I am quite partial to ‘Antiques Roadshow’. Its not television that I hang out for, nor do I sit down and watch it each time it is on. It is something I can dip into when I am preparing or partaking of the evening meal whilst it’s in its present ABC timeslot. I like the woman of a certain age (Fiona Bruce) who hosts it. I like the looks on the faces of those who found an old painting up in the attic or who purchased a bit of crockery for 25p at a second hand shop and are gobsmacked when the valuer informs them of the multiples of thousands their finding is worth. And I like the back history of some of the items presented.
A couple of nights ago I was watching one of the show’s co-hosts, a very personable chap, waxed lyrical about a late Seventeenth Century teapot afore him for valuation. During a description of its provenance he remarked that the introduction of tea into British society was the first step on the long road to women achieving equality with menfolk – a road that still hasn’t fully arrived at its destination.
Previous to the transformation the humble tea leaf caused, a respectable woman could not enter the ale or coffee houses of the time and of course were completely subjugated in wedlock – emphasis on the lock. The arrival of this new beverage gave the mistress of the house a renewed purpose and allowed for some minor independence from hubby’s control. Drawing rooms could be opened up and gossip could be had around the intricate preparation then involved in making a cuppa. It was a matter of pride, getting the mixture of green and black teas used exactly right to create a signature blend. Chairs were no longer positioned around walls, but rather circled small tables designed especially for the serving of the refreshing hot liquid. As tea became more affordable and the drinking of it spread down the social strata, so women opened up their formerly underused front rooms for the commercial selling of the brewed product – thus gaining a modicum of financial security in isolation from their spouses. Women were on their way.
Around the same time tea was revolutionising the balance between the sexes across the Channel, a great palace was being built in the countryside around Paris – and here a singular woman was attempting to also break through the glass ceiling of the time – or as one commentator put it, more like a stone ceiling – Madame Sabina De Bara (Kate Winslet). Along my lovely Leigh and I went to view the film of her story this week. It turned out to be a good saga.
De Bara was a creation of the mind of Alan Rickman, the director of ‘A Little Chaos’. Now I am also quite partial to Alan Rickman – he enhances every project he is involved in. Of course a large amount of his recent time has been taken up by the Harry Potter franchise, but my favourite of his many offerings was the 2006 Canadian indie ‘Snow Cake’. Here he plays a man involved in a fatal car crash, thus causing a major attack of the guilts resulting in a life changing experience, a reawakening. It was the loveliest of movies.
In ‘A Little Chaos’ he also plays the role of Louise XIV, the Sun King. He is heavily involved in matters of state as well as attempting to build said palace, Versailles, together with its magnificent gardens. Mattias Schoenaerts, so revealing in his amazing previous outing, ‘Rust and Bone’, has a more subdued role here as the king’s gardener, André Le Nôtre – and this guy really existed too, although he was considerably older than the age of the hunk the Belgian actor portrayed in the movie. Madame De Barra, sadly, never existed. It would have been unthinkable back then for a real woman to crack that stone ceiling and be responsible for part of the landscaping under Le Nôtre. Still, without her, it would have been a dull old tale and the fictional she certainly caused consternation among the vested interests as portrayed in this cinematic product. Both Winslet and Schoenaerts are serviceable in their roles, as is Helen McCory as the scheming wife of the head gardener. Leigh could not understand how the handsome young fellow could be hitched to such a vile, much older creation – but they did things differently back then.
For me the movie doesn’t quiet work. The story line plods along – some judicious editing could have sped it up somewhat. Also there was seemingly no need to insert a back story towards the end to interrupt the flow – surely the audience would be intelligent enough to work out that widow Sabine bought a shit load of baggage into her relationship with André, once they eventually got around to acting on their feelings. Enough hints had been dropped. Broad English accents did not entirely sit well with such a period piece set in France.
It’s only when Rickman is on screen that proceedings liven up. He was delightful when, freeing himself from the remorse caused by the death of his wife and dispensing of his regal attire, he retires to his pear arbour only to meet Sabine. She decides he is just another horticultural type, causing confusion before the penny dropped – and then friendship. And I loved the bit where he explains the reasoning behind the building of Versailles was to take the children away from the temptations of city life. There are also some attractive performances from the lesser lights – Stanley Tucci as the king’s gay brother, for instance. His missus’ (Paula Paul) acceptance to Sabine of the fact her prince swings the other way is a quiet gem. ‘Silk’s’ Rupert Penry Jones is similarly very becoming in his small role as De Barra’s first friendly face at court. Rickman was very concerned that the fashions of the day – the gowns, frock coats, make-up etc – be as realistic to the times as possible, rather than a modern day type gloss over. It all largely gives the former impression despite the perfect teeth. And I did enjoy the ending, despite it being complete Hollywood mush.
All in all there is an opportunity missed here, but it still was a reasonably pleasurable way to while away a couple of hours – despite the distraction of some overly effective air-conditioning at the State turning our viewing room into an ice-box.
Fast forward now to the last century. Within the lifetimes of many of us, advancement for the female gender still had not made much headway on what De Barra had encountered. In Eisenhower’s America, on the sun-dappled coast of Northern California we find the Keanes, a couple riding a wave of fortune due to wife Margaret’s talent for kitsch and hubby Walter’s head for business acumen. The only trouble in their version of Camelot was that Walter was a fraudster – and the victim was Margaret. Claiming to be as equally endowed with artistic gifts as his spouse, Walter imported cheesy Parisian streetscapes to peddle as his own work at local markets and this is how he met his wife to be. On that occasion she was set up in a neighbouring stall, selling her own artwork, trying to make a buck after escaping misogynist husband number one. Her oeuvre on show consisted of small children with overly large eyes. After a whirlwind romance she was so charmed by the oily Walter Keane that nuptials soon ensued. Soon the man of the house was arranging joint showings of their artistic output, but hers, through a combination of events, took off and his knock-offs were being ignored. ‘No worries,’ he no doubt thought, ‘I’ll just pretend they’re mine as well.’ Word spread and Margaret’s work, signed by Walter, was soon flavour of the month with the punters, despite being derided by the critics. When Walter hit on the bright idea of turning her originals into thousands of prints so Average Joe and Josephine could afford them, they were on a roll. But at all costs the secret of their true origin had to be kept. As the marriage wore on and Walter’s behaviour developed peculiarity, Margaret became more incensed at her situation. She wasn’t going to take her subservience any longer, so she escaped to Hawaii and let the cat out of the bag. All hell broke loose, so over to the lawyers.
Initially ‘Big Eyes’ was a project intended to be a vehicle for Kate Hudson and Thomas Hayden Church. I wished it had remained that way. Whist I had no issues with Amy Adams in the role of Margaret, Christoph Waltz, as her over-bearing spouse, simply gave me the irits. No doubt this was intentional on the part of director Tim Burton, but when the proverbial hit the fan and Walter attempted to defend his own actions in court, the whole thing descended into farce. Waltz, clearly enjoying himself as a fellow going off his rocker, hammed it up for all it was worth and the film completely lost its way. Up until then I was thinking it was an interesting yarn. Burton, in an outing unusually taking him into the real world, should have exercised the control the ffilm’s courtroom judge was too inept to. It spoilt the exercise for me.
Still the movie certainly shed more light on the treatment of women during the early ‘Mad Men’ era – and it was lovely seeing actor Adams and the real artist Margaret together as the closing credits came down.
Unfortunately there are still men like Walter Keane here in our current century. Daily headlines constantly shout at us of ongoing mistreatment of women in all manner of ways – in the workforce, on our streets and behind the facades of suburbia. But whilst we have the modern equivalents of Sabine and Margaret ready to declaim ‘Enough’ and shatter glass ceilings, the fight will go on until the road reaches its destination.
‘A Little Chaos’ Official Trailer = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ENSjt4naxlE
‘Big Eyes Official Trailer = https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2xD9uTlh5hI
A Margaret Keane Gallery = https://keane-eyes.com/