Two nights ago now I saw an extraordinary film, Andrew Davies and Tristram Powell's Falling. My first experience of what I can get from Netflix has certainly made me an instant strong advocate (and how easy that site is to use, even I can make my way).
And what did I chose first? an unnerving realistic slice-of-life story from from that chameleon master screenplay film-maker, Andrew Davies with a familiar crew; Penelope Wilton, Michael Kitchener, Sylvestre Le Touzel, Joanna David. His major source was a modern novel by a woman, Elizabeth Jane Howard's unnerving Falling.
It's better than most films I've seen in theaters for a long time. It connects to women's novels and memoirs since the time of Austen and today still meditating the role of marriage, sex, career, children in particular women's lives. In this story we focus on Daisy Langrish (Penelope Wilton), successful romance writer, financially and apparently emotionally independent: Daisy Langrish played by Penelope Wilton. What happens is she is slowly brought to allow Henry Kent (Michael Kitchen) at first to help her as a gardener and handyman, then a nursing aid, then boarder, and at last lover-friend and companion who succeeds in changing her life to serve him, be with him, putting her writing aside. He is a man who has no income and no job but we see can get himself nonetheless accepted (he lives in a leaky broken down boat when we first see him, hardly habitable for a dog), but to her (and others) seems enormously presentable.
At the height of their romance.
The brilliance of the chilling and unnerving experience of this film comes from his plausibility, the stories he tells of his past which make him into the victimized, his apparently harmlessness, civility, kindness, and humility, and most of all that he is our basic narrator and it takes us a while to realize what's happening -- though we are given a fearful sign early on when the two are driving and Daisy by mistake hits a dog. She stops her car in distress and wants to go over to the animal. She has hurt her leg in an accident (genuine) so he goes over to the hurt animal and we see (she doesn't) that he fiercely quickly breaks its neck. This unhesitating ferocity and the lie he tells her (that she killed it with the car, but assuring her it wasn't her fault) alerts us something is not just wrong but scary here.
Her close friend and literary agent, Anna Blackstone (Sylvestre Le Touzel) instinctively feels there is something suspicious in Mr Kent's encroaching ways, and their gay male friend, Antony (Michael Sinclair) is put off by and puts Henry off. Henry manages to make Daisy dismiss them as class snobs or unfair and unjust. But it's not the class angle that he plays upon so much as her loneliness. He can prey upon her because she has had two failed marriages (the last ended with the husband's flagrant promiscuity), apparently no children, is alone.
We slowly learn through a series of flashbacks which counter the stories he tells Daisy of his past. In them he is the beaten, the ostracized, the exiled, the endlessly patient man, all the while sudden gleaming flashbacks presumably from his mind show us how he manages to lure the daughter of an upper class family where his father was gardener to run away with him, a second girl to marry him -- who we gather through quick flashbacks he ends up beating, turning into an abject thing and probably killing (by throwing her out the window and claiming it as an accident or suicide), and finally a middle-class woman who he tries to kill with a car. She is badly crippled for the reset of her life, refusing to divorce him on his terms which include the demand she sell her house and give him half the money which would beggar her. We see he is an effective physical lover of these women -- as he is of Daisy.
So it's more than Daisy's age, loneliness, disappointment, vulnerability from these things. I don't want to give away the precise ending as the visits Daisy is led to make of two of Henry's victim-women and the mother of one (Joanna David) need to unroll before you to get the full feel of what is to be learned: suffice to say it's because the thing does not end in totally bloody disaster that I was left shaking. The viewer feels this is something that could and does happen. at one point I got up and asked myself if I wanted to carry on with this. I was in a state of quiet anxiety and terribly worried. Would I be able to take it if she (my heroine) went down to utter disaster. I felt the movie was of the realistic type which would not deliberately terrify and leave the viewer scared, with no compensations in view (this is how I see Flannery O'Connor, as a mean writer, getting a kick out of making her reader more frightened than ever, playing on fears and knowledge of evil people).
So I came back and finished the movie. What I can say is it has this moralizing talk ending -- which is not uncommon for movies today. Julie Delpy's Two Days in Paris (Woody Allen style) is just a long version of it; yesterday Izzy and I saw a movie, City Lights, which had a providential closing utterance (!) At the close Daisy is driving away from a train station, and suddenly turns to suggest in a meditative voice-ovice that after all what is love? and what she had known with Henry until he suddenly turned savage and violent when she would not marry him, nor even countenance an engagement was an experience of love like what she had had before, only at times sweeter. At its open, we see him on the train and he is telling us he loved this woman and still loves her, needs her. This is troubling: in Davies's Sleep with Me there is an analogously justfication of the ruthless cruelty of someone mentally ill.
Kitchener's performance is inimitable: what the man is is a sexual predator; I've read there are such men who prey on women and live by becoming their lovers and move from woman to woman. What is different here is he is a psycho or sociopath, filled with hatred for all those around him who own things and have class status where he was genuinely the son of a poor gardener who hated books and beat him mercilessly.
Among the elements I most liked was the way Daisy coped with the truth once she learned she had been duped. She calls the police to be at the ready, and then she tells the guy to get his things, she's driving him to the train. I was a little nervous about that drive lest he suddenly become violent. But this was not in character. The man would not have survived quite had he not kept to the edge of decency each time so that he has broken no law. Indeed the law is on his side over his ongoing attempt to fleece his now crippled wife, and the young girl whose spirit he broke is herself psychologically shattered with the mother unable to help her as what she did once (stole a baby) landed her in prison. All the mother can do is protect the girl with their (lucky there) estate. Daisy does not learn her lesson in the sense of blaming her berating herself; she falls prey to this man but escapes just in time and moves on. Not her fault, understandable. He is the problem so-to-speak and the society that made and tolerates him.
I have read that Andrew Davies likes to have evil characters at the center of his films, but since I've only watched two adaptations of modern novels (The Line of Beauty and Tipping the Velvet) and one of his original mini-series, A Very Peculiar Practice, comical and humane, a critique of the university educational mores and system, with Peter Davison as our central good bumbling hero, this is the first time I've experienced this in his film. I have now put into my queue from Netflix his To Serve Them all My Days, said to be similar to A Very Peculiar Practice, and just as good; but I've also put down House of Cards, which features Ian Richardson as a powerful amoral Prime Minister. The evil here though is of a type I've not seen at all in Davies's other films, most of which present sexual experience as strongly postive, not coming near to anything maiming, harmful, shattering.
So this I attribute to Elizabeth Jane Howard's novel, and since watching intently, alertly absorbed, I bought an inexpensive copy from Amazon marketplace so I can compare book to film, and understand the film better.
In the meantime it's not easy to find serious analytical commentary about her work. Howard is not respected the way say Isabel Colegate is and doesn't turn up in academic essays. She is regarded as "middlebrow," even if the word isn't used, a kiss of half-derision and dismissal. Her books are described with praise, and one series was also made into a mini-series of films. As far as I can see with all her upper class privileges and opportunities and varied rich life, it's been hard too, with broken marriages, one child. It's said her later books profited from her experience with Kingsley Amis. This film takes from an eerie feeling often promoted in ghost stories.
For me the book and film matter right now as more of Davies's work and as modern heroine's texts. So I'll conclude with observing the camera work was far quieter than most adaptations Davies has been involved in of late. Northern England was shown to have rural loveliness and quiet -- sombre auburns and yellows and browns; we saw more of the highways than usual; the desolation here and there of the countryside was not made melodramatic. The most melodramatic scene was that of Henry Kent's boat by the river: the river is a bit fearful at night, it pours rain, and when he wants to live as permanently as he can with Daisy he takes an axe to it and we watch it go under slowly. The angles and shots of the people were not super-close ups; love-making was discreet, tasteful. Sound: we were made to feel the sound of the train strongly: it opened and closed on one -- the train is a central element in modernity, anonymous meetings -- at the close Henry is again trying to pick up a woman, this time on the train -- the hollow roar and countryside outside the windows are done with persuasive naturalness.