Howards End (2020) – Mini-Rant About Character Arcs and the Meaning of Self

My family and I just finished watching Howards End (2020), a 4-part TV series based on the novel by E. M. Forster. I haven’t read the book – I disliked A Passage to India and A Room with a View – so I don’t know if it’s a good adaptation. From what I could tell, it was a beautifully produced and tastefully filmed series, with lovely costumes and first-rate performances by Matthew Macfadyen (aka Arthur Clennam from Little Dorrit) and Hayley Atwell (Mansfield Park). Fans of costume dramas will definitely relish the lush English countryside and sensitive character portrayals.

HOWEVER.

I hated the story. HATED IT. I officially give up on Forster.

Howards End in a Nutshell (spoiler free)

Howards End follows the lives of the Schlegel siblings – Margaret, Helen, and “Tibby” – after they meet the enigmatic Wilcox family on a trip to Germany. The Wilcoxes live on a beautiful property called Howards End, which Helen first goes to visit on her own. They are a pretty conservative family: Mr. Wilcox taking a pragmatic view of the world that doesn’t concern itself too much with social works and Mrs. Wilcox having no part in the feminist ideals espoused by Helen. In spite of their differences, Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret form an unlikely friendship, which has far-reaching consequences after disaster strikes both families.

Without giving too much away – the gist of the story is that, by the end of massive circumstantial and manufactured ordeals, nearly every character in the movie does a complete 180 in their core principles and values. (The ending is horribly tidy as a result.) The characters’ actions were, from what I could tell, all for the sake of staving off loneliness. It bothered me greatly – and I do not think this is what a character arc should be. Am I wrong?

Who Are We, Though?

Lately I’ve had several great discussions with fellow readers and family on the nature of self, identity, and what it means to be “you.” What metaphysical and/or physical elements constitute a person? Is there anything about us that is unchangeable throughout our lives?

Now obviously a person’s values can change as they get older and mature. It’s likely cause for concern if someone doesn’t change at all. But how much of that is part of our unique identity? Or is none of it?

So the alternative is that the essence of ourselves exists, somehow, outside of our principles and values. But if that is true, then we can’t be held personally, morally responsible for anything, right? That can’t be right, because “a tree is known by its fruit.” What we do is an extension of ourselves. If we do something (or as especially, don’t do something) on principle, it is a reflection of ourselves.

I don’t know what to think, TBH.

So…

Bringing it back to Howards End, I feel like Forster committed a literary crime by cutting his characters’ feet out from under them Because Reasons and then making them do things they wouldn’t have done before Because Everyone Abandoned Me. In other words, I think a character arc should end up on higher ground, not some inverse parallel universe.

On the other hand, maybe that is the point? Maybe our principles and values are only as good as the support we get from the collective. But in that case, I would say they aren’t principles and values at all if you don’t live by them personally (and if they aren’t ever tested).

So maybe the characters of Howards End are just a bunch of spineless people spitting out platitudes. WHY would I want to read or watch a story about people that are like that?!!

Anyways… I try to keep my reviews fairly positive but this show left me Upset as you can see. Let me know your thoughts on Howards End and/or this topic. No worries, I got my rant out of my system and won’t argue. 😆

Spellbound vs. Laura – Two creepy movies for October

First, an apology/disclaimer… there WILL be classic literature reviews coming soon!!  I often watch movies/TV in batches, so this is one of those phases for me.  🙂

Spellbound (1945)

Spellbound is a twisted tale of the romance between an ambitious young doctor (Ingrid Bergman) and her unlikely boss (Gregory Peck).  The two work as psychoanalysts in the same mental health facility, and in spite of the office gossip, Constance finds herself falling in love for the first time.  Anthony, on the other hand, begins to show signs of mental distress, haunted by fears he cannot remember nor explain.  When Anthony becomes implicated in a crime, Constance – terrified of losing him – decides to apply all her knowledge on mental health to try to discern the truth from his scattered memories.

Laura (1944)

Laura (Gene Tierney), a charismatic young businesswoman, is found dead in her apartment one morning, brutally shot in the face.  Detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) arrives on the scene and begins to question everyone who was close to Laura, from her shady fiance Shelby (Vincent Price) to her jealous mentor Waldo (Clifton Webb).  From getting to know these various characters and reading Laura’s letters and diary, Mark begins to form a picture of the obsessions which surround her – obsessions which begin to affect him personally.

The Weaknesses of Strong Women

These two films were released within a year of each other, and, perhaps as a result, they share many themes.

The one which stood out to me most was the fatal flaw in both of the “strong” female protagonists.  Dr. Constance Petersen’s biggest weakness is not her sacrificing her career to Anthony (though that is hardly commendable in this plot’s context); rather, her biggest weakness is sacrificing her identity for him – identity in both the literal and metaphorical senses.  Laura, also an ambitious and driven woman, will not distance herself from toxic relationships, and she suffers for it.

Generational Divide

I was struck by the portrayal of the older generation between these two films.  In Laura, the older gentleman Waldo is portrayed as a witty but arrogant fop, lovable in his quaint manners but questionable in the pursuit of his young protege.  By contrast, in Spellbound Hitchcock brings us the wonderful character of Dr. Brulov, Constance’s mentor and an honorable father figure.  Both types exist in the real world, of course.

The Better Story?

Spellbound is a much more chilling movie; Laura has far more humor and less macabre.  If you are looking for thrills, you’ll find Spellbound to be fairly adequate, if not so unnerving as Vertigo.

That said, of the two movies I preferred Laura by a wide margin.  Spellbound is disappointing in that the crux of the story – could you fall in love with a murderer? – is not developed to the extent that it drives home a point or even the question.  For all its failures as a thriller, Laura is a hardboiled who-dunnit that will keep you guessing to the end, and its message/moral remains intact and fully developed. 

Ad Astra vs. Heart of Darkness – Movie review (spoiler free!)

On Saturday, my brother and I went to see Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt.  This is a film that’s been compared – by its director James Gray, no less – to Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (one of my axes).  Being in the middle of a Conrad “renaissance” if you will, I felt it was perfect timing.  A couple of my coworkers had seen it already and liked it, so that was another reason I was interested in watching it.

Pitt plays Roy McBride, a young astronaut whose impeccable career is overshadowed by memories of his absent father Clifford and the much-nearer loss of Eve, the devoted wife he sidelined for his career and who’s recently left him.  After a series of devastating electrical surges sweep across the solar system, Roy is tasked by U.S. Space Command to investigate the situation, which they believe could be linked to his dad’s scientific research on Neptune.  Roy sets out to confront Clifford, embarking on a journey through space that is every bit as perilous as his final destination.

While I would not call this a retelling of Heart of Darkness, there are indeed several similarities between this film and that novella.  Roy’s story takes him further and further into isolation, both geographically and psychologically.  Like Conrad’s narrator Marlowe, Roy has an immense amount of time before he meets Clifford, and this waiting fills his mind with doubts, fears, and an overwhelming curiosity.  The hand of empire is as present here as in Conrad’s book – Roy remarks cynically on the presence of governments and corporations on the Moon as he passes through it on his way to Mars.  Throughout the film, Pitt voices Roy’s dark and lonely monologue, which is dissimilar from Marlowe’s in that Roy’s depression has elbowed out any sense of humor he once had.

The most fascinating – and perhaps the most Conradian – element of the film was its dystopian portrayal of space exploration.  This came to me as a complete surprise, since I am used to it being portrayed in Western media as noble and heroic.  The film makes significant references to imperialism and even a passing reference to Manifest Destiny as it describes the exploits of the human race in space.  It doesn’t outright dismiss it, but there are very few positives mentioned or portrayed.  It can be debated whether this is just Roy’s bleak outlook or also the filmmakers’.

I do have to mention a couple of weak points in the plot.  There is one scene where the character makes a stupid decision which doesn’t seem to fit his otherwise cerebral persona.  Another scene involving monkeys seemed extremely random, though effective as commentary on humans’ behavior.  Thirdly, the ending was not at all what I expected – not in a bad way, just unexpected.

Comparisons aside, Ad Astra is a compelling standalone film with plenty of questions and commentary.  It focuses heavily on psychological suspense, and I think even those who aren’t sci-fi fans can appreciate the realism and near-futuristic setting.  There are some gruesome scenes and brief bad language, so it’s not a movie for young kids.  As a squeamish person, I thought it stayed within PG-13, though, and was mostly non-gratuitous.

Arctic, Roman Holiday, Titanic, and Nostromo – Four short reviews

Time for some more bite-sized movie reviews…two 1953 classics, one costume drama, and one survival drama!

Arctic (2019)

Plot

Mads Mikkelsen plays Overgård, the lone survivor of a plane wreck in the Arctic.  He spends his days in tedium, catching fish (which he eats raw) and sending out hand-cranked radio signals in hopes they’ll get picked up. When the rescue team he has been waiting for finally arrives, their helicopter crashes, and he is left suddenly tending to another survivor, a young woman with terrible injuries.  Overgård resolves to set out on foot for the nearest outpost, to try to save both their lives.

Thoughts

The trailer pulled me in many months ago…later I discovered it on Prime, and I’m glad I finally saw it.  Polar exploration nerds will soak in the stunning cinematography, filmed in Iceland (no CGI snowcapes here!), plus the human drama surrounding Mikkelsen’s character.  In spite of the plot’s simplicity, there is plenty of suspense, all the more unsettling in its realism.  It’s not all action-adventure, either – the psychology of loneliness and survival instincts play a central part, leaving you questioning what you would do in the same situation.

If I could think of one criticism, I would have liked to see more dialogue, even if it’s just Overgård talking to himself.  There was such an absence of verbal thought process, my mom and I started giving him advice as the movie went on, much to my brother’s exasperation…  Other than that, this is a pretty solid movie and good for older families (one instance of the f-bomb and some medical gore; otherwise family friendly).

Roman Holiday (1953)

Plot

Born into a life of duty, Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) has become fed up with her rigid schedule of royal visits, boring dinners, and meaningless speeches.  She suffers a near-mental breakdown in Rome and, to everyone’s horror, goes missing.  Journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) finds her sleeping on the sidewalk incognito and the next day promises to give her the best holiday of her life, seeing the sights in Rome like any ordinary person.  Ann jumps at the chance, not realizing that Bradley has recognized her and is scheming to profit from the great story it will make.

Thoughts

It’s easy to see why Roman Holiday is a classic – it’s a kind of reverse-Cinderella story, with a wonderful 50s aesthetic and innocence, and even more anguish. I was going through some emotional stuff before I started it, so by halfway I was bawling.  The plot doesn’t end well, at least from my perspective, although it could be argued it is a “good” ending. Overall, I thought it was a good movie, and I was happy to see my actor crush Gregory Peck in another fascinating role, even if his character was a bit of a jerk. 

Titanic (1953)

(Yeah, not that Titanic. :))

Plot

Like the more famous 90s film, Titanic (1953) focuses on human relationships playing out on the last days of the vessel.  Young love takes back burner here, however, as the main focus is a breakup between a married couple and its effects on their children. A host of supporting characters portray the diversity of the passengers on board, from a Basque mother to a drunken ex-priest, all unknowingly about to share one terrible experience in common.

Thoughts

This was the first serious attempt at a Titanic film, told through a personal drama and following main points of accuracy.  I thought it was a mostly well-crafted film.  I don’t personally care for Downton Abbey-esque drama, which this is, but if you like that, then you will appreciate the story.  I can’t compare it with the Jack and Rose romance, because I’ve never seen that one; if I were to guess, I’d say a shipwrecked marriage is a better analogy to fit the events.  On a side note, I was happy to see Richard Basehart, AKA Ishmael from Moby-Dick, as the priest, whose character was very compelling and ought to have had more development.

Nostromo (1996)

To my great amazement, it turns out BBC and Masterpiece Theatre released a 3-part series of Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo back in the glorious 90s.  It’s not available on DVD, and only second-hand on VHS.  Somebody very kindly uploaded it onto YouTube, which is how I watched it.  (It reminded me, too, how much I miss Russell Baker’s intros.)

The plot follows the book very closely.  It starts out with a flashback to the death of Charles’s father, then covers all three parts of the book. Colin Firth and Albert Finney look nothing like I pictured Charles Gould and the doctor (respectively), but they are both excellent in their roles. Some reviewers felt the casting of Antonia and Martin was poor; personally, I thought Martin was well cast – his downward spiral was very convincing. There were some grim and violent scenes, but even as a squeamish viewer I thought it stayed within the realm of PG-13. I loved the music, costumes, and landscapes/sets; no CGI here!

My parents and brother were unfamiliar with the story but they also enjoyed it.  My dad thought it was a bit hard to follow in places and the script could have been stronger, and I think the main weakness of the adaptation is its length – it was too short.  For more organic dialogue, and without cutting scenes, you need more time.  The last episode was probably the strongest and led to some discussion among us afterwards.

Overall, a surprisingly good adaptation of a Conrad novel – true to plot, setting, and spirit.  I would watch it again!