I was very lucky to meet Damian Lewis in person for the first time at Cheltenham Literature Festival in October 2014. I probably stood out as the crazy fan at their book signing after his and Helen’s brilliant performance of reading love poems to each other from Allie Esiri’s The Love Book compilation. The Brits are proper. They do not ask for photos. I think I was the only one in that long queue who asked for a photo but also for a bit of his time citing that I came all the way from North Carolina – his state of residence for six months every year between 2011-2013 thanks to Homeland – to meet him!
…and an autographed copy of Dear Life, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro.
Alice Munro, aka the Chekhov of English language, is one of my all-time favorite writers. I “met” her randomly as I was browsing books at Strand years ago and the rest is history. I do not know how many messages I received the day Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013 because I introduced so many friends to her fabulous work.
While her stories seemingly concern with ordinary people and simple lives in small towns of her native Ontario, Canada, nothing is ordinary or simple about Munro’s stories. Her work is a living proof that human relationships form the essence of life as well as that of literature. And with female characters at the heart of them, Munro brings us stories of complex relationships women have with their spouses, parents, kids, friends, lovers, colleagues, acquaintances, or strangers. Her writing is so deep that it helps you understand not only the characters’ emotional state but also your own.
Roxana Robinson nails Munro’s work in a “Writers on Munro” article in The New Yorker:
“What we all lead are ordinary lives with extraordinary passages. It’s Munro who reminds us of this, and that the extraordinary is experienced by women as often as by men, and it needn’t take place on a whaling ship. Piano teachers, divorced professors, country doctors, solitary widows in the country—all those small and insignificant people lead lives of enormous drama. Women lead lives of enormous drama. She has made that into fact.”
Some of Munro’s work has already been adapted for the big screen: “The Bear Came over the Mountain” was made into a film called Away from Her, directed by Sarah Polley and produced by Atom Egoyan and “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” was made into a film called Hateship, Loveship. The internationally acclaimed director Pedro Almodovar’s fantastic movie Julieta is also inspired by three different Munro stories, namely “Chance”, “Soon” and “Silence” from her The Runaway collection. And if I had had the means, I would have paid for the adaptation of her story “Amundsen” from her Dear Life collection to the big screen.
When I gave Damian the autographed copy of Dear Life at Cheltenham Literature Festival, I left a little card in the book. I do not remember the exact words I wrote on the card but they were along the lines of “Dear Damian, they should make a movie out of the second story in this book, Amundsen, and cast you as Dr. Fox.” I have no clue if Damian has ever taken a look at the book or the story but here it is – my dream role for Damian Lewis: Dr. Alister “Reddy” Fox, an ordinary country doctor.
Amundsen is as much about gender roles and social pressures as about the costly nature of first love. Book-ended by two train rides, the story is told in the first person and from the perspective of the female protagonist Vivien Hyde years after the events took place. The story has stayed with me since I first read it back in 2013.
Vivien, a young teacher in Toronto, takes a job in a sanatorium for children with Tuberculosis in Amundsen, a small town in Ontario, towards the end of the WWII. We find her at the station waiting for the train that will take her to the “San” for her new job. And yeah I have Saoirse Ronan in mind for the role!
Amundsen is in Northern Ontario so the winter weather is ice cold but, as Vivien finds out right away, also are the people. The young woman does not get the warm reception she expects yet she is impressed by the winter landscape.
“Brittle-looking birch trees with black marks on their white bark, and some kind of small untidy evergreens rolled up like sleepy bears. The frozen lake not level but mounded along the shore, as if the waves had turned to ice in the act of falling. And the building, with its deliberate row of windows, and its glassed-in porches at either end. Everything austere and northerly, black-and-white under the high dome of clouds. So still, so immense an enchantment.”
The sanatorium is run by Dr. Alister Fox, a lung surgeon. The doctor is surprised to see Vivien since he has been expecting “a sort of old-lady teacher come out of the woodwork.”
He looks fifteen years older than Vivien. He is not particularly good-looking. Red hair cut very short. Bright grayish blue eyes. Oh and “one eyebrow had risen, like a little peaked cap.”
Sounds familiar? 😀
Dr. Fox is not a particularly good looking man. And while Damian is a very attractive man, when they give him the right hair, the right make-up and right clothes, he turns into a man who is not so much about his looks – think William Keane in Keane, Balor McNeal in Silent Storm or Howard Davies in the upcoming Dream Horse.
Dr. Fox gives Vivien a hard time in their first conversation especially when she talks about the beauty of the landscape and that it feels like a Russian novel.
“Is it really? Which Russian novel?”
So Vivien’s first impression of the doctor is that he is the kind of person who sets traps in his questions for people to fall in.
Dr. Fox is direct to the point of bluntness and extremely practical. Probably because he has internalized what has been going on in the sanatorium, he does not shy away from informing the young teacher that she should not expect all of her students to make it out of here and into the world. But he is thoughtful enough to write down things to make her teaching easier. No grades. Simple set of skills necessary for going into the world. Drawing, music, stories preferred. No overexcitement or too much competition.
While his office is out of bounds, Dr. Fox visits Vivien’s class once, looking tired and withdrawn, but then joins the class activity and turns it into entertainment for the sick kids. Vivien is sure that the doctor thinks she is a fool when he does not want to talk with her after class, but then she finds out over lunch that a patient died in operation in the morning and she feels more of a fool.
And then there is Mary – the kitchen manager’s teenage daughter. She constantly talks about Dr. Fox whom she nicknamed “Reddy” – based on the famous children’s book character “Reddy Fox” – with her friend Anabel who has died of TB.
From what Mary shares with Vivien, we find out that both Anabel and Mary had their birthdays in June and Reddy gave them a boat ride on the lake for their 11th birthday, and made them a cake for their 12th. By their 13th birthdays, Anabel was dead. Mary says she and Reddy will make something to mark Anabel’s grave at some point.
So the doctor, who can get plain rude at times, can be really wonderful at other times. Everyone at the “San” looks up to him – partly because he has read so many books. Vivien is surprised to find out that there is no Mrs. Fox.
Dr. Fox invites Vivien to his home for dinner on the evening they both have tickets for a school performance Mary will be in. He makes her wait in her best dress and high heels in front of the San but apologizes when he shows up. He does not give her his arm when she answers his question of whether she was steady with a yes. And I would love to hear Damian deliver the words of this man, who has certainly been living alone for a long time, as they arrive at his home.
“I’m your janitor and your cook and your server. It’ll be soon comfortable here (he starts a fire in the wood stove) and the meal won’t take me long. Don’t offer to help. I prefer to work alone. Where would you like to wait? If you want to, you could look over the books in the front room. It shouldn’t be too unbearable in there with your coat on. The light switch is inside the door. You don’t mind if I listen to the news? It’s a habit I’ve got into.”
Vivian checks out his books (interestingly no Russian classics!) as he cooks for her (pork chops, instant mashed potatoes, canned peas, and a cold apple pie from the store as dessert). He asks questions about her life in Toronto, her family and her university courses – with that eyebrow raised. She makes up an imaginary boyfriend in the Navy when he asks about it. He gives her a kiss on the forehead that night and leaves the key to his house on her doormat the following morning. Vivien should feel free to visit his library and borrow books. But she could not bring herself to use the key.
“His past and future presence in the house would draw all ordinary comfort out of the situation and replace it with a pleasure that was nerve-racking than expansive. I doubted whether I’d be able to read a word.”
Vivien is in love and who can blame her? Dr. Fox, with his inaccessible male mystery, is obviously the most interesting thing in town where there is not much space for women to breathe – there is no ladies room in the town cafe! Besides, what is better than love to make one feel alive in a world of despair and death?
The climax arrives at the doctor’s house during their second date in a week. Dr. Fox notices that Vivien did not take up on his offer to visit the house. This time he lets her watch him work in the kitchen and asks her to set the table…
“You may as well learn where things are.”
…which excites the young woman. Vivien knows her stock has risen at the San because of her relationship with the doctor and she might turn out to be a woman with a man after all – required of every woman at the time! An unexperienced young woman, she is turned on by watching his easy concentration and economical movements in the kitchen.
A knock at the door interrupts their dinner. It is Mary, carrying a box of heart-shaped Valentine’s cookies, who wants to perform a song before them. While Vivien enjoys Mary’s company, Dr. Fox is brutal with the teenager. He tells her she is not invited and he drives her home. And Vivien, while shocked by the doctor’s brutality towards the young girl, is flattered that he did it for her, and she is ashamed that she is flattered. She just does not know what to say to the doctor when he is back.
Dr. Fox does not expect Vivien to say anything when he is back. He takes her to bed. Vivien’s virginity does not surprise him because he probably never bought that “boyfriend in the Navy” story. He tells her he intends to marry her. And while I understand that the story is set in 1940s, it still does not sit right that he does not ask her to marry him – it is obvious he will marry her because the social conventions require him to do so. But young Vivien is over the moon and utterly clueless thinking that she has found true love.
Dr. Fox convinces Vivien to keep their sudden engagement private, not share the news with her family in Toronto, and that they will get married as soon as he can take a few days off from work. And Vivien, who is in love, does not care that Alister does not like weddings, ceremonies or diamond rings. She does not look for a meaning in the “pained smile” the matron at the San gives her. She has so much passion for Alister that at some point she finds herself thinking she wants to have her “spine crushed against any roadside rock should he require an upright encounter.”
In the climax scene, while Vivien is ready to taste a Valentine’s cookie, Dr. Fox prefers to throw them out. And when Vivien tastes one when Dr. Fox drives Mary home, she realizes that they do not taste as good as they look. This is some beautiful story telling about love that only brilliant actors like Damian and Saoirse can bring to life on screen seamlessly.
I wonder if Vivien remembers the Valentine’s cookie when the doctor tells her that he is not going to marry her on the day they drive to Huntsville to get married at the city hall. There is regret and sorrow in his body language as well as his voice. But, one second later, as he has to get into an interaction with a male, he goes back to being a man in control of things and speaking in his “male-to-male tone.”And since he has been able to break the bad news to Vivien, he is relieved…
…so much so that as he drives Vivien to the train station and buys her a one-way ticket to Toronto, he has the nerve to make lighthearted jokes and even to talk about sharing a decent slice of pie since their lunch was terrible.
Vivien goes back home. She gets married. Ten years later, she bumps into Dr. Fox on a busy street crossing in Toronto that they cannot even slow down to say hi to each other. And Vivien, after a decade, feels exactly the same as she felt back on the day Dr. Fox put her on a train back to Toronto.
“Nothing changes, apparently, about love.”
Vivien’s thoughts are subject to interpretation but I think it is about the costly nature of first love – the first real heartbreak that one never forgets.
You can read the story in its entirety here.
So don’t you think Damian is the perfect actor to portray Dr. Fox?
Some of you may wonder why I dream of Damian playing Dr. Fox – a very flawed man.
Well, firstly, I believe Damian is at his best when he brings to life deeply damaged characters. Secondly, less is always more with Damian that I think would be perfect to portray Alister Fox . Finally, as much as I love him playing larger-than-life characters such as Henry VIII, Bobby Axelrod or Steve McQueeen, I think Damian really shines when he portrays ordinary men under extraordinary situations such as Nicholas Brody, Dick Winters or Charlie Crews.
When I read Wolf Hall back in 2014 I had no idea that BBC was planning an adaptation. I imagined Damian as Henry VIII throughout the book and hoped with all my heart that they would adapt the book for the screen and cast my favorite actor as the king. Can you imagine my excitement when that dream came true?
Oh, and since 2015, the early days of this blog, we have kept saying that Damian Lewis should play Steve McQueen. And yeah that dream came true as well.
So… Even though I am not holding my expectations high that they will adapt Amundsen to the big screen and cast Damian as Dr. Fox, I have good enough reason to believe that if I wish it all my heart and more, it may happen 😀 Well, a girl can have some magical thinking, no?