All posts by tjwest3

About tjwest3

I am currently a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of English at Syracuse University, specializing in historical film and TV, gender and sexuality studies, and feminist and queer theory.

Screening History: "The White Queen" (2013)

When I first watched The White Queen way back in 2013, I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a fan. While I love costume dramas, there just seemed to be something missing from this one, which seemed oddly bloodless compared to Showtime’s The Tudors. However, having recently finished The Crown and feeling myself in need of some royal soap opera, I decided to turn back to it.

I’m glad I did.

The series definitely benefits from a re-watch. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a truly great series, either as a costume drama or as simply drama, it does its job well. It has characters that are easy to either care about or hate (Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale are particularly fine). The story, while uneven, is compelling. And it has some gorgeous scenery and costumes to look at. The ingredients for a delicious costume drama are all there; they just don’t always hold together well.

The White Queen begins when Elizabeth Woodville (Rivers), daughter of a Lancastrian supporter, puts herself and her two sons in the pathway of the victorious Edward IV (Max Irons). After she meets him, the two find that they fall in love, marry, and ultimately raise a fine brood of children. Unfortunately, all of this unfolds against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, which leads, inevitably, to violence, bloodshed, and heartbreak.

While the story begins with Elizabeth, her tale is also interwoven with two other powerful women with their own dynastic ambitions: Anne Neville, daughter of the Kingmaker Richard Neville, and Margaret Beaufort, a scion of the Lancastrians who, driven by what she believes to be God’s will, does everything in her power to ensure that her young son Henry Tudor ascends to the throne as the last viable Lancastrian heir.

There’s no question that The White Queen succeeds when it focuses almost exclusively on these female characters (which is fitting, since that is precisely why Gregory wrote the books in the way that she did). Rebecca Ferguson is captivating as Woodville, ably conveying both her iron will and her vulnerability and her passion. Amanda Hale is her opposite number, and she really brings out the religious zealot part of Margaret’s character. I was also pleasantly surprised how well Fay Marsay did as Anne Neville, bringing to the character a steely ruthlessness that one doesn’t always associated with this queen. Between the three of them, these three women make the show, and it’s worth watching just for them alone.

The men are an altogether more mixed back, particularly Max Irons. He’s pretty enough, but he just doesn’t have the weight or the charisma to play a king like Edward IV, and his shortcomings are all the more glaring when he’s shown with Ferguson. That being said, the actors portraying both George and Richard (David Oakes and Aneurian Barnard) deserve special mention as standing out. I was particularly impressed with Barnard’s rather sensitive portrayal of Richard, arguably the most vilified of any English king. And, of course, credit must be given to James Frain, who has truly established himself as uniquely able to bring to life villainous yet oddly compelling villains (he is also known for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors and Franklin Mott in True Blood).

The writing and plot are at times quite uneven, and the series only really seems to find its footing after the halfway point. Part of this stems from the fact that Edward dies, and so the drama benefits from no longer being distracted by how bad Max Irons is. Strangely enough, I think that the series would have benefited from having two half seasons rather than a single season often. The time jumps seem very contrived for the most part, and since the characters aren’t seen to age. The bigger problem is that these time jumps also short-circuit character development, so that we don’t really get to see the most important characters changing over time.

The White Queen also suffers from a very limited budget. This is far more noticeable in the few battle scenes, which feel very paltry in comparison to the lushness of the interior scenes and the costumes. In fact, as I watched the series I had to wonder why they didn’t simply jettison them altogether, or at the least choose one to focus on. As it is, the only battlefield death that has even a modicum of emotional impact is Richard’s at Bosworth, though even that is rather undercut by the choppy editing. Nevertheless, there is something powerful about the image of Margaret standing triumphant on the battlefield with her son, her years of scheming and manipulating and bloodshed having finally born fruit.

All in all, The White Queen is a very serviceable costume drama. While it doesn’t quite reach what I feel to be the stellar quality of The Tudors (which it clearly takes for a model) nor the grittiness of Game of Thrones (with which it was clearly designed to compete), it still deserves praise for its attempt. Like Gregory’s novels, the series shows us the substantial role that women have in the making of history. While history books might be full of the great battles between men, with all of their blood and “glory” and “heroism,” in reality it is in the drawing rooms and bedchambers that the fates of nations are decided. In that sense, it’s actually rather a good thing that the series chose to forsake the conventions of the epic–with its grand vistas, its cluttered battlefields, its daring acts of bravery–to focus instead on the power of the domestic.

In the future, I plan to watch both The White Princess, which chronicles the courtship and reign of Elizabeth of York (Woodville’s daughter, played by the inimitable Judy Comer), as well as the Spanish Princess, about the youthful exploits of the woman who would go down in history as one of the two most famous of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine of Aragon.

The Danger of Canonizing Tolkien

Darcy and Winters

In an interview after the release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films, his son Christopher–his literary executor and one of those most responsible for cultivating his father’s posthumous legacy–expressed a fair amount of skepticism about whether it was truly possible to translate his father’s work into the popular medium of film. Something, he seems to suggest, always gets lost.

This attitude on Chistopher’s part shouldn’t surprise us. After all, this is a man who has devoted much of his adult life to, first, ensuring that his father’s literary legacy was created and then, subsequently, burnishing until it shines as brightly as it ever has. To someone a bit old-fashioned in his tastes, the medium of film no doubt appears more than a little frivolous directed primarily, as he puts it, at young people.

To be fair to Christopher, however, this is hardly unique to him. Indeed, part of the effort…

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TV Review: His Dark Materials: "The Daemon Cages" (S1, Ep. 6)

Darcy and Winters

Let me begin by saying…wow.

That was, without doubt, the best episode that this series has produced by far. And it’s not just that it was a great episode of His Dark Materials; it was a great episode of television, period.

In this episode, Lyra finally discovers what it is that’s being down at Bovangar: human children are being forcibly separated from their dæmons. Being Lyra, she immediately begins to hatch a plan to escape, and while she eventually does so, it’s only after she is almost subjected to the cruel process itself and is only saved by the intercession of Mrs. Coulter. At the end, Lyra tumbles out of the hot-air balloon, her fate uncertain.

From the beginning, I’ve thought that Ruth Wilson threatened to walk away with the entire series in her back pocket, and this episode reveals why that’s a very real threat. She manages to combine…

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Reading History: "The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors" (by Dan Jones)

Having finished Dan Jones’s magisterial history The Plantagenets, I decided to dive right in to the follow-up The Wars of the Roses, in which he documents the civil war that fatally undermined the Plantagenet dynasty and led to their final destruction and their supplanting by the upstart House of Tudor, in the person of Henry VII.

The Wars of the Roses is even more fast-paced than The Plantagenets. Some authors might have erred on the side of detail, immersing us in the byzantine connections among the various players, as well as the numerous battles, skirmishes, and plots that characterized this seemingly interminable conflict. Instead, Jones remains laser-focused on the key players, including and especially the kings Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard II, and Henry VII. In doing so, he allows us to keep a firm grasp of how the conflict unfolded, and how each of the players had their own key part to play as it gradually consumed both of the cadet houses of Lancaster and York.

Jones sets the scene by showing how the success of Henry V in securing the inheritance of France for his son ultimately sowed the seeds for his son’s downfall. For, holy as he may have been, Henry VI simply was not a king capable of handling the enormous burdens placed on him by the time. Gradually, as the realm slipped beyond his grasp, he was confronted by his own rebellious nobles, including notably his cousin Richard, Duke of York. Jones makes no secret of his dislike of Richard, who was a bit too full of himself and prone to showing off.

As arrogant as Richard was, however, this wouldn’t have mattered if Henry VI had been a stronger king and if the Crown as an institution hadn’t been deeply damaged by his grandfather’s seizing of it from Richard II. Throughout the conflict that followed, ruler after ruler thought that they had a better right to it than its current occupant. For Jones, this extends to Richard III, arguably one of the most complicated figures in the entire saga. Jones is fairly judicious in his approach to this very divisive historical figure and, while he ultimately concludes that Richard almost certainly ordered the murder of his nephews (the infamous Princes in the Tower), he also takes pains to demonstrate that Richard was an able king, one who met his death at Bosworth bravely (and who came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Henry).

Jones is clearly no fan of the Tudors, and there’s good reason for that. It would have been difficult for anyone at the time–except perhaps for his mother, Margaret, one of the canniest survivors of her age–to imagine that Henry Tudor would ascend to the throne. However, as Jones demonstrates, he was able to do so precisely because the country had become destabilized enough to render it possible.

Furthermore, Jones makes the wise decision to show us the effects of the Wars after their supposed end with the victory of Henry Tudor at Bosworth. For, as Jones shows us, this wasn’t the end of the dynastic squabbling, not by a long shot. In fact, it would continue right up until the botched execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Henry’s second cousin and one of the last members of the old dynasty. Those who occupy a stolen throne, it seems, are doomed to always feel unsteady upon it (or, to put it another way, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown).

Though there are many theories as to the ultimate cause and effect of the Wars of the Roses, Jones capably demonstrates that its principal cause was the fact that Henry VI was a weak and ineffectual king, totally incapable of binding together a realm that had already endured a significant amount of stress, still less of managing the numerous feuds that plagued the great families. The ultimate effect of these feuds was to damage, almost beyond repair, the idea of the Crown as an institution. No longer could it be guaranteed that it would be passed down in legitimate line; instead, it could be snatched by any warrior or rebel who thought that he had a better right to it than the current occupant.

All in all, I truly enjoyed this foray into one of England’s darkest yet most fascinating periods. Full of rich detail, breathless narrative storytelling, and perceptive historical insight, The Wars of the Roses is the best kind of popular history.

The Terror of the Nazgûl: Evil and the Uncanny

Darcy and Winters

When I think back to the first time that I read The Lord of the Rings, one of the things that stands out most to me is just how disturbed I was by the hobbits’ encounters with the Ringwraiths, both within the bounds of the Shire and outside of it. Though the effect has been mitigated a bit as I’ve grown older, I still feel a little chill race down my spine every time I read those passages in the books where these terrible servants of Sauron appear to afflict the heroes.

Consider, for example, the first time that we get a glimpse of one of them. We as readers don’t know that the horseman pursuing the hobbits is one of the most evil beings in Middle-earth, but the way that Tolkien describes it makes it abundantly clear. Matters escalate when the frantic hobbits turn to a shortcut After they…

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Reading History: "The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England"(by Dan Jones)

I’ve long been a fan of popular history. Maybe it’s my love of narrative that makes this genre so appealing to me, or maybe it’s just the fact that we happen to be living in a period in which this form of history writing is flourishing both within the United States and the UK, but whatever the case, I’m glad that we are living in such a time and that we have historians like Dan Jones.

In my view, there are few popular British historians who can match Dan Jones for sheer writing ability. As soon as I started reading this book, I found myself caught up in the sweep of events as we make our way from the disastrous sinking of the White Ship and the death of King Henry I’s only son to the similarly disastrous reign of King Richard II and his eventual deposition at the hands of his cousin Henry Bolingbroke (who took the name Henry IV).

Jones brings to life the tumultuous period of the Middle Ages, in which giant figures of the Plantagenet strode across the stage of history. These range from Henry II, arguably one of England’s most successful monarchs to such disasters as Edward II, whose reliance on his favorites ultimately led to his deposition by his own wife and her lover. These were monarchs who were grand and ambitious, and who wanted (and sometimes succeeded in) creating a vast empire that often encompassed significant portions of France.

However, in Jones’s telling, the saga of the Plantagenets is a tale of fortune’s wheel, which matches the rises of a great dynasty with similarly spectacular falls into ignominy. It’s also a tale of not only of individual monarchs but of the institution of the Crown itself. As he ably demonstrates, the medieval world was one in which a great deal indeed relied upon the person of the king being someone who could hold his realm together, someone who could steer the ship of state through both the good times and the bad. Some rulers did this superbly well, while others, often for reasons that weren’t entirely within their control, did not.

While, of course, Jones’s primary focus is on the personalities of the kings and queens of the dynasty, he has a keen eye for the sorts of detail of social and cultural forces that led to both the successes and failures of the Plantagenet monarchs. These range from the influence of foreign powers–most notably France and Scotland–to traumatic events such as the Black Death, which played a key role in reorganizing medieval English society. While these events and figures are often in the background rather than a focus, they still are an essential piece of understanding this dynasty’s successes and failures.

Just as importantly, Jones is very adept with description. Reading The Plantagenets, one can almost feel the terror of battle, hear the screams of those sentenced to a traitor’s death, the deafening clamor of medieval warfare, and the pomp and majesty of a coronation. Though it’s become rather a cliche to say that a book makes you feel as if you were actually there, in Jones’s case it isn’t very far from the truth.

As with his several other books, Jones also has a keen sense of narrative momentum. There was never a moment where I felt bored or felt like I was being dragged through all sorts of detail (much as I love the work of another prominent British historian, Alison Weir, she tends to lean too heavily on material details for my taste). Indeed, for such a large book, I’m still rather surprised by how quickly I tore through it, so engrossed was I in its narrative propulsion. Jones knows how to sift through the myriad details of the medieval period and to show us those that are the most germane.

It takes a rare talent to make the medieval period–in many ways so different from the Renaissance that succeeded it–come to life for modern readers. Fortunately for us, Dan Jones has done exactly that, and The Plantagenets is all that narrative history should be and more.

I’ve already finished the sequel volume, The Wars of the Roses, so stay tuned for my review!

Screening History: "The Crown" (Season 3)

Anyone who knows me even passingly well knows that I have been in love with Netflix’s The Crown from the moment that it premiered. Part of this stems from my own avowed monarchical tendencies and my fascination with the institution, but another comes from the stars chosen to play the characters, the writing, and the sumptuous costume and set design. I’ve thus been waiting impatiently for the day when the third season would at last see the light of day and now, having finished the entire third season, I’m ready to share some of my thoughts about it.

To start with the most obvious: the aging up of the characters. There still seems to be a great deal of disagreement among the series’ fans whether this was a good move or not and whether it might not have been better to simply keep the cast and age them artificially. While it did take some getting used to, I found that as the series progressed I grew more and more used to Colman and company as the Royal Family, until it was hard for me to remember that there had been other people playing these characters. Colman is simply amazing as Elizabeth, a woman verging on middle age who gradually realizes just how much she has sacrificed for the Crown and the country, and the rest of the cast accomplishes something similar. I was particularly pleased with the casting of Josh O’Connor as Charles, who turns in one of the season’s breakout performances.

As fantastic as the central cast is, however, the guest stars are no less resplendent and captivating. While I’m not a huge fan of Edward III/David (given his Nazi sympathies), I have to admit that Derek Jacobi really manages to capture a sense of faded grandeur and exquisite tragedy. On the other end of the spectrum, Charles Dance as Louis Mountbatten threatens to carry off the whole season, since I can think of no one better to play that sort of man, a creature of a bygone world that remains determined to mold this one to his own designs.

Some critics have dinged this season for paying too much attention to the other characters in Elizabeth’s orbit, and there is truth to that argument. Charles at last starts to come into his own, and Philip (as was the case with previous seasons as well) has at least one episode where he’s the focal point. Both father and son have to contend with the fact that their masculinity is going to be perpetually called into question because neither of them is the queen. So long as she lives, they remain subsidiary. While each of them manages to make peace with this phenomenon, the series makes it clear that it isn’t an easy process, that each of them must make sacrifices–some of them quite heart-wrenching–for the good of the Crown.

But to me, that’s precisely the point. The series isn’t called “The Queen”; it’s called “The Crown.” This season, more than the two that preceded it, really explores the effects of that institution on the people who are forced to labor under its aegis. Though this takes its most burdensome toll on Elizabeth, there’s no question that it also has consequences for Philip, Charles and, of course, Margaret. I’ll admit I was a little dubious about casting Helena Bonham Carter, if only because her stardom (at least until before Colman’s Oscar) blazes so much more brightly than anyone else in the cast. However, it ends up being the perfect casting, as she too must confront the reality that it is her elder sister who will always occupy the throne while she, the dazzling personality, must play second fiddle. In the end, she has to shoulder the heavy burden of eternally being aware of her secondary status.

Though it might just be me, I also found that this season was even more emotionally fraught than the previous ones. Time and again, we see the emotional toll that life as a royal takes. There’s a scene near the very end, in which Elizabeth and Margaret are conversing after the latter’s failed suicide attempt. Each of them comes to realize how necessary they are to the other. For Elizabeth, Margaret is the sister that she loves dearly and without whom she cannot imagine living; for Margaret, Elizabeth is not just a sister, she’s the embodiment of the nation. As she reminds her elder sister, she must go on, even when the rest of them cannot. Given that Margaret would eventually predecease her sister, this commentary is both poignant and profound, a reminder of just how rich The Crown’s mythologizing of Elizabeth has been and continues to be.

The third season of The Crown is one of those seasons of television that seems to simply dazzle and sparkle, so well-polished is it. Throughout, Elizabeth emerges as a woman solemnly committed to her duties as a monarch, as a symbol in which her people can invest their emotional and patriotic energies. Say what you will about the institution, but if nothing else it does provide a measure of temporal and political stability even in times of tremendous change.

Speaking of which, there’s a central irony to The Crown that I personally find absolutely fascinating. A key tension has always been the extent to which Elizabeth can ever be truly known as a person, given how much of an iron grip she, and the Palace, have always maintained over her image. In casting stars such as Claire Foya and Colman, the series aims, I would argue, to demystify her a bit, to reveal the human behind the mask. However, in the very act of using stars–even ones as seemingly unglamourous as Colman–to portray these characters, the series actually remystifies them. What’s more, the series is also very self-conscious of the role of popular media, particularly television, and the ways in which they have shaped not only the way that the people understand the royals, but also how the royals understand their subjects, and themselves.

I truly enjoyed this season of The Crown. It feels as if the series has truly begun to mature. While it’s still unclear just how far they intend to extend the timeline–whether, for example, they plan on exploring some of the same territory as Morgan examined with his film The Queen–we still should feel very fortunate that we had four seasons of some of the best royal drama on television.

Tolkien’s Songs: Pleasure or Pain?

Darcy and Winters

In the annals of Tolkien fandom, there is no subject more likely to cause an argument that the subject of the songs. Anyone who’s read either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings knows that fans either love them or hate them. Anecdotally, I’d go so far as to say that casual fans tend to simply skim over them in the process of reading the books, while those who are a little more in-depth in their appreciation read them and savor them (though whether they enjoy them, per se, is a rather different question). To some they’re an essential part of world-building, while to others they’re hopelessly self-indulgent and more than a little silly.

In my opinion as someone who has read both of these books more times than I can count, I have to say that I’m still divided. Part of me dearly wants to love the ones…

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Book Review: The Dark Powers of Tolkien (by David Day)

Darcy and Winters

As I do every year at this time, I find myself wanting to read anything and everything I can about Tolkien, his worlds, and his philosophy. When I saw David Days The Dark Powers of Tolkien in a bookshop in Edinburgh, I knew at once that I had to have it. Well, I started reading it and, a day later, I’m finished and ready to share my thoughts with all of you.

It’s a slender book, but Day manages to pack quite a lot into it despite that. He gives us a pretty good overview of the various incarnations of evil that appear in all of the ages of Middle-earth, ranging from the titanic force of Morgoth in the First and Sauron in the Second and Third to the rather lesser evils of Saruman, Orcs, Trolls, and sundry dragons and other monsters. The book is arranged chronologically, so that the…

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Screening History: “The King” (2019)

I’ve been really looking forward to watching the the new Netflix film The King. I’m a fan of Timothée Chalamet, and I thought that he’d make a good Henry V. I very much enjoyed the film which, while compressing several of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, still manages to hit most of the right notes.

As I was watching, I was struck by the ways in which the film straddles two very different registers. One is the expected one, the period drama, with its sumptuous clothes, its attention to plots and counterplots, the sweeping vistas. The other is the indy film, with its strangeness, the slightly off-kilter approach to plot, characterization, and dialogue that characterizes the indie film. Somehow, The King manages to weave all of these together into some sort of coherent whole. As I was watching, I was reminded strongly of The Favourite, which accomplished a similar feat of binding together the indie film aesthetic and the costume drama (though, on the whole, The Favourite is more disturbing than The King).

There’s a certain sequence in the film that stands out to me in this regard. Near the end of the film, the wily and cunning Gascoigne (played by the almost always strange Sean Harris) confesses that he misled the king in order to lead him to war with the French. When Henry demands that Gascoigne beg for his forgiveness, the old adviser does so, only to have Henry fatally stab him in the neck. The death is swift, brutal and, while not entirely unexpected, is nevertheless shocking in its banality. As Gascoigne lies twitching upon the floor, Henry leaves the chamber to confer with his new wife. It’s one of those moments that shocks you as a viewer, precisely because cinematic death is, as a rule, supposed to be surrounded with ceremony and buildup, to prepare yourself for the end of human life. Here, the film confronts us with the unpleasant that life, particularly in the Middle Ages, was in a constant state of precarity.

It must be said that a great deal of the film’s ultimate success comes down to Timothée Chalamet, who does an uncannily good job as one of history’s (and Shakespeare’s) most enigmatic characters. We’re never quite sure where we stand with Hal, who always seems to be putting on a performance: for himself, for his father, for the kingdom. It helps that Chalamet has a certain elfin beauty about him that goes together in a rather strange way with a core of iron, all of it masked by a sort of fey inscrutability.

Though Chalamet owns the film, the supporting cast turns in uniformly excellent performances. I’ve never been a huge fan of Joel Edgerton, but I give him a great deal of credit for his portrayal of John Falstaff (another of Shakespeare’s finest creations). So completely does Edgerton disappear into this character that there were times that I had trouble remembering that it was him. I was also struck by how different this Falstaff is from almost every interpretation that I’ve seen or heard of, in large part because he is so cunning and, it turns out, a keen military strategist. His death is understated, but nonetheless powerful, as we realize that Hal had a genuine fondness for this man who played such a key part in his youth.

There are a few strangely sour notes in the film. Robert Pattinson is a truly strange choice to play the Dauphin, all the more so because he challenges Hal to a duel that he ultimately doesn’t win. The film also feels a bit rushed, since we’re essentially covering the basic plot of not one but several very dense and layered plays. That’s an awful lot of material to cover in just one film, though The King does a passably good job at it.

All in all, I really quite enjoyed The King. While I have my doubts as to whether it will go down in history as one of the great adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henry plays, it does still manage to hold its own. If anything, I rather wish the film had been a bit longer, so that it could have explored more aspects of Hal’s character and the world that he inhabits. Still, it’s worth a watch, particularly for those who have an interest either in Shakespeare or the costume drama.