World Film: Satire and Drama

A lush retelling of a Nancy Mitford novel, a winner from New Zealand about the travails of three Maori cousins.

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This story was originally published on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, on Friderike Heuer’s website heuermontage.com, under the title “Satire and Drama.” It’s reprinted here by permission.

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In lieu of actual travel I have lately been gorging on foreign films set in different continents. A slice of Africa, bits and pieces of Europe, a view of New Zealand and Korea, all available at the push of a button (Netflix and Amazon Prime, alas).

I might have picked them for their differences in locale, but ended up contemplating them for their similarities along other dimensions, family ties being one of them. So here is my best shot at comparative movie reviews, with two discussed today, the other two in the next installment. (And if you want to watch true travel movies, here is a list.)

Let’s begin with two films, from England and New Zealand, that treat the relationships between cousins and the effects of parental abandonment in very different ways while simultaneously acknowledging the lasting damage done to children’s souls.

The Pursuit of Love is a three-part BBC adaptation of a 1945 novel by Nancy Mitford that skewered the foibles of English gentry – a barbed satire of class and gender relations, xenophobia, and a paean to English fortitude against German War aggression. (“Utter, utter bliss,” was the book’s reception by the Daily Mail at the time.) Written and directed by Emily Mortimer, the film is visually slick time travel, surely appealing to fans of Howard’s End, or Bridgerton, or any other BBC production that revels in period costumes and an excess of upper-class decoration, even if the acting here is quite over the top. It has some tricks up its sleeves, though; one of them the incorporation of modern (pop/rock/country)music that hits the spot, and another the interspersing of historical footage showing war-time conditions.

The film’s storyline focuses on two cousins who grow up together, one abandoned by her mother early in life, the other caught in an aristocratic household where education is anathema and male dominance rules. Their friendship sustains them but is also a cause for bitterness and competition since each sees in the other what they themselves lack. Clinging to fairy-tale beliefs that love will rescue them – love and marriage being the only escape routes open in any case – they throw themselves blindly into fraught relationships and pay the price in respective ways. Sins of the older generation – parental abandonment among them – are reenacted by the next, and in the end women and daughters, struggling for freedom or caught in convention, all lose.

The film tries to draw attention to Mitford’s early descriptions of women’s fates in a society that punished female independence by dividing women into madonnas and whores. Some insightful observations on how their wings are clipped from the start are, unfortunately, later superseded by a pat on the back to the faithful wives and mothers who stick to their lot, after all. Here and here are two different mainstream reviews.

It’s eye candy for the highbrow set and was, admittedly, a pleasant diversion for this middlebrow viewer even though it lacked the biting quality of the novel. A bit of melodrama goes a long way on nights too hot to fall asleep …

Instead of binge-watching, one might as well use the time to read a biography of the Mitford sisters, since the adapted novel was a roman-à-clef, loosely based on the Mitford family constellations. There are (too) many books to choose from, depicting the choices these sisters from a minor aristocratic British family made, from going full fascist, with Hitler as wedding guest, to joining Communist movements, becoming novelists and journalists, or running an enterprising country estate as a business that catered to historical nostalgia. I recommend Laura Thompson’s The Six – The Lives of the Mitford Sisters. It describes in detail how, of the six sisters, three became Nazis, one a socialist journalist after a bout with the Communist Party, one a liberal satirical novelist who informed on her Nazi sisters, and one a duchess. The psychological role played by sibling rivalry is cleverly explored in this biography.

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IN CONTRAST, Cousinsa film from New Zealand directed by Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace Smith (who wrote the underlying novel) is one that I cannot recommend highly enough. It follows the intertwined fates of three cousins from a Maori background whose lives are upended by racism, colonialism, greed, and just tragic blows of fate. “Who needs another dark story?”, you might be thinking, but let me assure you the darkness is balanced by light and there is a peacefulness that descends from true emotional attachment and love that buoys your belief in humankind. Well, it did for mine. It is also cinematically as lush as they come, with landscape and interiors greatly impacting the mood of the film; and with none of the staged feeling that you got when contemplating yet another flower-laden British dining room, 800-thread count linen closet, or fox hunt from Pursuit of Love.

The three cousins are represented by three actresses each for childhood, young adulthood and older age, and it is often hard to decide which one of the nine makes the strongest impression, they are all so glorious in how they convey their character. One of the cousins, Mata, product of a mixed marriage, is forcibly taken away from her Maori mother and deposited in an orphanage by her disappearing white father. “Adopted” by an exploitative woman, she spends her life unable to overcome her losses, eventually descending into mental illness and homelessness. She is allowed one summer away from the orphanage as a child with her extended indigenous family, bonding with two cousins who try to find her for the rest of their lives after she is forced to return to slave-like conditions. The two cousins have diverging paths, as well. One escapes an arranged marriage and becomes a lawyer fighting for Maori rights and treaties, estranged from her family because of her insistence on making personal choices. The other steps into that marriage contract and ends up being the happy mother of a growing brood of children in a good relationship with her husband, preserving the land of her ancestors against multinational corporations, and eventually welcoming the abandoned cousin home when they locate her by chance.

The topic of stolen children, exploited and forced into a white culture, is, of course, timely. The issue of loss of family and loss of culture creating such pain that it leads to loss of self, as evinced in the inability of Mata to connect to reality in later life, is also a contemporary topic when you look at forced migrations and the plight of all those displaced by circumstances. The problem with stolen land and treaties is one all too familiar to American viewers as well, or should be.

But the real force in this film comes from the sources of love and caring that stretch across generations. For every brutal encounter there is an act of kindness, by strangers and family alike; for every inch of distance to the past created by Mata’s fall through time there is an act of determination to fulfill the promise once made to her: we are coming for you to bring you home. For every competitive streak between the other two cousins, there is an act of solidarity when it comes to prop up a united front against evil. You leave with a vision of healing, not literally displayed but offered as a possible act of imagination. It will stay with me for a long time.

Music today is from New Zelnd composer/singer Warren Maxwell, who wrote the score for the film.

Photographs hark back to the satire’s style of “more is more” when it comes to flowers (as well as acting). Some pretty English roses among them, photographed in years before the drought descended.

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