Disobedience: the film. As relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich

This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876.  It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell,  which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.

So.  to the plot,  in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.

Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her  presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time.  One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!

But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters.  Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi)  was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit.  Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.

The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.

Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books.    But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.

I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue.    The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film.  She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher.   The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians.  She was being ironic, I think.

I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments,  not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti  (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam)  unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom.  If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.

It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue.   Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.

The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex,  back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing  up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peterloo. Director Mike Leigh Rebellion theme park style

Unlike Mike Leigh, I was taught about the Peterloo massacre in school. This doubtless shows how old I am or how young he is.  Leigh is on record as saying that Peterloo is a story that needs to be told because it is no longer taught in schools.  It is true that all dark episodes in British history – of which there are many –  need to have lights shone on them, but this film feels more like the school lesson Mike Leigh feels he missed out on, rather than a serious piece of dramatic art.

Set in the year 1819 only twenty years (we hesitate to remind you, dear reader) after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette across the channel.  In France Robespierre rose and fell; there were executions, the terror.  It was to be understood the ruling classes in Britain were much on edge.  We constantly see them being very much on edge! No-one (depending where you were in the pecking order)  wanted the same thing to happen in Britain.

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Thus in the film we see that the words ‘parliamentary reform’ or ‘one person, one vote’ are enough to send the already apopleptic constables and magistrates into full hanging mode, liberally encouraged by an irate home secretary and the fat and indolent Prince Regent.

It is fertile ground for rebellion.    But many and varied are the gatherings and lectures that the poor working folk have to attend in order to have these things explained to them in laborious detail; in order that the viewer may also have them explained in equally laborious detail.   At one women’s meeting, one of the characters, a lady at the back of the room who can’t afford to feed her children and who has been forced to listen to what feels like twenty minutes of inflamed rhetoric, stands up to complain that she hasn’t understood a word.  I sympathise.

To add to the difficulties, the corn laws  prohibited the imports of cheap grain from Europe in order to protect prices for British land owners (who were also  self-elected parliamentarians ) and these restrictions operated to push up the price of bread beyond affordability for the northern mill workers.  Thus by the time orator Henry Hunt made his way from London to address a meeting on parliamentary reform – the meeting to be held on St. Peter’s fields just outside Manchester  –  there were a lot of angry people due to attend.    Nevertheless this was to be a peaceful demonstration – a gathering merely, complete with women and children carrying branches of peace, ‘like a day out’ one of the characters says.

Rather as Tiananmen Square was a day out.

Mark Kermode liked this film a lot better than I did.  Every scene I felt was weighed down with exposition.      You may know nothing whatsoever of British history but still get to the mid point of Peterloo and wave a white flag, saying its ok, I get it.  Bring on the cavalry, I understand. Honest.

There is simply too much ‘speechifying’ and shouting about appalling conditions and liberty for the people.  Too many stereotypes.  The worthy young rebel with the light of freedom in his eyes; the evil magistrate who sentences a man to hang for stealing a coat or a woman to be whipped and then imprisoned for drinking a bottle of her employer’s wine.  Yes these things happened,  but as a viewer I didn’t need to spend two and a half hours being beaten round the head with them in order to understand the final scene when the  protesters are run down by militia.

No doubt the costumes were accurate down to the last ripped jerkin but instead of making the characters look authentic they looked like they had just stepped out of a museum.  And the backdrops?  Far too neat, too clean.  This was rebellion theme park style.    As for the northern accents – don’t even get me started.

If Peterloo was intended to be a history lesson in aspic, then so be it.  If it was intended to have contemporary relevance it would have been better to do the thing in modern dress. It’s  worked for Shakespeare.   Why not set it on some deprived northern estate?  In May’s Britain surely there are no lack of them too choose from.

 

 

 

A Quiet Passion. Directed by Terence Davies. Film Review

 

Film Review. A Quiet Passion. Directed by Terence Davies

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the American poet Emily Dickinson appealed as a subject to this particular Director who, like the poet, struggles to get to the truth of the human condition– truth is an idea which Dickinson laboured for in her life and in the poems themselves. The two things were not distinct.  Where and what is this truth? Does it lie in the immortality of words?   If so which words and at what time? It is easy with the wisdom of hindsight to label the immortals – much harder to spot them in the context of their time and place.

Emily Dickinson (1830 to 1886) Photo  Amherst College Library

The film makes the point that Emily Dickinson had 11 poems published during her lifetime. Immortality comes later. But it comes at a price.

This is not a film about a particular artistic career since it cannot be said that Dickinson had one although she produced a considerable body of work with which mankind has spent the last hundred and fifty years trying to catch up. It is a film of ageing, sickness and death, the role of religion, or not, and trying to make art in the middle of it all. Or rather out of it all.  From a devout family, Emily questioned religion openly which led to some antagonistic exchanges both with the Principal of Holyoke Seminary and her father. However the film’s insistence on Emily being the only student in her year to be labelled ‘without hope’ is based on accounts which have since been questioned and which do not accord with Seminary records.

The outdoor scenes of the film take place in the garden of the house at Amherst, Massachusetts (the poet’s home is now a Museum) the beautifully tended garden makes a ravishing backdrop for the scenes of dialogue that take place, especially with the parasol bearing, wide-gowned ladies’ fashions of the mid-19th century. Most of the film’s action takes place indoors, however, quite claustrophobically so for Dickinson herself was reclusive.   The film does not really answer the question why, although there is an implication that grief over her father’s death is a root cause.

For me, the film felt overlong and carried its ‘measured’ tones to extreme. The poet’s sister Lavinia (played by Jennifer Ehle) spends her whole life weeping or involved in damage limitation exercises over the offence that Emily’s rigorous truth seeking sometimes causes amongst their neighbours and friends. Other times the two girls are mopping brows or entertaining the vicar’s wife to tea. But this would be no doubt how their lives were lived. There are conversations about gender that feel too modern for the film’s mid-nineteenth century setting while Emily’s friend Vryling Buffam overdoes the witty repartee – no-one speaks like that all the time. In parts the film is quite gruesome to watch, with lengthy scenes of illness and fitting. (This Director has history on not sparing the viewer the unwatchable, as for example scenes of domestic violence in his previous film, Sunset Song).

The problems of the film lie in trying to create a life lived mostly in the mind, at a time when a literary career for a woman or indeed any creative outlet beyond the realm of the domestic, was unlikely. This is where the great sadness of the film lies. There is a poignant moment when Emily is informed by one of the servants that her bread has won second prize in a competition at a local show. ‘Oh.’ She responds. ‘Second prize.’ As a woman she is destined to come second, not even (in her own mind) sufficiently attractive to gain a husband. There is one affecting scene when the poet sitting alone in her room at night, imagines some traditionally dark handsome man, a Mr. Rochester, coming up the stairs and opening the door to her room.

Was it a conscious choice to seek no husband or family or her own? In the film Emily says she could imagine no life away from her family. She knows that to be a wife would restrict her poetry  even further, commenting that her father permitted her to write during the night hours which no husband would allow. But did she consciously make the  choice beween art and earthly desires or is that an inescapably romantic idea liberally laced with rose-tinted spectacles?

Is 1100 poems a fair exchange for a life lived in seclusion with neither husband nor children? The question cannot be addressed to or answered by a modern feminist. The question can only be addressed to the poet herself.  If Dickinson came back would she have an answer even now? Of would she say if there is only immortality on offer, then immortality will have to do.