tue 10/12/2019

Arena: Everything is Connected - George Eliot's Life, BBC Four review - innovative film brings the Victorian novelist into the present | reviews, news & interviews

Arena: Everything is Connected - George Eliot's Life, BBC Four review - innovative film brings the Victorian novelist into the present

Arena: Everything is Connected - George Eliot's Life, BBC Four review - innovative film brings the Victorian novelist into the present

Artist Gillian Wearing captures Eliot’s life and legacy through the voices of the common man (and woman)

Gillian Wearing, artist turned documentarist

Gillian Wearing’s Arena documentary Everything is Connected (BBC Four) is a quietly innovative biography of an author whose works still resonate with their readers and the country within which she wrote. Wearing and George Eliot are a sympathetic match, both playing with a multiplicity of voices, delighting in the layman’s opinion as well as that of the expert. We see Eliot’s intellectuals, but also the modern version of her farmers, priests, and wayward sons. Wearing puts her words in their mouths, allowing them at times to slip into one another, blurring the boundaries between the speakers, their subjects, and their surroundings.

The programme begins almost idiosyncratically, a low budget series of short clips that immediately establish the accessibility and democracy of the film. The presence of two professional actors, Jason Isaacs and Sheila Atim (pictured below), does little to detract from this, placing them apart from the vox pop but in informal settings. They appear in woods, against odd walls, and in a recording studio, playing against one another through Eliot’s letters and books. This particular scene is one of the most pleasing in the film, using an author’s words to both supply and answer the anger of her detractors.

Perhaps the most enjoyable part of this documentary is seeing people whose lives are touched, informed, or are echoed by Eliot’s writing. The camera moves between her various houses, showing how they have been repurposed, and how her life has been interpreted by the house’s new occupants. One woman in the Nuneaton Premier Inn senses ghosts. In a later home, now the Coventry Bangladesh Centre, a teacher explains how they want to remain faithful to Eliot’s desire that all people should receive an education. The author, Sathnam Sanghera, talks about his departure from the Sikh faith, and an anonymous woman describes her love for an older man, all in the context of Eliot’s life. There is bathos in these juxtapositions, but also the humanity that is so present in Eliot’s own writing.

The lack of staging extends to the lack of reenactments, so often inserted into historical biographies to add a bit of spice and contextualisation, so often falling artificially flat. Her letters and books supply historical context, but they are stripped of the signifiers of her time so that they feel almost startlingly modern. It can seem at points that there are incongruities, or jarring moments of dislocation.

For example, Adrian Utley’s electronic soundtrack throbs alarmingly, and at odd times. The video clips that Wearing uses are often of motorways or street corners, ugly panoramas of cities, or shopping centres next to churches. The people who inhabit them are the citizens of these midlands towns, speaking about what they see in Eliot. Through this documentary’s voices, in a film largely stripped of the usual twee surroundings of picturesque country houses and grassy churchyards, the viewer can see Eliot as a real person, with all the anxieties and difficulties of her readers, both contemporary and modern.

The viewer can see Eliot as a real person, with all the anxieties and difficulties of her readers, both contemporary and modern

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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Comments

The best part was the comment that money mattered to George Eliot - a point missed by many adaptors of her work for theatre or cinema. Otherwise it was thin, trite and disappointing and the background music exasperating. Methodist hymns would have been better!

Brilliant work by Gillian Wearing, presented in an really interesting way. Adrian Utley’s music and the capture of the dialogue by Tim Barker, complimented it all wonderfully. No need for Methodist hymns in my opinion.

I found this a self-indulgent film, probably to be expected from an artist rather than a literary critic or historian. It was however good to hear the voices of ordinary people rather than the usual domination of the Eliot afficionardos, and also to see the place of Coventry in Eliot's development given appropriate prominence. I found the mass arm-kissing hilarious..

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