Monday, January 24, 2011

Ladies of Pleasure: Marquise Elle Reviews "Fanny Hill" and "Moll Flanders"

I know, I know- over a year and no posts? It's simply unforgivable. But grad school is indeed a cruel mistress who will spank you with a spiked paddle if you don't behave.

And on that note, here is my review of the BBC series "Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure," which for some reason was only two episodes long. I'd like to preface this review by saying that I haven't yet read the novel, written by John Cleland in 1748 (it's on my long list of 18th century novels to read). From what I can tell, the series follows the book fairly closely but actually cleans up the story considerably- rather the opposite of what you might expect, but make no mistake, the 18th century novel is dirtier than the 21st century adaptation. Those of you who like to think that the 1700s were a time of delicate sensibilities (in other words, if you look at the 18th century through a 19th century glass), may want to read that last statement over a few more times and let it sink in before we proceed.

First of all, I'm not sure if the language of the series reflects the language of the book, but at times it was downright corny. Maybe it's because it was made in England (no offense to any of my English readers), but there was this stifling yet hilarious attempt to say dirty things in an "18th century" way, rather than just come right out with a dirty word (as, say, a prostitute might have done). Example: Fanny refers to one man's rather impressive member as "a positive maypole." For all I know, this language was taken directly from the book, so perhaps it was simply the actress's delivery of the lines which made it sound so ridiculous. Either way it was fairly distracting. Also, Fanny's introduction to sex seemed a bit rushed and unrealistic- her first sexual encounter (with another girl, Phoebe) was so silly that my flatmate ended up leaving the room in disgust. This is, however, straight out of the book (and probably cleaned up), so it's difficult for me, having not read the novel, to know who to blame.

Plot aside, I both loved and hated the costumes. Many of them were absolutely lovely, particularly the finer clothes, but there were several glaring inaccuracies, the most annoying being Fanny's inability to tuck her hair up under her cap properly. I get it, she's a loose woman, etc., but if you're trying to get that point across, why bother putting her in a cap at all? (Or at least have her cover her hair before she becomes a prostitute, then let it hang down once she's embraced her vocation.) There was also an abundance of caps that resembled shower caps, and a few shifts with full-length sleeves- in other words, the kinds of mistakes you see at reenactments, which should be inexcusable in a well-researched series or film (and really, inexcusable at reenactments as well, thanks to the internet). The series also suffers from PotC-syndrome (also known as "what part of the 18th century is this again?" disorder). For example, in one scene Fanny is wearing a zone gown that wouldn't have been seen until thirty or forty years after the novel takes place, which is sort of like seeing bell-bottomed jeans, platforms, and an Afro on a character in a 1930s film noir. There are also examples where the costume designer started out on the right track, but then stopped just short of the mark: if I may draw your attention to the picture at the left, you may notice that Miss Hill's stays are accurately constructed, but aren't laced properly (and call me crazy, but I think her shift is made out of that imitation linen they sell at Jo-ann Fabrics). In short, we have evidence of a lazy costume designer: one who started out by looking at period clothing, but in the end made certain choices based on what would look correct or attractive to a 21st century viewer.

There was one glaring anachronism in the series that I would be amiss not to point out. Fanny claims that Mrs. Coles's motto is "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law." First of all, this was the maxim of one Aleister Crowley, famous/infamous occultist who was born in 1875, over 100 years after the publication of "Fanny Hill." More importantly, however, its use in the context of the series completely subverts its meaning. By "will," Crowley was referring to one's "true will," or intended path in life, not "whatever strikes your fancy." I might excuse this misuse of the motto, and chalk it up to some scriptwriter being a fan of Crowley's, but surely a fan would know the true meaning behind the statement? Perhaps, being a fan of Crowley's myself, I'm just splitting hairs here, but ascribing the words of the Great Beast to the owner of a small-time bawdy house- and using the quotation out of context!- is just too too much.

Silly euphemisms and poor costuming choices aside, I did enjoy "Fanny Hill" overall. It has your typical 18th century bawdy novel plot: virtuous people are sinful, sinful people are virtuous (though some sinful people are just plain jerks), there are a few highly improbable coincidences, and all's well in the end. Huzzah.

Now on to "Moll Flanders," another adaptation of an 18th century novel I haven't read. I was going to make this a separate blog entry but I don't have very much to say about it. The film takes one element from the novel- the fact that Moll was born in a prison- and then the plot takes a left at Improbable Avenue and Bananas Boulevard. In short, it has nothing to do with the 18th century novel. As a stand-alone film it's not that groundbreaking, either. I love Robin Wright Penn (as a long-time fan of "The Princess Bride"), but I don't think any actress, no matter how talented, could have made the character of Moll Flanders believable. As in many period films, the female lead character of this one is headstrong, quirky, and unafraid to follow her passions- in a way that seems totally out of place for the time period. Unlike Glenn Close's Marquise de Merteuil (I swear I will review "Dangerous Liaisons" one of these days), who becomes a liberated woman by making the system work for her, Moll seems unaware that there is a system at all. In other words, she is your typical empowered yet two-dimensional 21st century female character who has somehow been dropped into the 18th century (or any other century) by mistake. I could list characters like these until I turn blue: Anne Howard in "The Patriot," Veronica Franco in "Dangerous Beauty," any character played by Keira Knightley...

The film is, on the whole, pretty anemic. The plot is ludicrous and predictable, the costumes and makeup are schizophrenic, and while there are a few notable quotes much of the dialogue is desperately trying to sound poetic but in the end only comes up as forced (much like in "Dangerous Beauty"... food for thought). The writer/producer/director, Pen Densham, also wrote/produced "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves" with Kevin Kostner, if that tells you anything (and it should). In short, this movie has only one saving grace: Morgan Freeman.

As strange as it felt to have Morgan Freeman running around 18th century England, I can't express what a joy it was to see. First off, the combination of early-18th century flowing frock coat and cocked hat with long braids transformed the quiet, solid Morgan Freeman of "Shawshank Redemption" and "Se7en" into Morgan Freeman: Gentleman Adventurer of the High Seas. My favorite scene in the entire film, hands down, was watching Freeman cold clock a man on the street for making a racist comment. Not even his wandering accent could detract from the sheer awesomeness of 18th century Morgan Freeman. I think he even out-shone his own bad-assery in "Red." So to sum up, Morgan Freeman has the ability to be a shining beacon of awesome in any bad or mediocre movie: "Robin Hood," "Brice Almighty," and now this. Well, done, M.F. I guess we know what your initials really stand for.

So that sums up my reviews of "Fanny Hill" and "Moll Flanders": two women of pleasure who brought me very little. Stay tuned, my lovelies, for your marquise is back with a vengeance!


  1. try reading the novels it might help you give a decent critique

  2. Try punctuation; it might help you write a decent rebuttal.

    The point of these critiques was never to compare the films to the books, but to discuss their value as film portrayals of the 18th century. Apologies to fans of either book who felt my review was inadequate.

  3. I do wonder why you attribute the "hilarious attempt to say dirty things" to the fact that the adaptation was made in England. The mere fact that the programme was aired to a mainstream audience is explanation in itself. The asides that you describe are much the same as the book. Cleland deliberately 'cleaned up' the narrative in order to make the publication more commercial in 1750. Indeed, Fanny does use milder terminology than would perhaps a common street walker of the age, though this is in no way ludicrous.

    Both Cleland, and those responsible for the modern day adaptation, were fully aware of the stark realities of Eighteenth Century prostitution. They do nonetheless strive to reach a wider audience, with some scholars even suggesting a comic element to Cleland's descriptions. As for your comment, "make no mistake the 18th century novel is dirtier than the 21st century adaptation", I marvel at how you might reach that conclusion having not read the book at all. You will find that whilst Cleland is happy to describe sexual scenes, there is a distinct omission of obscene language. The use of 'corny' language is therefore a stylistic attempt to avoid vulgarity. An English adaptation of a thoroughly English Eighteenth Century novel, we're not quite as stuffy as you might think!

  4. At last, someone who also blames the 19th Century for the way people see the 18th. I find it personally frustrating when people expect the C18th to be dull and prudish when they sucked so much more of the marrow of life then we ever seem to - a pineapple instead of the Twenty-First Century's desiccated coconut, (albeit a pineapple rotten in places).

    As for Fanny Hill, I've read the book and seen the adaptation, and the programme did seem to suffer from the simple fact that the book has very little plot, and although it did try and make a bit more, there still wasn't enough to properly drive it forward.

    As for the comical descriptions, they are in the book and I feel they are probably both an insertion of comedy and an attempt to make the book more interesting. In a book where there is little more than sex between different combinations of people, the book could have got very boring if the language was less inventive. (Other good 'uns include; 'furious battering ram', 'red headed champion,' 'the dearest morsel of the Earth', and my favourite, 'a splitter indeed.'

    Oh and 'do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law', like most of what Crowley said, was stolen from somewhere else (the code of the Hashish I think).

    As for Moll Flanders, it's a good book but I have never seen the version you saw because Morgan Freeman is always Morgan Freeman and I couldn't face him in a Defoe thing. ITV made a very good Moll Flanders, pretty faithful to the book and very entertaining starring Alex Kingston and Daniel Craig.

  5. Dear Anonymous #2,

    Thank you for your insightful comments. As I admitted in my post, I went into this review fairly ignorant of the novels, and so could only comment on the films insofar as how well they portrayed the 18th century, a tender point for me whenever I watch period films. As to my knowledge of the plot, the marvelous Age of the Internet makes the plot of any book available to one who has not had the pleasure of reading it in full. I certainly meant no offense to any of my English readers, as I admit my familiarity with British television censorship practices is rather limited, and my comment was a mere suggestion- and perhaps in somewhat poor taste, in retrospect. My apologies to anyone I may have inadvertently offended.

    Dear I lodge in Grub Street,

    You have certainly piqued my interest in the novel further, if to only expand my repertoire of creative sexual innuendo. I'm sure that any attempt to make a film adaptation of such a book would be fraught with the difficulties you named, and I give credit where credit is due, in that overall I found it a rather enjoyable film experience. As to Moll Flanders, you didn't miss much.

    To both my readers I am indebted for your comments, and I remain

    Your humble servant,
    Marquise Elle

  6. I enjoyed the reviews, and I liked the Harlot's Progress one a lot too. City of Vice, by the same people, is also good fun (if a little overblown).

  7. I will certainly look into that one- and I'm glad you're enjoying my reviews. Thank you!