SPOILER-FREE Review: Killing Eve – Season 1 (BBC America)

Based on the novellas by Luke Jennings [published in 2017] and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag), Killing Eve centers on two women; Eve (Sandra Oh) is a bored, whip-smart, pay-grade MI-5 security officer whose desk-bound job doesn’t fulfill her fantasies of being a spy; Villanelle (Jodie Comer) is a mercurial, talented killer who clings to the luxuries her violent job affords her. -Summary from BBC America

Remember Det. Bobby Goren’s pursuit of the literate/world-traveling serial killer- Nicole Wallace- on several eps/seasons of Law and Order: Criminal Intent? Bobby and Nicole shared a strong connection (chemistry), though they were on different sides of the law. Now you’ve got a hint of this (unique) thriller, which is mostly a character-based drama centered on a  married/middle-aged MI-5 security officer, Eve Polastri (Canadian actress of Korean heritage- Sandra Oh- best known for Sideways and Gray’s Anatomy) and multi-lingual/sociopath killer, Villanelle (Jodie Comer, a Brit from Liverpool). Oh’s character is a Brit, though raised in the US (so has an American accent).  

Though this is a drama, there is (dark) humor laced throughout each of the 8 eps, thanks to Waller-Bridge, a multi-talented Brit in her early 30s. Yes, women are at the forefront (and behind-the-scenes) of Killing Eve! I was esp. pleased to see veteran actress Fiona Shaw as Carolyn Martens, Eve’s superior officer. The man who acts as a sort of handler/manager for Villanelle is called Konstantin (Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor). Both he and Shaw have strong onscreen presences, toughness, and some (unexpected) moments of lightness/fun. Eve’s easygoing husband (a teacher) is Niko (Owen McDonnell, an Irish actor who works mainly in theater); he and Oh have the type of natural chemistry you’d see in a long-married couple. Their marriage is put under strain as Eve goes into fieldwork, dangers escalate, keeps secrets, and becomes obsessed w/ Villanelle.  

As some critics have noted, the breakout star of Killing Eve is Jodie Comer. She’s young, tall, blue-eyed, (conventionally) pretty, yet NOT skinny (athletic figure). What sets her apart are her big/bright blue eyes and luminous face (which she twists into many expressions). I see a LOT of potential in this actress. Vilanelle, like MANY real women, likes real food (ice cream, fresh bruschetta, champagne, etc.) And she has a keen eye for fashion, too. How good is this show? Well, it was picked up for a second season (even before the pilot aired), then Oh was nominated for a Best Actress Emmy (the first for an Asian-American woman). Check it out ASAP (I saw it last week at the BBC America web site)!

 

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Love & Friendship (2016) starring Kate Beckinsale & Chloe Sevigny

My friend and I recently saw this at the Jane Austen film festival held annually on the grounds of Dumberton House (Washington, DC). You can watch it w/ Amazon Prime. This is the first movie based on Austen’s epistolary (letter format) novel Lady Susan (1871), which uses a name from another of her novels- Love and Friendship. It’s well-made (though w/ low budget of $3M), funny (w/ both subtle and obvious humor), and a fresh take on the beloved author’s work.

It’s with ticklish glee, then, that you watch Love & Friendship live up to every possible expectation you could set for it, opening out the adulterous games of Austen’s surprisingly risqué text and elaborating on them with impish, often breathlessly funny verve. It’s flat-out hilarious… Gliding through its compact 92 minutes with alert photography and not a single scene wasted…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

The daughter of an earl w/ little money, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale- check her out in Emma), visits her brother- and sister-in-law, Charles (Justin Edwards) and Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell), w/ little advance notice at Churchill, their country estate. Catherine is quite anxious/unhappy; years ago Lady Susan (the widow of her older/deceased brother-in-law) tried to prevent her marriage to Charles. Also, Lady Susan (though considered old-  mid-30s) has the reputation of being one of the biggest flirts in England (more likely, just their social circle). She owes debts to many merchants in London. Among Lady Susan’s conquests in London is the married Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).

Catherine’s genuine/handsome younger brother Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) arrives a week later, and despite Catherine’s  warnings, soon falls under Lady Susan’s spell. She messes w/ his affections for her own amusement, as well as upsetting Catherine. Her closest friend, an American woman, Mrs. Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny),  recommends she marry the eligible Reginald ASAP. Lady Susan considers him to be greatly inferior to Mainwaring. 

Too old to be governable, and too young to die. -Lady Susan comments re: Alicia’s older/respectable husband, Mr. Johnson

Frederica, Lady Susan’s 16-year-old daughter, tries to run away from school when she learns of her mother’s plan to marry her off to a wealthy/stupid young man, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). She stays at Churchill where her aunt and uncle come to like her (her character is totally unlike her mother’s). Sir James shows up uninvited, much to Frederica’s distress; she still doesn’t want to marry him (though she doesn’t hate him as a person). Lady Susan isn’t having it, telling Frederica that she doesn’t know how much worse their lives could be. After all, they need a permanent home and security, so she should obey her mother. 

…Tom Bennett, whose scene-stealing efforts should make him every bit as much of a star, grins and grins and understands nothing as the biggest stooge of the lot…

Excerpt from The Telegraph 

Frederica even goes to the local church alone, asking the kind young parson re: the commandment to “honor thy mother and father.” One day, Frederica is crying in the parlor, and Reginald asks her to tell him what’s wrong. She begs Reginald for support, feeling she has nowhere to turn, as her mother has forbidden her from telling her aunt and uncle. Reginald is shocked to learn that Lady Susan would want her daughter to marry such a dolt as Sir James! 

Facts are horrid things! -Lady Susan declares to Alicia

Lady Susan returns to London; Reginald follows her, still in love. One day, he goes to see Mrs. Johnson and deliver a letter from Lady Susan. He finds the inconsolable young Lady Mainwaring (Sophie Radermacher) meeting w/ her former guardian, Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry, in a rare serious role). After reading the letter, Reginald finally learns Lady Susan’s true character (she came to London to be alone w/ Mainwaring)!

Lady Susan ends up marrying Sir James herself, and allows Frederica to live at Churchill. As Catherine always wanted, Reginald and Frederica grow closer, fall in love, and marry. At their wedding reception, we see a very pregnant Lady Susan, Sir James (still clueless), and Lord Mainwaring (her lover) all looking quite satisfied. Of course, Sir James is NOT the father! 

Lady Susan has few parallels in 19th-century literature, according to scholars. She is a selfish, clever, VERY attractive to men, and unashamed of her relationship w/ a married man. She has an active role in the her life story; she is NOT just beautiful, BUT intelligent and witty. Her suitors (incl. Reginald and Sir James) are much younger than herself. The ending includes a reward for morality; Frederica is praised for her “virtue” in a poem written by Reginald. While Alicia has to sail back to Connecticut (a punishment) w/ Mr. Johnson, Lady Susan is settled into a comfortable life w/ a husband she can control.

The Heiress (1949) starring Olivia de Havilland & Montgomery Clift

In the late 1800’s, the wealthy Sloper family- surgeon Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), his daughter Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), and the doc’s recently widowed sister- Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins)- live in a spacious house at Washington Square in Manhattan. Despite lessons in various social graces, Catherine is awkward and shy; in contrast, her deceased mother had a LOT of charm and beauty, as her father and their social circle often comment. Lavinia attempts to get her niece to be more social and hopefully meet the a suitable man to marry. Enter handsome, smooth-talking Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), recently returned from Europe.

Morris dances w/ Catherine at a party, NOT minding her clumsy feet, and manages to put her at ease briefly. He comes to call for several days in a row; she is surprised and nervous, even skipping out one morning hoping to avoid him. In no time, Morris declares his love to Catherine and asks to for her hand in marriage. She is thrilled, b/c she NEVER expected anything like this to happen to her. The air-headed/hopeful Lavinia (who serves as chaperone) greatly approves of the man, though cold/aloof Dr. Sloper is suspicious of Morris’ motives. The young man has potential, BUT doesn’t have a job. Above all, the father can’t fathom that a man would want the daughter that he continually puts down. Dr. Sloper, after learning more re: Morris’ character, refuses to give his permission for the marriage. Catherine, angry yet determined, forms a plan to elope ASAP. 

As one viewer wrote:

There are no easy answers in this movie. You can think Dr. Sloper is right about Morris and only wants to protect his daughter, or you can see his actions as those of a vindictive man who blames her for the death of his beloved wife (in childbirth). Morris could be a fortune hunter, or he could be a man who does care for Catherine, in his own way, and would make her happy. Or all of the above. 

After seeing The Heiress on Broadway, de Havilland approached William Wyler about directing her in a screen adaptation (which won 4 Oscars). He agreed and encouraged Paramount execs to purchase the rights from the playwrights (Ruth and Augustus Goetz) and have them also write the screenplay. They were asked to make Morris less of a villain than in the play and the original novel (Washington Square by Henry James); the studio wanted to capitalize on Clift’s reputation as a romantic lead. Wyler’s idea was to pair de Havilland with frequent co-star Errol Flynn, but studio execs favored Clift (w/ a more subtle acting style). Though Flynn and de Havilland had great chemistry, execs felt that the actor’s real-life womanizer rep would’ve worked against him.

 

 

Book Review: “American Dervish” by Ayad Akthar

Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.

Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.

When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

-Synopsis of the novel (Amazon)

As some of you know, I’m a V slow reader, BUT I managed to finish 75% of this novel (according to my Kindle)! I’ve been following this author for a few yrs now; in 2017, journo Bill Moyers said of Akthar: “We finally have a voice for our times.” One of my friends read American Dervish a few years ago; she didn’t recall ALL the details, BUT said that she’d never read something like this before. She passed it onto a friend, then that friend gave it to another. A newcomer to the book club said she also liked the book- subject matter and writing style. The moderator who read it 2 yrs ago said that this book goes into the issues faced by ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis), NOT only those particular to Muslims. 

WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for the novel. 

NOTE: The following topics/questions (which my book club discussed) can be found here: https://www.bookbrowse.com/reading_guides/detail/index.cfm/book_number/2649/american-dervish

Do you think that one has to reject one identity in order to embrace another? What choice does Hayat make? What will the result be?

I think that children and adolescents (such as Hayat Shah, the protagnist/narrator) can often feel this way; my book club agreed w/ this comment. For Hayat, he identified as a Muslim, at least as a preteen boy. His goal was to be a hafiz (someone who knows the Quran by heart), though his father was dead set against this plan. Akthar said in several interviews that he was V interested in Islam as a child; he convinced his (secular) parents to take him to the local mosque and allow him to study the Quran. 

Hayat’s mother and father have a difficult relationship. In fact, all of the relationships between men and women in the book are complex, often troubled. What might the author be saying about such relationships within this culture?

Back in Pakistan, Mina’s first marriage turned sour b/c of her abusive mother-in-law. Her husband didn’t do anything to stop this, so Mina made the drastic decision to go to the US (w/ her son Imran). She couldn’t go back to her parents; they had urged her to stay w/ her husband’s family (she was rejected in her time of need).  

The newcomer to our group said that there were messed up power dynamics between Hayat’s parents; his mother (Muneer) didn’t have a job, so his father (Naveed) has all the money (thus the decision-making power). The ONLY relationship that was positive was between Hayat’s mom’s best friend, Mina, and his father’s friend/colleague, Nathan. They have an old-fashioned courtship, under the watchful eye of Muneer for about a year. This is a kind of fix-up, though based on mutual respect and admiration. Mina and Nathan talk re: books and ideas, share meals, and grow to love each other. When Hayat asks why they can’t be alone, his mother explains that Mina is a Pakistani woman, so “dating” is out of the question.

Hayat’s mother has grown angry and bitter b/c her husband drinks (secretly, he thinks) and cheats on her w/ white women. The women are possibly nurses at the hospital where Dr. Shah conducts research. Hayat’s mother, Muneer, refers to the other women as “mistresses” and “prostitutes.” Her view of white women is thus very negative, though she has a positive view of the Jewish people (incl. Nathan). In one scene, Muneer says that she’s raising Hayat “like a little Jew” (so that he’ll grow up to love and respect women).

Do you think it’s valid and/or authentic for male authors to write about feminist issues? What was your feeling about the portrayal of women in American Dervish?

Yes, someone can be “a male feminist,” my friend said quickly. Akthar said that he was inspired by the women in his life, incl. his own mother (a medical doc), his aunts, and various Pakistani immigrant women from the community of Milwaukee, WI (where he grew up). 

What are the different visions of Islam portrayed in the book?

Naveed (a man of science) has a contempt (perhaps even hatred) of Islam; this is echoed in Disgraced, where Amir even hides his origins. Naveed makes fun of Nathan when the younger man shows an interest in the religion. After Mina and Nathan’s break-up, he declares to his son that he “never wants to see you w/ that book [the Quran] ever again.” On the flip side, Mina wants to know more re: Islam; she studies and also teaches Hayat for a time. She is BOTH religious and spiritual, explaining to Hayat that it’s the “intention” of an action that counts. 

What did you think of the relationship between Islam and Judaism in the novel?

This is a tough one (IMO), b/c in this novel, these religions are put at odds w/ each other. Mina rejects Nathan (a cultural Jew) b/c he doesn’t want to convert to Islam. After all, he had a shocking/scary experience the one time he attended the masjid. Naveed warned him, BUT Nathan’s curiosity and love for Mina compelled him to give this religion a chance. Muneer, who had such high hopes for the pair, is disappointed when they don’t marry. She saw Nathan as a decent man and great choice for Mina, even though he was white and Jewish. I feel that Muneer wanted her friend to have a better life than herself. 

 

Carol (2015) starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, & Kyle Chandler

This film was an awards show darling a few years back, BUT I didn’t get around to seeing it until last week (on Netflix). The film (made for less than $12 million) received a 10 min. standing ovation at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival -WOW! The woman who wrote The Price of Salt– Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Two Faces of January, Strangers on a Train, etc.)- was a friend (later in life) to the screenwriter of Carol, Phyllis Nagy. The Price of Salt was inspired by a blonde woman in a mink coat who ordered a doll from Highsmith when she was working as a temporary salesgirl in the toy section of Bloomingdale’s in New York City during the 1948 Christmas season.

Director Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven; HBO’s miniseries Mildred Pierce) has a deep interest in stories w/ strong women and unlikely love. His style was inspired by Douglas Sirk, who was known for “women’s pictures” (Imitation of Life, Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, etc.) Carol is quite an effective film w/ regard to its look: period costumes and hairdos (wigs), musical score (by Carter Burwell, frequent collaborator of the Coen brothers), beautiful cinematography (by Edward Lachman), and thoughtful directing style. Carol was shot on Super 16 mm film to resemble the look and feel of photographic film from the late ’40s/early ’50s. There is shooting through windows and using reflection.

What I found lacking was the dialogue; I found out that some other viewers felt the same. I expected more deep conversations between the two leading characters, 21 y.o. clerk, Terese Belivet (Rooney Mara- wide-eyed yet wise beyond her years), and 30-something housewife, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). However, it wasn’t hard to relate to Terese, who feels uneasy and unsophisticated when hanging out w/ Carol (w/ her fur coat, jewels, and manicured red nails). Terese wants to work as a photographer; she is more of an observer, letting life happen to her.

Carol is a BIT of a mystery to the viewer, as well as to Terese. It’s obvious to viewers that Carol deeply loves her young daughter, Rindy. The character of Carol was inspired by Virginia Kent Catherwood (1915-1966), a Philadelphia socialite 6 years older than Highsmith with whom she had a love affair in the ’40s. Catherwood lost custody of her daughter after a taped recording of a liaison she had in a hotel was used against her. Carol is risking much by falling in love with Terese, BUT she can’t help it, as she tells Abby (Sarah Paulson). The woman who seems to know Carol best, Abby had a much bigger role before the film was edited, Paulson said in interviews after the film was released. Abby is someone that I wanted to know more about; she isn’t afraid to assert herself in a male-dominated world.

The men in the story are NOT evil, BUT they are clueless. Terese’s long-time boyfriend, Richard (Jake Lacy), seems like a decent guy, though there isn’t much interest on her side. Richard is planning/saving for a big trip to Europe after they get married. I thought it spoke volumes when Terese gently refused to go to over to his family’s home on Christmas day. Danny (John Magaro), the young newspaper reporter who hits on Terese, turns out to be a supportive friend in time. Even Carol’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Harg (Kyle Chandler), is NOT painted as an all-out villain. I thought the actor did a fine job w/ the role, esp. in the more quiet moments (notice the pained expressions on his face). I think that Harg loved Carol, BUT he didn’t realize just how far she had gone from him (emotionally). When they were married, her life was all about him (as was expected of a housewife of Carol’s status).