Laura Linney starts off telling us all about how the deaths of so many men in the First World War left lots of women with nobody to marry (as one would imagine), and the author of the novel this is based on was one such woman. Write what you know.
As a man gallops a horse along a beach and through the countryside, a young woman in bright red sits on a train, smoking and writing in a journal. She hops off the train at a station and hauls ass to wherever she’s going, leaping onto a moving bus and everything. Meanwhile, the horseman dismounts (presumably at home) and Isobel Crawley calls ladies in to an interview. Red Dress finally arrives at the interview spot, and soon our unnamed horseman arrives as well. Isobel (that’s what I’m calling her until she gets a real name) ribs him for arriving just in time for the finish.
Red Dress (and I must ask—is a scarlet red dress really appropriate attire for a job interview? As a schoolteacher?) is in for her interview with a panel of mostly men, plus Isobel. One of them notes her empire experience—she taught in the Transvaal before going to London. Isobel informs her that this isn’t a fancy school, like they have in London, and Red Dress (oh, hell, her name’s Sarah Burton) counters that if one has high expectations, the girls will rise to meet them. Some will. Isobel’s not sure Sarah knows what she’s in for, in this far northern town, but Sarah zings them all by saying she does, actually, because she grew up nearby. Horseman doesn’t seen so keen on her, so now we know they’re totally going to hook up by the end of this. We’ve all seen this situation before. He’s totally the Mr. Darcy of this film.
Sarah goes on to say that she plans to teach the girls not to repeat the mistakes of the past—like blindly sending young men off to die by the millions. Oh, hey, now, Sarah. I think that’s not only a fairly rude thing to say, but it’s also pretty naïve. Yes, mistakes were made during WWI, but it’s not like those in charge were just purposely sending men out to be slaughtered, without a care in the world for them. The problem was that weapons advanced faster than tactics did, and they had a lot of trouble addressing that quickly enough for it to make a difference. I imagine at least one person on this panel served, and it’s likely they were in some position of command, so she kind of just spit in their faces.
Ahh, I see I was right. Horseman served—and commanded—and he takes serious offense at her referring to the young men he served with being referred to as cannon fodder. He calls her a Socialist and things are about to get heated, but another panel member moves things along and asks Sarah if she agrees that the greatest calling of a young woman is to be a wife and mother. Sarah’s all “no way!” Geez, talk about not being able to read the audience. This interview is actually painful to watch. She manages to backpedal (and date drop—it’s 1934) and appeases the panel.
Sarah is released from the interview and goes to sit outside in the hall with the other (very soberly dressed, I might point out) candidates.
Meanwhile, the panel debates her qualities. Horseman hates her, of course, but another panel member, a Scotsman, is all for her because she was the only really qualified candidate and has a handle on what will be required in the future. Another man says she’ll definitely stir things up. Scotsman calls for a vote, and Isobel and Scotsman and a third panel member say aye, so Sarah’s got herself a new job.
She celebrates by visiting the local beach and diving into the water. A gap-toothed, middle-aged man puts some coins in one of those tourist telescope things and spies on her, creepily.
Isobel drives Horseman home and ask him how “Midge” is doing with her new tutor. Not well—the man’s just quit. Isobel says Midge should be in school, but Horseman says good schools cost money, and Midge is a special case, anyway.
In a large, old house somewhere in the countryside, a bespectacled young girl waits anxiously in front of a window, worrying that “he” hasn’t come, and figuring he’s had an accident and is dead. She clutches the windowsill and tries to talk herself down, but she’s unsuccessful and runs down the stairs and into a bedroom, calling for her mother. No mother materializes, because the woman’s apparently dead. The girl—I’m guessing this is Midge, and right now I think calling her a special case is putting it a bit mildly—talks to a portrait of a pretty woman that’s a total Sargent knockoff. “It wasn’t my fault, was it?” she asks the portrait. “It was my fault, it was, it was all my fault! I’ll bring you back!” She dashes into another room and starts putting on face powder and red lipstick, saying again, “I’ll bring you back, mummy.” She fetches the gown from the portrait from a closet and holds it up in front of herself in front of a mirror, just as Horseman comes home. As Midge looks at herself, she starts freaking out, saying “it’s not right, it’s not right!” She begins screaming for her father, and he comes in and hugs her and soothes her. Hoo boy, yes, calling her a special case is putting it waaay mildly. This kid has Issues with a capital “I”. Isobel watches the scene from the doorway, looking sad.
Horseman puts Midge to bed and tells her she has nothing to be sorry about. She asks him if he misses her mother, and he says he does.
Somewhere, a much more confident young lady escapes a party with a young man and heads up to the roof of what looks like a castle, to get some air. She sings along with the music they can still hear playing, and he chimes in for a little, smiling down at her. They kiss, and he urges her to move away from the edge. She sits down on the parapet instead and tells him she has no desire to rejoin the party. She leans back dangerously, and he tells her (her name’s apparently Muriel) to be careful. She gets up, kisses him again, and tells him to come and get her, right before she stumbles backwards and nearly falls off the wall. The only reason she doesn’t end up spattered on the pavement below is because he managed to reach out and grab her. He drags her up, holds her close, and asks her to promise not to do anything like that again. She looks terrified, but tells him she can’t promise that, but asks him to always be there to catch her. Dude, run! This girl is clearly unstable!
Isobel finds Sarah checking out the science lab at the school. Sarah craps all over it, calling it outdated and saying it “won’t do for us.” What a snot this girl’s turning out to be. Isobel advises her to take things one step at a time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, after all. She moves right along to tell Sarah that Midge will be attending the school in the fall (and we finally learn that Horseman’s name is Robert). Isobel understates that Midge is “highly strung” and Sarah smiles in this rather infuriatingly smug way, like she thinks this is all funny or something. Isobel adds that Midge is the granddaughter of some lord. “Should I feel honored?” Sarah snarks. Christ. What is her problem? “No, I’m just saying, it could be tricky,” says Isobel before suggesting Sarah stop by some talent show that’s being held that evening. The smugness returns, but Isobel continues, telling Sarah a lot of her pupils will be there and she should really show up.
Sarah does condescend to join the townsfolk at their evening entertainment, and she sits with Scotsman, whom she seems rather friendly with already. Meanwhile, Creepy Gap-Toothed Perv, whose name is Alfred, prepares to go out, tells his wife he’s about the Lord’s Work (oh, suuuure) and takes off.
Talent show. Inappropriately dressed little girls sing and dance…fairly inappropriately. It’s actually really creepy. What’s wrong with this town? Crazy people and little girls lifting their skirts on stage?
Alfred’s up on a pulpit somewhere, railing against the local slums, known as The Shacks, where the women are whores and the men are drunks. They need to clean this place up! After the talk, Alfred bids the attendees goodnight. One well-dressed man tells him that a Mr. Astell’s been trying to interest him in a scheme to replace The Shacks. He invites Alfred for some dinner so they can talk about it, but Alfred, who’s been eyeing a hovering, painted-up blonde, demurs.
The talent show continues to be inappropriate while Alfred screws the blonde in some alleyway somewhere. Lovely. As soon as he’s done, he whines that he’s a sinner and this can’t happen again. She rolls her eyes and tells him he’s always like this “after.” Heh. He pays her, lays some more God talk on her, and they bid goodnight. This is obviously something they do fairly often.
The talent show’s winding down with, as Sarah says, a grand patriotic finale. A young girl with a lovely voice sings, I think, “Keep the Home Fires Burning” in the midst of a vignette of soldiers gathered around flickering campfires. It’s the least offensive thing they’ve done on this stage so far. Sarah has to lay down some more unnecessary bitchery, commenting that it’d be nice if it weren’t so ridiculous. Bitch! Scotsman basically agrees, saying they’re just kids and don’t know what they’re singing about. Oh really? Just because the kids weren’t necessarily alive or old enough to remember what it was like during the war doesn’t mean they’re incapable of understanding its impact. Especially since there’s a very good chance they had close relatives (fathers, uncles, etc.) who fought and were possibly injured or died. It definitely has an effect on the audience, some of whom duck their heads sadly, as others start to sing along. Sarah gets up and leaves just as it’s wrapping up and misses the maimed veterans in the front row cheering the singers enthusiastically. Ridiculous, huh, Sarah? She needs to learn to keep her trap shut.
Scotsman joins Sarah outside, where she’s obviously upset and fiddling with her gloves and such. She tells him she’s fine, just fine, really! But being back here, listening to “those stupid songs” again reminded her of her tragically dead fiancé, Roy. Scotsman tells her he’s sorry and she keeps going, telling him Roy was the love of her life, but sometimes she wonders, if things had been different, if she could have settled for being a wife and mother. She asks Scotsman if he was in the war and he tells her he was, and he was gassed, but he was one of the lucky ones. “Millions weren’t,” she tells him, unnecessarily. I think he’s aware of that, Sarah, considering the fact that he was there. Unlike you. And thanks for making him feel bad for surviving. God, I’m having trouble tolerating this woman. He agrees that plenty of others weren’t so lucky, but that’s all the more reason for them to work to make ht eworld a better place.
A girl who looks to be about 13 or so reads poetry aloud while sitting on the roof of a hovel. I’m guessing these are The Shacks. A slatternly woman in a dirty dress comes out and starts calling for her (Lydia’s the name). Lydia lies down so she can’t be seen, and when her mom goes inside, she climbs down and runs off.
Scotsman is showing the Well Dressed Guy from Alfred’s talk around and railing about how awful The Shacks are and how they’re going to have an epidemic on their hands if they’re not careful. I guess that means Scotsman’s Mr. Astell, then. WDG is somewhat blasé, but he does realize this place is a problem. Astell thinks they should get rid of The Shacks and build proper council housing. WDG agrees and suggests Astell put it in front of the council. Astell’s surprised by the agreement, but WDG explains that they’re in a depression, and he thinks the way out of it is through investment in public works, which is what’s going on in the states. He’s just been waiting for the timing to be right. Astell realizes WDG means he was waiting for a chance to make a profit. Hey, if it gets the housing built, what do you care, Astell? Don’t look a gift horse, and all that.
Lydia’s mother finally tracks her to the outhouses and tells her she has five minutes to come out and be useful for a while.
Astell meets with the council and proposes two sites for new housing: Cold Harbour and Linsbury Wastes. The Wastes would be cheaper, but the land would have to be drained. Robert speaks up, reminding everyone they’re in a depression and they shouldn’t be building anything with the economy in the crapper. Astell says that the people who live in the Shacks can’t wait for the depression to end. WDG suggests they ask the townspeople what they think, but Robert points out that what they think doesn’t matter, because they can’t afford it. WDG talks about public works spending again and says they should bring the matter to their constituents and have them weigh in on this. The majority agrees. Robert’s silenced again.
First day of school. Sarah and the teachers lead the girls in song, and then she greets them all once the song’s over. Rather foolishly, she highlights the two new girls: Lydia, who won a scholarship a few years ago and has only just been able to take it up (Sarah, why did you find it necessary to share that bit of info?) and Midge. Both girls look mortified to be spotlighted this way.
After the assembly Midge and Lydia walk out side by side, trailed by some mean girls who make fun of them, until Lydia pins one to a wall and threatens to put her teeth out. That’s definitely one way of dealing with bullying.
While the girls take their seats in what looks like a rather crappy school, Robert and some other men get ready to go out for a hunt. Robert talks about one of his horses, a beautiful stallion, which he’s getting ready to sell, with a prospective buyer.
Sarah makes the rounds past the classrooms, most of which seem quite orderly, but in one room the teacher’s clearly out of her depth. The girls are running roughshod over her as she begs them helplessly to sit down and be quiet. Midge, seated in the front row, looks like she’s about to have a panic attack. Sarah busts in, comments that the weather’s so nice she thought she’d take the girls out for a game of Hare and Hounds that afternoon, but if she hears any more noise from the classroom, they’ll miss out. The girls quiet down and get to work.
Later, the girls head up to the cliffs for their game, as the hunters gallop along in the wake of the hounds. It’s all going splendidly, until Robert notices some barbed wire close to the ground. Most of the riders pull up, but the stallion was too close and goes right into it. Oh nooooo! I can’t handle dead horses!
The stallion goes down, snorting in pain. The girls all come running over as Robert dismounts and shouts for the children to get lost. Sarah joins the melee and tries herding the girls away, and Robert kneels down next to the horse, which is twitching. He gently strokes its face, then asks one of the other huntsmen for his pistol. The man hands it over and Robert puts the horse out of its misery. The girls scream and panic and Sarah tries to calm them down. The prospective buyer asks if the stallion was insured. He was not. Robert, in a seriously bad mood, gets up and goes to yell at Sarah for having the girls out at all, especially on private property. She movesds the kids away, unnecessarily spitting that he’s galloping about on private property too, and now he’s met with a misfortune. Nice, Sarah. How’s that empathy coming along? Robert calls for Midge to come home with him.
Midge is uncharacteristically calm as she tries to explain to her father that it wasn’t Sarah’s fault what happened. From what we’ve seen of this girl, I’d think she’d be an absolute mess at having just seen a horse she undoubtedly knew being shot dead. She begs him not to take her out of the school, because she likes it there, and Sarah’s awesome. Uh, ok. She spent her first day being bullied and sitting in a classroom full of chaos. Why does she like it there, exactly? Robert hands Midge off to a housekeeper, then gets on the phone with someone he evidently owes money to, to try and persuade them to let him pay the following month. He hangs up the phone and appears to have some kind of panic attack. He hurries to the other side of the room, where he dabs something on a handkerchief and breathes into it. I’m guessing that something was his wife’s perfume, because he starts remembering the sight of her, laughing from atop a horse. It took me two times watching this to realize the woman on the horse was the crazy roof jumper from earlier, and the young Robert was the young man with her, so apparently that earlier scene was a flashback. That wasn’t clear to me at all.
Sarah arrives at her office to find Lydia waiting for her. Lydia’s been sent there for fighting. The previous day. I guess things move a little slower in the north or something. Sarah doesn’t seem too concerned, but she has Lydia accompany her to a poetry class she has to teach.
In class, Sarah reads the girls Tortoise Shout by D.H. Lawrence, which seems a questionable choice, considering a lot of it is a pretty explicit depiction of tortoise sex. She finishes and has the girls write their own poem about a memory. One of the girls says they’ve never done that, but Sarah has evidently seen Dead Poet’s Society and thinks they all have a world of possibility inside them, they just need to let it out!
Robert’s driving a smart little trap when he’s stopped by one of his employees, with his arm in a sling, who tells him someone else has gotten hurt and won’t be much good when the heifer calves. Sling asks if he should hire a replacement, but Robert sighs they can’t afford it. He’ll just do it himself until things look up.
The girls write their poems as Sarah paces up and down the aisles. She yanks Lydia’s poem away, tells her she has crappy handwriting, but then says the poem doesn’t suck. In fact, she says it’s really quite something. Then, she makes Lydia read it out loud. It’s not so much a poem as a short story about some time she saw a fox very early in the morning. Pretty good, though. And the other girls appreciate it.
After school, Lydia happily rides home on her bicycle and drops it in the mud in front of her hovel. She goes inside and finds her mom puking into a basin. Mom’s pregnant again and took what she thought was an abortifacent, but it’s no good. Lydia tells her mom the last thing they need’s another baby. I think she realizes that, Lydia. Thanks for being so helpful.
Sarah makes her way through a churchyard to Rob’s grave. He died in 1917, if you want details. She kneels at the grave and looks sad.
Bessie, the painted blonde prostitute, arrives on Alfred’s doorstep with a man named Reg, who tells Alfred he’s got to put right the wrong that’s been done to Bessie. Yep, looks like Bessie’s pregnant too, and she’s strangely happy about that. She tells Alfred Reg’ll marry her…for 500 pounds. Good old fashioned shakedown. Instead of telling them to go to hell, Alfred blusters that he doesn’t have that kind of money. Reg suggests he borrow it, or risk having his name tarnished in the town.
As Sarah drives along at night, the car starts making some bad noises, and finally dies altogether. She gets out and starts walking, then spots lights on in a nearby barn.
Lights are on because the heifer’s having her calf, aided by Robert. Sarah shows up and immediately offers to help, explaining she was brought up with animals. He snaps that this is no place for a woman, but she (rather rightly) tells him it’s even less a place for a man. It doesn’t seem like this delivery’s going well, and Robert can’t get his hand in to help. Sarah offers up her own (much smaller) hand and with his coaching, she helps deliver the calf. Awww. I can’t help it—baby animal! Robert thanks Sarah for her help and invites her up to the house, just as it starts pouring rain.
They make it inside, soaked, and she goes to the fire. He hands her a drink and takes a sip of his own, looking much more laid back than we’re used to seeing him, especially around Sarah. He excuses himself and she starts poking around, trying the lights (not working) and checking out the paintings, including the portrait of his late wife. Robert returns and offers her a bed for the night. He shows her upstairs and bids her goodnight.
The next morning, Sarah comes downstairs and is greeted cheerfully by Midge, who’s evidently been told about the overnight guest. She offers Sarah breakfast, acting the very efficient little hostess. Midge explains that her father had to go out early, which seems to disappoint Sarah.
Robert’s errand takes him to a fancy, well-staffed house that I’m guessing belongs to his grandfather. He’s got a bouquet of flowers in his hand, and he waits while someone unlocks a gate, and then a door. Hmm, maybe this isn’t a house, then. Steeling himself, he goes inside and says: “Hello, Muriel.” Well well!