The BBC and Henry James—need I say more? What the renowned production company did for William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, et.al., so, too, for James, in this five-disc collection produced over a span of decades: The American (1998), The Portrait of a Lady (1968), The Spoils of Poynton (1970), The Wings of the Dove (1979), and The Golden Bowl (1970).
Henry James was perhaps second only to Shakespeare in his formidable ability to articulate complex character motivations and psychologies through the impeccable crafting of words. His novels, often about American expatriates like himself, in conflict with sharply demanding European customs, are brilliantly paced and executed, with massive chunks of prose and long mobius-like sentences mining the subtle movements and manipulations of human consciousness.
James wrote like a plumber plumbs, going at it with the precise determination of a craftsman proud and protective of his craft. His oft-anthologized essay The Art of Fiction, with its references to “standards” and the “solidity of specification”, reads almost like a manual; yet there is also a higher tone and order, religious in its terms, where writing is a “sacred office” with a “magnificent heritage” of “brotherhood” to which one must pledge a kind of vocational loyalty and conscientiousness. This sense of religious vocation is evident throughout the essay, with repeated words like “effort” and “obligation” stressing the job of literature, its actual as well as what might be called its mystical activity, although, for James, the two were ultimately indistinguishable.
Also, as with Shakespeare, the awesome power of James’ language, beautiful in itself, creates a dynamic world of conflicts that is entertaining, intriguing, and visual in a very palpable way. And yet, as easy as it is to visualize Macbeth stabbing Duncan, or the storm of The Tempest, James’ 19th century world of morals and manners is much less action-oriented. Conflicts are often shaped as much by characters’ psychic restraint as their physical actions—like the battle of wills, for example, between Isabel Archer and her husband Osmond in The Portrait of a Lady. The problem for filmmakers becomes how to visualize such essentially cerebral proceedings.
Although these productions do not quite, in James’ words, “catch…the very note and trick of life, its strange irregular rhythm”, in their quiet, fastidious adherence to the dramatic gist of the novels, they succeed. Though they may lack the author’s prodigious energy, they are able to suggest his world with great stylistic restraint and economy.
All but The American are largely soundstage productions, often playing more like filmed theater, which doesn’t always make for exciting viewing. Yet, although this version of The Portrait of a Lady is without the visual flourishes of Jane Campion’s 1996 film, starring Nicole Kidman, and there is none of the massive production values of the Merchant-Ivory The Wings of a Dove (1997) or The Golden Bowl (2000), there is a feeling of authenticity in the spare elegance of the art direction, sets and costumes which makes these productions fine visual experiences nonetheless.
A wide range of actors appear, giving controlled, understated performances that are perfectly suitable to James’ genteel world. Among them are Matthew Modine, as the titular American, confounded by the moral strictures of his European hosts; Richard Chamberlain, nearly twenty years before the notorious Thornbirds(1983), as a sickly cad; and former Avenger and Bond-girl Diana Rigg, as an aging, secretive prig.
Ultimately, The Henry James Collection is just what one expects or hopes for from the BBC: graceful, congenial productions, loyal to the novels’ essential structures, if only intermittently capturing their sophisticated fire. Some viewers might be cured of insomnia, but others will be moved and mesmerized.