“THE BUCCANEERS” (1995) Review

 

“THE BUCCANEERS” (1995) Review

Several years ago, I had anticipating watching for the first time, “THE BUCCANEERS”, the 1995 television adaptation of Edith Wharton’s last novel. After all, I have been a major fan of “THE AGE OF INNOCENCE”, Martin Scorcese’s 1993 adaptation of Wharton’s award-winning 1920 novel for years. But my eager anticipation nearly ebbed away, when I discovered that “THE BUCCANEERS” had only managed to rouse a lukewarm reception from many television critics. 

The five-part miniseries turned out to be an unusual production from the BBC. One, it was based upon a novel written by an American author – namely Edith Wharton. There have been other British television productions based upon the literary works of an American, but they are very rare. Another interesting aspect of Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” is that the author did not finish it, due to her death at the age of 75. Fifty-six years later, Wharton scholar Marion Mainwaring finished the novel, which was published by Viking. Around the same time, the BBC hired screenwriter Maggie Wadey to adapt and finish the novel for the television. As a result the novel has two slightly different endings. Another aspect of this miniseries that struck me as unusual was that instead of hiring British actresses to portray four of the five leads, the BBC hired four American actresses – Carla Gugino, Mira Sorvino, Alison Elliott and Rya Kihlstedt.

The plotline for “THE BUCCANEERS” is very simple. The story begins in 1873 Newport, Rhode Island; in which two sisters of anoveau riche businessman and their two sisters are introduced – Virginia “Ginny” and Annabel “Nan” St. George, Conchita “Connie” Closson and Elizabeth “Lizzy” Elmsworth. Whereas the Brazilian born Conchita manages to snare Lord Richard Marabel, the dissolute second son of the Marquess of Brightlingsea, the other three girls struggle to find a place amongst the members of old New York society. When a prank committed by Ginny and Lizzy backfires, Nan’s English governess Laura Testvalley proposes to Mrs. St. George that Ginny and Nan have a London season amongst the upper-class British. She argues that their acceptance by the British high society would assure them a place amongst the upper-class New Yorkers. Due to their friendship with the vibrant Conchita, Virginia and Annabel are introduced to Lord Richard’s family – the impoverished Brightlingseas and their neighbors, the equally impoverished Sir Helmsey Thwaite and his son Guy. As they get settled to conquer British society, Ginny and Nan are surprised by the arrival of Lizzy, who has arrived in Britain for her own season.

Although the girls’ original purpose for visiting Britain was to enjoy a London season, a friend of Laura Testvalley has other plans for them. Thirty years earlier, the American born Jackie March had been engaged to a British aristocrat – namely the very young Lord Brightlingsea – who abandoned her at the altar. Miss March remained in Britain and became something of a sponsor/matchmaker for young society girls. It was Miss March who recommended that the visiting Americans rent a villa owned by one of her former sponsors, Lady Idina Hutton. She also recommended that the girls do more than just enjoy a London season in order to impress old New York society. She recommended that they consider marrying into upper-class British society. Miss March’s plans eventually come to fruition:

*Virginia or namely her father’s wealth attracted the attention of Lady Idina Hutton’s lover and Lord Richard’s older brother, Lord Seadown.

*Lizzy ended up marrying a self-made aspiring politician named Hector Robinson

*Annabel fell in love with Guy Thwaite, but ended up marrying the very wealthy Julian Folyat, Duke of Trevennick; when Guy left Britain to find his fortune in South America.

As I had stated earlier, most critics were not initially kind to “THE BUCCANEERS”. Most British critics dismissed it as a costumed soap opera of the second-rate kind, with an ending that had been “Hollywoodized” (happy ending). These same critics also accused the miniseries of mocking the British aristocracy. The American critics, at least those who considered themselves Wharton purists, accused the miniseries’ screenwriter, Maggie Waddey, of changing the elements of the author’s story by including topics such as marital rape and homosexuality. Personally, I found all of these arguments irrelevant. Most dramas about personal lives – whether first-rate or not – tend to possess soap-operish elements. This hostility toward soap operas has always struck me as infantile and irrelevant. And why are all Hollywood productions guilty of having a happy ending, when that has not always been the case?  Other literary works and their adaptations have mocked the British aristocracy. Why was there such a big hullabaloo over how the aristocracy was portrayed in this particular story? As for the additions of marital rape and homosexuality, these elements did no harm to the story, as far as I am concerned. And I must admit that I have become increasingly weary of demands that all movie or television adaptations should be completely faithful to their literary source. Such demands strike me as impractical.

My complaints about “THE BUCCANEERS” are very few. In fact, I only have two. The first time I ever saw actress Gwen Humble on the television screen was in a miniseries called “THE REBELS”, an adaptation of a John Jakes novel. Although I had no problems with her performance in that particular production, I must admit that I had a problem with her performance as Virginia and Annabel’s mother, Mrs. St. George. I understand that Mrs. St. George was supposed to be a shallow and somewhat silly woman. But I feel that Humble went a little too far in conveying those certain traits. Her performance struck me as exaggerated and a little amateurish. Another problem I had with “THE BUCCANEERS” is a rather minor one. It has to do with Virginia’s husband, Lord Seadown. His father is a marquess – which is ranked somewhere between a duke and an earl (count). As the eldest son, he is entitled to a courtesy title. But what was Seadown’s courtesy title? His younger brother was called Lord Richard Marable, which is correct for the younger son of a marquess. The courtesy title for the eldest son of a marquess is usually an earldom – namely Earl of Something. Was Seadown’s name a courtesy title – Earl of Seadown? Or was he supposed to be regarded as Lord Seadown Marable? If the latter, what was the courtesy title he used? I found it all slightly confusing.

However, “THE BUCCANEERS” has been one of my all time favorite miniseries, ever since I first saw it. And there is so much about it that has made it such a favorite of mine. One, producer-director Philip hired a production crew that did justice to Wharton’s story. The miniseries featured some elegant locations that served as the story’s various settings. Some of these locations included Castle HowardBurghley House and Newport, Rhode Island. I also enjoyed Remi Adefarasin’s photography. It had a deep and rich color that did justice to a story filled with emotions and passion. Colin Towns provided an elegant and entertaining score that remained memorable for me, since the first time I heard it years ago. But it was Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes that really blew my mind. She provided exquisitely outfits that were beautiful and elegant – especially those for the lead actresses. More importantly, her costumes not only reflected the fashions wore by the American and British upper-classes during the 1870s, they also reflected the change in the main characters’ status and in women’s fashion throughout the decade, as the following photographs show:

Another one of the major virtues of “THE BUCCANEERS” turned out to be its cast. Wharton’s novel is filled with interesting characters. And Saville and his casting director did an excellent job in finding the right actor/actress for the right role. Aside from Gwen Humble’s portrayal of Mrs. St. George, there were so many first-rate performances in the miniseries that it would take me another article just to describe them. But the supporting performances that stood out for me came from the likes of Sheila Hancock, whose portrayal of the Dowager Duchess of Trevenick was an expertly performed mixture of cool haughtiness, sharp wisdom and long suffering; Michael Kitchen, who skillfully conveyed both the charming and shallow nature of Sir Helmsley Thwaite; Jenny Agutter, who was excellent as Lady Idina Hatton, Lord Seadown’s insecure and tragic mistress; Dinsdale Landen and Rosemary Leach, who both portrayed the Marquess and Marchioness of Brightlingsea with a mixture of class haughtiness, charm and great humor; Peter M. Goetz, who seemed to personify the self-made 19th century American businessman; and Connie Booth, who gave one of her better performances as the ambitious and sharp-minded Jackie March.

Richard Huw gave a humorous, yet intelligent performance as Hector Robinson, the ambitious young Member of Parliament who ends up winning Lizzy Elmsworth’s hand. And Mark Tandy was pretty solid as Lord Brightlingsea’s heir, the mercenary Lord Seadown who marries Virginia for Colonel St. George’s money. I was very impressed by Ronan Vibert’s portrayal of the dissolute Lord Richard Marabel, Conchita’s husband and Lord Brightlingsea’s younger son. But the two male performances that really impressed me came from Greg Wise and James Frain. The latter portrayed the haughty Julian Duke of Trevenick, who manages to win the hand Annabel St. George (much to the surprise of her governess), before alienating her with his lack of skills as a husband. Frain could have easily portrayed Julian as a one-note villain, especially when one considers the act of marital rape that his character committed against his wife in Episode Three. Being the skillful actor that he is, Frain conveyed all facets of Julian’s personality – both the good and the bad. And his assertion near the end of Episode Four that he is “not a monster” may have been one of Frain’s finest moments on screen. Greg Wise probably gave one of what I consider to be three of his best performances in his portrayal of Guy Thwaite, Sir Helmsley’s only son. His Guy could have been one of your typical handsome, romantic heroes. But Wise did an excellent job in revealing Guy’s insecurities regarding his lack of funds might seem in Annabel’s eyes with very few words – an act that led him to lose her to Julian. And he also conveyed how in the throes of love, Guy could be a slightly selfish man with no thought to how his “friendship” with Annabel might affect her social standing. Thanks to Wise’s performance, his Guy Thwaite proved to be equally complex.

We finally come to our five leads in the story – the four American heiresses and Annabel St. George’s English governess, Laura Testvalley. I have noticed that whenever someone brings up Cheri Lunghi, he or she inevitable brings up her role in “THE BUCCANEERS”, the Anglo-Italian governess Miss Testvalley. I certainly cannot blame them. Lunghi proved to be the glue that held the story together, skillfully serving as its eyes and narrator at the beginning of each episode. Rya Kihlstedt gave a charming and solid performance as the blunt and level-headed Lizzy Elmsworth, who seemed more impressed by Hector Robinson’s ambitions than any aristocrat. She and Richard Huw managed to create a very credible screen presence. Alison Elliott’s Virginia St. George proved to be one of the most complicated characters in the story. Thanks to the actress’ excellent performance, she conveyed Virginia’s haughtiness and obsession with being connected to an aristocratic family; and at the same time, garnered sympathy by expressing the character’s love for her husband and disappointment upon discovering that he had only married her for money. And less than a year before she won her Academy Award, Mira Sorvino proved just how first-rate she could be as an actress in her portrayal of the Brazilian-born Conchita Closson. Her Conchita was a delicious and complicated minx torn by her desire for the luxurious and glamorous lifestyle of the British aristocracy and her contempt for what she deemed as their cold personalities. If Cheri Lunghi’s Laura Testvalley was the story’s eyes and narrator, Carla Gugino’s Annabel St. George aka the Duchess of Trevenick proved to be the heart and soul of “THE BUCCANEERS”. Thanks to Gugino’s superb performance, the actress literally transformed Nan from the childish and naïve sixteen year-old girl, to the bewildered nineteen year-old bride and finally to the weary twenty-one year-old wife, disappointed by a failed marriage and in love with another man. There are times that I wondered if any other actress could have accomplished what she did. It seemed a pity that none of the major television and critics awards organizations never acknowledged her performance with a nomination.

Many critics have heaped a great deal of scorn upon Maggie Wadey’s adaptation of Wharton’s novel. Frankly, I believe this scorn was undeserved. I may not have been that impressed by her other works, but I honestly believe that “THE BUCCANEERS” was her masterpiece by far. Many accused her of failing to adapt Wharton’s “spirit” or “style” by including marital rape and homosexuality into the story. Since both topics where added without any tasteless sensationalism, I had no problems with these additions. And Wadey also made sure to give the story’s happy ending something of a bittersweet edge. Despite leaving Julian for the man she loved, Guy Thwaite, Annabel found herself ostracized by society and especially by Virginia – as was proven at the Marquess of Brightlingsea’s funeral. Annabel and Guy’s elopement also left the latter disinherited by his father, Sir Helmsley. And her assistance in the elopement left Laura Testvalley rejected by Sir Helmsley and unemployed. So much for the “happy ending”. Because the story revolved around four American heiresses marrying into the British upper-classes, “THE BUCCANEERS” also proved to be an interesting study in culture clash between two Western nations in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. But in all of the articles I have read about the miniseries, I find it surprising that no one has bothered to noticed that the topic of the continuing decline of the British aristocracy was also mentioned . . . more than once. It almost became a secondary theme. The Brightlingseas’ interest in the St. George family certainly seemed an indication that they were more willing to marry money – regardless from where it came – rather than find a way to earn it. Unlike Guy Thwaite, who preferred to create his own wealth with two years in South America, rather than marry it. And the character of the Marquess of Brightlingsea literally became a symbol of the aristocracy’s decline in scenes like a heated conversation between him and Hector Robinson; and a speech by Guy Thwaite to the House of Commons during a montage that featured a montage of his death.

Now that I think about it, why should I care what others feel about “THE BUCCANEERS”? Every time I watch it, I always fall in love with the miniseries over and over again. Maggie Wadey wrote an excellent adaptation of Wharton’s novel – probably her best work, as far as I am concerned. Led by the likes of Carla Gugino, Cheri Lunghi, Greg Wise and James Frain, the cast proved to be first-rate. And Philip Saville did justice to both the cast and Wadey’s screenplay in his direction of the miniseries.

“MAD MEN”: “Wanted or Not – An ‘Emancipated’ Divorcee”

This article was originally written after the end of Season Three for AMC’s “MAD MEN”:

 

“MAD MEN”: “Wanted or Not – An ‘Emancipated’ Divorcee”

One of the events of the Season Three finale of ”MAD MEN” – (3.13) “Shut the Door. Have a Seat” – turned out to be Betty Draper’s decision to file a divorce from the series’ main protagonist, Don Draper. Acting as Betty’s main supporter throughout this upheaval was her almost paramour Henry Francis. 

Betty had first met the aide to New York’s Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, in the third episode, (3.03) “My Old Kentucky Home”. In the episode, Henry he had asked to touched her belly, while she was still pregnant with young Eugene. Betty gave him permission and a silent spark of attraction ignited between the two. They met for the second time in (3.07) “Seven Twenty-Three”, when Betty was asked by her colleagues in her local Junior League to seek his help in preventing the installation of a huge water tank that will drain the scenic local reservoir and mar the landscape. Henry managed to briefly come to her aid in the following episode, (3.08) “Souvenirs”. By the ninth episode, (3.09) “Wee Small Hours”, the pair was ready to have an affair. Until Betty realized that she did not want to engage in a tawdry affair that involved sex in hotel rooms or behind the closed doors of Henry’s office. When they had met at the wedding reception for Roger Sterling’s daughter, Margaret, in (3.12) “The Grown Ups”; it was apparent that the two had remained attracted with one another.

When Betty finally decided to seek a divorce from Don in the Season 3 finale, many noticed that Henry was by her side when she visited a divorce lawyer and when she flew to Reno, Nevada for a divorce. The hostility toward Henry’s presence was strong amongst the fans. It was not long before assumptions about the relationship between Betty and Henry appeared on various blogs and message boards about ”MAD MEN”. Many fans insulted Henry with a variety of names. Others insulted Betty. Fans expressed belief that Henry would end up treating her as a trophy wife, just as Don had during the past decade. More importantly, many accused Betty of being nothing more than a spoiled Daddy’s girl who turned to Henry, because she needed a ”father figure” to dictate her life.  I find these accusations ironic, considering that the series has revealed the slightly harsh upbringing she had endured at the hands of her mother.  The fact that Henry had been seen at her side during a meeting with a divorce lawyer, and during the flight to Reno at the end of Season 3 seemed to be solid evidence to them. And Henry’s advice that Betty dismiss any divorce settlement from Don in order to keep him out her life was another piece of evidence in their eyes. But I wonder. Do any of these fans really know what Betty wants? Or were they merely expressing their disappointment that she had failed to follow a path that they had desired? Is their hostility based upon their disappointment that she did not become a single divorcee like Helen Bishop . . . or that she had failed to reconcile with Don and try to repair their heavily damaged marriage?

I find it interesting that fans had heaped a great deal of disappointment and hostility upon Betty for failing to become the epitome of the new “independent” woman. No one had complained when Joan Hollway had married her doctor fiancé, Greg Harris, after he had raped her in (2.12) “The Mountain King”. Nor did they bash Joan’s character when she finally left Sterling Cooper to become a wife only in (3.06) “Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency”  The ironic thing is that Joan had expressed a desire for a life with kids and a husband in the suburbs since the series began. She wanted to be a pampered housewife adored by her husband. Instead, she ended up with Greg Harris, who turned out to be a less than talented surgeon and rapist.  Worse, he was incapable of kick starting a career in psychiatry after failing a job interview.  By the end of Season 3, Joan was forced to become a career woman, again. In (2.11) “The Gypsy and the Hobo”, Greg had decided to continue his career in surgery . . . as a U.S. Army officer and ended up in Vietnam.  Although Joan expressed relief that she managed to find a permanent job again, with the newly formed Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Agency and found herself pregnant with Roger Sterling’s baby, thanks to a one-night stand; I cannot help but wonder how she feels about her failure to become a suburban housewife of a successful careerist. Perhaps deep down, Joan had always wanted to remain a career woman. But she had allowed society to dictate her wants, just as Betty has. What will the future bring for Joan, now that she is pregnant? Will she still desire the life that Betty had with Don? Or will she finally wise up and realize that that living the Suburban Dream was never really for her . . . with any man?

And what about Betty? It seemed unrealistic to expect her to become the “liberated” woman after her breakup with Don. Considering Betty’s upper class background and conformist personality, I do not see that happening this soon in the series. After all, Season Three has just ended. Personally, I suspect that Betty might still be too scared to consider a life independent of men, or have a man in her life and at the same time, create her own lifestyle. Perhaps it will take the Women’s Movement in the 1970s for Betty to become that woman. Perhaps she will end up as another Betty Ford, an activist who managed to have a lasting marriage with a Republican politician. Then again, I do not even know if Betty will ever become the type of “liberated” woman that many seem to demand that she become. But I refuse to make any assumption on how Betty’s life will turn out. That would take a great deal of arrogance or hope on my part.

And I believe there is nothing wrong with wanting another man in one’s life. Of all the divorced or separated female characters on the show managed to move on with new men in their lives. Helen Bishop’s new paramour ended up creating resentment within her son, Glen. Mona Sterling had already found someone new by (3.02) “Love Among the Ruins”.  Season 2’s (2.06) “Maidenform” revealed that Duck Phillips’ ex-wife was about to remarry.

That Betty ended up marrying Henry Francis does not seem all that surprising, considering their history in Season Three. The question remains on whether Henry will prove to be another Don Draper who ends up treating her as a trophy wife. Some fans seem to assume that will happen. Frankly, I have no idea.  So far, the marriage promises to be an unhappy one, due to Betty’s breakdown in Season 4 and Henry’s inability to deal with it.  In some ways, Henry seems a lot like Don. In other ways, he seems different from Don. In the end, I believe that only Matt Weiner knows how this relationship will turn out.

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

When it comes to the television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple novels, I tend to stick with those that featured the late Joan Hickson as the elderly sleuth. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch a movie that starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. And this movie is the 2007 adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel called “Towards Zero”

The adaptation of Christie’s novel has drawn a good deal of criticism from purists. First of all, the novel is not a Jane Marple mystery. Instead, the main investigator in “Towards Zero” turned out to be Superintendant Battle, who had been featured in a few other Christie novels, including one Hercule Poirot tale – “Cards on the Table”. However, Battle did not appear in the 2007 adaptation. Jane Marple replaced him as the story’s main detective, with the police represented by Alan Davies as one Superintendant Mallard. Since “Towards Zero” has always been one of my favorite Christie novels, I decided to give the movie achance.

In “TOWARDS ZERO”, Jane Marple is invited to a house party hosted by an old school friend named Lady Camilla Tressilian. Also included in the party are the following:

*Neville Strange – Professional tennis star and Lady Tressilian’s ward

*Kay Strange – Neville’s younger second wife

*Audrey Strange – Neville’s reserved ex-wife

*Thomas Royce – Owner of a Malaysian plantation and Audrey’s distant cousin

*Mary Aldin – Lady Tressilian’s companion

*Ted Latimer – Kay’s childhood friend

*Mr. Treves- Lady Tressilian’s friend and solicitor

The house party turned out to be a tense affair, due to emotions running rampant between the characters. Neville discovered that he was still in love with his first wife, Audrey. She seemed to harbor emotions for him, despite her reserved behavior. Thomas seemed jealous of Neville, due to his love for Audrey. Mary seemed attracted to Thomas and a little envious of Audrey. Kay was obviously jealous of Audrey. And Ted was also jealous of Neville, due to his love for Kay.

During a supper party, Mr. Treves recalled an old murder case in which a child had made deliberate preparations to kill another and make it look like an accident. That child, according to Mr. Treves, had a peculiar physical trait. All of the suspects possessed a peculiar physical trait. And following the supper party, Mr. Treves died from a heart attack after climbing some stairs that lead to his hotel room. Someone had placed a NOT IN SERVICE sign in front of his hotel’s elevator. Another day or two later, this same person brutally murdered old Lady Tressilian with a blow to the head.

As I had earlier stated, the 1944 novel has always been a favorite of mine. Christie had crafted a complex and original mystery filled with characters of great psychological depth. By inserting another Christie creation – Jane Marple – as the story’s main investigator, I feared that this 2007 adaptation would prove to be a bust. Imagine my surprise when my fears proved to be groundless. Thanks to director David Grindley and screenwriter Kevin Elyot, I found myself surprisingly satisfied with this movie. Despite a few changes – namely the post-World War II setting, Jane Marple as the story’s main detective, the deletion of a character named Andrew MacWhirter, the addition of another character named Diana, the new police officer in charge of the case – Superintendant Mallard, and the budding romance in the story’s conclusion that did not happen in the novel. Perhaps that is why I had enjoyed it so much. Both Grindley and Elyot recognized the novel’s first-rate plot and tried to follow it as closely as possible.

The production values for “TOWARDS ZERO” impressed me as well. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did an excellent job in re-creating Britain of the early-to-mid 1950s. And he was ably supported by Sue Gibson’s beautiful photography, which struck me as rich in color and sharp. Sheena Napier’s costumes not only captured the era perfectly, but also the personality of each character. I do have one quibble – namely Saffron Burrows’ hairstyle. I am aware that some women wore their hair slightly long past the shoulders. But I got the impression that the hairdresser could not decide whether to give Burrows a 1950s hairstyle or a modern one. Her hair struck me as a confusing mixture of the mid 20th century and the early 21st century.

The cast turned out better than I had expected. If I must be honest, I could not spot a bad performance amongst the entire cast . . . even from Julian Sands, whom I have never been that impressed by in the past. But there were a handful that really impressed me. One came from Saffron Burrows, who gave one of the most enigmatic and intense performances I have ever encountered in a Christie film. I could never tell whether her character was guilty of the two murders or not. And Burrows did a superb job in conveying this ambiguity of the Audrey Strange character with very little dialogue. I was also impressed by Zoe Tapper’s portrayal of the more extroverted Kay Strange. Tapper could have easily given an over-the-top performance, considering the type of character she had portrayed. But the actress conveyed Kay’s passionate nature without turning the character into a one-note scream fest. I also enjoyed Alan Davies as Superintendant Mallard, the new police investigator in this mystery. I not only enjoyed his wit, but also his transformation from his contempt toward Jane Marple’s investigative skills to a full partnership with the elderly amateur sleuth. And Eileen Atkins provided a great deal of comic relief as the second victim, Lady Camilla Tressilian. Not only did she provide much of the story’s sharp humor, Atkins also captured the character’s bombastic and arrogant nature. Her Lady Tressilian struck me as a modern day Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but with a stronger moral center.

But I believe the two best performances came from Greg Wise and Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple. I found myself completely surprised by Wise’s impressive portrayal of the tennis pro with the two wives, Neville Strange. His performance perfectly portrayed Neville as the complex force of nature that had a major impact upon the other characters in “TOWARDS ZERO”, without indulging in any hammy acting. But I was more than impressed by Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Jane Marple. I had seen McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Marple in “THE SITFORD MYSTERY”, and found her performance ridiculously mannered and annoying. No such exaggerated mannerisms marred McEwan’s performance in “TOWARDS ZERO”. The actress gave a subtle performance laced with subtle humor and her character’s intelligence. One of McEwan’s best moments featured very little dialogue on her part in a scene between Miss Marple and the verbose Lady Tressilian, inside the latter’s bedroom.

Most Agatha Christie purists might automatically dismiss this adaptation of “TOWARDS ZERO”. Especially since the script changed the main investigator from the literary Superintendant Battle to a cinematic Jane Marple. But despite this major change, along with another that included a romance that emerged in the film’s final scene; David Grindley’s direction and Kevin Elyot’s script remained surprisingly faithful to Agatha Christie’s novel. Normally, I would care less about changes in an adaptation of a novel. But in the case of “TOWARDS ZERO”, this close adherence ended up working in the movie’s favor.

“EMMA” (1996 TV) Review

“EMMA” (1996 TV) Review

Several months after Miramax had released Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”, another version aired on the BBC and later, on the A&E Channel in the U.S. This version turned out to be a 107-minute teleplay, adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence. 

As many Jane Austen fans know, “EMMA” told the story of the younger daughter of an English Regency landowner, with a penchant for meddling in the lives of friends and neighbors. Her meddling in the love life of her new protégé – a young woman named Harriet Smith – ended up having a major impact on the latter’s search for a husband. Emma also becomes involved with Frank Churchill, her former governess’ stepson, and the highly educated granddaughter of her village’s former curate named Jane Fairfax.

This “EMMA” incorporated a heavy emphasis on class structure and conflict, due to Andrew Davies’ adaptation. This emphasis was hinted in scenes that included a conversation between Emma and Harriet regarding the role of the neighborhood’s wealthiest landowner, George Knightley. Greater emphasis was also placed on Jane Fairfax’s possible future as a governess. The movie included moments featuring tenant farmer Robert Martin’s barely concealed resentment toward Emma’s interference in his courtship of Harriet. And the movie concluded with a harvest ball sequence that allowed Mr. Knightley to display his role as Highbury’s wealthiest and most benevolent landowner.

I cannot deny that I enjoyed “EMMA”. Davies’ script and Lawrence’s direction captured a good deal of the mood from Austen’s novel. The movie also featured scenes that I found particularly appealing – scenes that included Mrs. Cole’s party, where Mr. Knightley becomes aware of Emma’s friendship with Frank Churchill; the comic reaction to Emma’s drawing of Harriet; and the Box Hill incident. Yet, for some reason, my favorite sequence turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Weston’s Christmas party. One, production designer Don Taylor created a strong holiday atmosphere that seemed distinctly of another era. And two, the sequence featured some of the movie’s funniest moments – John Knightley’s rants about attending a party in bad weather and Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal to Emma.

Of the actors and actresses featured in the cast, I must admit that at least five performances impressed me. Mr. Elton must be one of the novel’s more exceptional characters. I have yet to come across a screen portrayal of Mr. Elton that did not impress me. And Dominic Rowan’s deliciously smarmy take on the role certainly impressed me. I also enjoyed Bernard Hepton’s rather funny portrayal of Emma’s finicky father, Mr. Woodhouse. The man possessed timing that a comic would envy. Samantha Bond gave a warm and deliciously sly portrayal of Emma’s former governess, Mrs. Weston. But my two favorite performances came from Raymond Coulthard and Olivia Williams as Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. From my reading of Austen’s novel and viewing of other screen adaptations, I got the feeling that these two characters were not easy to portray. Frank Churchill never struck me as the typical Austen rogue/villain. Yes, he could be cruel, selfish and deceitful. And yet, he seemed to be the only Austen rogue who seemed to possess the slightest capability of genuine love. Actor Raymond Coulthard has struck me as the only actor who has managed to capture the strange and complex nature of Frank Churchill with more accuracy and less mannerisms than any other actor in the role, so far. And Olivia Williams struck me as the only actress that managed to portray Jane Fairfax’s travails without resorting to extreme mannerisms . . . or by simply being there.

Many have praised Samantha Morton’s performance as Emma’s young companion, Harriet Smith. And I believe that she deserved the praise. I found nothing defective about it. Unfortunately, Davies’ script left the actress with hardly anything to work with. Morton’s Harriet almost came off as self-assured and nearly flawless. Mind you, I do not blame Morton’s performance. I blame Davies’ script. His interpretation of Harriet almost seemed . . . uninteresting to me. Prunella Scales gave a solid performance as the garrulous spinster and aunt of Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates. But I must admit that I found nothing particularly memorable about her portrayal. And Lucy Robinson’s Mrs. Augusta Elton never really impressed me. In fact, I found her performance to be the least memorable one in the entire movie.

How do I describe Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong’s portrayals of the two lead characters – Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley? Superficially, their performances seemed solid. Both knew their lines. And neither gave any wooden performances. But if I must honest, Beckinsale and Strong turned out to be my least favorite screen versions of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Beckinsale’s Emma not only struck me as chilly at times, but downright bitchy. I suspect that her performance in “COLD COMFORT FARM” may have attracted the attention of this film’s producers. What they failed to realize was that Beckinsale’s role in that particular film had acted as straight man to the rest of the comic characters. And back in the mid 1990s, the actress lacked the comic skills to portray Emma Woodhouse, a character that proved to be one of the funnier ones in this predominately humorous tale. I have been a fan of Mark Strong for several years. But after seeing “EMMA”, I would never count George Knightley as one of his better roles. I have seen Strong utilize humor in other movies. But his sense of humor seemed to be missing in “EMMA”. Strong’s George Knightley struck me as a humorless and self-righteous prig, with an intensity that seemed scary at times. The best thing I could say about Beckinsale and Strong was that the pair had decent screen chemistry.

Andrew Davies did a solid job of adapting Austen’s novel. Was he completely faithful to it? Obviously not. But I am not particularly concerned about whether he was or not. But . . . I did have one major problem with the script. I believe that Davies’ treatment of class distinctions in Regency England struck me as very heavy-handed. This lack of subtlety seemed very obvious in scenes that included Robert Martin’s silent expressions of resentment toward Emma, her little speech to Harriet about Mr. Knightley’s role as a landowner, Emma’s overtly chilly attitude toward Robert Martin and in the movie’s last sequence, the harvest ball. Which literally made me cringe with discomfort during Mr. Knightley’s speech. No one felt more relieved than I, when it finally ended.

In the end, “EMMA” seemed like a decent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Some of its qualities included first-rate performances from the likes of Raymond Coulthard and Olivia Williams. And there were certain sequences that I enjoyed – like the Westons’ Christmas party and the Crown Inn ball. But I found Davies’ take on class distinctions in the movie about as subtle as a rampaging elephant. And I was not that impressed by Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in the lead roles. In the end, this “EMMA” proved to be my least favorite adaptation of the 1815 novel.

Ten Favorite CIVIL WAR Movies and Miniseries

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the American Civil War:

TEN FAVORITE CIVIL WAR MOVIES AND MINISERIES

1. “North and South: Book II” (1986) – An almost excellent miniseries adaptation of John Jakes’ 1984 novel, “Love and War”, despite having a few problems with some of the plotlines and characters. If you like over-the-top period pieces, this is your story. The miniseries starred Patrick Swayze, James Read and Lesley Anne-Down.

2. “Gettysburg” (1993) – Movie adaptation of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the three-day battle at Gettysburg during the war. First class. Starring Tom Berrenger, Jeff Daniels and Martin Sheen.

3. “Glory” (1989) – Movie about the famous all black 54th Massachusetts Infantry regiment during the war. Superb and highly recommended. The movie starred Matthew Broderick, Oscar winner Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Andre Braugher and Cary Elwes.

4. “Lincoln” (1988) – Sam Waterson and Mary Tyler Moore starred in this excellent, two-part television adaptation of Gore Vidal’s 1984 novel about the 16th president.

5. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Love story about a Confederate deserter trying to return home to North Carolina and the love of his life. Beautiful love story. Starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Oscar winner Renee Zellewiger.

6. “The Blue and the Gray” (1982) – A three-part miniseries about two related families – one from Pennsylvania and one from Virginia during the Civil War. Pretty good. The miniseries starred John Hammond and Stacy Keach.

7. “Class of ’61” (1993) – TV movie about two West Point graduates during the first months of the Civil War and the people in their lives. The movie starred Dan Futterman, Clive Owen, Andre Braugher, Laura Linney and Josh Lucas.

8. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Intriguing Civil War melodrama about a wounded Union soldier convalescing at girls’ school in Mississippi. The movie starred Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

9. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” – Three men search for missing Confederate gold in this Spaghetti Western set in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Great movie that starred Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.

10. “Gone With the Wind” (1939) – The best thing about this Oscar winner is its first half, which featured the trials and tribulations of Georgia belle, Scarlett O’Hara, during the war. The movie starred Oscar winners Vivian Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, along with Clark Gable, Olivia DeHavilland and Leslie Howard.

What are your favorite Civil War movies?

“THE PACIFIC” (Episode Four) Commentary

I wrote this commentary on the fourth episode of “THE PACIFIC”

”THE PACIFIC” (Episode Four) Commentary

When I first saw the featurettes about ”THE PACIFIC” on HBO, I noticed that the filmmakers and screenwriters had made a big deal about the miniseries’ ninth episode, which featured the battle on Okinawa. From what I had gathered, this particular episode might serve as the miniseries’ darkest. Then I saw Episode Four, which featured the U.S. Marines First Division’s experiences during the Battle of Cape Gloucester. And I realized that I had been wrong. 

Very little combat played a role in Episode Four. One scene featured Robert Leckie’s brief confrontation with a Japanese scout patrol near the beginning of the episode. And another scene featured Company “H” repelling an intense banzaiattack by the Japanese, a few minutes later. But as the documentary had hinted around the beginning of the episode, the Marines’ main conflict during the Cape Gloucester campaign seemed to be the environment – the thick jungle and the rain. And because of this environment, Leckie and his fellow Marines suffered a drop in morale.

Before watching this episode, I had no idea how depressing it would be. So much about this episode struck me as depressing . . . especially from Leckie’s point of view. One, both he and Sidney Phillips had the bad luck to witness Gibson’s murder of the Japanese soldier. Judging from the slightly demented expression on Gibson’s face, I suspect that neither Leckie nor Phillips was willing to interrupt the murder. But they both obviously found the experience disturbing. Eventually, the rain, the mud and the jungles of Cape Gloucester on New Britain got to Leckie and he eventually found himself begging for someone to shoot him after he lost his shoes in the mud and fell down a slope. It got worse. Leckie found his confiscated Japanese chest stolen by a Marine officer. And instead of dismissing the chest lost, he stubbornly tried to get his chest back during a hostile confrontation. Leckie never got the chest back. Instead, the Marine officer transferred him from his duties as an intelligence scout to kitchen and latrine duties. The Marine officer also humiliated Leckie for wetting his trousers. But that was nothing in compare to Leckie witnessing the suicide of a Canadian-born Marine.

Company “H” of the First Marines Division was eventually sent to the island of Pavuvu for some rest and relaxation. Only, the island proved to be nothing like Melbourne. The Marines had to deal with pests like rats and crabs. Leckie’s sense of humor became increasingly irritating to Hoosier. And his bedwetting (enuresis) became even worse. At one point, “Chuckler” Juergens found Leckie lying on his cot, pissing uncontrollably and staring into space. Leckie had finally reached the nadir of his existence. The company’s doctor shipped Leckie to a Naval hospital located on Banika. Leckie discovered that the wing he had been assigned to was for psychiatric patients. Fortunately for him, the Naval doctor assigned to him – a Dr. Grant – realized that Leckie was simply suffering from enuresis and a case of exhaustion. By the end of the episode, he allowed the Marine to return to his company. Before that happened, Leckie made another discovery . . . Ronnie Gibson was also a patient at the hospital. Leckie learned from Dr. Grant that Gibson tried to steal a plane and later commit suicide, while Company “H” were on Pavuvu.

I doubt very much that Episode Four will ever be considered a personal favorite of mine. I simply found it too depressing. But I must admit that I also found it fascinating. And it is a credit to screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Graham Yost, along with Yost’s direction that I managed to remain fascinated by it all. While watching Episode Four, it occurred to me that in some ways, it reminded me of the 2005 movie, ”JARHEAD”. The Marines in Sam Mendes’ movie were suffering psychological stress, due to their inability to relieve their built-up aggression via combat. The Marines in Episode Fourwere suffering from a number of factors – no combat against the Japanese, who had decamped to Rabaul on the other side of New Britain.

For the umpteenth time, actor James Badge Dale managed to knock it out of the ballpark with his portrayal of Robert Leckie. In fact, I would say that this episode marked his best performance in the miniseries to date. He did a superb job in portraying Leckie’s emotional descent without any heavy-handed acting. I especially enjoyed his performance during a scene that featured Leckie’s confrontation with the officer who had stolen the Japanese chest. Badge Dale’s performance conveyed a delicious mixture of aggression, sarcasm and subtlety. I also have to give kudos to Tom Budge’s portrayal of the demented Gibson. Mind you, his performance was not as subtle as Badge Dale’s, but it was just as convincing. And I believe I will never forget that expression on his face, after his character had strangled that Japanese soldier. I also found Leckie’s stay at that Naval hospital equally depressing. It reminded me of a line that the Bill Guernere character had said about military hospitals in one of the episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. Thanks to this episode, I finally understand what he was trying to say. The Banika sequence also featured Matt Craven, who gave a wonderfully subtle performance as Leckie’s doctor, the slightly sarcastic Dr. Grant. Thinking about this episode, it occurred to me that the one character who managed to remain steady throughout the entire mess was Chuckler, thanks to Josh Helman’s solid performance. It is easy to see why Lieutenant Corrigan had promoted him to corporal following the Alligator Creek action on Guadalcanal inEpisode One.

After watching Episode Four, I found myself dubbing it ”Heart of Darkness – Part One”. Considering that the entire episode featured a little combat, a murder, a suicide, illness, rodents and crabs and a stay for Leckie at a Naval psych ward. And I had no idea I would be watching this before it aired. The reason I had dubbed it ”Part One” is that I suspect that the Okinawa episode will proved to be just as depressing . . . or perhaps a little more.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1980) Review

 

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (1980) Review

As many fans of Jane Austen must know, there have been several screen and television adaptations of the author’s most celebrated novel, “Pride and Prejudice”, published in 1813. I usually come across at least five of those versions – including the six-part BBC adaptation that aired in the U.S. in 1980. The miniseries was adapted by Fay Weldon and directed by Cyril Coke. 

Only someone unfamiliar with Austen’s story would not know that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” told the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second-born daughter of an English gentleman and landowner in Regency England. The story focused on the efforts of her volatile mother to find eligible husbands for Elizabeth and her four sisters. It is also a love story about Elizabeth’s tumultuous relationship with a wealthy and haughty gentleman named Fitzwilliam Darcy. Through six episodes, the miniseries explored Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy’s emotions, as their relationship went from mild hostility, misunderstandings and prejudice, to love, respect and marriage. Many Austen fans consider Weldon’s adaptation to be the most faithful to the 1813 novel. After my recent viewing of the miniseries, I realized that I could never agree with that opinion.

I am not saying that ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” strongly differed from Austen’s novel. But I can honestly say that it was no more faithful than the 1995 version. Only screenwriter Fay Weldon’s variations differ from Andrew Davies’. In fact, most these differences were especially obvious in the segment that featured Elizabeth’s visit to Hunsford, the Collins’ home in Kent. But these differences did not lessen my enjoyment of the production. However, there were some aspects of the miniseries that did.

One aspect of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” that annoyed me was its occasionally slow pacing. There were moments when I found myself wondering if I was watching a filmed play. Most fans would dismiss this complaint on the grounds that many BBC miniseries productions had been shot in this static style. True, but I have seen a few of these old productions that managed to maintain a brisk pacing. Another aspect of the miniseries that annoyed me was the internal monologues that expressed Elizabeth’s thoughts. This was especially apparent in scenes that reflected Elizabeth’s opinion of the letter she had received from Mr. Darcy following his disastrous marriage proposal; and in the sequences that featured her thoughts on her sister Lydia’s elopement with George Wickham and her parents’ marriage. Frankly, I found the use of this film device simply a cheap way to reflect Elizabeth’s opinions on the subjects. And these monologues nearly bogged the series’ pacing to a standstill.

But the real disappointment proved to be the miniseries’ portrayal of the Netherfield Ball. The ball given by Mr. Darcy’s close friend, Charles Bingley, was one of the novel’s centerpieces in nearly every adaptation of ”Pride and Prejudice”. The ball was replaced with a garden fête in the 1940 version. But it still turned out to be one of the movie’s centerpieces. So, why did Fay Weldon dropped the ball with this particular sequence? In this version, the Netherfield Ball segment lasted a little over six minutes. Elizabeth expressed her displeasure over Mr. Wickham’s non-appearance and the prospect of dancing with Mr. Darcy. She danced with both Mr. Darcy and her cousin, William Collins. She traded barbs with Caroline Bingley. And Elizabeth also witnessed her mother’s embarrassing boasts about elder sister Jane’s romance with Mr. Bingley. By deleting Mr. Collins brief discussion with Mr. Darcy and the embarrassing behavior of the other members of the Bennet family, Weldon’s screenplay seemed to have rendered the sequence half done. Worse, Cyril Coke shot the sequence at an incredibly fast pace. Between Weldon’s deletions and Coke’s pacing, the Netherfield Ball sequence seemed like such a disappointing affair.

When I first saw “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, I became immediately enamored of the miniseries. As an adolescent, I thought it was one of the best things to come from British television. After my last viewing of the series, my opinion of it has somewhat diminished. But I still consider it to be very entertaining. Austen’s wit remained intact. Well . . . somewhat. Some of the jokes – like Elizabeth’s comment about Darcy’s and her penchant for “amazing” statements – failed to make any impact, due to Elizabeth Garvie’s delivery of the line. And many of Mr. Bennet’s witticisms seemed angry, instead of funny. But plenty of humor remained in the miniseries. Elizabeth’s first meeting with Lady Catherine de Bourgh and a reunion with Mr. Darcy struck me as one of the miniseries’ funniest scenes. Just about every scene with Mrs. Bennet or Mr. Collins provided plenty of laughs. The romances featured in ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” remained strong as ever, especially between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy.

I would not consider Paul Wheeler’s photography for “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” to be that colorful. In fact, it looked slightly faded. One could attribute this to the fact that the miniseries has been aging for the past thirty years. Yet, I have seen other television productions made around the same time or earlier that looked more colorful. But I must admit that I enjoyed Joan Ellacott’s costume designs. They were certainly colorful and properly reflected the characters’ social status.

Any adaptation of ”Pride and Prejudice” would be nothing without strong leads to portray the two main characters, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The 1980 miniseries certainly benefitted from strong performances provided by Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Garvie proved to be a very soft-spoken Elizabeth Bennet, reminding me of Greer Garson’s performance in the same role in the 1940 adaptation. Yet, beneath the soft tones, Garvie provided plenty of wit and steel. I found her performance very enjoyable. And David Rintoul definitely projected Mr. Darcy’s haughty demeanor. Some consider his performance to be the epitome portrayal of Austen’s famous character. Perhaps. Perhaps not. There were moments when Rintoul’s Mr. Darcy seemed a bit too haughty – especially when the character was supposed to be falling in love with Elizabeth. But I believe he still gave a first-rate performance. And he provided one of the miniseries’ funniest moments in a scene featuring Elizabeth and the Collins’ first visit to Rosings Park.

The rest of the cast seemed solid. But I can only think of a few exceptional performances. One came from Priscilla Morgan, whose portrayal of Mrs. Bennet managed to be extremely irritating without her resorting to caricature. I was also impressed by Marsha Fitzalan, who proved that Caroline Bingley could be both subtle and spiteful at the same time. Tessa Peake-Jones gave an entertaining performance as the bookish and pompous Mary Bennet. Her portrayal seemed more subtle than other actresses who have portrayed the character. Peter Settlelen also gave a solid performance as George Wickham, but he came off as too hale and hearty for me to consider him as an effective villain. And Peter Howell was certainly hilarious as the boorish and obsequious Mr. William Collins, Elizabeth’s cousin and Mr. Bennet’s heir. However, there were moments when he seemed a bit over-the-top.

And then there were the performances that I found questionable. I must admit that I was not impressed by Natalie Ogle’s portrayal of the childish Lydia Bennet. I found her acting skills somewhat amateurish. The actress who portrayed Kitty Bennet seemed a little too old for the role. And there were times when her Kitty seemed more mature (in a negative way) than the other four sisters. And Kitty is supposed to be the second youngest sibling in the family. Actor Moray Watson gave a sharp and entertaining performance as the Bennets’ patriarch. But I found his wit a bit too harsh and angry at times.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its share of flaws, which I have pointed out in this review. But its virtues outweighed the flaws – the biggest ones being the first-rate performances of the two leads, Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul. Screenwriter Fay Weldon and director Cyril Coke did an above-average job in adapting Jane Austen’s most famous novel.