Saturday, February 2, 2013

He Knew He Was Right, Except that He May Have Been Wrong …

After watching two BBC miniseries based on Jane Austen novels, you might think I'd be tired of literary-inspired period dramas. But you'd severely underestimate my love of literature and also period pieces. So I followed up the 1980s versions of Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park with a more modern look at an English novel with He Knew He Was Right, the 2004 BBC miniseries based on the novel of the same name by Anthony Trollope. Like the 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, this novel was adopted for the screen by Andrew Davies.

One of the original book illustrations
He Knew He Was Right tells the story of Louis (the titular he) and Emily Trevelyan, a young married couple in 19th century London. They initially met in the tropics, where Emily's father is a governor, and fell madly in love. To the delight of Emily's parents Sir Marmaduke (yes, that's really his name) and Lady Rowley, Louis even offers to take Emily's sister Nora to live in London with them because of the close relationship the sisters share. But as Sir Marmaduke and Lady Rowley note (hint: use of foreshadowing!) Louis is a man used to getting his own way, while Emily's upbringing on the islands means she is far more independent than the demure women of proper London society. Still, things go well for the young couple for a few years as they enjoy their honeymoon period and have a son. The bulk of the action takes place when Sir Marmaduke's old friend Colonel Osborne, a man with a history of being something of a ladies' man, begins visiting Emily every day. Louis, enraged by the idea that people are talking about him and increasingly convinced that Emily and Osborne are up to no good, demands that Emily stop allowing these visits. But Emily maintains that there is nothing improper in receiving her father's oldest friend and refuses to do so. The tension between Louis's insistence and Emily's stubborn increasingly escalates, to the detriment of both.

At the same time as Louis and Emily's woes are unfolding, a number of subplots are occurring based on the lives of friends and family of the Trevelyans, radiating out to extended family and friends of friends, and so on. Emily's sister Nora Rowley is being courted by the wealthy Mr. Glascock (yes, that's really his name), but she is in love with Louis's good friend Hugh Stanbury, who is a struggling journalist for a radical newspaper. Hugh's work has lead to a riff with his dowager Aunt Jemima, who decides to bestow her favor on his sister Dorothy instead, asking Dorothy to move in with her. Dorothy leaves behind her mother and sister Priscilla to live with Aunt Stanbury, who has plans to play matchmaker between Dorothy and the local vicar, Mr. Gibson. Mr. Gibson already has love troubles his own, with both of Mrs. French's daughters, Camilla and Arabella, vying for his affections. At Aunt Stanbury's Dorothy also meets the lively Brooke Burgess, nephew to Jemima's fiancee from her youth, and the two develop a close friendship. Meanwhile, Mr. Glascock is called away to Italy to tend to his sick father, and en route he meets the beautiful American sisters, Caroline and Olivia Spalding.

I'll admit that for the beginning of the first episode in this miniseries, I was a little bit lost with so many different characters being introduced and me trying to keep a handle on all that was going on right off the bat. Besides the tons of characters being introduced, there were a few years going by and a continent change in the first 10 minutes or so. But by about half way through that first episode, I had all the major characters sorted and was really interested in them and their stories. By the end of that first episode, I was completely hooked. Each episode ended with such a cliff-hanger type moment that I really wanted to do nothing more than follow the series all the way through in one sitting, but alas sleep and work called. Still, I did end up watching the whole series (only four episodes after all) in just two sittings.

After watching the whole series, I have to say, wow, I did not expect it to be this good! I hadn't read the book previously - or for that matter, anything by Trollope - so I didn't really have much in terms of expectations, just hope that it would be interesting. Now that I know Trollope created such wonderful characters, I'm inclined to read his books - starting with this one because I want to spend more time with these characters. In particular, I really loved the Stanbury family, even the family members we didn't get to see as much (i.e., Priscilla). It was great how the Stanburys and their various relationships served as foils to the Trevelyans. Spoilers alert! For instance, Nora and Hugh's courtship does not have the ease that Louis and Emily's did (Sir Marmaduke and Lady Rowley were more than happy to give Emily away to Louis and send Nora along with them, but they disapprove of Hugh), but you as the viewer get the sense that it will last. And Aunt Stanbury's initial stubbornness and flat out refusal to accept the relationship between Dorothy and Brooke because of her concerns about what people will think and say is eventually softened by her love for Dorothy - and Brooke - and her realization that she is standing in the way of their happiness. If only Louis (or for that matter Emily) would have such a realization and stop obsessing about rumors and just be happy.

Speaking of the main characters, it was very frustrating to watch the dance that Louis and Emily kept repeating where they would realize how much they both loved each other and seemed like they would reconcile - only to have Louis ask once again for Emily's promise never to see Colonel Osborne from this moment forward and Emily to refuse to do so on the grounds that she has done nothing wrong. Especially in the beginning, it seemed as though all this heartbreak could be so easily fixed with a few minutes' open and honest conversation in which they (mostly he) actually let each other talk and explain. Over time though, Louis's descent in madness, becoming more and more depressed and paranoid, makes it obvious that no happy ending can be in store for them. (Apparently Trollope based this part of the novel loosely on Shakespeare's Othello, so that gives you a hint right there.) And Louis's final condition leads to the feeling that many characters - and indeed, viewers - have that if not Colonel Osborne, then some other man with whom Emily was not having an affair would become the target of Louis's obsession. That being said though, Osborne really does appear to be a cad though, and his insistence on visiting Emily no matter where she goes and what the consequences might be is incredibly maddening for the viewer (let alone Louis!). I was happy that other characters eventually began to see his nefarious role in the whole plot, with Lady Rowley noting that while he may not actually be a philanderer, he enjoys being thought of as one. Sir Marmaduke later confronts him at the club but fails to really admonish Osborne the way he should.

Anyway, back to the subplots, which apparently even Trollope thought were the more engaging part of the story. (To be fair, I found the Trevelyans' story equally interesting, but I was glad they lived in a much richer world in which other characters also tried to find their place in society, fell in love, etc.) Although a bit of a cad himself, the bumbling Mr. Gibson was a fun character who brought some humor to the story. His interactions with the French family and Aunt Stanbury were just great. Nora, unfortunately, felt a little flat for most of series, coming to her own only towards the end. There simply was not enough time to explore her character. Indeed, in some ways, these subplots didn't get as much treatment as they deserved. Characters like Mr. Glascock and his interactions with the Spalding sisters seemed to be brushed over pretty quickly. Even Mr. Brooke Burgess was given little screen time, and his friendship with Dorothy proceeded far too speedily for my taste. Since I haven't read the book, this may be true of the source material but a quick glance at the table of contents suggests otherwise. (For instance, there are two chapters with titles regarding Hugh Stanbury and his habit of smoking a pipe. That seems to be a lot more of Hugh than we see in this miniseries.) Also, translating a book that is some 800 pages long into four hours on the screen inevitably means that some things will get cut. This was the only downside to this miniseries - that, and I found the decision to have the characters occasionally address the camera directly, usually to explain away something untoward they've just done, to be a bit odd. I don't mind breaking down the fourth wall in some productions, but it didn't seem fitting in this one.

One thing I really enjoyed about the characters was that despite being set - and written - in the 19th century, He Knew He Was Right features a large female cast, all with interesting and varied characteristics. Emily and Nora are strong and independent, refusing to have their lives dictated by the whims of others - that is, as much as can be helped given their situations. These characteristics are most likely derived from their mother, Lady Rowley, who also has the great attributes of being clear-headed in tough situations and able to read people's characters quickly and accurately. Aunt Stanbury is a figure of power, for her wealth and consequence allows her to make decisions that affect others' lives. Priscilla, who I really wish we saw more of, is witty and always ready with a retort - or a rational comment - as need be. Dorothy at first seems naiver than her sister and arguably too gentle, but she shows great strength - and willingness to sacrifice - as her character develops. Mrs. Bozzle is a woman ahead of her times, repeatedly telling her husband how Trevelyan's desire to kidnap his own son may not be illegal but it is certainly not moral, defying Victorian standards that a man had more right to his children than a woman. Arabella and Camilla are more of the silly, ridiculous characters who are just obsessed with getting married, but in Arabella's defense she appears to actually be in love with Mr. Gibson while Camilla seems more in love with the idea of marrying well. Mrs. French meanwhile is smart enough to know how to manage sticky situations and bring them to her favor. Even Caroline Spalding, who we see very little of, is traveling through Europe with only her sister as a companion and is willing to speak her mind no matter what the occasion. Interestingly enough, I found this quote from Andrew Davies on Masterpiece Theatre's website: "This novel has a lot of confident women discovering themselves and making their own choices. Trollope seems to have preferred women who were gentle, like his docile, dutiful wife. However, in his middle years he traveled a lot and fell in love with a very vivacious, emancipated young American girl called Kate Field. He lost his heart to her, although they only had a sentimental, platonic friendship. These fiery women with strong opinions who'd argue like a man were very attractive to him, if also a little bit daunting." These tidbits about Trollope's life and attitudes toward women help inform the characterizations in He Knew He Was Right.

Speaking of the characters, I would be remiss if I didn't add that it is not just Trollope's inputs that make these characters so great - it's also the great output from the fine folks who played these roles. Everyone seemed perfect for the roles they played (again, noting that I haven't read the source material yet), but some stand out even more so than others. I absolutely loved David Tennant as Mr. Gibson and thought Anna Massey as Aunt Stanbury was spectacular. (Incidentally, Anna Massey had also played Aunt Norris in the 1983 version of Mansfield Park. In addition, Austen fans might recognize Christina Cole, who plays Nora Rowley here, as Mrs. Elton in the 2009 version of Emma and Caroline Bingley in the 2008 minseries Lost in Austen.) Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser as Louis and Emily, respectively, were great in showing how these characters evolved - and devolved - over time.

All and all, this was a fabulous production that I really enjoyed. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in costume dramas - or just good dramas in general. I second The Hollywood Reporter's assertion that this series is "television of the highest order: intelligent drama, well acted with crisp dialogue and all the ingredients required for a period piece."

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