Friday, November 09, 2007

"A Dance to the Music of Time" on DVD

Thanks to Netflix, I recently finished watching the 1997 British miniseries based on Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. I've been wanting to see these for a while, despite some less-than-glowing notices, so when the American DVDs became available this year, I clicked "Add." (I probably began reading Dance around ’97 or ’98.)

The 12-book sequence has been boiled down to four films (one per disc), and thus a lot of the characters are barely there, their presence so brief as to mystify anyone without some familiarity with the books. But overall it's hard to stop watching this series, and each disc is broken up into four or five parts, allowing for compulsive viewing (Oh, well then I'll just watch one more before bed...). The acting is mostly solid, sometimes excellent: Simon Russell Beale (as Kenneth Widmerpoole) and Miranda Richardson (as Pamela Flitton) are necessarily strong in complicated roles.

Otherwise, Dance isn't a roll call of Famous British Actors—John Gielgud, Alan Bennett, and Emily Mortimer are here in small parts, but mostly the faces are unfamiliar to me (a plus). I was especially impressed by James Purefoy, who plays Nicholas Jenkins (the book's narrator) through most of the series. How to be there, yet not there? In the book, Jenkins is a personable narrator, connected to everyone, the spider at the center of the web, yet he's not always forthcoming about details of his personal life—most alarmingly when he writes about his wife for the first time: Wait—when did he get married? (Wife Isobel Tolland is well played by Emma Fielding—a character who sometimes seems barely there in the books.)

The third disc is the strongest; the last one, the weakest, though not necessarily because the final books in the sequence are (considered by some, like Christopher Hitchens) the weakest. No, the reason that disc four suffers is...bad makeup! How do you cast a film with a timespan of decades? Early scenes of Jenkins as a schoolboy are played by a different actor (James D'Arcy); then Purefoy is in the role till the end of disc three (growing a mustache during the war years). Disc four opens with Jenkins doing research for his book on The Anatomy of Melancholy—but it's startling to see him played by John Standing, 30 years Purefoy's senior.

Once you get used to Standing, you have to deal with the discrepancy of other characters who are now played by older actors (Nick's wife, Isobel; Jean Duport) and others (Quiggin, Odo Stevens, Members, and alas Widmerpoole) played by the same actors...but with distracting, comically bad makeup! But maybe it's interesting that Pamela Flitton (Richardson) looks exactly the same?

Remarkably, Beale plays Widmerpoole throughout—from school days to the Age of Aquarius.

Is anybody reading this post anymore?

In any case, I didn't mean to write a long post today—I just wanted to jot down in cyber-ink the titles of Jenkins's own (fictitious) books, which we glimpse at the end of the series, the only time we see them:

The Silent Summer
Mornings in Wiltshire
Fellow Members — a memoir
Knowing the Right People
Paying the Rent — Collected Reviews
Borage and Hellebore

Q: Are the books, save the last one (the study of Burton) mentioned in Dance at all? (X. Trapnel's are.)

That's all for now. (I was trying to get to 12 points, but I'll leave that for another time.) I'm convinced this post is full of errors.

Well, maybe a few more things.

The story of the decline of Nick's friend, Charles Stringham (Paul Rhys), is heartbreaking.

There was one performance that seemed markedly weaker than the rest: James Callis as Russell Gwinnett, the American academic working on a book about X. Trapnel. (Actually: Trapnel's one of my favorite characters in the books, and I wasn't crazy about his portrayal here.) He seems at first to be speaking in a watered down accent (Scottish?) that you realize is supposed to be American! My tip is just to get an American actor to play this sort of role! (This would always bother me in the otherwise enjoyable Jeeves & Wooster series...though I do think Hugh Laurie is good as "House.")

Callis is better known now as the sweaty-palmed, oppurtunistic scientist in the new Battlestar Galactica series. (Imagine Gwinnett getting frozen at the end of the ’60s and defrosted in the far, Cylon-populated future! How's that for a dance to the music of time?)

The very ending of the miniseries is very good.

(Image from here.)

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Blogger Levi Stahl said...

I'm pretty sure none of the titles of Nick's books are mentioned in the novel except Borage and Hellebore. It's great, though, that they gave them names--I wonder if Powell (who at that point was very old and, I think, ill) consulted on them?

It's clear from the novel that he loved inventing book titles. (His notebooks, too, are peppered with occasional lists of great imaginary book titles.)

We watched the first five minutes of the first disc last night, since you'd mentioned before that the way they choose to open the series is . . . unexpected.

Um, you're right about that. Oh, my.

9:03 AM  
Blogger Ed said...

One of the "framing devices," quite startling, eh?

(Sadly, that is not the framing device for each disc.)

I expect a full (and more authoritative) write-up on IBRL once you're finished with the series!

9:23 AM  
Blogger selfdivider said...

I didn't even know that there was a mini-series! Definitely going on my Netflix queue. Did anyone make a miniseries of Alexandria Quartet yet? (thanks for the link yesterday, btw.)

2:09 PM  
Blogger teresue said...

Just finished the last of the Netflix series and googled "Mornings in Wiltshire" just hoping (ridiculous I know) that such a book existed. Oh well, it lead me here.

5:13 PM  

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