I’ve been too busy to blog for the last few weeks due to various commitments and hassles – sorry! However, I have still found time to watch a few costume dramas and am going to try to write a few thoughts on those I’ve seen.
One of the series I have been watching is the new BBC drama Desperate Romantics, which focuses on the lives of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. So it seemed like a good time to watch The Impressionists, another BBC series about another brotherhood of artists, starring Julian Glover and Richard Armitage as the older and younger Claude Monet, which I somehow managed to miss a few years ago.
There are a lot of similarities in theme between the two series, since both focus on small, close-knit groups of young painters who challenged and in the end triumphed over the artistic establishment. However, as dramas, they are very different to watch. The Impressionists is directed by Tim Dunn who has also made art and history documentaries, and, as far as I could tell, sticks close to the facts of the artists’ lives, with an announcement at the start of each episode telling viewers: “This is a true story.” The BBC press pack says that it is based on “archive letters, records and interviews from the time.” By contrast, Desperate Romantics takes wild liberties with what really happened, and has an announcement at the start of each episode stressing that it is fiction inspired by fact. Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about Desperate Romantics in this posting since I’m still trying to work out whether I loved or hated it – a full review will hopefully follow soon when I’ve sorted out my thoughts.
I’ve always liked the Impressionists, especially Monet and Renoir, and so was interested to find out more about their lives and how some of their masterpieces were created. The drama, written by Sarah Woods and Colin Swash, unfolds in a series of flashbacks in three hour-long episodes. As the story starts, an art critic (Sebastian Armesto, so good as Edmund Sparkler in the recent BBC Little Dorrit) visits the elderly Monet. The white-bearded artist is still creating magnificent paintings in his garden at Giverny – one of the beautiful real-life locations in Provence and Normandy which are an important part of this series. The journalist asks the Monet about the earlier days of his artistic career. As he tells his story, his relationships with the other artists unfold.
I think both Armitage and Glover give fine performances, with Monet’s enduring passion for art coming across. At times there are slightly awkward jumps between the series’ past and present, and it is also hard to believe the two actors could possibly be the same person, because they look and sound so different. Still, this isn’t really a major problem, and it’s definitely much better than swathing Armitage in prosthetic make-up to make him look old in the later scenes! I was also relieved that none of the actors put on French accents, which always tends to make films seem a bit like the TV sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo.
James Lance plays Bazille, the little-known artist who gave the movement much of its initial impetus but died young, with Charlie Condou as the womanising Renoir. I was especially impressed by Aden Gillett, who played Robin Hood in Ivanhoe (1997). He is almost unrecognisable in a very different role here as Degas, who has a chilling manner and never really lets anybody see what he is feeling – and who seems to regard his models as things rather than as people. I also liked Andrew Havill as Manet, who is at the centre of the group until he falls desperately ill with syphilis – the series doesn’t flinch from showing the horrible reality of this illness, but manages to do so without moralising.
Much of the final episode is focused on Cezanne (Will Keen), looking at how his artistic methods followed on from those of the others and yet also broke with them – and also looking at his troubled relationship with his father.
However, the artist at the forefront of the drama all the way through is Monet, as the film traces his career and his relationships with wife Camille (Isobel Pravda) and the woman who, after her death, became his great love, Alice Hoschedé (Amanda Root, best-known for Persuasion (1995)). Both actresses have some poignant moments, and the scenes with Camille do give a feeling of how hard it was for an artist’s wife constantly to be uprooted and kept on the move, with young children, through the struggles of their early years.
The series gives a feeling of how these artists supported one another over the years and of the tensions between them. There are chatty scenes in pubs, but the real glory of the series is all the scenes outside in the French countryside. The cinematography is often breathtaking, giving the landscapes a flavour of the Impressionist paintings which are lovingly shown and given a lot of screen time. Watching this series made me want to see more of the Impressionists’ work, so I’ll be hoping to catch one or two exhibitions.
Almost all the screengrabs I’ve used in this posting are from the Richard Armitage Central Gallery, so many thanks to them. (An exception is the photo at the start, which I found on a Russian website.)