Sunday, 11 January 2015


“We live, as we dream - alone.” – Joseph Conrad

Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (1857-1924) at age 15 ran away from his native Poland to seek his fortune in the world and ended up in Marseilles. There he signed on as crewman on a merchant vessel and spent the next 15 years sailing the seven seas. At 30 years of age he landed in London and decided to settle there. He married and began writing novels - in English. Now, what kind of English he learnt aboard merchant sailing ships late in the 19th Century might well be imagined, with crews comprising Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Galicians... However, his genius overcame all difficulties, linguistic or otherwise, and he is now known as one of the greats of English literature, Joseph Conrad. His works include the novels: “Lord Jim” (1900), “Heart of Darkness” (1902) and “Nostromo” (1904). He also wrote short stories.

Conrad is regarded as one of the greatest novelists in English, though he did not speak the language fluently until he was in his twenties (and always with a marked accent). He wrote stories and novels, often with a nautical setting, that depict trials of the human spirit in the midst of an indifferent universe. He was a master prose stylist who brought a distinctly non-English sensibility into English literature.

While some of his works have a strain of Romanticism, his works are viewed as modernist literature. His narrative style and anti-heroic characters have influenced many authors, including D. H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Gerald Basil Edwards, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Greene, and many others. Films have been adapted from, or inspired by, Conrad’s “Almayer's Folly”, “An Outcast of the Islands”, “Heart of Darkness”, “Lord Jim”, “Nostromo”, “The Secret Agent”, “The Duel”, “Victory”, “The Shadow Line”, and “The Rover”.

Writing in the heyday of the British Empire, Conrad drew on his native Poland’s national experiences and on his personal experiences in the French and British merchant navies, to create short stories and novels that reflect aspects of a European-dominated world, while plumbing the depths of the human soul. Appreciated early on by literary cognoscenti, his fiction and nonfiction have gained an almost prophetic cachet in the light of subsequent national and international disasters of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The most famous movie adaptations of his works are: Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Sabotage” (1936), based on “The Secret Agent” (1907); Richard Brooks’ “Lord Jim” (1964), and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979), based on “Heart of Darkness.” Conrad sold the American screen rights to his fiction in 1919. In the next year he composed a screenplay entitled “The Strange Man”, based on the short story “Gaspar Ruiz”. He did not like to work for the film business, and did not know about screenwriting – not surprisingly, the studio rejected his script.

For Movie Monday today, I am reviewing a film that I had not seen before and was unfamiliar with, but which is based on Konrad’s short story: “Amy Foster”. The film is known by this title or alternatively by the name: “Swept from the Sea” (1997). It is directed sensitively by Beeban Kidron and there are some excellent performances by Vincent Perez, Rachel Weisz, Ian McKellen and Kathy Bates. One of the big pluses of the film is the excellent score by John Barry, that goes hand in hand with the action and beautiful cinematography of the bleak and windswept Cornish coast, where the action is set.

This story is one that Conrad must have felt very deeply about. It is about the survivor of a shipwreck of a migrant ship that was making its way to America and was full of Ukrainian immigrants. Yanko is the only survivor and his arrival in the small Cornish village is greeted by prejudice, suspicion and finally enmity. He is only treated kindly by Amy Foster, a wayward young woman who works as a servant in one of the farmhouses, is shunned by most villagers but even her own family. The two misfits fall in love and the whole community subsequently ostracises them.

From my description you might think that this is a “chick flick”, but I found it quite robust and the central theme is deeper and more sinister than an ill-starred romance. The supporting characters, especially the Doctor (Ian McKellen) and the daughter of one of the landed gentry in the village (Kathy Bates) have their own stories that form the backdrop for Yanko’s and Amy’s romance and the changing relationship of these two characters with the leads is an interesting subplot. Amy’s relationship with her family is another subplot that explains much of Amy’s character and actions.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie greatly and as an adaptation of a literary work it was well adapted, acted ably, directed sensitively and was full of atmosphere. It is well worth seeing and will please most, I think.

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