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DVD Review: Affairs of the Heart – Series One

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Based on the seven addictive episodes packed into the Acorn Media release of Affairs of the Heart – Series One, it’s not outrageous to believe that if American born, British novelist Henry James were alive today he may have become a staff writer on Dirty Sexy Money, The Young and the Restless, or General Hospital.  Although, with James in the writers’ room, we probably would never have to worry about plot twists involving amnesia, multiple personalities, faked deaths, or people who find themselves stranded on a desert island.   

No, instead — just give James a drawing room, a bedroom, and a dining room and he can work wonders. Penning tales of romantic manipulation, class warfare, subtle intrigue, James offers an endless supply of characters that approach with smiles but have far more sinister intentions than one could possibly imagine.   

A man whose oeuvre is often stylistically divided into three (or four, depending on the critic) distinct movements with his later works drawing comparison to “impressionist painting,” James’ “method of writing from the point of view of a character within a tale allowed him to explore the phenomena of consciousness and perception.”  Thus, it makes perfect sense that it is James’ work (instead of perhaps the far more intense and harder to condense novels of his contemporaries such as his dear friend Edith Wharton), which was used for fodder in the 1974 British television series that hit American airwaves in the early ’80s on CBS, as noted in Acorn’s press release.   

Adapting eight of his works into seven hour-long episodes with the highest of production values, James devotees will find both his shorter narratives along with his most famous novels including The Wings of the Dove and Washington Square (about which “James was not enthusiastic”) distilled down to their essence as works of character driven psychological realism.  Titling each episode after the heroine or heroines from the works themselves—while we’re privy to the dealings of other characters behind our main protagonists’ backs—we’re always aware of James’ fondness for the main characters he created.   

Exceedingly well read and inspired by the classics he devoured including “English, American, French, and German literature, and Russian classics in translation,” James’ “imaginative use of point of view, interior monologue and unreliable narrators…brought a new depth and interest to realistic fiction, and foreshadowed the modernist work of the twentieth century.”  And watching Affairs of the Heart today in the twenty-first century, I’m amazed by how the central issues of class, family responsibility, loyalty to friends, and economics still continue to play such a vital role.  While we’ve come a very long way from finding oneself practically forced to marry someone due to their income or rank, his aim still holds remarkably true and the world of Henry James is still quite identifiable in not only some corners of the world but in the drama that unfolds here in the states among the idle rich.   

Beginning with his readership beloved Washington Square, which has been filmed twice (once in 1997 under the same title and also back in the 1949 as The Heiress), the set opens with the episode titled “Catherine.”  The work centers on the plain, shy, and awkward motherless wallflower Catherine Sloper whose father seems to resent her inability to follow in the footsteps of her deceased mother widely considered to have been “the wittiest, prettiest” woman in New York. When a bold, dashing, and ambitious stranger ignores some of the far more beautiful prospects at a party thrown in her younger engaged cousin’s honor in favor of chatting up Catherine, her father begins to fear that he’s a mere social climber eager to marry into money.  In having to face her father’s own prejudices and disbelief that anyone could ever want his daughter and the fact there is something distinctly untrustworthy about the insistent suitor than initially meets the eye, Catherine must face some hard truths she’d long been trying to ignore.   

Following up the heartbreaking tale of the weak Catherine, we move onto encounter the brainy and manipulative “Adela” (from The Marriages), who, having taken over as the matriarch of her household following her mother’s death, finds her duty to her family threatened when her father makes plans to marry the widowed Mrs. Churchley.  Setting a brilliantly wicked plan into motion to sabotage the marriage as well as rectify a scandalous situation her collegiate brother has found himself in, Adela pulls no punches in holding onto her title and rank as the woman of her household.   

From there we move onto 1888’s The Aspern Papers, which was inspired by “an anecdote that James heard about a Shelley devotee who tried to obtain some valuable letters written by the poet.”  The episode, dubbed “Miss Tita,” after the young spinster woman who’s become a hermit from years of devotion and caretaking of her elderly, cantankerous aunt in Venice, engages our curiosity at once with the introduction of a literary scholar who arrives on the pretense of wanting to build a garden but with the true intention of wanting to get his hands on some valuable letters.  Brilliantly bringing James’ narrative to life as well as his “ability to generate almost unbearable suspense while never neglecting the development of his characters,” Miss Tita concludes with a remarkable twist after twist that you’ll remember long after it ends.   

Wisely breaking up the extraordinary tension produced by the first three episodes, the fourth and by far my favorite of the series finds James in Oscar Wilde territory with the Ideal Husband and Importance of Being Earnest-like, “Grace” which was based on Covering End.  Although it begins seriously enough as a scheming father demands that his daughter is used as leverage to gain a politician in his pocket, soon a quintessentially British case of mistaken identity ensues in a beautiful country home with a small group of characters all finding themselves enchanted by the wrong people in a comedy of errors and romance.  With a scene stealing performance by Diana Rigg who picks up the pace with her hilariously breathless and impressively long monologues as a beguiling American tourist who knows more about the home than the British occupants, “Grace” is a sheer delight and additionally one where the script itself was so good that it would make a brilliant one act play, since all of the scenes occur in one location.   

A fitting ending to the first disc to leave us with a smile, the second disc picks up with a terrific adaptation of The Wings of the Dove, named for its tragic heiress Milly Theale who was modeled after James’ “beloved cousin” Minny Temple who perished as a young woman after a fight with tuberculosis.  Written with the intent to “wrap her memory in the ‘beauty and dignity of art,’” this heartbreaking epic which was also filmed in 1997 (to an emotionally chilly result in my estimation), benefits from the condensed television treatment.   

Telling the unbearably devious story of a wickedly selfish girl named Kate whose aunt has threatened to cut her out of her will if she marries her beloved lower class journalist fiancé Robert, when Kate learns that Milly is near death, she persuades him to seduce the young woman in the hopes that he will inherit her money.  While Robert is foolish enough not to realize his lover’s true motives, soon he understands what Kate had precisely planned, leading to a devastating finale that changes all involved.   

And upon uttering his belief that his dear friend Milly is “like crystal,” as Robert has a change of heart, I instantly realized—perhaps due to watching the works in quick succession as I devoured the set in two days—how James’ work may have influenced the plays of Tennessee Williams (and in this particular case, his masterful Glass Menagerie).  Although James’ sexual orientation was far more illusive than that of Tennessee Williams, there’s plenty of evidence he was indeed either homosexual or at least bisexual (with much controversy surrounding just how hidden his orientation was) and a definite thematic overlap between the men’s work and their preoccupation with fragile beauties betrayed by others that abounds throughout their creative offerings.   

In an extraordinary episode called “Flora,” which was based on Glasses, we meet the beautiful heroine who’s entirely “too pleased with herself.”  The ultra-vain Flora who drives men mad catches the attention of a portrait painter who aspires to capture her likeness on canvas.  Eager to be immortalized, Flora happily sits for the painter but soon we realize that behind her cocky exterior lies a scandalous secret that she’s nearly blind and must wear surgical spectacles with bars across the lenses.  Fearful that the unflattering eyewear will drive away her wealthy fiancé, Lord Charles, Flora is willing to risk her sight until she meets another man who doesn’t adhere to the Dorothy Parker adage that “men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.”   

The portrait painter returns once again in the final episode “Mary and Louisa” which draws from both The Tone of Time and The Real Thing and centers on two mysterious women who both stake a claim for a portrait of a handsome Italian man.  When secrets start tumbling out and the man arrives out of the woodwork, all is revealed in a stagy conclusion that tries for humor but overwhelms compared to the more subtle works in the series.   

Still, a wise decision to end on an upbeat note with another one of James’ trademark surprise conclusions, Affairs of the Heart is a wonderfully exquisite glimpse into some of his major works and while there can and nor there should be no substitute for actually reading them for yourself (save for skimming over his pages-long descriptions that make one’s eyes close in Portrait of a Lady), it’s a remarkable addition to a book lover’s DVD library.   

Far superior to any of the filmed adaptations of James’ work that I’ve seen so far made for the big screen, Affairs of the Heart immerses us into each individual setting within seconds, finding its footing quickly to bring us into each tale until we not only feel fully invested but complicit in the goings-on, wishing we could offer a warning or congratulate characters if happiness finds them in the end.  Made in the same British television heyday as my personal favorite Upstairs, Downstairs, this must-own two-disc set running approximately 351 minutes and featuring cast filmographies and a James biography, think of Affairs as the ultimate soap opera for thespians and bookworms and a great choice for early holiday shoppers. 

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About Jen Johans