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Life has to be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards - Kierkegaard
Love, Nina (2016)
Delightful observational comedy. More please!
This is the real life story of a nanny in early 80's gentrified Camden.
Was the recent past so different? Yes Central London was that grubby, pubs were that bad, butchers were that rude and yes, you could live that close to Euston Road and park anywhere back then. And people did hire nannies without qualifications.
Love, Nina reminds the viewer of its roots with short readings from Nina's letters home, then carefully weaves from them a slow moving, steadily developing group of characters in an unusual community. It's sad that Alan Bennet (the basis for the Malcolm Tanner character) wanted to disassociate himself but you can still hear echoes of Barnsley in the background. The script is excellent, sharp, realistic and the humour is well augmented by great performances from the support with outstanding comic work by the two leads. HBC is a well-known stalwart, gifted with excellent timing but Faye Marsay, recently great in Pride but underused in Game of Thrones, is the standout here, adding a great deal of visual comedy as she reads the world about her and works out whether to stick or twist, fit in or stand out, adjust or stand firm.
She signs off each episode, like signing off a letter, with a 1 second glance to camera, neither knowing nor coquettish. These short but riveting moments encapsulate the charm and intelligence of the whole project. A neat and difficult trick. With an interesting twist in the final episode.
Five minutes before the series ends, Bonham Carter's character has to deal with Marsay's character's resignation after a series of minor disasters. HBC delivers a roller coaster speech, half strong rebuke, half recognition of the genuine love between the nanny and the children. She finishes with "Is it your exam tomorrow? Good Luck. Be less crap". The skill and craft she invests in these ten words is a great example of what has made this series such a pleasure. Because the whole series is full of examples of how much great acting can contribute to a witty, well-written script. Even the child actors were natural and up to the challenge.
Whilst I didn't much like the actress/nanny in Episode 4, who seemed to have blown in from another show, breaking the family dynamic rather badly, she wasn't there long and everything else was a delight.
Death Comes to Pemberley (2013)
Austen meets the Poirot Christmas Special
Firstly, I hate fanfic. My teeth start grinding after a few paragraphs, even when it's written by PD James.
Secondly, if you're going to do anything with P&P you have to judge your two main casting decisions with a perfection required almost nowhere else. We all know Elizabeth and Darcy so well. So the producers of two productions which have dared to go off piste, Lost in Austen and this one, must have thought long and hard. Gemma Arterton did extremely well in Lost in Austen, a blend of period drama, summer RomCom and Dr Who, and Anna Maxwell Martin, as you might expect, is simply perfect here, in Austen meets the Poirot Christmas Special.
Anna gives us the mature Elizabeth, holding court at her more informal Pemberley, with an older Darcy who has recovered all his manly confidence in personal relationships and yet is even more deeply smitten. They have a son and are clearly wonderful parents. Both characters have changed in exactly the way Austen predicted in her last chapter. Elizabeth has risen in status and now wears the authority of Mistress of Pemberley, rationally softened, like its master. They are unusually sparkly together and very reminiscent of the Netherfield scenes. This is principally down to the extremely good performances from two actors and an their understanding of their characters which goes way beyond the script.
The whole cast is outstanding, the best in a period drama since Emma09 and the mystery is satisfyingly interesting. There's lots of clever 'dialogue' with the original and arch references to earlier productions (it's the 95 Pemberley).
What's not to like?
Can't wait for the next instalment, as Pemberley itself is challenged and their relationship is tested. I do hope the Bingleys, Caroline at least, turn up soon.
Of course, it isn't Austen. If it hurts to think that it is, then imagine it as a 100-year prequel to Downton Abbey, 10 times better acted and 50 times better written.
The Lady Vanishes (2013)
A neat pairing with the 1938 Hitchcock Masterpiece
For comparison, I have always hankered after another, more faithful adaptation of Strangers on a Train. The Highsmith original is on a completely different psychological plane to Hitchcock's superb adaptation, which plays with the banality of evil theme but adds ticking, suspenseful timebombs and a hero who may have moments of weakness but triumphs in the end.
The 2013 version of The Lady Vanishes will have to do instead. It is NOT a remake nor a version of nor even based on the Hitchcock film. Far from it. Bemoaning the absence of Charters and Caldicott misses the point entirely. This film is a much straighter adaptation of Hitchcock's original source material, The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White.
Even if this new production were rubbish, as a close adaptation of the original source, it would still offer worthwhile study by providing an illustration of how much craft the master added to create one of the best films of the 1930's. Let's face it, no one has read the novel. Hitch turns an essay in nervousness about more trouble in the Balkans into an appeasement era allegory of the difficulty of shaking people out of an apathetic response to tyranny and the virtues of resistance, all dressed in beautifully tailored cinematic clothes that will last forever.
Diarmuid Lawrence's The Lady Vanishes, however, is very far from rubbish. It has a powerful, beautifully judged central performance from an actress who, unlike Cybill Shepherd in what WAS a remake in 1979, is in the same class as Margaret Lockwood.
In the initial scenes she is part of a group of what the newspapers called Bright Young Things but Evelyn Waugh called Vile Bodies. She is able to stand out from her awful, shallow friends, however, with suggestions of an open mind and a wider view of the world. Without falling into clichés, Middleton distances herself in an afternoon and evening of misbehaviour then separates herself entirely by staying behind when her friends leave.
This turns out to be an empty gesture. After a failed attempt at adventure, she immediately returns to type missing her friends, refusing offers of company, throwing money around at the locals and falling back into the character of a rude, spoilt mademoiselle, shorn of her comforts.
This sets up the irony of her behaviour on the train when she finally discovers what it is that is truly different about her. However now, for a variety of reasons, people who can see the difference can't acknowledge it and people who can't see the difference misinterpret her. The only person who has understood her correctly has vanished. Lawrence's version holds on to this subtle psychological setup much longer than Hitchcock's. Those who think she's hysterical plot to sedate her. Those who know she isn't, hide themselves.
Middleton's work is a real treat. The rest of the cast may not have enough to work with (one of the reasons why Hitchcock conducted a major rewrite). And instead of a graceful denouement, the action does rather hit the buffers at the end of the line. Very nice lwork in the last scene, though, more reminiscent of North by North West.
However, despite a few shortcomings, this is a neat piece of period drama in its own right and casts a bright and valuable sidelight on Hitchcock's work as an adapter.
No one should put off by misguided criticism that it fails to live up to Lockwood and Redgrave. Unlike the 1979 rehash, it has earned its place on the shelf next to the Hitchcock version of the same novel.
Parade's End (2012)
First-class drama, outstanding, unusual, rewarding.
Not since A Dance to the Music of Time has such a stellar cast been allied to such an artful and unusual script.
Ford Madox Ford is not a popular novelist. His work often approaches its subjects on an elliptical curve, his principal characters are seldom in the mainstream of society, forming odd relationships, requiring his audience to assimilate their understanding of them over the course of a whole work rather than categorise from their experience (or jump to conclusions based on genre). This explains why we don't see his work adapted very often. Or even at all.
Susanna White and Tom Stoppard have both grasped the nettle of demonstrating this sideways approach, though I'm not sure quite so many kaleidoscopic shots were necessary to drive the point home. Benedict Cumberbatch joins in, underlining his character's isolation with some rather off-putting facial gestures. Ronald Hines played Tietjens in the now lost 1960's adaptation and casting to type may have worked better than struggling with toning down the matinée idol status Cumberbatch has acquired since hitting Sherlock Holmes out of the park. Maybe if he and Stephen Graham had swapped roles the other characters might have found it easier to deal with Tietjens' self-enforced oddity but that may have impaired Ford's central point, beautifully delivered as the the climax to Episode 4.
But acting idiosyncrasies cannot mask the quality of the fabulous script or the overall adaptation which has a towering performance from Rebecca Hall and glittering additions from Rufus Sewell, Rupert Everett, Miranda Richardson, Roger Allam, Ann-Marie Duff and beautiful, note-perfect newcomer Adele Clemens.
With so much glossy soap about, it is extremely refreshing to have high quality, thought-provoking, challenging drama this good whatever the lead chooses to do with his jaw muscles.
The Hollow Crown: Henry V (2012)
The Plantagenet Supremacy - superb climax to an excellent series of productions
Well, you have to see this.
Even if you don't watch the three prequels, The Plantagenet Identity, The Plantagenet Legacy and the Plantagenet Ascendancy (RII, HiVi & HIVii).
It's classic Shakespearean filmmaking with a superb cast, mostly excellent direction, great cinematography and an absolutely outstanding central performance from Hiddlestone, which finally stepped out of the shadows of those of his famous predecessors as the play reached its climax. And there are other actors turning in their film-career best here too, Anton Lesser and Melanie Thierry for example.
All in all, the best Shakespeare the BBC has ever done. Hiddlestone may take the laurels for his three performances as Hal, the not-so-callow, not-so-innocent teenage chrysalis who turns into a malevolent Machiavellian butterfly but Whishaw's utterly brilliant Richard II is a very good reason to start the cycle from the beginning, as intended.
The quartet of plays builds on the Shakespearean tradition of adapting for cinema while retaining as much as possible of Shakespeare's imaginative manifesto as we have it in the play's Prologue, demanding imaginative effort of the part of the viewer rather than supplying every conceivable horse and nail.
The drama is built with a theatrical approach to casting and mise-en-scene, resisting (mostly) the temptation to colour the action with simulated CGI reality. Shot entirely in the UK, the outdoor locations are always beautifully chosen but never needlessly populated with thousands of digital soldiers. There are CGI glimpses of mediaeval England and French armies here and there but they never dominate the theatrical requirement to distinguish drama from scene-setting. Olivier's version started in the theatre and then cut away, wider and wider until the famous charge and the immense Agincourt scenes. Here, the camera stays focused on the main players throughout and even the famous 'band of brothers' speech, though spoken on an outdoor battlefield, manages to retain a theatrical intimacy.
Hats off to the BBC who, whatever I or anyone else says about them, can still deliver when it matters.
Absolutely Outstanding - an embarrassment of riches
As it should be. Made by the BBC as a showcase for British Drama.
If this series of made for TV plays is the only 'legacy' of the London Olympics, I will neither be surprised nor unhappy.
Each has, so far, raised the bar in its own way with stunning filming and unforgettable performances. Here, in Henry IV Parts i and ii, the landscape is normally dominated by Falstaff and the Eastcheap tavern crew. Falstaff is Shakespeare's Everyman and his audience's favourite creation and Simon Russell Beale was born to play him. His Falstaff has a knowing awareness of the dimensions of his vice and the ever-present sinister proximity of Nemesis but he doesn't fall short of the full measure of Rabelasian exuberance and good humour and has the common sense to keep his self pity private. Inspired casting amongst the rest of the crew sees faultless performances from Julie Walters, David Dawson and Tom Georgeson and gives us another glimpse at the astonishing range and talent of Maxine Peake. Paul Ritter has a mountain to climb, after Robert Stephens' Pistol in Branagh's Henry V and may not manage it but the remainder of Team Falstaff rise to the occasion brilliantly.
However, Richard Eyre (and Rupert Goolden with Richard II) have followed Branagh's example with extravagantly detailed and wonderful realised minor characters, metronomically striking the right note again and again.
Irons has never turned in a better performance as guilt, tragedy and sickness wear out the life in his Bolingbroke, Tom Hiddleston also turns in a career-best as the archetypal unmanageable teenager and Hotspur and his wonderful Katharine are perfect in their representation of the northern version of the Plantagenet Generation Gap. Criticism of their lack of 'grandeur' seems to miss the point, I think. Hotspur and Katharine are more than one kind of rebel and their impatience with Welsh hospitality and the world in general is beautifully played here.
All in all, you can't do better and the DVD's, when they come out, should be in every collection. I know I'll be watching parts of this series over and over again.
The Hollow Crown: Richard II (2012)
The best Shakespeare on film since McKellen's Richard III.
Unfairly unloved, perhaps because of the unfamiliar politics in it opening scenes, Richard II is Shakespeare's watershed. It has much in it which would have been familiar to the Elizabethan theatre goer-but also contains mountains of innovation, such as Richard's soliloquy after his confinement, which look forward to Hamlet and beyond. This is the play where iambic pentameter really broke free of its rhyming chains and although not everyone can place it correctly, Richard II contains some of Shakespeare's finest poetry.
And what a fantastic Richard we have in Ben Whishaw, delivering the personal tragedy and the political betrayal with the combination of power and finesse that the role demands but rarely receives. Even Ian McKellen, in his landmark production for the BBC in the 80's, didn't catch the sheer majesty of Richard's defiant surrender at Flint castle.
The entire cast is outstanding and the producers did well to enlist two great female actresses for the parts of Isabella and the Duchess of York, retaining the bulk of parts that are often cut to shreds. More of Isabella's lines would have helped Clemence Poesy make her Queen memorable but no one will forget Lindsay Duncan's rescue of her son.
However, Rory Kinnear takes second honours, providing an utterly mesmerising foil for Whishaw's Richard and the electricity crackles between them as the fantastic deposition scenes hit the summits of dramatic power. You won't see better. There isn't better.
Beautifully shot and engineered, there isn't a scene that doesn't look stunning, a word that cannot be clearly understood or a plot line that cannot be easily followed. The sheer mastery of the play's intensely psychological portrait of kingship and power is made easily accessible to newcomers to Shakespearean drama and language.
Utterly brilliant. Well done everyone involved.
A Study in Picture Gallery Red
What we have here is a very interestingly rendered modern version of Holmes' first appearance, A Study in Scarlet, in which he meets Watson, they take the rooms in Baker Street and successfully investigate a series of murders.
The story is rarely adapted for two reasons.
The first is that the murders don't make sense without the dull, rambling back story which no one wants to dramatise. The Valley of Fear has hardly ever been dramatised for the same reason.
The second is that this is Conan Doyle's first attempt and he introduced significant character changes to both Holmes and Watson in the short stories. Holmes, in A Study in Scarlet, is rather more deranged, more like Cumberbatch's Holmes than Brett's, much more an aggressive, painful thorn in the side of the police rather than the unseen assistant of later stories.
So people who haven't read the book or have only seen Holmes on screen need to give this a bit of time. 21C technology aside, it's actually quite a faithful adaptation, even though they ditched the back story and gave the murderer another, more credible motive.
Knowledge of the original isn't at all necessary, but it does change the viewpoint. While some were congratulating themselves on beating Holmes to the punch in spotting the profession of the murderer, readers of the original were being conned into believing that his next victim was going to be the American he was driving (the victims in the original are all American). In the original, the word 'Rache' appears at the crime scene, also in an empty house in Lauriston Gardens, written in blood. The police jump to the conclusion that the victim was trying to write the word 'Rachel'. Holmes knows that 'Rache' is German for revenge. Moffat turns it neatly and humorously around. In the original it's a red herring, in the new version, it's a vital clue. These riffs on the original abound and are almost always imaginative and amusing and often more than that. Mycroft as Sherlock's Big Brother, for example.
Moffat and Gatiss treat the characters with all the loving respect that an author could wish for and serve up an adaptation which re-imagines everything that Conan Doyle put into his plots and yet delivers something very close to to their original purpose and effect. Holmes and Watson are products of their time, as they should be, but they are recognisably the descendants and inheritors of the originals. The baby is still gurgling happily in the bathwater.
There's a lot more here than initially meets the eye and I have a sneaky feeling it'll get better.
If it does, it's going to be very, very good indeed.
Finally, an Emma that will stand the test of time
There is a clichéd version of Period and Regency characters which grew up in the 1920's and 1930's fostered by UK and US film studios with straight backs, ironed crinolines, stiff upper lips and emotionally strangled dialogue from which a number of recent adaptations have dared to depart.
Sometimes, as in the case of 1999 Mansfield Park, adapters and cast have departed for the hills and created something so far off Austen's wavelength that it might be a prequel for the Pirates of The Caribbean franchise. Enjoyable perhaps. But not MP.
That's not what we have here. What we have here is something that is entirely on Austen's wavelength, with characters behaving as her characters would and saying the sorts of things her characters say. Something which is faithful to the purpose and meaning of the book, which aims to get the characters Jane Austen wrote onto the screen where we can see, recognise and enjoy them. This series is triumphantly successful at doing just that, partly owing to the care that has been taken with the script and partly due to the outstanding performances of the leads.
It built on a wonderfully realistic foundation of what love, loss and family all mean. If it did, perhaps, labour the point a bit at the beginning, there were superb contrasts between where Emma's life was full and empty. Her lack of self knowledge, her yearning for companions and challenges worthy of her sense and intelligence clearly illustrated the traps she made for herself.
And whilst we follow the progression of their relationship from Knightley's point of view more than the book warrants, Emma's bursting discovery of her love for him is actually dramatised here just as Austen wrote it, not watered down by injections of artificial chemistry between the lead actors.
I think there are lots of people who could turn out an Emma adaptation like the two films from the 90's. This version set itself the much harder task of adapting the book (as Clueless did) rather than just animating selected bits and stringing them together. And it succeeds. The reason Garai's Emma is different to all the others is that Garai is playing the character Jane Austen wrote and Sandy Welch, as she did with Jane Eyre, got her onto the screen by dramatically recreating her rather than transposing her dialogue into a screenplay.
There are, of course, unnecessary departures from the canon. Perhaps it is highly unlikely that Emma would have allowed Knightley to kiss her within sight of the house, or that Knightley would have forgotten himself that far either. However, were they sure of being unobserved, I think Emma and Frank would have been perfectly capable of shocking even modern dowagers with a passion that is written carefully into the novel but seldom gets up onto the screen. If I was servant at Hartfield, I'd be very careful to make them aware of my presence outside the bedroom door before taking their morning tea in.
I had my reservations about this adaptation at first but having watched it more times than I now care to admit, I cannot now name a better Austen adaptation. I think the unusual start was a gamble designed to illustrate the insecurity of early 19C family life to newcomers and wilfully detach dedicated Austen fans from their comfort zone from the opening seconds, both of which worked triumphantly. It instantly drew parallels between the lives of Emma, Jane and Frank (and, more subtly, Harriet) which are at the core of the book and completely absent from any other adaptation. A very, very clever trick for which some purists have yet to forgive her. Not this one, however. Once you have adjusted your goggles, this adaptation hits new heights for the whole genre and becomes an unalloyed pleasure.
It's beautifully shot, all the characterisations are incredibly detailed, even minor characters like John Knightley and Mrs Goddard are fully realised and Garai and Miller hit their top notes reliably again and again.
I'm sure Austen would love it.
Exasperating script and dreadful acting
This is what period adaptations used to be like in the Dark Ages.
I checked this out in preparation for the eagerly awaited Sandy-Welch-plotted version due from the BBC later this year.
Ouch! This version takes frightening liberties with the script, not only by creating all the narrative events of the novel in new dialogue between the main characters but inventing new and alarming chapters in the drama, not all of which are at all helpful and some of which are downright indigestible. The dialogue runs on and on at 100 mph, no breath for a pause, no respect whatsoever for Austen's original language, and worse, no sign of its author getting anywhere near Austen's wavelength. Mr Woodhouse, for example, trolls about at a large party at Hartfield (26!!) snatching plates of food out of his guests hand and behaves so like a nutter that it seems quite appropriate for Knightley to rudely ignore him as he stomps off after the row with Emma about Robert Martin.
Dorin Godwin is not nearly talented enough to produce a multi-faceted Emma and the rest of the cast are dull, mechanical and under-rehearsed. I was so put off I had to stop before getting as far as the party at Randalls. I simply couldn't take any more.
Little Dorrit (2008)
I may have been looking forward to this too much. Period drama has been hitting new heights recently but I'm not surprised that there hasn't been a rush to comment on the latest BBC/Andrew Davies Dickens adaptation. 18 months ago, Bleak House, with its dark shadows, glacial foreboding and taut narrative storyline gripped the nation. Not so Little Dorrit.
What's the problem? Surely with a winning formula, a great cast and a brilliant novel, we must be guaranteed some sort of success? The three leads are very successfully cast. McFadyen and Courtenay are both living their parts and taking every opportunity that comes their way. Amy has just the right combination of winsomeness, vulnerability and moral strength and can bring a tear to the most jaded eye.
But here's where the problem starts. She's so tall, fit and healthy that if someone told you she was the British All-Comers keepie-up champion you wouldn't be surprised.
And the whole series is like that. London looks spruce and modern, the Marshalsea looks more inviting than any accommodation I ever had in London, everyone is clean and fettled and no one seems to have a problem worthy of the name. Parts of it,like everything associated with the Meagles at Twickenham, are actually boring and defective.
Apart from that, the planning that went into the storyline of Bleak House to come up with a strong narrative thread supporting two half hour episodes a week is missing here. Characters constantly seem to be rushing off stage. Andy Serkis, as Rigaud, is a delicious villain and would be a much-needed, hugely oppressive presence if only they'd give him more than a minute an episode.
I can't see myself falling in wholeheartedly love with this production, especially when there is a much more imaginative (and even better acted) adaptation already on DVD, from Christina Edzard.
I love Panks and the Bleeding Heart Yard crew, and the Clennam household is a tremendous success. I'd watch Judy Parfitt mowing her grass, she's beautifully paired with Alun Armstrong and Sue Johnston is perfect as Affery.
But whilst it scores, it also continues to disappoint. I just don't think enough hard work went into it at the planning and scriptwriting stages.
Lost in Austen (2008)
Life on Mars meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead . .
. . . in Longbourne.
I may be asked to hand in my Austen Purists card but I liked it. And I think ITV are far better advised to try and cash in on the Austen market with this type of product than with the anaemic reproductions of BBC period drama they treated us to last year.
It's limited but it's funny. One of mainstays is that the characters are all subtly different and we are mostly offstage with scenes from the novel happening elsewhere. Lydia is attractively vivacious rather than promiscuously giddy, Jane is not that pretty, Darcy is not offensively haughty, the stranger from the future is not offensively gauche, and Mrs Bennett who has been very quick to understand the threat the newcomer poses to her daughters AND take action, is set up for very interesting developments - more a fearsome adversary so far than a cringing embarrassment.
Lizzie even looks like Lizzie should, but since she's hardly been in it so far, we'll have to wait and see what Gemma Arterton comes up with when she gets a few lines. It's a big ask, so I'll be interested to see whether she and Jemima Rooper can carry it off.
But you can count me in. Definitely.
Miss Austen Regrets (2008)
Now that's better . . .
As one of the many Austen fans still smarting from the vacuously boring Becoming Jane, I was nervous about this. As if sensing this apprehension, Miss Austen Regrets set off at a gallop. One and a half minutes in and we are already over the worst hurdles. We have a talented, intelligent lead - an innovative, sparkily humorous script - tactful and assured direction. Phew!
All memory of the toxically banal Ann Hathaway as the younger Jane evaporated as the lovely Olivia Williams settled into the part - so successfully that the sideswipe the writer takes at the earlier production 20 minutes in seems inappropriately vengeful.
Without hitting the exact spot, this was very, very much better.
It played on safer ground. It portrays Austen between the publication of Mansfield Park and Emma, just starting on the first draft of Persuasion and surrounds her with characters with credible lives of their own. It does an excellent job of demonstrating just how fragile was the life of even a woman successful and famous enough to be a guest of the Prince Regent. Only by marriage rather than as a result of her work can Jane support her family in their modest style of life. Questions over her brother's estate threaten the house she lives in but can never own. This insecurity is what Miss Austen really regrets.
All the minor performances are what you'd expect from top-drawer BBC period drama and Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots are excellent in the two central roles of aunt who hasn't given up flirting and the niece about to become engaged who is still learning the ropes. The whole production portrays an interesting life, full of love, frustration, struggle and uncertainty about life's choices, and does something like justice to one of the greatest authors of literature and her most intimate concerns.
So, if you've seen neither of the two recent dramas about Jane Austen's life and you're prone to kicking the cat when angered, make absolutely certain that you see this one first.
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008)
Puts the 'bana' into banal.
This is the second effort at bringing this titillating but only averagely interesting book to the screen as we begin to surfeit on Tudor history.
There have been, therefore, several recent Henry VIII's. Jonathan Rhys Meyer's portrayal in The Tudors is the most inaccurate but Bana's is the worst. In fact, however far back you go, it's still the worst. The thinly disguised Melbourne twang doesn't help, however it does help to excuse Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johanssen who both needed more time with the dialogue coach. And an acting coach would have found plenty to keep him occupied on this set.
Natasha McElhone and Jodhi May played the sisters in the mini-series and were both significant improvements on the two female leads here.
But ultimately, whatever crew you picked would be unlikely to make much of this not very interesting angle on an extremely interesting period of history.
If you thought that North and South 2004, Bleak House 2005 and Jane Eyre 2006 were heroic steps forward in period adaptation you are absolutely going to adore this. I'm hoping, on the strength of the first episode, that we may be about to ascend new heights.
Liberties are taken. The material is being reinterpreted for the screen with a dashing disrespect for fidelity that is bound to offend those critics who watch screen adaptations with their Everyman edition on their knee but what Thomas has done here is bring the spirit of Gaskell and the humour of the age (specifically northern humour), magnificently to life.
Eileen Atkins' performance alone will carry this series to every Award ceremony worthy of attention but there is so much more you may be left agape with wonder or clapping your hands with glee at the stories surrounding Cranford's womenfolk, many condemned to spinsterhood by the Napoleonic Wars. And there's much more still to come.
You won't see the novel reassembled piece by piece, but what you'll get instead is a mordant, hilarious, moving, masterpiece of the art of adaptation and a brilliant cast extracting every last every drop of juice from the fruit (sucked separately, of course).
Cranford is vibrantly alive and kicking as it never has been before. Bring on the rest. If you please.
A Real Summer (2007)
So much more than a monologue
Two thirds of the way through the Poliakoff triptych based on the life and times of a large London house, it's possible that this, the shortest piece, an afterthought, may be the most memorable.
A Real Summer starts like one of those Alan Bennett Talking Heads monologues actresses used consider murdering each other to get into. Then, like Poliakoff's unspoken contention that the world changed in 1958, the outside world intrudes, and something happens which re-colours and changes everything that went before The tone is initially elegiac, confiding, reassuring, then disturbing, before descending into almost tragic foreboding.
Anyone who still doubts Ruth Wilson's talent may feel the odd twinge in the first 10 minutes. The odd gesture and accent is slightly uncertain at first, possibly intentionally, there's even a script goof left in, but after the last 10 minutes you won't remember those. You won't even remember Poliakoff's name or Joe's Palace.
All you'll be worried about is what you can see Wilson in next and how long you'll have to wait.
I don't feel I can say more without spoiling the treat. Poliakoff has given her the ideal showcase for her enormous talent here and she rises to the challenge. Memorably.
A Room with a View (2007)
A new take and a new starlet
I see that Elaine Cassidy has been tipped for the top. Her Lucy Honeychurch catches some of what Helena Bonham Carter missed in the Merchant Ivory film, without succeeding in eclipsing her. The main improvement is that she and a surprisingly unfoppish Laurence Fox look like a more realistic pair of lovers in this Andrew Davies adaptation than HBC and DDL and seem fated for different reasons. I wasn't quite so immediately convinced Rafe Spall had what it took to part them.
Sophie Thompson never disappoints and is a fabulous Charlotte, Mark Williams turns in another great piece of work as does Timothy West.
In fact, compared to the Merchant Ivory version, most of the characters have a little more nuanced colour in their cheeks, with the exception of Freddie and Mrs Honeychurch. What stops this taking off and flying is the lack of real vitality in the script and a lot of direction which tends toward the pedestrian.
Although, on balance, I think I still prefer the Merchant Ivory version, there's plenty enough here to enjoy.
Appointment in London (1953)
Tight script, great performances, amazing flying sequences
This is an unusual film. As others have commented it is well made, tautly scripted and has very good central performances. But that isn't what singles it out.
It's commonly thought that night time area bombing by the RAF was a hit or miss affair, quite different from daylight precision bombing done by the USAAF. Whilst no one can argue that targets were easier to see during daylight hours, both the RAF and the Luftwaffe developed highly accurate methods of hitting their targets at night. In the fateful Dresden raid in February 1945, almost 95% of the RAF bombload fell within one mile of the markers placed with 50 metre accuracy by the Mosquito target illuminator aircraft. The following day, a quarter of the American daylight force sent to follow up bombed Prague, having mistaken one bend in the River Elbe for another.
This film depicts, at length, the method of target marking the flight path using coloured airburst flares, eliminating 'creepback' by approaching the target along different vectors, air and ground marking the target and using a 'Master Bomber' to control the incoming streams and give bomb aimers feedback on accuracy.
No medal was struck for Bomber Command and many of the crew themselves felt their contribution was best forgotten, so this film is one of the few accurate testaments to their courage.
Jane Eyre (2006)
Jane Eyre, finally on screen
Jane Eyre is a tough adaptation. You need a host of competent actors for the minor roles, good child actors and a brooding, fiery Bronte hero for Rochester, capable of attaching a variety of women and inspiring devotion in one of literature's great heroines.
There have been plenty of great Rochesters, George C Scott and Ciaran Hinds to name but two, and Toby Stephens may be another. The ladies certainly seem to think so.
But in Ruth Wilson we may finally have a memorable Jane Eyre. An actress who is strikingly beautiful but not superficially pretty. Who can look dour and empty, who is believably dull and innocent and yet simultaneously contains the fire for a great love story. She has fabulous poise and control. Only the smallest alterations of expression are required to communicate changing emotions bubbling below the surface. One of the reasons it fits so well into four hours is that Ruth can do 10 pages of prose with one change of expression. Adorable.
It goes along at a fair old pace. Jane is into and out of Lowood in the first 10 minutes. But the texture is right. The two central characters have sparked on and off each other very convincingly.
Will it be the one?
(After the Final Episode) There's no doubt. It is THE one. Started extremely well and got better and better. There are so many outstanding moments between the two leads and not just in the big scenes. Watch Ruth Wilson's incredible acting in the stairwell as she summons up the courage to enter the tower room to nurse Mason, balanced by Toby's concern followed by his wordless decision to trust her. Or his petulance as he welcomes her return from Gateshead, turning to delight in Jane's pleasure in coming home. The last episode is unforgettable. As good as television gets.
Land and Freedom (1995)
I also love this film.
It's a wonderful, intense, realistic and insightful look at the Spanish Civil War with the highly naturalistic cinematography and committed performances characteristic of Loach.
The reviews and debate concentrate on the action in Spain, which, for me, is only half the story that Loach is telling. I grew up in Liverpool in the 50's and 60's and knew quite a few David Carrs. Men then in their own fifties and sixties, often alone, keeping themselves to themselves in quiet corners of pubs and working men's clubs. They never told their own stories, never wanted credit, never wanted to relive their experiences in the Battle of the Atlantic, on the Baltic convoys, in North Africa. Someone who knew them would sometimes say "he was torpedoed four times" or "he was two years in Spain fighting Franco" and that would be that.
So I am delighted that David Carr, played by the incomparable Ian Hart, and this movie is such a fabulous testament to all of them. I love the way his life expands onto the screen, from the small remainder in a Liverpool council flat, from the letters uncovered by his death, into the light and air of Spain, enabling us to share in his buried idealism, its betrayal, then to witness the love of his life and the loss of it. Incredibly beautiful and truly heartbreaking. Unsuspected by all but his best mates and his newly enlightened granddaughter, David is surely off to Valhalla to be reunited with Blanca and his warrior friends of the past. I cannot think of anything in film so unsentimental yet so poignantly moving as her last salute.
This isn't Don Quixote, though. Nor is it Orwell, who is magnificent in an entirely different way, nor is it Hemingway's brash heroism or Saving Private Ryan's gung-ho bullet-for-bullet style of "historical verisimilitude".
It doesn't matter at all whether the events are being portrayed with strict accuracy or not. This is the authentic texture of twentieth century history in perfect context, portrayed through the lens of one man's experience.
And there is hardly anything else like it on film.
A true masterpiece of the art which deserves a much bigger reputation and a place in the British Movie Pantheon alongside the very best.
Bleak House (2005)
Early days but the signs are good
With just one episode broadcast, it's clearly possible that the BBC Drama Department may have it's second big success of 2005.
With an Andrew Davies script you know what you're getting, predictable, competent, unimaginative but faithful. Whether this series will go down with the classics or not will be down to the direction and the performances. And the signs are good. Very good.
Gillian Anderson fans looking in may miss her first scene, there is no trace of Scully whatsoever. People who've always suspected her of having more talent than she's had the opportunity to show are going to be saying "I told you so" to anyone who will listen for the next few months. She's that good. But Bleak House has the strongest cast we've seen in an adaptation since Brideshead. We've seen enough already to suggest that it's going to be full of gems And Anna Maxwell Martin, almost a TV débutante, may just be about to turn in one of the top central performances of recent times.
Set your videos and PVRs and don't miss a minute.
It'll be better than Rome.
(Update) We're halfway through and it's brilliant. Dickens can't write a shallow character so it needs a lavish cast to do him justice and that's what we have here. Gillian Anderson is brilliant, Charles Dance is memorable, Carey Mulligan, Pauline Collins and Johnny Vegas are outstanding, but Anna Maxwell Martin and Burn Gorman are just out of this world. I feel sorry for our American friends, impatient to get started but also jealous that they have the whole thing to look forward, to whereas we are now, sadly, over halfway through.
If you really can't wait, get the DVD of North & South (2004) and watch the adorable Anna twinkle in that.
Pride & Prejudice (2005)
Four weddings and the funeral of common sense
P&P is often compared to a Swiss watch and very few novels are this intricately woven together. There are numerous love stories, successful and unsuccessful fortune hunters of both sexes, embarrassing and wilful parents each impinging one on another, each bringing the two principle lovers, Elizabeth and Darcy closer together or driving them further apart. At the beginning characters are grouped according to their fortunes and status. By the end of the novel, they have rearranged themselves according to sense, ability and intelligence.
If you take the screws out of a mechanism this complex, you will never get it back together again. Andrew Davies, in the 1995 version, had six hours of screen time and left them where they were. He was neither required to cut essential characters, or miss out essential plot items. The downside of putting so much of Austen's dialogue on screen is that his own attempts, such as the scenes at the inn at Lambton and Pemberley stick out unattractively from Austen's crisp satirical work and sometimes, especially when he trying for irony, his script work can look positively crude.
Attempting to be true to the principle character, however, in two hours has here entailed throwing away vital bits of the Swiss watch. Wickham is there, briefly, and so is Lydia. The Gardiners are almost out, the Hursts are gone completely. There isn't time for Darcy's letter, the express from London and Mrs Gardiner's letter explaining Darcy's discovery of Lydia isn't necessary because it's not clear what Darcy has done to help.
And why would he need to do anything? What could scandal mean to a family living as the Bennets do in this version? I appreciate the need for a different look to the 1995 version but putting the Bennett's into a house that looks like a pigsty from a much earlier age is the real problem with this version for me.
The comedy of class and manners is destroyed by degrading the life of the Bennets to the sort of sub-gentility that might have been appropriate to an adaptation of Tom Jones or even Moll Flanders but is ridiculous for the family of a wealthy country attorney. In the novel, Elizabeth Bennet, daughter of a middle class gentleman marries someone from the upper middle class with dubiously aristocratic connections. In this version, the daughter of a family about to fall into extreme poverty marries a belted Earl (Pemberley is Chatsworth here - one of the largest stately homes in England - definitely NOT where the Darcy's would be living). The Bennett's home would have been large, clean, genteel, separated from the farm and well run. The Gardiners, would have had half a floor to themselves in the Inn at Lambton and would never have dreamt of dining with the drunken regulars. The pantomime with the letter in the inn is inexcusable. The characters pop in and out of shot like Bill and Ben.
Since the the comedy of class and manners is tossed away, you're left with the performances. These are patchy and condemn the whole to disintegration.
Elizabeth is justabout OK but the other characters don't take off. Brenda Blethyn, excellent as usual but criminally underused and playing someone other than Mrs Bennet. Matthew McFadyen got the message and didn't try to be Colin Firth but forget to be Darcy. Donald Sutherland, accent all over the place and where was the sardonic cynicism? Judi Dench didn't have enough time. Jena Malone as Lydia couldn't be outrageous enough for who would look unusual or out of place in that household?
On the whole, a version that might not go down as the worst ever, even if it can't possibly be used by students.
Belongs on the shelf next to the Patricia Rozema Mansfield Park. Complete and utter failure as an adaptation but watchable on a Sunday afternoon if you can put the original aside.
The Jewel in the Crown (1984)
There's a small scene in the first 2 hour episode of Jewel in the Crown about 80 minutes in. Susan Wooldridge, a gangly maladroit, clearly not cut out for India, is sleeping. The long awaited rain wakes her and she gets up and walks out onto the balcony. The obsessional loving care and artistry that is evident in just this single minute tell you everything you need to know about the quality of Jewel in the Crown. The set and the lighting on the sleeping figure momentarily transforms the character who will later be known, pejoratively as "that Manners girl" into the Diana-like beauty she always imagined she would become. Wooldridge is convincingly asleep and wakes naturally, and surprise, delight and relief register on her face as she revels in the feel of rain on her face. Nothing is out the book. It's all fresh, original, new. A great piece of acting by Wooldridge, never surpassed or even approached by all the other actors and actresses who have had to play this popular little scene, present in so many other movies. A great piece of directing, lighting, scene setting and costume design.
Aside from this one, there are 649 other minutes and the same care and devotion is taken with all of them. In the episode "The Mughal Room", Sara Layton and Guy Perron spend Guy's last afternoon exploring the Governor's Summer residence at Pankot. 7 minutes go by without any dialogue in this little elegy for the cobwebbed glory of the Raj before they settle down in one of the bedrooms to make love. You won't find anything else like it in mainstream television. Very hard to do but very beautiful.
But then the whole story is excellent, beautifully paced, tragic, funny, pathetic, illuminating and exciting by turns. I've watched it a number of times and I never want it to end.
It really is the best drama series ever made.
Mansfield Park (1999)
Mansfield Park on speed
This isn't an awful movie. It's quite watchable. Some of the acting, especially from Pinter is excellent.
But the rest resembles those films made from classic novels in the 30s where no one concerned in making it had time to read the book. A quick treatment by a college student, a quick script conference, then off we go. Rozema has almost no idea of what the book is about but is entirely unembarrassed by her ignorance in her interview on the DVD.
Austen fans don't have to wait long to discover just how far off the wavelength she is. The first contact between Sir Thomas and Fanny is a reproof for running through MP's corridors shrieking like a banshee. Lines are taken from Mary Crawford in the book and given to Fanny in the film. How's that for missing the point? One by one characters appear looking no more recognisable than if they were appearing in a literary celebrity edition of Scooby Doo.
I agree with other reviewers that if the film was called something else and the characters had different names, it would be impossible to trace it's origins to Austen's book which is definitely not a conventional love story about bright young things getting together having overcome a few obstacles.
There's very little to choose between the morals of Rozema's characters, so nothing of the catastrophic descent into the abyss is associated with the production of Lover's Vows, nor do we have any glimpse of Rushworth and Crawford vandalising Sotherton. Mrs Norris is one of the most deliciously evil creations in literature - Rozema reduces her part to a few lines. Thomas Betram is a "modern" artist - yikes! William Price, Fanny's brother and one of the key relationships in the book, is missing altogether. Susan, her sister, has been reading too many Style magazines.
Mansfield Park might have been a bit like this had it been written by Georgette Heyer or even Jackie Collins. As an Austen adaptation it is execrable. But it's so far off the mark, that as something else entirely, it's not all that bad. Maybe they should just change the title.
Love Actually (2003)
This film is hilarious. I apologise if English film humour has moved on since Carry On, Benny Hill and Are you Being Served but there you go. Tout passe. Perhaps it would help if American producers didn't force English directors to do so much safety shooting for the American version, dumbing it down before release in the States.
It's far from perfect. It is more like a box of candy than an oil painting, but it's all beautifully wrapped, if you follow me. It does show more than a few sharp edges, having been edited down from 3 hours to two. You can smooth them out again with the deleted scenes on the DVD. The additional stuff between Liam Neeson and Thomas Sangster is excellent and should have been kept in place of The Bay City Rollers funeral scene, ripped off from The Big Chill.
Oh, and did I mention that it's supposed to be funny. In fact Bill Nighy's performance is making me laugh again just typing a comment about it.
If you don't find it funny, you should try and look for the humour.
If you do and still can't see it, then you're probably best letting it pass harmlessly over your head - as nature intended.
And anyway, just how gorgeous is Lúcia Moniz?