If Danny Boyle’s odd Olympics Opening Ceremony extravaganza taught us anything, it’s that there’s a very particular brand of humour known as “British.” It’s quirky, and more often than not it’s dark. And when it’s done well, it’s great.
Hunderby is an excellent example of British humour. It’s definitely quirky—a gothic period black comedy—and funny, but not in a real laugh-out-loud kind of way. It’s funny in a cringe-inducing, uncomfortable, squirming, but somehow loving it way. It relies heavily on viewers knowing certain literary works (Jane Eyre and Rebecca) very well, or you’re going to miss some of the joke. It doesn’t talk down to us. It’s raunchy, and wrong, and although I’m not 100% sure yet, it may just be kind of awesome.
Let’s check it out.
We open on a beach, with a shipwreck in the distance and a helpful man voiceovering that it’s 1831 and the Bethany Rose has wrecked off the beach near Hunderby. 91 people died, but two people: our heroine, a stowaway, and a black man named Jeff managed to survive. The man carries her to shore and starts doing mouth-to-mouth, but he backs off when he spots angry villagers approaching and accusing him of trying to eat the girl. For some reason, he steals the girl’s locket before he goes.
Next to arrive is Dr. Fogarty, on his noble steed. He too does mouth-to-mouth, in such a way that it looks more like he’s making out with her, and then the local reverend arrives and kneels beside her, already figuring she’s dead. She’s not, and proves it by spitting a whole lot of gross water right in his face.
VO tells us that Reverend, whose name is Edmund, lost his wife Arabelle the year before, and plenty of women from the village are eager to “warm the dent in the widower’s bed.” But he’s taken by our little survivor, whom everyone assumes is some spinster named Helene. Before long, he proposes to her, in a way that kind of insults her (he calls her simple), but nonetheless she accepts. And he seems nice enough, playing the lute for her and surprising her with flowers, and she has reason to hope she can escape what VO calls her “shadowy past.” But while walking on the beach one day, Edmond asks about her dating past, telling her that, if she’d been sullied by another, he’d be forced to follow Deuteronomy and stone her to death. Naturally, she tells him she’s pure as the driven snow. He notes a mole on the side of her face and tells her to cover it up for their wedding day.
Helene, it seems, has some daemons, and on the eve of her wedding she dreams of having killed a man who seemed to be attacking her, which freaks her out enough that she drafts a midnight confession and slips it under Edmond’s door. But the note ends up under the carpet and he doesn’t see it, so he never reads it.
Helene arrives at the church in her wedding finery, nervous, because she’s sure he’s read the note. She’s surprised to see him there and asks if he still loves her. He has no idea what she’s talking about and says he does, of course, and she embraces him, overjoyed.
Inside, she notes the lack of congregation. Her future husband tells her they all preferred to go to the hanging.
The hanging apparently took place right next to where they’re holding the reception, and the body’s now a macabre extra guest overlooking the festivities. Also amongst the not-so-great guests are all the rather icky women who had hoped to ensnare Edmond themselves. The lead one complains and insults Helene, until Edmond and Helene come over to say hi, and then, of course, they’re all smiles and sweetness. Edmond, being Edmond, thinks he’s paying the lead woman a compliment by telling her she has the look of Moses “in his later years.” She retaliates by bringing up his late wife, and Edmond agrees that he does miss her, and though their time together was brief, he will always cherish that “precious snatch.” Ohhhhh. So wrong!
Edmond takes Helen off to dance, but she’s useless at dancing and just stands there kind of uselessly while Edmond dances around her. Dr. Fogarty, still on his magnificent white horse, watches the party from a nearby bluff.
Later, a fellow clergyman arrives, apparently freshly returned from Fiji. He presents Edmond with an exotic bird, which Edmond names Raymond, after his father.
Fogarty has finally made it to the party, where he greets Helene in a hilariously overblown, poetic way, and she nervously manages to respond in kind. They don’t get much time to talk, though, before Edmond comes to collect her and take her to her new home.
In the carriage, Helene tries to kiss her new husband, but it’s as if the thought of touching a woman gives him the creeps, so he only manages the lightest brush of the lips.
Inside Edmond’s enormous home, they’re greeted by the creepy-as-hell housekeeper, Dorothy, who immediately reports that his mother has taken to her bed and that she’s still constipated (the mother, not Dorothy). Actually, the way she puts it is “her bowel has still not spoken,” which is actually a pretty good euphemism. Helene’s already nervous around this woman, as she is around almost everyone, but in this case it’s clear she’s not going to have an ally in Dorothy, so she’s right to be tense.
Later, Dorothy finds Helene in her room and asks coldly if everything is all right. Helene gushes that it’s just lovely, and Dorothy mentions that Arabelle’s room was the most beautiful in the house, and she was a fabulous jewel in it. It’s not used now, of course. And, according to Dorothy, Arabelle was a fan of very thick gravy, if you know what I mean. I don’t actually know what that means, but it sure sounds suggestive coming from Julia Davis, who’s playing Dorothy.
Dorothy then takes Helene on a tour of the house, showing her the door to Edmond’s mother’s room (Helene stupidly observes it looks lovely) and taking her to another place where the door is kept locked, allegedly due to crumbling stairs on the other side. But what we hear is some loud, miserable moaning and occasional retching coming from the other side. It’s certainly human, but Dorothy claims it’s just owls.
Later, Helene’s taking a bath. Edmond comes in and is almost immediately grossed out by her pubic hair, because apparently Arabelle favored a full Brazilian. I’d make fun of this, except something very like this actually happened in real life. Some Victorian-era poet married and was completely disgusted by his wife’s body hair, since his only exposure to women’s naked bodies was through Greek statues. He was so horrified he couldn’t bring himself to have sex with her, and she didn’t know what was missing and just blissfully went on like that for years. Apparently someone clued her in and she got an annulment. Still, poor woman.
Helene asks what Arabelle was like, because she’s twigged to the fact that St. Arabelle is the only thing these people want to talk about. She was “smooth as ham” and the most beautiful creature Edmond ever saw. And with that, he dispatches Helene to be shaved by Dorothy. I cringe at the thought of being shaved by a 19th century razor even by someone who likes you.
Post-grooming, the bridal couple are alone in their bedroom. Edmond recognizes the nightgown Helene’s wearing as the same one Arabelle wore “when first I burst her.” Cringe! The clock strikes and Edmond observes that it’s now a quarter past, and they will intercourse until “a 30 after.” He gets started right away, but apparently isn’t too successful, because Helene timidly tells him “it’s not in.” He doesn’t seem to care and just keeps doing…whatever it is he’s doing. Then he checks the clock and rolls over. Dorothy immediately knocks and comes in and offers to take away the wedding linens. He tells her that won’t be necessary (I’ll say) and sends Helene off to get his bubbly milk.
Helene goes down to the kitchen, where the maid/cook is flirting with some guy and wondering how it was that Arabelle died so quickly. The maid, Annie, goes to pour the milk and says mistress looked really beautiful on her wedding day. Because she’s gotten the lay of the land here, Helene immediately assumes she’s talking about Arabelle, but Annie quickly corrects her. Aww, that was sweet.
Helene takes the milk upstairs, but she’s intercepted by Dorothy outside the bedroom door. Dorothy tells her Edmond doesn’t want to be disturbed and scolds her for walking around with a lit candle. Then she grabs the cup of hot milk and tosses it in her own face, running off, screaming dramatically. Helene, horrified, goes to pick up the dropped cup and finds the letter she wrote Edmond the night before, tucked under the rug. She grabs it, hiding it in her hand, until she can get to the bathroom, where she rips it up and throws it out the window. As she looks out the window, Dorothy appears behind her, super creepy in an eyepatch now.
Breakfast the next morning. Edmond’s mother is elderly and miserable and Edmond immediately notices Dorothy’s new accessory and teases her, asking if she plans to become a pirate. The story of the night before comes out, somewhat, but of course Dorothy makes it seem like Helene’s to blame. She leaves to answer the door and Edmond tells her she can feed Bird Raymond, if she wants to.
Dorothy opens the door to admit the doctor, who’s come to see Edmond’s mother, Matilda. He offers to look at Dorothy’s eye, but she won’t let him, saying it’s Matilda who needs his attention. He promises to get the bowl chatting again.
In the dining room, Helene’s having no luck with Bird Raymond. The bird flies out of the cage and perches in the rafters. Raymond tells Helene to get lost while he tries to get the bird down. Out in the hall, she meets Dr. Fogarty, who tries to greet her in that crazy but somewhat cute poetic way of his, buts he bursts into tears and Edmond comes running out to beg the doctor to get the bird down. Because he’s magical, Dr. F. manages in just a few seconds and all is well.
Helene watches Annie and her young man making out through the windows of the sitting room when Edmond interrupts to ask what she’s up to. She shows him the prayer cushion she’s embroidering, poorly, and he incorrectly identifies the scene depicted as someone slaying his daughter. Helene says it’s the nativity. Try again, honey. In comes Dorothy to tell Edmond that Brother Joseph has confirmed his attendance at dinner the following night. Edmond tells Helene that Brother Joseph is quite refined, so they wanted to give him an artsy night. He plans to sing and Dorothy will play some instrument. Helene asks what Arabelle would have done, and of course she was awesome at everything on earth, so it’s more a question of what she wouldn’t have done. Helene offers to show off her terrible embroidery, which just pisses Edmond off.
That night, Helene makes her way to Edmond’s room and startles him awake. He allows her into the bed but doesn’t seem interested in replaying their wedding night, though she makes a go of it. He asks her to get his bubbly milk instead.
She heads to the kitchen, and on the way sees Dorothy putting a plate of food near the room nobody goes into. Afraid of being seen, Helene hides in a nearby bedroom, which looks like it could very well belong to Marie Antoinette. This, of course, is Arabelle’s room, and Dorothy finds her there and starts passive-aggressively showing her around. This whole scene is almost an exact replica of the same scene in Rebecca, and yes, that’s totally intentional. But, of course, it’s a bit raunchier (this housed her breasts! Her nipple dents—still there!)
Dorothy accuses Helene of wanting the room, and although Helene protests, Dorothy immediately goes to have her things moved in, loudly enough to wake Edmond. He demands to know what’s going on and Dorothy tells him Helene’s insisting on being moved to Arabelle’s room. Helene protests, Edmond tells them Helene doesn’t want to move now, and Dorothy throws a wobbler.
The following day, Dr. F finds Helene outside painting. She’s as good at that as she is at embroidery, poor thing. He tells her on Tuesdays he goes out to gather bluebells for the sick and needy and checks the woods for injured wildlife. Right, because he’s perfect. He looks at the painting and, well, it looks like something I would have done. I suck at 2-D art. It’s supposed to be a picture of the house, but it’s a mess. Nonetheless, he compliments it and tells her he paints a bit. He offers to adjust a thing or two and basically manages to repaint the whole thing in just a few seconds. He also shows her how to properly hold a brush (tenderly, like a lady’s finger).
Later, happy Helene is checking out a pretty dress for dinner. Dorothy appears, of course, and tells Helene he’s laid out a dinner dress: a hideous smock. According to Dorothy, Edmond hates bright colours and would be embarrassed by his wife dressing as a clown. Helene asks if there’s anything she can do to help out with the house and Dorothy tells her the bird has to be fed and his cage cleaned. Joy.
Helene nervously goes and shoves some food into the bird’s cage, then dashes off.
At dinner, Matilda randomly tells Brother Joseph (the same man who gave Edmond Bird Raymond) that she hates him, which everyone ignores. Joe compliments the dinner—battered lamb’s head, apparently. Yummy!
After dinner, Dorothy plays some sort of oboe-looking instrument while Edmond sings Diddle, Diddle Dumpling, which reminds Joe of the tribal dances of Fiji. He gets up and starts dancing (poorly) and invites Helene to join, but she can’t dance at all, so she just stands there awkwardly. Once the song’s done, they ask what she has to show off. She says she’s captured the house in watercolour, but when she lifts the sheet off of it we see that someone’s painted a giant penis right over it. Lovely. Dorothy suggests a visit to Bird Raymond and off they all go.
But Bird Raymond’s not there. His cage is empty, which freaks out Edmond but amuses Joseph because he thinks this is some trick. Dorothy says that Helene was the last person with the bird. Helene says that’s true, but she’s sure she locked the cage. Edmond’s sure that she meant the bird ill because of that one incident where he flew out of the cage the day before. And then Dorothy sees the bird peeking out of Helene’s pocket. It’s quite dead, and everyone freaks out thoroughly. Joseph leaves in a huff, and Helene apparently runs to hide from her husband, who’s shouting for the “Bird Butcher.” She escapes through the bathroom window (actually, her husband accidentally pushes her out) and has her fall helpfully broken by Jeff, the man who rescued her from the ship and inexplicably stole her locket. Annie comes running out, thinking Jeff’s attacking Helene, but Helene tells her to leave off and brings Jeff inside.
In the kitchen, we learn that Jeff doesn’t speak, but he knows sign language, and so does Annie’s boyfriend, luckily. Bizarrely, boyfriend can’t seem to use sign language himself, he can only interpret for others. Jeff hands over the locket (why’d he steal it in the first place?) and Annie reads the inscription: To Elizabeth from John, ‘Til Death. She opens it, looks at the pictures, and realizes Helene’s not really Helene at all. Dun dun DUN!