The Great Gatsby

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I don’t know what film the critics have seen, but it’s certainly not the one I saw on Friday night. There seems to be some sort of competition amongst the newspaper reviewers to be the most cultured, the most literarily authoritative and the most incandescent about how Luhrmann has ‘trampled over the subtleties’ of the original text. Please! Subtleties? Have they read The Great Gatsby? Aside from Of Mice and Men, you couldn’t find a more unsubtle novel. It bludgeons you over the head with its themes from the very first page, for heaven’s sake! Such an obvious novel cries out for a fresh, bold interpretation on the screen; one that lifts it from its established reading and allows it to be viewed from a new perspective. Baz Luhrmann has done just that, and I thought his vision was absolutely marvellous.

He brings the world of the roaring twenties magnificently and surreally to life. Gatsby and Daisy’s mansions are breathtakingly opulent, the legendary parties are a riot of colour and movement set to fantastic music (the soundtrack is seriously amazing) and New York is a throbbing, colourful, seedy metropolis. The costumes are a vision of loveliness and there are moments of cinematography that are truly breathtaking. Aside from the visuals, the acting is tremendous. Leonardo DiCaprio is Gatsby; he perfectly captures the childlike vulnerability of the character, his eyes haunted by a past he can’t reveal and a future he never stops hoping he will attain. Everyone else does a fine job, but they don’t match up to DiCaprio; he is the heart of the film, and actually made me feel emotionally engaged with the story for the very first time. I was a mess by the end.

There are some liberties taken with the storyline and characterisation, but I didn’t care. As an interpretation of a famous story, it was gloriously innovative, visually stunning and artistically brilliant. It enriched the message of the novel for me, bringing it to life in a way that Fitzgerald never quite manages. As with his version of Romeo and Juliet, Luhrmann has brought a familiar tale up to date, making it both emotionally and experientially relevant to a huge audience of people who would probably never otherwise access the original text. I loved every single minute, and would happily go and see it again every night of the week. Please don’t believe the critics; they’ve missed the point entirely. This isn’t about making a faithful adaptation of a period novel; it’s about bringing the world of The Great Gatsby to vivid, tangible life. Frankly, no one could have done it better.

Les Miserables

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I am probably one of the only people in the civilised world who knew practically nothing about Les Miserables before going to watch the film. Of course I knew it was set in Paris, was where that Susan Boyle song was from, and was sad, but that was the sum total of my knowledge. The story was a mystery, the characters a mystery, and the obsessive love so many people seem to have for it a mystery. My mum is one of the latter people; she’s seen the musical loads of times and thinks it’s the best thing since sliced bread. As such, she was desperate to see the film, and so last weekend we trudged through the snow to our local cinema to enjoy the promised spectacle of Les Mis on screen. I had no idea what to expect, so prepared myself accordingly; as I am prone to inconvenient tears, I made sure I had a stash of tissues in my bag, and just in case there were any unpleasant bits, I took a scarf to hide behind. As the lights went down, I was quivering with anticipation; a roar of song met my ears, a breathtaking image of men pulling a huge sailing boat into dry dock met my eyes, and I was instantly enthralled. I don’t think I blinked for the next two and a half hours.

I was shocked at how quickly and cruelly Fantine’s life changed after she lost her job; how little choice she had, how little opportunity to change her lot. Juxtaposed to this, I was amazed at Jean’s ability to transform his life so completely from being nothing but a number to the most prominent man in his town; what inner strength, what courage he had. I was incensed at Javier’s inability to empathise with Jean and his lack of willingness to open his heart to other people. I was awestruck by the bravery of Marius and his friends, willing to lay down their lives to fight for the freedom of the ordinary people who were living under such oppression. I was moved throughout by the acts of kindness and selflessness that elevated ordinary people to the rank of the extraordinary. I loved the epic, sweeping scale of it all; so colourful, so passionate, so raw, so powerful. The realistically patchy singing made it even more intense; if it had been spoken in ordinary dialogue, it would have lacked so much of the soul that comes forth on screen. I felt like I was there, on those teeming, filthy, suffering filled streets of 19th century Paris. The two and a half hours flew by; I don’t think I’ve ever been so engrossed in a film.

I remained dry eyed throughout, but there was a very significant lump in my throat as the lights came up. I felt that I had been through an experience as I left the cinema, buoyed up on a renewed sense of faith in the essential goodness of the human race. A week later, I still find myself randomly bursting into song at inopportune moments, my eyes misting up at the memory of Jean and Javier and Marius and Cosette. I’d like to say that watching Les Miserables has made me a better, more selfless person; it hasn’t. But it has made me flirt with the idea of picking up Victor Hugo’s novel. Has anyone tackled this behemoth? Is it worth it?

Quartet

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Some friends came to visit this past weekend, and we had planned to see Gangster Squad (for Ryan, obviously) at the cinema on Saturday night. However, in sub zero temperatures, a trek to the nearest multiplex didn’t appeal, so we settled for my local dinky two screen cinema. They were only showing Les Miserables or Quartet, and as we were in the mood for something uplifting, the choice was made for us. I am of the mindset that anything with Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon in it can’t possibly be bad, so we went into the cinema with high expectations for a lovely viewing experience. When we realised that we were easily the youngest people in the cinema by a good forty years, we knew we’d made the right decision. As my old flatmate always used to say about restaurants in New York, if old people are in there, it’s got to be good.

Beecham House is an idyllic retirement home for former musicians; filled with a range of talents, from pianists to opera singers, the tranquil grounds of the beautiful stately home are positively vibrating with the sound of music. As the film opens, the House is a hive of activity. The residents are preparing for the annual Verdi birthday gala, which this year is even more vital than usual, because if they don’t raise enough funds through ticket sales, Beecham House will have to close. Everyone has to perform, and intensive rehearsals are presided over by the eccentric, dictatorial former Opera Director Cedric, played perfectly by Michael Gambon. A group of three friends; Wilf, Reggie and Cissy, all former opera singers, are enjoying the preparations until a shock new arrival throws everything into disarray.

Jean Horton, magnificently played by Maggie Smith, was one of the greatest opera singers of her day. However, in recent years she has seen her fortunes fade, and she has reluctantly arranged to sell up and move into Beecham House. She is met with much excitement by all of the residents except one; Reggie. He and Jean were once married, and he has never forgiven her betrayal of him. Jean is anxious to heal the rift, but Reggie can’t even bear to be in the same room as her. Eager to help, Cissy hits on a cunning plan. With the success of the Gala having such importance this year, Jean would be a huge draw. For reasons of her own, she refuses to perform. But what if Reggie can convince her to sing the legendary quartet from Rigoletti she, Reggie, Cissy and Wilf once performed to such acclaim? Could they save Beecham House, and reunite the quartet of once fast friends?

Quartet is wonderfully entertaining, with excellent performances throughout, but it is also a profoundly moving tale of the struggles of growing older and facing your own mortality. Wilf and Reggie are watching Cissy slowly slide into the clutches of dementia, and Jean listens to her old records in her room, bewildered at how quickly she has gone from one of the most famous divas of the operatic world to a forgotten old woman. Once the residents played to crowds of thousands and grand accolades; now they are reduced to putting on a show in a retirement home dining hall in order to keep a roof over their heads.

This could be profoundly depressing, but somehow, it isn’t. As the final scenes play out, the characters demonstrate that there is always hope, always beauty, always laughter, right up until the very end. We might change, and we might become unable to do the things we have done in the past, but old age presents new opportunities and challenges that allow us to continue to develop and grow as people, and find happiness in new and different ways. I loved the end credits, where it showed old photographs of all the extras in the film, who were once professional musicians. It really touched me to think of the wonderful lives they have lead, and how easy it is to dismiss elderly people without even stopping to think of how much they have seen and done and overcome throughout their lifetimes. I left the cinema feeling humbled, moved and uplifted. Oh, and with a new appreciation for Opera; the soundtrack is sublime. You must see it!

p.s. watching this also made me think about starting up my own retirement home in a similarly idyllic location when the time comes for me to put my feet up. It would be for likeminded literary types, of course, and have an amazing library with a fire and tea on tap and all the books I love. To get a room in my luxurious residence, you’d have to answer a questionnaire about your literary tastes to ensure compatibility. If you’d never heard of Dorothy Whipple, your application would have to go straight in the bin!

Jane Eyre: The Movie

I have been super excited about the new Jane Eyre film for months. It came out here in New York on limited release this weekend, and I joined the queue with a couple of friends to see it at the lovely Sunshine cinema downtown on Saturday night. For some strange reason it’s only on in two cinemas in Manhattan, and as such, they asked us all to fill in questionnaires about how we found the film, as they’re treating this as a trial run to see whether they can let it go to general release. I very much hope it does go to general release, because let me tell you – it’s superb.

It opens with Jane (Mia Wasikowska) leaving Thornfield after the aborted wedding ceremony, and escaping onto the moors. She then finds her way to the Rivers’ cottage, and it is from the vantage point of being questioned by St John (a surprisingly well suited Jamie Bell), Diana and Mary that her story is told, from early days at the Reed’s, to Lowood and then at Thornfield, through flashbacks. Her experiences at St John’s are interspersed between the flashbacks. I thought this was a very clever way of telling the story, and really highlights the anguish Jane was in when she was in the Rivers’ home, continually haunted by memories of her past and of Rochester (Michael Fassbender). No other adaptation I have seen has managed to convey just how difficult that year in Jane’s life was, when she had no idea what had happened to Rochester or where her life was going to lead her, and the flipping of the timeline of the story works wonders at showing Jane’s state of mind during the St John episode, and shows how important that part of the novel is, which is often dismissed as weak or boring.

Mia Wasikowska is an excellent Jane not just because she was actually a teenager when this was filmed, isn’t Hollywood pretty, and is tiny compared to Michael Fassbender’s towering Rochester, but because she is wonderful at portraying the personality I always imagined Jane to have. She shows her intelligence, her steadfastness, her courage and her independence, but she also shows her sense of fun and her joy in life. She is not presented as a prig or a victim, but as a thoroughly wonderful, witty, warm girl with a fire in her heart and a fierce sense of what is right and wrong that she will not waver from. She is truly Charlotte Bronte’s vision of Jane as I have always read her.

Michael Fassbender is also terrific in his role, and is the only Rochester I have seen who manages to get across just how cruel Rochester can be; he tortures Jane needlessly with Blanche Ingram, is dimissive and rude towards Mrs Fairfax, and makes it obvious he can hardly bear the presence of Adele. However, underneath this often unkind and volatile behaviour, there is a sparkle, a kindness, a passion, that makes him irresistible. It is easy to see how Jane could fall in love with this damaged creature, and despite all of their differences, it makes sense that they are drawn to each other as irrevocably as they are; the chemistry between them is remarkable. Especially when compared to Jamie Bell’s perfect, quiveringly repressed St John, Rochester’s virility and sensitivity are irresistible, and it’s clear to see that Jane could never settle for anything less than this magnificently tortured soul she has forced herself to part from.

Alongside the terrific characterisation and acting, the cinematography is breathtaking. The Yorkshire moors are one of the most beautiful natural sights I have ever seen, and their moody unpredictability is shown to full effect in Jane Eyre, with sweeping views across its misty, barren, undulating landscape that echoes the gothic, emotionally intense landscape of the characters’ hearts. It made me incredibly homesick to see Jane tramping through muddy, foggy lanes, her breath escaping in clouds; I could almost smell the damp air that is peculiar to the British climate, always heavy with the pungent odours of earth and impending rain. The costumes were also wonderful; simple, modest, and unobtrusive. There was actually one of Mia Wasikowska’s costumes on display in the cinema lobby, and I could see that it had been made of plain linen, naturally dyed, and sewn beautifully by hand; brilliantly accurate for the simplicity and modesty of Jane’s taste.

Obviously there are aspects of the novel that are left out; some characters don’t appear, some don’t appear enough, some plot points are not introduced and some relationships are not fully developed, but the essential story, atmosphere and characters are presented so brilliantly and convincingly that it doesn’t really matter; you don’t need these periphery details to understand or become involved in the central events. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Bertha is hardly shown at all, and the temptation to ‘Wide Sargasso Sea-ise’ her role in the novel is well and truly avoided. She is always there, in the background, of course, but that is where she belongs; she is not a central part of the story, as I have always read it, and I dislike it when adaptations seek to postmodernise the novel and make it about female repression and postcolonialism, giving Bertha a far more prominent role than Bronte does.

I normally have a lot of bones to pick with adaptations of my favourite novels, but for once, I was left wholly satisfied. Jane Eyre has been done a magnificent justice in this film, and I strongly urge you all to go and watch it when it comes out where you are! You really won’t be disappointed.

Adaptation

So I saw The Time Traveler’s Wife at the cinema last night (yes it does pain me to write traveler with one l). I have been looking forward to the release of this film for a while as I adore the book beyond all measure as I wrote about here and I had high hopes. I don’t know why I did, as literary adaptations never cease to disappoint me in some measure, and I usually end up having a moan after watching films of my favourite books about how so and so wasn’t a bit like they should have been, and how they missed such and such an important storyline out etc . I find that filmed versions of novels, especially dense and complicated ones with various characters and an emphasis on conversation rather than plot can never live up to the imagined version you have of a book, and so you do have to adapt your expectations accordingly. However, I am also an eternal optimist and so I was determined to hope for the best and was prepared to be swept away and into the world of this remarkable story.

I was. To an extent. But I was also bitterly disappointed in the complete exclusion of certain characters, like Mrs Kim, and how Clare’s mother’s mental disorder was not even mentioned, how little Gomez and Clarisse feature, how small a role Henry’s father has, and how very little of the shared past Clare and Henry have before they meet in ‘real’ time is shown. Unless you have read the book, you will leave the cinema confused, as many threads are picked up and then never really explained; I suspect some overzealous editing is the culprit. The emotional intensity of Clare and Henry’s relationship is obvious; if they’re not kissing, they’re in bed; but they don’t actually talk much, and unless you know their characters from the book, you would struggle to understand why exactly they feel so passionately about one another.

It was a fairly good go at a very complicated book and I can understand why they cut out periphery events and characters because they do only have 2 hours or so to fit it all in. However, it all fell a bit flat really and didn’t give enough background or depth to Clare and Henry’s relationship to make the film as emotional as I wanted it to be. I wanted to have a good sob like I did at the book, and yet it wasn’t until the final scene that isn’t even in the book that I cried my eyes out and had to grope around in the dark for a tissue.

I am very fussy when it comes to adaptations of my favourite books and I am sure that if I was coming to the film without having read the novel I would have enjoyed it more because it wouldn’t have been vying for supremacy over my imagined version of what the book on film should have been like. One of my friends who came with me hadn’t read it and she still enjoyed it, but my other friend who has read the book also was a bit disappointed, though that didn’t stop her from crying for most of the way through the film!

It’s worth a watch but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it again. It has made me think though of what does make a good film adaptation of a novel, and it is, I think, making sure that characterisation is not sacrificed over plot. My favourite film adaptation (by film I mean cinema release, not tv adaptation) of a novel is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma because Gwyneth Paltrow is exactly how I imagined Emma to be, and the film captures the spirit of the book perfectly in my opinion. I’d be very interested to hear what are your favourite adaptations, and why?

In other news, I made Simon’s chocolate orange cake the other night and it was delicious, despite me having no caster or icing sugar and having to use granulated sugar for everything. This was due to my own laziness at not being bothered to trek to Morrissons at 9.30pm. The cake turned out fine with granulated, and I used 4 eggs rather than Simon’s three, but I wouldn’t recommend using granulated sugar for butter icing – the gritty crunchiness is still tasty but a bit wearing on the teeth! However, needs must and it still tastes good! See photo. It’s now almost all gone as my flatmates and our friends have been hacking slices off left right and centre. Also, excitingly, I bought a zester, which has actually IMPROVED THE QUALITY OF MY LIFE and therefore you all must buy one too. Gone are the days of having to spend half an hour brushing zest out of my cheese grater with a pastry brush – the zester takes it all off and drops it right into the bowl with no mess and no fuss and no wastage. Such joy! £1.49 in Morrissons. I love Morrisons. So thanks to Simon for a fabulous recipe. I’ll definitely be making it again, it was absolutely delicious!

I am now sitting on the sofa watching Persuasion as I am going on holiday to Bath not next week but the week after and I want to pretend I am Anne Elliot running along the Royal Crescent to meet Captain Wentworth when I am there. So romantic! All I need to do is find myself a Captain Wentworth…a girl can dream!