Sunday, August 2, 2015

Sunday Review: The Crimson Field (TV serial)

Acting commendations

By Morris Dean

I dutifully watched UNC TV's June 21 – July 26 airing of The Crimson Field, BBC One's 2014 6-part drama about the lives of medics and patients at a World War I field hospital in France. More impressive to me than any of its story lines about the well-worked Great War are the commanding performances of three of the show's actors playing nurses. Creating memorable characters are: Oona Chaplin as Kitty Trevelyan, Alice St. Clair as Flora Marshall, and Kerry Fox as Sister Margaret Quayle.
    Kitty and Flora are two of three young VAD's (Voluntary Aid Detachments), enlisted to provide nursing assistance to British combatants.
VADs Rosalie [played by Marianne Oldham], Kitty, & Flora
    Experienced nurse Sister Margaret has recently become incensed to have been passed over as Matron of the nursing corps.

Oona Chaplin is the daughter of Geraldine Chaplin (the daughter of Charlie Chaplin and his fourth wife, Oona O'Neill, the daughter of American playright Eugene O'Neill). Her uncommonly understated performance, coming from someone so young, evidences her acting lineage. Her character, Kitty, became a nurse to escape an intolerable situation back in England, where she has been forbidden to see her daughter.
    Kitty's watchword, however, might be "reserve"; her colleagues are hard-pressed to learn much about her. The reserve is combined with a fierce courage to do the right thing and to protect her own space, not only from Matron Grace Carter [Hermione Norris] but also from the avid interest of a couple of the doctors.

Capt. Thomas Gillan [Richard Rankin] &
Capt. Miles Hesketh-Thorne [Alex Wyndham]

[Lady] Alice St. Clair [the eldest daughter of the 7th Earl of Rosslyn] played Kate Middleton in William & Catherine: A Royal Romance (2011). Ms. St. Clair is a vivacious, magnetic actress, so I don't think she had to be officially "honorific" in British society to win the role as the Duchess of Cambridge, but it can't have hurt.
    Her character, Flora, isn't even twenty; she has lied to get the nursing assignment. Flora's chatter is upbeat and pleasant. She is eager, energetic, brave, repeatedly taking on assignments she isn't initially up to, but which she eventually masters through perseverance and pluck. She's adorable.
    And she gains our greater sympathy when, after organizing a party for staff and patients and recruiting Kitty and the third VAD (Rosalie, who can't bear to see a man naked) by assuring them that she will perform with them, she confesses that she suffers from severe stage fright. This situation leads to a sweet moment of the series when, with the party in progress, Flora is late and Kitty & Rosalie must begin their number. Kitty has never sung before, so Rosalie, who was only going to play the piano, sings along with her. When Flora arrives from the emergency she had been called to, the sight of them valiantly performing enables her to overcome her stage fright and join them. This bonding of the three VADs comes after numerous instances of their dislike, distrust, and uncooperation with each other. It's a beautiful, dramatic moment.

New Zealander Kerry Fox has won numerous awards for her acting, including the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival for her role as Claire in Intimacy (2001), opposite Mark Rylance, of recent fame as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall. According to her biographical note in Wikipedia, in Intimacy she performed real, rather than simulated, fellatio.
    Of all the characters in The Crimson Field, I think Sister Margaret is the most intriguing of them all. Sister Margaret is a supremely gifted master of deceit. She gives the appearance of kindness and benevolence – "butter wouldn't melt in her mouth" could have been coined for her. But she does things like forbidding Flora to distribute a box of cookies she has brought for the wounded and telling Flora later that she has distributed them for her when, in fact, she has eaten them herself. Only Matron Carter, among all the staff, seems to know Sister Margaret's true character, but even she can't keep her in line. Sister Margaret's duel with Carter is one of The Crimson Field's strongest story lines.
    Sister Margaret reminded me of Nurse Ratched in the film One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Nurse Ratched, too, wanted to appear benevolent, but R.P. McMurphy [Jack Nicholson] saw through her. I think that McMurphy would have found Kerry Fox's Nurse Ratched more convincing than Louise Fletcher's.

Major Ballard and Matron Carter
I must give special mention to one other actor, Peter Sullivan for his gripping performance as one-eyed Major Jocelyn Ballard, in Episode 5. The Major is seriously enough wounded to be detained from his ardent desire to return as soon as possible to his men, a troop of Indian Sepoys.
    His urgency is fueled in part – it becomes evident only toward the end of the episode – by the fact that he is going blind in his remaining eye, a terrible cross for anyone to bear, but especially someone known as the best shot in the regiment.
    The ferocity of Sullivan's performance is sterling; the role of Major Ballard calls for both a sort of feminine intuition vis-a-vis Matron Carter – about whom he picks up things that even her friend, the hospital's director Lt. Colonel Brett*, has remained unaware of – and a rough, commanding masculinity relative to other men.
* Lt. Colonel Bress is played by English actor Kevin Doyle, perhaps most widely known for his role as Joseph Molesley, who serves both up- and downstairs as butler, valet, and footman in Downton Abbey.

Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean

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