Madeira Mondays: The Lost Pirate Kingdom (TV Show Review)

This was really awful. 

You’re very welcome to stick around for the rest of this post (and I hope you do!!) but if you’re going to take one thing out of it, it’s the above sentence. Netflix’s new ‘docuseries’ The Lost Pirate Kingdom (2021) was really, really awful. 

It’s one in a new trend of ‘history’ documentary films which features interviews with historians interspersed with extended live action reenactments (aka imagined fantasies) of historical events. This format worked surprisingly well in The History Channel’s Washington last year (which I reviewed here). Washington worked because it had a really star-studded line up of leading historians. It also worked because it had, if I remember correctly, a higher percentage of historians talking and a lower percentage of reenactments than Pirate Kingdom has, although I could be wrong. In any case, I enjoyed Washington just fine and found the reenactments there quite restrained and engaging…rather than the sensational, graphic, needlessly violent and terribly CGI-ed reenactments we find here.

I can’t speak at all to the calibre or credentials of the people interviewed in Pirate Kingdom because I’m not as familiar with this historical community. The period that this ‘docuseries’ looks at is the early 1700s, after the War of Spanish Succession, when piracy flourished in the Caribbean. It looks at the lives (and, more likely, the legends) of some of the most famous pirates who lived then: people like Blackbeard (who was a real guy), Samuel Bellamy, Anne Bonny etc.

And, like I said, I’m no pirate expert, but I smelled a rat even in the show’s introduction, when a voiceover that sounds exactly like David Attenborough (but thankfully wasn’t!) told me that this series was about pirates who were the ‘real forefathers of modern America.’ What? I only watched the first episode, so I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what exactly that means, but are they trying to suggest that America was founded not by like, the actual founders, but…pirates? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. By the time they said that, which was about five minutes into the episode, I was already experiencing sensory overload from all the random action on screen and still reeling from the fact that I’d just seen shots of a woman being raped. In the introduction!! (This is how we’re introduced to the famous female pirate Anne Bonny. The not-David Attenborough voiceover says that ‘not all pirates were men!’ and then we see shots of a lady being raped, before holding a knife to her attacker’s throat. Presumably, this is Bonny.)

In addition to the sexual assault moment, there’s also a pretty lengthy torture scene and lots more violence. And I’m not averse to any of these things in film. In fact sometimes they’re necessary to tell a story! And I’m sure that life aboard pirate ships really was awful. But these things just seemed like sensational set pieces there to hold your interest. I felt so patronized by it: like the filmmakers thought I would lose interest if another violent thing wasn’t thrown at me every five minutes.

I actually wanted to hear what the historians were saying, but they cut away from them so quickly I had trouble keeping up. 

Honestly, don’t watch this. I don’t blame the historians, and I don’t blame the actors (who all seemed fine). I actually don’t even blame the people who scripted the reenactment scenes because sometimes the dialogue in them was pretty good, when it slowed down long enough to let people speak to each other. I blame the entire concept and the overall execution. I don’t need some guy yelling ‘I’m Blackbeard! Arrg!!!’ directly to camera for me to be interested. And I’m not alone. People like pirates. The material is inherently interesting. If they just slowed down and let it breathe (and let us breathe) for one minute, maybe we could have engaged with that material in some sort of real way. 

I didn’t even touch on the ‘historical accuracy’ of this because I don’t feel like there’s any need. Hopefully people know that what they’re watching is as ‘historical fiction’ as any novel, despite the historians present. 

I wish I could say The Lost Pirate Kingdom was ‘good bad’, because I love films that are so ridiculous they are good (see my review of Beyond the Mask). But this is tasteless. Can we call it an exploitation film? Maybe. I’ll say it’s exploitation adjacent. But, then again, that’s too high praise because the ‘exploitation’ in those films is often done in a knowing way and as part of a genre. This is just blood and guts, murder and mayhem which is un-self-aware and no fun. And in the guise of ‘education’ no less!! No thanks. 

I can confidently say that this is my least favorite thing I’ve ever watched for Madeira Mondays. At least nobody talks in ‘pirate speak’? Although I wouldn’t put it past them in future episodes. 

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing: 

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A French Ship and Barbary Pirates’, a painting from 1615, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: Bridgerton (TV Show Review)

Happy 2021, my friends! I wanted to kick off this year’s ‘Madeira Mondays’ series with a discussion on the hit TV drama set in the Georgian era: Bridgerton. But first…

a brief announcement regarding ‘Madeira Mondays’…

I’ve made the decision of switching these ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from every Monday to every other Monday in 2021. I thought long and hard about this decision, especially considering that some of you have reached out to me and said that reading this series is something that you look forward to each and every week. I loved hearing that. I love writing them. But I’ve got a rather full spring ahead of me, and I just don’t think I can maintain the quality of these posts while still posting each week. And I’d rather cut down on the quantity than cut down on the quality. And I’ll be posting a little more this year about writing reflections and my life as an author, so those posts will take up some time too.

So I hope that’s all okay with you! There may be a time when I can go back to every Monday – we shall see! – but for now it’ll be every other week (or once a fortnight, for those in the UK and/or for those like myself who just enjoy using words like ‘fortnight’). And I’ve got so many posts I’m excited about planned for you – posts on 18th century medicine, more recipes, and hopefully some site visits whenever it’s possible to visit places again! If you find yourself missing the weekly posts, you can always have a look through the back catalogue of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which has now amassed around 70 posts (!), covering everything from historical fiction book reviews, to my historical cooking disasters. I hope you enjoy. Now, back to Bridgerton

What is Bridgerton?

So many people – friends, family – have asked me if I’ve seen this show. I totally get why they ask. I volunteer as a historical tour guide (and occasionally a costumed character) at a restored Georgian House in Edinburgh that depicts exactly the time period when Bridgerton is set. I have been known to enjoy frothy and fun TV shows, and I write about and study this period of history…I get it! However while Bridgerton has its charms – we’ll get to that in a sec – and ticks a lot of my boxes on paper, the first episode wasn’t my cup of tea.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Bridgerton? It’s a TV series (apparently based on a series of 8 books by author Julia Quinn). It was released on Christmas day 2020 on Netflix and produced by TV titan Shonda Rhimes (who created Grey’s Anatomy). It’s basically a soapy drama following the lives of the elite ‘Bridgerton’ siblings as they make their way through Regency London, trying to find socially advantageous marriages (I only watched Episode 1, so perhaps it becomes about more than that, but I think that’s probably a fair synopsis!). I’ve broken my thoughts into different categories so let’s dive into the sumptuous world of the Bridgerton siblings…

Characters and acting

I gotta say that the tone of the acting was great. Maybe the best thing about the show. It’s mostly a set of hilarious and broad performances, which suits this cheeky and fun story just fine! It’s very lively and no-one seems to be taking it very seriously.

The young woman playing one of the daughters, Eloise, reminds me of young Carrie Mulligan. Her name is Claudia Jessie and she brings a very feisty energy and I always enjoyed it when she was on screen.

The hottie playing the Duke of Hastings, actor Regé-Jean Page, was particularly good too. He’s giving me a grumpy Duke Orsino vibe. He actually gave me very ‘Shakespearian actor’ vibes overall, and when I looked him up, I saw he began this career on stage in plays like Merchant of Venice! I knew it! (I did a lot of acting growing up and all through my uni days, including many Shakespeare plays, and I was happy my hunch proved correct!)

The characters are standard fare for this type of drama, nothing special there, but the actors all seem pretty top notch.

The look and sound

The costumes were also good to me. I’m not an expert here, of course, but most people were wearing period appropriate Empire waist dresses, while some of the queen’s ladies and the queen herself were wearing older styled gowns with stomachers etc. The gowns were VERY colorful, particularly for the comical Featherington family, and I got the sense that the costumer was leaning into the fantasy element and trying to almost make them look like costumes. Which I really liked.

Queen Charlotte (center) portrayed by Golda Rosheuvel, wearing a more ‘old fashioned’ gown, which would have been more fashionable in the late 1700’s, rather than the early 1800s, when this is set.

A lot of the score is from the Vitamin String Quartet, which I think says a lot about what they were going for with the show. I, for one, love Vitamin String Quartet: they do innovative musical versions of pop songs. I like their Regina Spektor covers myself! In Bridgerton, we hear instrumental versions of things like ‘Thank you, next’ by Ariana Grande. So instead of actual historical tunes we get pop songs reworked with a classical edge (straight out of the playbook of something like Reign). Good choice, again suggesting that this is a modern fantasy version of the Regency.

Historical accuracy

This is where we get into some trickier territory. Something notable about the series is the racial diversity of its cast. I have no idea if race becomes a theme in the series, which could be very interesting, but we see a lot of actors of color in episode one, portraying characters at all levels of society, from servants to the Queen herself. On the one hand, it’s good to see diversity in a period drama because of course people of various races populated a city like London in the early 19th century. And all too often period dramas don’t explore the lives of people of color in the historical past. Also, this is so clearly a fantasy in all respects and it isn’t striving for historical accuracy (for more of my thoughts on ‘historical accuracy’ in film and TV, see my review of Dickinson).

But there was an also unexpectedly sad edge, for me, to this casting. This drama is set in elite London society, the richest of the rich, at a time when racism would certainly have prevented most people of color from rising to this level of wealth and social influence.

I don’t like the idea that some viewers might be watching this show and thinking that racism didn’t exist in Georgian Britain because it absolutely did. And while sometimes extraordinary women like Dido Belle (who had an interesting film based on her life, called Belle) were able to exist in elite British society, despite their racial background, it sadly wasn’t the norm.

I’m hopeful that people watching the show understand that this is a fantasy in multiple ways and one of those ways is the idea that the color of your skin wouldn’t impact your life in elite British society – because it would have. Remember that even though this show isn’t set in the U.S, slavery was still alive and well over there, in Britain’s former colony, and the wealth that the Bridgerton siblings and their friends are enjoying is a wealth built from empire. 

ANYWAYS, I digress, but this choice which, initially, I quite liked, also had an unexpected sadness for me too. So…mixed feelings!

Plot/Story

This is where the show really fails for me. If you’ve seen this type of film before or read this type of book then you can guess what the plot will be. Thus far, there weren’t any surprises or unusual twists and turns regarding the story. It’s what you’d expect. This was the most disappointing element and probably the number one reason I don’t think I’ll be watching more of the series. (This is all just going off Episode 1 alone!). Nothing about the story felt fresh at all.

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In conclusion, overall…Bridgerton is fine.

This is absolutely the type of show that you could easily pass a happy afternoon or evening ‘binge’ watching, especially if you enjoy Jane Austen novels. Or if you like, for lack of a better word, ‘marriage market’ stories where wealthy English people are trying to figure out who to marry and how to strike that balance of romantic happiness versus social security.

Those aren’t my favorite types of historical stories – I admire someone like Jane Austen though, for her cutting wit and understanding of human nature. But she was writing about her own society and her books provide a really unique (and critical!!) perspective on it – that is very different from a modern show like Bridgerton which romanticizes the historical past to this extent.

Basically, it just didn’t win me over. I found myself very bored halfway through the first episode. I’ve been watching a lot of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and I found myself wishing that I was watching that instead. I found myself wanting to check my email. I found myself feeling sad that this wasn’t floating my boat, because I often love silly and fluffy historical dramas, but ah well!

I’ve seen it compared to Downton Abbey, but I don’t think that’s fair. Downtown Abbey was a soapy drama, sure, but I’d argue that the writer and creator Julian Fellowes was deeply interested in the real societal changes happening at the time he’s writing about and often those themes are reflected in the storylines (whether that’s more women entering the work force or the breakdown of noble titled families and the selling of their estates, etc.). The writing was also full of surprises. Those surprises were often bonkers, yes, but they made for engaging viewing.

Sorry for the first ‘Madeira Mondays’ to be a bit of a ‘bad’ review, but I honestly expected to enjoy Bridgerton and was disappointed when I didn’t! It’s the number one thing viewed on UK Netflix at the moment right now, so evidently a lot of people are really enjoying and engaging with the show! And I get that. It’s fun! It just wasn’t for me.

What did you think of ‘Bridgerton’? Should I give it another try and watch Episode 2? What holiday viewing did you watch over the break?

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing:

  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (a novel published in 1847 and set in the same time period as Bridgerton, full of social climbing, dalliances at Vauxhall, hot rich people in late Georgian England!)
  • Vanity Fair, the 2018 TV series starring Olivia Cooke as Becky Sharp (I really enjoyed this adaptation and thought Cooke was brilliant. It was the first time I liked that character. Although I did watch this on a plane while exhausted and drinking a lot of complimentary wine – but still! I think it’s good!)
  • The BBC Pride and Prejudice from 1995 (A hugely enjoyable adaptation, full of wit and fun)

PS Today’s Featured image is:Tom and Jerry and Logic making the most of an Evening at Vauxhall: 1821, Etched by I.R. and G. Cruikshank, accessed via The Museum of London’s website

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) Movie Review

Heads will roll. – The tagline for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Last Halloween, I rewatched Beetlejuice (1988) directed by Tim Burton. It was zany, silly, macabre, but also quite a smart satire of ‘yuppie’ culture and a celebration of the quirky and bizarre in all of us. It was colorful and strange and (especially for the time) unique. Plus there are some simply iconic scenes in it.

I think that Beetlejuice is really an example of Burton at his best. By contrast, with 1999’s Sleepy Hollow staring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci, we have Burton at his most…bleh.

I choose Sleepy Hollow as my Halloween viewing this year because I had recently read the source material: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. For anyone who hasn’t checked out my Madeira Mondays post about it, I look at the history of Irving’s tale, published in 1820.

Irving’s original story is actually a bit like Beetlejuice (a quirky satire of the contemporary society that Irving was living in), and I think it has more in common, in terms of tone, with Beetlejuice than with the straightforward, semi-serious gothic Sleepy Hollow movie. The original Sleepy Hollow story is spooky at times, yes, but it’s overall pretty lighthearted and (in my opinion) a bit of a joke. It’s not gory, like this movie, and it’s frankly a lot more fun to read than this was to watch.

When I turned off Sleepy Hollow, after an hour and forty odd minutes of periodic boredom (with a pick-up of pace towards the end), I was left with a very ‘meh’ feeling about the whole film. I was also left with two main questions: 1 – Does it work as an adaptation? 2 – Does it work as a film in its own right?

Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow

Does it work as an adaptation?

I often listen to The Flop House podcast (which is about ‘bad movies’) and recently they were discussing what makes a good adaptation. I can’t remember which host was saying this (perhaps Dan McCoy?) but he said that a ‘good’ adaptation is one where the creator figures out what it is they like about the original and then tries to explore than in a new medium. I really like this concept. It’s not about getting every single plot detail ‘right’, because film will have different demands than a book and vice versa, but rather figuring out what quality or aspect of a thing you really like, and then trying to translate that. (So maybe, for Lord of the Rings, it’s the epic sense of adventure you want to preserve? Or, with a Harry Potter book to film, it might be a feeling of cozy whimsy, or a focus on the coming of age narrative etc.)

I think, here, Burton and company picked out ‘spooky tale about Halloween hauntings’ from The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and really leaned into that, without examining what the original Sleepy Hollow is really about. I would argue that the original story  is mostly about superstition, how you shouldn’t believe everything you hear, etc. It’s also a little bit about inheritance and the film does lean into that – it’s not giving too much away to say that the film’s plot, like so many ghost stories, does involve an inheritance.

But the decision to reimagine Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) as a proto-Sherlock Holmes detective here, who packs his steam-punk goggles to go and investigate murders committed by the ‘headless horseman’ in Sleepy Hollow is such a strange choice (Ichabod Crane, in the original story, is a superstitious man and his fears are exploited by others in the town). This Sherlock Holmes rational/clues-driven detective stuff is also so Victorian to me that it feels out of place in the Colonial American setting, and is totally different from the book – although perhaps they didn’t want a lead who was a foolish as Crane from the story?

All in all, it’s not a particularly ‘faithful’ adaptation (in terms of themes, plot, character etc.), nor is it one that subverts/challenges/reimagines the original in any way. It just took the bare bones of the story and ran with that. Which, you could argue, is fine…but I didn’t like where they ran.

Does it work as a film?

If we put the source aside, it’s a decent film in its own right and it overall looks very good. Everything is muted, grey and black, and it would be a good thing to put on in the background when you’re carving pumpkins or something, because it does have a lot of spooky imagery: gnarled trees, glinting Jack-o-lanterns, etc. Knowing what Burton can do though, I think he could have pushed the mis-en-scene (all the bits on screen like set, costumes, props etc.) even further and made everything look stranger.

Also, and this is a pretty specific critique, the costumes look way more 1770’s and 1780’s to me than 1799 (when the film is set)…by this time, people were wearing more empire waist dresses and there is nary an empire waist dress to be seen! But maybe the town of Sleepy Hollow, being so remote, is a bit behind, fashion wise…

Finally, be warned that it is a little gorier than I expected, but I am a bit of a baby when it comes to horror movies (I never watch them). This one wasn’t ‘scary’ at all, but there was some blood and guts, so if that’s not your thing then I’d give it a miss. (Although the tagline did promise that ‘heads will roll’ and boy, did they ever!)

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That’s about all I have to say about Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow, my Monday friends! A very decent film, but nothing exceptional!

What do you think of Sleepy Hollow?

What do you think makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ adaptation? Do you have a favorite book to film adaptation? 

I hope you had a nice Halloween on Saturday, if you’re into that sort of thing (which, as you know, I am!).

(Also, since tomorrow is the US Presidential election, I wanted to send a gentle (yet urgent!!) reminder to all of my American readers to: VOTE. If you’ve not already…VOTE!!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson…teen rebel?

A couple of months back, I wrote a blog post on Emily Dickinson‘s poem about waiting. In that post, I mentioned how Dickinson was one of my favorite poets, especially as I was growing up, and how I have many of her poems memorized. Around that time I also mentioned that I was thinking about watching the new Apple TV series Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld, inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson and a couple of you said you’d be curious to know what I thought of that series. Well – I’ve now seen Episode One of Dickinson entitled ‘Because I Could Not Stop’ and wow – there’s a lot going on in this show.

In Episode One alone, we meet ‘Emily Dickinson’, reimagined as a rebellious and slightly emo teenager who says things like ‘I’m just chilling’ and ‘Hey bro!’ She’s got big literary ambitions and a conservative family (including a mother played by 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Jane Krakowski). We get a sexy steam-punk personification of ‘Death’ in a top hat. We get modern pop music. We get a secret lesbian romance. We get, in short, a lot of stuff. (Who knew so much was going on in rural 19th century Massachusetts?)

Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Dickinson isn’t interested in historical accuracy. They make that abundantly clear from the first scene when Emily is asked to get water from a well. She complains that her brother doesn’t have to fetch water. When her sister responds that her brother doesn’t have to do chores because he is a boy, Dickinson says, ‘This is bullshit.’ Now, we can’t know how the real Emily Dickinson spoke, sure, but she was a pious woman living in rural New England at the time of the American Civil War, so…I think we can safely say that she didn’t talk like this. And that’s the whole point of the opening scene – the show is letting you know immediately that they’re going for this sort of irreverent mish-mash of historical characters in period clothes mixed with deliberately anachronistic, modern dialogue and, in many cases, modern attitudes too.

A daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson at age 16 displayed at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images), accessed via The Poetry Foundation Website

I’m actually not sure what to compare this to – in terms of style. The fun and irreverent mix of modern and historical makes me think of Hamilton, but that seems almost unfair to Hamilton, given that Hamilton harnesses modern music in its historical retelling for a strong thematic purpose. By telling a historical story in the contemporary musical language of rap (and by starring a multiracial cast), it’s saying that these stories belong to contemporary, multicultural America. It’s also drawing a parallel between the struggles of an 18th century man, Alexander Hamilton, and the struggles of modern immigrants. It’s also just an innovative musical choice and, when you’re watching it, the music feels fresh and even revolutionary, which conveys the fresh and revolutionary ideals of the man it’s about (notice that King George III doesn’t rap, but the revolutionaries do!).

Maybe Dickinson is doing something similar. Are they trying to show that Dickinson is ahead of her time, by having her speak in a way that is…ahead of her time? Notice that her mother and father don’t talk as casually or in as modern a way as Emily does. They speak in a more ‘period’ fashion. But I think the whole acting-like-a-modern-teenager thing is more for comedy than anything else (at least from Episode One). The tone is actually a lot more similar to something like Drunk History (which Jane Krakowski has actually been a part of) than Hamilton.

I’m really not sure yet if I liked Dickinson. I thought that it would be more like Reign, a teen drama ‘based’ on the life of Mary Queen of Scots which was popular a couple of years ago. I liked Reign because it was basically a soap opera. Crazy stuff (betrayals, affairs, secret plots) were in basically every episode and it didn’t take itself very seriously. I am worried that Dickinson might be taking itself too seriously, or working its way there. I think I’d like it more if it stayed in the more lightly comic tone – I actually laughed out loud once or twice when I was watching it!

I think too that some of the dialogue in Episode One was really heavy-handed, but that might just be because it was the first episode. There’s a lot of exposition and lines like ‘I don’t want to get married! You know that!’ and ‘You’re afraid, Emily? You’re not afraid of anything!’

I am curious to see where it goes though. I’d be fine if they heightened the fun (more steam-punk Death in a carriage!) and played down the family drama stuff, but I’m worried it might go the opposite way. But we’ll see.  I’ve seen/read a few other representations of Dickinson’s life, both quite serious – The Belle of Amherst (a play) and A Quiet Passion (a film from 2016) – but I’ve not seen anything quite like this before.

Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) and ‘Death’ (Wiz Khalifa) in Dickinson

I might watch Wild Nights with Emily (2018)which was a purely comedic film, about her supposed romantic relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, to compare it with this series (since I think that interesting aspect of Emily’s life will play a big part in this too).

Let me know what you think of Dickinson! I would be so, so curious, if you’ve seen this series, what you think of it? Should I keep watching? Does it improve from this or go downhill? And if you’ve not seen it, what do you think of the sounds of it? (Also excuse that Dickinson falls slightly outside of our ‘Madeira Mondays’ 18th century remit, since it is technically about the early 19th century! But I figured you wouldn’t mind!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

PS And speaking of poets and poetry, I also wanted to let you know that I’m doing a poetry performance online this week with the brilliant ‘spoken word cabaret’ Sonnet Youth.  I’ll be reading poems from my new pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, alongside three other excellent Scotland-based poets. It’s a free to watch video stream, with the option to donate to charity if you’d like. It’s on Thursday, 17 September 2020 from 20:00-21:30 and the event link is here

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Rob Roy (Film Review)

I rewatched Rob Roy (1995) yesterday for the first time in about twenty years. As readers of this blog will know, I recently went on a trip to the Highlands and toured the Highland Folk Museum, as well as Culloden Battlefield. During this trip, one of my friends kept bringing up the film Rob Roy. She insisted that it was full of gorgeous Highland scenery and that it touched on a lot of the topics that we’d been learning about during our museum explorations – the Jacobite uprisings, the dissolution of the Highland Clans etc. I’d seen Rob Roy as a kid, but couldn’t remember much about it.

After returning from our trip, I hesitated, at first, to re-watch this film because the only thing that I did remember about it was that it contained a very hard-to-watch rape scene. This particular scene has really stuck with me since I first viewed it, perhaps because it was one of the earliest depictions of sexual violence that I saw on screen. (I’m honestly not sure why my dad let me watch Rob Roy – I think he had probably forgotten this scene was in it!) But, in any case, I was missing the Highlands and I was curious to see how all these topics that we’d been learning about played out in the film. So I watched it.

One of the gorgeous sights from our recent Highland trip. This was taken on the drive from Fort William up to Mallaig (where you catch the ferry to Skye).

The best and the worst thing that I can say about Rob Roy is that it does what it says on the tin. It’s a sweeping adventure story about a Robin Hood-like figure who fights to retain his family’s ‘honor’ in the changing landscape of early 18th century Scotland. The film even begins with effectively a thesis statement that explains exactly that to the viewer. The opening text reads:

At the dawn of the 1700’s famine, disease and the greed of great Noblemen was changing Scotland forever.

With many emigrating to the Americas, the centuries-old Clan system was slowly being extinguished.

This story symbolizes the attempt of the individual to withstand these processes and, even in defeat, retain respect and honor.

Not many films start out with such a precise thesis statement, or baldly admit that their story ‘symbolizes’ anything. I don’t actually think that this explanation was necessary either, because all of that becomes quite clear as the film transpires.

This is a story (based on stories about a historical figure turned folk hero) where wider societal change is, in a sense, embodied in the struggles of one ‘traditional’ Highland man (Rob Roy aka Liam Neeson) who refuses to cope with the ‘modern’ avarice, corruption and greed of those around him (as if greed was a new thing haha!).

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (left) and Liam Neeson as Rob Roy (right). I can’t remember precisely when this moment is from in the film, but it’s a safe bet that Rob Roy is ‘defending his honor’ from the smarmy Englishman.

This film is all about ‘honor’, which was quite an important concept to 18th century men -remember that the signers of the Declaration of Independences pledge their ‘lives, fortunes and sacred honor‘ to the cause. ‘Honor’ is actually the last word of the Declaration of Independence. (There’s a very interesting article here on Mount Vernon’s website exploring the changing concepts of honor in Colonial America, from something that was linked explicitly to upper classes, to something that ordinary citizens could have, as well).

In writing this blog post, I’ve realized that ‘honor’ is actually a rather tricky concept to explain or to define. In the 18th century, I think it sort of equates to ‘reputation’. But the way that it was defined also depends a lot on gender. When we think of a woman’s ‘honor’ there’s a sexual connotation and we think of chastity, ‘purity’.

‘Honor’ is defined by Rob Roy in the film as something like morality and ethical conduct. Rob Roy explains to his sons that his ‘honor’ prevents him from ever ‘mistreat(ing) a woman or malign(ing) a man’. It is ‘what no man can give you and none can take away’. It is, in short, his moral compass and system of personal ethics.

Throughout the film, Rob Roy’s code of honor is set against the dishonorable behavior of the nobles who effectively cheat him out of quite a lot of money and engage in other sneaky and also violent actions against him, most notably the aforementioned rape of Rob’s wife Mary MacGregor (Jessica Lange). Yet even that horrific act is part of this larger narrative of ‘honor’. The principal reason that the glib aristocrat Archibald Cunningham (Tim Roth) rapes Mary is to drag Rob Roy out of hiding. Now that his wife has been assaulted, Rob Roy’s ‘Highland honor will have to be satisfied,’ Cunningham remarks.

I actually quite liked this emphasis on ‘honor’ as a theme and how, at every turn, Mary MacGregor’s approach to life is much more sensible and pragmatic. In a way, she’s the foil to Rob and his obsession with honor, even more so than the amoral Cunningham. She sees that Rob’s inability to do or say anything bad about anyone ever, or to do anything sneaky or under-handed at all, will get their family into trouble one day. And, indeed, it does.

Lange gives a dignified and emotive performance as Mary – I really believed that she was a sturdy lady who had borne several children, survived rough Scottish winters and was more than capable of stabbing people in the throat (no spoilers, but she may or may not stab someone in the throat).

When the film succeeds, it does so based on the performances of Lange and also Roth, whose despicable character of Cunningham is far more interesting to watch than Rob Roy ever is, because – unlike Rob – he has flaws (quite a lot of flaws – he’s a murderer, rapist, thief, abandons his pregnant girlfriend, only cares about money etc.). Rob seems to already BE a folk hero – always doing good, always caring for others – not someone whose actions inspired legend.

Another area in which the film succeeds is the choice to show extended sword fighting sequences which were really marvelous to watch. Roger Ebert apparently called one of these sword fighting scenes ‘one of the great action sequences in movie history’ and I’d buy that. The final climactic sword fight is long (ten minutes?) and tense – lots of intricate choreography.

Tim Roth as Archibald Cunningham (right) shows off his fancy sword fighting skills

The landscape is also, of course, breathtaking and it gets plenty of screen time. The whole thing was shot on location in the Highlands and you can absolutely tell. I can’t fault Michael Caton-Jones on the direction – he gets good performances out of his cast and really lets the setting shine.

So would I recommend it? Well, if you’re a fan of Braveheart or Outlander or be-kilted dudes, you’ll certainly like this. And if you’re someone, like me, who enjoys 18th century history and sweeping period dramas, in general, then there’s plenty here to like. It’s just nothing special, largely because of the lack of humanity in the central character. When someone is such a good person, a righteous person, a caring person, they eventually stop seeming like a person, at all.

Let me know what you think of this movie, if you’ve seen it. If not, let me know if it sounds like your cup of tea (or dram of whisky)!

Recommended Reading:

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: National Treasure (Film Review)

‘I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence.’ – Nicolas Cage as Benjamin Franklin Gates in National Treasure

National Treasure (2004) is a deeply silly movie.

It’s a movie that I vividly recall watching at the cinema in my hometown of Austin, Texas. I was around thirteen at the time, and, even at that age, I knew it was silly. It’s the story of American history buff/treasure hunter Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) who figures out that there is an invisible map on the back of the Declaration of Independence and decides to steal it before it falls in the hands of some baddies. What follows is a race against time as the FBI, and the baddies, try to track down Cage before he can decode the map and find the treasure of the Knights Templar (?), which has been hidden by the Freemasons (???). It’s a very Dan Brown-esque story (conspiracy theories, hidden ‘clues’, secret societies etc.).

Movie_national_treasure

So when I decided to rewatch this for ‘Madeira Mondays’ (as part of my 4th of July inspired series of posts), I had one question in mind: Is this a fun enough watch that I would recommend it? Is it ‘good bad’ (i.e. so bad it’s actually funny to watch)? Or is it genuinely ‘good’ (i.e. works on the intended levels, as a satisfying action/adventure story?). Sadly, it falls somewhere in the middle and was, overall, pretty dull and too long. Which is disappointing, considering that it’s a story about a treasure hunt and I like most of the actors in it.

One of the things that keeps it from being ‘good bad’ is that the actors are actually too talented for it to really suck. Nicolas Cage is incredibly deadpan throughout the whole thing, and he has such a bizarre and unique charisma that it kind of works somehow. His love interest, Dr Abigail Chase (Diana Kruger) also works as a somewhat cerebral archivist who is both annoyed and intrigued by Gate’s treasure hunting antics (I also liked the choice to make her a German character – the actress is from Germany. There’s a good line when Gates notices her slight accent and asks: ‘You’re not American?’ And she says: ‘I am an American, I just wasn’t born here.’ Nice). And how could Sean Bean not work as the baddie (I’ve already forgotten his character’s name) obsessed with finding the treasure (guess he gave up trying to get The One Ring. Sorry! I had to make a Lord of the Rings joke!). These people are too talented for the film to really and truly stink.

National Treasure

Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger), Benjamin Gates (Nicholas Cage) and Justin Bartha (Riley Poole) defacing the Declaration of Independence in order to find a hidden treasure map on the back, Image accessed via IMDB

Also, I enjoyed that even the names in this are silly and on-the-nose. Mr. Gates is a treasure hunter, alongside Dr. Chase.

I also enjoyed the film’s fairly bonkers thesis statement, which is basically that extralegal things are totally okay sometimes, if you do them for the right reasons. Gates draws a hilarious parallel between himself and the men who signed the Declaration of Independence (which he correctly identifies as ‘high treason’ at the time), by saying that both he and they are doing something that is against the law, but they are doing it for the right reasons. The movie isn’t self-important enough to take this thesis very seriously, or to really interrogate this concept of when it is ‘okay’ to break the law, if you believe the laws are unjust. That’s not what we’re here for. We’re here to see Sean Bean blowing up a 300 year old pirate ship (which is something that happens in this movie).

I’m not even going to touch on the ‘historical accuracy’ of this movie, because the movie clearly doesn’t care about that. But I don’t think you’ll come away with it having learned anything ‘accurate’ about early America (except maybe that the founders, by signing the Declaration, were doing something illegal at the time and would very much have been executed if they had lost the rebellion, as Gates points out).

So, sadly, I’d say don’t bother with National Treasure. Unless you are a particular fan of Dan Brown type stuff, or you love Indianan Jones and you want a somewhat crappier version of that. But, all in all, if you want a ridiculous movie about early America, I’d actually direct you to Beyond the Mask (which I reviewed earlier this year), which is an independent ‘Christian’ movie about an outlaw during the Revolutionary War (think: budget Zorro) and is much sillier, stranger, and ultimately a funnier watch than National Treasure.

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A British Man of War before the Rock of Gibraltar’ by Thomas Whitcombe, created in the late 18th/early 19th century, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

 

Madeira Mondays: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Film Review)

France, 1770. A tale of forbidden love, same-sex desire and painting. Sign me up! From the moment a friend of mine sent me the trailer for Céline Sciamma’s new film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (or Portrait de la Jeune Fille En Feu, in its original French), I knew I would enjoy this movie. It ticks so many boxes of things I enjoy. It’s historical, it’s a bit gothic, it’s about female experiences and patriarchal limitations. I’m also a sucker for art about art. So I went into it with pretty high expectations. But what I did not expect was just how good this film was: it’s a subtle, sensuous, and frankly pretty faultless movie. It’s also just so. darn. romantic. And tragic. But we’ll get to that in a second.

portait of a lady

As I mentioned, the film takes place in France in the 1770’s (which, by the way, is the exact same time period in which the novel I am working on is set – so I loved seeing the costumes in this!). It follows a small cast of characters. Marianne (Noémie Merlant) is a painter, newly arrived to a drafty old mansion on the Brittany coast. She has been called there to paint Héloise (Adèle Haenel), a young aristocratic woman who will soon be married off to a Milanese nobleman. The painting will be a gift to this man, a lovely portrait of his new French bride. The only catch is: Héloise doesn’t want to have her portrait painted at all. She doesn’t want to be married off, either. So Marianne must paint her subject in secret, observing her with furtive glances on their walks on a windswept beach, or by the steep cliffs. Is there tension? You bet there is! Are those pauses pregnant with longing and unspoken words? You bet they are.

This is a film that is especially suited to its medium and by that I mean it’s a very visual film. Don’t get me wrong: the dialogue, when it happens, is excellent. Funny and specific and gives a great sense of character. But it’s a lot about looks, as slowly Marianne’s portrait of the surly but also surpassingly sweet Héloise emerges. But Héloise is also looking back at Marianne, observing this young woman who, unlike herself, has a professional career as a painter and has decided not to marry. Marianne wears masculine clothes and smokes a pipe (although this is not entirely uncommon for women of the time). Marianne is well-travelled. She’s heard symphonies. Héloise is entranced. They’re entranced with each other.

portait of a young girl

Marianne (Noemie Merlant), right, and Heloise (Adele Haenel), left.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that these two fall in love (it’s made obvious in the trailer). At its heart, this film is a love story. But what I like most about the film is that we are made constantly aware – through their romance, through Marianne’s career (which is limited due to her sex), and through a sub-plot with Sophie (Luàna Bajrami), Héloise’s servant who falls pregnant on accident – that their lives are governed by patriarchal rules. Marianne casually mentions that she cannot draw nude male models, only female ones, because female artists are not allowed to observe naked men. ‘Is it a matter of modesty?’ Héloise asks. Marianne replies: ‘It’s mostly to prevent us from doing great art. Without any notion of male anatomy, the major subjects escape us.’

This is great. Sciamma doesn’t have to make Marianne say: ‘We’re oppressed! We’re women! It’s an unequal society!’ We just know from these examples.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation of Little Women, which I liked for certain reasons, but it’s also concerned with limitations faced by women of the past, when trying to enter the public, professional world. And it definitely hits you over the head with these sorts of inequalities more overtly than Portrait does. Think of the speech that progressive artist Jo March makes in Gerwig’s Little Women:

I just feel that women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty. And I’m so sick of people saying that love is all a women is fit for. I’m so sick of it. But I’m so lonely.

This is a good speech and delivered exceptionally well by Saoirse Ronan, but all of those same sentiments were encapsulated in Portrait, without needing to be directly said. This film is subtle and understated in all of the ways that I felt Little Women was not. And, granted, Little Women was a much cheerier, lighter, brighter, film overall. Whereas Portrait is more turbulent, moody, subtler, holds a lot more back. (Little Women is an American film, after all, and Portrait is a French one haha!). But still. They came out at almost the same time and explore many of the same themes, which is why I’m comparing them.

ANYWAYS, if you like these types of stories (about women who are ‘ahead of their time’, about forbidden passions, about slightly creepy mansions on windswept coasts), then you’re gonna LOVE Portrait of a Lady on Fire. While Portrait didn’t blow my mind – I don’t think it was doing anything exceptionally innovative or treading on especially new territory – I still think it was an excellent film. I cried several times. It’s also definitely one of the best films I’ve ever seen set during this time period, so if you’re looking for a brilliant, subtle, well-crafted historical film, then do check it out!

(PS All of the images in this post, including the gorgeous waves-crashing Featured Image, were accessed via IMDB)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!