Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: OUTLANDER ends w/NC-17 stunner To Ransom A Man's Soul

After reading Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels and seeing showrunner Ronald D Moore's 16 episodes of book 1 on Starz, I find both artists waging guerrilla social warfare between the covers of a classic bodice-ripper. Real emotional, historical, and medical content sabotages the saccharin romance formula we wouldn't be caught dead reading/watching -- "Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!" (heroine Claire's favorite swear). While likely finding few converts among Edith Wharton or Hilary Mantel fans, OUTLANDER has elevated the content value for romance consumers above that of say, Downton Abbey, while keeping faith with all the tropes of the genre.

There's Jamie, daring noble hero; Claire, lovely stubborn heroine, a WWII nurse who has fallen through time from 1945 back to 1743; sadistic villain, Captain Jack Randall; and throbbing plot doings that include the beautiful mysterious Geillis and McKenzie clan politics.

A cinematic ending tops off book 1-- a wide-angle portrait of wind-swept lovers embracing on a gorgeous 18th century sloop as they leave their troubles in Scotland and cross the channel to new adventures in France -- a picture perfect image befitting the paperback book covers on the turn-stand at your local drugstore.

But it so happens that Gabaldon's 3 science degrees and her faithful interest in the details of history, medicine, and human behavior add surprising substance to the pocket romance formula. Filmmaker Moore mostly succeeds in following her intention. At least this pair is forcing the romance consumer to think as well as feel; at best the last episodes of Book I may help redefine how rape is portrayed for the violence it is, not the male fantasy it has always been. Here's how Outlander ups the game.

First is 20th century medically-trained Claire's confrontation with a woman's place in the 1700's -- not to her liking. Having disobeyed her new husband Jamie, she falls into the hands of the British, forcing Jamie and his MacKenzie relations to mount a dangerous rescue. According to custom, justice must be be meted out to Claire for having put all the men's lives at risk. Jamie beats her with a strap, to which she responds with 20th century outrage. We are taught to work fast to distance ourselves from a violent partner. Here we are gently persuaded to 18th century realities. Jamie is a gentleman and a leader, not violent except in combat. Gabaldon forces us to confront the perils of a time in which punishment is demanded when one person endangers the welfare of many. Ultimately we and Claire grudgingly come to differentiate between "abuse" and "justice." The threats to their relationship seem to result from Jamie and Claire's roots in different millennia, but all partners negotiate differences as deeply felt as theirs. The battles with each other (above) stand in for the struggles in every relationship in which mutual respect is hard won.

Even more trauma unfolds with Jamie's later capture by the British (a price remains on his head for a false accusation) and falling into the hands of villainous captain, Black Jack Randall, a sadistic, morbidly dark homosexual. Pictured below, Claire has gotten into the prison and Jamie persuaded Randall to release her in return for his submission to sex.

An episode and more is devoted to Jamie's plight in prison and later rape and torture by the mad captain. It unfolds in flashback after the MacKenzies have driven a herd of cattle into the prison, snatching up Jamie during the ruckus and delivering him to a monastery. Randall's abuse reflects Gabaldon's intuitive or actual knowledge of behavioral psychology. Randall is not just about rape and torture -- he seeks to possess Jamie body and soul by making Claire repellent to him. Hence Randall impersonates Claire while both physically torturing and making love to him -- in effect he 'conditions' Jamie to be repelled by his wife as if she were his instrument of torture. Fine direction by Anna Foerster shows but mostly infers Randall's manipulating Jamie into submission, leading to his fevered, delusional state after the rescue, rejecting Claire and begging for death. In the film, Moore mysteriously puts in clan member Murtagh's head the idea that was properly Claire's to restore Jamie's sanity --joining him in his darkness. We see Claire's intuitive version of a modern cognitive behavioral therapy called 'exposure therapy' that is used now to treat soldiers and other victims of PTSD.

In a modern therapeutic setting, a patient is repeatedly walked through violent memories which gradually lose their hold in a 'de-conditioning' process that extinguishes their power. Claire's method is cruder and more drastic. Using opium and Randall's lavender scent she impersonates him, rousing Jamie from his delusional state to fight off his torturer which he could not do in prison. In the book they tear apart his monastery cell until both are spent, but Jamie wakes in the morning with his fever broken, in effect having defeated his torturer. In Moore's version the brawl is too brief and Claire talks it through with Jamie, a less medically- feasible means of recovery -- "talk" does not pierce a delusional state, as anyone knows who has tried to reason with an addict. Gabaldon's version played out logically in the beautiful abbey chapters concluding her first book.

There, in a French monastery headed by a Fraser uncle of Jamie's, unfolds a plausible respite and recovery for the characters and the reader. Moore's abbreviation of the rape aftermath and recovery is my first major quarrel with the filmed version of Gabaldon's work. It short-changes Jamie's recovery and also our own from perhaps the most dramatic story-telling ever on television. At least one episode (The Watch) could have been dropped to allow it.

Still, a catharsis is pronounced and we accept it, for as the Frasers sail away to France, the gorgeous, sweeping sea departure morphs in our minds from a scene on a romance book cover to overwhelming relief that our couple's relationship has survived.

Much more happened in the second 8 episodes of the first book including a witch trial, a visit to Lollybroch, Jamie's ancestral home (above), and our introduction to two lovely characters -- sister Jenny and brother-in-law Ian (Laura Donnelly and Steven Cree, below) -- who will reappear in future. Also Claire reveals to Jamie the story of her time-travel through the stones; he takes her there and tells her to go back: "There is nothing for you here except violence and danger...." (see photo at bottom).

Despite the rest of the sturm and drang that befalls our hero and heroine, there's not anything on tv that can top the authentic portrayal of maturing love in Outlander and also the treatment of rape as the violence and betrayal that it is. It could not be told as well with a female victim without seeming politically incorrect in the extreme. Also, with Jamie as the victim, male viewers (40% Outlander fans are men) are very able to empathize with such cruelty, which conflicts with the male rape fantasy of women. The recent rape of Sansa in Game of Thrones instantly felt outdated and unworthy. Can a film industry largely run by men improve its thinking on this subject? Maybe Outlander will be a turning point.

The Gabaldon/Moore Outlander seasons have achieved some unusual emotional coups. Tobias Menzies and Sam Heughan were particularly brave and vulnerable in their painful scenes as sadist and victim. All the artists involved deserve kudos for taking the bodice-ripper genre into believable realms of human emotion.

Outlander is available now on demand at Starz. My earlier review of the first 8 episodes is here. Moore reports that filming is in progress on Gabaldon's second book, Dragonfly in Amber which moves Jacobite politics to a new setting -- the French court of Louis XV.

(The above post is written by our
monthly correspondent Lee Liberman.)

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