‘Mrs. Bee­ton’ sure can cook

English icon who pi­o­neered mod­ern recipes and homemak­ing, and led a tragic life, comes to PBS.

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - SATUR­DAY, MAY 19, 2007 By Robert Lloyd

A lively bi­o­graph­i­cal film about the wo­man who might be called the Mother of the Mod­ern Recipe, “The Se­cret Life of Mrs. Bee­ton” ar­rives here Sun­day night as the latest of­fer­ing of PBS’ “Mas­ter­piece Theatre.” The reve­la­tion the ti­tle prom­ises won’t be much of a tease to most Amer­i­can view­ers — who won’t know Mrs. Bee­ton from Mrs. But­ter­worth — but in Eng­land she’s been an icon of the do­mes­tic arts for a cen­tury and a half: Her 1861 “Mrs. Bee­ton’s Book of House­hold Man­age­ment” was for years a kind of stan­dard en­cy­clo­pe­dia of cook­ery, man­ners and home health­care, and it is still in print to­day, in var­i­ous ver­sions and re­vi­sions, both as a his­tor­i­cal cu­rios­ity and prac­ti­cal hand­book.

The com­mon thing now seems to be to re­fer to her as a 19th cen­tury Martha Ste­wart or Nigella Law­son, and this is true not only in the sort of help she of­fered but also in the fact that she was a pub­lish­ing phe­nom­e­non and a walk­ing brand.

It was Bee­ton’s in­spi­ra­tion to con­ceive of the home­maker as a “com­man­der,” and the as­sur­ance in her writerly voice is surely what has kept her book alive through the ages. But per­haps her great­est gift to pos­ter­ity was to ren­der recipes in more “sci­en­tific,” stan­dard­ized and prac­ti­cal terms. “My book shall list all the in­gre­di­ents from the out­set,” she de­clares. If, as eureka mo­ments go, this is not ex­actly Madame Curie (as played by Greer Gar­son) dis­cov­er­ing ra­dium, its ef­fect on or­di­nary life is ar­guably the greater.

Whether the film ac­cu­rately por­trays the real Isabella Bee­ton — and who can say? — or even any Vic­to­rian wo­man of her re­mark­able type, it’s an en­gag­ing por­trait of en­ergy and youth and love in the face of woe. Bee­ton’s life was short and not with­out hard­ship — she en­dured a se­ries of mis­car­riages, still­births and the deaths of two young chil­dren — and di­rec­tor Jon Jones does a good job at rec­on­cil­ing some­times rapidly con­flict­ing tones; he’s made what might be called a tragic ro­man­tic com­edy.

We first meet Isabella (Anna Made­ley) re­gard­ing her own funeral, and she con­tin­ues through­out the story as a fourth-wall-break­ing nar­ra­tor, which both smooths the film’s episodic turns and takes a lit­tle of the sting out of her early death (though Made­ley, who is some­thing be­yond ex­cel­lent and rea­son enough to watch, en­sures that you will still hurt when it hap­pens).

Short an­i­mated pas­sages, based on what might be her book’s orig­i­nal il­lus­tra­tions, do triple ser­vice of lightening the tone, giv­ing us a taste of Bee­ton’s orig­i­nal prose and fram­ing the ac­tion.

Work­ing from Kathryn Hughes’ re­cent bi­og­ra­phy “The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs. Bee­ton,” screen- writer Sarah Wil­liams takes as fact the cir­cum­stan­tial sug­ges­tion that Sam Bee­ton (JJ Feild, “To the Ends of the Earth”) con­tracted syphilis, which he passed to his wife. This in­tro­duces a handy note of con­flict and dark irony into the pro­ceed­ings, yet the film is most con­vinc­ing when rep­re­sent­ing the con­ju­gal co­op­er­a­tion of a re­peat­edly trou­bled — one might even say doomed — cou­ple nev­er­the­less united by phys­i­cal at­trac­tion, in­tel­lec­tual sym­pa­thy and the abil­ity to work to­gether. (“Two ge­niuses in one bed,” Sam says. “A very rare oc­cur­rence.”) But dy­ing from love is also an ap­pro­pri­ately mod­ern theme, and the film makes hay from it while man­ag­ing not to mor­al­ize.

Jones does a lot with a lit­tle — there is less on screen than seems to meet the eye. The cast is small but choice and in­cludes Anna Chan­cel­lor (“M15”) and the seem­ingly ubiq­ui­tous Jim Carter as Anna’s not par­tic­u­larly un­der­stand­ing par­ents. And the film is through­out lovely to be­hold, for its de­sign and for its pho­tog­ra­phy (by Ian Moss), which in its creamy pal­ette, shal­low fo­cus and spot light­ing at times sug­gests the look of a mod­ern shel­ter mag­a­zine. Ap­pro­pri­ately enough.

robert.lloyd@la­times.com

“Mas­ter­piece Theatre” BBC/WGBH/PBS

GE­NIUS IN HER ERA:

Anna Made­ley plays Isabella Bee­ton in the “Mas­ter­piece Theatre” pro­duc­tion.

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