Sunday, October 12, 2014

"How can I remember something that hasn't happened yet?" Moore/Gabaldon's OUTLANDER

This month's Sunday Corner was written by 
our oft-times correspondent, Lee Liberman

The Starz network has come into its own with OUTLANDER, new rival to Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey for saga-binging. An historical romance fantasy adventure, the series was developed and is executive-produced by sure-footed tall-tale teller, Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek Next Generation, Battlestar Gallactica, et al). It's also the product of collaboration between Moore and best-selling novelist Diana Gabaldon. Her imaginative story-making is industry (many books, now yielding travel and knitting industries) and her creation of lovely heroine Claire is a gift to women which I'm sorry to say, Moore messes with slightly. He's too smart to greatly alter Gabaldon's beloved franchise (and its ready-made audience), but Claire is diminished on occasion with doe-eyed helpless affect that contradicts her character. (Take a note, Mr.Moore, from Game of Throne's Arya Stark and Ygritte and Downton's Mary Crawley.)

(Sonia Saraiya, writing for the A.V.Club, points out that the pull for women to both Downton Abbey and Outlander is the focus on the perils of womanhood even among upper class women; both projects are both feminine fantasy and feminist critique, as women silently or explicitly voice objection to their status as property rather than person.)

Moore (above, left) and Gabaldon (above, right) may influence each other going forward. Moore is a master of suspense, extracting intensity and emotion from events that flow smoothly through Gabaldon's exposition. He errs, however, in condensing her narrative in spots, jamming kidnappings, attempted rapes, and sadistic beatings so close together that the viewer's willingness to suspend disbelief is taxed (episode 8 contains two attempted rapes). To his credit though, Moore makes magic devoting an entire episode to the heroine's engrossing confrontation with the story's villain and another full episode to the consummation of the relationship between hero and heroine -- these events near perfectly rendered on film.

Our heroine Claire Randall (Caitriona Balfe, above) establishes her cred when we first meet her as a WWII British army nurse serving at the front and covered in soldiers' blood. She and husband Frank (Tobias Menzies, below, left) have been separated by war, he having served as a spymaster in London for the duration.

At war's end they reunite for a second honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands, where Frank, an historian about to take up a post at Oxford, is researching his ancestry -- in particular of one Black Jack Randall, a notorious British army commander who served 200 years earlier in the same Highlands locale. The couple visit historic sites near the town of Inverness including the clan MacKenzie castle ruin, above, where infamous Black Jack and his dragoons (armed soldiers) suppressed rebellious Scots during the Jacobite era. Frank Randall's history lessons become touchstones for Claire as her story unfolds.

Centuries-long Protestant vs Catholic struggles in Europe surface here in the Jacobite uprisings that came to a head in the 1740's. The Jacobites were supporters of Catholic Stuart King James II ('Jacobus' means 'James' in Latin) and they continued to plot the overthrow of Protestant King George II, aiming to restore a Catholic Stuart to the English throne. The rural Highland population was still governed feudally by clans whose fighting men skirmished intermittently with British occupiers (oh Braveheart!). Sad to report of actual events, the Scotch were decisively defeated in 1746 at the battle of Culloden. They suffered terrible losses, after which the British put the clans out of business for good (including the MacKenzie, into whose hands Claire falls), even shipping rebel fighters to colonies as indentured servants. (The Scottish independence issue was settled again -- for now -- by election on September 18, 2014 with a vote to retain ties with Britain.)

A few days into their Highlands holiday, Claire motors 5 miles from Inverness on her own to revisit an ancient henge of stones on a hill. As she grasps the tallest stone, the wind rises and roars, heaving Claire through time. She lands in place at the ancient site among the stones -- 200 years earlier in 1743.

At once she finds herself caught up in a skirmish between British soldiers and MacKenzie men and is soon waylaid by her husband's Randall ancestor, also played by Menzies (above), whose Edmure Tully in Game of Thrones was lightweight material for his acting chops. Here he plays charming Frank and evil Black Jack so well that we hate bad Randall on sight and become torn over Claire's determination to return home to mirror-image Frank. (Also, we see what acting is about as Menzies transforms himself, below.)

For now, about to be raped by Black Jack, Claire is involuntarily rescued by a hairy lout in a kilt who delivers her to a hideout where clan MacKenzie war chief, power player, and enforcer, Dougal MacKenzie, acted by the marvelous Graham McTavish (shown six photos below), is waylaid by his nephew's dislocated shoulder.

That would belong to our hero, Jamie, who can barely sit up, never mind ride, and they must move, as Black Jack is in the area. His prey includes Jamie, who has a price on his head for a murder he did not commit. Jamie is young laird of his own small estate, but is forced to hide among his MacKenzie relations to avoid capture. Meanwhile Claire knows dislocated bones. Ordering clansmen to step aside, she wrenches the shoulder back in place and fashions a sling, scoring a few points with her abductors. Jamie, played by drop-dead gorgeous Scotsman, Sam Heughan (above), completes our introduction to the four characters we will come to know best in the first 8 episodes of Outlander that have already aired and are available at Starz. The remaining 8 episodes of the 1st season will air April/May 2015.

The company treks on horseback a long two days and nights -- a mere 15 miles to Castle Leoch (below), no longer the ruin Claire visited two days ago with her husband. Dougal and his older brother, Laird Colum MacKenzie, now seek to assess the English woman found in her muddy 'shift' (a 1940's era street dress) whose cover story of origin doesn't add up to them any more than it did to Black Jack. Each side suspects she's a spy for the other. Claire narrates as she navigates, using her wits and her knowledge of history, plant life, and medicine to carve out a use for herself as healer without betraying that she came from the future and intends to return.

During Claire's "guest" detainment, we come to know Scottish life and its dangers circa 1743 -- a clan gathering for pledges of loyalty to the laird, a violent pig hunt, life on the road collecting rent from MacKenzie tenants that includes Dougal's politicking for the Jacobite cause, "walking wool" in which the warm piss of the woolers is used to set the dye, below, and notions of magic, Satan, and harsh punishment that fill daily life.

Moore teases -- no, torments -- the viewer with hints of the unspoken attraction between Jamie and Claire as you watch them rely on each other and become friends. Perhaps Jamie began to love her from the moment she shoves his shoulder back in place; at any rate he acts as a protector and soon Dougal half falls for her too, though he'll kill her if she's a danger to the clan. As for Claire, she is attracted to the princely Jamie but shrugs him off; her love for Frank and desire to return to home uppermost. As the story moves forward, she begins to worry about the battle at Colloden Moor three years hence that will decimate the MacKenzies -- English tyranny seen up close has led her to sympathize with the Scotch. She can't warn them -- they won't believe her.

Can history be influenced in some other way? Much drama will unfold under the doomsday cloud of Colloden, 1746, invisible to all but Claire. There are internal politics at Castle Leoch too, as Dougal machinates to protect his succession to laird (his brother ails), eventually using Claire as pawn to prevent Jamie from becoming a threat to his ambition.

Author Diana Gabaldon was scientist before novelist. She has a Ph.D in ecology, a Masters in marine biology, and a BA in zoology. Her knowledge informs Claire's new old world as she struggles to apply 20th century knowledge of health care using the healing sources available in 1743. Caitriona (Irish and Gaelic for Catherine/Catrina) Balfe is a fresh and unusually lovely leading lady. An Irish model turned actress, her breakout role is Claire, as Jamie will surely be Sam Heughan's. He is the more pitch-perfect actor, however, whether in moments of strength or vulnerability, whereas Balfe needed better direction (or intuition) regarding the aforementioned damsel-in-distressing. The scared looks are false, undercutting her otherwise natural and intelligent revelation of Claire. (Oh, well, not to expect too much of a bodice-ripper.) Balfe actually is burdened with the most work -- almost every scene is on her shoulders, plus narration. I'll forgive some eye-rolling and helpless cries for now and hope as the series matures, so does the work of the actress in sparing us cheesy moments that could be handled with stalwart restraint by so resourceful a heroine as Claire.

The cast as a whole bristles with charisma and authenticity. Gary Lewis' Laird Colum MacKenzie (above) lives on borrowed time in pain, Claire tells us. She recognizes the degenerative bone and connective tissue disease that ended the life of (not yet born in 1743) Toulouse Lautrec at 38. The entertaining retinue of loutish MacKenzie men are a mixed bag of Seven Dwarfs, Braveheart's men and Shakespeare's gravediggers. A shout out to Stephen Walters for obnoxious Angus; Grant O'Rourke (far left) as Rupert; and Duncan LaCroix (second from left) as Murtagh -- the wise explainer-of-things who has Jamie's back. Also note Bill Paterson as Ned Gowan, the clan's educated, meticulous solicitor.

Castle Leoch's housekeeper and cook, Mrs. Fitzgibbons (shown below) is brought to life by Annette Badland -- and never was a mistress below stairs so irresistible.

Enigmatic healer, Giellis, (whose story develops later) is played by fetching Dutch actress, Lotte Verbeek, shown below, left. The lovely score by Bear McCreary (shown surrounded by his instruments in the photo at bottom), whose award-winning work Moore has used many times, simply takes you there. I liked his intermittent insertion of soft strains of forties era tune to remind viewer that Claire is intent on leaving, Mrs. Fitz's "getting-things-done" riff, and the elegant switch from Highlander to Baroque music while Claire is dining with an aristocratic English General and his entourage.

One last topic, and it's about sex. Aside from too many attempted rapes and bodice rippings, Outlander has certainly less of the gratuitous flesh and limb-flailing fashionable in most cable series. For the sex-in-chief, we are graced with an awkward first time sexual coupling that gradually matures during one evening of dining and talking from "jackhammer sex" (Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw's phrase) into moments of genuine lovemaking. Although the tender moments are brief, the episode is unusually eloquent and fresh because it speaks truth. The actors and director(s) have done something rare -- created a portrayal of unfolding love expressed physically. I can't speak for male viewers, but if this episode starts a trend, film makers will captivate women who see little of themselves expressed in sex on screen.

Also Tobias Menzies is memorable for his vivid narration and flashback portrayal of Black Jack at his most vile, so foul that one of his own dragoons passes out as it unfolds. It is not incorrect to juxtapose these scenes -- torture has deeply sexual meaning for Jack. (More and worse of that to come in future episodes.) In the end, reader/viewer, if you don't refuse to watch romance bodice-rippers on principle, you may find this one of the more compelling of the genre, with likely much more story to unfold as Gabaldon's many novels about these characters are filmed. 

No comments: