Like a gentle breeze under the shade of a full, oak tree to dispel the summer heat, this little gem of a movie is a fairy tale, surely pure escapism from a harsh and scorching world. Newly released on July 15, this is a delightful watch not just for the summer.
Mrs. Ada Harris (Lesley Manville) is a cleaning lady and war widow in 1957 London, scraping by counting pennies cleaning people’s homes and offering to do invisible mending in her spare time. One day, seeing a Christian Dior dress while cleaning the home of Lady Dant (Anna Chancellor) sets off an adventure of a lifetime. Mrs. Harris wants to save enough money to go to Paris and buy one for herself. Dreams are for everyone; Mrs. Harris has the will, and she’ll find the way somehow.
Adapted from Paul Gallico’s novella, director Anthony Fabian brings to the screen a fairy tale for adult viewers, and with the cooperation of Christian Dior in Paris, turns the haute couture of fashion into a down-to-earth story of the ordinary people. Mrs. Harris is as invisible as her mending, but her heart and personality stand out to be noticed and exude her vibes in gentle persuasion.
Paul Gallico (1876-1976) is a wonderful weaver of tales. The Snow Goose is the most memorable read from my growing up years. I have not read his Mrs. HarrisGoes to... series, but after watching this movie, it’s on my TBR list. Not as soul stirring as The Snow Goose or dramatic as The Poseidon Adventure (1972 movie adaptation), Mrs. Harris nonetheless reaffirms kindness, beauty and hope still exist and are much needed to dispel the harshness of our times.
Lesley Manville is the driving force in this movie. The versatile actor first caught my admiration in Mike Leigh’s Another Year (2010) playing the vulnerable and lonely character Mary, for which she was nominated and had won several acting awards. Manville can also be brutal and violent, like the powerful matriarch in Let Him Go (2020), and then turn into Princess Margaret in The Crown (S5, 2022). But to be more in line with this current film is her role in Phantom Thread (2017) playing Daniel Day-Lewis’ co-dependent sister, a role for which she received an Oscar nom.
Supporting cast is strong. Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, 2016; Gabrielle, 2005) plays the manager and gatekeeper of the Dior fashion house, Mrs. Colbert, a character that reminds me of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). In a scene towards the end of the movie, we see a different Mrs. Colbert in her humble home, stripped down, ordinary and vulnerable. A poignant moment. Other supporting roles are also effective, like Mrs. Harris’ loyal friend Vi (Ellen Thomas), the gentle and caring Archie (Jason Isaacs), and the young pair of fresh faces, Alba Baptista playing Natasha, the model with a deeper aspiration and her secret admirer André (Lucas Bravo, Emily in Paris).
What caught my attention from the start was the original soundtrack composed by Rael Jones (Suite Française, 2014). The music corresponds perfectly with the lighthearted mood, flowing by smoothly like a whimsical character. At the end as the credits roll, there’s a piece with a waltz styling. I noticed as the audience exited, what looked like a mother and her adult daughter dancing to the tune, the first time I saw such a spontaneous ripple effect in a movie theatre.
There are some down period in the middle of the film, however, the cast and the camera make up for such moments. Overall, a delightful two-hour respite from the summer heat, or any season.
The word is in the OED, could well have gained relevance during the pandemic. Currently, two 2022 Netflix series can be described as such, bingeable. Both are adaptations from books in the genre of crime and courtroom drama. One major factor that makes them watchable is that both are created by David E. Kelly. A legal series associated with Kelly is likely to be of quality. His filmography too long to list.
THE LINCOLN LAWYER
Based on Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict (2008), the second book in his Mickey Haller series. The successful LA criminal defence attorney works mostly in his chauffeur-driven Lincoln Town Car, hence the namesake of the title. Unlike the book and Matthew McConaughey’s portrayal in the 2011 movie adaptation, Mickey here in the Netflix TV series (S1, 10 episodes) is more vulnerable, less self-assured, yet unrelenting in seeking the truth, and above all else, possessing genuine care for his daughter and ex-wives; in other words, a better man.
Other than the writing, a major asset is the cast. No big name A-listers, but the roles are aptly filled: Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Mickey, Neve Campbell as ex Maggie the prosecutor, Krista Warner as their teenage daughter Hayley; and at the office, yes there’s an office other than the back of the Lincoln, Becki Newton as Lorna, another ex, Angus Sampson as Cisco. Jazz Raycole as driver Izzy whom Mickey offers the job after defending her in court. Must mention is Christopher Gorham (Auggie Anderson back in Covert Affairs 2010-14) as the high profile client Trevor Elliot accused of the double murder of wife and her lover.
The 10 episodes flow well with several storylines going at the same time, adding interest and complexity. And as author Connelly has generously sprinkled in his books, the human side of his characters is the driving force behind the stories and conflicts. Mickey needs to come back from rehab, having developed drug dependency for pain relief after a surfing accident, on top of that, to gain back the trust and love from his ex-wife and in sharing the responsibility of parenthood… and wishful thinking it might seem, pursuing a second chance in a failed marriage.
Career wise, the high-profile case of defending video game developer Trevor Elliot could catapult him back on the track of success after his hiatus. What’s intriguing is that we see Mickey and Trevor often in a cat and mouse game. Newly handed down by a judge this case as the previous defence lawyer was gun down just days before the trial, and with not much to go on, Mickey has to rely on instinct, logical thinking, gut, as well as Lorna and Cisco’s unconventional investigative techniques.
The adaptation has an updated storyline that’s different from the 2008 book, but Connelly’s mark is there, as well as Kelly’s smart screenplay and direction. The meaning of the title? Disclosed at the end, the hidden key to this bingeable series.
ANATOMY OF A SCANDAL
Across the Atlantic, we have a notable British court case dealing with a reputable Member of Parliament being charged with the rape of his staff researcher, a 6-episode adaptation of the 2018 novel by Sarah Vaughan.
Some well-known actors make up the cast of this Netflix mini-series. Rupert Friend plays MP James Whitehouse, Sienna Miller as wife Sophie, who stands by him until the truth is revealed. Prosecutor is Kate Woodcroft played by Michelle Dockery––Lady Mary Crawley of Downton––donning a wig, gown and glasses, convincing as a Queen’s Counsel. The victim is Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott); defence barrister for James is Angela Regan (Josette Simon).
A rape case hanging on the issue of consent, both the prosecutor and defence offer persuasive arguments. Both sides contributed to some intense scenes in a sexual, criminal trial that involves, by its very nature, the need to be explicit and exact in its language and graphic in its description. Can the concept of ‘boys will be boys’, or, the misunderstanding of intent, ‘yes’ or ‘no’, be a viable defence for rape?
Similar storylines had appeared in movies such as The Riot Club (2014), very similar indeed, as the privileged boys from Oxford University, like the Libertines here, exercise freely their liberties and vulgarity. More recently, the Oscar winning Promising Young Woman (2020), written and directed by Emerald Fennell and starring Carey Mulligan, delivers a U.S. medical school version.
More than just courtroom drama. The backstory of these characters is intriguing and as the truth reveals itself, the moral complexity multiplies. Interestingly, the ‘brass verdict’ concept in The Lincoln Lawyer finds affiliation here. Cinematography is slick and editing is fast-paced. An apt transposition of Vaughan’s novel.
Among the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, one is Japan’s official entry for Best International Feature Film. That Drive My Car is nominated also in the Best Picture category as well as in Directing and Adapted Screenplay is a major boost for director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The most recent precedent would be the South Korean feature Parasite in 2020.
The following is my review of Drive My Car, a screen adaptation based on Haruki Murakami’s short story. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to repost it in full here on Ripple Effects.
Ever since his five-hour epic Happy Hour garnered accolades in 2015, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has continued to fascinate juries in the festival circuit. During a pandemic year, he made two features, both screened to high acclaims. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the 2021 Silver Berlin Bear Jury Prize and DriveMy Car swept Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.
Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s creative and imaginative extension of Haruki Murakami’s minimal short story included in his collection Men Without Women. Two individuals unlikely to meet in ordinary circumstances, bare their soul to each other, one a stage actor and director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the other, a young female driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). The conversations that take place in the car prompt them to confront their own past.
The film opens with a long backstory. Kafuku has a loving and intimate relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV writer. Her story ideas come while the couple is making love. Both being in the arts, they support each other in an intimate way until one day Kafuku comes home unexpectedly and finds Oto in bed with another man. Kafuku walks back out quietly. The next day, Oto suggests they talk that night when he returns from work. Deeply hurt but fear for the collapse of their marriage, he delays coming home. When he finally gets home late that night he finds Oto has collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage. She dies later without regaining consciousness.
This prologue takes 40 minutes and that’s when the introductory credits appear on screen. Hamaguchi will take another two hours and more to tell the rest of his story which begins two years after Oto’s death. Despite the three-hour duration, the film captivates with thought provoking parallels between art and life and reveals the characters’ existential anguish with a quiet poignancy.
Kafuku loves to drive his fire red Saab 900. He practices his lines while driving by interacting with dialogues recorded by his late wife Oto. As this main section of the movie begins, Kafuku is driving to Hiroshima to direct Anthon Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival. However, upon arrival, he is disappointed to learn that due to insurance stipulations, he is not allowed to drive but the festival has provided him with a driver to drive his car. She is twenty-three year old Misaki (Toko Miura).
The audition soon takes place. Kafuku has chosen actors from various Asian countries who deliver their lines in their native language including Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean sign language used in a most poignant way by a deaf actress. With such a cast, this performance of Uncle Vanya will be a powerful display of shared humanity.
Coming to the audition is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku recognizes him right away as the man he had seen making love to his wife in his home. To Takatsuki’s surprise, Kafuku casts him in the lead role. The two start to have talks with each other outside of the rehearsal, the subject they share: Oto.
The parallel between the lines in Uncle Vanya Kafuku practices in the car and his real-life predicament is startling, and poignantly so. If he had returned home earlier that fateful night he might have been able to save Oto. Seized with guilt and grief, he recites the lines, ‘I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them? … If only I could live the rest of my life in some new way!’
A play within a film and lines corresponding to the real-life situation of the character is an intriguing way to tell a story. The mirroring effect can be emotionally gripping. Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) comes to mind. As Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) practices the lines of the play she’s going to perform with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), she is actually describing her own predicament.
Reticent and appearing nonchalant, driver Misaki has a scarred childhood. Hearing the lines spoken in the car and as Kafuku talks about his guilt and loss, she too opens up. Two characters with a shattered past is thrown into each other’s internal turmoil, thus begins the healing of wounds and a step towards recovery. The aerial shot of the red Saab smoothly moving on the highway could well be a metaphor for the tranquility and freedom both occupants are seeking desperately.
A twist in the plot makes Takatsuki unable to perform in the play. Kafuku takes up the role as Vanya, a miserable man despondent with life. In a cathartic, final scene of the play, the lines are delivered in silence as the deaf actress playing Sonya encourages Vanya with her expressive sign language. The audience in the theatre, close up on Misaki, read the subtitles above the stage: ‘We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll patiently endure the trials that fate sends our way…’ As she finishes her speech pointing to eternal rest when they see God, the stage lights dim, with an oil lamp offering a tiny flicker of flame.
The last few minutes of the epilogue wraps the feature with a gratifying end.
From the very beginning as the opening credits appear, the premise of the story is laid out for the viewers. This is a crucial introduction as it sets the stage for what the story is about, how a son would do all he could to save his mother from suffering. The narrator is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) via a voiceover:
“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of a man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?’
It is Montana in 1925. Peter’s mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst) runs The Red Mill restaurant and lodge in the remote landscape of the wild. One day a group of cowhands driving their cattle passes by. While dining at the restaurant, their leader, rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), picks on the effeminate Peter as he serves them. Rose is distraught, but the kindness and love of Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) wins her over. Not long after that the two are married. The downside of an otherwise beautiful relationship is having to live under the same roof with Phil in the Burbank family ranch home.
Rose lives in fear of Phil, a bully who can crush her fragile psyche by just whistling. Phil’s masterful banjo playing is a slap in the face and a show of force as Rose struggles to learn to play the piano. George while loving is oblivious or rather subdued by Phil as well. Peter has gone away to study medicine but is back in the summer to be with his mother, observing keenly her deteriorating psychological state and addiction to alcohol for relief. The relevance of the opening lines in the voiceover begins to brew.
New Zealand born director Jane Campion, one of only seven women ever to have been nominated for an Oscar in directing (The Piano, 1993), comes back with an exquisite production shot on location in New Zealand, twelve years after her last feature film. The Power of the Dog is an exemplar of superb cinematic storytelling.
Campion has an exceptional team under her helm. The four main characters are strong talents. Cumberbatch’s nasty streak is conveyed not only by his demeaning words but his posture and the confident way he walks and rides. However, nothing pierces as sharply as his often silent and chilly manner, staring his opponent down with his ominous gaze, a role that’s against type for the British actor who had brought Sherlock to a new generation and had since been nominated for an Oscar playing WWII math genius Alan Turing in The Imitation Game (2014). Cumberbatch’s performance here is in top form, likely getting him another Oscar nomination.
It is Smit-McPhee who steals the scene as the effeminate, slim and pale Peter. Underneath his appearance of weakness is his tenacity and a smart mind, especially when his self-imposed mission is to save his mother. Discovering accidentally Phil’s secret hideout, Peter comes to realize that hidden behind Phil’s macho front is a gay man. Knowing this, he gains Phil’s trust and admiration to turn the tables on him. The whole revealing of the plot flows out seamlessly; no doubt, credits also to the author of the 1967 novel the film is based on, Thomas Savage.
Campion’s storytelling is masterful in that she drops hint after hint as the film moves on, all important cues leading to the ultimate end. Without spilling any spoilers in this review, look out for these scenes: cows dead from anthrax, Peter’s anatomy exercise in his room, his exploring the mountains by himself and skinning the hide of a dead cow he comes across there, his gloved hands.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner frames her shots exquisitely and imbues them with contextual meaning to move the story along. The topography of the New Zealand location in place of Montana’s wild west exudes the beauty of the natural landscape, creating a colour palette of the open range with shades of brown, teal, and dusty rose for Dunst, at times capturing the natural light of the golden hour; Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven comes to mind. From her camera, the interior set design of the ranch home and the barn are framed with superb aesthetics.
The score composed by Jonny Greenwood (Phantom Thread, 2017) augments the suspenseful mood, particularly effective is the dissonance of the strings, revealing the discords among the characters and their internal strife.
A Western only in its setting, with no shootouts but no less intense, characterization astute, conflicts psychological. The finale leaves a slight, nuanced smile on the face of the victor. He can now ride off into the sunset with relief as the Bible verse the title comes from, Ps. 22:20, is fulfilled: ‘deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.’ A new chapter begins for Rose and George as they step back into the ranch home as a free and happy couple.
Elena Ferrante’s book The Lost Daughter (2006) is a harsh look at motherhood, shattering the romantic view associated with the word like maternal love and sacrificial nurturing. The protagonist Leda is torn between the demanding duties of caring for two young daughters and her own academic career. Overwhelmed and feeling suffocated, she abandons her children Bianca and Martha, 7 and 5, for three years.
Years later, Leda has become a successful academic and divorced. Her two daughters are now grown up and living with their father in Toronto. While taking a working holiday at the Ionian seaside, a boisterous family disrupts her peace and solitude on the beach. Though annoyed by their rowdy interruption, she’s drawn to a young mother, Nina, who has to constantly attend to a clingy three-year-old daughter Elena. Memories gush out from her own experience as a young mother, and with that, guilt. However, her guilt may not be so much about her abandonment of her daughters but that she “felt amazing without them.”
For a short while on the beach, Elena is lost. Nina and all the family are frantic in search of her. Leda finds her and brings her back to the fold. Just as she does this good deed, she hides a doll that Elena is attached to dearly. The family is now frantic in finding the lost doll as Elena is inconsolable. She later admits to Nina that “I’m an unnatural mother.” Is that enough to excuse herself?
While Ferrante doesn’t offer a psycho-analytical explanation, she does drop hints as to Leda’s own family background in Naples, her father coming from violent and vulgar association. Her mother had threatened abandonment verbally to her children but never did. To Leda, her mother was better off escaping and disappeared. “How ashamed I was to have come out of the belly of such an unhappy person,” she laments.
Leda left her family at eighteen to go to Florence for more cultured and academic pursuit, determined to sever an undesirable family tie. While the little girl Elena is lost for a short while on the beach, Leda herself could well be the lost daughter that had never been found.
The Lost Daughter movie adaptation is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. She has a strong cast, notably Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown) as Leda. Colman slips into the character perfectly and gives a natural and nuanced performance. Jessie Buckley as young Leda is another appropriate choice. The talented singer actor plays an exhausted mother convincingly. While away from her daughters and husband at a conference, she has an affair with a prominent academic, Professor Hardy, played by Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter Sarsgaard, whose performance carries traces of another role he’d played years ago as the smooth seducer David in Carey Mulligan’s breakout feature An Education (2009).
Other supporting cast is also strong with Dakota Johnson as Nina and Ed Harris as Lyle the seaside rental caretaker. It’s interesting to see his short interactions with Leda reveal Leda’s unreliable perception of others. Paul Mescal plays Will who works at the beach, reprising an understated performance as in Normal People (2020, TV series), adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel.
Gyllenhaal has mastered the story idea aptly, developing the screenplay like a character study which it ought to be. The effect of a handheld roving camera adds immediacy and suspense as we follow Leda in her short but eventful seaside vacation. Patricia Highsmith comes to mind. Gyllenhaal has altered the Neapolitan protagonist and the rowdy family into American, Leda from Cambridge near Boston, and the disruptive family as American tourists.
The present is interspersed with flashbacks seamlessly to depict Leda’s early years as a young mother torn between the constant demands of child-caring and her personal needs and ambition. Professor Hardy during his lecture in the conference mentions a quote by Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” At the time, to a young and rising academic, the relevance had not sunk in for Leda.
Overall a stirring screen adaptation with superb performance. However, one crucial element in the book has been left out and just replaced with a few dialogues and that’s Leda’s own family background and a mother who had always wanted to abandon her children. The lack of a more solid backstory about Leda’s own upbringing stirs up questions as to her present behaviour. Of course, as a two-hour movie, Gyllenhaal has the difficult task of choosing what to leave out from the book. The missed component of Leda’s own lack of maternal attention while growing up could have stripped off a deeper layer in the storytelling.
The ending is reaffirming. It’s good to know that Leda’s two daughters are forgiving young women, as they care for their mother and check up on her via long distance while she’s by herself on a seaside vacation in Greece. It’s good to see too that ‘bad mothering’ doesn’t need to perpetuate.
What to read and watch in this new year? Here’s a list of movie adaptations, some just announced, some in development and some filming. If Omicron doesn’t have its way and productions can continue, we’ll likely see them come out this year. Of course, things are as fluid as ever, but the books are always there for us to explore.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
To be directed by Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, 2017) with a star-studded cast including Andrew Garfield, Cate Blanchett, Ralph Fiennes, Joe Alwyn and Rooney Mara. Although the 2008 rendition is a fine one, I welcome a fresh take. Andrew Garfield has proven to be highly versatile, would make an effective Charles Ryder. I’m eager to see Cate Blanchett as Lady Marchmain, and Ralph Fiennes would likely deliver lots of drama, especially under the helm of Guadagnino.
The Cactus by Sarah Haywood
Published in Jan 2018, selected as Reese’s Book Club pick in June 2019, the adaptation will likely star Reese Witherspoon as the protagonist Susan Green, who is unexpectedly pregnant at 45. Currently a feature film in development by Netflix. The short phrases on the cover make an effective blurb: ‘It’s never too late to bloom,’ and this one: ‘Even the prickliest cactus has its flower.’
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
With every book she published, Irish author Rooney is shot to a higher plane. Conversations with Friends is her debut novel, followed by the acclaimed Normal People, which already has an impressive screen adaptation. Beautiful World, Where Are You is her notable latest whose film rights will likely be snatched up soon I presume. Conversations with Friends is a simpler and more quiet novel, not less entangled with human relationships, with two young people grappling with love and life. Coming out this year as a series on Hulu.
Crying in H Martby Michelle Zauner
The film rights of this wildly popular, food-rich memoir of Zauner growing up Korean American has been sold to MGM’s Orion Pictures. Zauner will be adapting her book to the screen, chronicling her growing up as a mixed race gal in Oregon, and how her relationship with her cancer stricken mother has led her to discover her Asian root. Zauner will also provide the soundtrack for the feature with her own indie music band Japanese Breakfast.
Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris by Paul Gallico
Several of Paul Gallico’s stories had been adapted onto screen, on top of his own screenwriting work. This one sounds cheery, just right for an uncertain new year. Mrs. Harris, a London charlady, discovers Dior when tidying the fancy wardrobe of one of her clients, Lady Dant. Paris becomes her dream and goal. When finally she has saved enough to head over to the House of Dior in Paris, she finds a new world and adventure awaits her. Delightful, isn’t it? What’s more enticing is the cast, two ladies, Leslie Manville and Isabel Huppert.
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante
This will be the second adaptation of Ferrante’s works, after The Lost Daughter (my Ripple review coming soon.) Another Netflix development, The Lying Life will be a series to be shot in Naples. Giovanna is a young woman growing up in Neapolitan society struggling to navigate the adult world and seeking for what’s real. The series will be in Italian, but just like Ferrante’s books, the appeal and relevance will be international.
She Said by Jodi Kantor & Megan Twohey
Subtitled: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite a Movement. NYT journalists Kantor and Twohey were winners of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for their work in exposing the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein’s longtime sexual misconduct, incendiary journalism that led to the #MeToo Movement. Screen adaptation directed by Maria Schrader; Carey Mulligan plays Twohey, Zoe Kazan as Kantor, Patricia Clarkson, editor Rebecca Corbett. Mulligan is an ideal cast on the heels of her impressive Oscar nominated role in Promising Young Woman.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
A. J. Fikry is a bookseller whose personal life is just as disappointing as the sales of his books. While there are people around him who are steadfast in their support for him, it’s an unexpected package, a baby, outside his door one fateful day that turns his life around and gives him a new view of things. A booklovers’ story. Screenplay written by the author Zevin, directed by Hans Canosa.
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Reviewed on the NYT as a Mennonite #MeToo novel, this time the Mennonite community Canadian author Toews writes about is fictional, and the horrors the girls and women experience therein make this a crime thriller. But Toews apparently intends more than just to shock. Deeper issues such as collective guilt, the existence of evil, and forgiveness are explored. Movie adaptation directed by the acclaimed Sarah Polley (Oscar nom Adapted Screenplay for Away From Her), great cast with Frances McDormand, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, Rooney Mara.
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans by Agatha Christie
This Christie mystery without Hercule Poirot but featuring two amateur sleuths was a beloved novel of British actor Hugh Laurie (Dr. House) back in his youth. He’ll write and direct the 3-part adaptation. Christie’s book, published in 1934, tells the story of two friends while looking for a golf ball discover a dying man whose last words––the eponymous title of the book––lead them to the investigation of the mystery. Laurie fans would be glad to actually see him in a role as Dr. Nicholson.
Truman Capote’s novella was published in 1958. The setting is 1940’s New York City. Social currents have flowed by, and reading the book now in 2021 makes it interesting to compare back to the era when Capote wrote. Some might feel the currents fast changing, some would lament at the slow pace when women and people from a different cultural background still strive for equal standing in our society today.
WWII is the background and Capote’s handling of a Japanese character is relatively gracious, for he never uses negative descriptions about his appearance; Mr. Yunioshi only shouts when irritated.
While the novella reflects the social culture and values of the time, what’s seemingly timeless is the iconic character, Holly Golightly, a café society gal of just around nineteen who has left indelible marks in the hearts of many men. Holly is a tough gal in a man’s world, and shows she has the iron will of doing things on her own terms; although sadly, she depends on men for her livelihood.
The unnamed narrator of the novella probably knows Holly best among all her numerous society acquaintances. He is a writer and her upstairs neighbour in the NYC East Seventies brownstone. The gal is a walking contradiction. He’s intrigued at first, in love––albeit unrequitedly––towards the end. Here’s how Capote describes his enigmatic yet mesmerizing protagonist Holly Golightly:
She was a triumph over ugliness, so often more beguiling than real beauty, if only because it contains paradox… the trick had been worked by exaggerating defects; she’d made them ornamental by admitting them boldly. Heels that emphasized her height, so steep her ankles trembled; a flat tight bodice that indicated she could go to a beach in bathing trunks; hair that was pulled straight back, accentuating the spareness, the starvation of her fashion-model face. Even the stutter, certainly genuine but still a bit laid on, had been turned to advantage. It was the master stroke, that stutter; for it contrived to make her banalities sound somehow original, and secondly, despite her tallness, her assurance, it served to inspire in male listeners a protective feeling. (44)
But it’s not merely her appearance that pulls at the heartstrings of the narrator’s, it’s what’s hidden. She’d clam up just the moment when you think she’s ready for ‘volunteering intimate information’. She doesn’t know what she wants, “when I find out you’ll be the first to know.” She avoids the zoo, ‘couldn’t bear to see anything in a cage,’ yet she’s always looking for a place she can call home. Once she finds it, she’ll give her cat a name. Her card says it all: Miss Holly Golightly, Traveling.
Tolkien had famously said, ‘not all those who wander are lost.’ Here’s a case of one who wanders and is lost yet enjoys it immensely.
Is she for real, or a phony? To be exact, she’s been called a real phony… that is, she believes in her own makeover of herself. Capote reveals Holly’s past history in a poignant way. Best to savour his storytelling first hand. But Holly, whoever she is now, will remain so and go on her diverting life path. The past is exactly where she has left it. At the story’s end, the narrator reminisces with bar owner Joe Bell whom he and Holly used to patronize. Both men know Holly will continue with her ‘travelling’––this time all the way to Brazil––and lament her leaving them behind with mere elusive memories.
Directed by Blake Edwards and screenplay by George Axelrod, Capote’s novella is transposed on screen in 1961 as a romantic comedy, a launching pad for a career takeoff for Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly. Capote’s intended female for the role was Marilyn Monroe. Apparently the filmmakers had an eye for the right one. In the movie, Hepburn is an almost exact fit corresponding to Capote’s descriptions, better yet, more mature and alluring, and the stutter replaced by witty eloquence. What more, Hepburn shows the confidence and independence Holly exudes which many thought Monroe could not have matched.
However, a casting that’s a discredit to an otherwise delightful movie is Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi, the neighbour on the top floor of the brownstone and whose bell Holly rings whenever she loses her front door key, often in the deep of night. In the book, Capote only mentions him shouting down from his top floor, but never describes his appearances. The movie makes a caricature out of Mr. Yunioshi, an offensive portrayal thick with demeaning stereotyped features and mannerism.
Film historian David Thomson refers Rooney’s performance as ‘toxically racist’, and further writes that ‘some people on that picture––the screenwriter George Axelrod, notably––fought with Blake Edwards, the director, about the characterization, but Edwards paid no heed.’ (Thomson, 402)
Notwithstanding, the movie has left audiences with some memorable moments and Hepburn had become an icon. The narrator is given a name and personality; George Peppard plays Paul with matching charm. His quiet and sensible demeanor is a sturdy support to Holly and a needed check to her unbridled exuberance. The pair save each other from their own foibles and failings, bringing the film to a happy romcom ending unlike the book.
The most memorable moment from the film is probably the tune that lingers after all these years. Henry Mancini’s ‘Moon River’ is sung longingly by Holly as she sits on the sill of the open window by the fire escape strumming a guitar. Incidentally, that was a scene at first intended to be cut out if not for Hepburn’s vigorous insistence to keep it in the movie. And we’re all glad that the strong-willed Holly Golightly had her way.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote, first published by Random House, NY, 1958.
David Thomson’s quote is taken from his book The Big Screen, published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, NY, 2012.
This wraps up Novellas in November at Ripple Effects. Once again, I thank Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting. Do check out others’ reviews.
Novellas in November on Ripple Effects, from book to screen:
Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929), a novella about a Black woman passing as white in an acutely discriminatory society, setting up the stage for some suspenseful and intense storytelling.
Irene Redfield is a wife and mother of two sons, maintaining an orderly home in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor, herself well connected and tightly engaged in the social life of her community. While visiting Chicago one time, she encounters an old school friend, Clare Kendry, whom she doesn’t recognize at first. It’s Clare who has spotted Irene in the rooftop restaurant and comes over to identify herself. That fateful reunion changes Irene’s life.
Twelve years have passed since Irene last saw Clare from school. Now standing in front of her is “an attractive-looking woman… with dark, almost black eyes and that wide mouth like a scarlet flower against the ivory of her skin.” (16)
That these two Black women can pass for whites and enter the Drayton Hotel’s rooftop restaurant is due to their light skin colour. This fact in itself implies the fluidity of racial definitions. Clare and Irene are biracial, and that term doesn’t even necessarily refer to half and half. Clare’s father is himself the son of a white father and a black mother. Her fair skin doesn’t betray her racial composition.
The character foil between Irene and Clare forms the crux and conflict in the story. Clare is bold and adventurous, a risk taker who is bound by no loyalty save for her own gratification. By marrying a white husband who is a banker, Jack Bellew, she has been living a privileged, white woman’s life. Curiously, she asks Irene “haven’t you ever thought of ‘passing’?”
Irene answered promptly: “No. Why should I?” And so disdainful was her voice and manner that Clare’s face flushed and her eyes glinted. Irene hastened to add: “You see, Clare, I’ve everything I want. Except, perhaps, a little more money.” (29)
To Irene, what Clare has done is dangerous and disloyal to her race. Well, she passes too sometimes but only when it’s necessary, like getting into Drayton’s rooftop restaurant to escape from the fainting spell due to the sweltering heat. But to Clare, it’s her life. She tells Irene, “all things considered… it’s even worth the price.” That is, despite the fact that she is living with a man who hates Blacks but is unaware of her racial heritage.
The search for identity is not so much the issue Clare is struggling with but loneliness. She has not been discovered for twelve years and now reuniting with Irene, she wants to re-connect with the people in her past life. Alluring and assertive, Clare gradually moves into Irene’s familial and social life.
Larsen’s 111 page novella is more than just about race. It is an intricately layered story that touches on multiple issues. While race is the most obvious one, more for Irene, but for Clare passing is for personal gain and socio-economic benefits, and the breakout of social boundaries. The book is also about female friendship, and the ambivalence that involves. Further, unexpected for all of them, as Clare enters Irene’s home, she begins to unhinge the equilibrium in relationships. She charms everyone, from the help to the two boys, and the most abhorrent suspicion Irene harbours, her husband Brian as well. Herein lies the turning point in the story.
Larsen tells her story with spare and concise narratives, her revealing of her character’s thoughts is precise and clear, that is, until we reach the ending. Like a suspense writer, Larsen has dropped hints as to where she’s leading the reader towards the end. And yet, it is as open-ended as how a reader is prepared to see. Herein lies Larsen’s ingenuity.
The film adaptation (2021) is the directorial debut of British actor Rebecca Hall who also wrote the screenplay. It is a project that she had attempted to launch for some years. The book aligns with a family history as her maternal grandfather was a Black man who had passed as white for most of his life in Detroit, Michigan.
What Larsen has written, Hall has materialized on screen with parallel, meticulous mastery. That the film is shot in black and white is a brilliant idea, for viewers can see quite readily, in between the black and the white is a spectrum of greys, clearly showing Larsen’s concept of the fluidity of socially-constructed racial definitions. The 4:3 Academy ratio works to lead us into a glimpse of a specific past where Clare could well fit the image of a flapper in 1920’s NYC.
Hall has simplified the locations and mainly focused on Harlem. She has effectively selected the essential passages and lines and transposed them on screen. Out of Larsen’s spare novella the writer-director has created a thought provoking visual narrative with stylish aesthetics and implications that still resonate in our times.
I’ve always been intrigued by the image on the Penguin edition of the book cover. At the beginning of the film, Hall shows us the significance of it. Irene wears a translucent hat that’s half covering her face, an aid to shield her features as she goes shopping in Manhattan, just in case, and in the hotel room where she meets Clare’s racist husband John (Alexander Skarsgård), a necessary means of defence.
The interplay between Tessa Thompson as Irene and Ruth Negga as Clare is immaculate and well-directed, nuances revealed in the slightest changes in facial expressions and gestures. The reunion of old friends is not all celebratory, an ambivalence is clearly conveyed by Irene. Andr´é Holland (Moonlight, 2016; Selma, 2014) plays Brian, loving husband and father who is acutely aware of the racial atrocities in the country. Like Clare, he wants to breakout and be free.
Another major asset is cinematography. Edu Grau (Suffragette, 2015; A Single Man, 2009) has crafted a stylish work with depth. His camera is spot-on when it’s needed to capture the expressions of the characters, especially between the two women as often their faces are the visual dialogues when none is spoken. And throughout the film, the jazz motif sets the mood that weaves through scenes.
What’s explicitly written in a book can only be shown with images on screen. Hall is effective in adding sequences that are illustrative in revealing Irene’s fears as she sees Brian and Clare becoming closer. And with the visual comes the sound. In the tea party at their home to honor the writer Hugh Wentworth (Bill Camp), Irene’s heavy breathing we hear as the camera follows her around the house lets us feel her restrained anger and unsettling spirit. The breaking of the tea pot and the conversations she has with Hugh who helps her pick up the pieces is most telling. These are apt additions as a gradual revealing leading to the end.
Like Larsen’s novella, the ending is open to interpretation. However, what Hall implies seems to be different from the author’s. Read the novella, watch the film. This is an intriguing pairing of two exceptional storytelling in both art forms.
Passing is a nominee of the 2021 Sundance Grand Jury Prize. It has been screening in the festival circuit and is a new release on Netflix starting November 10.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Passing by Nella Larsen, Penguin Books, NY., 2018, With an insightful Introduction and Suggestions for Further Reading by Emily Bernard, 128 pages. (Story from p. 10-120)
Novellas in November, click here and here to see what others are reading.
Florence Green is a middle-aged widow living in the coastal town of Hardborough, in Suffolk, England, 1959. She has been a resident there for some years but stays close to herself. While not being an outsider per se, her life in Hardborough has been unnoticeable, that is, until her plan of opening a bookshop begins to materialize.
Florence acquires and moves into a dilapidated building called The Old House. The front operates as a bookshop while she lives in the back. Innocuous enough, until she is confronted by the rich and powerful Mrs. Violet Gamart, “the natural patroness of all public activities in Hardborough.” Mrs. Gamart makes it clear that she’d always wanted to turn the Old House into an arts centre. For seven years it has remained empty and now that Florence has purchased it to open her bookshop does Mrs. Gamart want to replace it with her own plan.
Mrs. Gamart’s wilful obstruction of Florence’s bookshop draws out the infirm recluse Mr. Brundish, a book lover and whose family has roots in Hardborough for generations. In nothing short of an heroic act, he ventures out to confront the powerful socialite.
The Bookshop was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1978, only one year after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, and in 1979, she won the prize with Offshore. Hermione Lee in her biography of Penelope Fitzgerald writes in the intro:
She was first published at sixty and became famous at eighty. This is a story of lateness, patience and persistence: a private form of heroism.
In just 118 pages, Fitzgerald tells a story that’s as calm as the surface of this inert fishing town, while underneath the quiet facade are bubbling currents of emotions and wilful malice. Not that Mrs. Gamart doesn’t like books, she wants an arts centre with speakers giving talks and live music playing. What’s brewing inside her could well be the urge for power play, to control, or just plain malice.
Fitzgerald is an astute observer of human foibles. Take Milo, a writer (or merely aspiring?) who seems to be helpful to Florence, Fitzgerald has these words for him:
Gentleness is not kindness. His fluid personality tested and stole into the weak places of others until it found it could settle down to its own advantage.
Even in such a small community, there’s acute disparity, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the grammar school and the Technical, and consequently, success and failure. Take Christine, the eleven year-old who helps Florence in her shop. As her mother says, failing to enter grammar school and heading to the Technical would mean the difference between rising above her lot or ‘pegging laundry all her life’.
But this is also a comedy of manners. Fitzgerald reveals her characters with refreshing and amusing ways. At the beginning of the book, Florence encounters Mr. Raven, who needs help with his horse’s teeth. Here’s the excerpt:
‘Now, Mrs. Green, if you’d catch hold of the tongue. I wouldn’t ask everybody, but I know you don’t frighten.’
‘How do you know?’ she asked.
‘They’re saying that you’re about to open a bookshop. That shows you’re ready to chance some unlikely things.’
So, how does a relatively uneventful story about a small-town widow opening a bookshop transpose onto the screen? Spanish director Isabel Coixet wrote the screenplay and took the liberty to create some dramatic moments for the visual medium.
First off, she lets a narrator tell the story in the form of voiceover. The immediate effect is a more intimate storytelling, but the most crucial effect comes at the end. I’m withholding any revealing, for I don’t want to spill out spoilers; I can say that is quite effective.
Coixet has an experienced cast on her hands. Emily Mortimer plays Florences Green with a respectful loyalty to the book protagonist. And the added scene by the sea with old Mr. Brundish offers a moving moment. Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Brundish is poignant. Unfortunately, he’s not given much screen time. Neither is Patricia Clarkson, who aptly delivers Mrs. Gamart’s snobbery with chilling resolves.
The single plot line focuses more on Florence and her young helper Christine (Honor Kneafsey) rather than having Florence establish deeper relational interplay with the adult characters. While the aesthetics are appealing, the overall story needs some spicing up. The twist at the end is effective but the spark comes just a little too late. However, if you’re a fan of period dramas, or anyone in the cast, check this out as it can offer two calm and relaxing hours.
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald, first edition published in the UK by Gerald Duckworth, 1978, 118 pages. I read the ebook via OverDrive.
Check out what others are reading in this Novellas in November 2021 event at Rebecca’s and Cathy’s blogs.
Thanks to Rebecca of Bookish Beck and Cathy of 746 Books for hosting this event for a few years now, albeit this is the first time I join in. Looking at the stacks of book suggestions and reading their lists prompted me to jump on the bandwagon.
Keeping with Ripple Effects’ focus, I’ve selected four novellas for each week of November, books that have a movie adaptation or one in development. I’ll discuss both versions when I post. Here’s my list.
English writer Penelope Fitzgerald started her literary career as a biographer. Then in 1977, at the age of 60, she published her first novel. Over the next five years, she published four more. The Bookshop (1978) was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and in the following year, she won the prize with Offshore (1979).
The Bookshop is adapted into a movie in 2017 by Spanish director Isabel Coixet. Cast includes Emily Mortimer, Bill Nighy, and Patricia Clarkson. Filming location is Northern Ireland. Now streaming on Kanopy.com
Chicago born author Nella Larsen is the daughter of a Dutch mother and a father of mixed race Afro-Caribbean from Danish West Indies. With that multiplicity in racial background and the zeitgeist of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920’s and 1930’s NYC, Larsen wrote Passing (1929) about blacks passed as white in an acutely discriminatory society.
The movie adaptation is the directorial debut of English actress Rebecca Hall. Now, why would she be interested, or ‘qualified’ to appropriate this topic, write the screenplay and direct the film?
During interviews, Hall had revealed her own mixed race ancestry: her maternal grandfather was a light-skinned black man who had ‘passed’ as white. Learning about this hidden past of her family has realigned her own identity and prompted her to appreciate her ancestral roots.
Passing is currently released in select theatres for a limited time, and will be on Netflix beginning November 10, 2021.
A lesser known novella by Wharton. Two sisters run a milliner shop decorating bonnets in a rundown neighbourhood of NYC. Leave them in Pulitzer winning Wharton’s hands, their story must be worth telling. I’m always intrigued by what sparks a filmmaker to take up the adaptation of a particular literary work. This will be another opportunity to find out.
Wharton’s most well-known film adaptation is perhaps The Age of Innocent. Bunner Sisters is a much smaller project and hopefully not less poignant. The TV movie is currently filming.
Capote’s 1958 novella has long become a contemporary classic with an equally renown adaptation that ignited the stardom of Audrey Hepburn. She has turned Holly Golightly from just a character to a symbol, just like Cat, the stray she finds in the alley.
The movie won two Oscars, both for the score and the song. The song? ‘Moon River’ by Henry Mancini of course. I still remember clearly the scene where Holly sits on the open window sill strumming a guitar and singing the song longingly. Thanks to Novella in November, I’ll take this time to reread and rewatch.
Enjoying your summer reading by the lake? Here are some upcoming adaptations to be released this year or in 2022, books you might have read or to lengthen your TBR list:
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
This is the first of the eight published novels by Toews to be adapted into film. Her Mennonite background growing up in Steinbach, Manitoba, informs her writing. A story of two sisters as the elder, an accomplished concert pianist, struggles with severe depression. To premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this September.
Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
Coming out as a British mini TV series in the fall of 2021. Marital relationship, or extra, the issue of consent, and courtroom drama. Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley of Downton) is a good choice for a prosecutor with a baggage, and Rupert Friend looks just right as a cunning politician. The audiobook is a good summer listen by the pool.
The Last Duel by Eric Jager
Historical thriller based on a true story (so says the trailer) during the Hundred Years’ War, a knight came home from combat to hear his wife accuse the squire of rape. Indecision in the court of law leads to decision by a duel. A stellar cast with Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck. To premiere at the Venice Film Festival this September.
The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
After the underwhelming 2011 movie that starred Matthew McConaughey, a remake as a Netflix TV series developed by David E. Kelly sounds exciting. Kelly is a writer/producer who has eleven Primetime Emmys under his belt, his latest for Big Little Lies. Good to hear Christopher Gorham the CIA super tech in Covert Affairs (2010-2014) also on board.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
Maggie Gyllenhaal’s full feature directorial debut. Enticing cast: Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson, Peter Sarsgaard, Jessie Buckley, Paul Mescal, Ed Harris. A woman enjoying some alone time at the beach helps a mother to find her lost daughter, an experience that triggers her memory of lost and found.
The Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
Not till I started reading Horowitz did I find out several TV series are based on his works, e.g. Alex Rider and Foyle’s War, or with some of his screenplays like Midsomer Murders, just to name a few. The Magpie Murders is now a mini-series on PBS Masterpiece. I’m eager to see Lesley Manville play Susan Ryeland, the publisher turned amateur sleuth in the book.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Since its publication in 2017, buzz of the adaptation of this National Book Award finalist has been sounding and now, finally, Lee’s fan of the Korean family saga will be pleased to know it’s coming out as an Apple TV series this year. K-drama aficionados will appreciate the star-studded cast. What more, the newest Oscar best actress winner Youn Yuh-jung, the eccentric grandma in Minari, will be on board.
The Silent Patient / The Maidens by Alex Michaelides
After working as a relatively unknown screenwriter, Michaelides hit the mark with his psychological thriller The Silent Patient and catapulted to the bestsellers lists. His debut novel has since been optioned by Brad Pitt’s Plan B production. The Maidens is in development as a TV series. Looks like a screenwriter has the insider knowhow to write a novel that’s screen-ready, big or small.
Pieces of Her by Karin Slaughter
There’s no shortage of crime mystery and thrillers to feed the streaming platforms and production co’s. Another Netflix series adapting another prolific crime writer. This is the first of Slaughter’s 18 novels to be adapted for the screen. A violent incident at the mall exposes a secret past of a mother whose daughter suddenly realizes she doesn’t know her mother at all. Toni Collette stars.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
A cast to remake the 200+ year-old novel for a new era. This is British theatre director Carrie Cracknell’s (National Theatre Live) film debut, helming a production with Dakota Johnson as Anne Elliot and Henry Golding, of Crazy Rich Asians fame, as Mr. Elliot, obviously not the gout-ridden old man but Anne’s cousin. I’d like to see him as Captain Frederick Wentworth though.
Three Pines by Louise Penny
Left Bank Pictures is producing a series based on the acclaimed Canadian crime writer Louise Penny’s novels for Amazon. French Canadian Chief Inspector Armand Gamache from the fictional community of Three Pines in Quebec will have a life on the streaming platform. Left Bank is the producer of The Crown on Netflix.
It first started with journalist Jessica Bruder camping in a tent then later in a van for three winters in the desert around Quartzsite, Arizona. Her plan was to get acquainted with a group of modern-day nomads living in RV’s, vans, and car campers. Bruder’s three-year research resulted in the non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twentieth-first Century (2017), an eye-opening account of a fringe population growing in large numbers after the 2008 financial meltdown. Many of the nomads were once middle-class Americans who had lost their jobs, homes, investments and retirement savings during the economic crisis.
Bob Wells, who started the website CheapRVLiving.com in 2005, is the guru of nomadic living. But it was after the 2008 economic catastrophe that he saw the traffic to his site ‘exploded’. Linda May and Swankie are two of these nomads in their 60’s and 70’s. To sustain their living, many become migrant workers doing seasonal work and hard labour in Amazon warehouses to earn minimal wages.
Bruder’s book is rich in data and testimonials. While offering an in-depth look at how the nomads not only survive on bare essentials but how they find community, friendship and support, at the same time, it is a scathing social commentary on the human toll of the 2008 financial meltdown, and a stark revealing of exploitive employment of a vulnerable, elderly labor force.
What follows is intriguing. One of my first questions to ask Frances McDormand if I had the chance to interview her would be why she thought Bruder’s non-fiction work, though exceptional, would make a good movie so much so that she acquired its film rights.
Cut to the Toronto International Film Festival, September, 2017, where the film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri starring McDormand was screened. Stepping out of a press junket for her film, McDormand went to catch another TIFF selection, The Rider directed by Chloe Zhao. After watching, she knew who she’d want to direct the movie adaptation of Nomadland.
Adhering to her first two features, Songs my Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, director Chloé Zhao casts real-life, non-professionals to play a cinematic version of themselves. She shot her debut work in the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and have Lakota youth tell their story. For The Rider, about a cowboy facing the end of his career after a fall during a rodeo resulting in a traumatic head injury, Zhao casts a real life bronco who’d suffered a similar tragedy to play himself.
Zhao’s signature naturalistic rendering is how she styles the adaptation of Nomadland. Real life nomads in Bruder’s book, Linda May, Swankie, Bob Wells among others all appear as themselves, enhancing authenticity. To develop a narrative vein, Zhao creates two fictional characters, Fern (Frances McDormand) and Dave (David Strathairn), to weave among them.
In the film, an unadorned McDormand, spot-on with her weary and dishevelled looks as Fern, mingles and makes friends with the nomads, learning the ropes of self-sufficiency. With Linda May, she works as a camp host and as a warehouse worker with Amazon’s CamperForce. Through the dialogues, some of Bruder’s researched data and testimonials flow out naturally.
Born in Beijing, China, Zhao was uprooted when just a teenager to travel to the UK for school and later to the US. She graduated from college in Massachusetts, after that attended NYU Tisch School of the Arts and is now living in California. Her diasporic experience is itself a kind of a nomadic journey. It could well be that her liminal identity, an insider-outsider multiplicity, has equipped her with a unique point of view as a filmmaker.
Shot in five Western States on location where nomads frequent, the film Nomadland is essentially about one woman’s journey towards healing as she takes to the road. Fern and her husband Bo had long worked for US Gypsum and built their home and community in the company town Empire, Nevada. When Bo died of cancer, and later the whole town disappeared from the map as US Gypsum shut down its plant in 2011 after 88 years, Fern stayed in her company house till the very end. There’s this poignant dialogue when she talks to Bob Wells:
“Bo never knew his parents and we never had kids. If I didn’t stay, if I left, it would be like he never existed… It’s like my dad used to say: ‘What’s remembered lives.’ ”
From a non-fiction book on nomads surviving America, Zhao has turned it into a humanistic, personal narrative of loss and healing. While the book is more explicit in its critique and social commentary, Zhao’s film exudes a tone of acceptance, as her focus is not so much on societal ills or corporate greed but the humanity of the characters.
The camera follows Fern in her attempts to connect her past with her present, as she travels down the road to an unknown future. Shot in the magic hour of dawn and dusk and accompanied by the pensive score by Ludovico Einaudi (The Father, 2020), cinematographer Joshua James Richards (The Rider, 2017) knows when to capture Nature’s golden light to elicit depth and allow time for thoughts. While nature is a healer––and we see many soul-stirring scenes reminiscent of Terrence Malick––Fern’s journey to recovery rests in the memories of the ones she still loves even though they have all departed.
And with that, Zhao invokes The Bard. In the latter part of the film, Fern meets a young drifter Derek again and they chat. Derek is lost for words when writing letters to his girlfriend. Fern suggests he uses a poem, and upon his prompting, she shares the one she used as her wedding vow, Sonnet 18. When two characters sitting on gravel ground beside a makeshift fire for warmth adjacent a highway and one recites a Shakespearean love sonnet, it seems incompatible with the setting. But then, why would it be?
What follows is probably the most beautiful sequence in the film. From memory, Fern starts: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/Thou art more lovely and more temperate…” As she goes on, the camera shifts to the evening sky and finally rests on Fern in the van looking at slides of her dad, mom, sister, and herself as a young child as we hear her voice-over continuing with the sonnet towards the last lines: “So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Thereafter, the camera follows Fern to the redwood forest, where her outstretched arms can only span a tiny portion of a tree trunk, herself minuscule in comparison.
Thus she drives on to a destination unknown. And ‘this’ that gives life could be two-fold. Nature and her memories of loved ones, not a sonnet written with words but one etched deep in her heart.
~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples
Nomadland won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress at the 2021 Academy Awards, among 230 other wins internationally.
Jessica Bruder, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2017) 273 pp., hardcover. The book won Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. Jessica Bruder is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.