The Crown (season 4)

Although this series began as at least a notional celebration of the monarchy, with each passing year it has become subtly more anti-monarchical, simply by presenting the royal family more or less as they are.

This season covers the 1980s, the era of Diana and Margaret Thatcher, so there’s plenty of dramatic material.  The conversations between members of the royal family are of course fictional, although it seems to me that they represent reasonable guesses about what the characters really thought.  I doubt that the Queen was as much of a ninny as she is portrayed here, although she is clearly out of touch with the lives of ordinary people.  But Princess Margaret and the Queen Mother really were nasty pieces of work.  Interestingly, the most likeable royal is Prince Phillip, which may be more of a tribute to the actor Tobias Menzies than anything else.

The marriage of Charles and Diana is presented as doomed from the start, which it probably was.  The arranged marriage between a privileged man, who was nonetheless prevented from marrying the woman he truly loved, and a young woman little more than a child who thought she was living in some sort of fairy tale was truly tragic.  The lunch meeting of Diana and Camilla before the wedding really did occur – and who thought THAT was a good idea? – although I suspect the conversation that actually occurred was even more surreal than the one depicted here.

I didn’t much care for Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher.  She got the clenched-jaw speech pattern right – Thatcher actually took elocution lessons to learn to speak that way, in a futile attempt to be more acceptable to the British upper crust. But the net effect of this hyperrealism is to reduce the portrayal to a kind of caricature.  It’s the same mistake Meryl Streep made in The Iron Lady, IMO:  Someday we’ll get an honest cinematic appraisal of Thatcher by someone who actually likes her – it hasn’t happened yet.

Despite these reservations, though, I think on the whole this series is worth watching.

On Netflix. 

One Child Nation

This documentary about the one child policy enforced by the Chinese government for several decades tells an important story, although one that’s often difficult to watch.  The policy involved not only a massive propaganda effort to get people to have only one child, but also the active murder, either by late term abortions or actual exposure, of unwanted second children.  The orphanages set up by the Chinese government to arrange for the foreign adoption of some of these babies came about relatively late in the game.

The most disturbing parts of the documentary are the interviews with the people who participated in the program – the midwives who killed babies, the relatives who brought babies to street markets knowing that they would die,  the market vendors who watched them die.  Some have come to terms with their past – one midwife now spends her life trying to save high risk babies.  But far too many still justify their actions as totally necessary to save China from overpopulation.  Whether that’s their real belief or a colossal self deception to save their sanity is hard to say.

On Amazon Prime

The Life Ahead

A young Senegalese orphan who has fallen through the cracks of the Italian social safety net winds up in the home of an elderly woman, a retired prostitute who has over the past few decades taken in many such forgotten children.  She’s not much of a traditional mother – her house is a mess, and not much cooking is going on. But she knows the difference between right and wrong (as opposed to legal or illegal) and tries to impart that to her charges.

The old lady is played by Sophia Loren, a lifelong sex symbol who in this movie has the courage to appear as the age she actually is (86) – it probably helped that the director, Eduardo Ponti, is her son.  Ponti also gets an honest performance from the little boy playing the orphan.

The movie doesn’t gloss over the gritty realities of life on the margins in a poor southern Italian city.  But it manages to be life affirming nevertheless.

On Netflix.

A Suitable Boy

This 6 part adaptation of Vikram Seth’s monumental 1993 novel seems to have fallen under the radar, which is a shame, because it’s quite good.

The story, set in India in the early 1950s, begins with a wedding, after which the mother of the bride starts looking for a husband for her younger daughter Lata – the “suitable boy” of the title.  Of course, Lata has her own ideas.  

The story quickly opens up and covers a number of issues – retail politics in what was then a new democracy, the changing status of women, life in rural villages, creeping nostalgia for the recently departed British, land reform, the development of new industries, and the still thorny issue of Hindu/Muslim relations.  Even cricket has a moment.

Although the story of Lata and her search for a husband is the “primary” narrative, the story of her brother in law Maan takes over somewhere in the middle episodes, which is good because his story is more unusual and more interesting.  Maan, a younger son described as “a disappointment to his father” has unsuitable relationships of his own.  As a result of his bad choices, he is exposed to parts of Indian life which are as foreign to him as they are to us.  He learns a lot, as do we.  

Although this is a BBC production, the cast is almost exclusively Indian actors, and the director is an Indian American, Mira Nair.   Perhaps for this reason It feels more authentic than many recent British productions set in India.  There are extended sessions of Indian vocal and instrumental music, which I found enchanting. 

The first episode is a bit slow, since it takes a while to introduce all the characters and their relationships.  I wish Netflix had included a family tree on its website.  By the middle of the second episode, though, the introductions are done.  And the characters won’t let you go.  

On Netflix.  

David Copperfield

What a delightful movie this was!

The book famously begins with David’s eyewitness account of his own birth.  Director Armando Iannucci leans right in to this slightly skewed perspective, and the first-person viewpoint of the whole movie remains a little off balance.  We see the ugliness of Victorian London – the child labor, the debtors’ prisons, the Gothic horror of the bottling factory.  But everything is viewed through the relentless optimism of young David, who sees the world as it is but still learns to make his way in it.

Dev Patel is quite wonderful as the kid born to unlucky circumstances who nevertheless carves out a place for himself in a class stratified world.  I think he’s played this role before.

The cast giving life to Dickens’ supporting characters is remarkable – some with names Americans might recognize (Tilda Swinton, Peter Capaldi, Ben Whishaw) and others drawn from England’s deep bench of theatrical actors.  I particularly liked Hugh Laurie as the kite-flying Mr. Dick (Mr. Kite?) – who knew he had such good comic timing? The director has an eye for the comic absurdities of the characters, but they are also recognizable as human beings.  

The multiracial cast has been controversial with Dickens purists, but I rather liked it.  As with modern Shakespeare productions, it had the effect of decoupling the story from its setting.  As a result, it’s less of a Victorian period piece and more the story of a young man figuring out who he is and what he’s good at that just happens to be set in Victorian London.  It’s more of a contemporary story, which is, after all, how Dickens’ original readers would have viewed it.

The film is having a small theatrical release now for some reason, but hopefully will be available soon on DVD or streaming platforms. Highly recommended.