A Doll’s House (1973)

Dir. Patrick Garland. Starring Claire Bloom, Anthony Hopkins, Anna Massey

For all of the hype about the end of A Doll’s House (which I rather prefer translated as “A Doll House” but which is not terribly important to what I’m saying here), one forgets that it reads rather like the second draft of a dramatic encounter on The West Wing. Torvald exists to ask Nora question after question about why she’s leaving him, and although it’s realistic enough, Nora’s politicized answers check off boxes more than inform her new, exciting character. There’s not much there for an actress to work with; the best bits are reserved for a couple of brief monologues in which she can explain how the miracle she dreamt of fell flat, and they are not spread much farther. The actor with the best line in that scene is, of course, the sound of a door slamming.

Poke around YouTube for a little while and scout out some of those actresses playing the part. Jane Fonda, a more than capable actress, really can’t pull it off. I think it takes someone like Claire Bloom to make the scene work, and there are not many Claire Blooms left anymore; I am not optimistic that, should they decide to make A Doll’s House into a film again, they will find an actress who can stiffen so nobly and flounce so primly, who can be Joan of Arc and a squirrel within the same ninety minutes. Keira Knightley could (with Joe Wright directing, as is his wont), as Bloom does here, nibble her finger and touch her forehead, but she could only bring sadness to it and not gravity. An actress like Emma Stone could open her mouth slightly, close it slightly, and then sneer the line, “And what, in your opinion, are my most sacred duties?” But she would bring irony to it, and not gravity. “I have never felt as convinced and as lucid as I do tonight,” Bloom can say with that perfect diction, and it is conviction and lucidity themselves who acclaim her. Bloom, who seems to carry enough gravity around in her pockets to pull planes out of the sky, shines in these moments of utter seriousness; it’s the reason that her unsmiling Lady Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited is infuriating but, as Charles says, charming. What Bloom can bring to a role is the perception of virtue, and that is a rare instrument indeed in any actor’s toolbox. Virtue, if people really mean it, is far more interesting and intoxicating to an audience than vice, and so much harder to act convincingly. It’s why Tim Tebow rubs us all the wrong way; even if he didn’t have a screaming mob of social Christians crying Hosanna over his small actions, his virtue feels so performative, so unreal. Bloom can make it feel legitimate and fine in the same way it feels legitimate and fine watching Ben Kingsley play Gandhi.

I’ve discussed at length on this blog why I think it’s a very tricky thing to adapt plays to screen. Admittedly, A Doll’s House has an advantage over The Crucible or Doubt in that the fellow who wrote said play has been dead since before the first feature film was released. Nonetheless, it’s hard to take the tight structure of a play, which thrives on powerful emotion and a limited set – in short, which, even in such a realist classic as A Doll’s House can unironically embrace fabrication – and make it work in a realist film, where verisimilitude in appearance is especially prized thanks to Brando and Spielberg. Something always feels off. The lines feel stilted in a film, or it doesn’t translate neatly to a real-life setting. This adaptation of A Doll’s House doesn’t have that problem. For one thing, its actors are too good. When Denholm Elliott and Anna Massey are the weaker links in a cast, one has done a more than adequate job in casting. For another, A Doll’s House on film can make better use of mirrors than A Doll’s House on stage. Short of putting a Cabaret-style mirror across the stage to indict the audience, it’s hard to provide that kind of reflection in a theatrical setting. On film it’s easy enough, and it even allows characters to look directly at the viewer and even speak to them (as Garland does, cleverly, with Hopkins’ Torvald late in the film). Mirrors can also create a distorting effect; one only needs to watch three minutes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s adaptation, Nora Helmer, to recognize the power ubiquitous mirrors can have in this setting, to make it impossible to see faces head on, and to create a massive claustrophobia next door to a vast space.

Once it became cool to say that Die Hard is someone’s favorite Christmas movie, it’s perfectly acceptable to call A Doll’s House one of the best Christmas movies ever made. The action begins on Christmas Eve, and a very Protestant work ethic one it is too. Nora has been out all day buying presents for her family; Torvald has been at his desk all day, plotting out his new reign as bank manager; Kristine Linde (Massey) has come to visit the Helmers, hoping to turn her childhood friendship with Nora into a secretarial position at the bank. Nora appears flighty, but the scene where she jumps around Torvald doing her “squirrel” routine (which has a lot of “CHICKENS DON’T CLAP!” in it, honestly) and hugging him and begging for money is far cannier than it appears on first glance. It reminds me most of the scene in Goodfellas where Karen rewards Henry for giving her money via oral sex. It’s the same principle, and while there’s something innately sketchier about the prostituting connections between Karen and Henry, the creepier one by far is Nora’s whimpering and hopping. That begging is unnatural, and Torvald appears to get a real kick out of it; Nora knows it, and uses it to her advantage. She is an expert wheedler, playing dumb and flirty until she gets what she wants. Perhaps this is why she is married to a bank manager on the way up, and her friend Kristine had to settle for a middle-class man who didn’t even leave her children.

While Torvald and Nora are playing 19th Century Man and Reasonably Woke 19th Century Woman, Krogstad (Elliott) and Mrs. Linde are being people. There’s a school of thought which doesn’t buy into Krogstad as an actual human being, and I can appreciate that. Over the course of a few days, he goes from being willing to blackmail the Helmers into oblivion to assure himself a leg up on the competition at the bank, less interested in money than he is in status…to reminding himself that once he loved a woman, that she spurned him, that there is goodness in him, and then deciding to marry her after she returns from a long way away. Oh, and of course deciding that he won’t blackmail the Helmers after all. It’s reasonable to call him unrealistic or a walking deus ex machina, but I’ve always been impressed by him. There’s something very real about his bitterness. Elliott, thank goodness, doesn’t play a snarling, dangerous man, but plays a desperate one who is beyond caring about what he has to do to make ends meet and fantasies come real. The film does something the play can’t – namely, it shows us Krogstad’s home, and one of his sons. It’s a dark, almost cavelike place; next to the cheerful, snowlit Helmer abode, it looks like a lower-middle-class suburb of Hell. It provides a real motivation for Krogstad to take desperate measures, and it makes his son – whose age is not mentioned in the play – just old enough to understand his father’s past crimes and misdemeanors. For Mrs. Linde to come in and fill in that desperation with her presence and sensibility and kindness doesn’t seem far-fetched. It’s the righting of an old wrong that neither one of them could have avoided ten years ago, but it’s a putting-right nonetheless. Doubtless it must feel like the first step to change, a way out of his present situation: that’s all Krogstad wanted in the first place.

While Bloom’s Nora is the film’s ideological and filmic star, and for good reason, Massey’s Kristine is far wiser for far longer. It is she who convinces Krogstad to keep his first letter, which reveals Nora’s forgery to Torvald, in the mailbox. It is she who counsels Nora over and over again to recognize the fundamental silliness of her marriage to Torvald. It is she who convinces Krogstad that he can remake himself, even as a middle-aged man, into a decent person. All this after marrying for money instead of love, watching her invalid mother die, hoping her children can grow up quickly and get jobs, supporting them with constant work. If there’s an unrealistic character in this film, it’s Kristine. She’s too good by half. Massey brings a quietness to her; it’s possible to read the character as someone more outspoken, more forceful, even brusque, but Massey imbues Kristine with what I think is a simpler sort of dignity.

There’s a special role for Dr. Rank (Ralph Richardson); he is, by the Robertson Davies definition, the literal personification of Fifth Business. (He’s even the fifth-most important character in the play! It’s great!) “He is neither Hero (Torvald) nor Heroine (Nora), Confidante (Kristine) nor Villain (Krogstad), but who is essential to bringing about the Recognition…”

Something about the Arctic Circle must make playwrights want to put philosophizing doctors in their plays; Chekhov, who puts a doctor in Ivanov, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Sea Gull , at least was a doctor before he began writing. I don’t know what Ibsen’s excuse is. Anyway, Rank is a great role for Richardson, who is, first off, thirty years older than Bloom and looks it in the film. It allows him to use that wheezy voice to full effect, for Rank, whose father was a rake and a gourmand, has also left him with a mysterious, mortal chronic illness. All this has made Rank cynical, which hardly makes him an exception in this film. After all, Nora and Torvald’s marriage could hardly have been more cynical if Diogenes got hitched to Lady Brett Ashley. Rank understands himself far better than his friends understand themselves, though, and it makes him much more pitiable. He knows he’s going to die in pain. He’s planned on it, actually – he’s got a code set up with Nora so that she’ll know that when the time comes, he’s going to hole up in his quarters and die alone. Rank’s purpose is twofold. One, he gives Nora an outlet for her charm; she flirts with him using “flesh-colored” silk stockings, a translation I’ve seen often and always disliked because “flesh” is not a sexy word unless you get a high off of watching people eat fried chicken. Maybe more importantly, Rank provides an interesting corollary to a theory of Torvald’s. Torvald believes that moral sickness is not catching, quite, but hereditary. He degrades Nora’s late father to her frequently, and when he believes that his world is falling apart, he castigates Nora, Nora’s father for sowing the vice, and himself for believing he could change her. Rank’s illness (which is given as tuberculosis of the spine, which is appropriately gruesome but not hereditary at all) is supposed to be a literal genetic inheritance from his father. The film thus, to some extent, supports Torvald’s hypothesis. The sins of the father do really get passed down, whether it’s some moral or physical flaw. He doesn’t bring about the denouement, precisely, but from our Fifth Business we are granted a really marvelous character foil.

On that note, the subtle question of A Doll’s House, I think, is the question of what will happen to the three Helmer children. They aren’t on screen very much, and they are totally absent from the third act, where all the good speech-giving and tarantella-dancing and door-slamming happens. Much of the hand-wringing around A Doll’s House goes back to “But what will the children do without their mother?” It’s a reasonable question, but they forget that Nora has already answered it: she doesn’t believe that she’s fit to do so. She finds herself too uneducated to do well by them. Torvald, who has interacted with the children even less than she, and is a pinprick to boot, is even less qualified to take care of them and take charge of their upbringing. The film seems to argue for a cycle: things will continue on in this same vein, despite individual victories like Nora’s, because the parents will always be found wanting.

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