Sunday, August 14, 2016

Classics: A Review of Mr. Selfridge By Lauren Ennis

Some stories are tailor-made for film with a clear story arc that can neatly can be contained within just a few hours of cinema. Some stories, however, are so complex and epic in scale that they require entire seasons to contain all of the drama, suspense, and passion that they entail. Such is the case with the biography of larger than life turn of the century entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge, the man who started a retail revolution when he founded the London department store Selfridge’s. Beginning in 1909 and ending in 1929, the ITV series Mr. Selfridge chronicles the personal struggles and social changes that swept through Selfridge’s doors as the Edwardian era gave way to the upheaval of World War I and eventually the fast living modernism of the 1920’s. Part biography, part historical drama, Mr Selfridge is as enticing as an upscale window display and as addictive as shopping itself.
One day at work you won't want to be late for

The Story: The story begins in 1909 as Harry Selfridge (Jeremy Piven) arrives in London driven by a singular ambition; to open the world’s greatest department store. He soon encounters resistance, however, when his prospective partner withdraws funding and London society rejects his project as an affront to the status quo. Eventually, however, he enlists the aid of savvy reporter Frank Edwards (Samuel West) and shrewd socialite Lady Mae (Katherine Kelly) to land the new backer and public interest needed to take Selfridge’s from an innovative idea to a glittering reality. Through the dogged persistence of Harry and his talented staff, the store opens to a successful debut that marks the beginning of his reign as the ‘Earl of Oxford Street’. As season one continues, he continues to build upon the store’s success, even as his personal life becomes a casualty to his taste for life in the fast lane, and his staff face a host of personal crises of their own. Season two begins on an uncertain note five years later as Harry struggles to rebuild his family while he and his staff brace for the arrival of World War I. Season three picks up at the end of the war and chronicles the myriad of ways in which the aftermath of war continues to impact the store in the wake of trauma and loss. Season four brings the story full circle as Harry struggles to hold onto his crumbling empire as personal loss drives him to revert to his old, self-destructive, habits. From political upheaval and sweeping social change to personal triumphs and tragedies the series relates a historical tale that still manages to be cutting edge in true Selfridge’s fashion.
You can't keep a good cast down

The Characters: Although the plot contains plenty of twists and turns, the thing that kept this reviewer consistently coming back for more was the rich characterizations of each member of the Selfridge family and the store’s staff. Jeremy Piven superbly brings the larger than life Harry Selfridge to life with all of his complexities and demons fully intact. Through Piven’s performance, Harry is revealed to be a man who is always on the lookout for the next big thing in both his professional and personal life, as he continually gambles on new store innovations as well as with his family life. Even as he indulges in such vices as gambling, drinking, and extramarital dalliances, however, he remains a character audiences will root for as he grows and learns from his many mistakes and displays a consistent generosity, kindness, and understanding. Although the series is set in the male dominated world of early twentieth century commerce, one of Mr. Selfridge’s greatest assets is its array of independent and strong-minded female characters. At the start of the series, Harry’s wife, Rose (Frances O’Connor), seems to embody the ideals of her era as she tirelessly supports her husband and devotes herself to their children. As season one continues, however, she becomes discontented with her relegated role in the background and steadily gains her own voice as she becomes determined to take control of her marriage and live life on her own terms. Similarly, shop-girl Agnes Towler (Aisling Loftus) begins the series as a meek, put-upon, heroine worthy of Dickens, but eventually develops a quiet strength and confidence that take her to the coveted role of head of the store’s art department. Agnes’ first boss, outwardly formidable but inwardly insecure head of accessories Josie Mardel (Amanda Abbington), also evolves in fascinating but believable ways as she develops a sense of self-worth beyond her career and allows herself to live her tumultuous life to the fullest. Even mean-girl Kitty (Amy Beth Hayes) develops as the series continues until she ends season four as a still strong-willed, but more mature and compassionate woman. While the ever sassy Lady Mae is already a force to be reckoned with in the show’s pilot episode, insights into her difficult personal life reveal her to be a far more complex and multifaceted character than her early one-liner’s would suggest, and make her one of the series’ most watchable characters. The show’s excellent writing isn’t restricted to its female characters, however, as its male cast continue to evolve right along with their female counterparts. Agnes’ love interest, waiter Victor Colleano (Trystan Gravelle), begins the series as an ambitious and charming young man, but hardens as his eyes are opened by a series of heartbreaks and the traumas of World War I. Similarly, Harry’s best friend and head of display, dashing Henri Leclair (Gregory Fitoussi), is humbled after his attempt to start over in New York fails and is eventually forced to redefine himself after returning from World War I with PTSD. Even Agnes’ childishly na├»ve younger brother, George (Calum Callaghan), develops his own inner strength and remains true to his moral code as he works both in and out of the store and becomes a family man. Perhaps the male character who undergoes the most drastic change is the stodgy chief of staff Roger Grove (Tom Goodman-Hill), as he finally begins to see life beyond black and white and recognize his own failings as he learns to forgive the faults of others.


The Relevance: British television is full of period pieces, but Mr. Selfridge stands out amongst these popular and critically acclaimed programs through its ability to be startlingly relevant even as it remains true to history. From the struggle between work and family, to addiction, to domestic violence, to racial and gender tensions, Mr. Selfridge regularly explores social issues that hold just as much relevance today as when Selfridge’s first opened. Through a combination of razor sharp writing, rich performances, dazzling sets, and vibrant costuming, Mr. Selfridge ensure's that 20th century London is every bit as entertaining as a Selfridge’s promotion. At once innovative and classically timeless, Mr. Selfridge is an apt tribute to its namesake character and the store he founded.
Far more than just pretty faces

2 comments:

  1. This sounds like a film, I may have to check out.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You totally should! It's a British period piece with an American edge!

    ReplyDelete