Sunday, March 19, 2006

# Posted 10:11 AM by Patrick Belton  

MR BEAN AS A VICAR. MARY POPPINS AS A MATRONLY ENGLISH MASS MURDERER. Oh come on, tell me you've never fantasised about it. One of the benefits of awaiting a Pakistani visa from a delightful alpine mountain village colonised for the greater part by English families is that one can catch up on one's films.

Last week, it was the Constant Gardener. David Cornwell despite being a sometime holiday resident didn't come, possibly knowing the ending already. I found it quite pleasantly tantalising situating the titular Justin Quayle within the terrain of Le Carre heroes. He is, like Smiley, Westerby or Prideaux, diffident, self-effacing, a quiet instantiation of national virtues in a post-imperial fallen bureaucratic age. His heroism like theirs is quiet, cerebral, stoic, and as with them, it and a quiet commitment to what are at root English national values place him on a collision course not without poignance with British national institutions - here the Foreign Office, there the Circus, elsewhere the public school. So much, so far in keeping with the topography of the La Carre poetic imagination. But Quayle seems also a revisiting of Smiley, and a redemption of his wife - Lady Ann Sercombe, the aristocratic, beautiful and cuckolding spouse to George Smiley, becomes in Tessa a woman redeemed upon revisitation, her apparent cuckolding on closer telling itself a self-effacing, diffident, quiet scheme motivated by decency and placing her upon a collision course with the Foreign Office and Circus - a nice twist.

This week, Keeping Mum. The probing of English character and identity after the empire, Suez and the Americanisation of the world's dominant cultural and political commerce, poignant and tragic and solitary in Le Carre, is here communal, wicked, comic. Mary Poppins can be retold and made palatable with a spoonful of subversion to make the saccharine go down - Dame Maggie Smith here rewriting her as an eminently English, polite, kettle-warming west country housekeeper, who sets all of her family's troubles to right, and who happens to be a very benevolent mass murderer with insuperable intentions, manners and outcomes. It's so obvious a twist on the story that one marvels it hasn't been done already, to satisfy some primeval psychological need - Mary Poppins who knocks off all of her family's troublemakers, dons an apron if she ever doffed it, and after with the received vowellings serves tea, with no sugar and milk second.

Have I got a particular soft spot for this genre of national character-probing and -rewriting literature, given I myself have chosen this country to settle in while writing my own trilogy of national stories in palimpsest? Perhaps. But they're also brilliantly recommendable films to watch over popcorn, or even Swiss cheese raclette.
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