Pete's Blog

Do you wanna "Dance"?

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One of my favorite novels is Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time," a twelve-novel series organized into four volumes called "Spring," "Summer," "Fall," and "Winter." I read it at a gulp one February in Aspen, Colorado when I had the flu and have revisited many times since. Perhaps ten years ago I read the annoucement, with some fanfare, that the whole thing was to be made into one of those British television mini-series we colonials love so much. Glossy magazines were quite breathless. Then nothing. This week I found it on four DVDs at my local video store. Pretty much anyone who has read the "Dance" novels could predict the complete unadaptability of the story to film. The story covers roughly fifty years, from the '20s to the '70s, so different actors must play the same character at different periods, always disconcerting. And the sheer scale of the story requires that certain low- and even mid-level characters must be eliminated. Among these are such favorites of mine as Norah Tolland and Lt. Bithell. The film's greatest shortcoming, though, could not have been avoided. "A Dance to the Music of Time" does not adapt to the screen because to do so is to eliminate the author's voice and replace it with dialogue. Powell's dialogue is wonderful, but there isn't much of it in the "Dance" novels. The story is carried by, and gets its emotional force from, the interior voice of its narrator Nick Jenkins, who in the course of events is something of a cipher, but whose observations and, more important, style of expression present the society he describes in the clearest and fullest possible way. Jenkins is a writer, critic, and amateur art-historian and his view of the increasingly frenzied goings-on among his friends in the bohemian world, the fringes of Left politics, and the lower rungs of British titled aristocracy is informed by a telling combination of empathy and distance. It is virtually impossible to recreate, except by the hoary device of putting speeches intended to be the narrator's meditations into the mouths of various characters as expository dialogue, a device whose usefulness is, to put it charitably, still under debate. There are some charms to the production beyond a fan's carping over details of verisimilitude, which anyone could see is one of my favorite parlour-games. For one thing there are the clothes and set-decorations, always one of the great charms of British TV epics. Another is the occasional casting coup. Certainly none of the production's many parts is utterly miscast, but some choices are positively inspired, such as Edward Fox as Uncle Giles or playwright and "Beyond the Fringe" alumnus Alan Bennett as Sillery. Best of all is Miranda Richardson as the deadly Pamela Flitton Widmerpool. Dripping poison from every pore and yet strangely vulnerable amid the wreckage she makes of others' lives, Richardson's Pamela is a performance to place beside any in the pantheon of British costume drama. A warning to parents: "A Dance to the Music of Time" contains a fair amount of female nudity.

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