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DVD Review: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

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Nobody lives in the present—it can’t be done. By the time we perceive a moment, it’s already the past, leaving us to plot our next miniscule future. In fact, the present is the only abstract in our concept of time, no matter how we try to dismiss the future as unknown. If the present exists at all, it’s only as an asterisk to remind us of the moments we’ve experienced before we plunge headfirst into the next moment. As much as we like to think we walk down a path that leads to that resolution we knew we deserved, we’re always trying to catch up.

See, time isn’t a river that we raft through, and it’s not a quantum field. For humans, it’s more like a mist that shrouds us, breaking only in moments of lucidity or regret. What we were and what we are cohabit the same space, playfully sparring to determine who we are, and who we will ultimately be. The British mini-series Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, newly released on DVD by Acorn Media, and based on the 1956 novel by Angus Means, brilliantly explores time as a series of decisions and their consequences. In the process, it skewers the hypocrisy of several cherished social mores.

Gerald Middleton (Richard Johnson) is the central character of Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, an aging historian of "stiff upper lip" demeanor haunted by the errors of his past. In 1912, he was witness to the celebrated unearthing of a pagan fertility idol at an archaeological dig, buried with an early Christian bishop. It wasn’t long after that he discovered that overly endowed figure may have been a fake, planted there by the son of the expedition’s leader. And somewhere around that time, he began an affair with Dolly (Tara Fitzgerald) the fiancée of the roguish son (portrayed by a young, pre-Bond Daniel Craig.)

Forty some-odd years later, time has changed everything. Middleton married, not to his true love, Dolly, but to a shrewish Danish woman, Inge (Elizabeth Spriggs) whose seemingly frivolous eccentricities mask her dominating nature. Despite her frigid sexuality, they managed to spawn three offspring, all of whom go through their lives blissfully unaware of the little disasters they perpetrate. Gerald and Inge divorced eventually, but remained entangled in each other’s lives.

Time changed everything. Time changed nothing. All that time, Middleton kept the secret of the phallic symbol to himself, and kept his love for Dolly close to his heart. Now he wants to somehow rectify his past, and change his life for the unknown better, once and for all. The problem is, his past and present keep colliding, altering his future at every turn.

Andrew Davies did a remarkable job of adapting the Means novel, deftly moving the characters from one time frame to the other, using Middleton’s anguished memories as a framing device to tie it all together. In the process, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes deflates pomposities that are inherent not only in British society, but globally as well. It’s satire in its most potent form, exposing our follies so quietly we only realize it in retrospect. It’s not the sort of satire to make you giggle, but it will make you smile in places. It’s no wonder that the miniseries garnered a BAFTA “Best Serial Drama” award in 1992.

The DVD is presented in its original 1.33:1 format, and is a beauty to watch. The video reproduction is crisp, and the sound separation is flawless. There aren’t a lot of bonus features—filmographies of the principals and biographies of Means and Davies are about it, but they illustrate what a stellar production it was. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes has a running time of 229 minutes, and is presented on two discs. Oh, it also features a small appearance by a 16-year old Kate Winslet, in one of her earliest roles.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, despite its pastoral pace (or perhaps because of it), remains an engrossing piece of drama that illustrates how lives unfold haphazardly, and reach their climactic moments largely unnoticed.

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