Saturday, December 03, 2005

Globe and Mail Camomile Lawn review

A touchstone for memories of youth
This provocative five-hour drama chronicles the deliciously tangled lives of a group of friends and relatives who spend a summer together on the eve of the Second World War

John Haslett Cuff
14 June 1993
The Globe and Mail
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

There are many pleasures to be found in watching the sexy and beautifully executed British mini-series The Camomile Lawn, which begins on CBC-TV tonight and continues for the next four weeks. Among its more provocative aspects is a sometimes shocking moral complexity that touches on child sexual abuse and promiscuity. There are also assorted shots of full- frontal nudity and some occasionally explicit language.

But both nudity and frankly adult language are used sparingly and with appropriately dramatic effect and, though titillating, they hardly account for the mini-series' overall appeal. Much more to the point, the series' unfailing intelligence and morally ambiguous revelations of character are relatively rare in the black-and-white simplicity of most North American television drama.

Based on the novel by Mary Wesley and adapted for television by one of the finest screenwriters in the world, Ken Taylor (The Jewel in the Crown) , the disingenuously named five-hour drama chronicles the deliciously tangled lives of a group of young cousins, aunts, uncles and friends whose last summer together in Cornwall on the eve of the Second World War becomes the touchstone for their shared memories of youth and departed innocence.

The specially planted herb lawn, notable for its strong scent and medicinal properties, is a striking symbol for those moments in their lives which they relive as they gather 40 years later for the funeral of Max Erstweiler. An "outsider," Max was an Austrian refugee violinist who, along with his indulgent wife Monica, brought music (literally and figuratively) into the otherwise rather typically stiff, bourgeois British lives of these characters. His romantic antics and the moral anarchy of war freed all of them to enjoy fuller lives than they might otherwise have done.

Although the war forms both a backdrop and a vivid context for the behaviour of the various characters, this is by no means an obviously romantic or sentimental excursion into the past. There are no theatrical heroics and tragedies underlined or exploited for cheap effect. Instead there is a gay, cynical tone that is at once charming and distancing both for the viewers and the characters themselves.

Sex is a practical rather than a moral issue; love and passion are there in abundance but without histrionics (or strings) because life and love are obviously all too precarious (almost too precarious to even speak of) in a country at war.

Of course, war is hell - at least on the battlefield. But for these assorted characters it is also exciting in a way that life will never be again. The characters - particularly the women - take full advantage of it to explore their sexuality in ways that might not even be considered under normally repressive (for women) conditions.

A large ensemble cast plays characters ranging in age from about 10 to 60 plus, and each one is powerfully affected and - in most cases - liberated by the events accompanying the outbreak of war. Felicity Kendal, Paul Eddington (Yes, Minister) and Claire Bloom will be familiar to many viewers but the younger members of the cast, who carry much of the action, will not. Jennifer Ehle is especially memorable as Calypso and Rebecca Hall is exceptional as the youngster Sophy who, more poignantly than anyone, represents the loss of innocence.

The series was directed by Peter Hall and exquisitely photographed by Ernie Vincze. It is a co-production between Channel 4 and the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

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