Saturday, November 17, 2001

Emily of New Moon

Emily of New MoonOn the heels of the great success of the Anne of Green Gables movies, another dramatization of a Lucy Maud Montgomery novel has appeared. This time Emily of New Moon is brought to television by Salter Street Films and set once again on beautiful Prince Edward Island.

Over a span of four seasons, this 1998 Canadian series necessarily expands on the original text and takes great liberties with characters, stories and context. However, in contrast to the cheery and sentimental Anne films, this production sets a darker, more somber tone reflecting the lonelier and harsher life that would likely be found among the chilly coves of Nova Scotia in the Victorian era.

Ultimately, Emily of New Moon turns out to be a delightful example of excellence in children's programming. The difficult and sometimes dark dramas presented are born with dignity, courage and intelligence and, what's more, are often transformed by the indomitable optimism of one little girl: Emily Starr.

Here are some notes on certain memorable episodes from the first season:

The Disappointed House

If I had to pick a single favorite episode, it would have to be "The Disappointed House."

This episode seems to be representative of the whole series. It brings out the essence of everything that makes the series endearing and has all of the main characters appear expressing themselves and their relationship to each other in a clear and gentle way.

Emily and Ilse's stormy bond, Emily's determination to get to the bottom of a dark secret of the lover's quarrel, Perry's sense of isolation, his chivalry in protecting Emily and his bravery in rescuing her from danger, dusty Aunt Elizabeth's unreasonable sternness and her good-hearted acceptance of Perry, the good-natured rivalry of Perry and Teddy over Emily's affection, Dr. Burnley's self-doubting single fatherhood, Emily's early poetic expressions, Teddy's sensitivity to art, Aunt Laura's delicate psychology and loving concern, Cousin Jimmy's role as mild mediator, and the way the natural landscape of the island and its sometimes ill-fated structures become the backdrop for romance, intrigue, and adventure. And, finally, the way Emily perceives hidden reality with her second-sight and reconciles the problems of the world through her imagination.

Also, the scenery, direction, music and production style are emblematic of the basic appeal of the series.

But most of all, this episode highlights the way Emily will become the central healing figure in the quiet but spirited lives of her fitful and precious island community.

Paradise Lost

My first impression of the episode "Paradise Lost" is that it might be too scary for very young kids.

Emily's voracious curiosity is stimulated as her ears perk up at the hushed mention of the mysterious Lofty John. Even as her questions about him are rebuffed by Aunt Elizabeth, Emily's curiosity enlarges and she becomes determined to uncover the secrets behind this buried story of Murray relations in conflict over love, property and pride.

Not one to sit by while hidden history bubbles beneath surface events, Emily undertakes to enlist Ilse's partnership in this joint adventure

Lofty John"Lofty" John Sullivan (Maury Chaykin) is a somewhat deranged loner who is losing his eyesight and parts of his mind. When Emily and Ilse curiously venture into his quiet and desolate barnyard home, they are surprised by his appearance and attempt to flea. John prevents them from leaving and invites Emily to eat an apple which he later informs her is poisoned. Emily fears that she will die and runs off to lie in a nearby graveyard, presumably to save some time and trouble.

As it happens, this all turns out to be bluff. But what is quite real though is Lofty John's deplorable and deteriorating mental state as he irrationally retaliates against the world with an ineffective rampage to destroy his own property to render it valueless to others. Later John loses all joy in living and begins to truly fear his own continued existence and plots to take his life by means of arson.

Throughout these days of delirium, Emily and Father Ducharme struggle to understand John's odd and unfamiliar inner difficulties and prevent disaster while at the same time accommodating his humanity in their hearts.

John is rescued from his self-induced inferno by Cousin Jimmy, and he his saved from personal ruin by Father Ducharme's intervention. But his sacred humanity is finally preserved and justly redeemed in Emily's imagination when she solemnly concludes that he is "just a lonely man afraid of the darkness."

The Enchanted Doll

I'm so happy that Aunt Laura has a chance to shine in the episode “The Enchanted Doll.”

After a heated argument and joyous reconciliation with Ilse, Emily is found at the end of the day excited and now treating Aunt Elizabeth, to her dismay, with a barrage of endless late-night chatter as they lay together in bed. As a reward for her noisy bedmate, Aunt Elizabeth makes the easy decision to now install Emily in the old room of her own late mother, Juliet.

Emily is overjoyed to find so many remembrances of her beloved lost mother in this room. Among them an old pillow embroidered with mother's name and filigree, a ballerina twirling atop a music box, and some faded pictures. Amidst a brewing storm and a brewing imagination, Emily's second sight conjures up an apparition of her mother as a very young child and proceeds to enjoin her in light conversation. In ghostly little Juliet's arms is a doll—named Emily.

Aunt LauraAunt Laura later explains these familial visions as dreams inspired by her curious new surroundings. Emily is not persuaded and decides that there is much to learn about her mother from the objects left behind and undertakes to sift through those remaining objects tucked away in the attic and the search is supplemented by the wistful memories of Laura and Jimmy as they lazily rummage through the dusty mementos hidden there. One of the treasures found in the darkened trove is an old tattered doll—the doll that had recently enchanted Emily's nighttime visions. This orphaned toy had once belonged to Juliet and Emily decides now that it should belong to her.

Aunt Laura eagerly volunteers to return the doll to good repair and to avoid notice Aunt Laura tends to her happy chore secreted away in the solitude of an old lighthouse. This solitude is benignly interrupted by the appearance of local hotel owner Mr. Ian Bowles who happened to be beachcombing nearby along the chilly shores of the island. Ian enters the lighthouse looking for some respite from the cold. The warmth he finds there glows not so much in the cracking coals as in Laura's timid smile and kind humility. Noting her pleasant character as well as her craftsmanship, Ian feels that he has not only found a frail and lovely soul but a way to further make her acquaintance.

Ian Bowles commissions Laura to supply him with an armful of similar dolls as a pretext for embarking on a lover's suit and Bowles expands his attentions by plying a surprised Laura with gifts and compliments and kind words—the kind of attention that the spinster Aunt Laura is quite unused to. Laura is disbelieving of this flirtation and yet takes on the poppet project with gusto bolstered by the determined encouragement of her matchmaker niece Emily Starr.

In the hubbub of crafting the facsimiles, Emily loses track of Juliet's original, which is certainly the most precious to her; carrying within its threads and appointments the palpable memory of a beloved mother and her brief company.

Cousin JimmyUnder the cover of deception and stealth, and joined by Jimmy and Laura, Emily sets off, against Elizabeth's coarse objections, to recapture the misplaced doll from the Treasure House Hotel. At the hotel they are met by a party of guests engaged in a soirée of sorts in celebration of something important and the three are swept up into an atmosphere of gaiety and camaraderie punctuated with singing, dancing and strings of introductions.

As Emily, Jimmy and Laura join the fête, they are surprised to have Ian Bowles discover Juliet's long-lost diamond disguised as a hatpin plunged into Emily's recovered doll. This must surely be a sign that the three should stay and enjoy the grand company and high entertainment. Unprepared for such a gala, Ian proposes that the awkward country troika be fitted with garments from their own abundant stores of finery and hand-me-downs.

In the intoxicating delight of the impromptu backroom salon, Laura's fugitive imagination strays at last toward a fantasy of streaming gowns, marriage vows and bridal bliss. To Laura's chagrin, however, her vision is rudely dashed by the appearance of Miss Margaux Lavoie, Ian's formally engaged fiancée—a fact Miss Lavoie makes no bones about announcing. In fact, the very gathering that the Murray's blissfully stumbled into was assembled precisely to celebrate the hotel's happy pair.

Distraught and heart-broken over her mixed emotions and Ian mixed up affections, Laura declines to dance with Ian and finally flees the ball before her heart strikes midnight.

A contrite Emily returns to New Moon to certain punishment for her disobedience. But Elizabeth's admonishment is tempered by the return of the lost diamond, which she promises to entrust to Emily upon the arrival of her sixteenth year.

It is still unclear in what year love will arrive for Laura.

Fallen Angels

"Fallen woman". "Ill-bred hussy". "Trollop". "Scarlet woman". "Wild".

These are a few of the epithets Blair Water inhabitants use to describe the free-spirited, down-on-her-luck Maida Flynn (wonderfully portrayed by Liisa Repo-Martell) in the episode "Fallen Angels".

Maida is a gutsy young woman with a difficult life working at a family fishery run by Emily's Uncle Wallace. Her spirited and carefree existence has made her a friend to boys and a godsend to Emily and Ilse who gleefully seek her out to share in their sisterly sense of camaraderie, exuberance and whimsy.

The sour notes come when Wallace's ambitious son Oliver sarcastically intimates that his ultimate legal claim to New Moon is ever in his thoughts. A claim that transfers to Oliver upon Wallace's death but which would only take effect should the spinsters vacate the coveted property by way of marriage. Noting unwed Maida's disgraceful "bun in the oven", Aunt Elizabeth's adds her own sour notes to a growing chord with her moralistic lectures when she buggies by to rescue Emily from the taint of Maida's bad influence. The chord reaches crescendo when even Emily's school-mates similarly degrade Maida's character.

But the well-read Emily finds parallels in Charles Dickens' story of Oliver Twist and readily points out to all who will listen that Maida and her ill-gotten fate are well-known to history and deserve sympathy. However, Emily is unaware that she must soon act on this sympathy when she and Ilse happen upon a weeping Maida in the wood. Maida Flynn, having just lost her fishery job, is now a woman homeless and destitute as well as expecting a baby. The girls learn of Maida's troubles and form a handmaid's bond with the helpless mother-to-be and set her up, appropriately, at the Disappointed House.

The ever-curious Orphan Emily can't help but inquire into the causes of being "in a family way" and asks embarrassing questions of both Aunt Elizabeth and Maida. Elizabeth demurs entirely and Maida applies clumsy euphemisms about horizontal kissing. Emily, somewhat satisfied with these explanations, concludes that, in sum, this kissing business can become very complicated.

Ilse BurnleyEmily and Ilse conspire to bring food and other comforts to a grateful Maida camped out her disheveled dwelling on the sea who is now eating for two. One other comfort Maida seeks, though, is help from Cousin Oliver whose connection to Maida is not entirely clear to Emily even as Emily is commissioned to deliver Maida's plea in a hastily jotted note. Maida's plea for assistance is just as hastily rejected by Cousin Oliver and Emily returns to deliver his stinging rebuke. Whereupon Maida announces that she will journey to Halifax and earn a living as an entertainer.

Maida's Dickensian parallels, already evident to Emily, now become apparent to Elizabeth, and to Laura too, when a novel is discovered tucked away in Emily's bed. First it is Aunt Elizabeth who succumbs to the books charm and reads furtively. But she is found out by Laura who then picks up the habit as well; and comparisons to the unfolding drama, right or wrong, are soon flowing.

Maida's own maternal chapters begin as she suddenly goes into labor and gives birth in those unaccommodating rooms. Without benefit of a qualified midwife, Perry fetches Laura to do the deed but must himself step into the role in the face of Laura's ineptitude. It is here and now that Emily and company see first-hand what can come of kissing: new life. Maida, with the close care of her impromptu nursemaids, is now the mother of a child.

In the wake of this brilliant miracle and its attendant excitement, the birthing party sleeps the sleep of elation. But the pain of childbirth only matches the painful circumstance of Maida's desperate isolation and daybreak finds her slipping quietly away to abandon her newborn on church-house steps as she sets out for Halifax.

Emily and Father Ducharme ponder the orphan's predicament and together uncover the mystery of little Oliver's lineage which they decide also to reveal to the true father: Cousin Oliver. In their effort to reunite orphan with parent, they are able to convince Oliver of his certain role in this drama. Oliver surprisingly warms to the concept of fatherhood, leaving Emily, Father Ducharme, and also Maida Flynn, free of burden regarding the child's future.

Emily is free also to contemplate human frailties and concludes that "we're all just doing the best we can". She knows now that kissing can be complicated, that promiscuity can be repaid with spite, and that the world can be too big for unloved orphans.

But the best lesson Emily learns from this flesh-and-blood fable, however, is that life begets life, and that is a happy tale however it may be penned.

The Tale of Duncan McHugh

"That not one life shall be destroy'd,
Or cast as rubbish to the void

One of the most heart-wrenching episodes is "The Tale of Duncan McHugh". It's the story of a frail and shy young boy who desperately needs a friend in the face of destitution, neglect and ridicule. But Emily volunteers for the impossible: to bring some sunshine into a life completely closed off from love.

The tale opens with Emily contemplating the complexities of crime and punishment as she gazes into the dark cell of a mysterious man convicted of murdering a preacher and sentenced to hang at dawn. This savage miscreant and his impending execution become the focus of gossip and speculation; and especially for little Duncan McHugh who suspects that a hangman's noose will soon fatally grip the neck of a father who disappeared from his sight years ago under clouded circumstances.

Duncan reluctantly slinks toward his country school-house with the terror of doubt and accusation echoed in his classmates cruel and unrelenting taunts. It is here where Emily divides herself from her fellows and looks on Duncan with a kinder eye. The torment is too great and Duncan scurries off to the familiar security of a solitude that lies somewhere between the active hatred of the public square and the grinding poverty and neglect of his own home and hearth. Sensing Duncan's pain and plight, Emily exclaims, "He needs us". But her growing concern is met with deafness and indifference.

It is by chance that Emily stumbles upon Duncan's hiding place in the wood where she consoles and finally befriends him against his own numb disbelief that anyone would like him. When Duncan's mother Alma hears about this new friend and learns of her name, she becomes despondent as an old would resurfaces in connection with a painful Murray imbroglio.

Emily is touched by Duncan's nagging sadness and in the quiet of the New Moon barnyard zoo she likens the scrawny boy to a newborn piglet runt, the smallest of a litter who struggles for nourishment and even life itself.

Emily sets out to unravel this troubling mystery but when innocent inquiries are made, Aunt Elizabeth responds with a nervous silence and becomes clearly agitated. Later, Elizabeth divulges the partial truth by confiding to Laura that the man who was Duncan's father, Stuart McHugh, was a one-time beau that was lost to her. Absent from this private telling, Emily decides to scribble her own imaginative version of "The Strange Tale of Duncan McHugh." But Emily will require a fuller plot before she can properly fill out these sad pages.

And she is not alone in her need for facts. There is much that Duncan could learn to help him solve this enigma that haunts him. Duncan urgently presses his mother for more and better details but she equivocates and sends him packing for the classroom that he loathes. Unable to withstand the dual pressures of deceit and derision, Duncan finally sinks into a near autistic apathy. In a panic, Alma seeks to blame Duncan's classmates but is forced to look instead to herself for the greater measure of cause. All along, though, Duncan has blamed himself for being such a bother to the world. In an earlier talk, Duncan admits, "I should never have been born." "Everyone who's alive should have been born," Emily rejoins.

Emily feels her duty and goes to him to minister his weakening mind to health in part by intriguing him with the story of the tiny piglet that she has recently named after him. Duncan lights up and joins her at New Moon to meet his porcine namesake.

The two are followed close behind by the distraught mother whose unwelcome appearance in proud Elizabeth's parlor forces a confrontation between the rivals. The recriminations are vicious but the truth clumsily unfolds before Duncan's tearful eyes: the father, Stuart, it is revealed, had hastily sailed to the West Indies to avoid the romantic triangle and impending family cares.

This brave new explanation varies greatly from his mother's. Far from being dead, Stuart Duncan was simply 'gone away', which Duncan carelessly construes to suggest his possible return. With wild visions of a reappearing father sailing on the horizon, Duncan escapes the lover's feud, piglet in hand, to vainly wander the snow-covered beaches. A remorseful Elizabeth, with Emily in tow, return Duncan to safety and to the stark truth of his fate.

As tacit penance for the deception and bile that has engendered so much grief, Elizabeth and Alma reconcile for the sake of peace but mostly for the sake of a worried little boy.

When Duncan finally does return to school, the other students stop playing in the yard and stare with fascination as he walks through them. The bullies appear in his way and Emily steps forward, followed by Ilse, to clear out a path for him. Emily forthrightly pushes one of the bullies back and walks on through herself into the schoolhouse and smiles with knowing pride. And deep within her smile are the reassuring thoughts, "Maybe Teddy is right. You can't help people with really big problems. But maybe, just maybe, you can make little bits of difference."

The Wild Rover

Hunter River School has a problem and he is "The Wild Rover".

Mr. Carpenter—a wayward schoolteacher, who has his own problems with alcohol and troubles past, but who is full of passion and imagination—is given another chance by being placed in charge of Emily's classes for a few days as an evaluation of his fitness to continue in his station.

Carpenter prefers the three-dimensional, exciting stories of history over the dry names-and-dates versions, and that suits Emily just fine. His style of teaching is a stark contrast to the stuffy 'facts-and-numbers' style of her current teacher, May Brownell, and Emily is newly inspired. Moreover, she is actively encouraged to fully exercise her writing talents to the limits of her ability. However, when Carpenter agrees to critique Emily's output, she is too sensitive, takes offense and vows to never write again (a promise she profusely conveys to her private journals).

Mr. CarpenterThe new teacher is overcome with regret and sorrow and goes on a drinking binge. Later, at the height of inebriation, he storms over to see Aunt Elizabeth, whom he has been told is denying Emily access to reading books. After lecturing Elizabeth—in her own parlor, mind you—Carpenter retires to their barn to sleep it off.

Cousin Jimmy sees that this new teacher is a godsend for Emily and interferes to help patch things up between them. The Murray's all pull together to get him sobered up, cleaned up and dressed up for evaluation day and thankfully he is a success.

With this happy outcome—and Miss Brownell removed by way of sudden marital engagement—Carpenter is handsomely poised to become the permanent headmaster of Blair Water School.

Poignantly, in the epilogue, Emily considers, "I've heard it said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Mr. Carpenter may not be perfect, or close to perfect, but he's my teacher and I'm ready to learn."