Thursday, September 2, 2010

Day 147: Speak not words of love to me

In the The Age of Enlightenment, Estella is a nineteen year-old young woman, living a life of virtual imprisonment, due to a debilitating & chronic illness that prevents her from having any contact with the outside world. It's England of 1870 and, aside from her father who has raised her and cared for her since birth, the only company that the young woman keeps is that of the characters in the books she reads by George Eliot, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and those of the Brontë sisters. Estella’s world, as lonely as isolated as it is, is however, refined, delicate and a model of propriety befitting any young woman of the age.

When Estella’s father fails to return home one day, she is left without food and medicine; her life begins to slip away. When the door to her home is broken down, Estella expects to see - with the fading sight that she has left - her father, but instead, it is a young Aborginal man - Marlon - who reveals the truth (or lie) of the young woman’s life to her: she has been held prisoner in a fabricated Victorian world of her father’s making; this is not Queen Victoria’s England, but Australia of 2010.

As the rest of the story of this film unfolds, a romantic bond develops between this cultivated young woman from the 1900’s and the “coarse” young man from the twenty-first century, but Estella’s ingrained attitudes prevent her from succumbing to her unwanted, yet palpable feelings. For Estella is a product of Victorian England and whilst she considers herself educated, she is very far from being enlightened as to the ways of the world today, in comparison with the worldly-wise Marlon.

Can a young “lady” from one hundred and forty years ago allow herself to have feelings for a black man? Is this not, to Estella, a love that dare NOT speak it’s name? Is not “inappropriate affection” the very same the dilemma facing her monarch, in the film Her Majesty, Mrs Brown, when Queen Victoria (in mourning) finds solace in the company of a dour member of the Balmoral household, John Brown? Above and below stairs, and somewhere in between, matters of the heart are, equally frowned upon.

We English are well-versed in our inability to speak words of love; what greater evidence can I give you than The Remains of the Day? This Merchant-Ivory tour de force, based on the book by Kazuo Ishiguro, wonderfully crafted in adaptation for the screen by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (with some of Pinter’s words in there), is probably the finest example I know of our (the English) incapacity to express, in honeyed syllables, the skipped beat of our hearts (I will leave Keats, Byron, Browning, Shakespeare and a few others out of this).

Set in the stately home of Darlington Hall, in the late 1930’s, The Remains of the Day, is about many things, but at it’s epicenter is the “relationship” between the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) and the butler, Mr. Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), told in flashback when Stevens visits this woman, long after she has left “service”. As Anthony Hopkins’s character motors west, towards the once-named Miss Kenton (she has had a failed marriage since), he reflects on things, personal and professional, prompting “a shattering re-evaluation of his life.”

In Vincent Canby’s NY Times review of 1993, he says this: “The Remains of the Day looks grand without being overdressed, it is full of feeling without being sentimental. Here’s a film for adults.”

Maybe it’s the terror of being thought of as “sentimental’ (which wouldn’t do at all) that is the undoing of most English “chaps”....I mean, I give you the fumbling, mumbling, bumbling Hugh Grant as witness for the prosecution and maybe back him up with Roger Moore?

Suave, yes. Sensual......that’ s a different matter all together

Day #147 Tip: Why they MUST not be together
Yesterday I offered up the idea that the centre of every love story was “why they can’t be together”.

In researching The Age of Enlightenment, I watched many love stories in a effort to master their conventions (let me tell you that I may need to go halfway back to the drawing board and do more investigative work) and what I found was that the most powerful stories were those in which the love beteween the two central characters was not just inadvisable, but verboten or forbidden: Brokeback Mountain (two married cowboys living in an unforgiving heterosexual world), Birth (a young, wealthy widow and a 10 year-old boy), Far From Heaven ( a white married mother and a black man in 1950’s USA).

There are still some taboos out there, ripe for the screen, through whose prism we can look at the world and love today. It’s our job, as writers to find them and tell them, as great and meaningful stories

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