[22 July 2008]
It is the great fortune of Anglo Saxon Attitudes (a 1992 miniseries) that its title character, Gerald Middleton, is played by Richard Johnson. Johnson, a veteran of many British television series is an actor capable of such subtle emotional nuance that he imbues the diffident, inscrutable professor he plays with genuine warmth and humor.
Based on Angus Wilson’s 1956 novel of the same name, this miniseries is an intriguing look at one man’s search into his past. At its center the film is a kind of academic whodunit involving a questionable phallic symbol found in a 7th-century Anglo-Saxon tomb. The film begins in the 1920s when a then young Gerald and several colleagues are present for the discovery during a dig.
As the movie flashes forward we find the elder Gerald, now an accomplished historian and 60-years-old, questioning the validity of the artifact. As in so many mysteries, the artifact is bound up with a number of personal complications in Gerald’s life, most importantly, a love affair he cannot quite forget.
That love affair, the big love of his life that he cannot come to terms with, was with Dollie (a wonderful Tara Fitzgerald), the then fiancée of his best friend Gilbert (who just happened to be the son of the man who found the artifact, and not surprisingly the one who may have faked the whole thing). Gilbert, played by a young, pre-James Bond Daniel Craig, is everything Gerald is not: rakish, impulsive, and vulgar. He seems at first much better matched to the brash, sexy Dollie, and when Gilbert dies in WWI Dollie continues her affair with Gerald but refuses to marry him.
Even when Gerald marries a seemingly sweet Nordic girl, Inge, he continues his affair with Dollie causing obvious discord in his home life. Gerald’s affair, and the time it took him away from his family, is a source of bitterness from his adult children and his wife throughout his life.
When we find Gerald in the present day he is living a solitary bachelor’s life, now estranged, though not completely untangled from his wife who lives in the country and their four adult children, each with their own brand of neuroses. In many ways Gerald is the typical stiff-upper lipped English academic, living in his London townhouse with chauffer and maid who bring him food and drink whenever he requires it, yet he remains trapped in the past. Still, Gerald rarely shows emotion, even as he reminisces about Dollie and the bitterness over a love gone sour.
The film has an acid-tongued humor, playing towards a number of stuffy British stereotypes, most often directed towards Gerald’s family. It is hard to blame Gerald for being estranged from his family when one sees what petulant, selfish snobs all of them seem to be. His wife, played by the deliciously ridiculous Elizabeth Spriggs (Mrs. Jennings in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility) is shrill and hysterical most of the time—it is hard to imagine anyone being able to stand being in the same room with her.
Still, there are times when all of satirical ribbing seems a bit harsh. All of the important female characters seem “ruined” by Gerald’s inattention towards them. His wife Inge, is naive and idiotic, duped by anyone who pays her a compliment and unwilling to admit to any mistakes, while Dollie, in her years as Gerald’s mistress becomes a severe alcoholic.
Gerald could come across as something of a selfish bastard himself if it wasn’t for the remarkable Richard Johnson. The regret is palpable as Gerald tries to make sense of the validity of the artifact—thus calling into question decades of academic research—but perhaps more importantly, how he screwed up his own life so much. As he says to his daughter in their one tender moment together “I’ve spent half my life trying to avoid unpleasant truths. I can’t bear it any longer.”
Andrew Davies who wrote Anglo Saxon Attitudes (and the smashing 1995 miniseries version of Pride and Prejudice) has a knack for literary adaptations and this film, despite a somewhat moody tone and a slow start in the beginning, is mostly a pure joy to watch. The seemingly banal mystery of the artifact becomes deeper and more intriguing as it is tied up in all of its personal implications and it is a treat to see so many superb actors gleefully along for the ride, including a teenage Kate Winslet in one of her first professional roles.
In the end Gerald is caught up with his own self-doubts, personal and professional, caused by his inability to separate the true facts of his life from the knot of deception he has created for himself, but it is delightful to watch him untangle it.