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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.   

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