Salute Your Shorts: The Way We Live Now
Since the late '90s, one of the main ways for a young filmmaker to get noticed and, with any luck, make his or her way into feature films, was to direct music videos and commercials. This route has allowed directors to get paid while gaining experience, with the added benefit of no small amount of creative input for works being made. That it’s worked out that way is fortunate, but all things considered, sort of random. There’s also another way that directors can transition smoothly from smaller projects to larger, which is the move from television to film. For whatever reason, though, it’s not particularly common, especially these days. But David Yates, the director of the final four Harry Potter movies, came through this alternate path, working his way through the television ranks until being tapped for the blockbuster series with only a single feature under his belt (one which never even made it to America).
Despite his relative anonymity, Yates has had a rather lengthy career, working primarily as a director for British television since 1991. While this was primarily a matter of Yates taking over episodes of already ongoing series, his breakthrough came with a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel, The Way We Live Now. Admittedly the actual episodes aren’t short, per se, but British miniseries aren't frankly the kind of things that get a lot of coverage. As far as motion-picture genres that go neglected by everyone other than a devoted cult audience, they’re pretty high up on the list.
The reason for this is that an awful lot of British miniseries are period dramas and to a lot of people (your correspondent, for instance), period dramas tend to be almost profoundly boring experiences. Yates’ later mini-series, State of Play (which the movie was loosely [i.e. poorly] adapted from), is one of those that bucks that claim by being contemporary, fast-paced and compulsively hard to break away from. The Way We Live Now is a period drama in the fullest sense of the term, chock full of silly wigs, even sillier accents and near-impossibly silly facial hair. Perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who excelled at these things was chosen to take over for an entire half of the Potter franchise.
Here's a theory, albeit not a very good one, about period-drama plots... First, you make up a bunch of character-types, like fop, virgin, whore, mother, butler, Jewish stereotype, etc. Then, you take all of these characters and decide, completely at random, who’s in love with who. Finally, you just let each of these play out within close proximity and soon you have generic intrigue about whether the noble will marry the rich woman he hates or the poor woman he loves. Insert some funny mustaches, and bam! Instant 1860s best-seller.
The Way We Live Now follows most of these tropes with its story, weaving in and out of more than 10 characters’ lives (how many more it’s hard to really say) in Victorian England. The inciting incident is August Melmotte (David Suchett) moving into town, which is a scandal both because he’s rich and because he’s Jewish. As he becomes the center of a 19th century ponzi scheme based on North American railroad investments, he also becomes a scandal because he’s, you know, a crook. Everyone wants a part of his big, continental wallet, and also to be married with someone of the opposite sex. It’s like being at Bernie Madoff’s mansion on Valentine’s Day, if Madoff decided he’d look good with mutton chops.
Yates can’t be faulted for his source material failing to rise above this writer's facile, overly reductive plot observations. Trollope and British super-screenwriter Andrew Davies, who is seemingly responsible for more period dramas than anyone else alive, are to blame for that. No, Yates’ job is to balance the many threads of the story and form them into one cohesive and interesting story, something he nearly manages to pull off.
The difficulty with something as long and complicated as The Way We Live Now is balancing the many storylines, never letting any of them drop from the audience’s concern since that may unravel the entire series. Davies’ screenplay frequently leaves major characters out for 30 minutes at a time, leaving it up to Yates and the cast to make each character unique and each situation compelling. Yates struggles against the rampant cliché of Trollope’s plots to add dramatic tension and remove the typical sense of inevitability. Yates’ adaptation isn’t 100% smooth, but moves surprisingly quickly for a five-hour series so that almost every scene feels surprisingly necessary for the film’s pieces to come together.
The other challenge for Yates is dropping into a very codified genre and trying to bring something new into it while still following all the rules and not making a noir or musical The Way We Live Now adaptation. His experience dipping into others’ TV shows here is illustrated, as he takes on the form aptly but without completely losing his individuality—something that must’ve been a selling point for the Potter franchise. Framing and lighting are superb, but not in a showy, MTV sort of way. Yates follows the classic-Hollywood rule of never calling attention to the filmmaking, but finds ways to be expressive with it nonetheless. Suchet is shot from below and with wider lenses, distorting his figure to emphasize his corruption while Cillian Murphy is given eye-height framing and classical three-point lighting. These are never taken to the extremes, but it’s a deft touch and gives the series a gradient of subtlety.
Unfortunately, the worst of the series’ traits also creeps its way into Yates’ Potter movies, which is to say bad acting. For someone who’s almost exclusively a screen director, it’s surprising how stagey he directs characters. Their emotions are ramped up, where the stern characters are always 100% stern, the happy ones nearly manic and Suchet’s Melmotte is beyond-Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining over the top angry/crazy. Potter and his friends also strike these one-note chords with Yates, which is particularly pronounced given the contrast offered by its A-list ringers playing the faculty.
The Way We Live Now doesn’t appeal to the same audience as Harry Potter, and so likely only a few obsessives will seek out Yates’ lesser-known series. But it does offer some hints of his later work, even if it’s only filmmaking that’s echoed rather than any sort of thematic unity.