Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"He Knew He Was Right." Great Title for a Strange Dip into the Inner Workings of the Mind of an Otherwise Normal Man

"Some mysterious agent interferes with the affairs of a man and it drives him on and on and on until he doesn’t know where he’s going."
-Louis Trevelyan, He Knew He Was Right.
(SPOILER ALERT). He Knew He was Right is another very rich and beautiful BBC period drama, presenting what is truly a simple tale of Louis Trevelyan, a man so deeply entrenched in his point of view, that he is willing to follow it to its extreme despite the cost and without even trying to question whether it is worth it.

His wife, Emily, almost as stubborn, is single-mindedly insistant on her own course of action, eschewing her husband's worries and refusing to bend, though it ultimately means losing the custody of her beloved child and, ironically, living in disgrace.

Although this is, at its core, a study in psychology set within the real estate of the mind, neither of our lead characters is introspective at all; neither seems more than vaguely aware that they are trapped and being destroyed from within nor capable of changing course. They are willing to clash over the non-issue of her infidelity (was she/wasn't she getting it on with Colonel Osborne) despite the tremendous costs to them both. For him, in particular, those costs are staggering and include both his sanity and ultimately his life.

The central theme held my attention for a while, but eventually began to feel drawn out and ridiculous. These people's little problems just became stupid by the end of the story. And maybe that is the point Anthony Trollope was trying to make. (I don't know much about Trollope, who wrote and lived in the Victorian era, other than that he was a well-traveled, prolific writer who was popular in his own era.) Maybe he is a bit of a satirist? But this is an odd story to try and sell to a modern audience because it is just so implausible.

I am not saying that the theme of people adhering blindly to things that are destructive is implausible. Surely that flaw transcends time and place. And jealousy can be a great force driving people to extreme behavior. But I don't think this story is about Louis' jealousy so much as his sense of social order and propriety. I don't believe he got into this predicament by believing his wife was cheating, but rather, in worrying how her visits with the Colonel must look to outsiders. Social implications are still important today, but how many modern people would follow social propriety to the death? I would have more sympathy for him as a tragic hero if his pursuits were grander, or maybe just plain compelling. And maybe that is something that gets lost in translation between the Victorian mindset and that of my modern American individualism.

The machinations of people in their little lives are like the scurryings of ants. It is sometimes hard to get worked up over them. It might be good truth, but for me it did not make the best drama. The background stories of the victor and his silly attempts to court a variety of women including two sisters (played hilariously by Fenella Woolgar and Claudie Blakley), Anna Massey's touching bipolar performance as Miss Stanbury, and the story of Nora and her lovers were far more dramatically interesting to me than our stubborn lead characters.

Still, I enjoyed the distraction of this adaptation. I found the production beautiful, the costumes appropriate and gorgeous, and the acting fine. I don't fault the production for this main story's faltering; I think that my response is more rooted in the nature of what the author is trying to sell than in the adaptation not conveying that message well. Still, to be sure, I want to read the book and see whether the main storyline plays better on the page.

And I am very willing to own that my own life at the moment is coloring my response to HKHWR. People intentionally screwing up their lives and doing it with blinders on must feel so hollow in light of my own recent burdens of heavy humanity which remind me that even upstanding, strong, and well-lived lives are still just the scurryings of ants.

The Trevalans go an extra step by taking what is already small about humanity and making it absurd.


"He Knew He Was Right is Actually a Great Title for this Strange Dip into the Inner Workings of the Mind of an Otherwise Normal Man" LostinBritishTV.com

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