Sunday, July 22, 2007

TELLING MOMENTS: "Heat of the Sun"

Of course, one of the things that makes any narrative potent and memorable is a strong internal structure of forces, some trajectory or impetus that makes things happen or that gradually comes together into a realization of something hidden. But another dimension is the telling moment, the indelible image, the captured vignette that the mind’s eye can catch and hold.

Heat of the Sun” had a problem of its own creation, which is that it is essentially a derivative of “Out of Africa” et al, which gave it a fund of familiar elements to exploit (the givens of colonialism), but also meant that it had to come up with some unique bits of its own. In the third episode “Sport of Kings” there were some nice examples of this. The character of Valentine supplies quite a few all by himself -- studying the books of the corrupt millionaire while barreling along in the back seat of a car on the way to a battle with raiders, using a ruler to follow the lines of figures across. His incredible marksmanship, followed by the matter-of-fact warning, “The next one kills you,” becomes a motif. When he closes his eyes to listen to Morse code coming through the telegraph apparatus as though it were faint whispering, we believe in him.

Another character with a lot of schtick is the flaming gay who is accidentally shot. Throughout, he is just campy enough with his red nails and brassy hair, his ascot and cigarette holder, but especially in the last episode he lets a real person peer through. Very effective. The governor (I think it’s Paul Brooke who has a glass eye which he turns backwards for some parts), the doctor (David Horovich) and the choleric police commissioner (Michael Byrne who plays a lot of Nazis) have longer resumes than anyone else and it’s easy to understand why. I looked up all the black characters and some of them also had a lot of credits, which explains why they are so good. The wonderful British system of repertory does not let us down.

One reviewer complained that there were several really interesting “types” who were never explored (for instance, Singh, the fingerprint expert) and, in fact, Tyburn himself has never had his source of morality explained. He is a high-handed man with a soft spot for children, evidently. Clearly he is “cleancut” and, in fact, clean-shaven, appearing in the intriguing male act of shaving with the substantial equipment of the time several times. The contemporary 3-day-stubble characters, with their accompanying seedy morality, are entirely missing. (The villain is a little bristly at the end.) In a clever moment, he emerges from the station where a mortal battle has just taken place, preparing to send his pilot friend off with a wounded man, and is wiping the last of his shaving lather from his jaw but has missed a white dab on his earlobe. He spots a new attack coming through the bush and shepherds the people back into the building, all with that white dab. He is highly competent, but not omnipotent.

The villain, played by Joss Ackland, is so good that he nearly overwhelms the episode. Beginning, the camera pans across an elegant veranda, into a well-appointed sitting room where a cranked-up phonograph plays classical music, then looks through a set of French doors to the garden where, at some distance, a massive old white man is beating a black boy to death. A slender young woman, well-dressed and made-up, comes to stand in the doorway, transfixed by the violence. The man enters, clearly aroused, takes her by the throat and with his thumb smears her blood-red lipstick across her cheek in an act of defiling control. Between forceful kisses she exclaims, “Daddy,” pronouncing the “dad” as “dead.”

It’s hard to know whether such scenes are from the writer, the director, or the actor or (my guess) a collaboration of the three, but throughout, his filthy sneering, sly eyes, and ripples of malice transfix us as much as they did his “daughter.”

Another nice thread is the missionary’s silent movies, enjoyed by both the black “kaffirs” and by the lower-class white settlers. It’s a wild West show. The Indians are winning when the blacks are watching. When the whites watch, the cavalry arrives in a line along the ridge. This is echoed when the cavalry arrives in the Kenya plot while the “fort” is under attack. Thankfully in a show about horse racing, all these horses really live up to their billing. They are wonderful hotbloods with curving necks and slender legs.

The best bit is right at the end, which is the best place for it, esp. since this is the end of the series. The superintendent and the aviatrix have been flirting all along, she being tough and he being tender. Earlier she has threatened to drag him onto the dance floor but didn’t follow through. Now, after all the excitement and the complicated plot points, there is a simple near-pantomime. It is sunset on the top of one of those African elephantine stone prominences. She is in elegant evening clothes. He is in a tux. A portable gramophone -- the same one that has been haunting this film with memories of Finch-Hatton’s favorite clarinet suite -- is playing. He offers his hand, she takes it, they foxtrot a few steps (rather close to the edge) and they kiss -- the only time in the whole series.

Trevor Eve has been the pivot of a number of detective series, some of them rather long-running. He doesn’t seem to have hit quite the heights of popularity of some of the others, notably Robson Green, but he is a solid actor -- in fact, that’s his keynote: solid. He gets frustrated but he doesn’t get crazy. That makes him more appealing to some, but less to others. In a former movie he played Dennis Finch-Hatton. I’d like to see that.

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