture that reifies fun, spontaneity and “living in the moment” even while it imposes its strictures on such impulses with an iron will has made Falstaff a tragic but irresistible mascot of its moral imperatives. It’s little wonder that Shakespeare was convinced to bring the character back in a lighter comic vein in The Merry Wives of Windsor; his repudiation of this raging personification of the id is harsh and cold, even if also true.
But Falstaff’s sacrifice was not in vain. The superego of Henry IV does not conquer the id of Falstaff wholly and entirely in the conflict over the persona of Henry V. Instead, the erstwhile Prince Hal becomes neither the forbidding, glowering monarch that his father was nor the lying, cheating, whoring, boozing hedonistic whirlwind that Falstaff was. Henry V melds the former’s command with the latter’s empathy, shrewd performativity, and common touch, and his triumphs in the fields and the castles of France in the tetralogy’s closing chapter proceed from the lessons learned from both (with a measure of Richard II’s sublime majesty thrown in as well). As Henry V will show, this pragmatic mediation of superego and id results in a masterfully-modulated ego of potent kingship that blazes with brief nationalistic martial fervour.
The Hollow Crown: Richard II (BBC; 2012)
A handsomely-mounted and textually-faithful set of television film adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Henriad plays, The Hollow Crown was a high-profile 2012 Cultural Olympiad production of the BBC. Insomuch as any version of the Bard’s work both resonates with the great English dramatist’s language and themes and reflects the assumptions and anxieties of the time in which it is produced, The Hollow Crown explores and illuminates not only the nature of kingship but the contours of top-down power in the British national historical context. Discussion and analysis of the films will proceed here in three parts.
The series of four films commences with Richard II, the underappreciated opening movement of this historical-propagandistic tetralogy. Political legitimation of the Tudor dynasty through theatrical narrative and symbolism was a consistent undercurrent in Shakespeare’s work: Macbeth embedded flattering references to James I’s mythical descent from legendary Scottish royals, Henry VIII ended with jubilation at the birth of the future Elizabeth I and nary a word of her imperious father having her mother beheaded. Richard II, the narrative of the overthrow of a monarch, has always sat a bit uneasily in light of this explanatory paradigm. A performance of the play was infamously commissioned in advance of the Earl of Essex‘s attempted coup in 1601, which would have overthrown Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch.
Revolutionary implications aside, Richard II is a work torn between its political and aesthetic loyalties, as The Hollow Crown version demonstrates. The thoughtful, complex speechifying on the nature of kingship and power is all gifted to the play’s titular monarch, who’s real the only character in the play of any linguistic interest or consequence. Played here by Ben Whishaw, Richard is ethereal and mercurial, a king of refined, almost angelic beauty and exquisiteness. Flouncing about in verdant woods and billowing white-draped pavilions encircled by a retinue of pretty male favourite, Richard is spoken of and indeed portrayed as a ruler of divine majesty but tragic miscalculation and detachment whose focus on cultural sophistication and well-groomed magnificence (Whishaw’s hair shimmers like blown glass, and his vestments are white robes out of Lawrence of Arabia) neglects the requirements of ordinary Englishpeople, mismanaging the realm and overtaxing its subjects to subdue Ireland in another of a series of ill-fated medieval imperial wars.
In a near-comic scene of dripping water-torture revelations, Richard lands on an English beach upon his return from Ireland to learn by degress that usurper Henry Bolingbroke (Rory Kinnear) has raised an army to depose him and that practically all of his putative supporters have allied with the future Henry IV against their king. Henry was the father of the legendary military hero-king Henry V and part of the Lancastrian line descended from John of Gaunt (played, all too briefly, by the always-great Patrick Stewart) that would sire future Richard-deposer Henry Tudor (Henry VII, founder of the dynasty in its final years when the play was written in 1595). Propaganda-wise, the author had considerable impetus to put forward the muscular man-of-action Bolingbroke as a legitimate and even preferable ruler to the indecisive and capricious Richard, celebrating the century of Tudor rule and anticipating a stable male-headed state to succeed the fading feminine Elizabeth.
But Richard earns Shakespeare’s artistic sympathy and gradually the audience’s as well. His rambling, sometimes hilarious stalling in the scene in which he’s asked to relinquish his crown is evidence of the fickle inconstancy that preconditions his removal. But Richard outflanks Bolingbroke and his allies symbolically even as they have their way with him in the arena of temporal power. He becomes a martyr, a tragic figure of considerable pathos, even if Shakespeare’s text and director Rupert Goold’s visuals trowel on a overthick layer of Christ imagery as the narrative reaches its conclusion. Whishaw, mercurial to the hilt, achieves a powerful contrast with Kinnear, who despite a stiff-lipped nobility also possesses a thickset frame and gapped teeth that make him seem more bus driver or dustman than king. The strong implication is that something sublime seeps out of the English crown when it is taken from Richard by Henry, and the arc of the next three plays in the tetralogy traces the new line’s efforts to reconstitute that lost sublimity in the form of heroic nationalism.
Munich (2005; Directed by Stephen Spielberg)
Munich is a fascinating, difficult film that, apart from the expected and perfunctory child-in-peril scene, barely feels like Spielberg. It’s mostly hard and unflinching and there’s not much in the way of a sugar-coated feel-good ending to tart up its less savoury and more morally troubling implications, as in so many of his films. But then this approach matches the overriding theme of the material and its applicability to the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely that an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind, be it three decades ago or today.
As is the case with many contemporary thrillers focusing on clandestine intelligence operations and pitiless politically-linked espionage and assassinations, Spielberg’s tightly-clenched depiction of the sweatily emotional internal conflict experienced by Eric Bana’s Mossad agent Avner Kaufman and his team of assassins hunting down and dispatching the Palestinian perpetrators of the confinement and murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in the titular German city humanizes and thus normalizes the sadistic moral evils of their state-sanctioned actions. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek’s observations on Zero Dark Thirty and its treatment of torture, portraying state-supported black ops as something that flawed, imperfect human beings engage in before returning to their routine, normalized lives drags a rightful moral taboo into the mainstream discourse of Western liberal democratic society. It’s the classic statement of the Overton Window, and if Spielberg isn’t moving it himself he’s showing how it can be moved without anyone really noticing or effectively objecting.
As you might well imagine from this reading, I don’t feel that Spielberg is entirely in control of the images and ideas he deploys at all times in Munich. This is a common enough occurence for America’s great populist auteur, who should be praised for seeking out grand and challenging themes and meanings just as he should be criticized for allowing his inborn instincts towards entertainment and sentimentalism to make a hash out of them. The flashbacks to recreated events at the Munich Olympics in 1972 are pitched manipulatively and do not maintain a firm, coherent link to the events that constitute the film’s plot. They are a needless revivification of a trauma that haunts all who remember it, nowhere more so than in the practically laughable juxtaposition of images of the massacre with Avner making perspiring, dark, aggressive love to his wife.
Still, there’s an unquieting ambiguity about the events in the film and their connection to the haunting traumas of history. Why is it called Munich when it is not set there and takes place well after the terror that went down there in 1972? Because this story, like all stories of the modern nation of Israel, spiral off inescapably from things that happened in the first city of Bavaria, not so much in 1972 but in 1923 and thereafter. The massacre was made all the worse for Israelis and Jews the world over for occuring in the supposed-reformed and liberalized incubation chamber of the National Socialist ideology that conceived of and executed the Holocaust, itself the proximal post-war impetus for their long-overdue winning of a homeland of their own at long last. Nazism did not cause the Munich massacre (indeed, a progressive overreaction to lingering perceptions of goosestepping German militarism convinced Olympic organizers to relax security at the Games). But it was undoubtedly situated in its root structure, inescapably feeding into it.
The unforgiving covert violence that Avner and his team are expected by their superiors (Geoffrey Rush represents this perspective most belligerently) to enact without flinching is not about restoring order or preserving security, those specious official justifications of secret illegality so familiar to us in the War on Terror era of unconstitutional surveillance and indefinite detention. It’s almost openly about revenge, about exorcising the lingering ghosts of an inutterably painful past as aggressively as possible. But aggression and hate preconditioned this historical haunting and they will not dispel it. In its most blazing moments (and they are few) Munich is very much about how Israel became the nation it is, and how an uncompomising response to centuries of traumas beyond the control of the Jewish people engendered a system of unswerving control that has subjected the counry’s internal minorities to discrimination not wholly dissimilar to that which it was founded in order to avert. Israel is ideally about the comfort and closure of belonging, but it’s likewise inherent defiant and zealous in not only its erection but in its pursuit of self-preservation. Munich wonders, if not quite out loud, if the latter quality has fatally infected the former.
My own reading of Munich (and of Israel) aside, it is evident that critics and commentators on the left and on the right were unsatisfied with how the film refused to consistently reflect their ideological assumptions about the Arab-Israeli conflict back to them. The ideologues didn’t find what they were looking for here, in short, and one has to kind of admire the film for that, whatever its other failings. If it has any sort of unifying message (and that’s a big “if”), it’s that deep, complex social problems can’t simply be killed away and the ghosts of past suffering do not find peace through warlike activity. It was derided by some observers on those grounds (mostly by those on the Right in American and Israel who think such deep-seated divisions and traumas can be solved by force alone) as wishy-washy liberal pacifism, but this is not a pacifist movie by any stretch of the imagination. What kind of movie is it, ultimately? I’m not so sure that’s ever properly clear, but it certainly is a good one, everything considered.
Edging ever closer to double digits on total installments of this regular feature mocking the online masses and their head-scratching search habits. Ten prime examples of these habits this time around. Aren’t they special?
peter jackson excessive
Hey, PJ lost a bunch of weight and he’s living a healthy lifestyle now. No more second breakfasts, let alone elevensies.
These are two of my favourite words/concepts together in one lovely, snobbish phrase and for this I thank you, anonymous searcher.
who is the man in the suit that beats up llewyn davis
If you just watch to the end of the damn movie, you’ll find out. Was this you, mother?
Yes, please. Unless this is a new Katy Perry single, then no thank you.
sexy girls on snowmobiles
What exactly do you find when you google that? Pretty much what you’d expect, though not as much as you might hope for. This is the most tasteful and relevant result. Lookit that sexy Moto-Ski!
dwarf shoulder prosthesis in the desolation of smaug
What a curiously specific and trivial line of inquiry. Maybe this was a WETA Workshop grunt sensitive about the reception of his work.
why does looper not have automatic weapons
Obama! *shakes fist*
violence and aesthetics and sport
www. threatening monologues- gangs of new york.co.za
This website does not actually seem to exist, which is unfortunate since if there was a site called Threatening Monologues aggregating all of the great tense and aggressive monologues of the movies, it would be pretty amazing. Lots of Tarantino, one would imagine. As it is, it may have to become a regular blog feature.
russell westbrook slash fanfiction
Stop and take a look at yourself, Western culture. What have you become?
Downton Abbey (ITV; 2010-present)
A hit in its domestic country with Brit broadcaster ITV, English period drama Downton Abbey has proven phenomenally popular with American audiences who catch it on Masterpiece Classic on PBS. British audiences can mostly be counted on to situate such a frothy soap opera of conservative ruling-class historical apologia in its proper context. But the show is convincing proof that their Yankee cousins will buy into nearly anything of even a vaguely respectable British pedigree as richly nuanced serialized artistry. Downton Abbey is, at its heart, as frothy and sensationalistically-plotted as Stateside primetime soaps like Dallas, and every bit as addictively watchable. But lacquer on some stiff manners, posh Received Pronunciation, and a country manor house setting, and many viewers will greet it as a latter-day televised Forster or Galsworthy novel, despite its lower leanings.
Taking place about a century ago, Downton Abbey is set in and around the titular (and fictional) aristocratic estate in Yorkshire. Presided over by the locally-admired but generally inept and rusting hereditary Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), Downton is a busy little world of shirt-and-tails dinners, fickle marriageable daughters, distantly-related male heirs, gossiping and squabbling servants, and a gradually encroaching and shifting social function. Incorporating historical events like the Titanic disaster, the Russian Revolution, women’s suffrage, the Irish independence movement, and World War I, the narrative and themes focus on a traditional ruling elite whose centuries-old position at the top of Great Britain’s socioeconomic pyramid is becoming gradually more precarious.
But the world(view) of Downton endures, and for all of his gestures towards historical progression, creator Julian Fellowes feels that preservation of the ruling class’ gilded status quo is right and good. No less than a Conservative member of the House of Lords (imagine a Republican U.S. Senator showrunning a fawning portrayal of honourable Texas oil tycoons, and you might get at the idea of his creative placement), Fellowes indulges the air of noblesse oblige with extreme fondness and patience, introducing hints of its eventual undoing only to provide narrative conflicts to be overcome by his aristocratic principals. When a genuine break with the traditional and the customary is achieved, it is only admitted with the expressed approval of the ruling elite. Maggie Smith’s barb-tossing Dowager Countess deigns to allow a talented but long-underappreciated county gardener win a flower show prize instead of awarding it to herself as she usually does, for example. This is a perfect example of Downton Abbey‘s strain of paternalistic conservative permissiveness of incremental social change. Only through the magnanimity of the haves can the have-nots share in any larger measure of the socioeconomic spoils.
This conservatism, with its very British emphasis on order and decorum, dominates the show. World War I breezes by, claiming minimal sacrifices from the great old house and its denizens and spurring plentiful platitudes about brave boys serving their country while non-servicepeople keep spirits up on the homefront. Newly-minted heir to the Grantham estate Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) seems to spend more time on leave at the house than he does in the trenches, and when Downton becomes a convalescent home for wounded officers, the family’s hardship at eating meals as table tennis goes on at the other end of the room is constructed as practically equivalent to the anguish of warfare.
Look behind the hints of ideology and the prim quasi-literary exterior, however, and Downton Abbey is really a slice of silly, manipulative trash entertainment. Plot and subplot supply lines are maintained mainly through constant eavesdropping and ineffectual confidences. “Can you keep a secret?” lady maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) asks her mistress Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), apparently unaware from two-plus seasons of onscreen history that nobody in the damned house can. Someone is always listening in or about to waltz into a room when something of consequence is being discussed by others. When loose lips are not sinking proverbial ships, developments of convenience abound. The Great War arrives just in time to shuffle the servant ranks which were becoming unsustainably tense, as well as to provide independently-minded Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) an occupational outlet in the form of nursing. A perfectly-timed outbreak of the Spanish influenza removes Matthew’s devoted but soppy fiancee (Zoe Boyle) just in time for him to belatedly get together with longtime love interest Mary.
This is enjoyable potboiler material, but it’s a dime-store version of imperial-vintage British social literature distilled into episodic portions for modern tastes and attention spans. Eventually Lord Grantham is snogging the new maid, Sybil is running away with the Irish socialist chauffeur, and the servants are employing a ouija board to anticipate narrative developments. It’s got to be hard for even the most devoted Downton fan to fail to fess up to the fundamental pulpy goofiness of the whole enterprise, when faced with such evidence. Fellowes’ realm of romantic anachronism lacks the depth and subtlety of the great literature it is referencing, yes, but that doesn’t mean that the politically conservative but wonderfully frivolous Downton Abbey is not appointment television anyway.
Ender’s Game (2013; Directed by Gavin Hood)
Orson Scott Card’s compelling late-1970s science fiction novel, once amusingly summarized as “Kids Accidentally Commit Genocide”, gets a handsome, (self-)serious, reasonably involving big-screen adaptation from South African writer/director Gavin Hood. The translation process preserves much of the material’s scope and moral dimension while scrubbing its less compromising elements and de-emphasizing its political implications, mind you. But the relative strength of the final product is notable given the long delays in eventual production, the downward pressures of Hollywood content policing, and the notoriously careful and outspoken nature of the narrative’s literary creator.
To properly discuss Ender’s Game and its themes and significations, rampant plot spoilers are inherently necessary. In addition to soliciting forgiveness for these, I’d ask for some tolerance of my attempts to analyze the particulars of the film’s adaptation of the novel, which despite my familiarity with its concept and themes, I have not read. Decades in the future, Earth is still recovering from the trauma of what was understood as a hostile invasion by locust-like extraterrestrials known as Formics. According to pre-packaged propaganda, the attack was fended off by the sacrifice of a brave pilot named Mazer Rackham, who detonated his payload into one of the Formic motherships and drove them off in a swarm back to their home planet.
In anticipation of another Formic attack that is consistently spoken of as being imminent, the best and brightest human children are being trained for battle strategy and warfare by a militaristic space agency called the International Fleet. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin (the intense Asa Butterfield) is perhaps the most promising cadet in his or any age group in Battle School, defeating even his older peers at the war games that are the staple of their training and outflanking them physically and psychologically in the bully/bullied hierarchy of every school in every time.
Tested and challenged by his imperious superior and mentor Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), Ender seeks to overcome the failings of his elder siblings, the aggressive Peter (Jimmy Pinchak) and the empathetic Valentine (Abigail Breslin), by balancing the former’s ruthless application of force with the latter’s emotional intelligence. Or so International Fleet hopes, as they have singled Ender out as the likeliest candidate to lead a child-captained tech-fleet on a pre-emptive strike on the Formics’ home system. Gaining the allegiance and admiration of his fellow cadets and removing obstacles to his success such as antagonistic squad leader Bonzo (Moisés Arias), Ender builds a strong team, wins capture-the-flag-style battle-games in the space-dome arena of the orbital school, and hones his fleet command skills in anticipation of a final graduation game simulating an assault on the Formic planet.
As readers of Ender’s Game and its multitude of sequels will be aware and as fresh but astute viewers of the film will likely predict in the ramp-up to it, this climactic war “game” is no game at all. It’s a genuine assault under the cloak of a test exercise, and when Ender utilizes his battle arena stratagems to destroy all life on the Formic planet (living up to his heavy-handed nickname), it is revealed to be not a simulated but a real genocide. Having already met the very-much-alive Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley with Maori facial tattoos and a dodgy Kiwi accent) in the latter stages of his training, Ender is aware that the official version of the fightback against the Formic invasion is a propagandistic fabrication and that the Formics retreated like wounded animals after the blow to their homeship, like ants having lost their queen (although an ant colony without a queen doesn’t simply give up the ghost but continues toiling until dying out, but I digress). But Colonel Graff’s revelation of the boy’s leading role in wiping out an entire species is a further and greater disillusionment.
Published in 1985 at the height of Reagan America’s conservative sabre-rattling against the crumbling Soviet Union, Card’s novel was a distinctly unsubtle but nonetheless potent broadside against propagandistic Cold War discourse. Imagining a militarized future which brainwashed its children into becoming inadvertent genocidal warriors is no great stretch in speculative fiction; The Hunger Games has recently and lucratively turned our social concern for the protective space of childhood into a nightmarish cautionary tale of centralizing media and political control and of the concurrent spectacularizing of violence. Propaganda, militarism and a bureaucratic structure built on spin, deceit, and ideological framing can lead to great horrors, the self-identified moderate Democrat Card was saying.
This is a message of no less currency in the contemporary America of the War on Terror, with its indefinite detention, unconstitutional surveillance, and demonizing of foreign others and of domestic resisters alike. Hood’s adaptation gestures to the propagandistic hype and the institutional mistruths underlying the genocide, but deactivates the push-button associations to current affairs as much as possible. True, the fighters in the final assault are referred as drones, those robotic airborne precision-killers of the Obama Administration’s ceaseless covert war. But Card’s narrative reality of the unifying nature of the anti-Formic crusade holding political fragmentation and destabilizing planetary conflict at bay is glossed, or perhaps just saved for sequels that, given the milquetoast box office returns, may never happen.
There is much of this neutering of the source material, despite the general integrity of the onscreen product. The Formics are uniformly referred to as “Buggers” in the original text, emphasizing the ugly pejorative nature of the humans’ propaganda campaign (and perhaps crystallizing the publically anti-same-sex-marriage Card’s underlying homophobia in a symbolic association of Others). They are Formics alone in the film, reflecting a similar politically-correct shift by Card himself in the subsequent books in the series. Furthermore, Ender’s natural ruthlessness is diminished via the softening of his dispatching of the various bully figures aligned against him in Battle School. All of the boys he clashes with wind up dead on the page, but Hood’s film makes a particular point of recognizing that Bonzo, who bumps his head after trying to ambush Ender in the shower, survives at least, and that Ender is touched enough by the event to visit his injured rival’s hospital bed.
Not all of the changes and translations reduce the material’s affect, however. The animated “mind games” designed to test Ender’s mental acuity and moral compass are rendered a bit like PS3 cut-scenes, but rely hearteningly on symbolic connections to the textual themes without heavy-handed gestures towards enforced meanings. The expansion of the role of Ender’s sole female peer Petra (Hailee Steinfield) is sensibly done and never spirals into a conventional romantic subplot. Even if Ender’s Game is never quite exciting, can get enmeshed in the trap of its own sense of importance, and weakens its political applicability with progressive, corporate-derived sensitivity, it’s a solid, well-crafted vision of the material for the big screen whose failings are not those of artistic incompetence but of over-conscious self-censorship. It’s more a game than a real war, but what a convincing game it manages to be at most times.