Sunday, February 7, 2016

Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman: Foyle's War -- our war from across the pond

You may have watched some of this British series (2002-2015) on PBS filled with absorbing stories and British acting elite. But a serial watch on Netflix of all 28 feature-length episodes is better. Taken as a whole it feels like 3-D immersion into World War II years (later of the post-war and early Cold War) in bucolic Hastings by the sea, while combat rages in Europe.

Every chapter of FOYLE's WAR has an intriguing mystery, several layered story-lines, believable conversation, and memorable imagery. At end you've grown completely fond of the exacting, self-effacing Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle (accomplished actor Michael Kitchen), his plucky, quirky, entrepreneurial assistant Sam (Samantha) Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), and their mate, Sergeant Paul Milner, home from defeat at Trondheim missing half a leg, to help Foyle solve crimes (Anthony Howell).

Foyle has an RAF pilot son, Andrew, played by charming Julian Ovenden, below, left (Lady Mary Crawley's suitor, Charles Blake, in Downton Abbey). Ovenden left the scene before Andrew and Sam had progressed beyond 'will they, won't they', but several RAF-related stories unfold first. In one, a pilot who loves Andrew conceals his homosexuality and pays with his life; in another, an airforce officer (Roger Allam) resorts to crime to cover up sexual abuse of a young subordinate. But Andrew doesn't leave the scene before we share his flying experiences testing radar technology and experiencing "battle fatigue."

Our affection for the main characters is maintained by side-trips into their private lives and vicarious participation with Foyle in the moral choices he must make in each case -- he is the foil of wrong-doing, the moral center, our better selves. There's satisfaction also in the body of work as a whole -- the circumstances of war are so deeply, accurately embedded in the story lines that one absorbs history by osmosis, aided by many guest stars such as below (l to r) a youthful Rosamund Pike, David Tennant, and Emily Blunt from early episodes.

The stories begin in 1940 with pro-fascist, anti-Semitic views rife in the British upper classes and general hostility brewing as refugees pour into England to escape the Nazi's. The authorities are detaining enemy aliens and the public is griping about foreigners. In tracking down the killer of 'the German Woman', Foyle discovers that his superior (Edward Fox) had previously pulled strings enabling his judge colleague's German wife to avoid internment as an enemy alien. Meanwhile, a renown Jewish musician is locked up for shamefully trivial reasons.

Another episode is led by Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) as Guy Spencer, self-styled British patriot, who whips public opinion and schmoozes pro-Nazi political elites. Spencer is relishing his glorious future under the Nazi's; Foyle needs to take him down without violating his right to free speech -- fortunately there's treason.

And onward, episode by episode, to the abuse of conscientious objectors (and anyone with a whif of socialist leanings), food shortages and other privations. Land girls tend the fields and kids collect trash (a chop bone yields enough glycerine to make cordite for two cartridges). Random bombs fall on Hastings and secret installations are multiplying. One hides the building of coffins; another conceals anthrax experiments. A Hastings murder leads Foyle to the secret SOE -- Special Operations Executive, MI5's branch of 'secret ops and dirty tricks' and (below) agent Hilda Pierce (Ellie Haddington), a spinster of complexity.

We meet English tycoon, Sir Reginald Walker, doing illegal business with the Germans. Sir Reginald's son Simon has built himself a Nazi shrine in the basement of the family estate where he meditates on German greatness. Below, Laurence Fox (nephew of Edward Fox, episode 1) has a juicier part in Simon than ever he did as the sidekick of Inspector Lewis.

After Pearl Harbor, American troop arrivals upset Hastings. A landowner has his acreage paved over for an American air base. The Yanks are paid more and they eat more. Racism against black soldiers creates incidents and Yanks impregnate local girls. One episode features Charlotte Riley as a young mother dying to emigrate to America with her baby's black father and maliciously blocked by red tape and violence.

At last, VE day, but not all flags and balloons; folks are exhausted, poor, and lives have to be rebooted. Now come the post-war stories. One is the repatriation of prisoners of war, except that our wartime ally Stalin has revenge in mind. Returning Russian POW's who had fought with the Germans are massacred fresh off the Ship Almanzora in Odessa -- a famously open secret. Foyle, assigned to recover a Russian escapee, finds that the Russians do not want to leave. And he doesn't want to see them murdered off the boat in Russia either.

Special mention goes to Andrew Scott (below, who also plays Moriarty in Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock), for his moving portrayal of a soldier who as a boy saw his aristocrat father murder his mother. Aiming to des-troy his father's reputation, he faces hanging, refusing to defend himself against false charges. (Hints are that Foyle himself may be his real father.)

The last season finds Foyle induced into working for MI5 in London where the mood and color of espionage is gray. I agree with creator Anthony Horowitz who says this may be some of his best work especially 'Elise', the very powerful final episode, in which MI5 contributed to the deaths of many agents dropped into France. The testing of the atomic bomb in New Mexico is recreated and Cold War engaged, and Sam gets a life of her own. Now the question is will prolific mystery maker Anthony Horowitz and his endearing policeman Christopher Foyle be coaxed back for more? Will Foyle's War ever be recognized here for the exceptional work it is?

Anthony Horowitz (shown above, right, with Prince Charles) is also the author/adapter of Agatha Christie's Poirot in the 1990's and early Midsomer Murders; he was commissioned by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle to pen Sherlock Holmes novels (The House of Silk and Moriarty) and to add to the Ian Fleming list of Bond novels with Trigger Mortis. He has many screenplays to his credit and has made himself a national treasure with all, as is now Michael Kitchen's Christopher Foyle, himself.

Click HERE for Anthony Horowitz's excellent discussion of the making of the last series, which I think can be taken to mean that he's got more Foyle in him before he quits.

The above post is written by TrustMovies' 
monthly correspondent, Lee Liberman

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