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On a recent visit to Gloucester I could not resist popping into a quaint little shop/museum on a side street near the Cathedral. The House of the Tailor of Gloucester is the setting for Beatrix Potter’s charming children’s tale, and is now a wonderful shop and museum dedicated to the great English writer’s works. I’ve always admired her beautiful illustration style and the simplicity of her stories, and I was delighted to buy there a copy of the 2006 film Miss Potter, which tells her story.

I knew nothing of Beatrix’s past, or the film, but was drawn to the movie for the fact it covers two subjects close to my heart: love and writing (and the love of writing!).

Oh what a lovely, heart-warming, inspiring film. Quintessentially English, despite American Renee Zellweger playing the eponymous heroine. The settings are wonderful – I love the open spaces of the Lake District in particular. The love story is so touching, and vivid. Doesn’t every woman who writes dream of meeting a man who has such faith in her abilities?

I find myself most inspired by Beatrix Potter’s life – her strength and courage as a woman, her determination to be true to herself and to pursue her writing ambitions, her independence, her creativity. This is a woman who found fame and fortune as a result of her writing at a time when women writers were rare indeed, much less successful. And what touched me most is what Beatrix did with the fruits of her labour – investing her royalty proceeds into preserving one of England’s most beautiful places.

It’s a film I highly recommend to fellow female writers. But perhaps it is worth mentioning one moment in Beatrix’s story that could serve to further inspire – although the film presents the story as Beatrix getting a publishing contract for her first book The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and building from there, in fact Beatrix independently published that first book before it was picked up by a publisher. This was a woman who would not take no for an answer: a role model for us all!

Twenty-five years ago this month the film Dirty Dancing was released in cinemas. A low-budget movie made by a new studio and with no stars in the lead roles (hard to believe now, but Jennifer Gray and Patrick Swayze were relatively unknown before the film), it has gone on to earn over $214 million, has inspired other films and a theatre show, and has been named the film most watched by women, ever.

What is it about this film that so draws us in? The music is wonderful, of course, and evocative of the era. The dancing is superbly choreographed – especially the final sequence. The plot is engaging, the acting excellent. But it is the love story that most engages us. What teenage girl did not dream of being swept away by a handsome, strong, virile man such as Johnny Castle? The class divide is of no importance; this film is all about breaking down barriers, about chemistry, connection and freedom.

I think, perhaps, the reason why female viewers connect so well to this film comes down to a clever positioning of point of view. Writers know well that point of view matters – you write from a character’s point of view in order to enable the reader to understand and identify with that character and to see the world through his/her eyes. The camera in a movie is the narrator in many senses, controlling what you see and how, and so by considering the camera as a person, you can engage the audience better. Steven Spielberg used point-of-view camera work to great effect in Jaws, which was the first film to have shots from the point of view of the killer (the shark). And the director of Dirty Dancing, Emile Ardolino, broke new ground by using a female point of view for camera work. So we have long up-and-down shots of Johnny’s physique, which of course engage the female viewer. Next time you watch the film, think about the camera as a narrator and see for yourself how feminine it is.

Here are some facts about the film you may not know:

  • The film is based on a true story – the teenage experiences of the screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein.
  • The choreographer for the film, Kenny Ortega, was trained by Gene Kelly.
  • Actor Billy Zane was considered for the role of Johnny.
  • Temperatures were so hot during filming (sometimes 120 degrees) that on one day ten actors fainted.
  • The actors were encouraged to improvised, and the scene in which Baby keeps laughing as Johnny moves his hand down her body was not scripted.
  • Swayze’s song ‘She’s Like the Wind’ was co-written by him years earlier.
  • Swayze was paid $5 million to appear in a cameo role as a dance teacher in a prequel to the film released in 2004 (impressive considering he earned just $200,000 for the original!).

If all this talk of Dirty Dancing has piqued your interest, you may be interested to know that a remake is in production. But for me, nothing will beat the original, and especially the romance of ‘She’s Like the Wind’: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lU9p1WRfA9w.

I recently ran a question survey via SurveyMonkey and Goodreads to discover people’s ‘most romantics’. For the question ‘Which nationality most says “romantic” to you?’, the results were as follows:

  • Italian: 42%
  • French: 33%
  • Spanish: 20%
  • British: 4%
  • American:  1%

I was not surprised to see Italy, France and Spain top the poll. There is a reason, after all, that I choose to live part of the year in France – and that my second novel is set in Spain, and my most recent one in Italy. And the international news provider CNN thinks along similar lines; in February this year it published an article declaring that Spain was the most romantic nation, followed by Argentina, and then Italy and France. I think, though, that Italy is the most favoured in general; after all, the word ‘romance’ literally means ‘from or of Rome’.

What is it about these Mediterranean countries that at once make us think of passion and romance? Without wishing to overly stereotype, here are my thoughts:

  • Climate: The heat, I think, plays a part – we spend more time outdoors in the Med, surrounded by inspiring nature, sitting in pavement cafes and watching the world go by. And of course we dress differently given the climate – more relaxed, more romantic. Then you have the fiery storms that spring up, which are dramatic and atmospheric.
  • Fashion: The French, the Italians and the Spanish have a wonderful fashion sense. Chic, elegant, colourful, vibrant, sensual. Think of Milan and Paris and Madrid, capitals of fashion. Across the world courting couples dress to impress; in the Med, many continue to dress this way for life.
  • Cuisine: Delicious and full of aphrodisiacs. Not heavy, and weighing one down. Healthy, energising. And meals are leisurely affairs, taken with friends and family. They are sociable, and engender intimacy and connection.
  • Culture: The operas, the literature, the music, the plays, the movies – these are countries with varied, long-standing cultures that draw you in. The flamenco dance of Spain. Le Louvre in Paris. Italy: birthplace of opera and ballet and Casanova. There is so much to see in these countries, and so much passion embodied all around in art.
  • Setting: These are countries with a rich heritage. The land and the buildings are stunning and fascinating, providing a wonderful backdrop to a romantic mood – think of provincial French farmhouses set amid fields of sunflowers in the vivid yellows of Van Gogh; gliding down ancient Venetian waterways on a gondola; exploring the flamboyant Gaudi architecture of Barcelona. These are beautiful places to be, and it is so much easier to be passionate in love when your surroundings feed the soul.
  • Language: French is famously the language of love, but Italian and Spanish are similarly evocative and sensual. Love becomes amour, amor, amore. Passion becomes passion (say it with a French accent; so much more beautiful), pasión, passione. Romantic becomes romantique, romántico, romantico. Even something as mundane as a town hall is transformed into a romantic-sounding place: mairie, ayuntamiento, municipio!

Above all, what characterises these countries, I think, is one word: passion. What is most romantic is people who are really alive and in the moment; people who are positive and who love life and who want to experience every moment. When we think of French, Italian and Spanish people, we think of vibrancy, vitality, virility, joie de vivre, va va voom!

If reading this has put you in the mood, here are some films I recommend for a taste of Mediterranean passion:

  • French: Amélie (2001), Jules and Jim (1962), Cyrano de Bergerac (1950), Beauty and the Beast (1946), The Story of Adele H (1975)
  • Italian: Life Is Beautiful (1998), La Dolce Vita (1960), Eight and a Half (1963), Il Postino (1994)

Spanish: The Age of Beauty (1992), Talk to Her (2002), Jamón, Jamón (1992 – beware, it’s rather steamy!)

I recently ran a question survey via SurveyMonkey and Goodreads to discover people’s ‘most romantics’. For the ‘Most romantic film’ question I offered a choice of the following (plus respondents could note down a different film if preferred):

An Affair to Remember

Titanic

Dirty Dancing

Gone with the Wind

Casablanca

The Notebook

City of Angels

Twilight

The clear favourite across the survey platforms, with 40% of the votes (all female), was Titanic, followed by Gone with the Wind.

I confess I was rather surprised by the result. I had expected a classic romance to top the list. But given the sheer magnitude of the Titanic spectacle, and its tragedy, I see why it has affected so many people.

Personally, I struggle to watch Titanic because I can’t bear sad endings. Indeed, I recently started a thread in the Goodreads Happily Ever After Cafe group entitled ‘Titanic: Is it me or is the ending unbearable?’ that sparked quite a discussion, with plenty of other romantics admitting they love the film but hate the ending. They too found themselves wanting to shout, ‘Don’t give up climbing onto that floating door, Jack!’ I think perhaps although we all went to see it at the cinema prepared for tragedy (imagine if James Cameron hadn’t sunk the ship!), but knowing that it was a love story, we hoped for a happy ending for those characters at least. I suppose they get their happy ending in the afterlife, but it’s not quite enough for a romantic like me.

Still, there is so much in the film that is wonderfully romantic. The beautiful costumes, the breathtaking special effects and scenery, the class divide, the drama, the passion, the heroics, the bravery, the chemistry between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the seminal ‘King of the world’ scene at the bow of the ship. And all underpinned by Celine Dion’s haunting song ‘My Heart Will Go On’, which became an international sensation and is to date the tenth bestselling single of all time, with sales totalling 15 million.

For me, what makes Titanic so special is the intensity of the narrative – the lovers meet, fall in love and are separated in so short a span of time. Jack’s words, spoken early on in the film, echo throughout the disaster that unfolds:

Well, yes, ma’am, I do… I mean, I got everything I need right here with me. I got air in my lungs, a few blank sheets of paper. I mean, I love waking up in the morning not knowing what’s gonna happen or, who I’m gonna meet, where I’m gonna wind up. Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people. I figure life’s a gift and I don’t intend on wasting it. You don’t know what hand you’re gonna get dealt next. You learn to take life as it comes at you… to make each day count. 

Tragically, news reports emerging after the film’s release and at the time of the one hundredth anniversary of the ship’s sinking indicate that Jack and Rose’s story is not pure fiction. For an example of a real-life romance that unfolded on the doomed vessel, see this article in the Telegraph. It’s stories such as these, I’m afraid, that make it just too difficult to re-watch Titanic; because I can never escape into the fictional world as I’d like to, knowing as I do how much truth the film incorporates.

What do you think? Is Titanic your favourite romantic film? If so, why do you love it? If not, which film do you prefer?

Regular readers of my blog will know that ‘place’ is an important source of inspiration for me, and is also a key element of my writing. I love researching settings for my novels – reading countless books on customs and legends and architecture and history and flora and fauna, and visiting places to get a feel for them myself wherever possible. In Burning Embers, I really wanted readers to get a sense of Kenya, from the rich colours and heady scents in the air to the wild landscapes and the tempestuous storms.

I’ve recently watched a few films set in England, and they got me thinking about the romanticism of that setting. I grew up in the Mediterranean, and when I first came to England as a young woman, I found it to be a very different place to my home country, which is dusty and hot, not verdant and wet. But oh, how beautiful it can be. The patchwork carpet of fields in every autumnal colour imaginable stretching out beneath your plane as it comes into land. The white cliffs of Dover near my home that tower magnificently above the grey crashing waves. The rabbits frolicking in the paddock, and the ducks chatting raucously on the pond. The afternoon teas with scones and sandwiches. The churches and castles and museums and quaint curiosity shops. The Royal Family. Wimbledon.  Shows in London’s West End.  The country that I now call home for half of the year, when I am not in France, is indeed an inspiring place.

For those of you who, like me, have a soft spot for England, here are a selection of films I recommend watching that I think encapsulate the romanticism of England best expressed by John Keats:

Happy is England! I could be content
To see no other verdure than its own;
To feel no other breezes than are blown
Through its tall woods with high romances blent: 

  1. Bridget Jones’s Diary
  2. Emma
  3. Four Weddings and a Funeral
  4. Love Actually
  5. Notting Hill
  6. Pride and Prejudice
  7. Sense and Sensibility
  8. Sliding Doors
  9. The Holiday
  10. The Wedding Date

If you’re feeling brave, also take a look at Woody Allen’s film Match Point, which has a wonderful sense of setting – but be warned, this isn’t a happy romance!

And on the subject of settings, do check out ‘Famous Writers’ Retreats: The Rooms Where Classics Were Created’, especially the writing rooms of Keats, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl and – most amazing of all for its tiny proportions – Robert Stephen Hawker.

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