Pop Culture Princess

Pop Culture Princess
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Monday, August 22, 2022

Our Autumn in August takes us book shopping at 84, Charing Cross Road

For our finale in this Autumn in August film series, I welcome you to a book paradise lost that was once located at 84, Charing Cross Road.

This 1987 movie was based upon a play which was an adaptation of a memoir in letters by our leading lady Helene Hanff(Anne Bancroft), a writer and script reader in post WWII New York whose desire for affordable works of English Literature couldn’t be fulfilled by local booksellers.

Thanks to a magazine ad, she writes the first of many letters to Marks & Co, a London bookshop specializing in old and rare titles with a request for some of her most pressing literary needs. Fortunately, the shop manger Frank Doel(Anthony Hopkins) is most pleased to assist her and already appreciates her ready wit:

This exchange blossoms into a lovely long distance relationship that extends to other staff members at the shop, particularly when Helene starts sending care packages via Denmark due to the limited food rationing England was still going through after the war.

Of course, many such as Cecily Farr(Eleanor David) and Bill Humphries(Ian McNeice) write in private to Helene since Frank considers her  to be his“special corespondent “ but they insist that he’s not stuffy.

Those little asides are nice to see as Cecily is happy to be able to bake her children a cake with her share of the parcels and Bill’s stiff upper lip great aunt is thrilled to taste fresh meat after so long, despite it coming from America by way of Denmark!

Frank also personally thanks Helene for her generous gifts and finds ways to kindly return the favor through books , of course such as a small volume of love poetry that “doesn’t slobber”, small enough to fit into a pocket and take to the park for spring reading:

What keeps this movie going is showcasing of Helene and Frank in their separate lives , she with her quirky energy and outgoing manners whether she’s helping a good friend or looking for some pepper salami from the local deli, contrasted with his quiet yet heartfelt lifestyle with his second wife Nora(Judi Dench) and their girls whether on a rainy seaside holiday or watching the coronation of the new queen.

While Frank and Helene maintain a long distance friendship, a possible romance  between them is somewhat hinted at here but I suspect that even if they had met in real life , nothing of that sort would’ve happened. Although in another lifetime, perhaps…:

In a way, 84, Charing Cross Road was ahead of its time as folks exchanging stories about their lives and gifts to those they never met was not the norm. However, in this internet age, such bonds of friendship are made every day.

No matter what the time period, such real life tales of people reaching out to each other like this, based on mutual interests and just plain decency, are uplifting without being saccharine sweet.

This film was a labor of love for Bancroft, who had her beloved husband Mel Brooks produced it and she wound up winning a BAFTA(British version of an Oscar) for her performance.  Judi Dench received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role and has said that was one of her favorite parts onscreen.

Hopkins also gives his role a subtle charm as well, making you wish he and Helene had managed to meet up somehow(spoiler alert, they never did). The balance between them in certain scenes is edited just right with one last letter exchange almost feeling like a direct conversation.

If you love books and bookstores (especially British ones), this is the perfect movie for you and as a bonus, Helene Hanff not only shared her life story in this set of letters but a couple of other books as well (I highly recommend The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street and In Show Business). Plenty of good reading to be had here!

Well, thank you all for checking out this mini film festival and I’ll be back in blog business after Labor Day. Enjoy what remains of summer and let’s rejoice in the glories of autumn yet to come:

Monday, August 15, 2022

A visit to Howards End suits this Autumn in August quite well

Now that we’re heading into cooler weather, our next Autumn in August  selection feels especially agreeable as the 1992 adaptation of E.M. Forster’s  Howards End is our next cinematic destination.

Emma Thompson , well before her sister act in Sense & Sensibility, plays older sister Margaret Schlegel who resides with her younger and more openly passionate sister Helen(Helena Bonham Carter), their younger brother Tibby(Adrian Ross Magenty) and lively Aunt Julie(Prunella Scales).

This eclectic family finds their lives changing due to contact with the more conservative Wilcox family, first by Helen spending time with them at the title country house owned by the quietly kind hearted matriarch Ruth(Vanessa Redgrave).

After a very brief romance with younger son Paul Wilcox (Joseph A. Bennett) that leads to a even briefer comedy of errors involving an engagement , Helen does her best to avoid the whole family. When the Wilcoxs happen to rent a house in London right across the way from the Schlegels, Helen goes out of town as does Paul (who is doing a residency overseas).

Margaret, however, pays a friendly call on Ruth and finds herself making friends, with the latter slowly but surely determined to show the former her beloved house , feeling that her new companion would appreciate it greatly:

Ruth is seriously ill as it turns out but before her passing, she writes a note that gives Margaret the house, a last request that now widower husband Henry(Anthony Hopkins) and his obnoxious children secretly agree to deny.

Margaret has no idea of any of this but over the course of consoling the Wilcox’s, finds herself falling in love with Henry and accepting his offer of marriage.

Helen, meanwhile, grows angry with Henry over a series of miscommunications that put a new acquaintance named Leonard Bast(Samuel West) in financial jeopardy.

While Helen feels responsible for his situation, her solution of dragging Leonard and his wife Jacky(Nicola Basset) to a family wedding to demand Henry’s help backfires in more ways than one.

The whole theme of the story is about class divisions and lack of true understanding as Leonard discovers to his increasing distress.

 With all of Helen’s good intentions, her middling middle class methods of aiding Leonard, who longs for a more sophisticated life but lacks the means for one, makes  things worse.

  Henry’s casual callousness (not to mention personal hypocrisy) are worth being challenged yet both he and Helen feel entitled to put poor Leonard in the middle of their debate while Margaret tries to compromise with each of them.

  Despite this story being set in Edwardian England, much of this emotional discord does have a strong reflection upon our modern times indeed:

Margaret does eventually chose a side, particularly when a major revelation about her sister becomes known. 

When applying to Henry for simple permission to allow Helen to stay the night at Howards End(which is unoccupied), Margaret rightly confronts him on his two faced attitude about the entire situation and brooks no refusal here, pointing out the equal disparities between him and her sister accordingly.

While there is so much quality in this production, a classic Merchant(producer)/Ivory(director) film with a wonderful screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jbhabvala, one of the major standouts is the chemistry between Thompson and Hopkins, who later went on to another Merchant Ivory film , The Remains of the Day. 

These two just seem to instinctively know which buttons to push to make the other character react more realistically in whatever circumstance they’re in. It’s like watching the perfect tennis match, although who the winner is by the end is not a happy outcome at all:

Our last entry in this Autumn in August festival follows Anthony Hopkins to 84, Charing Cross Road, where he plays a London bookseller in post WWII who happily deals with long distance customer Helene Hanff(Anne Bancroft).

This 1987 film is based on a play and book, written by Hanff who had a real life correspondence with the British bookstore Marks and Company as it was hard to satisfy her “taste in antiquarian books” in New York at the time. I must confess that this film is a personal favorite of mine and such a good excuse to watch this delightful bookish bond yet again:

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

Learning some Sense & Sensibility this Autumn in August

Welcome back to another look at Autumn in August , where a good film can take us right to sweater weather even during a heat wave.

Our next selection is the 1995 adaptation of Sense & Sensibility , elegantly directed by Ang Lee with a screenplay written by one of the movie’s co-stars Emma Thompson (who won an Oscar for this bit of double duty).

What makes this film suitably seasonal here? Well, for one thing, the setting off point for the plot is the death of the Dashwood patriarch, which leaves his estate to his son from his first marriage and very little to the wife and daughters from his second one.

Unfortunately, the current Mr. Dashwood (James Fleet) has little inclination to honor his deathbed promise to his father yet doesn’t want to look stingy either. Lucky for him, his wife Fanny(wickedly played by Harriet Walter) is swift to slowly yet surely talk him out of it there:

That leaves the newly widowed Mrs. Dashwood (Gemma Jones) and her trio of daughters, Elinor(Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet) and young Margaret (Miriam Francois) in search of a new home as well as new futures to plan.

Much of the practical planning falls to Elinor, who gently but firmly tries to steer the limited family finances in the best direction. She also tries to do this with her own emotions but with difficult results which we’ll get to in a moment.

My main talking point for this look at S&S is to focus on Elinor and why the way her quiet character is portrayed in this film should be an example for other adaptations to follow.

No doubt, a good portion of any Austen fan’s conversation this summer has been about the recent Persuasion movie, particularly in turning the introverted Anne Eliot into a most talkative and at times awkward leading lady. 

This issue isn’t just about that story, it’s more about film makers not knowing how to make any Austen heroine who isn’t Lizzie Bennet or Emma Woodhouse interesting to their audience. The few adaptations of Mansfield Park have had to deal with this too.

Since S&S was Austen’s first published novel and Persuasion her last, we can draw a fair comparison between Elinor and Anne. Both are sisters in a single parent household dealing with new circumstances that require guidance being given to their family.

Elinor is much more fortunate than Anne in this regard with a family that respects and loves her than the Eliots do Anne. One other thing they both have in common is dealing with personal sorrow privately.

The romance between Elinor and her brother in law Edward(Hugh Grant) begins with this scene as he comes across her quietly weeping as Marianne plays one of their departed father’s musical favorites. 

 His considerate approach and thoughtful way of encouraging Elinor to get some fresh air with him blossoms into a deep friendship that bodes a deeper connection to come. His polite affections suit her perfectly indeed:

Elinor is well aware that any such love match would be troublesome given the financial gulf between them, even before Lucy Steele(Imogen Stubbs) is on the scene.

 Plus, it’s easier to hide her despair when Marianne’s love life is so dramatic, especially when the seemingly made for her Willoughby(Greg Wise) surprisingly breaks up with Marianne. Look at this whole scene where Marianne’s distress causes the entire household to go into an uproar. 

While Elinor strives to keep her composure and try to figure out what went down, her mother launches into her own set of hysterics and even Margaret had a crying session  Elinor is alone in the hallway by the end of it, with a cup of tea in hand, not at the center of the storm but rather the calm eye of the emotional chaos that is suffering just as much as the others are:

Even when Elinor’s true heartbreak is known, she does her best to see some good in the situation, hard as that is. When Marianne accuse her of being without a heart, it’s then that Elinor displays her inner anger and anguish in a speech that is all the more impactful for having been allowed to slowly build over the course of the story:

Of course, you might say “Emma Thompson did write the script, of course she made HER character interesting!”  Thompson happens to be a Jane Austen reader which aided greatly when adapting the book to film and like many a good actor, didn’t upstage or undercut the other performers for her benefit.

In fact, she enhances several minor characters such as Margaret with her treehouses and comments about “we never talk about things!”and piracy being a viable option. Even the eternally grumpy Mr. Palmer(Hugh Laurie) gets a few moments of showing a nicer side to his character!

By giving the actor opportunities to use body language and writing their character into an arch that lets them showcase their inner strength in visible ways, it is possible to make such quiet leads like Elinor Dashwood,as well as Anne Eliot and yes, even Fanny Price from MP, be as compelling as their more lively counterparts can be.

It also helps a great deal to not only have read the source material but to also like it as well. Many of these productions seem determined to remake the leads to their own tastes rather than showcase the values of that character already beloved by readers. 

Emma Thompson was a key factor in making this film work for both Austen fans and new viewers alike and others really should run where she walked artistically:

Speaking of Emma Thompson, she is also a co-star in our next Autumn in August film that has her being the sensible sister to a much more impulsive sibling.

Howards End was released in 1992 and set a century or so later than S&S, yet themes of class and romance do arise in both.

Her love interest here is not a youthful Edward Ferrars but more of a grimmer Colonel Brandon type in Henry Wilcox(Anthony Hopkins). Of course, Col. Brandon is a much better person than Henry Wilcox but that’s a discussion for another time.

As to whether or not Elinor Dashwood and Col. Brandon would have made a good couple, my hunch is yes but they both needed an opposite to complete them truly in the best sense. Meanwhile, we have Margaret Schlegel and her Henry to look forward to:

Wednesday, August 03, 2022

Taking our first voyage this Autumn in August with Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World

 Welcome to our second year of Autumn in August , where we talk about movies that just have that fall feeling most of us crave by this point in summer.

As we prepare for yet another heat wave that will have folks batten down the hatches via the A/C of your choice, it’s only fitting to start this series off on the high seas with 2003’s Master & Commander : The Far Side of the World.

The length of the title is due to this film being based on two of the books in the acclaimed historical fiction series (known as Aubrey-Maturin) by late author Patrick O’Brian. 

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, this set of twenty novels chronicles the nautical adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey(played by Russell Crowe here) and his good friend/ship’s surgeon Dr. Stephen Maturin(Paul Bettany in his pre-Vision days).

The latter part of the film’s title is the basis for the central plot , placing Aubrey and the crew of the HMS Suprize in 1805, under orders to hunt down the infamous French warship called Acheron, a vessel that is much better equipped than their own. Nevertheless, “Lucky Jack” is anxious to capture this ship but their first encounter does not go well, to say the least:

Despite that initial battle, Aubrey and company head out in serious pursuit, facing a number of obstacles along the way.

Some of those include a long stretch of rough weather followed by a bout of windless sea which considerably slows them down. Tensions rise among the crew, leading to the harassment of a seen as weak officer that ends in a most sorrowful way.

Tensions also rise between Aubrey and Maturin , especially during a pit stop at the Galagos islands where Maturin hopes to gather samples of flora and fauna (he’s a pursuer of natural science). Other arguments deal with the growing resentment of the crew and how things should be run. Yes, Aubrey is in charge but listening to another point of view is helpful even if that advice is not taken:

 The strongest parts of the film are when we are shown all of the daily living of all aboard from rank and file officers to regular sea men, making you feel as you’re one of them struggling to deal with the hazards of the ocean and the hunt for Acheron, which feels hopeless at times.

The main strength of this story is the bond between Aubrey and Maturin that Crowe and Bettany carry off amazingly well. Their ups and downs, alongside their mutual respect for one another, is the steady hand on the wheel that keeps this long story on course.

During this rewatch, I noticed how well both characters were reflected in separate ways by their dealings with a young officer named Blakeney(Max Pirkus, who made his film debut here).

 Blakeney goes through quite a lot on this trip, from losing an arm in the first battle against the Acheron to helping out an isolated fellow officer that doesn’t end well to assisting Maturin with his nature studies.

As he grows up over the course of the story, the paternalistic connections Blakeney makes with both Captain and surgeon not only help him but his two unlikely mentors to boot,allowing each man to show a more caring side and at times, take a moment of humility:

It’s such a shame that they didn’t make any Master & Commander films other than this one. Director Peter Weir did an excellent job here with the movie earning ten Oscar nominations(winning two) and critical acclaim. However, the box office numbers, while respectable, weren’t high enough to get a sequel going.

There is talk of a prequel, focusing on the first book in the series, which is fine but such a project will have much to measure up to. For such a sweeping story to have the confidence to hit the cinematic ground running here is a feat not easy to achieve. 

Much like the musical duets that Aubrey and Maturin treat themselves to, such perfect harmony is an act not instantly repeatable yet certainly worth the effort:

Now that this ship has sailed, our next stop for Autumn in August takes to Jane Austen country with 1995’s Sense and Sensibility.  After all, M&C:TFSW takes place during Austen’s time(she did have brothers in the Royal Navy!) and it only seems fitting to visit the Dashwood sisters here.

This film did much to encourage the Austen revival of the nineties, along side the iconic P&P miniseries and gave us a truly memorable set of performances including the late great Alan Rickman as Col. Brandon who mastered many a heart with his steadfast devotion indeed: