Friday, 12 December 2008
Zhivago & Fanshawe
...which sounds like a rather unusual firm of solicitors. In fact, I've just watched the last episode of Channel 4's four-part Civil War drama The Devil's Whore. I feel like an old dishcloth that's been sopped in tears and then wrung out. Superbly acted and written, I found it utterly compelling and artistic on several levels. I always feel that making TV drama is more often a craft rather than an art - the results, even when of very high quality, tend to be as interchangeable and anonymous as the stone-carvings on a medieval cathedral. But not The Devil's Whore. Take the way the landscape was shot, for example; filmed in South Africa, careful location scouting and some subtle visual effects create a countryside that seems convincingly English, but parched and strangely shadowed by tumbling, metallic cloudscapes. The earth seems muted and irradiated at once.
Andrea Riseborough as the spirited Angelica Fanshawe was heartbreaking; her face is perfectly in period, like a woman painted by Van Dyck. As she and her succession of husbands suffered wretchedly, I reflected that physical beauty can in and of itself be used to induce emotion in the viewer. We have a very primal reaction to seeing someone beautiful suffer, regardless of their moral qualities -- usually an urge to protect them, though this can of course be inverted into sadism thanks to humanity's usual psychological talent for enantiodromia. One thinks of Julie Christie in the original Doctor Zhivago: she was just so luminously, preternaturally lovely that powerful emotional tides are at work in the viewer that are quite anterior to her actual performance. In the 2002 TV series of Pasternak's novel, the principle had been cunningly updated so that both Yuri Zhivago and Lara were played by actors of extraordinary, plangent beauty: the brooding Scottish actor Hans Matheson and Keira Knightley at her most breathtakingly fragile. (See the clip above.) It's not to do with sex appeal, as such - a little Ken doll-plastoid like Zac Efron could never be the locus or cause of this kind of emotional wrench in the viewer. It's more physical beauty seen in the Platonic capacity of conveying the transcendental Good. Eva Green has it. Liv Tyler has it. Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell both have it.
Anyway, the Doctor Zhivago series had an exquisitely manipulative soundtrack by Ludovico Einaudi, the string chords of which just sock you right in the heart with their sunlit, melancholy glaze. I wept all the way through the last episode of the series - really, properly sobbed, in something like grief - and welled up whenever I thought of it for days afterwards. (This is what happens if, like me, you have no water in in your astrological chart.)
Doctor Zhivago the serial did not fare well critically, but The Devil's Whore has been rapturously received, especial praise being heaped on Riseborough, who is a major new talent. She has that incredible, rather rare actorly intelligence that I can only express, badly, by saying that she can project something into the character which is incredibly distinctive, and yet which is hard to put into words, a sui generis individuality that seems wholly organic and not constructed out of mannerisms. In the clip here, for example, she does something very supple and sensual with her spine as she walks, inflects her voice with a wonderful, velvety texture, and manages to convey great composure and great grief with just a smile. (Watch her face as she bids farewell to Sexby, her unlikely third husband and defender: love, bravery, resignation, freedom and an inner self-sufficiency are all conveyed with an incredible economy of means.) The last words of Angelica and Sexby are unbearably poignant in a quite unexpected way:
-- Do you know me, Angelica?
-- Aye, Edward.
You are yourself.
This (the attentive viewer realises) is the only time in the whole series that they call each other by their Christian names, as well as the last time they ever see each other. After all the blood and murder and horror, after rescue and regicide and after distinction of class between them has long faded, they finally see each other as they are: a woman and a man, one free, one bound to the past, both accepting, both loving, even so.
The Devil's Whore also has an extraordinary soundtrack, in which the simple recurring piano melody over the sweet, sad, string chords breaks the heart. It's in the clip above. I hope it's released to buy on CD.
The series is still available on Channel 4 On Demand. Hie ye thither.