Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales

Kate Bernheimer’s ambitious brainchild My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is a mostly delightful compilation of fairy-tale-inspired stories. The contributors include authors from Russia and Japan and widely recognizable names such as Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike. Narrative styles are just as varied. Some are simple retellings; others contain only a wisp of the original fairy tale.

Kate Bernheimer and Gregory Maguire set the stage with their introductions. One can simply flip to the back of the book to learn more about the authors or to the table of contents for a list of stories and their origins. Each story has a brief afterward by the authors describing their inspirations. With such care given to selecting talented authors from around the world, it is surprising that no African tales are featured.

A few of these yarns don’t work without knowledge about their sources. Many of these writers milk the graphic grimness of tales for all they are worth, with results both memorable and tedious. Several stories are so disjointed they lose their purpose, and others feel too self-conscious.

On the whole, though, the creativity makes for a fascinating read. Here are a few of the book’s highlights. [Note: I unintentionally tended to lean towards the more realistic stories.]

Francine Prose’s take on “Hansel and Gretel” depicts a young woman’s visit to a wild artist’s Vermont home. This artist is her husband’s ex-girlfriend’s mother.

“The Warm Mouth” by Joyelle McSweeney is a nightmarish interpretation of “The Bremen Town Musicians.” A “mouth” collects diverse items such as dead bodies and road kill. This horrifying tale is reminiscent of a sickening dream.

“Dappelgrim” by Brian Evenson is a simple, Freudian retelling of the original, a dark story about a monstrous horse and its master – or is the horse the master?

“What the Conch Shell Sings When the Body Is Gone” by Katherine Vaz is one of this book’s best. This poignant meditation on marriage, friendship, and life shifts “The Little Mermaid” to the present day by focusing on a couple of cooks who are obsessed with water.

“Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay” (based on the Italian “Jump into My Sack”) by Jim Shepard may be the jewel in this collection. This searing short story connects the narrator’s detachment from his life to earlier traumas, and his marital tension to the tension in Alaska’s unstable Lituya Bay.

“The Color Master” (Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”) by Aimee Bender is a lighter, more fanciful story about a group whose job is to seek and mix colors for royalty.

“A Case Study of Emergency Room Procedure and Risk Management by Hospital Staff Members in the Urban Facility” by Stacey Richter is an amusing version of “Cinderella” as told in medical records. Here princesses are drug addicts, and evil princes are dealers.

“Psyche’s Dark Night” (Cupid and Psyche) by Francesca Lia Block is a straightforward and romantic tale of an uncertain and aching love between an aspiring actor and a school teacher.

“The First Day of Snow” (“A Kamikakushi Tale”) by Naoko Awa is a short and somewhat mesmerizing tale about a girl who tries to free herself from the march of the “snow rabbits.” It’s difficult to get their chant, “one foot, two feet, hop, hop, hop,” out of one’s head.

One can either read this collection straight through or skip around. A few stories are chores, but most are surreal, hilarious, and disturbing. My Mother She Killed Me is actually quite a fun read.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Our Not So Distant Past

I’m not from Montgomery, and meeting someone who knew Martin Luther King Jr. is still a thrill. I work one block away from where Rosa Parks caught that famous bus. Walking by the former Greyhound Bus Station, where the Freedom Riders were beaten for trying to integrate interstate transportation, still chills and astounds me. A century before the Civil Rights Movement, the same area welcomed Jefferson Davis and saw the birth of the Civil War.
As an English major, I feel remarkably fortunate to work at a bookstore and publishing company. My employer, NewSouth Books, is interested in the human experience, originally publishing books that might be “local stories” of “national importance.” In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides, I was given the opportunity to write a short book about the Freedom Rides with the Alabama Historical Commission, which was working on opening a Freedom Rides Museum at the former Montgomery Greyhound station.
My job was to compile a lot of information into a slim volume, focusing on Montgomery’s reaction to the Rides. I was reading Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo at the time, so I secretly compared myself to the book's protagonist Mikael Blomkvist. He was a furious investigative journalist. The book I was to write would hardly be comparable to any tome he might create, and I was not creating a groundbreaking expose. Still, his passion for truth inspired me, especially during the times I felt the book would never come together.
But it did. There were two moments when I realized my book, The Freedom Rides and Alabama, was no longer a personal piece, but something to be shared because it was important. The first was when I saw a copy of its cover on the computer, with my name on it. The second was when I was asked to write the preface and dedication. I got to put my own stamp on it and thank those I loved and who were involved.
Most inspiring, though, was learning about the Rides themselves. I learned about the ugly terror that drove some to madness and the apathy which was almost more dangerous than the violence. I learned about the Freedom Riders' physical and psychological suffering as well as their fears and disagreements. This made their calculation, dedication, and love all the more remarkable.
I discovered that my previous view of history was wrong. History often isn't that far removed. History is always just a generation away, or a generation before that, and so on. Thus learning about the Freedom Rides taught me something about myself, the city I’m living in, this country, and the world.
The anniversary was remarkable. I met the authors whose books I’d read, the authors who had done painstaking, extensive research on the subject. Even more surreal was meeting the Riders and others involved in the Movement. These were the people I had read about and admired. They had changed the world and were some of the most important people in the country. I was still surprised to witness their warmth, compassion, and humility.
During the anniversary, books, television programs, and events across the country acknowledged the Riders. I felt that I was a tiny part of spreading the word about this act in our not so distant past. And it was gratifying and moving. I am so thankful for this opportunity.

Friday, July 29, 2011


You shall not pass!
One can’t say Kenneth Branagh's Thor isn’t ambitious. This adaptation of a comic book based on Norse mythology includes romance, humor, family drama, and lots of special effects. Unfortunately, the film is a confusing mish mash, aspiring to be both more and less than what it is.

The film begins in a New Mexican desert and awkwardly segues into a distant flashback, before moving into a more recent flashback and then back to the present. The recent flashback follows the warrior Thor (Chris Hemsworth), son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of the planet Asgard. Thor’s arrogance lands him on Earth many miles from home. Confused and frustrated, he stumbles upon a group of scientists, at least one of whom, Jane (Natalie Portman), is willing to overlook his bizarre behavior and help him find a way home.

Just because you are blond and I am not doesn't mean I'm bad.

One section of this film is set in Asgard, a visual creation both kitschy and beautiful. A much lighter section involves Thor’s humorous adjustment to Earth. Yet another section involves S.H.I.E.L.D., a group of government agents who are interested in an unmovable hammer which Odin threw to earth.

The script is an odd mixture of genuinely funny and unintentionally humorous. The social and physical laws that govern Asgard are hardly explained, and the pacing picks up when our hero falls to Earth. The agents are present to connect Thor to other superhero films produced by Marvel, and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s role is entirely unrelated to the plot. However, its scenes are some of the most functional in the movie.

Or does it?

The actors seem to be in several different films. Hemsworth fares well as Thor, seamlessly shifting between several genres. His transformation from cocky to contrite to compassionate is far more believable than his love story. Portman’s Jane is cute and her attraction to Thor is understandable, but the film implies that they fall in love without showing us how. Watching them giggle at one another is not particularly gripping.

Kat Dennings, who plays Jane’s assistant Darcy, is natural in her delivery of amusing one-liners. Thor’s friends, The Warriors Three, seem to have stepped out of a science fiction show, Hopkins is low key as the patriarch, and Renee Russo has a thankless, tiny role as Thor’s helpless mother. Colm Feore does his best as Laufey, leader of the blue Frost Giants, and a great Idris Elba plays a seemingly implacable gatekeeper to other worlds.

The power of Christ compels you!

Most baffling (and, in some ways, interesting) is Thor’s brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston. He appears to be in five different movies. Loki is almost as important a character as Thor. Too little time is spent with him to completely understand his motivations, but because the audience follows his character, the tricks he pulls feel like tricks on the audience. Alternately calculated and extremely emotional, he is more bizarre than intriguingly ambiguous. Hiddleston gives an expressive, even furious performance, making his campier moments stand out all the more.

Patrick Doyle’s soundtrack is stirring. Sometimes its high quality only emphasizes what the film lacks. In the end, Thor’s numerous distractions prevent it from either remaining lighthearted or developing its mythological elements. Weighed down by special effects, action, and dumb lines, Thor is an original idea that seems determined to be a mediocre film.

You are hot therefore I love you.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Jane Eyre: A Rare, Unearthly Thing

Cary Fukunaga has directed an ethereal version of Charlotte Brontë’s oft-adapted novel Jane Eyre. The film’s muted visuals convey the gothic story’s mystery while hinting at its internal passions.

Our heroine is Jane Eyre (Amelia Clarkson), whose childhood involves characters who resemble the grim child abusers of a Charles Dickens novel. The plot’s pace quickens once Jane reaches young adulthood (then played by Mia Wasikowska) and moves to Thornfield Manor, a forbidding castle surrounded by equally impressive grounds. There she encounters housekeeper Mrs. Fairfax (Judi Dench) and begins tutoring the lord’s French ward Adele (Romy Settbon Moore). Mrs. Fairfax tells Jane that Lord Edward Rochester (Michael Fassbender) has moods that are as unpredictable as his travels. Jane feels drawn to Rochester, even though she feels that the more she learns about him, the less she knows.


Here Jane’s renowned “plainness” comes from her soft features and downtrodden position. Wasikowska’s youth contributes to the character’s believable confusion and sexual curiosity. Most importantly, she conveys Jane’s stoicism, wisdom, and imagination. Fassbender’s Rochester is slightly frightening but magnetic, amusing, and acutely observant. He tells Jane that she is no more “naturally austere, any more than [he is] naturally vicious.” She is as sharp as he is, and correctly describes him as “the most phantom-like of all” her “unreal” experiences at Thornfield. Fukanaga brings out the novel’s poetic language, making mere exchanges of words more intense and erotic than many lovemaking scenes.

Inspired by Northern English folk music and gypsy fiddling, Daro Marianelli’s sweetly passionate score is haunting. Yet the film’s painterly aesthetic, from a stormy sunset to the resonant final image, is the movie’s most prominent aspect. While Fukunaga’s attention to historical detail lends a realistic rawness, the movie’s exquisite colors convey a fairy-tale-like quality, accentuating Rochester and Jane’s allusions to magic.

Thornfield is alternately beautiful and menacing. A naturally-lit nude painting evokes a sense both ominous and sensual, much like Jane’s attraction to Rochester. An individual who feels trapped is silhouetted against a window showcasing other worlds. Jane and Rochester are filmed outside in a way that makes them appear to be spirits of nature.

Wasikowska sometimes underplays the deceptively tame Jane, and Fassbender is occasionally too dramatic. On the surface, this is a straightforward if suspenseful adaptation of Brontë’s classic melodrama. But beneath is a rapturous, even transcendent tale.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

X-Men: First Class

Magneto vs. missiles

Scene: 1960s. Cold War.

As Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) hunts down former Nazis, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) studies at Oxford. Erik spent World War II in a concentration camp. Charles lived in luxury, but his parents were never around. His company was a girl about his age named Raven (Jennifer Lawrence). Former Nazi Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) plots to start World War III, so Erik, Charles, Raven, and a rag-tag group join together to stop him.

Oh, yeah, and they have superpowers. They’re mutated humans, and few know of their existence. Those who do know tend to fear and loathe them, making most mutants feel alone and discriminated against. METAPHOR.

If I had gone in expecting a James Bond film, I might have had a better idea of what to expect. This prequel to the other X-Men films had possibilities. We know from later films that Charles and Erik become leaders with opposing philosophies, even as they appear to share a genuine affection. How fun could it be to see their relationship develop?

The answer is pretty fun but also very stupid.

His mutant power is to fly upside down.

What they got wrong:

Some of the dialogue is cringe worthy and unbelievably cliché. How many times have we heard the phrase, “Who are you and what have you done with (etc.)” or “God help us all?” This may be paying homage to the past, but this knowledge doesn’t make the horrendous lines any easier on the ears.

Mutants are putting their lives on the line for lowly humans, but the big question here is, will the humans ever accept the mutants? Is it really worth saving a people who may very well turn against you? The film attempts to answer that question and show ambiguity by making almost every human character grating, irrationally stupid, and self-centered. Several minor characters (mostly humans) deliver their terrible lines in an especially wooden manner. This makes the stakes feel remarkably low. That’s quite an accomplishment considering the stakes are World War III.

Obviously, this is an alternate history. However, First Class is no Inglourious Basterds, a complex, satirical take on World War II. This film portrays two terrifying time periods in history, the Holocaust and the Cold War, with an offensive mixture of melodrama and lightheartedness. A figure resembling the sickening Nazi doctor Josef Mengele resembles a James Bond villain, gleefully shooting down an innocent Jewish woman. Was anyone else uncomfortable with this?

Race Relations (Spoiler Alert)
The film states its message about fifty times: be proud of your identity, no matter what your appearance. Yet the only African American man (Edi Gathegi, potentially interesting) in the film is one of only two mutants to be killed. The other is a Nazi.

As is expected, there are several moments that make no sense. You might find yourself asking, how did that character know that other character’s name? Or, why aren’t they moving when they are in grave danger? Those questions are far less important than several puzzling allegiance shifts. Let’s just say a few characters who appear to be horrified when witnessing mass murder somehow become smug accomplices.

Professor X. (Note: if someone makes this gesture, he or she is reading your mind.)

What they got right:

The design department had great fun with generic but iconic clothes and music of the 1960s. Prepare for turtlenecks and short skirts (and, because this is a comic book movie, cleavage).

Erik and Charles
The relationship between Erik and Charles is quite touching. Charles (dubbed Professor X) is a witty, confident, and believably inspiring leader. McAvoy is likable and surprisingly hilarious in the role. Charles uses his telepathic ability to help Erik (Magneto) control his unbalanced emotions. Erik uses his ability to mentally manipulate metal to pulverize his enemies. Erik is insightful, ruthless, and disturbed. Intense as always, Fassbender is engaging whether terrorizing bad-guys, fighting the darkness within, or giving acute advice to younger mutants.

Raven (later named Mystique) has a fairly nice story as a blue shapeshifter embarrassed by her natural appearance. Nicholas Hoult does well as a scientist who is ashamed of his fancy feet, capturing both the character’s diffidence and gruffer side. Scenes involving mutant abilities are in some ways superior to the other X-Men films because characters use their powers to full effect (i.e. they do not unnecessarily backflip or punch others when they could shoot them with lasers). On the whole, the action is quite entertaining and certainly one of the best aspects of this film.

Kevin Bacon has fun as the nefarious Shaw, and his trio of suave baddies remains confident and calm in every situation. The serene Emma Frost (January Jones) is a telepath who wears mostly undies and can turn her skin into a protective veneer of diamonds. The other two henchmen have a very small amount of screen time. One has at most five lines. The other has none. Still, Riptide (Alex Gonzalez) has an amusing ability to keep his hair and outfit perfectly in place while creating tornadoes, and Azazel (Jason Flemyng) bears a demonic appearance, possesses stunning assassination skills, and can teleport in a burst of flames. (Can anyone blame him for joining the villains? Who would trust a guy who looks like the devil?)

There is an actual arc, including a climax featuring several satisfying action sequences and some emotional resolution. There’s even a little tragedy and surprise.

A satisfying bromance. Professor X tries to help his troubled friend.


X-Men: First Class should be enjoyable for anyone who has followed the X-Men series. It’s an entertaining film which improves as it progresses. Unfortunately, it is not also a good film.

Staring at a demonstration of mutant power the professor's mansion

Friday, June 17, 2011

Check out my new book: The Freedom Rides and Alabama

The Freedom Rides and Alabama: 
A Guide to Key Events and Places, Context, and Impact

Recently, I had the opportunity to learn more about the Freedom Rides and participate in celebrations of their 50th anniversary. Because I work for a publishing company, I was able to write a small book summarizing the rides and their effect on Montgomery, Alabama.

This book gives a brief overview of the 1961 Freedom Rides, a crucial moment in American history in which an interracial group traveled across the South to protest segregated transportation. 

The Freedom Rides and Alabama focuses on the Freedom Riders’ experiences in Alabama, from the firebombing of their bus in Anniston to surviving beatings in Birmingham. A large portion of this book describes the riders’ arrival in Montgomery, including the violent white mob that greeted them and the ensuing mass meeting at First Baptist Church, where leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Fred Shuttlesworth spoke. 

This volume puts the Freedom Rides in historical context and is published in conjunction with the Alabama Historical Commission to celebrate the opening of a Montgomery museum at the site of the Greyhound station where the Freedom Riders arrived on their journey south, dedicated to the history of the Freedom Rides on the occasion of their fiftieth anniversary.

For more information, visit the NewSouth Books website:

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Of Gods and Men

Inspired by John Kiser’s nonfiction book The Monks of Tibhirine, Of Gods and Men is a moving depiction of French monks living in Algeria in the tense 1990s. This film features the darker parts of human existence, including fear and despair, and yet is more about goodness than evil.

Locals invite the monks to tea and celebrations. One monk, the amiable Luc (Michael Lonsdale), is a doctor who sees a constant stream of patients and occasionally passes out clothes as well as diagnoses. The brothers take turns gardening, sometimes pausing to appreciate the scenery. The film’s soundtrack consists solely of what the monks hear, which is mostly beautiful liturgical music.

Their peaceful life is threatened by terrorism and the legacies of French colonialism (mentioned only briefly). They debate whether they should leave and save their lives or continue to help the villagers and possibly die. This question is more difficult for some than others. One of the youngest, the middle-aged Christophe (Olivier Rabourdin), struggles with his faith. Even Christian (Lambert Wilson), the handsome and headstrong leader, has troubles, reaching out to nature in times of contemplation.

The characters have a deep love for one another, and both religious and nonreligious audiences can identify with the monks’ search for answers and fulfillment. Characters are subtly drawn and acted. The lovely countryside is shot in natural light, reflecting the monks’ inner turmoil or joy. Their simple lives are evoked in snatches rather than drawn out scenes, making the movie’s pacing slow but not tedious.

Of Gods and Men is emotional but not dramatic. Its message of forgiveness comes across as neither naïve nor patronizing, and its statements about tolerance in relation to Christianity, Islam, and religion in general are particularly timely. This uniquely lovely film is unsentimental but tender, gentle but powerful, and refreshing in every sense of the word.

French with English subtitles

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The King's Speech

The King's Speech is neither the most complex nor the most original film of the year, but this beautiful film stands out in that it requires the audience to have an attention span. The movie follows Prince Albert (Colin Firth), nicknamed Bertie, in Pre-World War II England as he attempts to overcome, or at least cope with, his stammer. His wife Her Royal Highness Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) recruits Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush) and so begins Bertie's unconventional path to Kinghood and self-acceptance.

Visuals are sometimes self-conscious and even cartoonish, but coloring is used to excellent effect. Lionel encourages Bertie to break away from social constraints, and his space is appropriately off-kilter, while the foreboding, increasingly dark shots of Bertie's surroundings have the effect of a vice. A stunning Colin Firth successfully conveys Bertie's vulnerability, which is made all the more harrowing because of his lack of self-pity. Geoffrey Rush complements Firth's performance and brings his delightful dialog to life as the alternately cheeky and tender Lionel.

Bertie's history of pain and stress is expressed in his body. The mechanical advice of physicians of the day falls flat, as does the advice to merely "relax." Lionel offers a deeper connection, one which will likely inspire numerous viewers who have struggled with feelings of inadequacy and isolation. The film highlights the strict social structure as a source of damaging pressure. Bertie's life has almost no relationship to his struggling subjects, and yet the descriptions of his upbringing are horrifying. Lionel has a content family but, as an Australian, faces frequent prejudice. In spite of its heaviness, the film is quite funny as well. Bertie's dry sense of humor and Lionel's insouciance light up many a scene and amplify the more serious moments.

The two most interesting minor characters are Bertie's father King George V (Michael Gambon) and brother David (Guy Pearce), later King Edward VII, both of whom play a major role in Bertie's pathology. Gambon's George is a man with little patience for weakness, and Pearce's David is a silly, unfortunate product of his family.

Helena Bonham Carter does well with a less fleshed-out part. Lionel's wife (played by Jennifer Ehle) may be too perfect, but Lionel's and Bertie's families are portrayed with a light, lovely touch. Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) is a purely positive and somewhat simplistic figure, and Archbishop Cosmo Lang (Derek Jacobi) is almost pure oiliness. Still, most characters are believable and very much of their time. Even the most progressive characters do not seem to be artificially implanted with modern ideas.

The horrors of World War I quietly hang over the characters, making the impending World War II all the more forboding. This might have been a more powerful film had it focused more on the threat ahead. Whatever the case, the painfully beautiful climax evokes a sense of both tragedy and victory and manages to be simultaneously heartrending and uplifting.

The King's Speech is less a political study than a poignant depiction of the power in treating another like a human being, even a king.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I Saw the Devil

Ji-woon Kim directs the aptly titled vengeance tale I Saw the Devil. The two main characters learn about the devil in themselves by looking at one another.

Kyung-Chul (Min-sik Choi) murders women. Resilient and wily, he is also so insane that he is almost hapless in his understanding of the world. One winter's night, he butchers Joo-Yeon (San-Ha Oh), a young woman who is pregnant by her fiance Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). Joo-Yeon's detective father feels guilty for not being able to protect his own daughter, but he tries to be thankful for at least finding her dismembered body. He and his other daughter find space in their grief to worry about Soo-hyeon.

A skilled special agent, Soo-hyeon takes it upon himself to find the killer. We follow both Soo-hyeon and Kyung-Chul as the former brutalizes suspects and the latter prowls for more victims. When Soo-hyeon finds Kyung-Chul, he abuses him to near death before pulling back and leaving him money. With the help of an implanted tracking device and microphone, Soo-hyeon later finds Kyung-Chul so he can repeat the torture.

Kyung-Chul mentions his strange stalker to an equally mad friend, who points out that his pursuer is enjoying the hunt in the same way they do. Kyung-Chul contemplates this and begins to enjoy his and Soo-hyeon's symbiotic relationship. Soo-hyeon's sister-in-law tells him that there is no meaning in taking revenge on a crazy man. Soo-hyeon claims there is, and the audience wonders when he will deem the punishment complete.

Touches of ironic humor are sprinkled throughout the film. The deranged killer calls others "crazy retards" or "psychos." One scene shows his reluctance to get into a taxi after he has lured so many women into his vehicle.

For those who don't love gore, this film is nauseatingly violent. The protagonist's brutality is shown more graphically than the criminals'. Due to excessive blood-letting and lingering shots on defenseless women, the message that retribution calls forth an unwelcome monster is difficult to take seriously. However, the film's final minutes are chilling. The grisly action pauses long enough for us to witness what is within the two men. I Saw the Devil's harrowing conclusion powerfully examines the pointlessness of sadism.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Downton Abbey: Season One

"Don't you care about Downton?"
"What do you think? I've given my life to Downton."

The opening image of a beautifully lit telegraph cuts to that of a train barreling towards the audience. Its whistle interrupts the Morse code, signaling music that complements the engine's chugs. A man stares out the window at sweeping landscape, which is obscured somewhat by steam and telegraph poles. Set in the years preceding the Great War, the prevailing theme in Downton Abbey is change.

We are soon introduced to residents of an Edwardian manor. Servants rush through the early morning, commenting on newly installed electric lights and quipping at lesser servants. Upstairs, family members wake with leisure and descend the staircase with grace.

In the first episode, Robert Crawley, the lord of Downton Abbey and Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, discovers that he must find a new heir. He and his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) have only three daughters, and his nearest male relative is middle class lawyer Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens). Even the servants realize that this, as one says, is "more than a shame--it's a complication."

Marvelous acting and a remarkable script bring to life the community of nearly twenty main characters. Bonneville's Robert is the definition of noblesse oblige, old fashioned but benevolent, while McGovern's elegant Cora conveys an American warmth. Michelle Dockery is excellent as Mary, their eldest daughter, who is at turns cruel, charming, and self-deprecating. Laura Carmichael plays Edith, the neglected middle sister, and Jessica Brown-Findlay is the sweet and observant youngest, Sybil.

The most hilariously acerbic lines are spoken by Robert's mother Violet. Maggie Smith plays Violet with enough wit to keep her both obnoxious and endearing. Her rival is Matthew's forward thinking mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton), who is initially less reluctant than her son, snobbish in his own way, to become embroiled in the Earl's family.

Butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), a fierce defender of Downton's honor, and wise housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) oversee the staff. New valet John Bates's (Brendan Coyle) limp causes a stir, but competent head maid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is attracted to his kind demeanor. First footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) dislikes him and seemingly everyone else except his mentor, the manipulative lady's maid Sarah O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran).

Gwen the maid (Rose Leslie) hopes to leave service, while the frequently flustered kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) dreams of pleasing the loud-voiced cook Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), and second footman William (Thomas Howes) pines for home.

Even the most conservative characters are torn between tradition and progress, and the most loathsome have moments of vulnerability and humor. The writing relies on psychological glimpses instead of heavy handed psychoanalysis and is aided by the expressive cast.

Downton Abbey is not politically correct. At times, unsavory characters bitterly espouse equality, and minorities are negative figures. We don't see backbreaking alternatives to service or closeups of the scullery maid's calluses. What Downton's lovely visuals lack in grit, the show compensates for in emotional texture. We witness the effects of bad company and resentment as well as good advice and loyalty.

This world is both familiar and exotic, making it a fascinating study in personality and culture. Its residents adjust to telephones and cars, but most of them have only a faint idea of impending social change and even less knowledge of the devastation at hand. As that cloud hangs on the horizon, characters are caught up in their own lives, and, for the time being, so are we. There is something intoxicating about getting lost in the intrigues of Downton Abbey.