What We’re Watching – 1/19/2012

Ah, winter. The time when my usual routine of watching a lot of stuff turns into “really watching a lot of stuff,” what with it being dreary outside most of the time. Here are a few things that have distracted me during the last stretch of particularly nasty days in Seattle:

Downton Abbey

Perhaps y’all have heard a little bit about this show in the last couple of weeks? The excitement for the return of the series to American television for its second season has rivaled what a season of Lost got back in the day, but this time it’s the period drama folks getting their geek on. (Not that there isn’t crossover; see: me.) Downton Abbey is one of those shows where you don’t quite get what the hype is until you watch it, and then you go “ooohhhh, okay.” This is melodrama at its very best, with complex characters, sharp wit, and a neverending parade of no-win situations. The sets and costumes are so detailed and beautiful and the actors nail the period so well that it’s disconcerting to see them in interviews in contemporary dress. In short, it’s absorbing in the way I always hope a new show will be.

Downton Abbey 1

A reason I believe the “manor house drama” is a consistently popular genre in written and filmed literature is because they are period pieces that, by their nature, feature women in key roles. Unlike straight war stories of the battlefield, tales of politics, ships at sea or other sorts of common period pieces, the writers don’t shoehorn in one female character for a love interest and call it a day. The house is the domain of female characters, where they do their own battles to craft their lives while fighting against societal boundaries and expectations. Downton Abbey in particular takes advantage of this, giving our patriarch, the Earl of Grantham, three grown daughters, and starting season one with a sticky problem about how their entire estate is likely to eventually pass to a distant male cousin no one’s met because of laws that everyone seems to finally realize might be a tad ridiculous. All of the women in the family have interesting reactions to this, especially eldest daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery), who quickly becomes the shining star of the show, in my opinion. Her character puts up a wall of haughtiness and distance, but whenever we see a chink in her armor, the pain underneath it all spills through.

By the time we get to season two (which has aired in its entirety in the UK), the start of World War I further disrupts the already complicated lives of our beloved characters, with men both from the gentry and from the servants’ hall heading off to fight, and the women trying to find their own ways to contribute to the effort. Though war stories are common, it’s rare to be able to see characters off to war when we’ve already had ample time to get to know them beforehand. It adds another layer of intensity as we wonder who will live or die. If you are not already on board with this show, I highly suggest you join in the mania (I’ve been doing quite a job of it, with an entire side project dedicated to discussing it each week). The first season is streaming on Netflix and more recent episodes can be found on the PBS website.

Downton Abbey 2

The Iron Lady

Now for a female-centric project that isn’t quite so successful. I found this new Margaret Thatcher biopic to be, quite frankly, a bizarre failure. It begins at the end of her life, with Meryl Streep (in, I’ll admit, very impressive age make-up) as the former Prime Minister of the UK, after the death of her husband and seeming to be plunging into dementia. She imagines his presence and converses with him regularly. Oooookay. Interesting to begin a film about one of the most powerful women of the twentieth century by putting the emphasis on the time after that power had faded, but whatever. We’ll continue.

The film flashes back to Thatcher as a young woman getting into Oxford. Then she’s out of Oxford. Then she’s running her first campaign. Then she’s getting married. Then back to being an old lady. Then back to her youth. Then a flash of some moment actually during her time as head of state. There’s a lot of flashing around. We barely have time to figure out the context of the scene we’re watching before we’re in an entirely different decade. Back and forth and all around…there are times where this film feels more like an extended music video than it does a character portrait of a historical figure. We are given very little insight into Thatcher’s personal motivations or beliefs, and anyone who is not well-versed in the political situations of the UK in the 1980s will have a hard time understanding the nuances of those decisions we do see her making.

Given that this film was written by a woman (Abi Morgan, who also co-wrote Shame this year), directed by a woman (Phyllida Lloyd) and stars arguably the greatest actor of this generation, male or female, the resistance to telling a compelling, straightforward story of a woman’s groundbreaking rise to power is baffling. We barely even see her deciding she wants to be prime minister and campaigning for it! It’s all very, very strange. While Streep does a decent job, as she always does, she cannot salvage this mess. I’d hoped to see an enlightening piece on a woman whose politics I don’t necessarily admire but whose place in history cannot be denied, and instead was presented with the strobing recollections of an addled mind. Disappointing.

(As a sidenote, I must say that whoever cut the trailer did an excellent job of making the film seem like it would be a coherent narrative. Very skillfully deceptive.)

Island of Lost Souls

Stepping far back in time, here’s a film that did not disappoint me, because it was exactly what I hoped it would be. Released a few months ago by Criterion, Island of Lost Souls (1932) is a pre-Code horror adventure starring Charles Laughton as literature’s infamous Dr. Moreau. Richard Arlen is Edward Parker, a man who is unfortunate enough to find himself rescued after a shipwreck by a boat on its way to Dr. Moreau’s island of horrors, where the mad man of science gleefully spouts about his God complex while trying to transform animals into humans. His measure of success has resulted in a jungle full of beast-men, which anyone (except Dr. Moreau) can see is a recipe for an eventual violent revolt.

The film was directed by Erle C. Kenton, who made other notable early horror films, including House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945). He lets the elaborate sets that form Dr. Moreau’s island and estate stay often in darkness, with firelight throwing large ominous shadows everywhere. This lets those beast-men be their creepiest, and many of them sport impressively grotesque make-up jobs. We’re also treated to Bela Lugosi as the hairy leader of Moreau’s creations, who chants to remind them all that “the law” says “not to eat meat,” “not to go on all fours,” and “not to spill blood.” As the crowd shouts in response “Are we not men?” the tension rises…because men, I might point out again, tend to revolt.

This film is filled with fun, creepy imagery (vivisection, anyone?), over-the-top characters (hey, Panther Woman!), and the trademark poor decision-making of characters in a horror film (let’s all sleep in separate rooms while the creatures in the jungle grow restless!). Laughton’s performance is hammy and delightful, with his obviously-darkened-with-make-up evil goatee deserving a credit of its own. If you enjoy the adventures of early Hollywood that had a little bit of a budget and knew how to take themselves juuust seriously enough, this one is for you.


Brandi is one of those people who worries about kids these days not appreciating black and white films. She also admires great moments of subtlety, since she has no idea how to be subtle herself.

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