‘The English Wife’: A royal Shakespearean tragicomedy

She was an foreign actress when he first met her. He was not quite a prince, but he came from an old Dutch family with money and expectations. They came from different worlds — hers in London, his in New York. They met through a mutual acquaintance, traveled the world, got married, became controversial all-caps headlines in international tabloids with the latest as: “KNICKERBOCKER MURDERS WIFE AND KILLS HIMSELF! MURDER AND SUICIDE ON THE HUDSON!”

They were the Van Duyvils, Annabelle and Bayard, principal characters in Lauren Willig’s new novel “The English Wife,” but I can’t help imagining them as the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry of their time — gorgeous and happy with a fairy tale romance. These reminders make peering into the Van Duyvil’s lives seem like a guilty pleasure.


“The English Wife” 
By Lauren Willig. 
376 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.

Besides the whole murder and suicide bit (if you believe the headlines), which happens about nine pages into the book through the point of view of Bayard’s 26-year-old spinster sister Janie who finds Bayard’s body, Annabelle and Bay were practically royals in late 1890s New York, expected to wear fancy hats, entertain high society and never cause a scandal. They lived in a secluded mansion, which they named Illyria after Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and had twins they named Sebastian and Viola.

But that changes on January 6, 1899, when Bayard’s found lethally stabbed with a costume sword and Annabelle’s seen submerged in the Hudson River. The couple were to host a wondrous costumed ball that night in their new mansion modeled after the English Tudor home Annabelle grew up in. They would be have danced and laughed, perhaps, and showed the gossips how happy they were.

Instead, cousin Anne and sister Janie find Bay’s body — and the rest is printed in the presses.

Willig’s novel alternates between the past and present, between the romances of Janie and Janie’s sister-in-law. Desperate to clear her brother’s reputation (because Bayard couldn’t have killed both himself and his wife), Janie Van Duyvil recruits reporter James Burke to find out the truth behind her brother’s death. What she finds isn’t what she suspects, but madness and mixups are part of what keep “The English Wife” entertaining.

In true Shakespearean fashion, Willig introduces pairs of twins, sisters who could be twins masquerading as each other, and confusing similar-sounding names. There are an Anne and Annabelle, a George and Georgie — the characters even comment that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.

With the comedic elements and tragic circumstances, “The English Wife” is a Shakespearean problem play — one that starts with a tragedy and ends with people dancing at a funeral.

The dialogue is bit thick at times — with characters literally quoting lines from Shakespeare to each other (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), but when the characters take a bow, you take their cue and grin and applaud.



‘House of Cards’ topples down: season three review

“You don’t add up and I’m intrigued,” novelist Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks) tells President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey).

We might have shared Yates’ sentiments when we were first introduced to one of Netflix’s top moneymakers, “House of Cards,” two seasons ago, but the narrative’s changed. We’ve grown out of the honeymoon phase and fallen out of love — realizing a man we were infatuated with is a cruel and violent monster ruling with a Machiavellian fist. Once upon a time, he charmed us with his witty Shakespearean asides. Now, he leaves a coldness in our hearts and an uneasiness in our bellies.

It’s not pleasant. Which is why the third season of “House of Cards” is difficult to swallow.

Before season three, “House of Cards” followed the first of two major story arches: the one where a man has nothing and remakes himself from rags to riches — the Horatio Alger myth that America’s so fond of. For two seasons (and 26 episodes), we watched “House of Cards'” Frank Underwood’s ascent — from majority whip to vice president and now POTUS.

Now, the narrative’s evolved. Frank may have initially sought respect and revenge. But now he has what he wants and he has everything to lose.

When “House of Card’s” third season begins, President Frank Underwood’s visiting his father’s grave.

“Oh, I wouldn’t be here if I had a choice,” Underwood tells us, “but I have to do these sort of things now. It makes me seem more human and you have to be a little human when you’re president.”

While we may have been charmed and intrigued with Underwood’s confidence in us (after all, every time Spacey breaks the forth wall, he’s confiding in us — even as he fooling others), President Underwood scares us. We’re not alone. No one likes President Underwood.

His polls are lower than former President Garrett Walker’s (Michael Gill). The Democratic Leadership don’t want him to run for re-election in 2016. His wife, Claire (Robin Wright), has her own political agenda and doesn’t think he’d win a re-election bid. In one scene, she even recoils from his touch.

Meanwhile, his Chief of Staff Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali) still has feelings for his former fling, the ambitious democratic whip Jackie Sharp (Molly Parker). And Underwood’s esteemed henchman, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly), is out of his inner circle and consulting with troublesome opponents: hacker Gavin Orsay (Jimmi Simpson) and democratic presidential candidate Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel). There are a lot of Brutuses and Cassiuses in Frank Underwood’s court.

But friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears. While President Frank Underwood is ambitious, he is an honorable man. He wants to revolutionize entitlements and create more jobs — implementing a new piece of legislation, America Works. Everyone one who wants a job will have one. You just won’t have social security, medicare, medicaid, universal health care or anything else.

Sure, that’s a frightening prospect, but President Frank Underwood promised you a job. And President Frank Underwood is a smart, calculated and honorable man. He doesn’t want to be a seat filler. He wants to revolutionize America — and he doesn’t care who or what is in his way (even if its his own wife or inner consciousness). He will leave a legacy, he says.

Underwood’s greatest accomplishment, though, is twisting words and re-packaging them. Like Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, Underwood’s a skilled orator — who’s greatest gift might include fooling himself.

“Is this how you live with yourself?” Attorney General Dunbar questioned him. “By rationalizing the obscene into the palatable?”

Underwood’s pills are tough to swallow though — despite how much sugar he coats them with. Underwood’s a bully and a tyrant — who shields his not-so-hidden agendas under a thin veil of threats and pleasantries. Like the current slew of politicians, he’s fluent in double-speak and dancing around a presidential bid. 

Meanwhile, he makes satirical cracks at the other dysfunctional branches of government — especially this year’s Republican-controlled Congress. (“I’m not declaring war on Congress,” he says. “I’m declaring war on atrophy. But these days, who can tell the difference.”)

While “House of Cards” was a smart commentary on the rotten underbelly of Washington, this season doesn’t add up. The plot’s unbelievable far-fetched as if the show’s creator, Beau Willimon, is courting scandal — aiming for shock value rather than substance. While president, Underwood pees on graves of dead men and spits at the image of Jesus on the cross. We always knew that Underwood is ruthless, but this Frank Underwood seems more controversial, sacrilegious and taboo.

After another 13-episode season, Underwood’s exhausted our sympathy and curiosity. And while Spacey’s deep voice still carries gravitas, his words hold no meaning; his likability suffers; and we’re no longer intrigued by his story.

Instead, we long for the good old days — when American TV presidents were idealistic and inspirational as “The West Wing’s” Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen). At least back then, America seemed to work.

Season 3 of “House of Cards” is now streaming on Netflix. “House of Cards” was written by Beau Willimon, Andrew Davies and others, based on the 1990 BBC mini-series and the novels by Michael Dobbs. 

The fault in Season 2 of ‘Orange Is the New Black’

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings,” Cassius tells Brutus in William Shakespeare’s play, “Julius Ceasar.” That, too, seems to be a recurring theme in Season 2 of writer Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black.”

The 13-episode second season of the highly anticipated prison drama — based on Piper Kerman’s memoir, “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison” — was released for streaming on Netflix last Friday.

After serving months in the Litchfield Correctional Facility for her association with her former drug-dealing girlfriend, Alex Vause (Laura Prepon), Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is transferred to a Chicago prison, where she awaits trial.

Her new bunkmate’s (Rebecca Drysdale) an astrology nut who believes destiny’s in the stars. “Typically, people in prison are led astray by a powerful outside force,” she tells Piper.

But these women dug their own graves.

Kohan’s episodes feature flashbacks into the lives of the Litchfield inmates. There’s Miss. Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) — a terminally ill cancer patient who used to rob banks; Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler) — an ex-communicated Catholic nun known for her activism; and Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) — an orphan whose closest person to a mother is Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), a conniving criminal who’s back in jail.

But even if these woman are underlings, their faces and voices aren’t forgotten. We fall in love with Kohan’s characters — played by a wonderfully diverse and talented ensemble cast. It’s a smart, calculated formula. Kohan can seamlessly introduce and kill off new characters like George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thones.” And while we curse the injustice, we’ll still be binge-watching.

So it’s no coincidence, of course, that Season 2 of “Orange Is New Black” was released the same day as the film adaptation of John Green’s teen cancer novel, “The Fault in Our Stars.” Kohan (who also created Showtime’s “Weeds”) fills her script with pop culture references — from World of Warcraft to Mr. Miyagi from “The Karate Kid.”  One of the inmates is even reading “The Fault In Our Stars.”

Like Green’s story, Kohan’s is hauntingly beautiful — filled with hope and heartbreak. Because no matter where the fault lies, prison’s supposed to be unjust.

“Orange Is the New Black” was written and created by Jenji Kohan.

‘Omar’: Caught in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

No one likes a snitch, but that’s what the Israelis want from him.

Chalk it up to bad luck, or being a kid from the wrong side of the fence. Omar’s (Adam Bakri) another casualty in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Written by Israeli-born Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, “Omar” tells the story of a young Palestinian freedom fighter and his best friends, Tarek (Iyad Hoorani) and Amjad (Samer Bisharat). As they plan rebellions together, Omar spends his days baking bread, avoiding the Israeli police, climbing fences and slipping love letters to Tarek’s sister, Nadia (Leem Lubany).

This changes when an Israeli soldier gets shot. The Israelis arrest Omar, entrapping his confession. But Israeli agent Rami (Waleed Zuaiter) lets him go, hoping Omar will lead him to the rebellion’s mastermind, Tarek.

Like Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now” (2005), “Omar” embeds itself with the Palestinian side of the story — which means, Israel is the big, bad bully and Palestine is the boy next door, trying to exit the lunch line without losing his money. Only, Palestine’s tired of getting beat up.

“We have no other way to fight,” says a Palestinian pledging to be a martyr in “Paradise Now.” “Israel views partnership with and equality for the Palestinians under the same democratic system as suicide for the Jewish state. Nor will they accept a two-state compromise even though it’s not fair to the Palestinians. We either accept the occupation forever or disappear.”

Like the martyr, Omar and his friends choose to fight Israeli occupation. But it also comes at a high price. Abu-Assad spins a beautiful and heartbreaking political tale about love, loyalty and the cost of freedom.

At its center is romance: the star-crossed lovers caught between an endless feud. But not even death can end bloodshed when there’s this much on the line.

There was never a tale of more woe than this of Palestine and her Israel.

“Omar” was written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad and nominated for Best Foreign Film in the 2014 Academy Awards. Abu-Assad also directed “Paradise Now.”

The modern Shakespearean tragedy: ‘Coriolanus’ vs. ‘House of Cards’

No one has to tell us that there’s something rotten in the state of Washington. Congressional disapproval’s at 80 percent.

But “Hamlet,” “Richard III” and “Macbeth” aren’t the only Shakespeare plays the popular Nexflix drama, “House of Cards,” can be compared to.

There are many similarities between Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Beau Willimon’s “House of Cards.”

  • Both leads — Caius Martius Coriolanus and Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) — have served their time. Caius Martius was the Roman soldier who led his troops to victory in the battle of Corioles. Underwood was the United States Democratic majority whip for the past 22 years.
  • Both Coriolanus and Underwood were expecting big promotions. Crowned “Coriolanus” after his victory, he was going to be a Roman consul. Underwood was going to be nominated Secretary of State under the reign of the 45th President of the United States, Garrett Walker (Michael Gill).
  • After not getting what they wanted, both exacted revenge, but the how is how these two men differ. Whereas Coriolanus is a soldier and general, Underwood is a politician. Coriolanus fled Rome and its fickle Roman people, organizing an attack against his former home. Underwood manipulates a more devious plot: to take control of the White House from within, by destroying the political careers of former acquaintances including those of his own party.

Those familiar with the Shakespeare play know Coriolanus’s fate. Meanwhile, Willimon builds a precarious “House of Cards” for his “Breaking Bad”-esqe anti-hero, Frank Underwood — hanging the sword of Damocles above his head as he sits closer and closer to the throne.

The sword’s going to fall eventually. But who will be sitting in the chair?

Season 1 and 2 of “House of Cards” is now streaming on Netflix. “House of Cards” was written by Beau Willimon, Andrew Davies and others, based on the 1990 BBC mini-series and the novels by Michael Dobbs. 

Fractured fairy tales ‘Frozen’ in time

In case you’ve lived under a rock (or were locked in tower like “Tangled’s” frying pan-wielding, Tarzan-swinging Rapunzel) for the past three years, you might have noticed Disney’s re-branding — touting virtuous and brave princesses. Nowadays, their animated damsel in distresses resemble the three-dimensional, bow-and-arrow-wielding Meridas from Pixar’s “Brave.”

“Frozen” tries to be the franchise’s latest progressive, self-aware princess movie, featuring 3D technology and challenging its own tropes.

“Hang on, you mean to tell me you got engaged to someone you just met that day?” says Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) — the huntsman to Princess Anna’s Snow White — dismissing the Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty stories of another era.

“Foot size doesn’t matter,” responds Princess Anna (a zinger perhaps directed at Disney’s “Cinderella” and her man, Prince Charming).

But as much as Disney’s evolved over the years, the same fairy tale tropes are central to the formulaic “happily ever after” storyline — written by Chris Buck, Shane Morris and “Wreck It Ralph’s” Jennifer Lee.

Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) of Arendelle is another sheltered princess with big blue eyes and red hair, eager to be part of another world and dreaming of a love’s true kiss. “What if I meet the one?” she sings in “The First Time in Forever.”

Bubbling with optimism at the prospect of love, Anna resembles Amy Adams’ Giselle from “Enchanted,” Fiona from “Shrek,” and Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” (and like Ariel in the iconic “Kiss the Girl” scene, Anna also falls into a boat with a handsome prince).

Her counterpoint lies in her older sister, Elsa, a poised blond-haired, blue-eyed witch concealing volatile powers like Jack Frost’s. Voiced by Idina Menzel, known for her role as another misunderstood witch (Elphaba in the musical “Wicked”), Elsa’s like Jo Rowling, entertaining her younger sister with magic. In Rowling’s case, she created stories; Elsa animated goofy snowmen like Olaf (Josh Gad).

Elsa accidentally harms her sister during a bit of roughhousing; her parents order her to hide her powers from everyone, especially her sister. Her parents die (like all fairy tale parents do). But as much as Elsa’s a good girl, she can’t contain her magic forever. During her highly attended coronation years later, Elsa accidentally unleashes her magic, freezing Arendelle and becoming both the evil queen and the persecuted beast.

While “Frozen” bills itself as the “best film since ‘The Lion King,'” the movie’s appeal lies in the retelling of universal stories — a formula Disney has mastered. The beloved “Lion King” is, after all, an animated (pun intended) retelling of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” “Frozen’s” inspired from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Buck, Morris and Lee drew from the Disney canon, amalgamating half a dozen fairy tale classics; composer Christophe Beck re-writes the musical medleys of yesteryear into ‘wicked’ soundtracks. (Menzel’s voice is chilling, isn’t it?)

The result is as expected: another satisfying crowd-pleaser guaranteed to melt any frozen heart.

“Frozen” was directed by Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, and written by Lee, Buck and Shane Morris. It’s based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.”

Once upon a time on ‘Thor: The Dark World’…

According to Celtic myths, Samhain, the first of November, marks the end of summer — when ghosts, spirits and fairies can haunt our world. People honored the dead by dressing up in costume, going door-to-door for food — a tradition memorialized in the modern Halloween festivities.

So perhaps it’s fitting that “Thor: The Dark World” was released in Samhain (the Irish word for November) — days after U.S. daylights savings time. The dead return to our world as the day grows shorter and darker.

The second of Marvel’s post-Avenger’s films (the first was this summer’s “Iron Man 3”), “Thor: The Dark World” chronicles the Convergence — a once in a blue moon phenomenon when nine planets overlap and objects can be seamlessly transported from one place to another.

Normally, that would be a magical wonder — one that astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) explains with science. But the legend of Thor’s made out of the stuff from myths and fairy tales.

No, not Disney’s “Tarzan” (although Jane and Thor did have a few Tarzan moments when he fell out of the sky in the first Thor movie).

This fairy tale is made of grimmer stuff — the kind where fairies stole you away like the Pied Piper.

The dark fairies in this story are from the Unseelie Court, led by dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston). Malekith created a liquid weapon called Aether, which is supposed to bring darkness to the world.

While Asgardians stopped Malekith’s evil plot years ago, the Convergence would be the perfect opportunity for the dark elves to try again: unleashing darkness on all nine worlds, including Earth.

That’s the backdrop to this movie, and Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay’s layered like Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

On one level, they’re dealing with the aftermath of “The Avenger’s” and the alien invasion of New York City; prisoner-of-war Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is brought back to his home planet in chains. His hammer-wielding older brother, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), fights to fix Loki’s mess.

On another level, the writers are threading the plot of the mediocre 2011 “Thor” film — which plays out like a typical Shakespearean rom-com. Jane, her snarky sidekick Darcy (Kat Dennings) and their mentor Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) return, studying anomalies in Earth’s gravity. Jane feels slighted by her crush Thor, who never contacted her after he abruptly left.

Luckily, the dark elves play matchmaker, and their nefarious plot reunite Jane and Thor.

“Thor: The Dark World” offers a much more dynamic plot-line than its predecessor. Unlike the first Thor movie, which divided its time evenly between the wild magical woods of Asgard and the rigid mundane cities of Earth, time spent in Earth’s brief.

But that doesn’t mean this fairy tale’s “once upon a time” gets a “happily ever after.” After all, the Marvel sagas continue with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” in spring 2014 and “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” in the summer of 2015.

Unfortunately for us, movie-goers, suffering through each superhero blockbuster until the release of Joss Whedon’s next highly anticipated (and highly lucrative) Avengers movie, most of the characters in this film, including our titular hammer-wielding muscleman, are as flat as the comic book paper they came from.

“If we shadows have offended/ Think but this, and all is mended.” — Puck from William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

The only exception is Loki (and Tom Hiddleston — who won best male newcomer and best villain for his reprising role). The honest trickster god captured our hearts in “Thor” and “The Avengers” and promises to be as mischievous as the prankster Puck.

Just remember (because Shakespeare taught us well): it’s all fun and games until somebody dies.

“Thor: The Dark World” is directed by Alan Taylor of “Game of Thrones” fame; the screenplay was written by Christopher Markus, Christopher Yost and Stephen McFeely, based on Don Payne and Robert Rodat’s story and Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Larry Lieber’s Marvel comic books.

The Reduced Works of William Shakespeare

“Beware the ides of March” because a month later on the 15th of April at 8 p.m. at The State Theatre, the Reduced Shakespeare Company “prevented” “The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged.”

The comedic trio, made up of narrator and host Mick Orfe, resident Shakespearean scholar and secret twi-hard Michael Faulkner and the young Google-and-Wikipedia-educated Matt Rippy, promised to present the complete works of William Shakespeare, all 37 Shakespearean plays in 97 minutes. Pointing to all the exits in event of an emergency, Orfe pulled a gas mask out of his pocket, thus preparing the audience for a fun, laugh-filled flight into the life of Shakespeare’s plays.

To thread together the Shakespearean experience, the trio gave a haphazard performance as three stooges who barely knew what they were doing. Starting this endeavor to conquer the Bard’s plays, Matt Rippy gave an informative index-card presentation on Shakespeare’s history; however, when Shakespeare begins to invaded Poland in 1939 and ends up committing suicide, hilarity ensues.

In a true commedia de arte style, the three stooges used a variety of props as well as slapstick humor. In their version of Romeo and Juliet, while Faulkner, Rippy and Orfe shared the roles of Benvolio, Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Prince Escalus, the nurse and the apothecary, wigs, skirts, swords, crowns and other quick costume changes were used to illustrate the different characters. While male actors frequently played multiple characters as well as all the female leads in the Elizabethan era, the fact that Rippy as Juliet and Orfe as Romeo refuse to share a kiss becomes a great source of humor. Furthermore, as Rippy and Orfe illustrate the famous “balcony scene” where Romeo visits Juliet at night, Faulkner finds himself as the surrogate balcony as Rippy places his skirt over Faulkner’s hunched figure.

Yet Romeo and Juliet is not the only disastrously hilarious performance of Shakespeare. When Rippy mistakes the word “moor” to mean the dock where one ties ships, the three person RSC cast transition to a rap about Othello.

In an attempt to abridge much of Shakespeare’s material, the trio reduces Shakespeare’s 16 comedies from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream to The Tempest to one giant blurry mess, a segment that the RSC calls “Four Weddings and a Transvestite.” Meanwhile, the RSC combines the Bard’s historical plays from Henry IV to King Lear in a football game representing the passing of the crown.

Covering 36 plays in Act One, a brief intermission followed; by then, Rippy didn’t want to finish the last play Hamlet, fleeing from the stage as Faulkner chases him. “I will not bring vomitless Shakespeare to people of Ithaca,” Rippy tells The State Theatre audience as people laugh. A running gag for Rippy’s female cross-dressing characters is that they continue to barf on the audience.

The three-man crew then becomes a one-man entertainment while Orfe does standup. Singing Dylan’s piece “Blowing in the Wind” on the guitar while attempting to cover the Bard’s 157 sonnets, Orfe passes a sheet throughout the audience hoping for Faulkner and Rippy to return.

Luckily, Faulkner drags Rippy back onstage, convincing the other that they will visit Ithaca’s Buttermilk Falls; however, Faulkner also confides to the audience that Rippy is unaware of the fact that there is no buttermilk in Buttermilk Falls.

The RSC also found other ways to personalize their performance in Ithaca, even making a Bombers reference, the school mascot of Ithaca College. While the RSC’s presentation was scripted, the trio continued to find ways to make “The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridged” an interactive experience.

To view the complete tour dates of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, click here.

Recycling History

William Hundert (Kevin Kline) may as well be Brutus—a stoic man of morals and virtue whom he describes as “the noblest Roman of them all.” Like Brutus believed in the good of the Roman Empire, Mr. Hundert, a beloved teacher of Classical history at St. Benedict’s School for Boys, is a stoic man who believed in the good of his students.

So when the trouble-making Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a local senator, enrolls in St. Benedict’s and challenges Mr. Hundert’s belief, the teacher begins his own conspiracy to ensure Sedgewick’s success in the school’s Mr. Julius Caesar competition.

The Emperor’s Club, directed by Michael Hoffman and written by Neil Tolkin, is more than a story of about a teacher and his efforts to change the character his students at a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts. (Mr. Hundert resembles the fair and calculated Professor Minerva McGonagall while the St. Benedict students resemble young wizards, wearing Gryffindor-esqe gold and yellow ties as well as scarlet red blazers and gray slacks.) No, as the movie plays out, one learns bits of philosophy; some things like stupidity, says Mr. Hundert, are destined to last forever.

From St. Benedict’s, one could have been just as easily transported about thirty years earlier to another all boy’s New England-style boarding school such as that illustrated by John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace. Sedgewick Bell might as well be the ever popular-daredevil Phineas, while Mr. Hundert may have been the scholarly best friend Gene Forrester looking back upon his mistakes at his beloved boarding school. The problem with this dichotomy is that the true character of Sedgewick, although handsome and charismatic, is not good, and Mr. Hundert’s actions are not fueled by jealousy, but a rather more altruistic nature.

“Who gives a shit,” lies Sedgewick’s true philosophy. In a world of winning and losing, Sedgewick Bell only cares about winning, no matter what the costs. “Honestly, who out there gives a shit about your principles and your virtues?” Sedgewick asked his teacher Mr. Hundert. “Honestly, look at you. What do you have to show for yourself? I live in the real world where people do what they need to do to get what they want. And if it’s lying and it’s cheating, then so be it.”

Professor Eliis Fowler from The Twilight Zone episode "The Changing of the Guard."

Mr. Hundert, being a Classics professor, knew better than anyone that history was bound to repeat itself. However, at heart, Mr. Hundert is a teacher, like Professor Ellis Fowler featured in The Twilight Zone episode “The Changing of the Guard”— focused on molding young minds, however incorrigible. Like Professor Fowler, Mr. Hundert hoped that he could change all his students including Sedgewick, however, it would take a reunion with his former students to teach Mr. Hundert that it is not the failures, but the successes in his career that determine a man and a teacher.

The Emperor’s Club is not a particularly new or unique story. It is a story that had been told in by Ithaca College teacher and Twlight Zone creator Rod Serling in his 1959 episode “The Changing of the Guard” (only Mr. Serling told the story in 30 minutes while The Emperor’s Club runs about an hour and 50 minutes). It is a story about a group of boys and their power play illustrated in countless books and literature.

While Sedgewick might as well be a primitive leader of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, savagely competing in a jungle for the prestigious title of St. Benedict’s School for Boys’ Mr. Julius Caesar, his followers and competition include Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg), Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta) and Martin Blythe (Paul Dano). While Sedgewick may resemble Jack falling to wickedness while appearing brave and encouraging innumerable pranks even without the help of a conch shell, Martin Blythe appears as Piggy, a studious boy who becomes the sacrificial lamb for everyone.

Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) and his group of "Lost Boys." From left to right, Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta), Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg) and Martin Blythe (Paul Dano).

In director Michael Hoffman’s story The Emperor’s Club, Martin Blythe is the only one who truly grew out of Sedgewick Bell’s Neverland—the true tragic hero. And if anything, Mr. Brutus—“the noblest teacher of them all”—owes the biggest favor to his student, Martin Blythe.

Bright Star Is a Shining Gem

John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) are separated by more than a wall.

They are as different as the prince and the pauper, the moon and the sun—yet this story of star-crossed lovers strikes a chord within the human psyche.

Their love should not be, yet we cannot stop watching.

While we know the story of young love across a constellation of bars, director and screenplay writer Jane Campion’s Bright Star gives us the perfect composition of alluring whispered words, haunting romantic music and intricate woven webs that make this film a true gem.

As we eavesdrop on the life of Frances ‘Fanny’ Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw), we learn of the quickened pulse of heartbeats trapped behind heavy societal walls.

For starters, Fanny Brawne is a young seamstress, living on mahogany wooden dance floors or prancing among the pastel fields of flowers with her two younger siblings, Samuel ‘Sam’ Brawne (Thomas Sangster) and Margaret ‘Toots’ Brawne (Edie Martin). Fanny, who prides herself in embroidery, is the witty, vibrant eldest daughter of a widowed Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox).

On the other hand, John Keats is a young low-income poet residing in the crevices a darken room, lounging for the right color of words to paint his pallet of poetry. He lives with his friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), an ape-like man with an equally unflattering humor, who accompanies Keats like Dr. Watson follows Sherlock Homes. Brown is Keats’ sponsor and dearest friend.

Whether it be by chance or fate, Fanny and Keats meet for poetry lessons. She easily becomes his temptress, muse and ‘bright star,’ leading him to words on the darkest of nights.

Their love blossoms under stolen kisses and whispered words in nature’s beautiful helm. Each scene is beautifully composed, like a romantic painting. Golden beams of sunlight seep into open windows and kisses dewy uncut-grass.

Moreover, the acting is superb.  Cornish delivers heart-wrenching sobs as her hands desperately grip her mother’s ruffled blouse. Martin’s blatant one-liners are typical of a tattletale younger sibling’s and are often the source of humor. Both Martin and Sangster are the dutiful younger siblings that act as their mother’s spies, trailing Cornish as she follows Whishaw across the streets and scenery of nineteenth-century London.

While it may be true that Ben Whishaw may seems awkward at times, his pallid eyes flickering from side to side, searching across the room, and Abbie Cornish’s character may seem childish and fickle, throwing irrational tantrums—their youth, their life and their love, running through the long cattail-lined paths and capturing kisses in closed bedroom doors, fuels the film even through the dismal points.

Fanny becomes his “La Dame Belle San Merci”—one of Keats’ most well known poems about a woman that lures a knight to solitude, drawing him away from freedom. Brown warns Keats that woman are dangerous; eventually, Keats will be burned out, writing poems just so he could bring income to support Brawne’s lavish clothing and lifestyle.

As it becomes more difficult to maintain their relationship through obstacles of money, tragedy and distance, the film evokes emotion. Like the characters, we feel immensely, wishing and willing for a happy ending that cannot happen. Steadfast love becomes unwavering as the sun’s eternal fire, but while the moon is wane and fickle, even the sun sets.

“I almost wished we were butterflies and lived but three summer days,” Keats’ soft voice whispers as Brawne reads his letter. “Three such days we could fill with more delight than fifty common years can ever contain.”

But while every Midsummer Night’s Dream must end, we, like butterflies, are enraptured into the three summer days, the three short years and the life and romance of a poet and his bright star.