Monday, April 18, 2011

Upstairs Downstairs, Part Two: "The Ladybird"

Upstairs Downstairs continued its three-part run on Masterpiece Classic yesterday with an hour that was even more moving and action-packed than its predecessor. After being introduced to the world of 165 Eaton Place last week, we dive headlong into the tumultuous, highly-charged political atmosphere of 1936 as those tensions impact the Holland family and their servants in unexpected ways. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:
As fascism spreads within Europe, its threat is felt at 165 Eaton Place, both downstairs and up. A new parlormaid, Rachel Perlmutter, arrives safely from Germany having lost nearly everything, but carrying a secret. And the foreign office calls on Sir Hallam to appease the exiled Emperor of Ethiopia, whose country has been annexed by Benito Mussolini. But Hallam's diplomatic skills are also required at home — Maud continues to find Agnes lacking in her duties, as Agnes's attentions are happily occupied elsewhere. Persie takes a detour from the boring requirements of her social debut, rejecting a performance of La Bohème in favor of a flirtation with a servant and a dangerous ideology — pursuits which imperil her moral and physical standing.

A genuine companionship grows between Rachel and Mr. Amanjit, both outsiders who share knowledge of loss firsthand. Rachel tells Mr. Amanjit, "We are not forced to accept the things that grieve us," but it is Hallam who embodies that sentiment when he draws the line about who will live in his house, and how.
As you can tell, the show covered a lot of ground in this hour. Now that the household has been established, I get to focus on my favorite aspect of this miniseries - how the politics of the time are impacting the characters. Residents of 165 Eaton Place both upstairs and down seem to be settling into their roles within the household - though peace may be just an illusion. Lady Agnes (Keeley Hawes) is determined to see her devil-may-care sister Persephone (Claire Foy) make a successful debut, though she appears uncommonly distracted as regards the debut and the running of the household in general, much to her mother-in-law Lady Maud's (Eileen Atkins) irritation. Agnes, you see, is guarding a closely held secret - after years of disappointment, she's pregnant again, and her joy at the un-looked for gift is marred by fear that this child won't make it to term. The discovery of the pregnancy led to a really poignant moment between Agnes and Hallam (Ed Stoppard). They aren't a "perfect" fairy tale marriage by any stretch, but they possess a real affection and regard for each other that I love watching on-screen.

Lady Persie is, by far, my least favorite character in this ensemble. She's such a self-absorbed twit, a glaringly obvious trainwreck waiting to happen that I have very, very little sympathy (if any) for her. She's privileged and bored, and with fascism being fashionable among many members of Britain's aristocratic classes, it's easy to see where her character is headed. The glaring dichotomy between people like Persie, who are drawn to experiment with dangerous idealogies like fascism because of its seductive, forbidden lure, and those who have directly experienced persecution at the hands of fascists is one of the hour's most powerful themes. The only thing Persie had going for her in this episode was some spectacular 1930s fashion, particularly a jaw-dropping crimson evening gown. Superficial, yes, but it fits with her character (and oh my word I adore the costumes in this production!).

Chauffer Harry Spargo (Neil Jackson) is the avenue through which Persie becomes interested in the British fascist movement. It's interesting that ultimately Spargo seems capable of questioning the movement, while Persie determines to embrace it whole-heartedly. Persie and Harry finally fall into the affair forecasted in Part One, and sadly for Harry there is no doubt that their affair is merely a distraction for Persie, a way to occupy herself in her never-ending quest to avoid boredom. However, I have my doubts that the superficiality of their relationship is reciprocated from Harry's perspective. I think, or perhaps I am simply hopeful, that Harry is just naive enough to think that a shared interest in the fascist movement and its doctrine of equality is enough basis for a meaningful relationship with a woman well above his social class. (Gratuitous Harry picture alert! You're welcome!)

The downstairs staff sees a new addition in the form of Rachel Perlmutter (Helen Bradbury), who brings the painful effects of the fascist movement home to Eaton Place in a tragically personal way. Rachel is a beautiful, articulate, and refined German-Jewish refugee who fled her home bearing the secrets of her past life heavily on her fragile shoulders. At first glance one couldn't imagine a more ill-suited candidate for the position of parlormaid than Rachel. As the episode unfolds, so does Rachel's history, and we learn that she came from a privileged background, stripped of her rights in Germany simply because of the "crime" of her Jewish heritage. I really admired Rachel's character and loved her storyline - she exudes a quiet strength and kindness, all in the face of unimaginable horror and loss, that one cannot help but admire.

Rachel manages to strike up a friendship with Maud's secretary, the elusive Mr. Amanjit (Art Malik). Prior to Rachel's arrival, Amanjit occupied this solitary sort of "in between" status in the household - not a member of the family, and not quite a servant, he took all of his meals alone. No one thought to question this status quo until Rachel's arrival, when she proffers the hand of friendship and the two discover a shared understanding of heartbreak and loss. It is to Amanjit that Rachel confesses her greatest secret - she brought her young daughter Lotte (Alexia James) with her to England, and pays caregivers to watch the child so she can work.

The action of this episode builds towards opposing ideologies coming to blows at a fascist rally in London. When Harry appears for breakfast dressed in his blackshirt uniform for the rally, Rachel's reaction is shocking, powerful, and extraordinarily well-played by Bradbury. While the other servants sympathize with her horror at being confronted with fascism given her history, it's fascinating to see how none of them can really get where she's coming from since they haven't experienced its terrors firsthand. I particularly loved the scene when Rose (Jean Marsh) attempts to comfort Rachel after Mrs. Thackeray (Anne Reid) urges everyone to simply ignore Harry's uniform in favor of resuming their meal. Rose is genuinely compassionate towards Rachel's emotion, but I loved Rachel's explanation of why she couldn't simply pretend the ugly reminder of her past in Germany away. It was a powerful reminder of the saying "evil triumphs when good men do nothing" - and in spite of all she's endured, the idea that fascism could encroach on her new start in England spurs Rachel to take a stand as one of the anti-fascist protestors.

It was interesting to compare the political riot scene in this episode with a similar scenario from Downton Abbey. While Persie and both Sybil in Downton are superficially similar, their motivations for political involvement couldn't be more different. Persie is wholly selfish and maybe even a bit power mad, and the tragedy of her character is that the violence that erupts during the rally doesn't dissuade her from becoming more involved in the movement. The riot scene was brilliantly staged in my view. It was a genuinely frightening scene, moreso because I had become so emotionally invested in Rachel's character that I found myself seeing the protest through her eyes, and realzing in a fresh way what an extraordinarily brave thing she was doing in making her stand.

The results of the rally/protest will rock the Holland household to the core. It was fascinating to see Hallam, burdened by his work at the Foreign Office, indulge his wife's desire to ignore radio coverage of the rally. That highly domestic scene was a stark contrast to the violence erupting on London's streets. Rachel is deeply shaken when she sees Persie at the rally, and barely makes it home accompanied by Amanjit before succumbing to a violent asthma attack. Persie, meanwhile, has a sort of shell-shocked reaction to the rally - instead of the violence proving a deterrent, it's almost as if she's excited by it, but doesn't know how to process her emotions - so she drives off in the family car. Harry's reaction to the rally is what gives me hope for his character - instead of acting defiant in the rally's aftermath, he seemed genuinely troubled. (Side note: the filmmakers were able to put Jackson's background as an amateur boxer to excellent use during the riot scene - see above.) I loved the fact that he calls the police on Persie for stealing her own family's car. Not only does this reveal that he was worried about her, and the effect her reckless behavior could have on others, but it led to a fascinating confrontation with Hallam, who is understandably furious when he  gets the call that he has to bail out his sister-in-law. When Harry falls back on the excuse that he "had" to take Persie to the rally since he's "only" staff, it reveals an interesting tear in the fabric of the master/servant relationship. Between Hallam and Harry, the lines of expectation and responsibility between master and servant have become somewhat blurred.

Tragically the stress of the protest proves to much for Rachel, and she dies - her time at Eaton Place was all too brief, but her short stint as a member of the household has left an indelible impact. The scene where Amanjit weeps over her body TORE ME TO PIECES. Very well played, Mr. Malik. I only wish this series was longer, so I might have seen the secretary's friendship with Rachel unfold at a more liesurely pace (versus six months crammed into a hour runtime). One of this hour's best developments concerns Rachel's now orphaned daughter. Hallam, absolutely disgusted with the way fascism has touched his household, decrees that Lotte can live with them as long as she needs to - much to Agnes's chagrin. I was really annoyed with Agnes at this juncture - if Hallam can so bluntly realize the need to step in to save the child from being sent back to Germany, Agnes's hostility toward this addition to the household was quite hard to stomach. I really hope she has a turnaround next week.

Hallam really starts coming into his own as a character in this installment. He's a man who takes his work very seriously and wants to excel. But he finds that the expectations of his position with the Foreign Office are increasingly at odds with his own personal beliefs about the dangers of fascism and what his country's response should be to the growing threat. When Hallam is tasked with appeasing the exiled Ethiopian emperor, whose country was just annexed by Mussolini, he finds himself disgusted with his role of spouting meaningless platitudes to a man whose lost everything. I feel as though Hallam is a character on the brink of making some momentous changes in his life - and while ultimately they will be for the good, as is so often the case they are apt to be misunderstood by those closest to the individual in question. Witnessing the impact his work with the Foreign Office is taking on his personal life, and his growing understanding of and aversion to the fascist menace is turning Hallam into one of the show's most compelling, sympathetic characters. I cannot wait to see where the show will take him next as the world move closer to the advent of World War II. After last week, I was left wondering which character would emerge as the heart of the "upstairs" world - and after this installment left me literally cheering for Hallam's brave stand, I suspect I know.

Rachel's presence was felt in a very intimate, personal way through her friendship with the young housemaid, Ivy (Ellie Kendrick). Ivy can be so immature it's easy to forget just how young she actually is, and how her experience as an orphan has left her in sore need of anything resembling a mother's love and positive female role models. While she initially resents having to share her room with Rachel, over time the two become friends, and it's heart-wrenching to see Ivy begin to look on Rachel as a sort of surrogate mother-figure. The closing scene, when Ivy take's Rachel's daughter Lotte under her wing and begins to comfort her by singing the lullaby Rachel shared with her had me bawling. That's the type of beautifully-realized character maturation that I love to see, and Kendrick plays the scene with a poignancy that belies her age.

I can't wait until next week's installment - but I'm really crushed that next week is "the end" of this show that I've found to be wildly enjoyable. Once I made the conscious decision not to dwell on the fact that this series is far, FAR too short, it's been easy to marvel at just how much the filmmakers have been able to pack into each installment. The impact the tumultuous years just prior to World War II is having on these characters makes for fascinating television. Kudos once again to Heidi Thomas for delivering a smart script that packs an unbelievable amount of detail and character development into a too short timeframe, and to director Euros Lynn for keeping the action of the story moving at a brisk pace.


Heidenkind said...

Personally I felt like they tried to cover too much ground in this episode. It's had for me to even tell most of the characters apart, since a lot of them really look the same. Seriously, the only character I know is Amanjit and that's because I think his beard is eating his face. The political part was interesting, but I'm not connecting to the characters much.

Unknown said...

@heidenkind - You definitely have a valid perspective. I am admittedly biased to this show because I LOVE the time period, so it is "pushing all the right buttons" for me, so to speak. And HILARIOUS description of Amanjit's beard...poor guy, it is a little overwhelming. ;)

Phylly3 said...

Terrific review! I caught this episode last night and really enjoyed it! I was really upset with Agnes's reaction to taking in the child too as well as sticking up for Persie. Those two characters seem very shallow. While at first I felt much empathy for Agnes by the end of the episode I was too angry with her to like her at all!
I have often wondered what the fascination with Mosley was in the English aristocracy. The scenes from the rally made me very proud of the lower class English people. "They shall not pass!!"
Great episode!

Unknown said...

@phylly3 - Thanks! :) I hope we get to see Agnes experience a wake up call. Glad you liked the rally scenes too - I seriously teared up when the crowd was yelling "They shall not pass!" - it was a great moment.

Lori said...

Great review, though I have to agree that they were pushing it with the amount stuff covered in this episode, but I still was able to connect with the characters. Mostly I wanted more—esp. more of the developing friendship between Rachel and Mr. Amanjit.

I ran across some webpage last night that said they are making another series of this for airing in 2012 but I couldn't find any official news.

Unknown said...

@Lori - Thanks! :) And me too - the Rachel/Amanjit friendship was FABULOUS...such promise cut short by runtime (and premature death).

That's the IMDB listing for Upstairs Downstairs 2012, but there's no cast info - glad to know the show is returning - hopefully with six hours at least!

I saw an advertisement on the PBS website that the DVDs of this series are the "unedited UK version" - so there is probably around 30 minutes of footage on the DVDs that were cut to fit the story in a 50 minute timeslot (which drives me NUTS...). I'm anxious to see if/how the extra 30 minutes helps flesh out the story/characters further.