All dressed up for the movies

As a wave of costume dramas reaches the big screen, are we about to drown in good taste? John Lyttle asks if oldies are always goldies, while David Benedict provides a dinner-party primer for those who may have lost the plot

John Lyttle,David Benedict
Sunday 25 August 1996 23:02
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It's a low thought in the powdered face of so much high culture, but could it be that the reason costume drama after costume drama is about to appear at a cinema near you is because most of the source material is out of copyright and therefore free to be filmed gratis? Heaven forbid. Thomas Hardy's Jude (Hollywood has dropped "the Obscure" - far too murky), Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Jane Austen's Emma are on the way next month, with adaptations of Henry James's Portrait of a Lady and Wings of a Dove, and Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway hard on their heels.

There's now a proven market for cinematic adaptations of literary properties. Nice, safe, middlebrow, Middlemarchy literature, that is - I don't see anyone rushing to bring Gertrude Stein to the screen. Photogenic literature with plunging cleavage (Scarlet and Black), or Empire lines (Pride and Prejudice); acres of radiant countryside (Tess, Sense and Sensibility, A Room with a View), clothes and cutlery (Age of Innocence), and sundry soft furnishings to covet. For let us speak plainly, one man's timeless classic is sometimes just another man's shopping catalogue, particularly in America, where the Great Unwashed imagine - quite correctly - that Merchant Ivory is a brand of luxury soap, as advertised by that limpid English rosewood Helena Bonham-Carter, and where Ralph Lauren has ripped off the aristocratic weekend look so that our colonial cousins don't seem too obviously tainted by New Money.

This is as it should be. Costume drama is about nothing if it is not about good taste - and class. The class - in both senses - of the characters, and the class and good taste of the invariably educated audience, who have, of course, ignored Jude's well-meant warning about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, and read the books (or have dashed out and purchased the relevant bluffer's guide).

Ah, the undiluted pleasure of dazzling the dinner table by pegging the differences between novel narrative and cinematic licence, as when Marianne and John Willoughby meet in the film of Sense and Sensibility and he's on - ha, ha, ha - horseback, and she's sprained her ankle, and the weather's stormy so he must gather her in his manly arms and carry her home ... Which isn't the way dear Jane would have wanted it - not that the proles will ever know, or care.

Still, in just noticing the change, cultural credentials are at once established in a manner Austen herself would understand (and possibly approve of), and never mind that such criticism is as unfair as it is unthinking. The problems of costume drama are not those of content as such, but problems of form. Production values tend to smother political points. Emma Thompson's take on Austen, for instance,emphasised a woman's vulnerable place in impolite society, yet visual intoxication and the RADA mannerisms thought appropriate to the genre displaced good intention.

Merchant Ivory are right to argue that their work was among the few politically liberal statements to make it consistently to British screens during the Thatcher years. But they are wrong in thinking those statements wholly effective. It's simply not what's required of an essentially conservative, backward-looking genre.

"Fidelity," the purists cry, confusing it with timidity. When the word fidelity is uttered, what is invariably implied is that the past is meant to be pleasanter and that costume drama is meant to be ... well, nice. And nice is nice, sometimes. Costume drama can be almost as lullingly effective a relaxant as Delia Smith's Summer Collection, which is both its appeal and its flaw. The appeal is growing, though. If the present is Trainspotting and the future is Independence Day, who can blame us for clinging to our yesterdays?

This explains why the Americans have joined in, turning a fast buck by exporting back to us what we once sold to them as civilised tranquilliser in the period before Prozac. The mini-major studios know a trend when they smell one, hence Emma's star, Gwyneth Paltrow, going for an Oscar: those English broads always seem to win for wearing hoops and talking posh, so why can't one of ours? Last week the film expanded to 105 cinemas in the US: we might like to believe it's Art, but actually it's the box office that will ensure the past will always be with us.

THE AMERICAN EMMA

The book (1816): meddling and matchmaking in Jane Austen's ironic tale of self-satisfied Emma, who sees herself as the mistress of the village and decides to advance the chances of simple Harriet Smith. Emma is spectacularly rude to "poor Miss Bates" at the climactic picnic and Austen punishes her heroine by marrying her off to a father-figure.

The movie: adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath, who co-scripted Bullets over Broadway. Emma is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, very good in Seven, who holds her own against a mostly British cast. Mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson play Mrs and Miss Bates; Jeremy Northam is Mr Knightly.

Pluses: audiences will recognise the plot, which was ripped off and updated as the gloriously vapid Clueless. We get to see Juliet Stevenson (Mrs Elton) play comedy at last.

Minuses: the designer is horticulturally challenged. Clock the scene in the bower where apples appear to grow vertically from small bits of dowelling. Looks like it was financed by Interflora and Persil. A romantic comedy with jokes rather than a comedy of manners.

Variety says: "Gwyneth Paltrow shines brightly as Jane Austen's most endearing character, the disastrously self-assured matchmaker Emma Woodhouse. A fine cast, speedy pacing and playful direction make this a solid contender for the Austen sweepstakes

Poke-bonnet rating? All bonnet, no poke.

Austen's previous screen outings: Pride and Prejudice (1940) was an MGM classic, co-scripted by Aldous Huxley, and starring Greer Garson as Lizzie and Laurence Olivier as Colin Firth, sorry, Darcy. But the costume of the period, all heaving bosom and Empire line, wasn't glamorous enough. Sense and Sensibility: Ang Lee proved you don't have to be English to direct "our Jane", but having either or both of the Thompson sisters on hand helps.

Persuasion: Roger Michell's film provoked a fit of the vapours among Jane-ites with its final kiss in the street, obscuring the fact this was a simply tremendous version of her most sombre novel.

Coming soon: rival TV versions including one from the Pride and Prejudice team. Shame she only completed six novels. They'll just have to make Jane Austen, the bio-pic. Liza Minnelli could do with a hit ...

JUDE THE WHO?

The book (1894): a scandalous novel concerning a struggle to the death between flesh and spirit, infused with dreams, desire and deception. No laughs. Stonemason Jude Fawley yearns for a classical education but is sidetracked by a disastrous marriage after which he becomes obsessed by his independepent-minded cousin Sue Bridehead. "Dirt, drivel and damnation," yelped the Pall Mall Gazette upon publication. Hardy was so appalled by its reception he abandoned fiction altogether.

The movie: Jude stars the exceedingly hot Kate Winslet - no stranger to period frocks after covering her mantelpiece with awards for Sense and Sensibility - and Christopher Eccleston, last seen in Our Friends in the North. Also stars the sainted June Whitfield in a cameo role as reproving Aunt Drusilla.

Pluses: can't be as bad as the TV film of The Return of the Native, starring Catherine Zeta Jones re-rehearsing her Darling Buds of May character.

Minuses: low feel-good factor in a powerfully tragic tale. Unhappy ending. Keepers of the Hardy flame willattempt to murder the location manager because the film is shot in Scotland and the north not Wessex.

Variety says: "Minimises the downside of Hardy's bleakest novel. Commercially, however, this will need savvy marketing and excellent reviews to break out of the middle ground between pure arthouse fare and quality mainstream films, especially given the pic's novel approach and lack of marquee wattage."

Poke-bonnet rating? Too much poke, not enough bonnet.

Hardy's previous screen outings: Far from the Madding Crowd (1967). Best thing about it was Nicolas Roeg's lush cinematography and an equally lush score by the composer du jour, Richard Rodney Bennett. Determinedly faithful to the book despite the golden tresses of Julie Christie as the raven- haired Bathsheba Everdene being fought over by Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates.

Tess (1979): beautifully crafted but tame. Polanski gave us restraint where we should have had ravishment and ruin. Seventeen-year-old Nastassia Kinski was utterly photogenic but wrong as the shunned country girl who loses her child, ricochets between lover and husband, and comes to a sticky end.

Coming soon: The Woodlanders, starring hearthrobs Rufus Sewell (Colin Firth with bigger hair), and Linus Roache (Priest, Seaforth), Emily Woof and Polly Walker.

PLAIN JANE EYRE

The book (1847): Charlotte Bronte's Plain Jane grows up in an orphanage, becomes a governess and falls for her Byronic, bad-tempered boss, Mr Rochester, only to discover he is already married to the archetypal madwoman in the attic. Our heroine is about to adopt the missionary position by marrying Rev St John Rivers but rushes back to Rochester to find him literally blinded by his efforts to save his wife from a spot of arson. Reader, she marries him.

The movie: Directed by Franco Zeffirelli, who turned Shakespeare into box-office with Romeo and Juliet. The classy cast includes William Hurt as Rochester, Charlotte Gainsbourg as Jane, Joan Plowright as Mrs Fairfax, with Billie Whitelaw, Fiona Shaw and Samuel West.Pluses: Can't be as bad as Peter Kosminsky's 1992 version of sister Emily's Wuthering Heights, which launched Ralph Fiennes but crashed thanks to Juliette Binoche who was as English as Dom Perignon but with less sparkle.

Minuses: Elle MacPherson lives up to her nickname, "the Body"; her voice was dubbed. Billie Whitelaw is wasted in a tiny role making you nostalgic for her role as the nanny in The Omen.

Variety says: "Boasts solid craftsmanship and smart thesping from a stellar cast ably led by the vibrant Charlotte Gainsbourg. What's lacking is the spark of inspiration needed to set this costumer ahead of the pack"

Poke-bonnet rating? Delayed poke, many bonnets

Previous screen outings: there are at least 11 (yes, 11) screen versions of Charlotte's greatest hit, including an Italian one, but not including endless TV serialisations. Hollywood managed three silent versions in 1913, 1915 and 1921 before the first talkie with Virginia Bruce and Colin Clive in 1934. Joan Fontaine teamed up alongside Orson Welles in the gothic romance version of 1944 which also featured a heart-rending death-bed performance from a very young Liz Taylor. Susannah York suffered sweetly opposite George C Scott in 1971, but plain she wasn't, which rather misses the point. Avengers fans should see the 1957 TV film with Patrick Macnee and Joan Elan.

Coming soon: A British TV version of Villette is on the cards. Sister Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, starring Tara Fitzgerald, Rupert Graves and Toby Stephens, is on BBC1 this autumn.

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