Jonathan Strange Review: Arabella

To sit and pass hour after hour in idle chatter with a roomful of strangers is to me the worst sort of torment.

Susanna Clarke

SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

I actually felt nervous about watching this one. Because I knew, just knew, that something horrible was going to happen, and I couldn’t remember what it was because I read the book like three years ago, and THE TENSION.

I was right, of course. Something horrible does happen: the prophecy about Jonathan Strange comes true.

The second shall see his dearest possession in his enemy’s hand.

The thistledown gentleman steals Arabella Strange away for his own using the classic changeling trick; and Jonathan unwittingly seals the deal, as it were, thinking he’s talking to a distraught and delirious Arabella when actually he’s talking to a construct made from a log of wood:

“Do you renounce all other wives?”

Yes, yes, of course I do!”

The point of all this, obviously, is that while we know what Jonathan is doing, he doesn’t: dramatic irony, a patriarchy that binds women into contractual obligations in which they have largely no say coming back to bite itself, the dark mirror-world of Faerie, full of all that is oppressed and ignored and rancid, preying on the society that generates it. It’s a great scene, actually, full of pathos and horror and a certain fairytale simplicity, a rightness, that’s very hard to capture.

But then Arabella’s double dies, and this is where everything gets a little uncomfortable for me. Again, the dramatic irony comes into play: we know that Arabella, the real Arabella, is alive, dancing her life away in the land of Lost Hope. Jonathan doesn’t. And my question is: isn’t Jonathan’s grief a little manipulative? What does it mean, if we know that it’s not actually true, that the whole thing is going to be undone in the next episode? I suspect I’m not going to be able to answer this question until I actually watch the next episode, because I can’t remember what happens, but I wonder if the point, or part of it, is that the kind of contract which trades women away as if they are goods causes suffering which is, exactly, pointless and unnecessary.

This is why I love writing these posts. I already couldn’t wait for the next episode, for further glimpses of the King’s Roads and John Uskglass and the worlds of Faerie, for the freeing of Lady Pole and the restoration of Arabella and the comeuppance of Lascelles and all the wonderful things that must happen at the end of a fairytale. And now I can’t wait even more: I can’t wait to see where the show goes with this, what conclusions it comes to about magic and the mirror-land, and will Sunday just hurry up and arrive already.

Film Review: My Week with Marilyn

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was.

Ernest Hemingway

Post-exam finals student with nothing to do + access to BBC iPlayer = watching random films featuring Eddie Redmayne playing Eddie Redmayne.

Hence My Week with Marilyn.

It’s a film about Marilyn Monroe. Actually, that’s not quite right. It’s a film about a third assistant director (Eddie Redmayne) on the set of a film starring Marilyn Monroe, and his brief and mostly illusory love affair with the star.

What the film constantly circles back to is the question of how far we can really know Marilyn Monroe: how much of what is written and said about her or by her is performance; and how far she is object, not subject. A constant refrain is “You don’t understand her”; with the general subtext being, of course, “and I do”. But perhaps the truth is that everyone sees a different Marilyn: Michelle Williams gives us a fractured Monroe, one who basks in the adulation of an impromptu audience but is overcome by terrible nerves on a film set; one who can flirt shamelessly with a man twice her age, and who has been married three times, but who also seems capable of genuine feeling. The performer is inextricable from the person, the object blurs into the subject; we never gain close access to Monroe, seeing her only through the eyes of a fairly anonymous film crew.

All of this is contextualised, of course, by the rise of film itself as a major industry, one beginning to eclipse the stage: one of the plot strands of My Week with Marilyn deals with Laurence Olivier’s jealousy of Monroe’s unaffected camera acting. This is a dangerous game for a film, since it inevitably reminds us that we ourselves are watching a fiction, a created thing and not a truth; a film about a star itself crammed with acting royalty (including a profoundly unconvincing turn from Emma Watson as Redmayne’s alternative love interest). But the film handles this decently, I think: everything that happens on the film set is so illusory, so unreal, and contains so little convincing mundanity (even Redmayne’s family lives in a palatial estate) that the metatheatrical subtext only deepens its various ironies.

For the most part, it’s an enjoyable and well-made film, if not one I’d see again. At only 90 minutes long, it’s great for a Sunday afternoon, even if you’re not terribly interested in Monroe herself.

Jonathan Strange Review: All the Mirrors of the World

The world is not dumb at all, but merely waiting for someone to speak to it in a language it understands.”

Susanna Clarke

There is much that is strange and potent and wonderful in the fourth episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and I don’t quite know what to make of it all.

All the Mirrors of the World charts a widening split between the magicians, as Jonathan chafes against the restraints of Mr Norrell’s respectability and seeks out the ancient forms of magic behind the mirrors. It’s interested in madness, and kingship; in forms of constructive and destructive debate; in ways of understanding and knowing and learning. There’s a lot going on, and all of it is enchanting. (I loved the world behind the mirror which we see, briefly, through Jonathan’s eyes: haunting and beautiful and ethereal, exactly as Faerie should be.)

Last week I wrote that the mirror-space of Faerie in the series stands as a metaphor for the racism and sexism latent and repressed in Regency society. Satisfying as this reading is, it unfortunately requires us to see Jonathan Strange as a feminist (as he seeks to lift the lid from the mirror-space, as it were), which, admirable as that gentleman’s virtues are, is probably a step too far.

Instead, I’d say that the mirror-space is a metaphor for everything that is repressed in or excluded from adult society: racism and sexism, yes, but also madness and childishness (the fairytales Mr Norrell despises), dreams and nightmares (where Lady Pole and Stephen Black dance their nights away), old beliefs and old stories; everything that gets excluded when we impose order on disorder, when social rules begin to regulate “normal” human experience. So while Norrell’s unhealthy approach is to ignore that space, to push it out of sight and out of mind through rules and respectability – and, in the process, creating casualties like Lady Pole, driven mad by what society can’t or won’t acknowledge – Jonathan’s is to turn towards the unknown and make it known, to look at and use all this troubling mass of society’s unconsciousness to make things better for everyone.

It’s a powerful defence of fantasy and fairytale, albeit one which asks us to deconstruct those genres: what we exclude from normality tells us something about ourselves, about why we consider normality to be normal. It’s why Jonathan’s first book of magic is A Child’s History of the Raven King, and why we can imagine Jonathan sitting down to read Robinson Crusoe while Mr Norrell wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. And it’s why Jonathan can envisage a future for magic, and, in fact, human relations in general, that involves truthful exchange of opinion (because he allows himself to imagine alternative societies, alternative respectabilities) while Mr Norrell can barely comprehend the idea that anyone could contradict him. Jonathan sees many possible truths, Mr Norrell only one.

As you may have gathered, I liked this episode very much. It feels more fantastical and more magically charged than any of the previous episodes, and it feels more relevant, too; it’s at this point in the narrative that it’s beginning to tell us something about ourselves as well as something about Regency society. My urge to punch Mr Norrell in the face grows ever stronger, as does my sympathy for poor Lady Pole; the relationship between Arabella and Jonathan becomes increasingly more real and more lovely; the thistledown gentleman’s plans increase in obscurity and insidiousness. I can’t wait to see what Sunday brings.

Jonathan Strange Review: The Education of a Magician

I regularly demand the impossible of my engineers, my generals, my officers. I see no reason to make an exception in your case.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The third episode in the BBC’s six-part fantasy drama, The Education of a Magician sees Jonathan Strange working magic in the service of Lord Wellington on the Continent, creating roads for his army, calling up mists, raising the dead, and otherwise partaking in magical larks.

But for me the best part of the series remains the magical horrors at home, in England, where the gentleman with the thistledown hair continues to menace the Pole residence, and Mr Norrell becomes more and more unpleasant and cowardly as he attempts to cover up his mistake by censoring the Stranges’ letters to each other and restricting access to Lady Pole. Perhaps, after all, this is the point: while Strange is off fighting the French and the Italians and doing all the stuff that magicians do, the real magic, the real disturbance in the nature of things (by which I think I mean the cultural fabric of Napoleonic Europe) is sitting at home with Mr Norrell, whose cowardice and ignorance of the society in which he lives (we remember that of the two magicians Norrell is the one who hates company, who refuses to kowtow to those in power, who does not behave like a gentleman) has opened up a profoundly troubling mirror-space at the heart of domesticity. It’s that mirror-space, the land of Faerie where dwells the thistledown gentleman and his ilk, that reflects and enhances the brutalities of Regency England, stripped of their trappings of courtesy: the misogyny and the racism that generates England’s cultural power. Just as fairy magic and the magic of the Raven King – the magic of the thistledown gentleman – lies behind all English magic (however respectable Mr Norrell would have it), the systems of prejudice that imprison Lady Pole and which rob Stephen of his history and name lie behind the cultivated respectability of Regency society. Which is, I think, the reason storytellers return to the Napoleonic and Regency era so often, especially in genres like fantasy and romance, and why we like Jane Austen so much: there’s a deep imaginative conflict between the laws of decency and respectability (“remember we are Christian”, as Henry Tilney tells a mortified Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey) and the casual brutalities that lie behind those laws, which finds itself manifested in the contemporary literature as the Gothic.

I’m still enjoying Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by the way. However we choose to read it (if we choose to read it at all, and don’t just watch it like sane people do), the scenes with the thistledown gentleman are fantastic and strange and bizarre; the plight of Lady Pole is positively rage-inducing (I want to punch Mr Norrell’s pimply face more and more); Jonathan’s experiences on the front line are sensitively handled. Onwards into the mirror-lands!

Jonathan Strange Review: How is Lady Pole?

One is never lonely when one has a book.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

The answer is, in fact, “not very well at all”.

It’s tempting to read the second episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell as in part a kind of metatextual discussion about Regency (yes, it is Regency, because Sir Walter Pole said the King was mad, so there) attitudes toward marginalised groups. After I watched the first episode, I started thinking about the scene where Norrell and the fairy gentleman with the thistledown hair bargain Lady Pole’s life away. It’s a scene, I think, specifically designed to alienate the viewer: the menacing, alien being and the bumbling, cowardly Norrell concluding a Faustian bargain in a coldly lit bedchamber over a woman with literally no agency (being dead). We’re not supposed, at this point, to identify with either of these characters: the bargain is a kind of metaphor for the sale and barter of countless women of the time. The scene constitutes, in its own way, the ironic, distancing treatment of Regency values that was apparent in the original novel’s disjunct between its Augustan prose style and its awareness that it’s not actually a Regency novel.

So what does this episode do with that distance? If the title of the episode is How is Lady Pole, what’s it doing to answer that question?

Well, as a result of Norrell’s bargain – which, we remember, traded away half of Lady Pole’s life to the thistledown gentleman – it transpires that Lady Pole is spending her nights dancing at the fairy court due to a highly creative reading of the wording of the bargain (because when was the last time you slept twelve hours straight?). But it works on fairyland logic, so, fine. Lady Pole is less than pleased by this: she becomes distressed at the sound of bells, which announce the thistledown gentleman’s arrival, she tries to avoid going to sleep, she tries to tell people – but all that comes from her mouth is nonsense. It’s Mr Norrell who pronounces the inevitable verdict: “Magic can’t cure madness.” Which is significant, because a) Mr Norrell has personal reasons for not wanting Lady Pole taken seriously, and b) the madwoman in the attic is a classic metaphor for oppressed and silenced women – think Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, or the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper”. How is Lady Pole, then? Silenced, oppressed and frightened – but not ill. The episode uses the visual trope of the pale consumptive woman only to undermine it, just as the novel uses Regency prose only to undermine the values that created it.

I say this not to draw out the rather obvious moral that women in Regency times were oppressed but just to illustrate how clever I think the BBC is being in adapting the novel: it’s got that you can’t do the same things in TV that you can in print, while remaining faithful to the source material. With TV, we can’t ever believe ourselves inside a historical narrative as we can with a historical novel, because TV is a modern medium; so instead of Augustan prose we get a series of visual shorthands, cliches we’re all familiar with from visual forms of historical storytelling and which for many of us form the basis for our knowledge of historical periods, and asks how they’re culturally conditioned, how much objective truth there is in them.

Apart from anything else, the programme remains a joy to watch. The second episode is again well-paced, suspenseful and spooky, and the animation remains fantastic: there’s a scene where horses made of sand rescue a grounded ship which is simply breathtaking. I don’t know how much money is being thrown at this but I’m going to guess it’s somewhere in the region of “a lot”. Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange is very watchable, enthusiastic and energized; Jonathan’s wife Arabella is funny and sharp and a great corrective to the consumptive Lady Pole (“Arabella is not a three-year-old”); the thistledown gentleman remains menacing and otherworldly. Adapting a novel successfully is a very hard trick to get right, but I think Jonathan Strange is doing it very well.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell Review: The Friends of English Magic

All prophecies are nonsense.”

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

So I finally got round to watching the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a tale of the resurgence of magic in a Napoleonic-era England in which “magician” is a bad word and no real magic has been practised for three hundred years.

It should be noted at this point that I read the novel about two years ago, and so I can’t say I actually remember great swathes of it, or that I can claim to make any kind of meaningful statement about the faithfulness of the TV series to the book (other than the broad, “there was nothing I didn’t remember from the book”). In any case, my main experience of Clarke’s novel was one of atmosphere over plot: I loved its footnotes and its imagined histories and its bookishness more than I waited with bated breath for stuff to happen.

Obviously, this isn’t an atmosphere that a TV drama can achieve, especially not a fantasy TV drama on at primetime on a flagship channel. Though calling the episodes of the series chapters is a nice touch, this first episode is much faster-paced and much more fantastical than I remember the original. Where Clarke asked us to consider magic an academic discipline, a subject to be pored over and written about, a thing so ingrained in English history as to be almost mundane, the TV series explicitly draws us into an ethereally coloured otherworld of fantasy shorthand: the facetious Norrell’s Gothic library, the deep dark shadows of York cathedral (the whole cathedral sequence is a very effective and probably quite expensive piece of animation), the haunted and haunting bedchamber of the dead.

Aesthetically, then, it’s quite different from the novel, but that, I think, only makes the dissonance of Norrell’s actual character in this setting all the sharper. (Jonathan Strange, the other magician of the novel, doesn’t make much of an appearance here.) The episode plays on the characters’ expectations of what a magician should be as much as it plays on ours: Eddie Marsan’s hunched, awkwardly proud Norrell is emphatically the wrong figure for this kind of drama, yet he’s the one tasked (by himself, it has to be said) to bring magic back to public attention. Clearly uncomfortable in company (“I have no friends,” he says, tragically, at one point), Norrell’s almost pathetic desire to return to the retirement of his Yorkshire home grounds the fantasy aspects, as well as the high drama of London social and political life, in recognisable human weakness.

All of which is to say: I liked this a lot. The episode is well-paced and suspenseful, and the air of prophecy about it is properly menacing. There are some excellent performances, from Marsan, from Marc Warren as a brilliantly sinister faerie creature, from Samuel West as the apparently respectable but mercenary Sir Walter Pole. I feel like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is going to be one of those rare things: an adaptation that takes full account both of its source material and of the demands of the new medium.

Throne of Jade

I am very tired of this Government, which I have never seen, and which is always insisting that I must do disagreeable things, and does no good to anybody.”

Naomi Novik

The sequel to the lovely and immensely satisfying Regency-era military fantasy Temeraire, Throne of Jade continues the loveliness with a well-thought-out, beautifully written, quietly touching story about slavery, and duty, and the perils of the sea.

The Chinese Emperor having apparently taken offence at the use of Temeraire, a revered Celestial dragon, in dishonourable combat against the French, Laurence and Temeraire are forced to take the long and difficult sea-journey to China in the hopes of keeping the Chinese government on the British side so that the ports remain open to them and China doesn’t suddenly decide to side with the French. There’s no guarantee when they get there that Laurence will be allowed to keep Temeraire; which, of course, makes the journey very hard on both of them, with its end in doubt.

Like the earlier novel, Throne of Jade‘s strength lies in its delineation of relationships: that between Laurence and Temeraire, of course, which is adorable but also becomes increasingly strained as they reach China; that on board ship, between Laurence’s aviator crew, the sailors of the British Navy, and the Chinese delegation, which again sees tensions rising over a period of seven months with a dragon on board; that between nations. Novik is very, very good at laying out the personal and social webs that connect person to person in these societies, the pressures that combine to create very specific political landscapes, and using those webs and those landscapes to think about the points where different cultures clash, and what happens at those points. So: though Temeraire has grown up with Laurence, he essentially belongs to a different kind of culture as a British dragon than Laurence does as a British serviceman. He’s a natural commentator on Regency society, interrogating the practice of slavery, and why human women can’t fight when dragon women can, and how the British treat intelligent beings. And then we have the clashes on board ship, between the aviators, with little to do and a rather lax hierarchy, and the Navy men, superstitious, strongly hierarchical and rowdy. This gap is, of course, bridged by Laurence, who used to be a Navy captain; but even in this position things can be tricky politically for the two military cultures. Misunderstandings occur, bad blood surfaces, fear and anger circulates, and yet when crisis occurs aviators and sailors must somehow pull together to save the ship.

This foreshadows in microcosm the most interesting meeting of cultures, which is, of course, that of China and England. The questions Novik raises, here as throughout the book, are cogent and important ones: How can we interpret other cultures – through our eyes or through theirs? Do we unquestioningly adhere to unfamiliar customs, or do we ask what they mean to the culture in which they belong? There’s a bit where Laurence and some British officials in Canton port are discussing the kowtow to the Emperor: the British ambassador holds that it’s a local custom, no more degrading from the Chinese perspective than a formal bow would be in England; but another British official reveals that it’s actually a form of tribute reserved for tributary princes and conquered enemies, which makes it problematic for a British visitor to the court. The novel everywhere complicates a simplistic reading of the other in favour of contextual cultural understanding. Yes, some Chinese dragons are starving; but they are free to starve in a way which British dragons are not, fed and fattened as Temeraire and his friends are for war. Yes, the Chinese aviator corps are made up exclusively of women; but the reasons for this are based in the same misogyny that prevents British women from fighting (unless they dress up as men). Yes, there are mysterious and sinister happenings going on at the Chinese court; but these have their roots not in some conspiracy against the world but in exactly the same kind of political machinations that have driven Laurence and Temeraire halfway across the globe. This is not to say that Novik flattens Chinese culture, or implies that it’s the same as British culture; at least, I don’t feel that’s what Throne of Jade is doing. Only, she refuses to allow her readers to fall into simplistic paradigms of what the other might look like. The state of China is rich with history and tradition and humanity and autonomy.

Also: TEMERAIRE. Please can I have my own dragon? Please?

Throne of Jade is possibly even better than Temeraire, and I’m supremely glad that there are like a bajillion more books in the series. Bring on the Regency dragons.

Suite Francaise

“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.”

John F. Kennedy

It’s a Bad Day, Constant Reader. You know the kind of day: you’re feeling tired and headachy and possibly just a little bit passive-aggressive and really what you need to do is curl up in bed with the nicest book on your shelves and/or sing angry songs from the New Albion quartet (“in the fire, BATHE IN THE FIRE”) but you can’t because there’s still stuff to do in the day.

I really, really don’t feel like writing about Suite Francaise today, because, well, frankly, writing a post takes a lot of effort and hard thinking and did I mention I had a headache?

But as Freddie Mercury once said: The show must go on. Which means, alas, that I must stop ranting and start writing something constructive.

For some reason the Second World War keeps leaking into my life at the moment. I mean, I guess I did write a whole dissertation on it, so that’s not surprising. And then I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. And The Little Stranger. And then, more or less by accident, I went to see Suite Francaise, because a couple of friends were going to the cinema and the only other things on were Insurgent (haven’t seen the first film), The Second Best Marigold Hotel (ditto) or Still Alice (depressing). Not that Suite Francaise sounded a barrel of laughs: set in France during the Nazi Occupation, a French girl falls in love with the German soldier billeted in her house. Yes, I rolled my eyes too.

But that description does little justice to the tangles and tribulations of Suite Francaise. Because it’s only partly a love story; in fact, I’d be inclined to think of it sort of a meta-love story, in that it draws attention to the extraordinary solipsism and magical thinking of many love stories of its type. While Lucille, Our Heroine, is busy lighting candles and coming up with ways of getting her mother-in-law out of the house, poorer citizens are watching their livelihoods, their families, being destroyed by occupation; watching freedoms being eroded by the very officers who seem so decent, so romantic. It reveals the rose-tinted, “love conquers all”, “well after all we’re all human” tropes of this kind of story as trite maxims that obscure the real complexities of occupation: the knife-edge between cooperation and resistance, welcome and hostility, equilibrium and disaster, love and hate, that the occupied territory walks.

The film’s also rather good at bringing home the horror of invasion: of bombs in wheatfields and lines of refugees on country roads; of occupying officers rioting in ancient stately homes; of the Nazi flag flying over an execution in the sunny square of a rural French town. Of having to live with the enemy, the invader in your own home, hating him but having to keep his commands. Its structure, a sort of repeating parabola in which Lucille is first repulsed by Bruno, her officer (and the town repulsed by its occupiers), then drawn to him (the townspeople begin to curry favour with the officers and soldiers), then repulsed again (as some atrocity is imposed upon the town by Nazi martial law), gives a sort of vertigo to the proceedings: can we trust the Germans? Are they really “nice” and understanding and not here to hurt us? Or are they vicious oppressors with no thought for the well-being of the occupied populace? Both are true; and neither, and that contradiction is where the heart of Suite Francaise lies.

It’s not by any means a perfect film: many of its narrative threads remain untied, and as a unity it frequently feels muddled, confused, unsure. But perhaps these are necessary things for a film like this; certainly I can’t think of any better ending that would stay true to what I think the film is trying to say. I don’t think I’d see it again in a hurry, and I didn’t feel any particular emotional resonance with it. But I enjoyed it, on the whole. I enjoyed that it didn’t take the easy way out at any point. I enjoyed its complexity and its courage. Don’t judge Suite Francaise by its synopsis. It’s better than that.

Banished: Ep. 1

“Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.”

John Greenleaf Whittier

Oh gods. I watched Banished probably over a week ago and the only notes I have in my notebook read, respectively, “Oh, that’s sensitive, isn’t it” and “OMG it’s Faramir”. These are helpful, as you can imagine.

OK, let’s start with a Plot Synopsis in the hope that inspiration will come. Banished is a newish drama on BBC Two set in the penal colonies of Australia in 1788. Life is brutal for the convicts and for those sent to guard them: there are too many convicts to feed, so life is cheap and punishment brutal. Hard labour is the norm for the men, while the women “belong” to the British soldiers; any male convict “interfering” with the women (this is 1788, so euphemism is rife among the governing class) is to be hanged. And, it transpires early on, this is more or less what has happened. A convict woman, Elizabeth, is found in the men’s barracks, sleeping with (but not “sleeping with”) her lover, or rather the man she loves. Things do not go well for him.

It’s all rather oddly chaste, given the circumstances (penal colony, women regularly used as prostitutes, etc.), but this is, I suspect, part of the point: how do you live a decent life in a community where the worst is always expected of you? How can you find honesty in a den of thieves? In a lawless place what laws can you live by?

These are questions asked by the subplot, too, in which a convict stands up to another convict who nicks Catelyn Stark’s food, and is punished for his efforts by having his food stolen regularly instead. Eventually he grasses up the thief in an attempt to escape starvation, earning the derision of the entire colony in the process, only to find that the governor (played by David Wenham, which is where the Faramir fangirling comes in) doesn’t believe him. Or, rather, refuses to believe him: for the thief is a blacksmith, the colony’s only blacksmith, and to believe poor James would be to lose the blacksmith. (Because, what do you think the punishment for theft is? That’s right, hanging. They were big on hanging in 1788.)

And so this unhappy cast of characters – convicts, soldiers, priests and governors – pick their way from dilemma to dilemma in a godforsaken place across a godforsaken sea, a thousand miles from a home they might never see again. Love or life? Principle or pragmatism? Break a vow or take a life? Condemn a colony or condemn a man? The questions these characters end up facing are unanswerable, of course, and each question is harder than the last. Banished is engaging, for sure, although it occasionally tips into hysteria (the overtones of the Crucifixion are a little heavy-handed in the closing scenes here), and it will be interesting to see where it goes.

(That went well, I thought.)

(Points for anyone who can tell me which film that last line’s from. I can’t remember, and it’s annoying me.)

Call the Midwife: Ep. 4

“The present soon becomes the past and is gone.”

Robert Rankin

It’s been rather a long time since I saw this episode, which is always interesting when you’re trying to write about something. I do remember thinking that this series of Call the Midwife seems to be taking on the Great Isms with some gusto: if episode three was an exploration of 50s homophobia, then episode four takes a look at various facets of 50s sexism, from prostitution to wanting sons instead of daughters. Sister Monica Joan, feeling useless and extraneous, reminisces about marching for the vote in the days of her (relative) youth; Doctor Turner helps Sister Winifred educate prostitutes about syphilis; Trixie deals with the implications of imminently becoming a vicar’s wife. Now I think about it, the episode is actually very economically structured, each disparate storyline adding something to the conversation going on about women’s roles, and what can be done to escape or empower them. And though the show retains its essential fluffiness, I’m beginning to get more and more of a sense that the issues raised in each episode can’t actually be tied up neatly within the scope of one episode. The story ends with an acknowledgment that things get better, but not all the way better. People can help each other, but they can’t solve everything. Tea and lashings of ginger beer are incrementally cheering, but not solutions in themselves.

I wonder how that will resolve, eventually? I may have missed episode 5 on iPlayer (through being disorganised and LIFE), so I don’t know if I’ll find out, unfortunately. But there’ll be another series. There always is.