An Easy Intro to Anthony Trollope

The Barchester Chronicles (1982)
Directed by David Giles; Adapted by Alan Plater
BBC TV, 7 episodes (55 minutes each)

Years ago, Emily and I used to have delightful afternoon teas–in proper china cups–with a friend’s (now deceased) elderly uncle. He was a mild-mannered, erudite bachelor who reveled in literature. The closest he ever came to pique was to express shock that his local bookstore did not stock the complete works of Anthony Trollope. We never had the heart to tell him that we had never seen a bookstore that did so. Not in Boston, Midtown Manhattan, the Village, or even in Paris’ legendary Shakespeare & Company. 

Trollope was a man of the mid-19th century, not a writer for short attention spans. I’ve just begun The Way We Live Now, which is considered his master work, and it runs close to 1,000 pages. This brings me to another passé phenomenon. Do you remember when Masterpiece Theatre used to feature actual masterpieces with occasional forays into lighter fare rather than the other way around?* Writers like Trollope lent themselves well to dramatization. Trollope’s The Warden and Barchester Chronicles together run about 550 pages. You might prefer Masterpiece Theatre’s 1982 The Barchester Chronicles, a 7-part series that brought both Trollope stories to the screen.

It is a superb way to familiarize oneself with Trollope in easy-to-digest portions. As fine a stylist as Trollope was, he could not paint in words the central character of Septimus Harding with the color and humanity of actor Donald Pleasence (1919-95). It as if Pleasence was born to play a mild-mannered and guileless cleric in a quiet English village. The widowed Mr. Harding is the warden of Hiram’s “hospital”–think retirement home–for a dozen elderly men. He loves, in order, God, his daughter Eleanor (Janet Maw), music, the old men under his charge, his eldest daughter Susan Grantly (actual offspring Angela Pleasence), and quiet contemplation. He has no stomach for power, anger, gossip, or scandal. Alas, too many around him favor the very things he abhors, including his son-in-law, Archdeacon Grantly (Nigel Hawthorne).

Mr. Harding’s peace is punctured when Eleanor’s fiancé, John Bold—a crusading journalist­—investigates the Hiram’s charter and raises the question of whether the warden’s pay is too high. That cause is taken up by a radical newspaper and Mr. Harding becomes the tempest in a very large teapot. The archdeacon sputters and rails, but the magnanimous Harding suspects that Bold is correct and that he should renounce his comfort. At heart, Trollope’s six Barsetshire** novels capture a moment in history in which the Church of England was (rightly) under attack for its greater devotion to luxury and the English upper system than to faith or the poor. In the game of politics, Harding is a lamb among lions, one who—in Grantly’s estimation—suffers from distressing bouts “of Christianity.”

The tidy world of Barchester will be disturbed by further challenges. John Bold dies of flu (!) leaving Eleanor a widow with an infant child, but also a small fortune and too many disingenuous suitors. The local archbishop also passes, leaving the appointment of a new warden to his successor, Archbishop Proudie. An exotic prodigal returns from Italy, the beautiful but lame Signora Madeline Neroni (Susan Hampshire), and holds court with two equally suspect friends. The new Archbishop is a milquetoast incompetent, but he is really just a pawn in a truly venomous battle of wits between Mrs. Proudie (Geraldine McEwan) and the Archbishop’s odious chaplain Obadiah Slope (Alan Rickman). Watch the petticoats and the cassocks fly!

It is rare to see acting of this quality. We watch Pleasence battle to keep his calm, yielding now and then to the nervous tic of playing air cello when pushed to the brink. Hampshire strikes the right balance between seduction and boundaries, and Maw likewise hews a thin line, as hers is a world in which women are in a seam between scripted social roles and tentative liberation. I think that Nigel Hawthorne goes over the top in his histrionics but all can be forgiven in David Giles’ direction, as he had the good sense to let McEwan and Rickman go at each other with nail and claw. McEwan’s very glance can separate the wallpaper from its paste, and few have ever done obsequious villainy as well as Rickman. Let’s also give a shout to Trollope, who like many 19th century novelists, embedded meaning in character names: Proudie, Bold, Slope, Neroni (Italian for black), and even a secondary character named Quiverful, who has fathered 14 children!

To risk an anachronistic analogy, Trollope’s Barchester is a cleric-riddled version of Peyton Place. If there is anything good about being in quarantine, it is that it encouraged us to revisit The Barchester Chronicles. I think I’m now steeled to dive into The Way We Live Now. Someone we miss would be delighted.

Rob Weir 

* In 2007, Masterpiece Theatre aired some cherished past offerings. The next year it dropped “threatre” from its name and now favors contemporary works over classics.
**The spellings differ because Barchester is the name of the fictional village and Barcester that of Trollope’s fictional county. Trollope based the investigation that sets things in motion on a real case, an 1849 query into St. Cross Hospital in Winchester, England.


Metropolitan a Film Worth Resurrecting

Metropolitan (1990)
Directed by Whit Stillman
New Line Cinema, 98 minutes, PG-13 (some language)

Whit Stillman hasn’t made a film in a while, and one hopes it’s not because he has nothing left to say. His 1990 debut Metropolitan has been compared to a Jane Austen novel. That’s ironic, as his last feature was Love and Friendship (2016), which was based on Austen’s novel of that name. Metropolitan was the first of what Stillman called his “doomed-bourgeois-in-love” series. It was followed by Barcelona (1992), The Last Days of Disco (1998), Damsels in Distress (2012) and Love and Friendship. In each case, Stillman looks at groups he saw as in decline.

Metropolitan is sharply written and penetrates the world of Upper East Side socialites during the winter debutante season. They are the ultimate children of privilege, but are also children without a clue. They think of themselves as urbane, witty, and intellectual, though the latter is often the conceit of a deluded college sophomore.

The film begins when Princeton student Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) happens to be walking along a Manhattan street when Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) thinks he and his friends have commandeered a cab Tom had flagged. They insist he get in the cab with them, though Tom protests he hadn’t hailed a ride. Along the way, Tom is invited to a debutante ball.

Tom pronounces that he isn’t interested as he’s actually a radical Fourierist. And so he might be in a vague sense, but the bigger reason lies with the raincoat he is wearing on a freezing New York City night–he is the son of a single mother who struggles to keep him at Princeton. On a whim, though, Tom decides to attend. He instantly becomes a sort of mascot for the Shelly Fowler rat pack, though his soirées put a strain on his budget. The rat pack dresses to the nines: tuxedos, flouncy dresses, black tie, and strings of pearls. Were it not for the city externals, you might think you had walked into a Cary Grant movie.

The conversations are black comedy vapid and revolve around whether or not the preppy “class” has a future. Nick is the resident cynic in all things. We also met Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), who fancies himself a philosopher, though he’s of the sort who could talk himself out of tying his shoe laces. He prattles on, oblivious of the fact that he is uttering utter rubbish. There is also sad sack Fred (Bryan Leder) and Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), who has the body of a god, but an empty head and the morality of a jewel thief.

Sally (Dylan Hundley) heads a coterie of selfish, pampered, and often amoral young women. This includes Cynthia (Isabel Gillies), who shocks everyone by being proud of her libidinous sins. The one lady of virtue is pixyish Audrey Rouget (Caroline Farina), a kind soul with a crush on Tom, though he still pines for his highly
inappropriate ex-girlfriend Serena (Ellia Thompson), who is pretty much in love with herself.

Stillman shows the utter vacuity of the preppy class. They put on airs because they are essentially aping their absent parents. When so much is given with no strings attached, reflection is like Charlie, a matter of form over substance and rhetoric over detail. Even Tom admits he never reads novels, only about them. In an odd way, Metropolitan is a coming-of-age film in an era in which a way of life is allegedly coming to an end.

It is instructive watching Metropolitan now, because Stillman was wrong to see the bourgeoisie as doomed. We now speak of the “New Gilded Age,” and we certainly live in a time in which the upper classes have honed their let-them-eat-cake callousness. Rick Von Slonecker is now, metaphorically speaking, President of the United States. But Stillman got it so right to see the wealthy as devoid of class in any sense other than economic.

This film was nominated for best screenplay and that honor was well deserved, even though it did not win. This is a funny film, but of the kind that makes you clutch and groan out of the side of your mouth that is not laughing. Metropolitan is all the more effective for using actors who were and are not household names. We thus see the characters, not familiar faces.

Take a look. Those of us who aren’t wealthy are sometimes guilty of wallet envy. This film will make you glad that you have functioning brains rather than just an expense account.

Rob Weir


Tarantino's Act Wearing Thin

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Columbia, 160 minutes, R (language, graphic violence, drugs, sexual references)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was the final chapter of Oscar-nominated Best Picture nominees I saw. Confession: I’ve been bored with Quentin Tarantino’s hipster bad boy antics for quite some time. He has a devoted coterie who will watch anything he does in the mistaken view that by doing so they accrue cultural capital. It bears saying that Tarantino’s alleged satirical use of violence just isn’t funny in a society as sanguinary as that of the United States. Mainly, though, I think Tarantino is repeating himself.

He is redundant two times over in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There is again violence, plus Once Upon a Time is another counterfactual movie along the lines of Inglorious Basterds [sic]. His latest follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV Western star, and his longtime stunt man/personal gofer Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The year is 1969, and it’s been a long time between gigs for both men­–Dalton because Westerns have gone out style and he’s sick of them anyhow, and Booth because of his hair-trigger temper, a DUI conviction, and rumors that he killed his wife. Cliff spends his days at Rick’s home assuaging the latter’s ego, watching old shows with him, and smoking dope; at night he returns to his trailer and his pit bull. Maybe if Rick could only meet his new neighbors, director Roman Polanski (Rafaeŧ Zawierucha) and his starlet wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), he could wrangle a movie role and help Cliff as well.

Rick isn’t the trendy kind of guy Polanski would deign to meet, though his fortune does shift. Rick is offered a part he’d rather not take, a guest appearance in a new Western series. He struggles at first, but it revives his career and even gets to make some “spaghetti Westerns” in Italy. In the interim, Cliff is ogled by and eventually gives a ride to a hippie chick calling herself “Pussycat” (Margaret Qually), who offers to fellate him, but even he knows jailbait when he sees it. Cliff delivers her to Spahn Ranch, whose owner George (Bruce Dern) was once a friend. Now the place is crawling with hippies giving him the hairy eyeball, and one named “Squeaky” (Dakota Fanning) goes ballistic when Rick insists on seeing George. For good measure, Cliff beats the crap out of the guy who flattened his tires and forces him to change them. Later we learn that the ranch is the crash pad of the Charles Manson family.

Cliff blows his Hollywood comeback with his wise-guy attitude and his beat-down of Bruce Lee, but he goes to Italy with Rick. After six months, Rick acquires a glamorous Italian wife who doesn’t want Cliff hanging around. So far, Tarantino’s film is, as they say, “loosely based” on a lot of things that actually happened. Tarantino based Dalton on Steve McQueen from an old Western titled Wanted Dead or Alive, though McQueen wasn’t exactly washed up at the time; Dalton is more properly viewed as a composite of numerous actors in 1950s’ Westerns. Booth is patterned on Bert Reynolds’ double Hal Needham. Most of the TV shows, movie titles, and people mentioned are also real.

At this point, Tarantino could have made a paean to Hollywood in the 1960s or, alternatively, a refocused update of The Day of the Locust. He also could have fashioned a better version of the disappointing Helter Skelter. Instead he opts for a counterfactual descent into “ultra-violence” in which Rick and Cliff turn Dirty Harry2 and save Sharon Tate and her guests from Manson Family droogs. That’s it, folks—two and a half hours of filler so Tarantino can have us contemplate a world in which Sharon Tate lives and Squeaky Fromme gets blowtorched.

Don’t get me wrong. Charlie Manson was evil and his followers seriously deluded. I would rather they had perished instead of Tate. That’s not how it went down, and having her survive isn’t exactly in the category of “What if JFK had lived?” Robbie is very good as Tate, and plays her with airheaded starstruck wonderment. Pitt is strong (in several senses of the word) as Cliff, and DiCaprio is Leo—accomplished, but a bit like latter days Jack Nicholson in that we still see him and not his character. The film also feels like an excuse for Tarantino to reward his rat pack with role crumbs. The cast is way too big for secondary characters to have any depth, so we end up people watching to catch glimpses of Lena Dunham, Maya Hawke, James Marsden, Steve McQueen, Al Pacino, Luke Perry, Rumer Willis, and (literally) dozens of others.

The ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a big Nothing Burger. Is it supposed to be commentary on the ultimate vacuity of Hollywood? Or is it that Tarantino has everyone dressed up and provides no direction of where they are supposed to go? Allow me to call Tarantino’s meta references and up the ante with one of my own. If you want to see the ultimate in senseless violence that actually has a point, check out the aforementioned droogs in A Clockwork Orange.

Rob Weir