David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History added September 2014

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Archive for the 'Film comments' Category

The first Sherlock and other video releases for the holidays

Our Lady of the Sphere Flicker Alley

Our Lady of the Sphere (Lawrence Jordan, 1969)

Kristin here–

Our friends at Flicker Alley have offered three major releases since early October: Masterworks of American Avant-garde Experimental Film 1920-1970 (October 6), Sherlock Holmes (November 10), and Chaplin’s Essanay Films 1915 (November 17). This may seem ridiculously fast-paced, but it is partly explained by a delay in the release of Sherlock Holmes. All three editions package Blu-ray and DVD versions together.

In the move from 16mm to digital, avant-garde cinema was initially left behind. Eventually big boxes and series of DVD releases made a huge number of experimental short films available to audiences who may 9 Variations on a Dance Theme 2have had little access to such fare before. In quick succession, Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941 (2005), Kino’s three-volume series Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema 1920s and ’30s (2005), Experimental Cinema 1928-1954 (2007), and Experimental Cinema 1922-1954 (2009), and the forth volume of the “American Treasures” series, Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986 (2009) were released.

Now we have another ambitious set, Masterworks of American Avant-Garde Experimental Film 1920-1907.  Fans of experimental cinema who have purchased all of the earlier sets might wonder if there is room for yet another extensive collection of American films.  Won’t there be a lot of overlap? The answer is a definite no. The body of work by important avant-garde filmmakers is extensive enough to support many boxed-sets.

I can find not a single film in the seven DVDs in Unseen Cinema (which takes a rather broad view of what counts as avant-garde) that is duplicated here. The same is true of the Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986 set.  The Kino boxed sets (two discs each) are heavily slanted toward international films, and there is a slight overlap. Flicker Alley’s website has a list of all 37 titles included in Masterworks.

It’s impossible to deal with all the films included in the set here. (The film illustrated at the top is one of them.) I’ll just say that I was happy to see Hilary Harris’ 9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966/67, right). We used to show it in the introductory film course we taught back in the mid-1970s, when Film Art had not yet been dreamt of. It’s a lovely film in itself, but it also might possibly be the clearest way to get across the ideas of form and style that one could find. Starting with a long shot of the dancer in a segment that simply records her movements, documentary style, the film repeats the same music and choreography eight times, with the cinematography and editing rendering a progressively abstract set of images.

Flicker Alley has put together an essential collection of films that will be new and exciting to many fans. The extras include, generously, three other experimental films. A a helpful booklet contains an introduction by Bruce Posner and brief program notes and filmmaker bios.


The Return of Sherlock Holmes 

Sherlock Holmes CU

Until recently the 1916 version of Sherlock Holmes, based on the play by William Gillette, was lost. That seemed exceptionally unfortunate, not only for legions of Holmes fans but for anyone interested in late Victorian stage practices. Gillette’s performance as Holmes was considered the defining one, influencing subsequent portrayals. The play, which was produced in the US in 1899, had the cooperation of Arthur Conan Doyle, whom Gillette consulted during the period when he was writing it. The film version was a precious record from the time when the Holmes series was still being written.

In fact, Conan Doyle had killed Holmes off in 1893 in “The Final Problem,” and at the time when he authorized the play, he still had not resurrected his popular character. Gillette’s play influenced the later stories with such additions the character of the young servant Billy, a character invented by Gillette and later used by Conan Doyle.

In one of those happy endings that occasionally happen with lost films, a copy was discovered in the Cinémathèque française. Not just any old copy but the original nitrate negative of the French release version, which was shown as a serial in four parts in 1919. Apparently no footage was lost, and the main difference between the restored version that we have now and the original American feature film is that the new intertitles have been translated from those of the French release.

The original play has four acts, and the film has compromised between maintaining the interior setting of each act for a long stretch of the film and opening it out with brief exterior scenes and cutaways to other locales. One very lengthy section of the film takes place in the isolated house used by the villains to imprison the heroine, Alice. The sets are somewhat reminiscent of the stage, and yet they have been extended forward, and at times we see at least three walls and perhaps part of a fourth. In many cases,  the stage-style set is made more cinematic through the simple device of adding some furniture in the foreground (left). In others, the characters are strung out in a line across the playing space, as in the final “act,” which takes place in Dr. Watson’s office (right).

Sherlock Holmes hideout set      Sherlock Holmes Watson's office

Physically, Gillette makes a convincing Holmes in terms of the way Conan Doyle describes him, and his performance is restrained and usually lacking in expressivity–which works for a character noted for not exhibiting emotion. Unfortunately Gillette added a love interest for Holmes. Doyle, who apparently didn’t care what others did with Holmes now that he was rid of him, gave his permission. This would be bad enough in itself, but Alice is quite young looking, and Holmes is much older than she. Gillette had originated the role seventeen years earlier, when he was 46. By the time the film was made, he was 63, and though he doesn’t look that old in the film, the age difference between Holmes and Alice is obvious.

Given the survival of the negative, the Blu-ray/DVD transfer is impressive. Serpia toning is used in most scenes, while dark blue tinting represents night exteriors, many of which are nicely filmed (see bottom). The music is by Neil Brand, one of the best accompanists in the business.

There are generous bonuses, including some earlier comic shorts based around the character, Conan Doyle’s Fox Movietone interview, and a typescript of Gillette’s play. The set comes with a booklet with short essays on Gillette and his play, the film adaptation, the restoration, and the music.


The Little Tramp takes shape


Jeffrey Vance begins his essay on Chaplin in the booklet accompanying Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies 1915 with this observation:

If the early slapstick comedy of the Keystone Film Company represents Charles Chaplin’s cinematic infancy, the films he made for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company are his adolescence. The Essanays find Chaplin in transition, taking greater time and care with each film, experimenting with new ideas, and adding textue to the Little Tramp character that would become his legacy. Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies would become his legacy. Chaplin’s Essanay comedies reveal an artist experimenting with his palette and finding his craft.

The unstated conclusion to the series of companies where Chaplin worked during the 1910s is that the Mutual period saw Chaplin’s maturity as an artist. Flicker Alley has now completed its epic survey of all three periods, with copies restored by the Cineteca Bologna and Lobster Films in cooperation with Blackhawk Films and the Chaplin Mutual and Essanay Project. Many archives provided material. For those who first saw Chaplin in worn 8mm and 16mm copies, these prints are a revelation.

Chaplin’s tinkering with his Tramp character is evident in the most famous short in the set, The Tramp. It begins and ends with the character on the road, going nowhere in particular. In between are sandwiched broad slapstick scenes, quieter comic moments, and a big of the pathos that would become increasingly central to the Tramp.

Early in the film he is capable of saving an innocent farm girl with a wad of money from a trio of thieving hobos, then stealing the money himself (above), and then relenting and giving it back.  His comic pacing is sometimes off–way off in an overlong scene of the Tramp, who gets a job at the heroine’s farm, repeatedly poking a fellow farmhand with a pitchfork (a pretty cliched gag to begin with). The Tramp’s clueless attempts at milking a cow work distinctly better, as he tries everything, including turning the cow’s tail into a pump handle. That’s the sort of visual punning that would become one of Chaplin’s comic strengths. There are some funnier scenes, as when the Tramp is forced to bunk in with the farmhand and suffers agonies from his roommate’s smelly socks.

The Tramp Charlie & pitchfork     The Tramp Charlie & Cow

Some quietly funny moments are better, though, as when the Tramp, having been wounded in the leg while trying to foil a burglary attempt, sits complacently enjoying his leisure and assuming that the heroine is in love with him. The absent boyfriend, well-dressed and handsome, soon shows up and, recognizing the inevitable, the Tramp removes himself from the triangle and takes to the road once more. Perhaps more than any other image, this one summarizes how Chaplin’s Tramp was thought of for many years and by millions of people.

The Tramp Charlie & selzer     The Tramp last shot

Bonuses include some films using discarded footage or cutting together scenes from already-released shorts, as Essanay tried to capitalize as much as possible on Chaplin’s extraordinary international popularity. There is also a booklet with Vance’s essay and a set of program notes. Each of these has a brief description of the restoration process, which is a nice thing to see in a supplement.

Sherlock Holmes Alice at night

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

Mark Rylance, man of mystery

Trial scene 'Do you never worry' 'Would it help'

Kristin here:

I asked Rylance, a most certain Best Supporting Actor nominee, if success would spoil him now. He had a good retort: “I thought I was successful already!” Indeed, he sure is. But Hollywood will embrace him.

Roger Friedman, Showbiz 411

Will it? Well, it can try. It should try.

SPOILERS for Bridge of Spies ahead.


Another great veteran actor who came out of “nowhere”

Upon reading the reviews of Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies published over the past few weeks, many American moviegoers may have been puzzled by the fact that one of the most highly praised elements of the film was the supporting performance of Mark Rylance. Indeed, the praise was often unusually enthusiastic, with Rylance already considered a favorite for a supporting actor Oscar nomination or even win. I suspect that the vast majority of Americans have never heard of Mark Rylance, three-time Tony winner, two-time Olivier-award winner, Emmy nominee, etc. He fits the cliché of the “overnight success” who has been around for a long time and was, as he says, “successful already.”

In Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays the lead, real-life lawyer James Donovan. In the late 1950s, Donovan accepted the unpopular job of defending a Russian spy, Rudolph Abel (played by Rylance), when he came to trial. Later he agreed to negotiate with the Soviet government to swap Abel for downed American pilot and spy Francis Gary Powers. Bridge of Spies is not one of Spielberg’s most exciting or endearing films, but it’s very well made and as classical in its traits as a film can be. It sits nicely beside his other historical dramas, Lincoln and the excellent Munich. On the whole the film has been well-reviewed, with a 92% favorable rating from all critics on Rotten Tomatoes, increasing to 98% among top critics. Rylance is clearly a major reason for the excitement.

It’s Rylance who keeps Bridge of Spies standing. He gives a teeny, witty, fabulously non-emotive performance, every line musical and slightly ironic — the irony being his forthright refusal to deceive in a world founded on lies. (David Edelstein)

Because this is Hanks we’re dealing with, audiences know what to expect, though the revelation here is Rylance (an actor Spielberg also cast as his forthcoming BFG), who appears utterly transformed — to the few who recognize his typically charismatic screen presence — into a balding, Eeyore-like gray moth of a man. (Peter Debruge; the reference is to Spielberg’s The BFG, with Ryland in the lead as the Big Friendly Giant, based on the Roald Dahl children’s novel and now in post-production)

Rylance, one of the greatest of contemporary stage actors, has to date had only an intermittent screen career, but Bridge of Spies suggests that could be about to change. He brings fascination and very, very subtle comic touches to a man who has made every effort to appear as bland, even invisible, as possible. (Todd McCarthy)

Brilliantly played by British theater legend Mark Rylance — who nearly steals the show.  (Lou Lumenick)

Meanwhile, Rylance, who’s still probably best known for his brilliant work on stage, is the film’s real breakout discovery. With his musical Northern English accent and bemused, ironic demeanor, he turns a story that could feel as musty as a yellowed stack of old newspapers snap to exuberant life. (Chris Nashawaty)

Mark Rylance, the great English actor, director, and playwright who for a decade was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe theater, performs some mysterious act of alchemy in his role as the ineffable and unflappable Soviet spy. Almost without speaking a word, he communicates this character’s rich inner life, in which a near-Buddhist resignation to the whims of fate alternates with a feisty instinct for self-preservation. (Dana Stevens)

Part of the reason why the Germany sequences sag is that they don’t feature Abel, who is played by British actor Mark Rylance in what, with luck, will be a career-making performance. Many viewers may not have heard of Rylance, who recently played Thomas Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” on PBS. But his work in “Bridge of Spies” deserves to be widely recognized as an example of screen acting at its most subtle, poignant and exquisitely calibrated. (Ann Hornaday, who, like Friedman, does not acknowledge that Rylance already had made quite a career for himself)

I could go on, but for more see the reviews by Manohla Dargis, Richard Roeper, Kenneth Turan, and Michael Phillips.

I don’t, in fact, think that the German sequences sag. Basically the first half of the film covers the trial and sentencing of Abel, with brief scenes of Powers’ training for his spying missions flying over Soviet territory. Once Powers is shot down, Donovan goes to East Berlin for the negotiations, leaving Abel behind in prison.

The German sequences involve a marvelously authentic post-war East Berlin, designed by Adam Stockhausen, who won an Oscar for the production design of The Grand Budapest Hotel. (I wasn’t there in the early 1960s, of course, but I did visit East Berlin in 1992, when part of the wall was still up and the place had a very Soviet look, complete with giant busts of Marx and Engels.)

Bridge of Spies E Berlin shot

No, these scenes don’t sag, but there is definitely a niggling question in the back of one’s mind: When are we going to see Abel again? Rylance somehow makes this very ordinary-looking, quiet man the heart of some of the film’s best scenes.


Treading the boards

As Rylance pointed out in the quotation at the top of this entry, he already had an illustrious career going long before Wolf Hall and Bridge of Spies hit American screens. (The Wikipedia entry on Rylance Twelfe Night programmegives helpful biographical information as well as separate lists of his stage, film, and television performances and the nominations and awards resulting from each.) From 1995 to 2005, he was the first Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre, the replica of the original Elizabethan-period theatre in which many of Shakespeare’s plays premiered. He starred in a number of its Shakespeare productions, including some with authentic all-male casts and period costumes and staging.

Rylance also won awards playing a variety of very different characters. In 1993 he won his first Olivier award (the top British acting honor) for playing Benedick in Much Ado about Nothing, and followed that up with a British Academy Television award for the TV film The Government Inspector (directed by Peter Kominsky, who later directed him in Wolf Hall, for which he was nominated for an Emmy). He did a comic star turn in a 2007 staging of Boeing-Boeing and was nominated for another Olivier; he won his first Tony when the production moved to Broadway. His second Olivier and second Tony came for his performance as Johnny Byron in Jerusalem, first in London and then on Broadway.

Perhaps Rylance’s greatest success, however, came with a pair of Shakespeare plays done in repertory, Twelfth Night, in which he played Olivia, and Richard III, with him in the title role. Rylance had played Olivia at the Globe in 2002, but from November, 2012 to February, 2013, both plays ran in alternation in the West End. Later they transferred to Broadway, where Rylance was nominated for a Tony as best actor as Richard III and won for best featured actor as Olivia. The plays were done as authentically as possible, with men playing all the roles and wearing costumes true to Shakespeare’s era.

Ben Brantley conveys some of the excitement of these productions and Rylance’s performances in his New York Times review:

In this imported production from Shakespeare’s Globe of London, deception is a source of radiant illumination for the audience, while the bewilderment of the characters onstage floods us with pure, tickling joy. I can’t remember being so ridiculously happy for the entirety of a Shakespeare performance since — let me think — August 2002.

That was the last time I saw the Globe’s “Twelfth Night” (in London), directed by Tim Carroll and starring the astonishing Mark Rylance, in a bar-raising performance as the Countess Olivia. And how thrilled I am that our wandering paths have crossed once more, rather like those of the separated twins at the play’s center.

This “Twelfth Night” — which opened on Sunday in repertory with a vibrant and shivery “Richard III” that allows Mr. Rylance to show he’s as brilliant in trousers as he is in a dress — makes you think, “This is how Shakespeare was meant to be done.”

Walter Kaiser makes similar remarks in The New York Review of Books (available to subscribers only; in print in the February 6, 2014 issue):

The production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night by the English theatrical company Shakespeare’s Globe, currently at the Belasco Theatre, brings this play to life in a way I have only very rarely seen equaled in a Shakespearean production. The performances are so uniformly skillful, the interpretation of the play so intelligent and imaginative, and the costumes and stage set so accurate and evocative that the entire experience is exhilarating. Audiences at the performances I’ve attended have been overcome with delight, clearly somewhat surprised by the affecting immediacy of the theatrical experience they have undergone, unaccustomed to a Shakespeare so readily comprehensible and so vividly alive. You may, if you’re lucky, see another Shakespearean production that’s as good as this one, but it’s unlikely you will ever see one that’s better. […]

Mark Rylance, who over the past decade or so has made the part his own, is undoubtedly one of the greatest Olivias of all time. Frequently, this part is played with a grave, graceful maturity that tends to mask, or at least minimize, the intensity of the emotional quandary Olivia finds herself in when, not wishing to receive any further expressions of love from Orsino, she discovers that she has fallen in love with the messenger who delivers them. Rylance, instead, beautifully exposes her perfervid confusion: overcome with emotion, he stammers (in confirmation of Viola’s observation that “she did speak in starts”), acts with impetuosity, and manifests, at times, an engaging exasperation with his inability to control his passion. His hands alone, in the informative subtlety of their gestures, betray the emotions Olivia wishes to conceal.

I was lucky enough to encounter this Twelfth Night, as well as Richard III, in late 2012 when I was in London for a few days. I’m partial to authentic performance styles in theatre and music, so the chance to see two Shakespeare productions with all-male casts was appealing. Little did I realize that I would be seeing two brilliant turns by an actor I had never seen before–or so I thought. In fact, he plays Ferdinand in Prospero’s Books, but nobody, especially in such a small, bland role, can get much attention when playing alongside John Gielgud as Prospero.

Spielberg discovered Rylance in the same way that I did. In a very informative article based on interviews with Rylance and Spielberg, Jack Cole reveals:

Spielberg was urged to see Rylance in “Twelfth Night” by Daniel Day-Lewis. He calls him “a shape-shifter, a man of a thousand faces and voices who can play any part.”

“Seldom has an actor been around for so many distinguished years on the stage and yet had not been fully discovered for the screen,” said Spielberg by email. “Mark understands that the camera records stillness better than in any other media. His transition from the stage to ‘Bridge of Spies’ was graceful and invisible.”


Cromwell and Abel and beyond

No excessive noise

Those members of the American public who did know Rylance before Bridge of Spies had probably encountered him as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC series Wolf Hall, a Tudor-era costume drama which aired in six parts on PBS starting April 6, 2015. (David and I streamed it more recently, mainly to see Rylance.) It seems unfortunate that the two breakout roles that have brought the actor to such prominence this year both involve notably restrained performances.

Anthony Lane compared these performances in his New Yorker review of Bridge of Spies:

So what’s it all about? It’s not about the U-2 missions, and certainly not about Powers, who comes across as a lunk. Nor, despite the set pieces in court, is it about the majesty of the law. No, the core of this movie is a standoff every bit as keyed up, and as gripping, as anything on the muffled streets of Berlin. What we thrill to is Rylance versus Hanks: the British actor, lauded for his stage appearances, but barely known to cinema audiences, up against the consummate Hollywood pro. You can see them prowling, probing, and wondering what the next move will be—or, in Hanks’s case, wondering whether Rylance will move at all. Admirers of “Wolf Hall,” on PBS, will have noted him as Thomas Cromwell, standing like a statue in the shadows, and realized, to their discomfort, that they could not look away. He does the same thing here, as Abel; we watch him watching everybody else, as if life were an infinity of spies. “You don’t seem alarmed,” Donovan says when they first meet, and Abel replies with a gentle question: “Would it help?” The Coens turn that into a refrain that beats through the movie, growing wryer and funnier each time—right up to the fidgety finale, where Abel is the calmest man in sight.

Of course, Cromwell does move in Wolf Hall. He moves a lot. Few television series can have shown their protagonists walking from place to place so often and at such length. Rylance modeled his gait on that of a Hollywood star, according to the Cole piece cited above: “He’s explaining how Mitchum, whom he adores, inspired his steady, rigid gait in the international hit series ‘Wolf Hall.'”

More Rylance on Mitchum, from another interview:

I’ve watched lots of films preparing for this, and I was particularly struck by one of my favourite actors, Robert Mitchum, how his performances haven’t dated in the way that even perhaps more versatile actors, Brando and Dean and people of that era, have. I noticed how well he listens, how still he is, how present he seems. You’re drawn towards the screen – wondering what’s he thinking, what’s he going to do next. That’s always the best way to tell a story.

Kominsky describes adjusting his filming style for Wolf Hall to catch Rylance’s subtleties:

The one thing you might not be expecting is that he’s the most minute of film performers. Nothing is overblown. Nothing is writ too large. It’s very, very simple, very understated, his performance, and then you look into his eyes, and it’s all happening. Everything is going on in there, and of course, you’re drawn into closer and closer shots, just to try and capture the emotion that’s going on very slight below the surface, and that’s what I loved to film. (From George Pollen documentary, Sky’s Arts program, 19:00-19:47)

As David has pointed out, however, the eyes as such are not always particularly expressive. It’s the area of the face that contains the eyes that does the job. The eyebrows and forehead usually give the context that tells us what the eyes are expressing.

If we concentrate on the upper half of Rylance’s face, the considerable differences between his Cromwell and his Abel become apparent.

As Abel, he consistently does something rather remarkable: he raises his eyebrows, creating furrows in his forehead, without widening his eyes. That’s not an easy thing to do. The result is a perpetually curious or surprised expression, a sort of mask that Abel wears to suggest that he is naive, innocent, a little slow. In fact, as we discover whenever he speaks with Donovan, he’s well aware of everything going on around him and has considerable insight into it. But it’s the naivete that allows him to dupe the agents who search his hotel room into letting him clean the paint off his palette, thus allowing him to conceal a key bit of evidence.

The key moment during which Rylance drops this tactic happens during his “standing man” anecdote, about a man he knew who survived a severe beating by Soviet agents by simply getting up again each time he was struck to the ground; Donovan reminds him of that man, he says.

Bridge 'Standing man' anecdote 3

As Cromwell, Rylance’s main tactic using his face is to glance away at nothing in the course of a scene where he is conversing with someone or observing interactions among other characters. So much classical editing depends on our understanding at whom or what a character is looking, but not here. In one scene, Ann Boleyn shows him a drawing she has found hidden in her bed, depicting her decapitated. She asks him to find out who put it there.

Apart from his eyes, Rylance remains uttlerly motionless through the shot in which she holds the drawing out to him. Initially he is looking at her face (that’s the side of her head out of focus in the foreground) and then glances down at the drawing as she holds it up from below the frame.

Wolf Hall scene 1     Wolf Hall scene 2

He then glances down briefly to a point just outside frame right–clearly not at Boleyn’s face or anything else relevant to the action.

Wolf Hall scene 3

He looks at her face again and finally at the drawing.

Wolf Hall scene 4     Wolf Hall scene 5

Nothing here betrays Cromwell’s emotions, since he is a man who has to keep his thoughts hidden from most of the people at court. But that extra shifting of the eyes momentarily to an inconsequential space shows us that he’s thinking. Maybe he has an idea as to who would have left the letter. Maybe he’s thinking of Ann’s sister’s warning to him in an earlier scene, telling him not to help Ann. We don’t know here, as we don’t in many other scenes where Rylance uses this same sort of eye movement.

Both Abel and Cromwell need to conceal their thoughts, but Abel does so through deception and Cromwell through concealment, both conveyed by subtle acting.

In the Pollen documentary, Rylance describes how he avoids putting too much into a performance (in this case referring to lecturing on stage acting to students):

If I was only allowed three words, I could distill all my complicated notes, and you can see how wordy I get if I get talking, to three words, which would be “You are enough.” What’s happening to you is you don’t feel you’re enough, and you’re putting more effort into it than you should. You’ll be in the center of yourself, your voice will be centered, your movements will be centered, and the audience will also believe you more, because they’ll also believe that you’re enough. (8:35-9:08)

In Bridge of Spies, the little gestures and bits of business that Rylance uses to draw our attention to Abel are minimal. He wipes his nose occasionally, apparently the victim of a persistent cold or allergy.

Trial scene second 'would it help' 3

As Michael Phillips points out in his review, this cold creates a parallel to Donovan, who has his overcoat stolen in East Berlin and soon develops a cold of his own:

It’s brilliant, really. What’s the quickest way to establish the humanity of two leading characters in a Cold War drama? Give them both the sniffles. […]

Because he’s relatively new to multiplex audiences, Mark Rylance will likely walk off with the acting honors for “Bridge of Spies.” He looks nothing like the real Abel, but in a largely nonverbal, supremely poker-faced performance — even his stuffy nose is subtle — Rylance suggests a forlorn practitioner of deception who recognizes a lucky break when he sees it.

(Agent Hoffman has also caught a cold by the epilogue; an occupational hazard, apparently, and a subtle comic motif.)

There are other gestures: lengthy tapping of a cigarette on an ashtray and little sucking gestures with the lips, suggesting ill-fitting dentures. (A bit more subtle scene-stealing than that practiced by Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven, as described by David.)

Yet Rylance is perfectly capable of comic, broad performances as well. His Olivier-and-Tony-winning turn in Jerusalem was as a raucous, drunken rascal.

Jerusalem still

He made Richard III a grotesquely deceitful clown.

Rylance as Richard III

His Olivia, though more restrained, can do a broad comic take, as when she first notices Malvolio sporting the detested cross-gartered yellow stockings (see bottom).

We can assume that his acting as the BFG will be miles away from his performance in Bridge of Spies.


Will Hollywood be able to embrace him?

Roger Friedman claims that Hollywood wants Rylance. Possibly, but Rylance is ambivalent about filmmaking and generally prefers the stage. Indeed, I wish I had a reason to be in London right now, since he is back in the theater, receiving more rave reviews as the depressed King Philippe in a limited run of Farinelli and the King, the much-praised first play by Rylance’s wife, Claire van Kampen.

The Cole piece sums up Rylance’s on-and-off relationship to film acting, which involves Rylance being willing to embrace it rather than it embracing him:

For Rylance, embracing movie acting has been a circuitous journey. As a young actor, he watched as his theater contemporaries — Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh — became famous on the big screen. Agents urged Rylance into TV and film so that he would be “a complete actor.”

“I just, time and again, was attracted by the theater where I was offered better opportunities,” says Rylance. “I auditioned for films and didn’t get them. I think I had some stuff to learn about film acting. I don’t think I was personally really ready for it. But I did come to resent it. I did eventually think: Why, why? You wouldn’t tell the great Tamasaburo or Ganjiro-san it’s not enough to be a Kabuki actor, you need to be a film actor.”

He rattles off some film experiences he’s enjoyed: the Quay brothers’ “Institute Benjamenta,” a A.S. Bryatt adaptation “Angels and Insects” and a handful of British TV films, like “The Government Inspector.”

“But I’ve made some bad films, too, that have not been enjoyable,” Rylance said on a recent New York afternoon on a day off from starring in van Kampen’s “Farinelli and the King” in London. “At a certain point after one of them I did a few years back, I said, ‘That’s it. I’m not interested in this anymore.’

“I thought: I need to be happy with who I am, where I am. That can be the kind of miners’ dust of being an actor,” he says. “For an actor, being dissatisfied with who you are can be the reason for becoming an actor, but it can become an illness.”

But once Rylance let go of being a movie star, film directors started calling.

“As I did that, wonderful film things started being offered to me,” he says. “Maybe that was partly the problem — that I was giving it too much forced value. Because I grew up in America, so I grew up with some theater. But mostly I saw three films a weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”

Yes, Rylance was a Wisconsin boy, in a sense. He was born in Kent in 1960, and his parents, both English teachers, moved to Connecticut in 1962 and then to Milwaukee in 1969. There his father taught at the University School of Milwaukee, where Rylance first studied acting. “He starred in most of the school’s plays,” as the Wikipedia entry cited above puts it. Returning to England, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts from 1978 to 1980. His time in the States suggests why his accent is not quite the normal English one that we expect from the great British actors. It is nice to think that Rylance was avidly attending films in Milwaukee during the same period when David and I were doing the same here in Madison.


Clips of some of Rylance’s stage roles are included in the George Pollen documentary linked above; others can be found by searching on YouTube. Fortunately the wondrous Twelfth Night was recorded and is available on DVD (here in the US and here in the UK). The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly Steven Fry as Malvolio and Paul Chahidi as Maria. The many cameras used in the filming capture the most salient action at every point and alternate details and long shots to give a sense of where the action is occurring. As the image below shows, it was filmed in the Globe, with the audience right up against the stage and quite obvious (in a good way) in many of the camera setups. In the scene below, a spectator gives a wolf-whistle as Malvolio struts about his his yellow stockings, which strikes me as a very groundling sort of thing to do. Having seen the performance from the front-row center of the balcony, I am glad to have a closer perspective.

Twelfth Night Olivia and Malvolio

Talking THE WALK

Petit on wire with fountain below resized 2

Kristin here–

David and I saw Robert Zemeckis’ The Walk the day after it opened. The screening was 3-D Imax, since the film originally opened only in Imax theaters and went wider on October 9, already with the odor of box-office failure wafting over it. We enjoyed it. It’s not an undying masterpiece, but it’s certainly better than many of the reviewers seem to think. In particular, they largely ignore the first portions of the film and imply (or outright state) that you should sit through them because the climactic sequence, protagonist Philippe Petit’s very high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in New York is worth it. David Rooney’s review for The Hollywood Reporter boils down the dismissive attitude toward the early portions: “The film’s payoff more than compensates for a lumbering setup, laden with cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy.” Peter Debruge’s Variety review is an exception, dealing with the earlier scenes insightfully.


The view from Lady Liberty

Liberty and Towers

I was surprised to see that Matt Zoller Seitz, one of our best reviewers, gave The Walk a mere two and a half stars. Starting to read his review, I was expecting that he might dismiss the early part of the film as too lightweight and comic to balance the spectacular set-piece of Petit’s performance or something of that sort. Instead, his primary objection to the film is the voiceover and sometimes  to-camera narration delivered by Petit, who is shown as standing atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty. More specifically, the film opens with a tight close-up of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit staring directly into the camera against a pale-blue background and saying “Why?” What follows, he says, is to explain why he made his famous walk. The camera then pans to an extreme-long shot of the World Trade Center, pulls abruptly back to reveal the Statue of Liberty (above), and cranes up to Petit standing on the torch.

The rest of the film consists of a series of flashbacks told from this imaginary space, for surely we are not to imagine that Petit ever really climbed the torch. Like it or not, a certain whimsical tone is set up concerning the process of his telling his tale. The film returns to this narrating situation at intervals, usually only for a single shot and usually for a transition into a new scene, with what Petit says in the fantastical present bleeding over into that scene to set it up.

Seitz’s objections to the narration are two. First, he sees it as an attempt to, in a sense, “sell” us The Walk through the enthusiastic tone of the narration. Second, he considers the narration to be redundant, adding almost nothing to the visuals. His prime example of the latter is the scene in which a seagull briefly hovers over Petit and his voiceover comments on its sudden appearance.

The idea that the narration was annoying or redundant never occurred to me when I watched the film for the first time. After reading Seitz’s review, I considered writing this entry and went back to see the film again. I still didn’t find the narration problematic. I think that it contributes to The Walk in a variety of ways. Possibly some of it could be cut, but most of it functions in ways that go beyond what is conveyed through images and dialogue.

Take the seagull scene. Without narration, it could create suspense. Just before it appears, Petit has lain down on the wire, and the voiceover speaks of the serenity of the sky and clouds. Suddenly the bird is hovering right above our hero. The logical reaction would be to worry that it’s going to strike him, break his concentration, somehow threaten him. The voice continues: “Then, something appears. An apparition! A bird. This bird is looking at me! I feel this silent threat.” (The bright-red rims of the bird’s eyes may be a subjective rendition of Petit’s reaction.) The threat he feels, however, is not that the bird will harm him. Instead, he is “invaded by doubt” and decides that it is time for him to end his walk. His narration is not telling us simply that a bird has appeared, but that he takes it to be some sort of symbol of threat. It marks a turning point in the Walk, one which we can only grasp because he tells us that it does. If he had not spoken, what would we have? Presumably Petit seeing the bird, getting up, and continuing his walk. Perhaps he would have a look of doubt on his face, and the music might go into a minor key. Still, we would not know specifically that the bird has caused him to decided to end his walk, because he does not do so for some time after that point. The narration is not simply redundant.

More generally, I think the narrating situation and the treatment of the story as a series of flashbacks with occasional voiceover have two major functions. First, the narration clearly establishes that Petit survives the Walk. Sure, a lot of people walking into the theater know that the historical Petit did survive it and is still alive. Some of us are old enough to have seen or heard news coverage at the time, while others may have read his memoir To Reach the Clouds, upon which the film is based, or seen James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Younger moviegoers may have read infotainment coverage of Zemeckis’ film. But there are undoubtedly also people entering the theater knowing nothing about Petit. For them, the film needs to establish his survival if they are not to watch the Walk sequence in constant suspense over whether the protagonist will survive it. The very first word he speaks, “Why?” deflects us from anticipation of the Walk as a spectacular stunt to a curiosity about its significance.

Second, Petit-as-narrator sets the tone for the film, a tone which would perhaps be sufficiently conveyed by the visuals, the action, and the music in some scenes, but not, I think, in others. The tone is light and comic and enthusiastic in the first half of the film, though it shifts later, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

Third, the narration helps to break the parts of the film into three separate genres: a romantic comedy (the first half hour), a suspense film (from roughly 30 minutes to 86 minutes), and a lyrical, psychological character study thereafter. The narrational tone changes with each, from ebullience to simple reportage to reflective inner monologue.

David and others have suggested that overall The Walk is structured somewhat like a heist film. In heist films there is emphasis on planning and preparing, with everything explained ahead of time and in intricate detail. The long process of the lead-up is as much the point, or more so, than the actual moment of the theft. (In the review linked above, Debruge points out that “Much of what made ‘Man on Wire’ so thrilling was the fact that Marsh had approached Petit’s story like a caper film.”)

Even though Petit’s goal is not to steal some fabulous treasure from a seemingly impregnable location, his Walk is technically a crime. Still, it is a crime that he cannot conceal, and unlike the masterminds in heist films, he presumably is resigned to the fact that he will certainly be arrested. And unlike in the heist film, there is no planning for an escape and no escape scene. Petit will triumph as long as he completes the Walk before the arrest.

Yet some critics, whether or not they like the film, have ignored or dismissed the rest of the film and focused on the climactic walk as if it is (or should be) the whole film. Some of them, at least, want to treat The Walk as a suspense-filled action film. Yet this is not simply an action film with a boffo climax. Why, though, separate a film into acts in three genres? I think it is because the film wants to clear away the more obvious conventions of a Hollywood films of this type during the early portions of the film. These then drop away in order to allow the Walk sequence to be pared down, without romance and with muted suspense, to a lyrical focus on the peace and beauty of Petit’s perambulations back and forth above the city.


The rom-com

Petit & Annie w model

During the first half of the film Petit courts Annie, charms Rudy into helping him, and finds two other “accomplices” to help him fulfill his dream. It’s all a bit like Amélie in tone, with a hint of Jules and Jim in the music. We have to be won over by Petit to some extent if we are to take an interest in anything about the Walk except the facts that the man made it from one Tower to the other and back a few times and that it sure looks great in 3-D Imax.

Some critics clearly weren’t won over. Others were. Debruge points out, “Say what you will about the accent, but Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne have captured Petit’s voice — the real, honest-to-God way he expresses himself — and by channeling that, the actor successfully wins us over from the outset, hanging out in the Statue of Liberty’s torch.” If my own reaction is any indication, one can find Petit a bit hard to take at times and still consider his narration, Lady Liberty’s torch and all, an asset to the tale.

In describing classical Hollywood cinema, David and I have repeatedly pointed out that films in this tradition usually have two plotlines, one a romance and the other to do with work or danger or some sort of project. These two plotlines tend to be connected, with the romance somehow linked to whatever else is happening in the protagonist’s life.

In The Walk, the romance is there, but it is minimized. The development of the attraction between Petit and Annie is squeezed largely into the first quarter of the film. It moves very quickly once we get past the meet-cute antagonism between them over Petit’s stealing the audience listening to Annie’s street singing. Almost immediately they are in a cafe, sipping wine and discussing his dream over a little improvised model (above left), and then in his apartment, with more wine by candlelight and discussion of the dream over a photo of the Twin Towers. The two seem already to be a couple. It’s as if the romance progresses offscreen, in scenes that we don’t witness–the first kiss, the moving in together.

Annie raises no objections to Petit’s crazy goal, as one might expect her to. There is little sense of how much time has passed. All we know is that Annie urges Petit to fulfill his dream, and she becomes his first accomplice. For the rest of the film, she will be little more than first among the accomplices and an onlooker to the preparations and the Walk. Apart from a quick kiss and her loyal overnight vigil outside the Towers as Petit and the other accomplices invade the buildings and set up for the Walk, Annie has almost nothing to do during the preparations for the Walk and the Walk itself. She does, however, get to characterize the lyrical part of Petit’s achievement. Later, when Barry remarks now New Yorkers love the Trade Towers, Annie adds that Petit has brought them to life for people and given them a soul. The romantic plotline is further undercut almost immediately, however, when Annie unexpectedly leaves Petit to return to France and find her own dream.

During the first half of the film, Petit’s narration is humorous, bumptious, perhaps a little too ingratiating, depending on your taste. He might seem a bit annoying and capricious, as young men often are in rom-coms. The implication may be that the quirks of his personality are part and parcel of the genius and drive that allow him to perform the feats he does, as his cocky little smile upon being arrested for walking between the towers of Notre Dame suggests. (Note that Barry, who eventually becomes the “insider” accomplice once the team arrives in New York, says he had witnessed Petit’s Notre Dame walk, and sure enough, there he is in the back of this shot and visible in another view of the crowd watching.)

Arrest in France, Barry visible photoshopped

If Petit is selling anything, it’s not the film but himself, and we do not need to like him to admire him.


The suspense film

Equipment at customs

Petit and his accomplices to go New York at roughly the midway point of the film, and The Walk segues temporarily into a suspense film. Where one might expect the Walk itself to be the section designed to ramp up suspense in the audience (as many critics did), the more conventional suspense-generating actions are more prominent in the preparation for it, which constitutes the third quarter of the film. This takes place from 55 to 86 minutes. It begins at the airport, with a comic scene of a customs official reeling off the contents of Petit’s equipment containers (above). When he asks what the equipment is for, Petit cheekily replies that he’s planning to use it to walk between the Twin Towers. The official unconcernedly allows him through.

Soon the tone becomes more serious, as Petit visits the Towers and is overawed and intimidated to the point of feeling that his plan must be abandoned. Standing in the lobby of the South Tower, he speaks of feeling that there is no way to get to the top. Immediately a service door behind him swings open, a worker appears and greets them, and the man departs, leaving Petit to investigate the room beyond, discovering a stairway to the top.

In Tower, service door opens     In Tower, service door opens 2

Soon he emerges on the top of the building, tries teetering over the void on a projecting metal girder, and is clearly ready to take up his dream again.

Petit reaches top of Tower

Eventually the tone of the Development turns more tense, as Petit obsessively goes over the plan with his accomplices and the day of the “Coup” approaches. Late on the night before the group invades the Towers, Petit awakens and nails shut the “coffin,” a crate containing the equipment, and expresses his doubts to Annie. Ebullience has become dead seriousness, though Petit determinedly avoids referring to death.

Once the actual invasion of the Towers begins, the tone ratchets up the tension and the delays typical of a Development portion occur. Although the team’s fake delivery truck is admitted to the loading docks, a lack of access to the elevators nearly scuttles the plan. Once Jeff and Petit are on the unfinished upper stories of the South Tower, a guard interrupts them as they unload their equipment in the unfinished upper stories of the South Tower. They end up hiding for fours astride a metal girder above an unfinished elevator shaft extending down so far that we can’t see the bottom. Jeff, who suffers from a terror of heights, becomes our identification figure briefly, as he suffers through this ordeal. Later, once they are on the roof in the dark of night, a guard comes up with a flashlight and nearly bumps into Jeff before being lured away to a lower floor by a colleague offering to share a pizza.

Guard comes to top

As dawn approaches, the threats to the success of the Walk continue. An arrow is shot from one Tower to the other to begin the process of hauling the wire across teeters on the corner of the building. The bracing wires are loose, and Petit must drag a terrified Jeff onto the side of the roof to help tighten them. At dawn, a mysterious man in a suit visits the roof, apparently just for the view, and sees them. After a nerve-wracking face-off, he ultimately leaves without challenging them.

Interestingly, during this face-off, Petit picks up a length of pipe. After the man leaves, Petit seems shocked to find that he has been holding it in a potentially threatening fashion. This is the only hint we ever get of the lengths to which he might go to make his dream succeed.

There is also a good deal of exposition in this section of the film, part of it accomplished by the narrating voice, setting up for what will happen during the Walk. As a result, we don’t need to be told about the technical details during the Walk itself. There is, however, a fairly long stretch with no voiceover leading up to the silent confrontation with the mysterious man. After he leaves, Petit’s narration notes, “And that was the moment in my adventure that I call ‘the mysterious visitor.'”

This last incident works in with the many other bits of good luck that have allowed Petit to accomplish his dream, including the fortuitous opening of the stairwell door mentioned above. It adds a touch of suspense, as well as realism. Such things do occur–and in this case, really did occur.


The lyrical walk

Romance and suspense having been presented and set aside, the film defies convention by switching into lyrical mode. In a conventional film, the grandeur of the mise-en-scene would become a terrifying void (especially in 3-D) into which we constantly fear Petit will fall.  Instead, to a large extent because of the narrating voice and the music, we instead follow Petit’s exhilarated reaction and his every shift of mood. For instance, when he stands with one foot on the wire and pauses before beginning his Walk, subjective mist gathers (see bottom). It conveys his sense of the rest of the world disappearing and his attention focusing entirely on the wire. His voiceover describes all this. Would we otherwise perhaps take this mist to be an actual passing cloud?

Similarly, when he finishes the first crossing and starts back, would we understand why if we had only the image and music? Or when he kneels during the return trip to the South Tower, would we grasp that he is saluting the wire, the Towers, and so on, if his narrating voiceover did not tell us?

Petit's salute in ELS against city     Petit's salute to wire, Tower

There are details that set up some suspense but are at the same time tied to Petit’s emotional reactions. He remarks that one of the the cavaletti holding the bracing lines onto the wire being upside down. This seems initially to be used as an occasion for Petit to mention his gratitude to Rudy, though it also sets up for the later moment when the plate threatens to buckle under the strain–a moment which ultimately comes to nothing.The detail shot of Petit’s shoe during this scene sets up some suspense, in that a small, wet patch of blood suggests that he may later be endangered by the wound from stepping on a nail. Later we see more blood on the shoe, but the wound in fact never causes him to falter. In this close shot, the shoe also conveys a visceral sense of  the moment of the walk and reminds us of the practice that has gone into it, imprinting a channel where the wire has pressed into his foot.

Petit's foot as he kneels

Of course, we are unable entirely to view the scene without suspense, as our bodies naturally react to the strong illusion of height created by the extraordinary CGI imagery and the 3-D. The word “suspense,” after all, derives from the notion of dangling in space. Yet the film constantly backs us away from such jitters in part through the soothing voiceover.

Suspense also returns to some extent just after the salutes, when the police appear, initially on the South Tower end of the wire. An even greater threat, a police helicopter, eventually appears.

Two cops on South Tower     Helicopter

These authorities offer or threaten to help Petit off the wire, endangering him in the process. His evasive maneuvers and defiance create humor that somewhat dispels the suspense. Ultimately, by tossing his balance pole at the outstretched hands of the startled police, Petit manages to clear the way for a triumphant exit from his Walk. This conclusion assures that he controls the entirety of his feat, despite the fact that he is immediately arrested. The applause of the workmen on the lower levels as he is escorted out confirms his triumph, as does the praise offered by one of the arresting officers (seen at the left below). The voiceover description of his later minor “punishment” of performing a lower-wire act for children in Central Park confirms that he has successfully defied even the law.

Petit applauded after arrest


Zemeckis, classical director

While Zemeckis has a reputation as a master of the action set-piece, he can also construct a tight classical narrative. Seeing The Walk a second time for the purpose of writing this entry, I realized that the script is very carefully put together to set up for everything that will happen, both causally and in terms of information.The arrest in Paris makes it clear to us that Petit will face a similar punishment after his Trade Towers Walk. Petit’s fall from the wire in the circus tent and Rudy’s emphatic advice that the last three or four steps are the most dangerous foreshadows the similar moment at the end of the Walk where Petit momentarily looses control and his trembling makes the wire itself shake. In many cases, the voiceover plays a vital role in setting up things to come.

Perhaps it’s not as perfectly put together as Back to the Future, but then, few films of the past decades in Hollywood are.

As David noted during our first viewing, the film also has a good, old-fashioned Hollywood visual motif. Round shapes are contrasted with straight lines, the round ones being associated with Petit’s early ground-based entertainment career and the lines with his high-wire acts. The lines may be obvious to viewers, as when Petit draws a line between the Towers in an image, or less so, as in the scene where an arrow is tested as a means for starting the process of sending the wire from on Tower to the other.

Petit draws line, from behind paper

J L firing arrow

Unfortunately none of the video material currently online shows portions of the street-entertainment scene of the film’s early section, so I can provide no images of the round items. These include the perfect chalk circle that Petiti draws to delineate his performance space, the top hat in which he collects coins, the red-and-white candy mint, his unicycle’s wheel, the ring under the White Devils’ tightrope in the circus tent, the arch in the same ring that frames Petit when he juggles to impress Rudy, and the umbrella he uses to shelter Annie in a sudden rain shower.

Such imagery disappears in the second half, apart from repeated overhead shots of the circular fountain on the ground between the Towers, often with the lines of the wire and the balance bar juxtaposed with it (see top). It recalls Petit’s initial performance space on the ground and subtly reminds us of how far, and high, he has come since then. (During their first meeting, Annie remarked of Petit’s tightrope, “That was the lowest high-wire I’ve ever seen.”)

In the end, the answer to the original question, “Why?” is that “There is no why.” When Petit sees a beautiful place in which to place his wire, he feels compelled to do so. His motive is not to show off his derring-do or to spice up his life with risk-taking. His is an aesthetic compulsion, and the Walk is referred to a number of times as an artwork. The form of the film reflects that compulsion.

The last lines of the film return to the Towers themselves. Petit narrates over a shot of himself returning to visit the top of the Towers, telling us that an official gave him a pass to visit it. We return to the torch atop the Statue of Liberty, where he looks at the card and says, “He wrote on it ‘Forever.'” This could have been told visually, I suppose, but it would have meant close-ups of the card, probably a second person on the roof to whom Petit could explain his card–something, at least, more elaborate and less effective than simply having him tell us this information. A pan moves us toward the Towers, gleaming in the sunshine until the slow fade-out that conveys the fact that for the Towers, forever was cut brutally short. That final salute, at least, seems to have pleased everyone.

As I said at the outset, The Walk is not necessarily a masterpiece, but it is far better than some of the reviews would claim. Seeing the film a second time, I enjoyed it more and found new things to notice, which is always a good sign. I did not find the voiceover narration annoying during either viewing, and it isn’t really dispensable. The film is worth seeing, and its extraordinary climactic scene will suffer greatly from being seen on a video screen.

The Wire provides another example of a phenomenon which David discussed in relation to Paul Greengrass’ United 93: our inability to wholly suppress a feeling of suspense even when we know the outcome of an event. Simply seeing Petit on the wire high above the ground to some extent creates an involuntary state of tension.

Petit starts walk, mist clears

So these two English magicians walk into a library …

Mill burning ELS

Kristin here:

Two magicians shall appear in England.
The first shall fear me; the second shall long to behold me;
The first shall be governed by thieves and murderers; the second shall conspire at his own destruction;
The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache;
The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand;
The first shall pass his life alone; he shall be his own gaoler;
The second shall tread lonely roads, the storm above his head, seeking a dark tower upon a high hill . . . (John Uskglass, The Raven King, via Vinculus)

A word of explanation about why I am writing about a television series is in order. I write almost entirely about films (and occasionally literature), but in 2001 I succumbed to the temptation of an invitation from Oxford University. I was to become a visiting professor and deliver a lecture series on “broadcast media.” The closest I could come to talking about broadcast media was a series comparing film and television narrative structure. The lectures were subsequently published as Storytelling in Film and Television (Harvard University Press, 2003).

This book has given me a lingering reputation for knowing something about television, even though I had not researched or published on television since. Within the past year I have declined two invitations of speak at television conferences, one of them a keynote address. But until now my small dip in the television-studies pool has remained an aberration.

I happen to be a devoted fan of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 bestselling tale of two magicians in Regency England, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. I also, despite some reservations, much enjoyed the recent BBC/BBC America seven-episode adaptation of it. The DVD/Blu-ray is being released in the USA today, and I herewith offer some comments on the series.

My main objections to the adaptation relate to changes in the relationship between the two main characters. I think the reasons for this particular problem can shed a little light on how mainstream film and television narratives are conceived and sold to the public. I’ll deal with that subject first before pointing to some of the things I admire about the series.

Many SPOILERS for both book and series from this point on.


Hanging it on the Amadeus hook

Amadeus jealousy scene

The opening of Robert Altman’s The Player is famous for its pitch phrases heard through studio office windows, with variants of the familiar, it’s X Title meets Y Title (“It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.” “Not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate.”)  The scene is funny, but it’s not far from the sort of thing that happens in reality.

According to series director Toby Haynes, speaking of the BBC, “I pitched it in my first meeting as Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings. They really responded to that.”

Clearly The Lord of the Rings has nothing in common with JS&MN apart from being a long fantasy tale, and I assume it was included to evoke the idea of a big, really successful example of that genre.

As for Amadeus, at first glance one might consider the book’s Norrell-Strange dynamic as being similar to that of Salieri and Mozart, but upon closer inspection there is virtually no resemblance. Salieri’s prime motivation is intense, heartrending jealousy of Mozart’s seemingly effortless genius. Norrell comes into conflict with Strange, but he’s not jealous of the other magician. The barrier between them is a profound theoretical disagreement over the type of magic they should be doing, and it tears the pair apart after their initial delight in discovering each other. There’s no easy comparison for that sort of conflict, no X meets Y. But anyone can grasp the idea of jealousy.

Once the Amadeus idea was in place, it seems to have guided the filmmakers, at least Haynes and presumably screenwriter Peter Harness, to turn Norrell into Salieri and Strange into Mozart. The effort was not entirely successful, partly because thoroughly changing them would gut the premises of the novel’s plot. Staying at all faithful to the book, as many of the scenes do to a remarkable extent, meant that the motivations for the two main characters’ actions, particularly Norrell’s, became inconsistent.

The Amadeus idea proved useful in publicizing the series. Haynes, Harness, and actors Eddie Marsan (Mr. Norrell) and Bertie Carvel (Jonathan Strange) were probably instructed to try and mention it during interviews. Haynes referred to the “Amadeus meets Lord of the Rings” idea frequently (e.g., here). It’s a catchy phrase, and reviewers and entertainment reporters dutifully spiced up their writings with it. In the Wall Street Journal, John Anderson commented, “The two are, in fact, like Salieri and Mozart in ‘Amadeus,’ had Salieri been a little more talented and a little less poisonous.” Rolling Stone‘s David Fear refers to Haynes’s formula, and fan blogs picked up on it. Google “Amadeus” and “Norrell” to find many more examples.

Although Marsan frequently invoked the Amadeus idea, when interviewed on the BBC’s The One Show, he mentioned another comparison suggested to him by Clarke when she visited the set: “She said they represent the two sides of the brain. The right side of the brain, Norrell, is the analytical side, he’s like the librarian, but Jonathan Strange is the spontaneous, confident, creative side, and it’s the juxtaposition between the two.”

This seems to me a better image for the title characters’ relationship than the Amadeus one: two halves of the same entity, ideally working together in balance. It’s a pity it wasn’t used, but Clarke didn’t mention it until the series was into principal photography.


Norrell is not Salieri

Norrell & Strange reunited

In Clarke’s book, Norrell is far and away the better magician, at least until fairly late in the plot. He certainly has no reason to be professionally jealous of Strange when he appears on the scene, and he doesn’t seem much to care that Strange is more flamboyant and socially adept.

The series often suggests, however, that Norrell is the inferior magician. The second episode’s opening depicts his ship illusions at the port of Brest during the first Napoleonic war. Seemingly the French are fooled for only the time it takes some officers to row out and investigate them. Norrell’s illusion seems ineffectual, and one might wonder why in the next scene Parliament is so enthusiastically applauding him and promising all sorts of cooperation in exchange for his help. This, I would suggest, is one of several plot holes resulting from the makers’ devotion to the Amadeus model.

In the book, the ship illusion is highly effective. Not only Brest but “Rochefort, Toulon, Marseilles, Genoa, Venice, Flushing, Lorient, Antwerp and a hundred other towns of lesser importance” are blockaded by Norrell’s ships.

Everyone, it seemed, was delighted with what Mr Norrell had done. A large part of the French Navy had been tricked into remaining in its ports for eleven days and during that time the British had been at liberty to sail about the the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel and the German Sea, just as it pleased and a great many things had been accomplished. (p. 108)

This triumph leads to a successful ten-year career. Although Strange is the one who aids Wellington at the front lines using magic, Norrell contributes in other ways. After the victory at Waterloo, “Mr. Norrell had the satisfaction of hearing from everyone that magic–his magic and Mr Strange’s–had been of vital importance in achieving this.” (p. 337) He then goes into the respectable business of dealing with commissions such as flood control for the Admiralty.

The TV series also presents Norrell’s system for protecting England’s southern coast as a failure, never completed and ineffectual where it did exist. Directly after he installs the system, its faults are apparently revealed when a ship goes aground on a shoal near the same beach, a situation solved by Strange with his flashy creation of giant sand horses. In the book, Strange collaborates on the coastal protection project alongside Norrell. It is installed nearly a decade after the “Horse Sands” episode and works very well. Indeed, the Admiralty finds Norrell so useful that he cannot deal with all the projects they propose to him, especially since he refuses to take on students after Strange leaves him.

Thus unlike Salieri, Norrell’s problem is not inferior talent but an inability to excite others about his magic. He is, as Clarke makes clear over and over, boring. An odd trait in a book’s protagonist, or co-protagonist in this case, but one that she manages to make entertaining. The novel describes Norrell’s first visit to Sir Walter Pole and his attempt to explain his feat of having brought the statues of York Minster to life: “Curiously, though Mr Norrell was able to work feats of the most breath-taking wonder, he was only able to describe them in his usual dry manner, so that Sir Walter was left with the impression that the spectacle of half a thousand stone figures in York Cathedral all speaking together had been rather a dull affair and that he had been fortunate in being elsewhere at the time.” (p. 68)

Even at the end of the ten years, Norrell remains clueless about public relations. Late in the book he and Lascelles go to Brighton to check the new coastal protection system:

“It is invisible,” said Lascelles.

       “Invisible, yes!” agreed Mr Norrell, eagerly, “But no less efficacious for that! It will protect the cliffs from erosion, people’s houses from storm, livestock from being swept away and it will capsize any enemies of  Britain who attempt to land.”

        “But could you not have placed beacons at regular intervals to remind people that the magic wall is there? Burning flames hovering mysteriously over the face of the waters? Pillars shaped out of sea-water? Something of that sort?”

        “Oh!” said Mr Norrell. “To be sure! I could create the magical illusions you mention. They are not at all difficult to do, but you must understand that they would be purely ornamental. They would not strengthen the magic in any way whatsoever. They would have no practical effect.”

        “Their effect,” said Lascelles, severely, “would be to stand as a constant reminder to every onlooker of the works of the great Mr Norrell. They would let the British people know that you are still the Defender of the Nation, eternally vigilant, watching over them while they go about their business. It would be worth ten, twenty articles in the Reviews.”

        “Indeed?” said Mr Norrell. He promised that in future he would always bear in mind the necessity of doing magic to excite the public imagination. (p. 688)

The fact that many of Norrell’s commissions are designed to prevent things from happening also means that the public forgets about them. This scene demonstrates well how Clarke manages to generate amusement out of a character who is so intrinsically dull.

The Norrell we see in the first two episodes of the series is fairly similar to the one in the book–naive, petty, anti-social, and arrogant. His first act in both versions is to twit aspiring magician John Segundus about having read his article on magician Martin Pale’s fairy servants and noticed that he had left one out. He then lets it sink in that he himself owns the only copy of the only book that mentions that servant and thus Segundus could not possibly have read about him.

Despite his faults, however, Norrell is frequently amusing, something the series captures well, especially in the opening episodes. He also arouses our pity when he visits Sir Walter Pole to volunteer his help in the war with Napoleon and is summarily dismissed.

Unfortunately, starting with the third episode the makers abruptly change Norrell’s character, making him more devious and villainous. One reviewer commented on this change:

It’s ridiculously difficult to make you feel a sense of loathing for an actor like Eddie Marsan, but Strange and Norrell went a long way in making you feel like that this week. It’s kind of amazing in such a short space of time how the show has managed to make you feel for Norrell’s plight to restore magic to England, to suddenly very much wondering if that was a good idea.

The reviewer hints that the series has accomplished this change well, but the inconsistency of Norrell’s character continues in later episodes. As he also suggests, it is really Marsan’s splendid performance that manages to make all this hang together.

In the book Norrell does some nasty things, though not nearly so many or so bad as what we see him do in the series. In the novel he neither tries to intimidate Lady Pole into silence nor threatens Drawlight with torture to make him go to Venice to find Strange. He does not accompany Strange to see George III, because he is genuinely convinced from the start that magic cannot cure his madness. When he makes Strange’s book disappear, he offers to pay the publisher’s costs for the entire edition. (He also leaves Strange’s own copy untouched.) He does not berate Childermass for being unconscious for four days after taking a bullet for him. Lady Pole does not create a tapestry in an effort to reveal her situation to Arabella, and hence Norrell doesn’t order it stolen. He never threatens to destroy the other magician, as he is shown doing at the end of episode 4.

His primary mistake, in both versions, is that through shame and fear he hides the fact that he had violated his own principles by summoning the gentleman with the thistle-down hair to resurrect Lady Pole. (The fairy is referred to as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair throughout the book and simply as the Gentleman in the series.) Had he found the courage to tell at least Strange the truth, it might have made him less eager to try contacting a fairy to help him with his own magic.

Norrell does none of these things through jealousy.


Strange is not Mozart

Windmill scene night

Strange is portrayed as the Mozart to Norrell’s Salieri. He does magic spontaneously rather than learning spells out of books. In the scene where he first demonstrates his magic for Norrell, he says, “One has a sensation like music playing at the back of one’s head–one simply knows what the next note will be,” (p. 233) a line changed slightly for the series. The obvious similarity of this statement to Mozart’s effortless ability to write heavenly music probably sparked the initial link in the makers’ minds between JS&MN and Amadeus. It no doubt influenced Harness to portray Strange simply as a natural genius. Yet the book makes it clear that Strange’s moments of inspiration often either turn out wrong or he simply cannot replicate or reverse them.

For example, the “Horse Sands” episode, so crucial for the series’ creation of the idea of Norrell’s inferiority and jealousy, turns out quite differently in the book. Strange’s sand horses do free the ship from the shoal, but “These did not just disappear when their work was done, as Strange had said they would; instead they swam about Spithead for a day and a half, after which they lay down and became sandbanks in new and entirely unexpected places. The masters and pilots of Portsmouth complained to the port-admiral that Strange had permanently altered the channels and shoals in Spithead so that they Navy would now have all the expense and trouble of taking soundings and surveying the anchorage again.” (p. 278)

The feat impresses the Ministers in London, however, leading them to dispatch Strange to Portugal to help with the war. There Strange’s first successful piece of magic, building a road, is managed through a spell derived from one of Norrell’s books. It’s the same sort of respectable task with which Norrell continues his own success. Later, though, Strange performs ancient, black magic to bring to life some Neapolitan corpses to supply vital intelligence information to Wellington. Norrell refuses to bring rotted bodies to life, but Strange tackles decaying, maggot-ridden ones. The series’ scenes of this episode (above) well convey the horror Strange feels after he succeeds. One of the most effective shots in the series is the long view of the troops, including Strange, moving out of the camp toward victory with the burning windmill in which Wellington has had the zombies locked appearing prominently in the composition (see top).

This parallel to Norrell’s raising of Lady Pole is usually not remarked upon, but it suggests that both have compromised their principles in somewhat similar ways to gain respect and aid the war effort.

Undoubtedly more important, in the book Strange never becomes obsessed with bringing Arabella back to life after the Gentleman tricks him with the moss-oak double of her. Instead he goes immediately to Venice to grieve and to try and summon a fairy to teach him magic and become his servant. He does this solely because he thinks that fairy magic, long gone from England, is an exciting alternative to Norrell’s stodgy, respectable magic. Clearly the plot additions of Strange desperately seeking to revivify his wife and Norrell’s cold refusal to answer his letters or explain how he resurrected Lady Pole were added to heighten the dramatic conflict between the two.


Friendly Enemies

Norrell delighted by strange

Yet that conflict is for the most part a half-hearted one and fated to end. It is quite different from what happens in Amadeus. Salieri hates Mozart and vows early on to destroy him, while Mozart is largely indifferent to Salieri. In contrast, Norrell and Strange have an immediate affinity that never completely disappears, and they grow more and more like each other in the course of the book. The abrupt change in Norrell’s initial skeptical, fearful attitude toward the second magician comes during their second meeting (their first meeting in the series), when Strange performs magic for him. “Mr. Norrell, who had lived all his life in fear of one day discovering a rival, had finally seen another man’s magic, and far from being crushed by the sight, found himself elated by it.” (p. 233) This elation is wonderfully conveyed by Marsan in one of the series’ best scenes (above).

Contrast this moment with the scene of Mozart’s meeting Salieri, where Mozart humiliates Salieri by playing his little welcoming march and improvising a far better piece from it. This leads directly to Salieri’s vow to God that he will destroy Mozart, ultimately leading to the latter’s death (see first section above).

In the series’ next scene, Norrell’s delight continues as he meets with Strange to plan their studies. He even manages, with some difficulty, to hand over a book that he wishes his pupil to read. Thereafter, unfortunately, we get very little of the two interacting, and the viewer might get the impression that their break occurs a short time later. After seeing only two episodes, Anibundel, a blogger and fan of the book pinpointed the problem:

Though Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan are magic together, there was no getting around it–they weren’t together for nearly long enough. The complex nature of their relationship–being pulled towards each other while at the same time repelled by their philosophical differences–is the heart of the novel, and by the show deciding to spend their energies focused elsewhere makes it feel like they’re missing the nut of the story in order to let us indulge in the trimmings. Strange barely became Norrell’s pupil, and barely had time to note how much his teacher held back from him. We barely got any of Norrell’s excitement and joy at discovering someone who he can really talk to and connect with most emotionally and intellectually, before the show already separated them again, putting Strange on his way to Portugal.

Part of the problem is that the adaptation conveys little indication of how much time passes. In the novel, Clarke simply dates every chapter. We know that the precipitating action of John Segundus and Mr. Honeyfoot visiting Mr. Norrell happens in the autumn of 1806 and the final scene in Padua in the spring of 1817. The adapters would have done well to employ superimposed titles for the same purpose. As it is, even non-readers who know the era of the Napoleonic wars and Regency England pretty well would be hard put to estimate that the action covers that long a span.

In the book Strange becomes Norrell’s pupil in September, 1809 and parts ways with him in February, 1815. His first wartime stint lasts for a little over three years, from approximately March, 1811 to May, 1814. The second begins in June of 1815, after the two split. Thus he studies with Norrell for a little under two and a half years.

During that period, Strange temporarily takes the place of the devious Drawlight and Lascelles in assisting his teacher:

In the past year Mr Norrell had grown to reply a great deal upon his pupil. He consulted Strange upon all those matters which in bygone days had been referred to Drawlight and Lascelles. Mr. Norrell talked of nothing but Mr Strange when Strange was away, and talked to no one but Strange when Strange was present. His feelings of attachment seemed all the stronger for being entirely new; he had never felt truly comfortable in any one’s society before. (p. 279)

Nevertheless, the one issue that drives the pair apart is their stark disagreement concerning the desirability of using modern, respectable magic or calling upon the 300-year-old, wild magic of the Raven King and fairies. Their disagreement comes to a head when Strange writes his lacerating review of the book about Norrell and arrives to announce that he will no longer be his pupil. In the book, far from arguing with Strange or berating him over the review as in the series, Norrell is entirely conciliatory and emphasizes their affinity in a conversation which is perhaps the most important summary of their relationship.

“You think that I am angry,” said Mr Norrell, “but I am not. You think I do not know why you have done what you have done, but I do. You think you have put all your heart into that writing and that every one in England now understands you. What do they understand? Nothing. I understood you before you wrote a word.” He paused and his face worked as if he were struggling to say something that lay very deep inside him. “What you wrote, you wrote for me. For me alone.”

Strange opened his mouth to protest at this surprising conclusion. But upon consideration he realized it was probably true. He was silent. (p. 417)

Norrell then makes a revelatory confession that as a young man he, too, had been obsessed with the Raven King and spent ten years trying to contact him. His failure led to a traumatic disillusionment and a rejection of old magic. This, of course, explains a great deal about his character, and it is odd that the screenwriter avoided it so entirely. In the series, Strange simply insists that that they are too different in their views to continue together. Much of the emotional dialogue spoken beside the fireplace comes only from the last section of this important conversation in the book, leaving out the parts quoted above.

“Oh,” cried Mr Norrell, “I know that in character . . .” He made a gesture of dismissal. “But what does that matter? We are magicians. That is the beginning and end of me and the beginning and end of you. It is all that either of us cares about. If you leave this house today and pursue you own course, who will you talk to? –as we are talking now?–there is no one. You will be quite alone.” In a tone almost of pleading, he whispered, “Do not do this!” (p. 421)

He also offers Strange the things he offers in the TV scene, including an equal partnership and the key to the library at Hurtfew, and he says he will not demand that the review be retracted. Strange nevertheless insists on ending their relationship.

Even so, in the novel he somewhat regrets his decision the next day: “As a consequence of what Mr Norrell had said he had developed a great many new ideas about John Uskglass, and now he was suffering all the misery of having no one to tell them to.” (p. 423) This misery, however, is not sufficient to make him return to Norrell.

From this point the two are separated, but in the novel there are indications that they are destined to reunite. Much later, Strange, with a mad expression, sends Drawlight to tell Norrell “I am coming!” As in the series, Norrell rushes from London to Hurtfew Abbey to defend his main library from attack. At this point, the narration describes a slightly eerie discovery recently made by Norrell.

Ever since he and Strange had parted he had been in the habit of summoning up visions to try and discover what Strange was doing. But he had never succeeded. One night, about four weeks ago, he had not been able to sleep. He had got up and performed the magic. The vision had not been very distinct, but he had seen a magician in the darkness, doing magic. He had congratulated himself on penetrating Strange’s counterspells at last; until it occurred to him that he was looking at a vision of himself in his own library. He had tried again. He had varied the spells. He named Strange in different ways. It did not matter. He was forced to conclude that English magic could no longer tell the difference between himself and Strange. (p. 713)

In the book Norrell later surmises that he and Strange are both trapped in the Darkness, a curse designed for Strange alone, because the Gentleman had been so imprecise as to direct the curse at “the English magician.” (p. 749) That same imprecision occurs in the spell devised by the two and intended to summon the Raven King. They address the spell to the “nameless slave,” allowing Stephen, rather than the Raven King to gain the power necessary for him the kill the Gentleman and take his place.


Mr Norrell with the candlestick in the library?

Norrell with candlestick

I’m not sure what viewers unfamiliar with the book would expect to happen when in the final episode Norrell solves Strange’s labyrinth and reaches the library. Given how badly Norrell has acted at times and also given Strange’s madness, they could reasonably expect a big fight in which Strange might kill Norrell or at least triumph over him. Indeed, in the book this is what the servants and Lascelles, locked out of the labyrinth, imagine might happen: “Images of magical battles flitted through the minds of everyone present: Mr Norrell hurling mystical cannonballs at strange; Strange calling up devils to come and carry Mr Norrell away. They listened for sounds of a struggle. There were none.” (p. 721)

In the book there is no fight at all. Norrell, terrified of what Strange intends to do to him, finds the other magician reading historical accounts of fairies kidnapping humans. Strange’s first comment to his former teacher is a compliment.

“I like your labyrinth,” he said conversationally. “Did you use Hickman?”

“What? No. De Chepe.”

“De Chepe! Really?” For the first time Strange looked directly at his master. “I had always supposed him to be a very minor scholar without an original thought in his head.”

Relieved that Strange is not going to attack him, Norrell gives him a mini-lecture on De Chepe, and they quickly slip back to their old relationship. Norrell returns Strange’s compliment.

“You own labyrinth was quite remarkable,” said Mr Norrell. “I have been half the night trying to escape it.”

“Oh, I did what I usually do in such circumstances,” said Strange carelessly. “I copied you and added some refinements. (p. 741)

Later in the scene, the roles are reversed. Strange requires a summoning spell, and Norrell fetches a sheet of paper from a drawer and gives it to him, saying it is the best such spell he knows. It is written in Norrell’s hand and labeled “Mr Strange’s spell of summoning.” Norrell pedantically points out three changes he has made, including “I have omitted the florilegium which you copied word for word from Ormskirk. I have as you know, no opinion of florilegia in general and this one seems particularly nonsensical.”

“It is as much your work as mine now,” observed Strange. There was no trace of rivalry or resentment in his voice.

“No, no,” said Norrell. “All the fabric of it is yours. I have merely neatened the edges.”

The two are at last capable of adapting each others’ work as equals. Far from having a physical fight, they don’t even argue. Instead, they work together to devise and implement the spells that create the climactic resolution.

Again, contrast this with the climactic scene of Amadeus, where Salieri takes dictation from Mozart. He not only cannot keep up, but he is also baffled by some of the choices Mozart makes in composing the Requiem. There remains no affinity between the two.

The two magicians’ reunion in the library is where the series’ final episode goes thoroughly off the rails, in my opinion, departing from the book and introducing all sorts of new premises and actions that make little coherent sense. The departure begins at 16:30, to be precise, when Norrell throws something (the candlestick, I think) at Strange and their brief struggle ensues. David, being my test case of a non-reader viewing this part, said he had followed the story reasonably well to then but after that point he suddenly didn’t understand the rules. Quite.

I will not attempt to list all the peculiar premises suddenly introduced into the story. In brief, how does Strange know that the Gentleman has closed the King’s Roads to him? How does Norrell know that the rule doesn’t apply to him as well? Norrell’s speech about the Gentleman’s “alliances with the forces of nature within the Christian world, our world, not his–ergo, his curse will not affect us here” baffles me. Why does the darkness not follow the pair into Faerie? As far as I can tell from the book, it is itself a part of Faerie. And why has the series added the premise that Strange is dying under the continued influence of being in the Darkness? (Screenwriters seem to love such ideas. It reminds me of the absurd premise in The Return of the King that Arwen is dying because her fate is linked to the Ring. Aren’t all of their fates?) The Gentleman’s taste in revenge is not for death but for perpetual misery.

Certainly by this point the Amadeus comparison has been abandoned. But why were the makers so determined to pursue that idea in the first place? Once they had used the analogy in order to get a greenlight for the project, why did they not simply drop it and take the book as their guide? Perhaps in part because once they had posited that the Salieri-Mozart conflict is similar to the Norrell-Strange one in Clarke’s book, they had fixed that in their minds and couldn’t see it any other way. But we return to the fact that the Amadeus premise is simply easier to understand than the very complex dynamic between the two magicians in Clarke’s book. Once the hook of the Amadeus comparison got out into the public through reviews and interviews, the audience could have a simple interpretive key even before watching the premiere. A bitter conflict is more dramatic than a complex competition/cooperation dynamic between two protagonists, a dynamic based on a fundamental theoretical disagreement.

And why not, after all? What difference does it make that the series’ makers battened onto Amadeus and went with it? Might it not make it easier for viewers to cope with a very complicated story?

Perhaps. Still, a considerable price is paid in the loss of originality. Clarke’s book is very good, possibly great, in part because the shifting relations between its title characters are so slippery, with both of them having many faults and vastly different views of magic but nevertheless by the end belonging together as partners. The TV series ultimately settles instead for a well-known formula from a classic, familiar film. For lovers of the book, the core fan-base for the series, disappointment in at least some aspects of the series was likely.

Perhaps more important, however, is the loss of unity. The sudden changes in Norrell’s character that I’ve pointed out are among these. I would think that, after Norrell’s more villainous moments, the viewer might reasonably be puzzled by the cheery, cuddly reunion between the two, with Strange buttoning up Norrell’s cloak (see the “Norrell is not Salieri” section above) and promising to come to breakfast. Similarly, the sudden deep emotion of the scene where Strange breaks with Norrell might seem odd. I expect that Norrell’s misdeeds caused some non-readers to mistake him for the villain, though the Gentleman clearly should centrally occupy that role. The messiness of the final episode comes in part because the two must reconcile and work together so abruptly, despite all of Norrell’s misdeeds. Finally, I think the emotional appeal of the main relationship between the two magicians, which is the core of the novel, is vitiated to some extent.


Two super-magicians and their flying library

Norrell & Strange reunited

There may also be one more reason why Norrell is made villainous in the central section of the story and then comic at the very end. The makers possibly wanted to avoid using the original, highly unconventional ending of the book, perhaps feeling felt that spectators would not accept it.

The novel sets us up for the idea that the Darkness may not be such a bad thing. Immediately after Norrell discovers that Lady Pole and Mrs Strange are no longer in Faerie, he also realizes that the curse of Darkness has not lifted. Naturally he considers this in a rational fashion.

This then was his destiny!–a destiny full of fear, horror and desolation! He sat patiently for a few moments in expectation of falling prey to some or all of these terrible emotions, but was forced to conclude that he felt none of them. Indeed, what seemed remarkable to him now were the long years he had spent in London, away from his library, at the beck and call of the Ministers and the Admirals. He wondered how he had borne it. (p. 770)

The book’s final scene occurs about two or three months after the climactic events. Strange and Norrell travel to Italy together, in Hurtfew Abbey and conveyed by the Darkness. How they do this is not explained, but clearly they have quickly learned to live with and even to control the conditions of the Gentleman’s curse. Arabella is living in Padua with Flora Greysteel and her father, friends Strange had made during his time in Venice. She meets Strange for the first time since their brief reunion in Lost-hope. Naturally she asks him, “Have you found any thing yet to dispel the Darkness?”

His insouciant response is miles away from what we might expect: “No, not yet. Though, to own the truth, we have been so busy recently–some new conjectures concerning naiads–that we have scarcely had time to apply ourselves to the problem. But there are one or two things in Goubert’s Gatekeeper of Apollo which look promising. We are optimistic.” He goes on to describe the pair traveling around the world in the Darkness: “Who is to say that the Darkness may not be an advantage. We intend to go out of England and are likely to meet with all sorts of tricksy persons. An English magician is an impressive thing. Two English magicians are, I suppose, twice as impressive–but when those two English magician are shrouded in an Impenetrable Darkness–ah, well! That, I should think, is enough to strike terror into the heart of any one short of a demi-god!”

Although Strange does reassure Arabella that he and Norrell will keep trying to end the Darkness curse, he seems more enthusiastic about traveling with Norrell and having unspecified kinds of adventures. Indeed, the two magicians are still tethered together invisibly, with Norrell of necessity waiting nearby during the conversation, no doubt reading a book. Norrell, poor traveler though he is, can do all this quite comfortably because, as Strange explains, “He need never leave the house if he does not wish it. The world–all worlds–will come to us.” (pp. 781-82)

Lest we worry that Strange is caddishly deserting a weeping Arabella, Clarke sets up for the final scene by making it clear that Mrs Strange has grown tired of the stresses of life with a magician. When Flora remarks that it is “very odd that he should have gone back to his old master at last,” Arabella replies, “Is it? There seems nothing very extraordinary in it to me. I never thought the quarrel would last as long as it did. I thought they would have been friends again by the end of the first month.”

Flora objects that Norrell had attacked Strange in the magical journals. Arabella gives a reply that echoes Norrell’s speech to Strange in the parting scene.

“Oh, I dare say!” said Arabella, entirely unimpressed. “But that was just their nonsense! They are both as stubborn as Old Scratch. I have no cause to love Mr Norrell–far from it. But I know this about him: he is a magician first and everything else second–and Jonathan is the same. Books and magic are all either of them really cares about. No one else understands the subject as they do–and so, you see, it is only natural that they should like to be together.”

She has gradually settled into a pleasant social and domestic life in Padua with Flora and her father: “Of her absent husband she thought very little, except to be grateful for his consideration in placing her with the Greysteels.” (pp. 779-80) No wonder she takes Strange’s startling news about his and Norrell’s plans so calmly.

Strange and Norrell’s final design for living is not the conventional romantic ending that we surely expect, with husband and wife reunited, living happily in Shropshire and occasionally visiting Norrell. Intellectual debate and the lure of further adventures, for once, carry the day. Whether audiences would have been seriously upset at such an outcome is unclear. It would have been worth a try, I think. The series’ scene of Strange appearing to Arabella as a reflection in a well and telling her he loves her is schmaltzy and, to me at least, unsatisfactory as closure.

The series ends with Childermass and Vinculus visiting the newly re-instituted Learned Society of York Magicians (a scene which in the book precedes the  Strange-Arabella conversation). The Society now consists mainly of Strangites and Norrellites. Childermass suggests to the group that Strange and Norrell are caught in some unknown place “Behind the sky. On the other side of the rain.” (p. 778) He hints that the new writings on Vinculus, if they can be deciphered, might affect the two magicians’ fates–perhaps implying that they could be rescued from the mysterious limbo in the sky into which the Darkness sucks them. Given how few rules we have been given about the Darkness, this is more vague than pleasantly ambiguous.


All the books in the world

Norrell's rolling ladder 1     Norrell's rolling ladder 2

I mentioned at the beginning that I have very much enjoyed the series, having now watched it straight through twice and gone through again making notes and taking frames for this entry. Putting aside my complaints, I would like to mention some things that I particularly like about it.

In order to inveigle David into watching the series with me, I told him that it was basically about books. Seeing it again, I realized that I did not really exaggerate. Both the causal action and the characterizations depend heavily on books, and there is also just the sheer sensuous pleasure of the beautiful rare books and the libraries they reside in. Both Clarke’s book and the series are beloved of bibliophiles. The novel is famous for its many  footnotes, many of which refer to obscure (and fictitious) books of magic, most importantly Jacques Belasis’ Instructions (date unknown), a frequent reference for both Norrell and Strange, and Thomas Lanchester’s Treatise concerning the Language of Birds (16th Century). One scene in the series, the book auction, is loosely derived from a footnote (#5, pp. 283-84)

Most of the important male characters in both book and series are characterized by their relations to books. Norrell’s manipulative power and selfishness comes through books, though he clearly loves them in and of themselves. They have essentially replaced human interaction for him. A poignant little moment comes after Norrell agrees to send forty books with Strange on his wartime journey. He does not make an angry speech to Childermass about regretting having come to London, as happens in the series; that speech is actually derived from a description of Norrell’s sad thoughts over dinner.

He wished he had never come to London. He wished he had never undertaken to revive English magic. He wished he had stayed at Hurtfew Abbey, reading and doing magic for his own pleasure. None of it, he thought was worth the loss of forty books.

After Lord Liverpool and Strange had gone he went to the library to look at the forty books and hold them and treasure them while he could. (p. 287)

In the novel, the forty books get quite battered, but they are not destroyed, there being no such scene as the battle in the forest. Indeed, Jeremy Johns, Strange’s servant and book porter, also survives the war. I couldn’t find a mention of Strange returning Norrell’s books, but presumably he does.

The other characters are also defined to a considerable extent by their relationship to books and other publications. Although Strange is often taken to be a “natural” magician needing no training, he greatly desires to have access to Mr. Norrell’s library, knowing full well that he often cannot replicate or reverse his own spells. Lascelles in effect controls Norrell’s PR by managing the authorized publications. Childermass is a frustrated aspiring magician held back by his working-class status in Norrell’s household, and he surreptitiously reads the books in the library. Segundus and Honeyfoot’s sincere desire to learn magic, or at least read about it, marks them as the humble helper figures. Although Stephen is not directly associated with books, he has had an excellent education that has gained him no respect because he is black. The Gentleman, on the other hand, has nothing but scorn for learning magic through books. When Norrell tells him that he has taught himself magic, his response is a contemptuous “Books!” Being a fairy, he assumes that magical abilities can only be taught by a master. He twice presses his services as a teacher upon Norrell, who has such a hatred for fairy magic that he indignantly declines and thus gains the enmity of the Gentleman.

The street magician Vinculus is the embodiment of fairy-derived magic, carrying the book of the Raven King written in tattoo-fashion upon his body. Although he cannot read himself as a book, he has in his memory the prophesies of the Raven King, and he delivers them to predict and presumably guide the fates of Norrell, Strange, and Stephen.

Books are central to the causal anatomy of the plot. They permit permitting such things as the relatively inexperienced Strange’s successes in his wartime service, including the magical construction of the road, which convinces the skeptical Duke of Wellington that magic might have military advantages after all. Norrell’s suppression of Strange’s book leads to suspense over whether Strange will take a violent revenge on him. The two successive texts written on Vinculus have a function that is difficult to pin down, but perhaps we are to assume that it consists of the magic that governs all the rest of the action. As Vinculus tells Childermass, in both novel and series, Norrell and Strange “are the spell John Uskglass is doing. That is all they have ever been. And he is doing it now!” (p. 758).

The series keeps books in the forefront as a general motif. Most obviously, Norrell’s bibliophilia is used to counter the more villainous aspects of his character added by the adapters. He remains a charming character in part through little bits of book-related business and dialogue. Norrell’s attempt to escape the crowd at Lady Godesdone’s party leads him to discover some books in a side room; he appreciatively, even lovingly, sniffs the book before he starts reading, a detail not in Clarke’s novel.

There is a similar moment more difficult to notice. In the first teaching session, Norrell emphasizes respectable magic and moves to fetch a book. He gives a large rolling staircase a push and steps onto it while it is moving; it stops exactly by the book on the top shelf that he is after (above).

There are other such moments. When Norrell hears Lucas, his footman, handling some books, he detects carelessness and calls out, “Mind the spines, Lucas! The spines!” His desire to acquire a specific volume at auction is emphasized by his petulant remark, “I’ve been looking for that book for years.” How many of us could not sympathize with that? Finally, there is Norrell’s exclamation during his ecstatic reaction to Strange’s spell: “It is not in Sutton-Grove!” Francis Sutton-Grove’s De Generibus Artium Magicarum Anglorum, 1741, classifies 38,945 areas of magic. It is “reputed to be the dreariest book in the canon of England Magic.” Mr Norrell is “Sutton-Grove’s greatest (and indeed only) admirer.” (Footnote 6, p. 59).

All this is why I think the adapters made a serious mistake in having Strange demand that Norrell sacrifice his entire library to provide the handsel for their final spell. Nothing of the sort happens in the novels. At one stage in the proceedings, all of the books briefly turn into ravens and swirl around the room, but they all turn back. There is no logic to having Norrell’s books offered to the Raven King. Why offer “all of English magic” to him? He embodies English magic, and he surely has no use for books. I suspect that this peculiar idea was added to allow the cheap humor of Norrell’s trying to bargain Strange into to taking only half of his library, or at most two-thirds. I can’t see a necessary function for it. The idea of the library being lost like this surely sent chills through fans and bibliophiles everywhere.


Like a film

Planimetric, Norrell-Pole meeting

I often read about a television series that has been made in the style of a film. Again, I don’t see much television, but I had to this point not seen one that does look like a film. But JS&MN does, much of the time. Given its comparatively limited budget compared to a typical historical epic of this type, it’s very impressive in its design (see bottom, for example) and cinematography (as in the top image, with its suggestion of a Turner landscape). The digital matte shots in the special effects are usually obvious as such, but they give the images an old-fashioned look that somehow seems appropriate.

At times Toby Haynes’s direction reminded me a bit of Spielberg’s, in that he has a similar habit of varying his setups within scenes. Clearly each separate framing is chosen for a specific action, as with Spielberg. These six framings open the scene in which Strange visits Norrell for the first time, and the sequence as a whole continues in this way throughout, with few repeated setups. The choice of framings manages to focus on the conversation between Stange and Lascelles while keeping us aware that Norrell is nearby, torn between suspecting that Strange is a fake and fearing that he is a rival.

Meeting scene 1   Meeting scene 2

Meeting scene 3   Meeting scene 4

Meeting scene 5   Meeting scene 6

To keep with the Amadeus theme, the series frequently contains too many shots. Do we really need four separate images of Vinculus reading the titles of the spells he has stolen from Childermass? Still, Haynes has the good sense to keep his camera on a tripod most of the time, though he is overly fond of push-ins.

One device that particularly impresses me is the systematic use of planimetric shots to characterize Norrell. This begins in the scene where he tries to interest the politician Sir Walter Pole in using his magic in the war effort and Pole humiliatingly rejects him (top of this section). It becomes more complex, though, in the beach scene where Norrell underwhelms the onlookers by silently installing his invisible beacons. This episode is presumably inspired by the scene in the book, quoted above, where Lascelles chides Norrell for not adding impressive visual elements to his coastal protections.

It begins with a crane down from the distant onlookers to Norrell inaudibly muttering his spell. For a time, variant shots of him against the empty seascape alternate with framings of Strange looking on with increasing doubt and Sir Walter chatting to Arabella about the dire situation of the war. Arabella holds her binoculars ready, expecting to see something appear.

Norrell has clearly been prepared for the occasion by Drawlight and Lascelles. He wears a new, expensive-looking outfit, and he seems to remember being told to gesture impressively. He raises his hands for a lackluster flourish, looking none too confident, and turns to the crowd, announcing, “It is done.” Arabella and Pole look surprised, as Norrell continues, off, “The sea defenses are now in place.”

In a shot of the onlookers, Lord Liverpool calls out, “I cannot see anything!” In medium close-up, Strange reacts, and Norrell, off, says “You will not see anything. They are invisible.” In long shot, Norrell looks out to sea and insists, “It is done.”

Beach scene 1     Beach scene 2     Beach scene 3

Beach scene 4     Beach scene 5     Beach scene 6

Beach scene 7     Beach scene 8     Beach scene 9

Beach scene 10     Beach scene 11     Beach scene 12

Beach scene 13     Beach scene 14     Beach scene 15

Beach scene 16     Beach scene 17     Beach scene 18

As Drawlight tries to arouse some enthusiasm by cheering for Norrell, there is a transition to a new section of the scene. An oblique view shows Norrell rejoining the group. Strange moves toward the sea and Sir Walter follows him. A planimetric shot of the pair, taken in profile rather than straight onto or away from the sea,  contrasts with the earlier part of the sequence. As Norrell and the others watch them chatting, Sir Walter and Strange are shown in two variant framings from behind. While the horizon line had hovered just above Norrell’s head, the hats of these two reach the horizon in one view and slight break through it in the second. They do not look as small and ineffectual as Norrell had against the seascape.

Beach scene 19     Beach scene 20     Beach scene 21

Beach scene 22     Beach scene 23     Beach scene 24

Beach scene 25     Beach scene 26     Beach scene 27

Beach scene 28     Beach scene 29     Beach scene 30

Beach scene 31     Beach scene 32

Finally, after declaring that he dislikes Portsmouth intensely, Norrell trudges away toward screen right while Strange and Sir Walter remain looking leftward out to sea on the other. The visual style conveys both the humor and pathos underlying the shifting fortunes of the two magicians.

Other scenes use planimetric shots less extensively, including Norrell’s escape from the crowd at the party and several framings in the two magicians’ visit to George III, in some of which Norrell’s figure is again overwhelmed by his surroundings. (See also the bottom image.)

Norrell at Godesdone party     George III scene 1

Others include his visit to Lady Pole, the magicians’ reunion after the war (see Friendly Enemies section), and their final parting.

Planimetric, Norrell visits Lady Pole     Planimetric, Norrell-Strange parting

After the latter scene, the planimetric framings disappear. I suppose this is because once the two part, there is less necessity to play create contrasts between the magicians.


Too challenging for BBC Sundays?

Why was the series relatively unsuccessful? Apparently viewership in England started off high but dropped precipitously thereafter. I don’t think the quality of the production can be blamed. Gerald O’Donovan praised the series in the Telegraph and wrote that it did not deserve such a fate. He suggests that it “was just too odd and convoluted to appear to the Sunday night mainstream. It should be interesting to see whether it lives on and wins further fans via the more cult-friendly media of boxed sets and online streaming.”

O’Donovan’s diagnosis is probably correct. Even considerably compressed, the thing was just too complicated for people to follow. The episodes move at a relentless pace. Episode 2, though perhaps the best in the series, in particular crams a surprising amount of the book’s narrative material into its approximately 50-minute running time. There is little time for redundancy in the presentation of causal material.

For example, everyone can grasp the scene in which Strange reveals to Arabella that he has become a magician and proves it by doing a spell with a mirror that allows him to see a different room, occupied by a man he doesn’t know but whom we recognize as Norrell. Most will understand that this is one of the two spells Strange bought from Vinculus after the latter recited the prophecy about two magicians (see top). But where did Vinculus get the spells, and who wrote them originally?

They were written by Norrell in an earlier scene, where he gave them to Childermass as an aid to getting Vinculus to leave London. He orders Childermass not to use them unless necessary, and Childermass never gets the chance, since Vinculus steals them out of his pocket.

It’s not absolutely necessary that we grasp this connection between the two magicians, who do not yet know each other’s identities. But it is helpful at least to understand that Norrell writes simple spells because he has only allowed Childermass to learn a limited amount of magic, and thus even Strange, who has never done magic before, can successfully use “One Spell to Discover what My Enemy is doing Presently.”

There are many connections that I failed to notice on the first time through and picked up on the second viewing. I can only imagine how people who have not read the book can follow much of the action. (After one viewing, David had no idea that Norrell had written Strange’s spell, and I think it is safe to say that he is pretty good on narrative.)

Another possible puzzler is the frequent reference to “Christians.” Clarke explains that this is what fairies call all mortal creatures; the series doesn’t. It’s a subtle point, but it explains why the tales that Lady Pole tells when she tries explain her enchantment all refer to characters and even animals as Christians. As Mr. Honeyfoot points out, these stories are told from the points of view of fairies.

As O’Donovan says, another probable obstacle has been that the series, however much it has conventionalized some aspects of the story, still tells a very odd tale indeed. People expecting a cross between Harry Potter and Jane Austen (another frequent references made in entertainment coverage) will be caught off-guard.

I ordered the British Blu-ray, which came out on June 29 in the UK. It has excellent visual quality and a few mildly interesting extras, the most helpful dealing with the special effects. The American Blu-ray/DVD has a dreadful cover, nothing like the amusing portrait of the two title characters that graces the British version.

All page numbers are from the American first edition, Bloomsbury, 2004.

Chapter Four of my The Frodo Franchise deals with the way that studios control what reporters write through giving cast and crew certain talking points that get repeated over and over in the hundreds of promotional interviews that they will undergo at press junkets, on talk shows, and during public appearances.

One might ask why Norrell, having so little dramatic flair in his magic, puts on such an impressive show in York Minster. I wondered for a while whether this was an inconsistency in Clarke’s book but concluded that Norrell simply doesn’t see the difference. Magic is magic, and it should always impress people.

I am atypical in finding the last episode disappointing. Most reviews of it were positive. See again Anibundel for an intelligent and more enthusiastic view of it. The TV series was extensively covered on this site, and other entries are worth reading as well.

[August 20: Den of Geek has an interesting piece taking to task reviewers who compared the series to Harry Potter and generally gave the idea that it is for children. (Hardly. The British Blu-ray has a 15 rating.) I doubt that was the reason for the fall-off in viewership as the series continued, but it might have caused some people not to watch the show altogether.]

Strange & Norrell w George III


David Bordwell
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