‘Defending Jacob’: When Love and Truth Collide

Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell, Chris Evans in ‘Defending Jacob’

I usually read the book before watching its adaptation. When the reverse occurs, it’s because the movie or TV series is so absorbing that it leads me to explore how the original story is written and more importantly, how it ends.

Defending Jacob is a 2012 crime novel written by award-winning author William Landay. The story is character-driven and deals with issues such as the essence of parental love, nature vs. nurture, certainty and doubts. Without giving out any spoilers, I can say that the ending of the book is a darker reality while the TV adaptation offers a glimmer of light.

One morning in the quiet town of Newton, MA, a 14 year-old boy, Ben Rifkin, is found stabbed to death in a park on his way to school. Another 14 year-old schoolmate Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is later charged with first degree murder and tried as an adult according to the law of the State.

What turns this from just another murder mystery into a captivating 8-episode TV mini-series is the character depiction and the intriguing perspectives it presents. Parents Andy (Chris Evans) and Laurie Barber (Michelle Dockery) are totally loving and devoted to their only child Jacob, but their inner voices differ.

Andy, an assistant DA who is involved in the investigation initially, is convinced of his son’s innocence. While equally fervent in her love, as the trial reveals some incriminating evidence against Jacob, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) begins to doubt and is willing to seek the truth, even if it’s devastating.

Does love for your child mean unequivocal loyalty and trust? Is doubt a form of betrayal? Do genes determine actions? What about family background and upbringing, nature or nurture? And above all, can you know a person fully? Your spouse? Your child?

The eight episodes are not too long to explore these issues. I finished them in two days. Then right away to the book. After that, rewatched again. What first drew me to the series was Michelle Dockery. Yes, I’m always curious to see the post-Downton transfiguration of the cast… Lily James, Dan Matthews, and others. Dockery’s performance is effective and convincing here. Playing opposite the highly popular Chris Evans, they make an admirable couple, albeit maybe ten years younger than the book’s characters.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob is mystifying, not giving viewers any clues to his inner self, which is effective in a way so we can sense his parents’ frustration. Unlike Kevin (Ezra Miller) who instigates a school shooting in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), Jacob doesn’t appear to be a monster or the devil incarnate. His innocent look elevates the suspense. How much do we actually know our children? How much can we know?

Supporting cast is equally judicious. Cherry Jones as Jacob’s lawyer Joanna Klein is an apt choice and portrayal, as well as Detective Duffy (Betty Gabriel), instead of the male characters in the book. J. K. Simmons is eerily convincing as the grandfather, a figure Andy tries to bury in his memory. Jacob’s classmate Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) deserves a mention for her natural poise, an altered and a more fully developed character from the book.

This I disagree with some prominent critics: it is not too long. The 421 page book works well as a novel. The 8 episodes work well as an elaboration and interpretative performance of the novel. Those too impatient to go through them might have missed some fine details. The side stories are necessary to bring out the characters and give actors their chances of more fleshed-out, nuanced performance. Every episode moves the story forward with its smooth editing.

The ending of the mini-series offers a different scenario in contrast to the book. It’s a softer landing, which is acceptable but not as powerful and intense as the book’s harsher reality. The creator/screenwriter could have been tough enough to follow the book, as Landay’s plotting is remarkable. Nevertheless, the twists and turns of the story development remain intact overall. Defending Jacob is a highly watchable and riveting adaptation.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

Defending Jacob is created by Mark Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, now playing on Apple TV+

Downton Abbey Season 4: Episode 3 (PBS)

Here’s a Downton episode that shows why it keeps gathering fans. That’s when every plot is captivating, and every other line uttered by the characters is a quotable quote, plus, two strong female characters saving the day: Violet Crawley upstairs, and Mrs. Hughes downstairs. Thanks to them, the good regain their zest for life (Mary and Isobel), and the bad are banished (Edna Braithwaite).

The most important storyline of course is Anna and Bates. And Mrs. Hughes is the only one to know about the rape. I have been successful so far to block out spoilers for future episodes but I hope Mrs. Hughes is wise and strong enough to make sure the right steps are taken in this heart wrenching case. After the most controversial tragedy befalls a faultless character, we’re all eager to see the aftermath.

Anna is thrice victimized. First raped, then silenced, and ultimately guilt-laden. I’m sure such a scenario is real even for today. “I must have made it happen. I feel dirty. I can’t let him touch me because I’m soiled.” A gap has developed so quickly like the ground has parted suddenly between a once loving couple. Now Anna and Bates are standing on opposite sides of a deep chasm. Mrs. Hughes urges her to go to the police to report, and tell Bates about the assault. She can see how hurtful it is for him to suffer from not knowing. But Anna sees the possible reality for Bates. “Better a broken heart than a broken neck.”

Several people have noticed Anna’s recent silence. Who wouldn’t? But not many would ask Bates directly except of course Lord Grantham himself. Julian Fellowes has written him some good lines. I just want to quote the whole thing here:

“There is no such thing as a marriage between two intelligent people that does not sometimes have to negotiate thin ice. I know. You must wait until things become clear. And they will. The damage cannot be irreparable when a man and a woman love each other as much as you do.”

But as always, the punchline comes after a pause:

“My goodness that was strong talk for an Englishman.”

Downton Abbey S4E3

On a slightly more pleasant note, Lady Mary’s dilemma regarding Lord Gillingham and his lightning speed of a marriage proposal. Michelle Dockery has put forth some very fine acting in this episode, especially the scene when they are walking on the green grounds of Downton, when Gillingham asks her a very short question: “Will you marry me?” The setting is romantic, the cinematography gorgeous, but this is what I’m most gratified to hear from Lady Mary:

“I can’t. I’m not free of him. Yesterday, you said I fill your brain. Well, Matthew fills mine. Still. And I don’t want to be without him, not yet.”

After all, it’s only about seven months after Matthew’s death. Further, if Tony Gillingham can discard a previously engaged relationship so readily, what kind of a lover will he be to Mary? Again, I don’t know about any future story development, but in my heart, I wish Mary would wait a while longer. But, she gives him a warm kiss though. What a conflicting heart. Did she say later that she’d done something she might regret?

Same with Edith. Have you seen anyone signing away a document without giving it even just a skim over? Julian Fellowes knows exactly where to grab our attention… when the character is least attentive. This is a document prepared by her very sincere-looking love interest, the man admittedly had had a ‘dubious, misspent youth’, and who had won back everyone’s poker losses from a crook within the same night. Oh but love conquers all fears for Edith. Lady Rosamund reminds her she’s “gambling with her future”. So Gregson leaves for Munich the next day. Interesting.

While in London, we’re introduced to the first black character in Downton Abbey, the jazz singer Jack Ross, who leaves a fine impression on Lady Rose, launching another interesting plot line.

And don’t you just love Mrs. Hughes even more, a bulwark of discernment and authority? Tom is wise enough to come downstairs to seek her advice as Edna blackmails him to marry her for a fake, just-in-case kind of pregnancy. Even Thomas (it’s Mr. Barrows now) the schemer isn’t a bit sympathetic.

And it’s Mrs. Hughes again who is so kind, and sweet, to restore a loving memory for Mr. Carson, framing up his once, young love. Can you imagine Mrs. Hughes taking time off Downton to go to town to shop for a nice picture frame? Anyway, it’s good to know these characters have heart, and are not afraid to show it. Very well done here. And no, I don’t particularly wish that Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson would become late romantics. They are just fine now. It’s much rarer to see genuine friendship than romantic love.

Mr. Carson gets the best quote here in Season 4 Episode 3:

“The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end that’s all there is.”

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Season 4 Episode 2

Season 4 Opening Special

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