“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

“MARY POPPINS” (1964) Review

Looking at the 1964 movie about a magical nanny, one would be amazed that it took nearly 20 years to make it. I suspect that many did not predict it would become critically acclaimed. But if one is ever interested in the behind-the-scenes production of the film, one would have to read about it . . . or watch the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”. I am here to discuss the actual movie, “MARY POPPINS”

Based upon a selection of short stories written by P.L. Travers, “MARY POPPINS” tells the story of how two Edwardian Age children named Jane and Michael Banks, who request a particular kind of nanny after their latest one quits her job after enduring one too many pranks from the two siblings. Their father, a banker named George Banks, is too busy with his career and projecting the image of an ideal Englishman in order to pay attention to them. Their mother, although slightly more concerned about their welfare, is either caught up in the Suffregette Movement or too busy adhering to their father’s demands. After the departure of their latest nanny, Katie Nanna, Jane and Michael write a letter describing what they want in a new nanny. But Mr. Banks has different ideas – a nanny who is an effective disciplinarian – and tears up their letter.

However, the children’s letter magically reaches a woman named Mary Poppins. She appears at the Banks’ home the following morning to apply (or appoint herself) as Jane and Michael’s new nanny. Despite his initial reservation, Mr. Banks is impressed by Mary Poppins’ firm manner and hires her. With the help of friend named Bert, Mary Poppins introduces the Banks children to a new magical world. In doing so, she also manages to shake up Mr. Banks, his household and his livelihood.

I first saw “MARY POPPINS” as a child and immediately fell in love with it. For years, I have regarded the movie as one of the highlights of my childhood and one of the best films to be released from the Disney Studios. But recent criticism of Mary Poppins as a sugar-coated character of no substance, and of the film as an infantilization of P.L. Travers’ work and vision has led me to wonder if my childhood opinion of “MARY POPPINS” may have been overrated. After all, I had spent years judging the movie from the viewpoint of a child. How would I judge this movie from an adult who has spent the last ten to twenty years viewing movies with a critical eye?

As many have recently pointed out, the Disney Studios made a good number of changes to Travers’ stories. They also left out a great deal. To point out “all” of the changes and deletions would require an essay. And I am not interested in writing such an essay. Were there any aspects of “MARY POPPINS” that I disliked? Honestly? No. But there are aspects of the movie’s production that I wish could have been handled in a slightly different manner.

For quite some time, I never understood why “MARY POPPINS” was shot at the studio’s Burbank lot, instead of at England’s Pinewood Studios, where 1963’s “DR. SYN, ALIAS THE SCARECROW” and “THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA” were filmed. Like the two 1963 films, “MARY POPPINS” mainly featured a cast of British actors. Only four cast members were American born – Dick Van Dyke, Ed Wynn, Jane Darwell and Reta Shaw. I feel that if the movie had been shot in Great Britain, its exterior shots of the Banks and Uncle Albert’s neighborhoods and the City of London would have featured a bit more details – add more oomph to the movie’s visual British style. As for Tony Walton’s costume designs, I must admit that I found them rather charming, if not particularly mind blowing. However . . . I could not help but wonder why Mary Poppins’ skirts seemed a tad short for 1909-10 fashions. And I also end up wondering why Winifred Banks’ wardrobe seemed so limited. Unless I am mistaken, actress Glynis Johns wore only three costumes in “MARY POPPINS”. In fact, I suspect she wore one particular costume twice. And Walton designed her costumes either in yellow, powder blue or a combination of both colors. Although I found Johns’ costumes rather charming, they also struck me as a bit limited.

Although the film’s production designs struck me as a bit limited, I cannot help but admire the film’s cinematography and visual style. Edward Colman earned a much deserved nomination for his colorful and sharp photography for the film. Colman’s photography also enhanced Tony Walton’s pthe matte paintings created by Peter Ellenshaw. Since “MARY POPPINS” was filmed on the Disney Studios backlot in Burbank, Walt Disney and director Robert Stevenson not only had to depend upon Carroll Clark and William H. Tuntke’s art direction, but also the visual effects and special effects teams. But “MARY POPPINS” was set in Edwardian London. And since Disney, Stevenson and the film’s crew could not film in Great Britain, the production team had to rely on Ellenshaw’s beautiful and colorful matte paintings to add to the film’s visual look for its setting, as shown in the following images:

 

“MARY POPPINS” may not have been free of any flaws, but it still remains one of my favorite movies of all time. I had earlier pointed out that some critics have pointed out the movie’s failure to be completely faithful to Travers’ stories. Honestly? I do not care. It would have been near impossible for any screenwriter to be completely faithful. Travers did not write a single novel. She wrote a series of short stories and novellas. And since it is impossible for a screenplay to be completely faithful to a novel or stage play, what on earth made these critics believe Bill Walsh and Don DaGradi could have been completely faithful to Travers’ stories and still fashion a single narrative for the film? Ridiculous!

Personally, I am amazed that Walsh and DaGradi managed to wring a single narrative out of so many short stories in the first place. That must have not been an easy task. As the 2013 movie, “SAVING MR. BANKS”, had pointed out, Mary Poppins’ purpose within the Banks’ household was to save George Banks and his relationship with his children. And she did this in the most interesting way. Mary Poppins used her role as the children’s nanny to indirectly affect the family’s patriarch. Instead of utilizing traditional means to care for the children, Mary Poppins exposed Jane and Michael to her world – using magic to clean the nursery, an excursion into a sidewalk chalk drawing of the English countryside, and an afternoon tea party on the ceiling with Mary Poppins’ Uncle Albert. The children’s revelations of their activities naturally shook up Mr. Banks, along with the magical nanny’s subversive and cheerful impact upon the Banks’ household.

Unable to accept Mary Poppins’ impact upon his family and servants, Mr. Banks threatened to fire her. And this is where Mary Poppins, as the film’s trickster, pulled off a pièce de résistance. Before Mr. Banks could fire her, Mary Poppins managed to manipulate him into agreeing to take the children on an outing to his bank. However, the night before this outing, she decides to sing a song to the children about an old beggar woman who sits on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, selling bags of breadcrumbs to passers-by for twopence a bag,so that they can feed the many pigeons that surround her. Between the song and the children spotting the Bird Woman on their way to their father’s bank set in motion the chaos that followed and Mary Poppins’ plan to save Mr. Banks’ relationship with his family. Brilliant.

If the narrative that Walsh and DaGradi had created from Travers’ short stories had struck me as brilliant, the songs written by Robert and Richard Sherman seemed even more so. Aside from the performances, the Sherman Brothers’ songs seemed to be the heart and soul of the film. If someone was to ask me which song was my favorite, I honestly could not answer that question. Aside from two of them, I found most of their songs very memorable . . . even to this day. One of their songs – “Chim Chim Cher-ee” – was nominated for the Best Song Oscar and won. However, I must admit to being surprised that the beautiful and rather haunting “Feed the Birds” failed to garner any kind of nomination or award. Perhaps it was not as fully appreciated back in 1964-65 as it is today.

Both “Jolly Holiday” and </i>”Step in Time”</i> were not only entertaining songs, but they also provided the background for some very entertaining dance numbers. The first featured the very agile Dick Van Dyke and a quartet of animated pigeons. I found this dance sequence both funny and a joy to watch. You have to see it to believe it. As for the second song, it was featured in a show stopping dance routine that involved Van Dyke, Julie Andrews . . . and chimney sweeps. Between the song, the dance routines choreographed by the husband-and-wife team of Marc Breaux and Dee Dee Wood, and the London rooftops background, the entire sequence is one of the film’s highlights.

Another addition to the magic of “MARY POPPINS” proved to be its cast. The movie featured excellent voice performances in the chalk picture sequence from the likes of J. Pat O’Malley, Marni Nixon, Dallas McKinnon, and Alan Napier. Even Julie Andrews and David Tomlinson also provided voice performances. The supporting and cameo performances featured in this film were marvelous. The movie included excellent performances from Reginald Owen as the cankerous Admiral Boom; Elsa Lancaster as the disgruntled Katie Nanny; Arthur Treacher as the kindly Constable Jones; Arthur Malet as Mr. Dawes Jr., one of the board members of the bank that employed Mr. Banks; Hermione Baddeley and Reta Shaw as Ellen and Mrs. Brill, the Banks’ gregarious maid and cook; and a poignant cameo by Jane Darwell, who was convinced by Disney to make a brief appearance as the Bird Lady.

“MARY POPPINS” marked the second teaming of Karen Dotrice and Matthew Garber, who portrayed the magical nanny’s charges, Jane and Michael Banks. It seemed pretty simple to me why Disney had used this pair in three movies. Not only were they were first-rate actors who more than kept up with the likes of Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke and David Tomlinson; they also had a great screen chemistry. In P.L. Travers’ books, Mrs. Banks was an easily intimidated woman who could barely maintain control of her household. In this movie, Mrs. Banks was a woman more occupied by her suffragette activities than her children. And she was portrayed by actress Glynis Johns. The latter gave a marvelous performance as a woman who seemed to hid her inability to protect her children from their father’s neglect with a few sympathetic words and her own brand of neglect.

If I had to select the most complex character in this movie, it would have to be Mr. George Banks of 17 Cherry Tree Lane and the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. Thanks to actor David Tomlinson in his first appearance in a Disney film, movie audiences were treated to a superb performance. Tomlinson skillfully transformed George Banks from a highly driven and disciplined man who was obsessed with order to an affectionate family man who had found a new lease on life. It almost seems criminal that the actor never received any kind of acting nomination for his performance.

Unlike Tomlinson, Dick Van Dyke did receive a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, thanks to his performance as Bert, Mary Poppins’ closest friend and jack-of-all-trades. Whenever Van Dyke’s performance in “MARY POPPINS” is mentioned, people seemed to comment on his Cockney accent. Granted, it was not perfect. But I have never considered it to be a travesty. I have noticed that whenever he spoke words with a long vowell, his Cockney accent seemed exaggerated. Otherwise, I had no problems. And if someone like Sean Connery can win an Oscar for portraying an Irish immigrant with a Scots accent, I see no reason why Van Dyke’s portrayal of Bert should only be condemned for a questionable Cockney accent. Besides . . . accent aside, Van Dyke gave a superb performance in so many other ways. He captured Bert’s charm, wit and a slight talent for manipulation with such perfection. Van Dyke was also given the opportunity to portray another character in the film – namely Mr. Banks’ elderly boss, Mr. Dawes Senior of the Dawes Tomes Mousley Grubbs Fidelity Fiduciary Bank. How often does one find an actor in his late 30s effectively portraying a 90-something year-old man? In my personal experience, very rarely. And to put the cherry on the icing, Van Dyke was never criticized for his British accent, while portraying Mr. Dawes . . . for good reason. Although there have been hints of his talent as a song-and-dance man in his first television series, “THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW”, this movie really provided an opportunity to convey how truly talented he could be.

Julie Andrews managed to capture the big prize for her portrayal of the film’s leading character, Mary Poppins. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress. Whereas many were distracted from Van Dyke’s performance because of his accent, others have lamented on how Andrews’ portrayal of the magical nanny seemed a far cry from her literary version. Granted, the latter was a plain-looking woman, somewhat more pompous and strict. Although Andrews’ Mary Poppins was more beautiful looking and somewhat warmer, she could still be quite sharp-tongued – especially when disciplining Jane and Michael. Andrews also did a great job in conveying Mary Poppins’ no nonsense behavior and massive talent for emotional manipulation. That one scene in which the magical nanny manipulated Mr. Banks into taking his children on an outing to his bank was just a joy to watch. Thanks to her skillful and award winning performance, Andrews managed to convey the reason why Mary Poppins is regarded as a trickster.

What else can I say about “MARY POPPINS”? Over fifty years have passed since the movie’s initial release and it is still – at least to me – a magical movie to watch. Yes, it had a few flaws. What movie did not? But thanks to P.L. Travers’ stories, Robert Stevenson’s marvelous direction, Robert and Richard Sherman’s music, the movie’s visual effects teams and the superb cast led by Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke; “MARY POPPINS” remained timeless and magical as ever.

 

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Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

I have never seen “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, the 2015 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, in the theaters. And yet . . . my knowledge of this film led me to view two previous adaptations. And finally, I found the chance to view this adaptation, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. 

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” told the story of a young 19th century rural English woman named Bathsheba Everdeene and the three men in her life – a sheep farmer-turned-shepherd named Gabriel Oak; her neighbor and owner of the neighborhood’s largest farm, William Boldwood; and an illegitimate Army sergeant named Frank Troy. Bathsheba first met Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who had leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel proposed marriage, but Bathsheba rejected his proposal even though she liked him. She valued her independence more. Later, Bathsheba inherited her uncle’s prosperous farm, while Gabriel’s fortune disappeared when his inexperienced sheep dog drove his flock over a cliff. When the pair’s paths crossed again, Bathsheba ended up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd. Meanwhile, Bathsheba became acquainted with her new neighbor, a wealthy farmer named William Boldwood. He became romantically obsessed with her after she sent him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. But before she could consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy entered her life and she immediately fell in love and married him. Eventually, Bathsheba came to realize that Frank was the wrong man for her.

A good number of people compared this adaptation of Hardy’s novel to the 1967 movie adapted by John Schlesinger. Personally, I did not. As much as I enjoyed the 1967 movie, I have never regarded it as the gold-standard for any movie or television adaptation of the 1874 novel. But like the other two version, Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation had its flaws. Looking back on “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, I can honestly say that I had at least a few problems with it.

I wish the running time for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” had been a bit longer than 119 minutes. I believe a longer running time would have given the film’s narrative more time to explore the downfall of Bathsheba and Frank’s marriage. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls had rushed through this entire story arc. I was surprised when Bathesheba admitted to Gabriel that her marriage to Frank had been a mistake on the very night of hers and Frank’s harvest/wedding party, when an upcoming storm threatened to ruin her ricks. I realize that this conversation also occurred during the night of the harvest/wedding party in the novel. But from a narrative point-of-view, I believe this conversation between Bathsheba and Gabriel would have worked later in the story . . . when it has become very obvious that her marriage to Frank has failed.

In fact, Frank Troy’s entire character arc seemed to be rushed in this film. Many have complained that Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank was flawed. I do not agree. I did not have a problem with the actor’s performance. I had a problem with Vinterberg and Nicholls’ portrayal of Frank. In my review of the 1967 adaptation, I had complained about the overexposure of Frank’s character in that film. In this version of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, Frank’s character seemed to be underexposed. Aside from a few scenes that included Bathsheba and Frank’s first meeting, his display of swordsmanship, his revelation about his true feelings for Bathsheba and Boldwood’s Christmas party; I do not think that this movie explored Frank’s character as much as it could have.

Another aspect of Frank Troy’s arc that suffered in this film was the character of Fanny Robin. Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel should know that Fanny was a local girl who worked at the Everdene farm. Before Gabriel’s arrival, she had left to become Frank’s wife. Unfortunately, the wedding never happened because Fanny went to the wrong church. Frustrated angry, Frank prematurely ended their relationship. If Frank was underexposed in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, poor Fanny was barely developed. I could solely blame Thomas Hardy for this poor use of Fanny’s character, since he was also guilty of the character’s underdevelopment. But I have to blame Vinterberg and Nicholls as well. They could have easily added a bit more to Fanny’s character, which is what the 1998 miniseries adaptation did. Alas . . . audiences barely got to know poor Fanny Robin.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may not have been perfect, but I still found it to be a first-rate film. One, it is a beautiful movie to watch. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may have lacked the sweeping cinematography featured in the 1967 movie, but I must admit that I enjoyed Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s elegant, yet colorful photography. I can also say the same about the Art Design team of Julia Castle, Tim Blake and Hannah Moseley; and Kave Quinn’s production designs, which did a stupendous job of re-creating a part of rural England in the late 19th century. But I really enjoyed Janet Patterson’s costume designs, as shown in the images below:

 

Although the novel was published in 1874, Patterson’s costumes made it apparent to me that Vinterberg had decided to set this adaptation during the late 1870s or early 1880s. Did this bother me? No. I was too distracted by Patterson’s elegant, yet simple costumes to care.

Yes, I had a problem with the film’s limited portrayal of Frank Troy and especially Fanny Robin. But I still enjoyed this adaptation very much. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that Vinterberg and Nicholls did an excellent job of staying true to the narrative’s main theme – namely the character development of Bathsheba Everdene. From that first moment when Gabriel Oak spotted the spirited Bathsheba riding bareback on her horse, to her early months as moderately wealthy farmer, to the infatuated bride of an unsuitable man, to the emotionally battered but not bowed woman who learned to appreciate and love the right man in her life; “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” allowed filmgoers share Bathsheba’s emotional journey during an important period in her life.

The ironic thing is that Bathsheba’s story arc is not the only one featured in this film. Both Vinterberg and Nicholls also explored Gabriel Oak’s personal journey, as well. Superficially, Gabriel seemed to be the same man throughout the film. And yet, I noticed that Gabriel seemed a bit too sure of himself in the film’s opening sequence. He seemed sure of his possible success with a sheep farm and his efforts to woo Bathsheba. And yet, between the loss of his herd and Bathsheba’s rejection, Gabriel found himself forced to start all over again with his life. Although he remained constant in his love for Bathsheba and his moral compass, it was interesting to watch him struggle with his personal frustrations and setbacks – especially in regard to his feelings for Bathsheba.

Whereas audiences watch Bathsheba and Gabriel develop, they watch both John Boldwood and Francis Troy regress to their tragic fates. The strange thing about Frank was that he had a chance for a happier life with Fanny Robin. I still remember that wonderful sequence in which Frank waited for Fanny to appear at the church for their wedding. It was interesting to watch his emotions change from mild fear, hope and joy to outright anger and contempt toward Fanny for leaving him at the altar, all because she went to the wrong church. I still find it interesting that Frank allowed his pride and anger to get the best of him and reject the only woman that he truly loved. Boldwood . . . wow! Every time I watch an adaptation of Hardy’s story, I cannot help but feel a mixture of pity, annoyance and some contempt. He truly was a pathetic man in the end. Perhaps he was always that pathetic . . . even from the beginning when he seemed imperious to Bathsheba’s presence. After all, it only took a Valentine’s card – given to him as some kind of joke – to send him on a path of obsessive love and murder.

The performances in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” certainly added to the film’s excellent quality. The movie featured some pretty first-rate performances from the supporting cast. This was apparent in Juno Temple’s charming and poignant portrayal of the doomed Fanny Robin. I was also impressed by Jessica Barden for giving a very lively performance as Liddy, Bathsheba’s extroverted boon companion. The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Phillips, who portrayed Frank’s friend, Sergeant Doggett; Victor McGuire as the corrupt Bailiff Pennyways; and Tilly Vosburgh, who portrayed Bathsheba’s aunt, Mrs. Hurst.

As I had earlier pointed out, many have criticized Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank Troy. I do not disagree with this criticism. If I must be honest, I was very impressed with Sturridge’s performance. I thought he conveyed the very aspect of Frank’s nature – both the good and the bad. This was especially apparent in three scenes – Frank’s aborted wedding to Fanny, his initial seduction of Bathsheba, and his emotional revelation of his true feelings for Fanny. It really is a pity that Vinterberg did not give Sturridge more screen time to shine. Thankfully, Michael Sheen was given plenty of screen time for his portrayal of Bathsheba’s possessive neighbor, John Boldwood. I must confess . . . I have never seen Sheen portray any other character like Boldwood. It was a revelation watching the actor beautifully embody this emotionally stunted man, who allowed a silly Valentine’s Day joke to lead him to desperately grasped at at prospect for love.

I had never heard of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts until I saw this film. This is understandable, considering that “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was the first English-speaking movie in which I had seen him. Vinterberg must have been a major fan of Schoenaerts to be willing to cast him as the obviously 19th century English shepherd, Gabriel Oak. I am certainly a fan of his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel. Schoenaerts did a superb job in conveying Gabriel’s emotional journey – especially in regard to the ups and downs in the character’s relationship with Bathsheba. I am still amazed by how the actor managed to convey Gabriel’s emotional state, while maintaining the character’s reserve nature.

I believe Carey Mulligan may have been at least 28 or 29 years old, when shooting “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, making her the second oldest actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Some have complained that Mulligan seemed a bit too old to be portraying the early 20s Bathsheba.  I can honestly say that I do not agree. During the film’s first 20 minutes or so, Mulligan’s Bathsheba did come off as a bit sophisticated and all knowing. It eventually occurred to me that the actress was merely conveying the character’s youthful arrogance. And yet, Mulligan skillfully  conveyed the character’s personal chinks in that arrogance throughout the movie – whether expressing Bathsheba’s insistence that Gabriel regard her solely as an employer, the character’s embarrassment over being pursued by the obsessive Boldwood or Frank’s overt sexual attention to her, or her desperation and humiliation from his emotional abuse. Mulligan gave an excellent and memorable performance.

I cannot say that the 2015 movie, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is perfect. Come to think of it, none of the adaptations I have seen are. Despite its flaws, I can honestly say that it is another excellent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, thanks to Thomas Vinterberg’s direction, David Nicholls’ screenplay and a superb cast led by Carey Mulligan.

 

 

Top Favorite Television Productions Set During the 1500s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1500s: 

TOP FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET DURING THE 1500s

1. “Elizabeth R” (1971) – Emmy winner Glenda Jackson starred in this award winning six-part miniseries about the life of Queen Elizabeth I. The miniseries was produced by Rodney Graham.

2. “The Tudors” (2007-2010) – Michael Hirst created this Showtime series about the reign of King Henry VIII. The series starred Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and Henry Cavill.

3. “Elizabeth I” (2005) – Emmy winner Helen Mirren starred in this two-part miniseries about the last 24 years of Queen Elizabeth I’s life. Directed by Tom Hooper, the miniseries co-starred Jeremy Irons and Hugh Dancy.

4. “Wolf Hall” – Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy starred in this television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s 2009 novel of the same title and her 2012 novel “Bring Up the Bodies” about the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of King Henry VIII. Peter Kominsky directed.

5. “Gunpowder, Treason & Plot” (2004) – Jimmy McGovern wrote this two-part miniseries about Scotland’s Queen Mary and her son King James VI, along with the Gunpowder Plot. Directed by Gillies MacKinnon, the miniseries starred Clémence Poésy, Kevin McKidd and Robert Carlyle.

6. “The Borgias” (2011-2013) – Neil Jordan created this series for Showtime about Pope Alexander VI and his family, the Borgias, around the turn of the 16th century. The series starred Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud and Holliday Grainger.

7. “The Six Wives of Henry VIII” (1970) – Keith Michell starred as King Henry VIII in this six-part miniseries about the monarch’s relationship with each of his six wives.

8. “The Virgin Queen” (2009) – Paula Milne wrote this four-part miniseries about . . . of course, Queen Elizabeth I. Anne-Marie Duff and Tom Hardy starred.

9. “The Other Boleyn Girl” (2003) – Philippa Lowthorpe directed this adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 2001 novel about Elizabeth I’s aunt, Mary Boleyn. Natascha McElhone, Jodhi May, Steven Mackintosh and Jared Harris starred.

Favorite Movies Set During WORLD WAR II BRITAIN

Below is a list of my favorite movies set in Britain during World War II: 

FAVORITE MOVIES SET DURING WORLD WAR II BRITAIN

1. “Dunkirk” (2017) – Christopher Nolan wrote and directed this Oscar nominated film about the British Expeditionary Force’s evacuation from Dunkirk, France in 1940. Fionn Whitehead, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance starred.

2. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) – Angela Landsbury and David Tomlinson starred in this entertaining adaptation of Mary Norton’s novels about a woman studying to become a witch, who takes in three London children evacuated to the country during World War II. Robert Stevenson directed.

3. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote and directed this fictionalized account of his childhood during the early years of World War II in England. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

4. “The Imitation Game” (2014) – Oscar nominees Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley starred in this intriguing adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ 1983 book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”. Morten Tyldum directed.

5. “Darkest Hour” – Joe Wright directed this Oscar nominated film about Winston Churchill’s early weeks as Great Britain’s Prime Minister during the spring of 1940. The movie starred Oscar winner Gary Oldman, Kristen Scott-Thomas and Lily James.

6. “Enigma” (2001) – Dougary Scott and Kate Winslet starred in this entertaining adaptation of Robert Harris’ 1995 novel about Enigma codebreakers of Bletchley Park. Michael Apted directed.

7. “The Americanization of Emily” (1964) – James Garner and Julie Andrews starred in this excellent adaptation of William Bradford Huie’s 1959 about a U.S. Navy adjutant in Britain during the period leading to the Normandy Invasion. Written by Paddy Chayefsky, the movie was directed by Arthur Hiller.

8. “Atonement” (2007) – Joe Wright directed this Oscar nominated adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel about the consequences of a crime. James McAvoy, Keira Knightley and Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan starred.

9. “On the Double” (1961) – Danny Kaye starred in this comedy about a U.S. Army soldier assigned to impersonate a British officer targeted by Nazi spies for assassination. Co-written and directed by Melville Shavelson, the movie co-starred Dana Wynter and Wilfrid Hyde-White.

10. “Sink the Bismarck!” (1960) – Kenneth More and Dana Wynter starred in this adaptation of C.S. Forester’s 1959 book, “The Last Nine Days of the Bismarck”. Lewis Gilbert directed.

“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

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“LOUISIANA” (1984) Review

Thirty-four years ago, HBO had aired a three-part miniseries about the life and travails of a nineteenth century Southern belle named Virginia Tregan. The miniseries was called “LOUISIANA” and it starred Margot Kidder and Ian Charleson. 

Directed by the late Philippe de Broca, “LOUISIANA” was based upon the “Fausse-Riviere” Trilogy, written by Maurice Denuzière, one of the screenwriters. It told the story of Virginia’s ruthless devotion to her first husband’s Louisiana cotton plantation called Bagatelle . . . and her love for the plantation’s overseer, an Englishman named Clarence Dandridge. The story begins in 1836 in which she returns to her home in Louisiana after spending several years at school in Paris. Unfortunately, Virginia discovers that the Tregan family plantation and most of its holdings have been sold to pay off her father’s debts. Only the manor house remains. Determined to recoup her personal fortune, Virginia manipulates the breakup of the affair between her wealthy godfather, Adrien Damvillier and his mistress, Anne McGregor in order to marry him and become mistress of Bagatelle. Virginia also becomes frustrated in her relationship with Clarence Dandridge, who refuses to embark upon a sexual relationship with her.

During their ten-year marriage, Virginia and Adrien conceive three children – Adrien II, Pierre and Julie. Not long after Julie’s birth, Adrien dies during a yellow fever epidemic. Virginia hints to Clarence that she would like to engage in a serious relationship with him. But when he informs her that they would be unable to consummate their relationship due to an injury he had sustained during a duel, Virginia travels to Paris for a year-long separation. There, she meets her second husband, a French aristocrat named Charles de Vigors. They return to Louisiana and Virginia gives birth to her fourth and final child – Fabian de Vigors. Virginia and Charles eventually divorce due to his jealousy of his wife’s feelings for Clarence and his affairs. Fabian, who feels left out of the Damvillier family circle, accompanies his father back to France. During the next ten to fifteen years, Virginia experiences the death of her three children by Adrien, the Civil War and Reconstruction. The story ended in either the late 1860s or early 1870s with Virginia using a trick up her sleeves to save Bagatelle from a Yankee mercenary, whom she had first encountered on a riverboat over twenty years ago.

If I must be frank, “LOUISIANA” is not exactly “GONE WITH THE WIND” or the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. But the 1984 production does bear some resemblance to both the 1939 movie and the 1985-1994 miniseries trilogy. I noticed that the character of Virginia Tregan Damvillier de Vigors strongly reminded me of Margaret Mitchell’s famous leading lady from “GONE WITH THE WIND”, Scarlett O’Hara. Both characters are strong-willed, ruthless, charming, manipulative, passionate and Southern-born. Both had married at least two or three times. Well, Scarlett had acquired three husbands by the end of Mitchell’s tale. In “LOUISIANA”, Virginia married twice and became engaged once to some mercenary who wanted Bagatelle after the war. Both women had fallen in love with a man who was forbidden to them. Unlike Scarlett, Virginia eventually ended up with the man she loved, despite losing three of her children. Apparently, the saga’s original author felt that Virginia had to pay a high price for manipulating her way into her first marriage to Adrien Damvillier.

“LOUISIANA” also shared a few aspects with another famous Civil War-era saga – namely John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy. Both sagas were based upon a trilogy of novels that spanned the middle decades of the 19th century – covering the antebellum period, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mind you, “LOUISIANA” lacked the epic-style storytelling of the television adaptation of Jakes’ trilogy. Not even Virginia’s journey to France and her experiences during the outbreak of the Revolution of 1848, along with another journey to France during the first year of the Civil War could really give “LOUISIANA” the epic sprawl that made the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy so memorable. However, the miniseries, like “NORTH AND SOUTH”, did depicted the darker side of the Old South’s plantation system. It did so through the eyes of four characters – Clarence Dandridge; one Bagatell slave named Brent; another Bagatelle slave named Ivy, and Virginia’s French-born servant/companion, Mignette.

Like both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND”“LOUISIANA” suffered from some historical inaccuracies. I found it interesting that Bagatelle did not suffer the consequences from the Panic and Depression of 1837, which lasted until the mid-1840s. Especially since it was a cotton plantation. This particular economic crisis had not only led to a major recession throughout the United States, it also dealt a severe blow to the nation’s Cotton Belt, thanks to a decline in cotton prices. Unlike the 1980 miniseries, “BEULAH LAND”“LOUISIANA” never dealt with this issue, considering that the story began in 1836. I also found the miniseries’ handling of the Revolution of 1848 in France and the California Gold Rush rather questionable, as well. Gold was first discovered by James Marshall in California, in January 1848. But news of the discovery did not reach the East Coast until August-September 1848, via an article in the New York Herald; and France became the first country to fully experience the Revolution of 1848 on February 23, 1848. Yet, according to the screenplay for “LOUISIANA”, Charles de Vigors first learned about the California gold discovery in a newspaper article in mid-June 1848 . . . sometime before France experienced the first wave of the Revolutions of 1848. Which is impossible . . . historically.

If there is one aspect of “LOUISIANA” that reigned supreme over both “NORTH AND SOUTH” and “GONE WITH THE WIND” are the costumes designed by John Jay. The costumes lacked the theatrical styles of the John Jakes miniseries trilogy and the 1939 Oscar winner. But they did project a more realistic image of the clothes worn during the period between 1830s and 1860s. And fans of “NORTH AND SOUTH” would immediately recognize the plantation and house that served as Bagatelle in “LOUISIANA”. In real life, it is Greenwood Plantation, located in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana. Aside from serving as Bagatelle, it also stood in as Resolute, the home of the venal Justin LaMotte in the first two miniseries of the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy.

The story for “LOUISIANA” seemed pretty solid. It seemed like a Louisiana version of “GONE WITH THE WIND”, but with an attempt to match the epic sprawl of “NORTH AND SOUTH”. But only in length . . . not in style. Margot Kidder, Ian Charleson, Andréa Ferréol, Len Cariou, Lloyd Bochner, Victor Lanoux, and Hilly Hicks all gave pretty good performances. Kidder and Charleson, surprisingly managed to create a strong screen chemistry. The miniseries indulged in some of the romance of the Old South. But as I had earlier pointed out, the miniseries also exposed its darker aspects – especially slavery. When the story first began with Virginia’s arrival in Louisiana with her maid, Mignette; the entire production seemed like a reflection of the “moonlight and magnolias” myth of the Old South, until the story shifted to the cotton harvest fête held at Bagatelle. In this scene, slavery finally reared its ugly head when the plantation’s housekeeper becomes suddenly ill, while serving a guest. Slavery and racism continued to be explored not only when Virginia’s conservative beliefs over slavery clash with Clarence’s more liberal ideals; but also with scenes featuring encounters between Bagatelle slave Brent and a racist neighbor named Percy Templeton, Mignette’s Underground Railroad activities, and a doomed romance between one of Virginia’s sons and a slave named Ivy. Yet, despite Virginia’s conservative views regarding slavery, the miniseries allowed audiences to sympathize with her through her romantic travails, the tragic deaths of her children and her post-war efforts to save Bagatelle from a slimy con artist-turned-carpetbagger named Oswald.

If you are expecting another “GONE WITH THE WIND” or “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy, you will be disappointed. But thanks to Maurice Denuzière’s novels and the screenplay written by Dominique Fabre, Charles E. Israel and Etienne Périer; “LOUISIANA” ended up as an entertaining saga about a woman’s connections with a Louisiana plantation during the early and mid 19th century. For anyone interested in watching “LOUISIANA”, you might find it extremely difficult in finding the entire miniseries (six hours) either on VHS or DVD. And it might be slightly difficult in finding an edited version as well. The last time I had seen “LOUISIANA”, it aired on CINEMAX in the mid-1990s and had been edited to at least three hours. If you find a copy of the entire miniseries or the edited version, you have my congratulations.

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R.I.P. Margot Kidder (1948-2018)gone

“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” (2005) Review

“A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” (2005) Review

I have been a fan of novels written by Agatha Christie since the age of the thirteen. Mind you, I do not like all of her novels. But there are a handful that have been personal favorites of mine for years . . . and remain personal favorites even to this day. One of those is the 1950 novel, “A Murder Is Announced”

Superficially, the plot to the 1950 novel seemed pretty simple. During Britain’s post-World War II era, a handful of citizens from Chipping Cleghorn read a notice in their local newspaper announcing that a “murder is announced” and would take place at Little Paddocks, the home of a spinster named Letitia Blacklock. Many of Little Paddocks’ inhabitants and local neighbors assume that this “murder” is actually a game in which a fake murder occurs and the party guests have to solve it. However, Miss Blacklock never placed the advertisement. Realizing that some people might pay a visit out of sheer curiousity, she makes arrangements for an impromptu party.

Right on cue, several guests arrive. They include:

*Colonel Archie Easterbrook, a retired Army officer
*Mrs. Sadie Swettenham, a local widow
*Lizzie Hinchcliffe, a local farmer
*Amy Murgatroyd, Miss Hinchcliffe’s companion and lover
*Edmund Swettenham, Mrs. Swettenham’s only son

Also attending the party are other inhabitants of Little Paddock:

*Dora Bunner, Miss Blacklock’s old friend and companion
*Patrick Simmons, Miss Blacklock’s cousin
*Julia Simmons, Patrick’s sister and Miss Blacklock’s cousin
*Phillipa Haymes, Miss Blacklock’s tenant and a war widow
*Mitzi Kosinski, Miss Blacklock’s Central European servant and a former war refugee

Not long after the party begins, the lights inside Little Paddock immediately go out. Someone brandishing a flashlight announces a stickup and demands that everyone raise their hands. Seconds later, several gunshots ring out. When the lights are restored, Miss Blacklock and her guests discover the dead body of a young man on the floor. Detective-Inspector Dermot Craddock is assigned to solve the case. Before long, he finds himself being assisted by the story’s leading lady, the elderly amateur sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The latter was staying at the hotel where the dead victim, Rudi Scherz, worked at. And she eventually arrived at Chipping Cleghorn as a vistor of one of Miss Blacklock’s guests. After a bit of investigation into Scherz’s past as a hotel clerk and a petty thief, both Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock come to the conclusion that the killer had intended to kill Miss Blacklock and merely used Scherz to set up the crime and be used as a patsy.

All right. Perhaps the plot of “A Murder Is Announced” was not that simple, especially since involved family conflicts, a great inheritance and greed. I do know there have been one stage and three television adaptations of the 1950 novel. One of the TV adaptations aired on NBC’s “THE GOODYEAR TELEVISION PLAYHOUSE” back in 1956. The second TV adaptation aired on the BBC series, “MISS MARPLE” and starred Joan Hickson. And the third adaptation, Geraldine McEwan, aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” back in 2005. This article is a review of the 2004 adaptation.

I noticed that screenwriter Stewart Harcourt made a good deal of changes from Christie’s novel. And yet . . . “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” did not suffer from these changes. Certain characters were deleted from this adaptation. Laura Easterbrook, wife of Colonel Archie Easterbrook did not appear in this story, making the latter a divorced man. This scenario also allowed Harcourt to create a romance between Easterbrook and the widowed Mrs. Sadie Swettenham. As for the latter’s young son Edmund, his literary romance was nipped in the bud due to his opposition against his mother’s romance with the alcoholic Colonel Easterbrook. That is correct. Colonel Easterbrook is an alcoholic in this story. Two other characters deleted were the Reverend Julian Harmon and his wife, Diana “Bunch” Harmon. This proved to be something of a problem, considering that in Christie’s novel, Miss Marple stayed with the Harmons during her visit to Clipping Cleghorn. In this adaptation, Miss Marple stayed with farmer Miss Hinchcliffe and her companion, Amy Murgatroyd. Miss Murgatroyd, like the literary Mrs. Harmon, was her goddaughter. Also, Harcourt made it slightly more apparent than Christie did that Miss Hinchcliffe and Miss Murgatroyd were also lovers. Aside from these changes, Harcourt’s adaptation of the 1950 novel was faithful.

And yet . . . Harcourt’s changes did not harm Christie’s novel one bit. Perhaps the reason why his changes did not have a strong and negative impact was due to them being quite minor. Creating a slightly different romance along with deleting two minor characters simply did not have an impact on Christie’s story. Thank God. “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” has always been one of my favorite novels written by the author. The idea of a movie or television screenwriter inflicting major changes upon its narrative would have been abhorrent to me.

The main reason behind my admiration for “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” is its portrayal of post-World War II Britain and how it affected the actions of various characters in this story. In one paragraph of the 1950 novel, Miss Marple explained how the war had upset the staid and knowing world of various villages and towns throughout the country:

“(Chipping Cleghorn is) very much like St. Mary Mead where I live. Fifteen years ago (before the war) one knew who everybody was . . . They were people whose fathers and mothers and grandfathers and grandmothers, or whose aunts and uncles, had lived there before them. If somebody new came to live there, they brought letters of introduction, or they’d been in the same regiment or served on the same ship as someone already there. If anybody new – really new – really a stranger – came, well, they stuck out . . . But it’s not like that any more. Every village and small country place is full of people who’ve just come and settled there without any ties to bring them. The big houses have been sold, and the cottages have been converted and changed. And people just come – and all you know about them is what they say of themselves.”

In “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”, Miss Marple and Detective-Inspector Craddock discovered that Miss Blacklock had been a wealthy financier’s secretary before the war. Following Randall Goedler’s death, his widow inherited his money. However, Mrs. Goedler is dying. But since they had no children, Goedler left his money to Miss Blacklock in the event of his wife’s death. The will also stipulated that if Miss Blacklock should die before Mrs. Goedler, then the children of Goedler’s estranged sister – Pip and Emma. Due to the upheaval nature of British society during the post-war years, neither Miss Marple or Inspector Craddock know who Pip or Emma are. Or for that matter, their mother, Sonia. Either two or all three might be residing at Chipping Cleghorn, waiting for Belle Goedler’s death and ensuring that Miss Blacklock will die before it happens. “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” is one of those rare Christie stories in which the story’s time period has such a major impact upon it. And despite the changes regarding some of the adaptation’s characters, Harcourt never changed the core of the teleplay’s narrative.

Do I have any complaints about “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”? If I must be honest . . . not really. Well . . . perhaps a few minor ones. A part of me wish that Harcourt had expanded a bit more on Miss Marple’s conversation with Dora Bunner, Miss Blacklock’s companion and old friend, at a local tea cafe. A part of me felt as if enough had been said. I also wish that Harcourt had utilized the role of Miss Blacklock’s maid, Mitzi, just as Christie had did in the novel. I found the literary version of Mitzi’s role in the murderer’s exposure very dramatic. It seemed that the drama of that moment had been cut by Harcourt’s screenplay. In fact, I would add that that the teleplay’s last ten to fifteen minutes struck me as a bit rushed. A part of me wish that this adaptation had been a little longer than 94 minutes.

Another aspect that made “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED” work for me were the performances featured in the production. The teleplay marked Geraldine McEwan’s fourth outing as Miss Jane Marple and she did an excellent job in conveying the character’s intelligence and subtle sense of humor. However, I was especially impressed by the actress in a scene that featured Miss Marple’s discovery of a third murder victim.

There were four other performances that I regard as first-rate. The first came from  Zoë Wanamaker, who gave a superb performance as Letitia Blacklock. Wanamaker did an excellent job of conveying her character from a competent retired secretary to a beleaguered woman who becomes increasingly paranoid over the threat of being killed for a great fortune. The second excellent performance came from Robert Pugh, who was excellent as Archie Easterbrook, the alcoholic former Army officer battling his demons, romantic desire and loneliness. Cheri Lunghi also gave a superb performance as Colonel Easterbrook’s object of desire, the lonely widow Sadie Swettenham. One of my favorite characters from Christie’s Miss Marple novel was the police investigator, Dermot Craddock. Just about every actor who has portrayed Craddock has done an excellent job. And that includes Alexander Armstrong, who portrayed the police detective in “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. I was surprised to learn that Armstrong is basically known as a comedian and singer in Great Britain, especially since he gave such a strong performance as the no-nonsense Detective-Inspector Craddock.
However, the television movie also featured excellent performances from the rest of the cast. They include performances from the likes of Keeley Hawes, Frances Barber, Claire Skinner, Elaine Page, Matthew Goode, Sienna Guillory, Christian Coulson, Virginia McKenna, Catherine Tate and Richard Dixon. And if you are patient, you just might catch Lesley Nicol of “DOWNTON ABBEY” in a small role. I can honestly say that I did not come across one performance that I would consider questionable or merely solid.

Overall, I did not merely enjoyed “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”. I loved it. Yes, I thought its running time could have stretched a bit past 94 minutes. But I thought screenwriter Stewart Harcourt and director John Strickland did an excellent job of adapting one of my favorite Agatha Christie novels of all time. And both were ably supported by a first-rate cast led by the always talented Geraldine McEwan.