Overlooked Gems: He Knew He Was Right (2004)
I have a collection of friends who admit to have a genuine love of masterpiece theater films and miniseries – Upstairs Downstairs (love it), Downton Abbey (love it), Little Dorrit (love it), Pride and Prejudice (I’ve owned three copies). But even among devotees, a two part series flies under the radar for reasons I don’t know. I even missed the original airing and only caught up when the film happily made its online presence known on Netflix. And I’m so glad I did because there are few I’ve found as enjoyable and re-watchable as He Knew He Was Right, based on the Anthony Trollope novel.
It’s strange that this film series has remained overlooked, considering how popular and well-received the miniseries based on Trollope’s The Way We Live Now was received three years earlier. Both films were produced by Nigel Stafford-Clark and written by the master of the literary adaptation, Andrew Davies. But while The Way We Live Now is a brilliantly made series, I can say I enjoyed He Knew He Was Right even more. The reason, quite simply, is how modern the film feels, from language to characters, without its modernity feeling forced. Trollope’s literature was, like Dickens, interested in the plight of the lower-class, but also had a desire to promote equality in society, including between the genders and within marriage. And in He Knew He Was Right, gender politics and a call to equalize marriage is at the forefront of the book and miniseries, the reason the story could have easily been set to the Hollywood golden age, within the 70s women’s movement, or even today.
He Knew He Was Right is set in the same time period that it was written, yet it adds modern cinematic touches which makes it move and make it overtly comic. Davies chooses to utilize a narrative device known as breaking the fourth wall, in true Zak Morris style. And the film doesn’t have just one character speak to the audience but almost every lead is given their opportunity. It’s jarring, and I know some even find it off putting, but after the first break, I find a charm and believe it was a necessary choice. The biggest problem people have with the BBC costume drama is that it’s pretentious, which is especially harmful when adapting popular fiction of the time. By utilizing this comic style so early in the film, Davies makes it clear that the film is not a costume drama but romantic comedy set in the past. And with that in mind, the charms of the film and lightness of the story come through immediately.
He Knew He Was Right revolves around the intertwining love stories of young people from various social standings in the mid-late 1800s. The wealthiest of the men, Louis Trevelyan (Oliver Dimsdale) marries the daughter of an ambassador Emily (Laura Fraser of Breaking Bad). Raised in the “tropics” Emily brings home to London her sister Nora (Christina Cole) who is instantly attracted to Trevelyan’s working class best friend, liberal muckraker Hugh (Stephen Campbell Moore). Hugh was raised by his wealthy aunt (Anna Massey) who has disowned him but agrees to care for his sister Dorothy (Caroline Martin). Dorothy is the object of affection of two men, wealthy but romantic Brooke Burgess (Stoker’s Matthew Goode) and slithery Rev. Gibson (Dr. Who’s David Tennant), who is the obsession of the French sisters Camilla and Arabella (Claudie Blakley and Fennella Woolgar). Throw into the mix a Col. Osborne (played as a cad by Bill Nighy) who is the Godfather of Emily and who pays too much personal attention to her for the comfort of Louis, who fears indiscretions and falls into a jealous obsession.
Davies, a master of playing with and embracing cinematic genre, divides and conquers He Knew He Was Right, assigning Hollywood conventions to each. Emily and Louis’s is the melodramatic women’s picture. The story of the Stanbury siblings, Hugh and Dorothy, and their love of upper-class Nora and Brooke, are like classic romantic comedies we could see in films today. And spineless Rev. Gibson’s buffoonish romantic misadventures are its own screwball comedy, with Blakley and Woolgar channeling the spirits of Carol Lombard and Gail Patrick. And by mixing these conventions, the filmmakers add to the film’s charms, as we quickly go from romance to comedy to tragedy. And it is to everyone’s credit that each story is enjoyable on its own (as if they could be their own feature), but works so well when mixed together to add a quick pace and light and breezy quality so often mixing in costume dramas.
So if He Knew He Was Right is this contemporary in style, tone and themes, why not change its setting? Because what can be a pedestrian but enjoyable story of romance, setting a film like this in the past adds a style and look which keeps interests, but it always gives audiences an opportunity to divorce themselves from the goings on so it is easier to see the story’s continuing universal themes, which can be hard to do when a film is set in the present day and seems to ultimately be slight. For example, watching the Stanbury’s courtship, it’s easy to identify with their family’s disapproval of their loves, even if we no-longer feel as tied to the restrictions of class. And while Rev. Gibson’s concerns of a dowry is no longer part of marriage, I know more than a few men who will admit (with embarrassment) to keeping women “on the sidelines” and sisters and girlfriends who will admit that in less than their best moment, to flirting and pursuing the same man. And who can’t admit to being affected or afflicted by romantic jealousy, often with embarrassing and sad results. But by keeping a film dealing with such general issues set in another time, the movie is a step removed so audiences can invest in the pleasure of observing “otherness” and happily absorb the deeper themes and lessons the film does offer.
He Knew He Was Right is available on Netflix, Hulu Plus and in a DVD 2 disc set from Amazon.