Turning: A Year in the Water by Jessica J. Lee, Book Review

“There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms.”  ––  George Eliot

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Turning - Canadian edition

The above quote comes to me as I read Jessica J. Lee’s memoir Turning: A Year in the Water. From the beginning, I’ve an inkling that what she intends to say isn’t just about swimming but something deeper. I’m not disappointed. Swimming in fifty-two lakes throughout one year in Brandenburg in itself is a fascinating idea. What more, I’m much gratified with the candid revealing of her interior journey as she describes the physical terrain she treads. Often, the two mirror one another.

At twenty-eight, Lee goes to Berlin from Canada to do research and complete her doctoral dissertation on environmental history. She brings with her trunks of emotional baggage of hurts and loss from broken relationships and a transient existence,  traversing between Toronto, London, and Berlin.

Born in Canada to a Chinese mother from Taiwan and a father from Wales, Lee has been straddling multiple worlds all her life, first learning Mandarin at home, then English, then French in school. The multiplicity of languages reflects the challenges of growing up bicultural. The divorce of her parents further shakes up the fragile psyche of a teenage girl’s search for a sense of self. As a young adult she looks to other relationships and experiences to find anchor but only reaps disappointments. A move to London, England, later leads to deeper personal loss. By the time she arrives in Berlin, accrued pains and hurts have left indelible marks in her life.

To find strength and healing in a new land where she has to learn yet another language and culture, Lee decides on a venture to come to terms with her predicament. Her plan is to swim in fifty-two lakes near Berlin in the Brandenburg vicinity through every season of one year.

In short chapters under each of the four seasons, Lee captures succinctly her experience carrying out this plan, interspersing a swimming log with the back stories of her life.

Perhaps it was a drastic response. In depression, I had become someone I hadn’t wanted to be, emptied and hardened. I felt that I had to respond to it in kind, as if lake water might blast away my sadness and fear. So, I decided to swim for a year, in the hope of finding some reserve of joy and courage in myself. (6)

This unique resolve of hers fascinates me. Lee’s memoir is a log of a brave yet quiet venture through the seasons. Not only that, she has introduced me to the natural beauty of the Brandenburg landscape and the travelogues of the German writer Theodor Fontane (1819 – 1898). I read with interest the German socio-political situations she shares, also lap up tidbits on the environmental history of lakes, glaciers, and the etymology of terms associated with her experience.

Limnology is the study of lakes. Originally from Greek, but with the German overtone of Schwelle, it refers to an in-between space, an apt metaphor for Lee’s liminal identity between cultures.

Fragments of Chinese slipping out between English and German, as I press new words and places into place. Return. Home is as much in a language as it is in a landscape. (9-10)

In the stillness of the lakes, the border between nature and culture is thinned. Swimming takes place at the border, as if constantly searching for home. (14)

The term ‘Turning’ refers to the movements of the water in a lake. In lakes, there’s stratification of water and overturn, with the different layers of water in constant vertical movement. This action creates ‘cycles that keep the lake alive, ever-changing, breathing oxygen into every part of the lake.’ Isn’t that, too, a beautiful metaphor for our very existence, the essence of life?

Lee’s metaphors are fresh and relevant, akin to her academic field of environmental history. Here are two other ones I’ll remember for a long while. Lakes are markers in time in the glacial retreat:

In Lakes the present history of our world contracts and intensifies, urgent and shrinking like the ice… I take my parents’ divorce to be a marker, a line drawn between childhood and adulthood… For a girl on the cusp of teenhood, there was never going to be a good time. (56)

And this one is another apt description of so many being called diaspora: Glacial Erratics. The word erratics has the Latin root errare meaning to wander, to roam, to be mistaken, to go astray.

Erratics carry their origins with them, telling the story of where a glacier has been and how the ice deposited the erratic in the landscape. An erratic is a rock that doesn’t belong to the geology in which it is planted; instead, it’s a record of another place… Like an erratic, I was carrying past places with me. I felt mistaken. (170)

Above all, I’m mesmerized by a determined mind and body as I read how she adheres to her personally-set rules: no cars, no wetsuits. She bikes to her destinations, carries her bike on public transit when needed, most of the time pedalling for hours. She prepares a light lunch and a change of clothes in her backpack and sets off in the morning, sometimes with a friend, but mostly alone.

Every lake has its own features, the water has its own feel, the sensation swimming there can be different from another, but it doesn’t stray far from calming and revitalizing. In winter, she brings a hammer from home to break the ice on the lake surface before slipping into the frigid water. There’s numbness and pain, surely, but she has developed the courage and the tenacity to face the dark mass and not withdraw.

In solitude, she finds strength; in conquering her fears, freedom. The ghosts of the past might still be there, but she has learned to face them.

Simple yet poetic, honest and mindful. Reading Turning is like dipping slowly into the lake of empathy, gradually getting attuned to the chill to find the water soothing. And you’d want to stay there just a while longer.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

 

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Turning: A Year in the Water A Memoir by Jessica J. Lee, Hamish Hamilton publisher, NY, May 2, 2017. 304 pages.

Canadian Edition (book cover image in this post): Penguin Random House Canada, April 7, 2020. 304 pages.

My thanks to Catapult.co for providing me a pdf version.

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‘Benjamin Button’: A Curious Look at the Movie Adaptation

The idea of a baby born as an old man and then grows younger––a reverse trajectory of the human experience––is the premise in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story published in 1922, reviewed in my previous post. Prompted by a remark made by Mark Twain, Fitzgerald unleashed his imagination and wrote the story.

The tale was adapted into a 2008 movie directed by David Fincher who brought it all the way to the Oscars with 13 nominations the next year. I watch it for the first time in 2020 and am surprised to find its relevance: the fear of strangeness in our age of xenophobia.

As for the 13 Oscar nominations, the movie won only three: Art Direction, Makeup, and Visual Effects. These are difficult feats and deserving wins. Unlike the Academy’s (and some critics’) aloofness in embracing the film’s other achievements, I much appreciate the adapted screenplay and Fincher’s 166 minute visual rendition.

Here’s an exemplar of how a film adaptation diverges from the original literary source and yet still keeps its main concept, but instead of faithfully following the thin, short story, carries it to a different direction, creating an expanded and more gratifying version.

Benjamin Button

Screenwriters for the adaptation are Eric Roth and Robin Swicord. Roth is known for his Oscar winning adapted screenplay for Forrest Gump (1994), and Robin Swicord for her 1994 version of Little Women. They had chosen to turn Fitzgerald’s farcical, acerbic fantasy into a serious film in the vein of magical realism. The magic lies in the imaginary, reverse growth trajectory; the realism is love.

This is not just about love between two star-crossed lovers, Benjamin (Brad Pitt) and Daisy (Cate Blanchett), but about a woman with a huge heart, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who embraces a Gollum-like baby abandoned at her doorstep. Instead of a non-mentioned mother in Fitzgerald’s story, Queenie raises Benjamin with devoted affection. There’s love and acceptance as well from those in the old folks lodging house where Queenie works. Further, the movie adds one more layer, and that’s Daisy at her deathbed, sharing the story of her lost love with her daughter Caroline (affectively played by Julia Ormond), leaving her with a legacy of love.

The film makes amends to the sardonic tone of the short story by creating a moving love story. For a short period in their lives, both Benjamin and Daisy are of approximate age, but such joy doesn’t last as one grows older and the other younger. Yet unlike the short story, their love endures, for as long as one can hold on to it despite separation. And we find out that one can, all the way to her deathbed; the other is just too young to remember. What’s left is the transience of time and inevitable fate.

The setting is early 20th century on the cusp of WWI in New Orleans where Benjamin is born, and not 1860 Baltimore. As he grows younger, Benjamin goes through WWII instead of the Spanish-American War in the short story. The movie starts off with a modern time with Daisy’s final hours revealing to her daughter who her real father is. That’s 2005 New Orleans, during a hurricane when the hospital is preparing to evacuate. A disastrous storm as a backdrop in the telling of a billowy story. A name to denote the significance: Katrina. 

The movie is a divergence for Fincher too considering he’s a master of crime thrillers –– Zodiac came out just a year before in 2007, and more recently Gone Girl in 2014, Benjamin Button is Fincher’s only ‘romantic’ drama (The Social Network, 2010, is drama but definitely not ‘romantic’). Crafted in signature Fincher styling with low-light, sepia colour to enhance the period effects, the aesthetics in set design and cinematography bring out the notion of ‘every frame a painting’. 

Brad Pitt’s understated performance characterizes Benjamin aptly. Instead of remaining ‘the other’, Benjamin strives to connect, albeit in a gentle and quiet way. His love at first sight with then 7 years-old Daisy is a poignant encounter. Elle Fanning is a perfect cast. A child who holds no prejudice, she’s fascinated by the ‘strangeness’ in Benjamin. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter comes to mind.

Other curious finds: music by Alexandre Desplat, Tilda Swinton in some memorable sequences, Queenie’s husband Tizzy played by now two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Green Book, 2018 and Moonlight, 2016).

You probably have watched it before when the film first came out. How the world has changed in just twelve years. Watching it again now would probably bring you a different feel, and more relevance.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

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‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Thanks to the 1920 Club, I’ve the chance to explore the short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. After reading his debut short story collection Flappers and Philosophers which was published in 1920, and now that the week of the Club read has passed, I continue with seeking out more of FSF’s works published in subsequent years.

BB Book CoverAs I can’t go to bookstores now, I turn to my shelves to see what I have in my stockpile, and unearthed this one which I’ve never read: A designer’s copy of FSF’s short story first published in 1922, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in hard cover and fully illustrated, a thin little gem hidden between thicker books. Illustrated by Calef Brown, published by Collins Design, NY, in 2008 when the movie adaptation came out.

What could have motivated Fitzgerald to write a story about a baby born as an old man then gradually grows younger and younger, creating an imaginary scenario that’s opposite of the human trajectory? FSF’s reply had been cited as thus:

‘This story was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain’s to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end.” FSF seems to be offering a hypothetical answer with a question: Is growing younger necessarily more cheerful than growing older?

All along I’m aware of the premise of the story. So with much curiosity I open and read it through.

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First off, no need to use logic or your rational mind to wrap around this scientifically impossible happening. Just take it as a fantasy and let curiosity be the guide. The setting is 1860 and forward in Baltimore. Benjamin is born to Mr. Roger Button, president of Roger Button & Co., Wholesale Hardware, a well-off businessman and a respected figure in the community.

The baby is born with a long beard, “a man of threescore and ten”, in other words, 70 years old, with a ready-formed personality and full mastery of speech to communicate with his dumbfounded father, whose immediate reaction is this:

Mr. Button, sank down upon a chair near his son and concealed his face in his hands. “My heavens!” he murmured, in an ecstasy of horror. “What will people say? What must I do?”

Have you caught it? Indeed, what he’s worried is what people will say about this horrifically different offspring of his.

What follows is a story, while whimsical, is quite sad. Mr. Roger has trouble accepting this undefined being in his home. Fitzgerald’s storytelling is light humour with an acerbic tone. His father calls him Benjamin, albeit a more appropriate name in his mind at first was Methuselah. Benjamin ‘grows up’ being ostracized due to age disparity among his peers, barred from Yale University for his advanced age (I’m sure by now the system has changed). One good thing is, later he does find a young woman to marry, Hildegarde Moncrief, daughter of a general, for by that time the age gap though still large is overcome by love.

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But as years go by, as Benjamin becomes more youthful and Hildegarde much older, he begins to grow tired of her, and their relationship deteriorates. Some years later, he has  turned so youthful that his son feels uncomfortable to be seen with him and his grandson surpasses him in intellect. Eventually, Benjamin degenerates into a state without memory, a baby that responds to mere instinctive urges. Despite the lively book illustrations, this is actually a very sad story.

This curious case reads like a cautionary tale of Ageism that applies both ways: one can be discriminated for being too old, or too young. Fitzgerald could well be using a fanciful tale to depict the norms of social acceptance which seem to be strictly dependent on appearances. Further, in response to Mark Twain’s comment that first prompted the story, Fitzgerald seems to conclude that what an old man has but a baby doesn’t is the wealth of memory he has stored throughout the years. Without an iota of memory, does that make it ‘the best part of life’?

A cautionary tale? Maybe. A whimsical literary farce? That too. Definitely something that’s very different from FSF’s other realistic stories of the Jazz Age.

 

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‘Flappers and Philosophers’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald: My entry into the 1920 Club

Learn of the 1920 Club early this week and am instantly sold. I’m to pick a book published in the year 1920, read it and share my thoughts in this one week April 13-19. This past month and likely some more to come will probably be indelible in our collective memory. Joining The 1920 Club is an excellent diversion as I follow the Stay Home and Stay Safe directive during this Covid-19 Pandemic.

1920, exactly one hundred years ago, saw F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) rise in America’s literary horizon. In March, 1920, he published his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and later that year, a short story collection Flappers and Philosophers. Upon the end of his short life of 44 years, Fitzgerald had left a prolific oeuvre of four novels and 164 short stories published in magazines, some included in his four short story collections.

F and P.

I found Flappers and Philosophers online from Project Gutenberg. Due to time constraints, I thought a short story collection would be a good choice. Glad I picked this up as it’s a pleasant surprise. Reading Fitzgerald’s stories has altered my previous impression of the Jazz Age author.

I must admit, I was attracted to the title first. What’s a flapper? I’d to look it up for a precise definition. Several online dictionaries offer similar, succinct ones. But I like the Wikipedia’s more detailed descriptions:

“Flappers were a generation of young Western women in the 1920s who wore short skirts (just at the knee was short for that time period), bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behaviour.”

But when I delve into the eight stories in this collection, I’m pleasantly surprised and have much enjoyed Fitzgerald’s versatility, humour, descriptive prowess, and his observations of the American life which is so different from the impression I got from The Great Gatsby. Long story short, here’s my synopsis of the tales.

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The Offshore Pirate

Imaginative and fanciful, a story that takes place out the shore of Florida. A 19 year-old heiress who wants to break out of the mold of the upper echelon cautiously falls prey to Stockholm Syndrome when a pirate storms her yacht, taking her captive in both mind and soul. The opening lines draw me in instantly:

This unlikely story begins on a sea that was a blue dream, as colourful as blue-silk stockings, and beneath a sky as blue as the irises of children’s eyes. From the western half of the sky the sun was shying little golden disks at the sea––if you gazed intently enough you could see them skip from wave tip to wave tip until they joined a broad collar of golden coin that was collecting half a mile out and would eventually be a dazzling sunset.

A word of caution though, Fitzgerald’s language reflects that of his time. When it comes to race references, modern day readers might find it uneasy to come across such descriptions.

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The Ice Palace

19 year-old (apparently the author’s favourite age for his female protagonists) Sally Carrol, a Southern girl in Georgia, swept by ennui, plans to venture to the great Northeast by marrying his boyfriend Harry from there. She soon finds the North may not be as ideal as she has dreamed of. Fitzgerald’s own life and marriage could have a little influence on the creation of the story. The author’s fictional take on the North South divide.
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Head and Shoulders

So far we’ve seen two ‘flappers’. But who’s the ‘philosopher’? Here’s an interesting story, again, with Fitzgerald’s humor and irony, tells how a brainy academic prodigy falls for a chorus girl, and how the two manage to invent a new life together. Horace gets into Princeton at 13 and into the Masters program at 17, but life takes a 180 degree turn when he falls in love with show girl Marcia. Under Fitzgerald’s pen, life can be altered into the most ironic and unimaginable.

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The Cut-Glass Bowl

A cut-glass bowl, a popular wedding gift in the Middle West, is Evylyn Piper’s treasure in her home. It is also, sadly, a metaphor for fate, the misfortunes that will befall her. Fitzgerald’s more serious story here but equally vivid in the description of marriage life, and the journey Evylyn has to travel alone. Here’s what her friend Carleton, the beau who’s lost her to Evylyn’s future husband Harold, says to her: “Evylyn I’m going to give a present that’s as hard as you are and as beautiful and as empty and as easy to see through.” That of course is the cut-glass bowl. I love the suspense Fitzgerald embeds in even a metaphor.

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Bernice Bobs Her Hair (Book cover above)

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s version of Jane Austen’s Emma. Marjorie’s cousin Bernice comes to stay in her home for a few weeks. At first disinterested with the homely-looking and socially inept girl, Marjorie suddenly sparks excitement as the miserable Bernice looks to her for advice. Marjorie teaches her lines to memorize when speaking to boys at parties, and getting her hair bobbed seems to be the key to attract them all. Well, what follows is an episode that even our dear Jane herself would LOL.

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Benediction

The most serious story in the collection as Fitzgerald depicts the struggle between the flesh and the spiritual. Lois is at the crossroads, trying to decide if she should continue to see a man who takes her only for sexual pleasures, albeit the desire is mutual. Lois’s internal struggles face a haunting experience as she visits her brother who’s in a Jesuits monastery getting ready for priesthood. Fitzgerald possibly had built the story upon his actual visit to a seminary in Woodstock, Maryland, when he accompanied his cousin to visit her brother there.

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Dalyrimple Goes Wrong

Could be Fitzgerald’s brief version of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, with a twist. Coming back from the War, ex-star-soldier Bryan Dalyrimple has no luck in the work world for which he’s ill equipped. He’s stuck in a job with no future and low pay, albeit he thinks highly of himself knowing he deserves better. He then schemes to commit a series of petty crimes. Unlike the doomed Raskolnikov, Bryan is spared Siberia and on track to reaching the American Dream.

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The Four Fists

Throughout his life, Samuel Meredith has had four punches laid on his face, each time results in an epiphany of some sort, changing him a bit, and even leading him to a totally different life course. A most ingenious story told with much humour. Once again, looks like Fitzgerald is saying, life is full of surprises; what comes as a blow could well elevate one to a path of success. But most importantly, do what is right.

 

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1920-club

The 1920 Club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book, April 13-19, 2020.

 

‘Edith’s Diary’: Madness, Escape, or Creativity?

“I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.”    ––– Louisa May Alcott
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Edith's DiaryMy point of contact with Patricia Highsmith’s work is mainly in the movies: Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Two Faces of January, and Carol based on her novel The Price of Salt which I’d read. Edith’s Diary, first published in 1977, is a very different work from all the above.

As the book begins, Edith Howland, 35, her husband Brett, and their ten year-old son Cliffie have just moved into small town Brunswick Corner, Pennsylvania, from New York City. The year is 1955. The reason for the move is for Cliffie to grow up in a country environment with more space to roam. Edith’s diary is a precious possession wherein she records her experiences.

Edith is quick to immerse in the community and makes a few friends. With Gert, she successfully revitalizes the local paper Bugle, and she continues with her freelance writing. It’s Cliffie that’s her main concern. Cliffie isn’t a normal boy. He keeps to himself, is indifferent to his parents, unkind to their cat Mildew, makes no friends and doesn’t do well in school. That’s enough for alarm, but Edith’s attitude is concern mixed with appeasement. 

Not long after they’ve moved into their house, Brett’s elderly uncle George comes to live with them, a decision not from mutual consent between the couple. Edith has to take care of George, cook and bring his meals to his bedside, keep the house in good order, write for Bugle and pitch to magazines, all while keeping an amicable social front.

Ten years gone by, life hasn’t aligned much with Edith’s wishes. Far from it. Cliffie can’t make it into any college, no full-time job and turns to alcohol and drugs to pass his days. Old George still hangs in there needing more of Edith’s time and attention. Most devastating to her psyche is Brett, who has left her and moved back to NYC to a new life of his own by marrying his young secretary. Highsmith is meticulous in detailing the psychological world of Edith’s, her frail personality, appeasing her son and yielding to her husband.

But as life’s burdens become heavier and things get gloomier, Edith’s entries in her diary shift to a more and more uplifting tone. She creates a different life for her son in her diary entries, imagining Cliffie successfully graduates from Princeton and begins a good career, marries a sweet girl who later bears her a grandchild.

Edith’s diary is an imaginary narrative that’s totally different from her real life. Towards the end, madness takes over and Highsmith’s ending is both shocking and dismissing. No spoiler here. However, reading the book makes me think of a quote from Little Women‘s author Louisa May Alcott:

I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.    ––– Louisa May Alcott

What’s the difference between Alcott writing jolly tales and Edith’s detailing an alternative life in her diary? If Edith isn’t writing into a diary, which is supposed to be ‘non-fiction’, isn’t she just creating a work of fiction? Where’s the line between escape and creativity?

Highsmith drops obvious clues for us describing Edith’s sinking deep into the slough of madness as she actually prepares for her imaginary Cliffie’s visit to her home for dinner with wife and son in tow. So, it looks like Highsmith is showing us the demarkation, when the two lives, the imaginary and the real, merge into one, therein lies madness.

But, is Edith’s diary an evidence of madness, or an imaginary work of fiction? Hmm… that would be my question to Highsmith if I were a journalist interviewing her. Now, just let me dwell on that thought some more…

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Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith, Grove Press, New York, 2018. 393 pages.

Note: Patricia Highsmith’s own diaries will be published in the coming year. Now that would be an interesting read.

 

Staying Home Binge Reading

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and I’m glad to do my social duty to stay home and binge read.

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been reading mysteries from various countries. From the UK, Julian Symons’s The Colour of Murder, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, and Alex Michaelides’s The Silent Patient, to the US, John Grisham’s Camino Island, and my first Mary Higgins Clark All by Myself, Alone, which reads like an American version of Death on the Nile. And now getting through Patricia Highsmith’s Edith’s Diary, which is a sort of psycho-mystery.

But thanks to Japanese Literature Challenge 13 over at Bellezza’s, I’m introduced to Japanese mysteries. I started with Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s (芥川 龍之介) classic short stories “Rashomon” and “In A Grove”, posted here. After that, I’ve been intrigued by the novels written by the prolific Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾). Beginning with Malice, I’ve since binge read five of his mysteries.

There are ten books in the Detective Kaga series but only two have been translated into English: Malice and Newcomer, which I’ve reviewed in a previous post.

From the Detective Galileo series, there are 8 books from which three have been translated, The Devotion of Suspect X, Salvation of a Saint, and A Midsummer’s Equation. I devoured these in the past few weeks. Not everyone of them is a 4-Ripple rating, but this one definitely deserves it.

The Devotion of Suspect X

 

The Devotion of Suspect X book cover


(Winner of the 2005 Naoki Prize for Best Novel in Japan, and also winner of both the Edogawa Rampo Prize and the Mystery Writers of Japan Prize for Best Mystery. The English translation was nominated for an Edgar Award in 2012.)

From the start, the reader is eyewitness to a murder. We know who committed the crime, the murder weapon, the motive, and the actual scene. It happens in the home of single mother Yasuko and daughter Misato. The victim is Yasuko’s ex-husband, a menace in her life. A neighbour, Ishigami, is in his adjacent apartment unit at the time. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase––in Higashino’s leisurely pace––of the police and the suspect and possible accomplice.

Detective Galileo is the nickname the Tokyo Police Department had given Manabu Yukawa, Assistant Professor of Physics at Imperial University. Yukawa is a college friend of Detective Kusanagi and someone whom Kusanagi seeks when he needs to bounce off ideas or just shoot the breeze, an actual phrase from the English translation, curious to know the original Japanese idiom.

Higashino’s novels are like bookish tourism. His story, characters and settings make movie images in my mind of what everyday Japanese life is like. Here in this case, the murder weapon is the electrical cord from a kotatsu. What’s a kotatsu? I wondered, so was happy to divert to some Googling on that. Do go and find out if you’re interested. Lively pictures I did find and a new discovery of a common item in a Japanese home.

Back to the book. The physics professor Yukawa is logical. He analyses and deducts with a clear mind. Funny that the real detective, his friend Kusanagi is often driven by presumptions and impulses. The two make an odd couple in this series. However, it’s in the suspect Ishigami, a high school math teacher, that Yukawa finds his match. From the case, Yukawa reunites with his university classmate Ishigami whom he has not seen since graduation. Yukawa remembers him as a rare genius, someone whom he respects with heartfelt affinity.

When an amateur attempts to conceal something, the more complex he makes his camouflage, the deeper the grave he digs for himself.  But not so a genius.  The genius does something far simpler, yet something no normal person would even dream of, the last thing a normal person would think of doing.  And from this simplicity, immense complexity is created.

It’s Yukawa, the physics professor who finally figures out the mind of the genius, a conjecture he’d wish wasn’t true, for pathos can overwhelm a rational mind. And that’s a parallel to depict Ishigami. For him, something rare had sprouted within: when love and devotion are factored into an equation, it could lead to the most extraordinary scenario.

With an intriguing plot and unexpected development in the final revealing, Higashino captures the emotions and humanity of his characters in a way that’s nothing short of profound. The story idea Higashino has created here is most unique and original, just reflects the ingenuity of the mind of the writer.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

 

JLC13

 

The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino, Translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander. Minotaur Books, New York, 2011. 298 pages

 

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‘Newcomer’ by Keigo Higashino

Thanks to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, I’m introduced to the popular Japanese mystery writer and multiple book award winner Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾), and get to meet the amiable character he created, Detective Kyoichiro Kaga.

Higashino has written two main series of mysteries, one with Detective Kaga, the other Detective Galileo. There are also stand-alone novels. Almost twenty of his books have been turned into movies and TV series in Japan.

I’ve read Malice, and now Newcomer, and become a fan of both Higashino and Detective Kaga. Malice deals with the murder of an author and a possible suspect who’s also a writer; I was drawn to the story right away. However, I find Newcomer even more interesting. Higashino is the accidental tour guide leading his readers to the main roads and side streets of Japanese society.

Newcomer

First off, how do I describe Detective Kaga? Who can I compare him with? As clever as Hercule Poirot, but too sloppily dressed, so, no. As relentless as Harry Bosch, but much gentler and friendlier, so, no. Right, he’s more like Columbo, a young Japanese Columbo, casual in manners, friendly to all, but a gadfly to some. And I did catch him saying, “just one more thing…”

Above all, his very humane way of doing his job is admirable. Here’s a detective with heart. Kaga isn’t only concerned with finding the culprit, but in his own words: “my job as a detective should go beyond that. People who’ve been traumatized by a crime are victims, too. Finding ways to comfort them is also part of my job.” For walking that extra mile, he has made friends but also made himself a nuisance to some, especially those who have reasons to evade him.

The Newcomer in this book refers to Kaga himself, who has just been transferred to the Nihonbashi precinct in Tokyo, a demotion from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Homicide Division, something to do with his ‘inappropriate emotional involvement’, an issue that only highlights who Kaga is like. Higashino has dropped a hint for me to find out more from his other books of the Kaga series about what that ’emotional involvement’ is all about. Unfortunately, only Malice and Newcomer have been translated into English in this ten-book series.

Here in Newcomer, a woman newly divorced has been murdered. Kaga not only needs to find the perpetrator of the crime but has to familiarize himself with his new precinct of work, the social geography of the community. We see him following clues to a rice cracker shop, a restaurant, a clock shop and its owner’s dog walking routine, a pastry shop, a theatre company, and a traditional Japanese handcrafts shop. All interesting places to which Higashino leads us to observe the livelihood and human interactions within.

One issue I have with this book, however, is that Higashino introduces a new character close to the end and reveals the denouement with totally new information. Having said that, I’m fascinated by how he weaves together the strands and casually revealing the human tapestry of his society.

I use both the hardcopy and the audiobook, whenever is more convenient. They complement each other perfectly.

 

JLC13

 

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Newcomer by Keigo Higashino, translated by Giles Murray. Minotaur Books, New York. Translation copyright, 2018, 342 pages. Audiobook by MacMillan Audio, narrated by P. J. Ochlan, 2018.

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Other Japanese Literature Challenge posts:

Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

‘Downhill’: Faux Majeure

Here’s a quote I’ll use again and again, from South-Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech for Parasite winning Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film award in January:

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

Downhill

Downhill is a case in point. If one is willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier called subtitles (they are in English, mind you), one will be amazed how true and powerful and entertaining the Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is, and that watching the Ruben Östlund directed original would likely reap the most enjoyment and provoke some deep thoughts. Maybe an American version isn’t needed to begin with.

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with the Oscar nominated Jesse Armstrong as co-writer, if they’re to make an American version, there could have been potential for a fresh take. Force Majeure‘s literal meaning is a superior force, an unavoidable, overtaking power. Here’s the premise of the movie, which in itself is an interesting case for discussion:

A well-intentioned family holiday at a ski resort for bonding is shattered as the result of an instinctive reaction on the part of the husband/father. It happens when a controlled avalanche strikes a little too close to his family sitting at an outdoor dining table, he runs for his life while his wife huddles and protects their two boys. What follows is the underlying current of discontent and anger of the wife’s surfacing like a geyser. 

The producers must have seen the potential comedy in such a scenario. One of them is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Emmy and Golden Globe winning comedy actor, and a fan of the original Swedish film. Playing the wife Billie, Dreyfus shows she has her heart in it. In several scenes, she’s effective in bringing out Billie’s frustration. However, the issues of the movie are beyond her control, a real case of force majeure?

First is the casting of the husband Pete with Will Ferrell. Surely, for a comedy, Ferrell would be a natural choice. Call it irony, the indifferent demeanor Ferrell gives out as an actor in this movie actually parallels the husband Pete’s attitude, as if he’s being dragged up the ski hill. Have cell, will travel. His phone is what he’s resorted to as companion on a family holiday that he’s not ready to go on.

Pete’s work friend Zach (Zach Woods) and his girl friend Rosie (Zoe Chao) happen to be near where they vacation, so Pete secretly texts them to come over to their hotel in the guise that it’s their initiative to drop in. Here’s a pair of supporting roles if given more to play can add substance and context to the thin storyline, but they don’t have the chance. In the original Force Majeure, this couple plays a crucial part, especially with Kristofer Hivju’s performance as Mats, who’s full of humor. Hivju is also in Downhill, but only with a very minor role as the ski hill manager.

Other issues pervade, the script could well be a major one. As a comedy, there’s not much for laughs. It presents a problem but doesn’t delve into it; a comedy doesn’t mean superficial treatments. As a film that’s supposed to capture a sporting vacation, it lacks energy. No wonder the kids are so bored. The title is prophetic; I’m sure that’s unintentional. 

If an American version is the intent, then make it truly American, tell an American marriage story with this scenario. With Downhill, however, the European location, the ski resort surroundings, the actual scene of the controlled avalanche mishap, the set design, even the teeth-brushing moments in the hotel bathroom look almost the same as the Swedish original, other than the fact that the actors speak English. With its loose editing and scattered thematic matters, Downhill looks more like a parody of Force Majeure than a stand-alone comedy on its own.

 

~ ~ Ripples 

 

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CLICK HERE to read my review of Force Majeure

 

Rashomon and other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

In participation of Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Bellezza.

Rashomon and Other Stories

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (芥川龍之介 1892 – 1927) was an acclaimed early 20th Century Japanese author of the modernist style. Prolific in his short life, Akutagawa had written more than a hundred short stories upon his death by suicide at age 35. He is cited as “The Father of Japanese Short Stories”. The prestigious Akutagawa Prize established in 1935 was named after him to reward the best work of fiction by a new author. Japanese Nobel Laureate Kenzaburō Ōe and crime fiction writer Seichō Matsumoto are among the past winners.

Even though written in the early decades of the 20th century, the six stories compiled in this collection are surprisingly modern in their relevance. Further, despite the author’s gloomy outlook, a few of these stories are sprinkled with a touch of lively humour. The collection shows Akutagawa as an incisive depicter of the human condition and an astute observer of the human psyche.

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Here are the stories:

In A Grove –– This story and the next are adapted into the renown film Rashomon (羅生門 1950) directed by the legendary Akira Kurosawa (黑澤明 1910 – 1998). The body of a murdered samurai is found in the forest by a woodcutter. His wife has been raped. What has truly happened, however, can’t be determined as the witnesses all tell very different stories. They are the woodcutter, a beggar, a priest, the wife, and the dead husband speaking through a spirit. Akutagawa presents the multiplicity of subjective point-of-views retrieved from memory. Can objective truth ever be found?

Rashomon –– “The Rashōmon” is the largest gate in Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan. It was constructed in the year 789. When this story takes place, the gate is dilapidated and has become the hideout for thieves and robbers, what more, corpses are left there unclaimed. A servant who has just been let go is standing under the gate waiting for a break in the pouring rain. With no employment now, he struggles with the moral dilemma of becoming a thief or face the consequence of poverty, starving to death. What Akutagawa depicts after this is a dark reality of survival. Kudos to Kurosawa, he turns a chilling story into a film with a hopeful ending.

Yam Gruel –– Reads like a cautionary tale about the satiation of desire, but with whimsical touches and acerbic humour. Goi, a plain-looking samurai suffering from low self-esteem is the laughing stock of everyone, but he learns to live with the ridicules he faces everyday. Goi has one longing, the delicious yam gruel which his boss treats the samurais once a year. What follows is like a dream come true. He’s led to a long distance away on horseback by his boss to a place where he can have limitless yam gruel. But the result isn’t as he has expected. Why, when you have unlimited supply of what you desire, they will soon upset your appetite. Be careful what you wish for.

The Martyr ––  Christianity had a substantial influence in Japan during the 16th Century. With The Martyr, Akutagawa spins a tale about a boy named Lorenzo who is adopted by the Jesuits. Time passes and as he emerges into manhood, Lorenzo is wrongly accused of getting a village girl pregnant, resulting in his exile away from society. Later in a moment of crisis, Lorenzo’s real character prompts him to act by offering the ultimate sacrifice.

Kesa and Morito –– An early version of the popular genre we have now, psychological murder mystery as told by different narrators, again, multiplicity of POVs. The substance and motive for the crime is similar to “In A Grove”, adultery, love, hate, and lust, two internal monologues revealing Akutagawa’s grasp of the darkness lodged in the human soul.

The Dragon –– An ingenious take on fake news. Here’s the post the priest Hanazō makes up to play a trick on his colleagues, sticking a message board by the pond, it can well be a tweet today: “On March third a dragon shall ascend from this pond.” Retweets follow. Words soon spread, first local people then out to the whole province and finally to other provinces. So on March third, a humongous crowd gathers by the pond waiting to see the dragon king rise up. Here’s what Hanazō learns afterwards: if you have enough likes and followers, what’s fake will become true. Even when you confess you made it all up to begin with, nobody will believe you.

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Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Translated by Takashi Kojima. Tuttle Publishing, Singapore, 1952.

 

JLC13

 

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My previous Japanese Literature Challenge posts:

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age! by Kenzaburo Oe

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Marriage Story’ is a realistic look at an all too common topic

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September, now in limited release, Marriage Story will be available for streaming December 6.  The Netflix original movie is gathering a lot of buzz as one of the front runners for Oscar noms. I saw it first at TIFF, now again in the theatre, trying to confirm my initial feelings about the film.

Directed by Noah Baumbach with a stellar cast, the title would be more apt if it’s called ‘Divorce Story’, for the film is about Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) Barber going through the separation and divorce process, culminating with the final custody case of their 8 year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

Marriage Story
Scene from Marriage Story with Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, and Scarlett Johansson. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

Nicole is an aspiring film actor in LA before following avant-garde theatre director Charlie to NYC to become a stage actor with his company, his muse, and later, his wife and the mother of his child Henry. Exactly, the emphasis on the possessive ‘his’, and hence, the reason for Nicole’s discontent. 

At this point in her marriage, Nicole finds herself oddly unhappy, although she doesn’t show it that much. Looks like Charlie has everything going for him. Nicole describes it: he’s alive while she’s in a coma. As he becomes more and more successful, “I got smaller,” she laments. Charlie has distinguished himself as a theatre artist and akin to his professionalism, is honest in his critique of Nicole’s acting. One time after a performance, he takes out his notes, “I could tell you were pushing for the emotion.”

So, with the offer to star in a new TV series, Nicole jumps at the opportunity and goes back to LA, with Henry in tow. 

The film starts off with a voiceover as we hear Charlie and Nicole read out something they’ve written on what they love about each other. A marriage counsellor is trying to lead them down memory lane to revive their relationship, to think on why they got married in the first place. But looks like they’ve passed this point. They want to stroll down the divorce lane, casually, no lawyers. Soon they find there’s no gentle way to go about this.

Humor comes as situational irony. Here’s one of those scenes. In her mother’s kitchen in LA, Nicole is figuring out how and who to serve Charlie with the divorce papers, documents in a brown legal envelop placed on the kitchen counter. Nicole’s mother (Julie Hagerty) loves Charlie and isn’t cool with the task. The duty falls on sister Cassie (Merritt Wever). The three nervously prepares the scene quickly just before Charlie enters, arriving from NY and bursting with excitement of winning a MacArthur Fellowship and is spontaneously met by good cheers from all, just might not be the right mood to serve any legal papers.

Marriage and family relationships have long been Baumbach’s subject matter. His semi-autobiographical, breakout work The Squid and the Whale (2005) is edgy and personal. Through the eyes of the sons, teenager Walt and his 12 year-old brother witness the nasty demolition of their literary parents’ marriage. Walt finds out at the end of the film that the model he’d seen as a child at the Natural History Museum of a sperm whale swallowing up a giant squid is a visual metaphor of his parents’ relationship. That film is impressionable as it shows not only a marriage breakdown but the emotional and psychological damage of their sons. A dark comedy full of fresh takes on a common subject matter, with Baumbach’s signature quirkiness and eccentric characterization.

In Marriage Story, however, Baumbach doesn’t need a metaphor as he tells his story in stark realism with a low-risk, conventional approach. This is probably the director’s least quirky and idiosyncratic feature in his oeuvre. His vivid depiction of the love/hate ambivalence between Charlie and Nicole is nuanced and vivid. Heavy on dialogues, reminiscence of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (1974), but Marriage Story is more an updated version of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) exactly 40 years ago. 

Love lingers. Even though they are separated as far as the east coast is from the west, every time Charlie visits Nicole and Henry in LA, tenderness surfaces readily. Just begs the question though, as the counsellor wants them to think about why they got married in the first place, looks like they now need to ponder on why they want a divorce.

Reality is, our legal system is adversarial. Nicole’s aggressive lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) tells her, “the system rewards bad behavior.” The harder you stab, the more likely you’ll win. They’re charged to combat each other, and when it comes to digging up dirty laundry in favor of their case, the lawyers leave no stone unturned. This is something both Charlie and Nicole don’t expect. Instead, they’re pushed into the legal torrents reluctantly. Empathy as expressed from the older, semi-retired lawyer Bert (Alan Alder) means incompetence. Charlie finally has to hire the high-priced legal shark Jay (Ray Liotta), for the stakes are too high.

If Baumbach has sprinkled his newest film with a bit more squid and whale quirks, it will make it more interesting. Surely, the strong cast overall delivers, with Driver and Johansson offering some fine performance. But with such a commonplace subject matter, and so many movies have already done it, what’s amiss is the very quirkiness and eccentricity Baumbach leaves out.

Another consideration is, do we need all the 136 minutes to tell the story of Barber vs. Barber? Maybe not. However, since it’s a Netflix original movie, viewers have total control over how long to sit in front of the small screen to view it; chopping it up into shorter segments is what I predict to be the viewing habits of many. Herein lies the problem with streaming movies from a device, i.e. the trivializing of the experience. But that’s beyond the present discussion. Some day maybe, another post: Theatre vs. Netflix.

So what was I trying to confirm in this second viewing? It’s the reason for my detachment. Twice now, I was an observer of a performance, appreciating the nuances, the humor, but not being drawn in in terms of feelings. Could it be, at times, I find there’s pushing for the emotion?

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

While We’re Young: Wearing the Hat of Authenticity

Paterson: Of Pug and Poetry

Original Screenplays Written Directly for the Screen: What to Watch in Nov. and Dec.

‘The Farewell’ transcends cultural borders to bring out the universal

When an elderly, beloved family member is diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and has only three months to live, will you let her know the prognosis or hide it and spare her of fear and burden? Chinese-American director Lulu Wang has turned her real-life family experience into first, a radio program on “This American Life” (aptly entitled ‘In Defense of Ignorance’), and subsequently adapted it into a movie, The Farewell. The Chinese title is more direct: 別告訴她, “Don’t tell her.”

The-Farewell-movie-poster

In the film, the family decides not to tell their beloved matriarch grandmother, Nai Nai, (Shuzhen Zhao), about her health status. She’s living contentedly, doing her morning exercise with gusto, relatively independent, with her younger sister Little Nai Nai (Lu Hong) keeping a watchful eye on her.

To arrange for everyone to say farewell and see Grandma Nai Nai one last time, older son Haibin (Yongbo Jiang) and his family will return from Japan, staging a hasty wedding of their son Hao Hao (Han Chen) to his Japanese girlfriend of just three months, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara). Their plan is to have the celebration in the city where Nai Nai lives, Changchun.

Nai Nai’s younger son Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and his wife Jian (Diana Lin) will go back from New York for the wedding. Such a ruse is not received well by their daughter Billi (Awkwafina), born in China but raised in America, who upholds the values of individual rights and transparency.

Easy, her parents tell her she doesn’t need to go as they are afraid her Americanized expressiveness will give it away the moment Nai Nai sees her face. Billi won’t stand for that either, for she loves her grandma, with whom she’d had a close bond as a child until she left for the U.S. at the age of six. She still keeps in touch with Nai Nai by phone with her passable Mandarin. So Billi goes to China on her own, a surprise for the whole family––a pleasant one for Nai Nai, but a precarious risk for everyone else.

Since its debut at Sundance early this year, The Farewell has been winning audience’s hearts. Wang’s film is greeted as another strong voice in the diversity movement within the movie industry, following the flagship crowd-pleaser Crazy Rich Asians last summer. With a mostly Chinese main cast, shot in Changchun and New York City, Wang’s feature aptly depicts the cultural clashes immigrants face when leaving their home and settling in the West, or the older, first generation with their America born or raised children.

The wide reception the movie has been garnering is a reflection that this kind of dilemmas or conflicts are not limited to one cultural group. The issues families face, illness and death, parenting our own elderly parents, resolving disagreements and maintaining relationships are but some universal experiences joining us all.

The Farewell is Wang’s second directorial work after her 2014 debut feature Posthumous. In this her sophomore film, looks like she has established a personal style of her own. The slow pacing depicts effectively the internal world of the characters. While the middle section feels a little bogged down, the ensemble performance of the whole cast soon lifts us up and lands us on a higher plane.

Awkwafina’s (a.k.a. Nora Lum) performance is spot-on in depicting the conflicting emotions Billi is riding through. It’s obvious she has found her niche and developed into a full-fledged actor who can carry a story soundly on her own. She has morphed from rapper to actor, from being just a sidekick in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians to a dramatic lead. Thanks to Wang’s script, Awkwafina has several cathartic, moving moments showcasing her skills. For this role, she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress, Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, and became the first actor of Asian descent to capture that top prize.

Humor is the key to the heartstrings of the audience, and Wang has splashed it throughout readily, however deadpan it may come in. While the subject matter is somber, the comedic elements are ubiquitous. Some may require discernment from the audience to laugh where it’s meant to laugh, and refrain from it when it’s meant to be serious; that’s an interesting observation I got as I sat in the theatre. Dramedy? Dark comedy? Light drama? Genre fusing no doubt.

The music of the film particularly stands out. The selections could well be influenced by Wang’s own classical music training before her filmmaking career. During the pivotal scene of the wedding banquet, the operatic aria “Caro Mio Ben” is performed (soundtrack sung by South Korean soprano Hyesang Park with piano accompaniment by Wang herself.) The longing tune alone captivates, but knowing the lyrics will add credit to the mindfulness of Wang’s selection: “Dearest, my beloved, believe me at least this much, without you, my heart languishes.”

Composer Alex Weston’s original score augments the emotional power of the story by weaving a soulful voice motif across the scenes, stirring up a reflective and poignant tone throughout. Indeed, the fusion of Western music in an Eastern culture is all realistic in our contemporary world, its purpose could well be drawing out the universal, uniting us all in our humanity.

Overall, the ingenuity of Wang’s feature has effectively bridged two seemingly dichotomized cultural views, the East and the West, regarding the serious issue of to tell, or not to tell when a beloved, elderly family member is diagnosed with terminal illness. In just 100 minutes of screen time, Wang has brought a contentious, ethical issue to a human level and wrapped it with heart. The Farewell is a worthy addition to a hopefully sustaining trend of diversity and representation in the film industry.

 

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

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Downton Abbey the movie not just for fans

At the end of every Downton TV Season, there’s a two-hour Finale. Downton Abbey the movie feels like one of those grand finish. If there’s any TV series that can move to the big screen with just a TV script, Downton Abbey will be it. The iconic Jacobean styled mansion, superb cast, beautiful costumes and set design, not to mention creator/writer Julian Fellowes’ screenplay are its assets. Nothing close to the caliber of Gosford Park (2001) which brought Fellowes a Best Writing Oscar, but this will do. Nothing deep and poignant as some of the TV episodes, but for two hours of viewing time in the theatre, there are a lot to see and savour.

Downton.jpg

Just by listening to the rhythmic rumbling bringing out the single melody line of the theme music can send vibes of excitement. The majestic aerial shots in the setting sun (or is it rising sun?) establishing the grand manor Downton Abbey’s stature on the big screen is a thrilling experience for fans. In the theatre I was in, almost full house with fans obviously, laughing out loud at all the jokes and witty lines, embracing the film with a celebratory mood. After 6 Seasons, 3 Golden Globes and another 54 wins and 219 nominations (according to IMDb) plus three years of absence, a Downton movie is something worth celebrating.

But this isn’t just for fans. For those who come to Downton the first time, they might have missed six Seasons and 52 episodes of backstory, the movie could be an appetizer whetting their appetite for the full feast that’s offered in the PBS Masterpiece series. The estate that they must have heard in recent years called Downton Abbey, possibly wondering if it’s a cloister for monks or nuns, is now magnified on the big screen with stunning establishing shots. No medieval garbs or habits but 1920’s, Gatsby-styled fashion and hairdo. Inviting cinematography both exterior and interior familiarize them with the setting, albeit fans might find watching in a theatre is more dim with the cinematic mode, less vibrant than via their home TV which they can adjust the brightness.

Those not comfortable with the priggish social system of the past (and present to be sure, and not only limited to England) can look deeper into the series for some revelatory themes. While The Crawley’s are originally contented with their status quo and privilege, and some rejecting all forms of modernity, like Violet’s complaint about the ‘blinding’ electric lights or Mr. Carson’s fear of the telephone, the Great War (1914-1918) changes everything. Lady Sybil goes into nursing to contribute to the war effort, the whole Downton is turned into a convalescent hospital for the wounded (a historic fact of Highclere Castle), heir Matthew Crawley and footman William fight side-by-side in the trenches, and later Lady Edith venturing out on her own to start a journalism career. The most significant is probably Lady Sybil marrying Tom Branson, the driver of Downton who’s on the ‘wrong’ side of politics, Irish republican. In this movie, he reiterates his stand: “You can love people you disagree with.”

Director Michael Engler picks up from Season 6 Finale and set the time to a year later, 1927. The movie starts with a reminiscence of the very first episode in the first Season with a train pulling into the station and a telegram delivered to Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). No Titanic bad news this time but earth-shattering nonetheless, King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be coming to Downton Abbey  and stay for one night while on route to the Yorkshire area.

The household is in warp speed mode preparing for the royal visit in just two weeks. Before the arrival, the royal management team plus chef come to set up their commanding post, brushing away the Downton stalwarts downstairs. A coup is planned subsequently to offset such an invasion. Thus the movie diverge from its realist styling to a bit of a comedic/fantasy mode. That storyline lasts for the first hour. Then the subplots begin, allowing more interesting development.

Why Downton hasn’t lost its appeal through the years is highly due to the characters and how the actors slip into their skin so perfectly. Every character has his/her own back story, idiosyncrasy, viewpoint, and despite the class system that seems to segregate upstairs from downstairs, they are relatively free individuals who can and usually speak their minds. Take Daisy (Sophie McShera), for example, a kitchen maid, expresses her view against royalties, while Tom (Allen Leech), despite his stance for a republic Ireland, chooses to support his father-in-law Lord Grantham nonetheless. Just reflects the complexity of each individual character, a key asset of the TV series which a two-hour movie is impossible to delve into.

Thanks to scribe Fellowes, there are more duels of dialogues between Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith) and Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton), two darlings of opposing views. Here are some samples from the movie:

(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to skip these lines so you can experience them first hand.)

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When talking about the coming royal visit, Violet and Isobel have the following exchange.

Violet:  Will you have enough clichés to get you through the visit?
Isabel:  If not, I’ll come to you. (Not missing a beat.)

Or here, as the family talk about a relative who’ll be coming with the royalties:

Isobel:  You’re plotting something. I see a Machiavellian look in your eye.
Violet:  Machiavelli is frequently underrated. He had many qualities.
Isobel:  So did Caligula — not all of them charming.

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As with the finale of the last Downton Season, we see romantic pairings and the movie picks up where it left off.  Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) are happily married, so are Isobel and Lord Merton (Douglas Reith); Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and John Bates (Brendan Coyle) finally living in bliss, Tom meets a comparable mate, and that dancing scene outdoor with the two of them in silhouette is nicely shot. Downstairs Andy (Michael Fox) makes his intention known to Daisy, and Barrow (Robert James-Collier) finds a friend. While Molesley (Kevin Doyle) isn’t seen with Miss Baxter (Raquel Cassidy), he has the time of his life serving the King and Queen.

New members to the cast include Imelda Staunton (spouse of real-life Mr. Carson, Jim Carter) as the Queen’s lady-in-waiting Lady Bagshaw and Tuppence Middleton playing her maid Lucy Smith, a pleasant addition and a character with some significance. The short vignettes of Princess Mary’s (Kate Phillips) unhappy marriage to Henry Lascelles (Andrew Havill) has historic basis and it’s side stories like these that make the movie more interesting. Surprisingly, Tom Branson is the thread that weaves these characters together, and saves the day too.

An important conversation between Violet and granddaughter Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) towards the end may have dropped a hint for the future. And what of Mary’s new hubby Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode)? He appears like a flash and cameo. I just wonder if Dan Stevens (Mary’s first love Matthew Crawley) ever regretted leaving Downton so soon.

Beautifully shot, classy costumes, and as always, top performance from a great cast, while not delving into deeper stories, the movie overall can satisfy fans’ longing and make a good introduction to pique the interest of first timers, hopefully prodding them to binge on the full-fledged episodes.

 

~ ~ ~ Ripples

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I’ve a write-up for every episode beginning with Season 3 of Downton Abbey here on Ripple. The following post has the links to all of them plus some other related topics:

Quotable Quotes from Downton Abbey