Lately, I've been exercising with my friend George. George Eliot, that is. One can't just watch "Pride and Prejudice" indefinitely, so now I'm watching "Daniel Deronda" twenty minutes at a time in the mornings.
Yesterday, I was struck by a small scene that told me everything I needed to know about the character of Henleigh Grandcourt. I am a book person, as you know, but there are times when film can make a point or tell us something about a character in a way that is quicker, more subtle, and more indelible than print. This was one of those scenes.
I had been pretty sure that Grandcourt was not a likeable or trustworthy man--something about the way he looked at Gwendolen, holding his gaze a beat too long; something about his thin lips and bad hair. But I wasn't sure. And then I watched the scene where he ate breakfast with his dogs.
He held one small, silky dog on his lap, and a sweet cocker spaniel bounced at his side. At first, the scene is charming. He's outside on a small porch, the grounds of his massive estate spread out before him, the two little dogs vying for his attention.
But then you notice what Grandcourt is doing. He is talking to his odious and obsequious friend, Mr. Lush, and at the same time he is idly dangling a string of meat over the head of the cocker spaniel. The spaniel is dancing on his hind legs, chirping, whining, begging, while Grandcourt, without even deigning to look at him, bounces the food just out of reach.
The spaniel is in agony. You get the feeling that Grandcourt has done this before. And then, just when the dog's whimpers are almost unbearable--they go right to your heart, those helpless puppy squeaks--Grandcourt feeds the shard of meat to the little dog on his lap and gives the dog a kiss. The cocker spaniel shrieks in outrage. Grandcourt tells Lush, "Take that annoying thing away," (or something; I didn't write down the quote) and Mr. Lush obediently gets up and scoops the cocker spaniel in his arms.
It is a very small scene, but oh such an effective one. Brilliant, really. Because what symbol is more powerful than a dog? I've not read "Daniel Deronda," so I don't know if the scene comes from the mind of George Eliot, or from the minds at the BBC. But it's perfect.
The subtlety is what I like. He isn't kicking the dog, or hurting it in any way. The cocker spaniel appears well fed and has the run of the estate. But what is chilling is the emotional cruelty, the deliberate teasing of the dog and then the sneering dismissal of it when its shrieks become annoying.
Because you know that if he'll do that to a dog, he'll do it to a person. Run for the hills, Gwendolen! Even as you know that she will not ...
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