Friday, December 28, 2007


Peter Raible, UU minister in Seattle for many years, used to say, “Nothing that is human is foreign to me,” and reference Whitman’s “I contain multitudes.” Recent brain research suggests that the definitive capacity of humans -- though we appear to partly share it with some primates and maybe some pets -- is empathy. Not sympathy, the ability to recognize and respond to emotion in others, but empathy, the ability to share those feelings -- to understand them from within, like “method” actors.

I’ve just about gotten to the end of the “Foyle’s War” episodes available on DVD. This is another of those BBC series you can get on Netflix these days. They are prepared according to a recipe that allows variation. I got started on “Cracker” via Netflix but had previously watched “Morse” and “Poirot” and others via Masterpiece Theatre on television when I was in Portland. I often reflect on what they all have in common, most obviously a key superior male -- the Sherlock Holmes pattern. He picks up the telling detail and then puts the puzzle together, seemingly with steely detachment. Watson seems to have all the human warmth. It is characteristic of these series to provide a sidekick. After all, if there were not some lesser -- if warmer -- being in the story, Holmes would be reduced to talking to himself or there would be very little script.

Yet “Foyle’s War” is based on a man whom both writer and actor (Michael Kitchen) agree to be a dialogue minimalist: he says very little. Maybe in compensation, he has two sidekicks: another younger man to run down background and tell it to him (and us) and a Chatty Cathy of a driver, a long stalk of a girl with honey-colored hair. (The actress is actually named “Honeysuckle Weeks” which sounds more like the name of a character, but the character is called “Sam,” short for Samantha.) The donnee or conceit or schtick of the series is that it’s happening during WWII in England when the country is under terrible destructive pressure, quite truly fighting for her life, but Foyle is not in the war directly so the title of the series is ironic. Foyle is a Detective Chief Inspector on the south coast of England, presumably out of the action.

But no one in WWII England was really out of the action. Anthony Horowitz, who also writes children’s horror stories, has accepted the challenge of devising plots that will create a tension -- which he envisions as concentric circles: the outermost being the war in all its worldwide aspects and the innermost being the moral code (as opposed to the legal code) of one man. (He's not above occasionally ignoring the letter of the law.) Foyle is a lonely man, a widower, who has a son in the RAF with whom he shares close ties but not much explanation.

Michael Kitchen is suited for this role in the first place and became invested in influencing it in the second place because he is a physically unremarkable (short, balding) man with a face that responds minutely to his inner life: marking, commenting, considering with a twist of the mouth, a quirk of the eyebrow, a small turn of the head or change in focus. This is ideal for film. The other actors say that they watch him from the sidelines while his scenes are shot, think he has done little or nothing, and then see the scene on film where it is a revelation. There’s a whole Greek chorus of comment in his face.

Another tiny marker seems to be unique to this role. (I’ve known him previously from “Out of Africa” where he was the comprehending friend of Isak Dinesen and from “The Buccaneers” where he was a penniless estate owner trying to urge his son to put the estate before romance, as he himself has done.) The marker seems to be his eyes, which are the key introduction for Foyle. His pupils are always contracted, making his eyes intensely blue and focused. I don’t know whether there is a drug that can do this or whether Kitchen has some sort of yogic control over his irises, but I think they simply made sure to keep a bright light on his face. True enough, when I watch carefully, his face seems light while his dialogue partner often has a face that is dark while being backlit. Of course, a well-lit face is a necessity for an actor who acts with such subtlety.

The other male detective actors (“prime solvers” rather than “prime suspects”) sometimes produce the results of empathy, but one rarely sees it happening. “Cracker,” for instance, is always in such a frenzy of his own motives that when he finally comes out with his “solution” speech it rather seems to have come out of nowhere. Robson Green is probably halfway between that style and the Foyle style, but much funnier than Foyle in quick bursts of goofiness. Foyle is never goofy.

One of the intros describes Foyle as one of those “rocks” on which one can absolutely depend, a moral center of the kind we all long for our leaders to be. (Well, maybe the special interest crowd doesn’t.) Such people can be unsympathetic if not simply boring, but Foyle is not because of his loneliness which he only allows to show in isolated [sic] moments. Much of the tie between himself and Sam is not romantic (she takes a bit of a twirl with his son) but rather from her awareness that he is lonely and his gratitude for her blithe and enthusiastic approach to life. He does not hesitate to draw the line which she may not cross and, like an obedient golden retriever, she sometimes tests the line but does not cross it. There are transient romantic interests for Foyle: one from his past and one as solitary as he is. No scenes of sexual intimacy with women.

Foyle’s son lives the life his father longs for -- dashing, risking, hell with the consequences, misinterpreting -- and we see in his experience the price he pays, which is different than the price his father pays with his discipline and reliablility. That is, the writer is aware that we ALL pay a price, even the virtuous. It is partly this awareness of human limits that provides the empathy that drives the plots. And some people think this is only a “period piece” about a nostalgic time. Lack of empathy, that!


Catnapping said...

I've been checking Foyle's War DVD's out from the library. I'm hooked.

Another series I like is Midsomer Murders...another BBC offering with John Nettles.

I'm also into the Inspector Lynley series...geez, once you go Brit, honey, you never go back!

Cal said...

I have been watching the first three episodes. I was similarly struck by Kitchen's (Foyle's) nearly impassive expression and body language that still conveys so much. I was also struck by how the characters look each other in the eye, unflinchingly, especially Foyle, who backs down to no one. It can be intimidating to look someone in the eye without letting one's eyes flick occasionally to one side or to look down. In fact, in general conversation, it is perhaps impolite to do this.

john lord said...

that was an amazing piece on foyle/kitchen. breathtaking. Im just a little surprised to see Foyle compared in any way, other than country of origin, to the buffoonery on Midsomer. Not on his best day was Nettles ever a shadow to Kitchen.