The watching of Christmas movies continued this Sunday night with The Muppet Christmas Carol, starring the inimitable Michael Caine as Ebeneezer Scrooge. To be perfectly honest, besides the 1951 Alistair Sim version, this is probably my favourite take on Charles Dickens' classic tale. It is the Muppets at their best, combining silly humour and good music with moments of surprisingly effective sentiment. Word of advice; if you're going to watch it, try to dig up an old copy- mine's on VHS- because newer copies have one of the songs cut out. While this wasn't the best song in the film, it's removal was awkwardly done and ruins the scene it was in. Also, a reprise of the song is sung at the end of the movie which, since the song was cut, seems to come from nowhere. This reprise is also supposed to demonstrate the change in Scrooge's character, from 'the love is gone' to 'the love we've found' but, with the song gone, this is now an incomplete thought. Still and all, a good movie and fun Christmas film.
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I went to my sister's church Sunday morning to see the Christmas play which her Sunday School class was taking part in. My favourite moment: the 'shepherds on the hillside' scene. The children acting as shepherds sat around a fake fire, surrounded by stuffed sheep. While the narrators were reading the corresponding Bible verses, I glanced over at the shepherds to see that one of them had hooked a sheep on the end of his crook, and was matter-of-factly roasting it over the "fire". Silly, I know, but it made me laugh.
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We decorated the tree at the family homestead in the afternoon:
While we were busy with the tree, my parents' dog, Jack, seized the opportunity to sneak into the kitchen and eat up a dozen gingerbread cookies which had been in a bag on the counter. He got a head start on the Christmas binge eating. :)
Yesterday afternoon, I went out to see the Christmas musical drama being performed at the church my brother and his family attend:
It was a really well done production, and I enjoyed it immensely. Some of my favourite moments included the childrens' choir and their spirited performance of "Go, Tell It On The Mountain" and the final song, which the entire cast and audience sing, a medley of "Joy To The World" and "Unspeakable Joy."
Last night we continued our Christmas movie binge (so far we've watched White Christmas and Miracle On 34th Street) with 1944's Meet Me In St. Louis. The film stars Judy Garland as Esther Smith and is a musical based on a series of short stories written by Sally Benson between 1941 and '43. Of course, the film isn't technically a Christmas movie, as it covers a year in the life of the Smith family- from the summer of 1903 to the spring of 1904. But the climax of the film takes place at Chritmastime, and the film debuts the now-standard Christmas song Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, movingly sung by Esther to her youngest sister, Tootie.
All in all, a really fun day, and I'm already looking forward to the next Christmas movie night.
The play An Ideal Husband was written by Oscar Wilde in 1885. It is generally considered a comedy, and it certainly contains a good deal of humour, but to my mind it is more of a drama punctuated by comedic moments. A lot (most) of the humour is provided by Lord Goring and his interactions with various other characters. His lighthearted flirtation with Mabel Chiltern is amusing, as is every scene in which his father is haranguing him over his lack of either a career or a wife. This humour provides a lighter mood, contrasting with the seriousness of the blackmail plot. Despite his father's low opinion of him however, Arthur is not stupid. Rather, he fulfills the role of a Shakespearean "fool" of whom Isaac Asimov said in the Guide To Shakespeare, "That, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool- that he is no fool at all." Lord Goring's conversation is frequently frivolous and trivial, but in spite of this he is essentially a teller of truths. He makes pointed and, though couched in cynical terms, often accurate observations about their society. In addition, despite his reputation for being shallow, Arthur's advice to both of his friends is always solid and sensible, recommending that they be frank and honest with each other. It is also Lord Goring who manages to outmaneuver Mrs. Cheveley and save the day.
Speaking of Mrs. Cheveley's shady schemes, the entire drama raises a number of interesting- and sometimes controversial- issues. To begin with, let's take a look at the Chilterns' marriage. At the start of the play they appear to be the perfect couple: loving and supportive, with mutual interests. As things fall apart, however, we see that their union has a rather shaky foundation. Robert has a dirty secret in his past which he has never told Gertrude about. When this comes back to haunt him, it very nearly destroys their marriage. This is because Gertrude has built up a false image of Robert in her mind, envisioning him as the ideal man, faultless and perfect. When her idol is revealed to have feet of clay, Gertrude is devastated, her first instinct to recoil from the man who has disappointed her and betrayed her ideal. Of course Robert is responsible for his actions, but Gertrude isn't blameless in this situation either. By idolizing her husband to this degree, she has trapped him with her unrealistic expectations of perfection. She has set their marriage up for failure, as no man however well-intentioned, can live up to that ideal. Yet Gertrude declares that she will accept nothing less, making it nearly impossible for Robert to confide in her for fear of losing her regard. His lack of frankness is fueled by her judgmental attitude. He tells this to her himself in his anguish and anger when she condemns him: "Women think that they are making ideals of men. What they are making of us are false idols merely. You made your false idol of me, and I had not the courage to come down, show you my wounds, tell you my weaknesses. I was afraid that I might lose your love, as I have lost it now."
Regarding Sir Robert's hidden sin, his actions were illegal- and immoral. It amounted to insider trading; Robert sold privileged information for profit, and got away with it. His weak excuse that everyone else in business does the same or worse doesn't change the fact that his behaviour was completely indefensible. He knows this himself, which is why he has in the intervening years repaid the money to society several times over in the form of charitable donations. Mrs. Cheveley gains the upper hand with Robert because she knows that public exposure of his past act will destroy his career. If it did, in one way that would be justice, as Robert would finally be brought to account for a crime he got away with when he was a young man. On the other hand, should a man's entire life be destroyed over a mistake in judgement made so many years before? One of the purposes of punishment is to hold a person to account for the wrong they have done. Sir Robert has done that to himself, and made restitution for his ill-gotten gains at least two times over. In a sense, he has punished himself. Another purpose for punishment is to try to deter the subject from ever engaging in the crime again. There is no danger of that in this case; Robert has lived a blameless and honourable life in the ensuing twenty years.
In addition, as much as is possible, the punishment should fit the crime. While definitely wrong, Sir Robert's crime seems to have, in the long run, harmed no one. The only identifiable victims were those other investors who lost out on the opportunity to buy the stocks which the Baron purchased as a result of the information he received. Is this lost investment opportunity really worth destroying a man who has done much good for his country, and if allowed to continue, will do much more? This is the question which the play poses, and which we must each answer for ourselves.
An Ideal Husbandalso has a good deal to say about the nature of honour- public vs personal. When Sir Robert is confessing all to Lord Goring, he points out that most of his colleagues have done far worse. The difference is, they aren't in danger of being exposed. That appears to be the greatest sin: being found out. As long as they can maintain an outward facade of honour and respectability, it doesn't matter if they are inwardly corrupt and dishonest. The uncomfortable irony of this is highlighted by the arrival of Arthur's father, who criticizes his son for his dereliction of duty while holding up Robert as an example of what an honorable gentleman should be. Both Arthur and Robert know the truth, however. Arthur points out to his friend that his peers will show no sympathy simply because they themselves are morally compromised. Rather, they will be even more merciless in punishing his disgrace because it will allow them to appear more honourable in contrast, and to signal their virtue by the strength of their outrage. Given the many examples we have recently seen of Twitter mobs attempting to destroy people for innocuous comments, or past failings however minor, it is hard to argue that Lord Goring's assessment of human nature was incorrect, or that it has changed for the better since then.
The two primary women characters in An Ideal Husband are Gertrude Chiltern and Mrs. Cheveley. They are complete opposites of each other: Gertrude the model of unbending honour and purity, and Mrs. Cheveley of dishonesty and vice. In one way, however, they are the same, and that is in their belief in the inability of a man to change what he is. Gertrude states this before she knows of her husband's past: "It (life) has taught me that a person who has once been guilty of a dishonest and dishonorable act may be guilty of it a second time, and should be shunned." She goes on to say that this rule should be applied without exception. This indicates an extremely narrow- and naive- view of peoples' characters. Of course past behaviours can give an indication of future ones, but allowance must be made for the possibility of change in character. In Gertrude's mind, people are separated into two categories- good and bad. It is impossible, in her view, for a good person to do a dishonorable thing, while a bad person will invariably choose this route. This is nonsense, as Arthur points out to her: "Nobody is incapable of doing a foolish thing. Nobody is incapable of doing a wrong thing." This is, of course, true of Robert. Essentially a decent and honorable man, years before he was guilty of being young, impatient, and overly ambitious. A practiced deceiver and scam artist- the Baron- played on these faults and tempted him into betraying his principles. This was wrong, but doesn't mean that Sir Robert's character is now unredeemable- obviously, as he has since led an exemplary life.
Interestingly Mrs. Cheveley, despite her much-vaunted ability to manipulate men, makes the same mistake as Gertrude. She assumes that, because Robert once opted to do a dishonorable thing to advance his career, he will now invariably choose to do the same thing in order to preserve it. She cannot imagine that he will not act in his own self interest, probably because she would never do so herself. This, in the end, is the difference between Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley: he fell once into dishonesty, then pulled himself up, determined never to behave so again. Cheveley is habitually dishonest with no inclination to be otherwise, so can't comprehend that Robert, whom she knows to have been in one instance dishonorable, might choose not to continue in that manner. This is how we know that Sir Robert has changed: unaware that Arthur has gotten the letter from Mrs. Cheveley, he goes to the House and speaks against the canal scheme, knowing full well that he is probably sacrificing his good name, his career and his marriage, yet determined to do the right thing. He is no longer the man he was, determined to succeed at all cost. For this reason, we can forgive his past misdeed and enjoy his success, while rejoicing in Mrs. Cheveley's failure. So those are my thoughts on Oscar Wilde's play An Ideal Husband, which I definitely recommend. It can be enjoyed for its humour and clever writing, its often piercing insights into human nature, and for the questions about honour and morality which it poses. Definitely worth a read- or watch, as the case may be.
"It takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it. And even more courage to see it in the one you love." -Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband
An Ideal Husbandhas been filmed several times, though the only one I've seen at this point is the 1999 version starring Rupert Everett as Lord Goring, a part he does very well. It's a pretty good interpretation, though there are a couple minor changes to the plot. Also, while the play takes place mainly in either the Chiltern's house or Lord Goring's residence, naturally the movie expands the world to include several more settings. For example, it actually shows Sir Robert's speech in the House, rather than having Arthur be told about it by his father. Also, in one scene, the Chilterns are at the theater. Amusingly, the play being performed- which they are not paying attention to- is The Importance of Being Earnest.
In Act IV, we have returned to the Chiltern's residence. It is the next morning and Lord Goring is waiting in the morning room. To his dismay, his father shows up, taking the opportunity to renew his criticisms of his son before excitedly telling Arthur what happened in the House of Commons: Sir Robert made a speech harshly denouncing the canal scheme as a swindle. Mabel then enters the room, ignoring Arthur because he didn't show up for their riding date and speaking only to his father. When Lord Caversham leaves the room, Lord Goring asks Mabel to marry him. Mabel responds flippantly, and ironically, the normally frivolous Arthur is reduced to imploring her to be serious. Mabel admits her love for him and the two embrace. At this point Gertrude enters the room, and since Lord Goring needs to talk to her, Mabel goes to the conservatory to wait for him.
Arthur informs Gertrude that he obtained Sir Robert's letter from Mrs. Cheveley and has burned it. She's relieved that her husband won't be exposed, but then Arthur has to tell her the bad news: Mrs. Cheveley stole Gertrude's note to him and is planning to send it to Sir Robert to try to cause trouble. Gertrude explains that she changed her mind about coming to see him, and Arthur advises her to tell Robert the truth and thereby disarm Mrs. Cheveley. Horrified, Gertrude says that she can't possibly tell her husband that she was planning to visit a bachelor in his rooms, no matter how innocently, and tells Arthur that they must somehow intercept the letter. Unfortunately, Sir Robert has already received and read the note and comes in search of his wife. However, since Gertrude hadn't actually addressed the note to Lord Goring, and Mrs. Cheveley sent it anonymously, Robert assumes that Gertrude was writing to him, forgiving him. He has come in search of her, filled with love and gratitude. Meeting Arthur's pleading eyes, Gertrude does nothing to correct this misapprehension. Figuring that they could use some privacy to reconcile, Goring goes to join Mabel in the conservatory.
Gertrude informs Robert that Lord Goring obtained and destroyed the incriminating letter; his reputation is safe. He is greatly relieved, and hesitantly offers to now retire from public life, obviously hoping that Gertrude won't think it's a good idea. To his dismay, though, Gertrude approves of this idea, thinking that this is the honourable thing to do. Lord Goring comes back in, and Sir Robert gratefully thanks him for his aid. Arthur is going to seize the moment to get Robert's permission to marry Mabel, but his father returns and interrupts him. He congratulates Sir Robert on his speech in the House, and tells him that, impressed by his "high moral tone" the Prime Minister is going to offer him a seat in the Cabinet. Sir Robert is excited by this but, remembering his promise to Gertrude, reluctantly tells the incredulous Lord Caversham that he'll have to decline. Gertrude admires his decision to do the right thing and warmly tells him that she'll help him write the letter to the Prime Minister refusing the position. They leave the room. Lord Caversham thinks they're both crazy, but Arthur tells him that the decision demonstrates Sir Robert's "high moral tone". Unconvinced, Lord Caversham says that in his day they called it idiocy. Needing his father out of the way for a few minutes, Arthur sends him into the conservatory to keep Mabel company.
When Gertrude reenters the room, Arthur asks her why she's giving Mrs. Cheveley what she wanted, having Sir Robert destroy his own career. Gertrude says that Robert decided himself that it was the right thing to do, but Arthur tells her that Robert is doing it because he fears losing her love. He also says that Sir Robert was made for public life and will never be truly happy away from it. He predicts that, if she forces Robert to go through with this, both he and Gertrude will end up regretting it bitterly. Sir Robert comes into the room carrying his letter to the Prime Minister. Gertrude takes it from him and rips it up, realizing that Arthur is right.
Gertrude and Sir Robert embrace, truly reconciled. Taking advantage of the moment, Lord Goring asks Sir Robert for Mabel's hand in marriage. Though he is grateful to Arthur for all his help, Robert tells him that he must refuse. Shocked, Arthur asks for an explanation and Sir Robert tells him that, after finding Mrs. Cheveley at his house at night, and after Arthur's impassioned defense of her, he realizes that his friend still has some sort of connection to his former fiance. Sir Robert says that he can't allow his sister to marry a man who clearly has feelings for another woman. Lord Goring cannot defend himself without betraying Gertrude's confidence, and so stays silent. Gertrude, however, admits that it was she whom Arthur was expecting to be in the drawing room, and that the note which Robert thought was for him was actually for Goring. Robert tells his wife that he would never have believed any ill of her, and Gertrude takes the note and writes Sir Robert's name at the top, saying that it is he that she trusts and needs. Mabel and Lord Caversham come in from the conservatory, and Arthur's engagement to her is announces. His father warns Arthur that he'd better be an ideal husband to her, but Mabel says that she wouldn't want her husband to be ideal; she would prefer that Arthur be himself. Everyone leaves the room except for Sir Robert, who sits by himself, brooding. When Gertrude comes back to find him, he asks her if she truly loves him, or merely feels sorry for him. Gertrude assures him that her love for him is real and abiding, and they begin their married life anew, on a more understanding and healthy footing.
Act III changes locations, occurring in Lord Goring's residence. It is now evening and Arthur is preparing for a night on the town, having his long-suffering servant Phipps bring him different flowers for his lapel, trying to find the perfect one. He also regales the impassive Phipps with an amusing series of opinions on everything from fashion to romance. At this point, a note arrives for him from Lady Chiltern who, following her confrontation with her husband, remembered that Goring told her that she should come to him for help if she needed it. Consequently, her note reads: "I want you. I trust you. I'm coming to you.- Gertrude" Arthur delays going out in order to wait for Gertrude's arrival. To his dismay, the first person to arrive is his father, Lord Caversham. He, too, had been at the Chiltern's dinner party the previous evening where he harangued his son on his two favourite topics: Arthur's lack of a serious career, and also his lack of a wife. He has arrived at his son's house to continue this discussion of Goring's shortcomings. This is awkward, because it's socially inappropriate for a married woman to visit a bachelor at his residence- especially at night- and Arthur certainly doesn't want Gertrude running into his dad. He hustles his father into the smoking room, hurriedly and surreptitiously telling Phipps that he's expecting a female visitor and to show her into the drawing room when she arrives.
The door bell rings, and Goring intends to answer it himself, but his father intercepts him and drags him into the smoking room for a lecture. Phipps opens the door, and Mrs. Cheveley enters. Phipps assumes that she is the female to whom Arthur had been referring and says that Lord Goring has been expecting her. Mrs. Cheveley realizes that Phipps has made a mistake and wonders what woman Arthur is actually expecting. Left on her own in the room, she rifles through his papers and finds his letter from Gertrude. She intends to steal it, but Phipps reenters and shows her into the drawing room. She attempts to sneak back out to steal the note, but hears Goring and his dad coming and retreats back to the drawing room. Having managed to get his father out of the house, Arthur is dismayed by the arrival of a distraught Sir Robert. As awkward as it would be for Gertrude to run into Lord Caversham at his house, it will be a hundred times worse for her to come face to face with her husband there. Robert tells Arthur that Gertrude knows everything, and pretty much hates him. More bad news: he's heard back from Vienna and nothing scandalous was discovered about Mrs. Cheveley's past that he can use against her. Arthur makes an excuse to speak privately to Phipps, who quietly informs him that the lady is waiting for him in the drawing room. Trying to help both of his friends, Arthur tells Robert that he should convince Gertrude of his love, suggesting that he'll find that his wife will be willing to forgive him. Sir Robert speaks of the infamous canal scheme, and is about to tell Arthur what he intends to say about it in the House when he hears a noise in the drawing room. Trying to avert disaster, Arthur denies that there is anyone in the room, but Robert yanks the door open and finds Mrs. Cheveley. He is outraged, accusing Arthur of betrayal. Arthur, who can't see into the room and is under the impression that the lady in question is Gertrude, defends her honour and says that she has done nothing wrong. Robert takes this as evidence that Arthur is in cahoots with Mrs. Cheveley and storms out. An amused Mrs. Cheveley then emerges from the drawing room, and Lord Goring realizes what has happened.
An Ideal Husband- circa 1895
As the two confront each other, it comes out that, when he was much younger Mrs. Cheveley had used her wiles to get Lord Goring to propose to her in order to bilk money out of him. He broke it off when he found her with another man. Mrs. Cheveley says now, however, that Arthur is the only man she really cared for and offers to give him the Sir Robert's incriminating letter to the Baron if he will agree to renew their engagement. She says that she'll give him the letter on their wedding day. Not willing to sacrifice himself, Arthur categorically refuses. Mrs. Cheveley says fine: she's going to ruin Sir Robert. Lord Goring tells her that doing this will destroy the sacred love between Robert and Gertrude. He implies that this will be worse than all the other dishonest things she has done in her life. Mrs. Cheveley pretends that she didn't mean to expose Sir Robert to his wife... it just slipped out while she was sparring with Gertrude when she went to the Chiltern's to try to find her lost brooch. At the mention of the brooch, Lord Goring takes it out of a drawer in his writing table and as She identifies it, tells Mrs. Cheveley that the brooch can also be worn as a bracelet and clasps it onto her wrist. He reveals that he knows this because he gave the item of jewelry to his cousin Mary as a wedding gift, and it was subsequently stolen from her. Arthur tells Cheveley that unless she gives him Robert's letter, he will turn her in to the police. She panics and tries to remove the bracelet, but can't get it off; Goring says that it has a secret clasp that, having stolen it, she doesn't know about. Surrendering to the threat of incarceration, Mrs. Cheveley gives Arthur the letter, which he immediately burns.
Always scheming, while Arthur is distracted Mrs. Cheveley manages to get hold of Gertrude's note from where she left it earlier. She triumphantly tells Goring that she has the letter from his paramour, Gertrude and is going to send it to Sir Robert. Knowing that the letter's wording could be misconstrued as a love note, Arthur intends to wrest it away from Mrs. Cheveley, but she quickly rings for Phipps and leaves before he can do so. The scene ends with Lord Goring alone, smoking and contemplating the impending disaster.
Act II also opens at the Chiltern's home; it is the morning after the party, and Sir Robert is confessing all to his best friend Lord Goring. Goring tells Sir Robert that he should have told his wife the truth, but Robert says that he couldn't, because she would have left him. Arthur can't believe that Gertrude is so perfect herself that she can't accept any imperfection in others, but Sir Robert assures him that she is indeed without flaw- and without mercy for others' faults. Lord Goring offers to talk to her and Robert agrees, but doesn't think it will make any difference. Lord Goring points out that, if what Robert did becomes public knowledge, condemnation and ruin will result. Sir Robert bitterly remarks that many have done worse to gain their own fortunes, yet would destroy him. When he sold the secret, he was young and inexperienced; should one mistake many years before destroy his career- which has since been spotless- now? Arthur asks how it happened and Sir Robert explains that Baron Arnheim acted like a kind of mentor to him, telling him that the way to gain power and influence was through wealth. He invited Robert to his home, dazzling the poor but ambitious young secretary with his riches. He then offered Robert a way to make his fortune and thereby fund his political career. After Robert received payment from the Baron, he invested the money and became extremely wealthy, and entered the House of Commons.
Lord Goring asks Sir Robert if he regrets what he did, and Robert at first says no, because their society demands that people be wealthy to have influence, and he merely fought with the weapons of the age. However, he then confesses that over the years since then, he has given twice the amount of the original bribe to charity to assuage his guilt. Lord Goring promises to do what he can to help his friend, and tells Robert the first thing to do is tell Gertrude. Robert can't face the thought of doing that, and asks Arthur if he can't find something to hold over Mrs. Cheveley's head instead; he knows that Goring was previously acquainted with her. Arthur admits that they were once engaged- for three days- and asks if Robert tried buying her off: she's always loved money. Robert tells him that he offered her whatever amount she wanted, and she refused. Sir Robert decides to write to Vienna where she had been living to try to dig up some dirt on Mrs. Cheveley, but Arthur doesn't think this will work... she's pretty good at brazening out any scandals.
Gertrude comes in, returning from a meeting of the Women's Liberal Association. Sir Robert tells her that he has some work to do and goes to his study. Gertrude stays to chat with Lord Goring. She brings up the conflict she had with Sir Robert over the canal scheme and asks him to reaffirm her belief in her husband's honesty and honour. Without mentioning Sir Robert directly, Arthur cautions Gertrude that every man involved in politics at some point compromises himself, and tells her that real life relationships require mercy and understanding. Then, surprising Gertrude with his sudden seriousness, Goring tells her to come to him if she finds herself in need of help. At this point, Mabel Chiltern enters the room and she and Arthur resume their lighthearted flirtation from the night before. The two make an appointment to go riding together the following day, then Goring leaves. Mabel entertains Gertrude with an account of Sir Robert's hapless secretary Tommy Trafford's latest attempt to propose to her. They are interrupted by the arrival of Lady Markby and Mrs. Cheveley.
Mabel excuses herself and the two unexpected visitors explain why they're there: Mrs. Cheveley lost a diamond brooch at the dinner the previous night and wants to know if it's been found. It hasn't (as far as Gertrude knows). After some social chitchat, Lady Marksby leaves to visit a friend but Gertrude asks Mrs. Cheveley to stay for a few minutes. Once alone, they drop the socially polite masks. Gertrude has disliked and distrusted Mrs. Cheveley since their school days; Cheveley started her scheming ways early in life, and was eventually kicked out of school for stealing. Mrs. Cheveley despises Lady Chiltern for her moral superiority, and this grows to actual hatred when Gertrude reveals that it was due to her influence that Sir Robert turned down the canal swindle. Mrs. Cheveley demands that she get Sir Robert to change his mind, insinuating that there is something shady in his past that she can hold over him. Losing her temper, Gertrude orders Cheveley from the house, just as Sir Robert walks into the room. Mrs. Cheveley gleefully takes the opportunity to tell Gertrude his shameful secret before being shown from the house.
Gertrude takes this news rather badly, accusing Sir Robert of betraying her trust and love, saying she had idolized him as the ideal man and husband and that belief has now been shattered. In turn, the devastated Robert bitterly says that she had turned him into a false idol, and that her judgmental, inflexible nature made it impossible to confess his failings to her. He says that love should include the capacity to forgive, but with her insistence on perfection, Gertrude has ruined his life. He slams out of the room and Lady Chiltern collapses into a sobbing heap.
An Ideal Husband is Oscar Wilde's 1895 play about corruption, blackmail, truth and consequences. The first scene opens at the home of Sir Robert Chiltern, an up-and-coming British member of parliament, and his wife Gertrude. They are hosting a dinner party for various friends and social acquaintances which include Mabel Chiltern (Sir Robert's younger sister) and Lord Arthur Goring, son of the Earl of Caversham who is also in attendance. Everything is going swimmingly until an unexpected- and uninvited- guest shows up. It is Mrs. Cheveley, a somewhat notorious widow recently returned from continental Europe. As it turns out, both Gertrude and Lord Goring were at different times acquainted with Mrs. Cheveley: Gertrude because she attended school with her, and Lord Goring because he was at one time engaged to her. Neither are particularly happy to see her again. Mrs. Cheveley, on the other hand, is delighted to be there, because she is for some reason extremely eager to be introduced to Sir Robert. The reason becomes clear when she tries to talk Sir Robert into supporting a fraudulent canal scheme in Argentina in which she has invested, in the House of Commons. Of course Sir Robert refuses and Mrs. Cheveley says that there was a time when he wasn't quite so honorable. Years earlier, when Sir Robert was a poor secretary working for a member of the Cabinet, Baron Arnheim- Mrs. C's former (now dead) lover- convinced Robert to sell privileged information about the Suez Canal project to him. The Baron invested in the canal and made a fortune, and the money Sir Robert received allowed him to embark on his stellar political career. Mrs. Cheveley tells Robert that she has the letter in which he gave Arnheim the info and, if he doesn't speak favourably about her scheme in the House, she will release it to the press, destroying his good name and career. Faced with losing everything he cares about, Sir Robert agrees to give support for the project in the House of Commons. Having returned to the rest of the party, Mrs. Cheveley can't help gloating to Gertrude, whom she despises, that Sir Robert is going to support the Argentine Canal. Gertrude is shocked, because Robert had previously spoken to her of the proposed canal and condemned it as a criminal fraud. With the party still going on though, she can't question her husband about it.
Meanwhile, Lord Goring and Mabel enter the room which Sir Robert and Mrs. Cheveley have just vacated and engage in a teasing, slightly flirtatious conversation. Mabel finds a jeweled brooch on the sofa and, after examining it, Lord Goring says that it's actually a bracelet. He puts it in his pocket and asks Mabel not to mention it to anyone, but to inform him if anyone asks about it. After the dinner party breaks up, Gertrude confronts Sir Robert about the canal scheme. She doesn't know anything about his past indiscretion and can't understand his about-face on the topic. He lamely tries to tell her that he has received new information that may exonerate the plan, and when she doesn't buy that, says that it's a case of compromise which is sometimes necessary in politics. Gertrude doesn't believe in compromise with regard to moral matters and has always believed that Sir Robert shared her disdain for it. She can only suppose that Mrs. Cheveley has some hold over him, and asks if there's anything in his past that she doesn't know about. She has always considered him to be an ideal man, and can't accept that he might be morally flawed. She says that if he is guilty of wrongdoing, it would be best for them to live separately. Terrified of losing her love, Robert denies any wrongdoing and relieved, Gertrude insists that he write to Mrs. Cheveley and revoke his support. He obediently does so, then after Gertrude has gone to bed, Sir Robert sits alone with his face buried in his hands, knowing that he has just sent a letter which will end his career- and quite probably his marriage.
Joss Whedon's 2012 film of "Much Ado About Nothing" was a pleasant surprise. As I said in my previous post on it, I was unsure as to how I would like a modernized version of the play. But it works surprisingly well, all things considered. The themes of romance, rivalry, jealousy and revenge are timeless and universal. One might think that a low budget film adaptation of a Shakespearean play seems an odd choice for one of the most successful modern directors, who can pretty much have his pick of projects. It turns out, however, that Whedon is a big fan of the Bard and would frequently invite friends over to his house to read plays aloud. Then, while on vacation after filming The Avengers, he called up a bunch of actors he knew and asked them to come over to his place and act in Much Ado. The entire movie was filmed at his house in twelve days, and the cast is almost entirely made up of actors who worked on other Whedon projects: Avengers, Angel, and Firefly, to name a few.
The movie is filmed with hand held cameras, which adds to that feeling of it being a small, intimate production. I love the idea that Whedon made Much Ado for fun, with friends, and this makes me more inclined to overlook flaws in the film. There are flaws, but there's also just enough of that Andy Hardy "Let's put on a show!" spirit to make you just accept them as the result of this being sort of a pick up project, no matter how professionally done.
Much Ado is filmed in black & white, which lends it a classic feel despite it's modern day setting. Also, the dialogue is not updated, so the actors are speaking the original Elizabethan English lines. I appreciate this, though some of the actors handle Shakespeare's dialogue with more ease than others. Whedon for the most part sticks faithfully to the play, with a few modifications. One of these is adding a scene at the very beginning of the film, where sometime in the past, Beatrice and Benedict had a one night stand. This gives a very different perspective on their sniping at each other during the house party. Also, in this version, Conrade is a woman and Don John's girlfriend.
The comedic aspects of the play work quite well in this format- Amy Acker, as Beatrice, is particularly good. What doesn't fare quite so well, however, is the drama. This is not a criticism of the actors or the directing style, but merely an inherent problem with setting the play in modern times. Some things simply don't transplant well. For example, in the play, Don Pedro speaks to Hero about Claudio's desire to marry her, pleading his cause. This is understandable at a time when most marriages were contracted through third parties. However, when this happens in the film, it just makes Claudio look weak... doesn't the man have enough gumption to woo and propose himself? This just wouldn't happen today.
Another thing which doesn't translate so well is the whole Hero situation. While a girl cheating on her fiance these days would certainly be a scandal, it would not cause the outrage and infamy it did in the past. For a girl in those days, an accusation of being unchaste could ruin her life, rendering it impossible for her contract a respectable marriage. Not only that, but it would shame her family, staining them with her disgrace. This is why we understand when a grieving and vengeful Beatrice wrathfully demands that Benedick kill Claudio. Such a situation just wouldn't have the same consequences in modern times. Nor would the consequences for killing someone be the same. At the time, killing a man in a duel over a matter of honour would be quite acceptable- and legal. But in the modernized Much Ado, when Beatrice implores Benedict to kill Claudio, she is essentially asking him to condemn himself to life in prison. And since we know that there will be no serious consequences to Hero or her family, it's hard to take the drama over the situation seriously.
1993's Much Ado About Nothing by Kenneth Branagh fares much better on the dramatic front. Part of the reason for this, as I said, is because it is set at the play's original time. The consequences for the accusations against Hero are much more dire. Also, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (Benedick and Beatrice) are seasoned Shakespearean actors, and know just how to get the most out of the Bard's dialogue, whether comedic or dramatic. Some of the actors in Whedon's version were doing Shakespeare for the first time, and it shows. Again, this is no slight on their acting ability... one could hardly expect perfection, especially on a twelve day shoot. In addition, Branagh and Thompson have great chemistry; they have acted in many movies together, and were in fact married at the time. Their performances as Benedick and Beatrice, respectively, sparkle. Or maybe just spark. One thing that I will give Whedon's version points on over Branagh's is in the casting of a couple of the characters. Whedon's Don John is played by Sean Maher, who is serviceable if not outstanding in the role. In Branagh's version, Don John is played by a miscast Keanu Reeves, whose one expression through the entire movie is a dark scowl. A person would only have to look at him to know that he is responsible for any villainy afoot- and that he probably spends his spare time kicking puppies. His performance of Shakespeare's deathless prose isn't anything to write home about, either.
Also, in the 1993 production, the comedic character of Dogberry is played by Michael Keaton. I really do not like his portrayal of the chief constable. The 2012 version has Nathan Fillion in this role, and I actually enjoy his performance considerably more.
So, in conclusion, I'd have to say that my favourite film version of Much Ado About Nothing is still Kenneth Branagh's- mostly because I love his Benedick and Emma Thompson's Beatrice. All the same, Joss Whedon's version has much to recommend it, and I enjoyed watching it. Here's the trailer from 2012's Much Ado :
And now here's a couple of great scenes from the 1993 version:
Oh- and just as an interesting bit of trivia, there is a modernized theatrical version of Much Ado About Nothing starring David Tennant as a very Scottish- and very comic- Benedict floating about online. Here's a scene from it, with Benedick bemoaning the fact that Claudio has become a lovesick fool:
This week I watched Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, which was released in 2013. And I quite enjoyed it. It is, of course, a modernized version of Shakespeare's 1599 play. Much Ado is one of Shakespeare's best comedies, as it combines silly humour, puns, double meanings and deceptions with some deeper meditations on honour and relationships between men and women. Even I like the play, and I'm not a huge fan of a lot of William's comedies, ie. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream. As mentioned, I enjoyed the movie, and I hadn't been sure I would; resetting classic plays in modern times frequently doesn't work for me... I have yet to be able to sit through all of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. But this may also have something to do with the fact that R & J is probably my least favourite of Shakespeare's tragedies (if it is a tragedy) and I don't particularly like Leonardo Dicaprio's acting.
For those who don't know the play, it is set in Italy at the home of Leonato, governor of Messina. At the start of Much Ado, Don Pedro- a Spanish prince- rides into town, fresh from a successful battle. The Governor invites him and his band of soldiers to stay on his estate for a month. Among Don Pedro's party are a couple of men, Count Claudio and Lord Benedick, who are well known to Leonato and his family. Claudio and Leonato's daughter Hero share a mutual attraction, which is rekindled when they meet again. Meanwhile, Benedick and Beatrice, Leonato's niece who is also in residence, renew their adversarial relationship, which consists of trading barbs and wittily insulting each other. As Leonato describes it: "There is a kind of merry war betwixt Signior Benedick and her."
Soon after they arrive, Claudio announces to Benedick and Don Pedro that he intends to marry Hero. Benedick, who is anti-marriage, is horrified but Don Pedro approves. Benedick swears that he will never marry, but Pedro laughs and predicts that one day he will. A masked ball is put on by Leonato, and at it, Hero and Claudio become engaged, the wedding scheduled for the following week. With a week to kill, Don Pedro and Claudio decide to occupy themselves by hatching a plot to make Benedick and Beatrice fall in love with each other. In this, they enlist the aid of both Hero and Leonato. The men arrange for Benedick to "overhear" them discussing how Beatrice is violently in love with him, but is afraid to let him know, hiding her feelings by insulting him. Meanwhile, Hero and her maid Ursula loudly gossip, within Beatrice's hearing, about how Benedick is sick with love for her. Both Beatrice and Benedick are shocked by these "revelations", but also delighted... as is obvious to everyone else, beneath their assumed hostility, they've always been attracted to each other.
Unfortunately, there is a fly in the ointment. Also traveling with Don Pedro is his illegitimate brother, Don John. Unbeknownst to all, he secretly hates his brother and is determined to embarrass him by causing a scandal and breaking up Claudio and Hero's wedding. He made his first attempt at the ball where, masked, he suggested to Claudio- who is gullible and jealous- that Don Pedro was trying to win Hero for himself. When this falls through, he schemes with two of his men- Conrade and Borachio- to ruin the engagement. Feigning concern, he informs Claudio and Don Pedro that he has found out that Hero is engaged in an illicit love affair. He proves it to them by having them watch Hero's bedchamber window. Meanwhile, he has Borachio, who has seduced Hero's chambermaid, Margaret, engage in an amorous liaison with her in full view of the window. Claudio and Don Pedro assume that the girl is Hero, and seething with jealous rage, Claudio vows to denounce her publicly. The next day at the wedding, Claudio accuses Hero of being a trollop in front of the shocked guests, then storms off with Don Pedro as Hero fall into a death-like faint. Leonato, who at first assumes the charge is true, wishes that she were actually dead. The friar, however, believes Hero to be innocent, and suggests a scheme to prove it. They must all, he says, pretend that Hero actually died from the shock and keep her hidden. This will, he thinks, make Claudio remorseful and will also buy them time to discover the truth.
The shocking events of the day draw Beatrice and Benedict together, and they confess their love to each other. Beatrice, who is filled with grief and rage over the way Hero has been treated, asks Benedick to kill Claudio. At first Benedick, horrified, refuses, but after Beatrice passionately argues her cause, he agrees to challenge his friend. He has to get in line to do so, as Leonato and Antonio (Beatrice's father) have already challenged Claudio to a duel, saying that he caused Hero's "death". What no one realizes is that, the previous night following their disgraceful plot, Borachio and Conrade had gotten picked up by the local Watch who, seeing the two men behaving suspiciously and overhearing them discussing what they had done, arrest them and give them over to the head constable, Dogsberry. Though Dogsberry is a bumbling idiot, he and his men eventually get a confession out of Borachio and Conrade and inform Leonato of the truth. Don John flees the city with a posse sent by a furious Don Pedro in pursuit. Meanwhile, now prostrate with grief and guilt over causing Hero's death, begs forgiveness of Leonato. Leonato tells him that he can make amends by marrying a younger daughter of Antonio's, so as to carry on the family name. Claudio humbly agrees, and a wedding is hastily assembled.The veiled bride is soon revealed to be Hero, who for some strange reason still wants to marry this twit. Pushed by their friends, Benedick and Beatrice admit publicly that they kinda, sorta, love each other, and the wedding celebrations begin. Word arrives that Don John has been captured, but Benedick tells Don Pedro to leave his punishment for another day so that they can all enjoy the occasion. Frolic ensues.
Um... well, I started out intending to discuss the movie, but ended up just describing Shakespeare's play. Fair enough, I suppose- it is his work, after all. Thefilmis pretty faithful to the play, but I won't get into that right now. In my follow-up post on Much Ado, I'll discuss what I liked about Joss Whedon's interpretation, as well as what I wasn't as crazy about. Also, I'll compare it to another Much Ado About Nothing film: Kenneth Branagh's 1993 version.
In 1989, a new movie adaptation of Shakespeare's play, "Henry V" was released. This was an impressive accomplishment for a couple of reasons. First of all, it was the first time since 1944 that the play had been filmed. The 1944 version starred- and was directed by- Lawrence Olivier. It must have been a daunting prospect to attempt a remake which would automatically be compared to that classic film. Incredibly, the task was undertaken by first-time director 28 year old Kenneth Branagh who, like Olivier before him, starred in the film as well as directed. And did a pretty amazing job at both.
Of course, we should probably give a nod to William Shakespeare, who wrote the play in 1599. His brilliant writing provides the source material for Branagh's impressive directorial debut. Shakespeare's "Henry V" was the fourth in a series of plays, which started with Richard II, followed by Henry IV Parts I & II. Audiences of the time would therefore already be acquainted with the title character of King Henry V, as he had already appeared in Henry IV, portrayed as a somewhat wild and ungoverned young man. Ironically, it is this back story which causes what I think is the biggest flaw with the movie. The scenes and flashbacks with Falstaff are rather draggy, slowing down the action. Of course, Branagh was in a bit of a hard place... he couldn't leave Falstaff out completely, because he's mentioned in the play (although he's on his death bed) and the character of Henry is more effective if contrasted with his younger self, Hal. The thing is, I don't think the flashbacks really do this effectively, so they just seem to be needless cutaways from the interesting story. This is also problematic because if someone watched the movie without knowledge of the previous plays, these flashback scenes would essentially be meaningless- there's not enough background information included to give them an emotional punch. But this really is a pretty minor complaint, and there is a lot to love about Branagh's "Henry V".
The character of Henry is an extremely interesting one. For much of the earlier plays- Henry IV Parts I & II- Henry is portrayed as wild-living, hanging out in taverns with lowlifes and criminals. He is dismissed by many- including his father- as being unsuited for kingship. His maturing into a skilled and effective leader can be viewed in two ways, the first being a prodigal amending his behaviour and growing into his responsibilities. The second way to view this radical character change is the way Henry himself suggests it occurred: his previous wild behaviour was mostly a pose, to provide a greater contrast when he resumes his rightful place and responsibilities at court, exciting admiration for his "reformation". So- genuine transformation, cynical maneuver, or a bit of both... you decide.
One result of this former behaviour, intentional or not, is that those around Henry tend to underestimate him. Whether the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dauphin of France, or the conspirators attempting to assassinate him... they all find that Henry is no dilettante or pushover. Interestingly, it is King Charles, arguably the weakest character in the play, who sees Henry's character most clearly, warning the Dauphin not to underestimate him.
Another result of Henry's checkered past is that he is able to relate to people at all levels of society. He can be regal and kingly when he needs to be, or get down and dirty with the lowest soldiers in his army- for example, almost coming to blows with one of his soldiers while in disguise. It makes him seem more human, and able to talk to and inspire men of all ranks.
Henry's character is a complex one. He is capable of warmth and charm- as we see in his scenes with Catherine- but also of being calculating and ruthless. This is exemplified by his execution of the conspirators and his willingness to condemn an old friend to death. Also, during the siege of Harfleur, Henry intimidates the citizens into surrendering by threatening to let loose his soldiers to rape and pillage if they keep resisting. I'm inclined to think that this was a tactic to terrify the people into surrendering, since everywhere else he forbade his soldiers to pillage, on pain of death... and after all, he wanted to become king of this land, so he probably didn't want to start off by making everyone hate him. Still, it was a nasty, nasty thing to threaten to do.
Henry is also capable of self-doubt, almost verging on self-pity, as we see on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt when he is brooding on the burdens of leadership and his responsibility for the lives of his men. Yet there is no sign of this doubt the next day, when he climbs upon a wagon and rallies his tired and frightened men with words of utmost confidence. A very complicated man, is Hal.
As far as historical accuracy goes, Shakespeare- and consequently the movie- sticks fairly close to the events leading up to the Battle of Agincourt. Henry did base his claim to the French throne on Salic Law, and there was a plot by some of his nobles to have him assassinated. Reports of Henry's wild youth seem to have been greatly exaggerated, though not so much by Shakespeare as by some of the king's contemporary critics, apparently in an attempt to discredit him. If this was their intent, it backfired when Henry became such a competent leader, because it made him look like he reformed himself- and who doesn't like a good redemption story?
King Charles VI of France was indeed a weak king and, if anything, Shakespeare underplayed this. In reality, Charles was mentally disturbed and delusional... he went through periods when he thought he was made of glass, and ordered his clothes made with metal rods inserted to keep him from shattering. He also had fits of violence, during which he killed a few people, and almost killed his brother. This is what led to a lot of infighting and jockeying for position in France- and England- over who would be the next king. And Henry did marry Charles' daughter Catherine, but this wasn't his bright idea when he was discussing terms with the vanquished king... the possibility of a match between the two of them had been floated years before by the powers that be, when Catherine was only 13. She was, I think, 19 when they married.
As for the Battle of Agincourt itself, it was indeed an amazing victory for the English army. The French had every reason to expect to win: they outnumbered the English army by a ratio of at least five to one, and they were well-armed, well-mounted, and well-rested. Henry's army was hungry, sick, and had marched almost 300 miles in two and a half weeks. The French commanders were trying to delay the start of the battle, because there were even more of their troops on the way (hence the herald being sent to discuss the finer points of ransom). Henry would no doubt have preferred to avoid this particular fight entirely, given the state of his army, but instead goes on the attack. To wait would have meant even more troops arrayed against them, with more of his own men ailing and starving.
In the movie/ play, Henry gives the stirring Saint Crispin's Day speech which rallies his men to fight and triumph against overwhelming odds. In reality, the win had more to do with Henry's skill as a leader than with his brilliant oratory. He positioned his army in the narrowest part of the terrain, which meant the French troops couldn't make effective use of superior numbers, as they got congested and driven together, their mass actually becoming a detriment. As well, the huge French cavalry was hampered by the fact that the ground there was a mud pit, and the horses got bogged down. Also, Henry's army was making use of the English tactic of sharp stakes driven into the ground to repel the horses. Stuck in the mud, jammed together, and unable to retreat due to the enormous number of their own men charging behind them, many of the French were sitting ducks...er, canards... for the skilled and experienced English bowmen. Those who survived the onslaught of arrows were not out of danger... unhorsed, the French knights who were wearing heavy armour were no match for the much lighter arrayed Englishmen. Some eyewitnesses described seeing French knights stuck in the mud and unable to get up, drowning in their own helmets. This is a vastly simplified description of what went on, but does give you an idea of how the French army managed to lose what looked like a sure thing.
There are three film adaptations of "Henry V" that I know of: this one, the 1944 version by Olivier, and a 2012 made-for- TV version which I haven't seen, starring Tom Hiddleston as Henry. The 1944 Henry V is very different from Branagh's 1989 version, for a very good reason. WW II was going on, and the British government partially paid for the production of the movie, which was intended as propaganda to fire the patriotism of the Blitz- battered British, to encourage them "once more unto the breach". Thus, the nobility of Henry and the cause are played up, and scenes such as the execution of the conspirators and Henry's nasty threats at Harfleur are left out. Also, the battle takes place on a sunny, grassy field, not the rainy, mud and blood soaked terrain Agincourt actually would have been. I'm not criticizing this- more power to them- just noting how and why this movie was filmed the way it was.
Branagh's film goes for a grittier, more realistic tone in the battle. The men are dirty, bloody, and exhausted. This exhaustion is demonstrated by a skillful use of slow motion during one scene in the battle... the action slows, and you feel the strain and effort it takes to keep lifting and striking with those heavy weapons, which seems to take forever. While not overly graphic, the film manages to portray the violence and terrible injuries and deaths which are the result of this type of warfare, and also the confusion of the battlefield. At the end of the day, Henry admits he doesn't know if they've one or lost- not until Mountjoy comes to offer the French army's surrender. Branagh's version also emphasizes the human aspect, more so than the 1944 film. If you watch that one, there are a lot of sweeping, distance shots, while Branagh filmed most of the battle scenes very close-up and personal. The same applies to the Saint Crispin's Day speech- a lot of Olivier's is shot from a distance, while with Branagh's, the camera is pretty much in his face- or in those of his men- for the entire time. On the topic of that epic speech, I watched all three men's- Olivier, Branagh, and Hiddleston - versions of it while preparing this post, and of the three I must say that Branagh's interpretation of it is my favourite. He gives life and feeling to it in a way the other two don't... in my opinion, anyway... his speech has a humanity and warmth to it, which I could believe would actually make his men feel, down to the lowliest baggage boy, that they were a band of brothers. If you couldn't tell, I really enjoyed this movie. I'm a history junkie and an Anglophile, so this sort of thing is tailor-made for me. While it's not without a (very) few flaws, it's an amazing adaptation of Shakespeare's work, and one I'll be watching again. I'm going to post all three versions of the Saint Crispin's Day speech below, so you can compare and decide for yourself which you prefer: