Top Five Favorite Episodes of “THE CROWN” Season Two (2017)

image

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season Two of the Netflix series, “THE CROWN”. Created by Peter Morgan, the series starred Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh:

 

 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE CROWN” SEASON TWO (2017)

image

1. (2.05) “Marionettes” – After Queen Elizabeth II makes a tone-deaf speech at a Jaguar factory, she and the British monarchy come under public attack by an outspoken liberal peer named Lord Altrincham.

 

 

image

2. (2.03) “Lisbon” – Palace insiders try to prevent the scandalous divorce of the Duke of Edinburgh’s aide, Lieutenant-Commander Mike Parker, that could reflect poorly on the former and the monarchy. Prime Minister Anthony Eden faces censure from his cabinet and the press over the Suez Crisis.

 

 

image

3. (2.09) “Paterfamilias” – Prince Philip insists that Prince Charles attend Gordonstoun, his alma mater in Scotland. Also, he reminisces about the life-changing difficulties he experienced there as a student.

 

 

image

4. (2.07) “Matrimonium” – A heartbreaking letter from former lover Peter Townsend spurs Princess Margaret to make a bold proposal to her current lover, photographer Antony Armstrong-Jones. The Queen has good news that causes complications for Margaret.

 

 

image

5. (2.02) “A Company of Men” – Elizabeth feels disconnected from Philip during his five-month royal tour in the South Pacific. Meanwhile, Eden copes with ill health and international pressure to withdraw British troops from Egypt during the Suez Crisis.

 

 

image

 

“VICTORIA” Season Two (2017) Episode Ranking

Below is my ranking of the Season Two episodes of the ITV series called “VICTORIA”. Created by Daisy Goodwin, the series stars Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria: 

“VICTORIA” SEASON TWO (2017) EPISODE RANKING

1. (2.06) “Faith, Hope & Charity” – Horrified by the Great Famine in Ireland, both Queen Victoria and the Reverend Robert Traill try to persuade Prime Minister Robert Peel’s government and the British clergy in the country to take action.

2. (2.09) “Comfort and Joy” – In this Christmas episode, a pregnant Victoria receives a “gift” from King Gezo of Dahomey in the form of a young African princess who had been his political prisoner. Meanwhile, Prince Albert desperately tries to introduce the German Christmas custom to the British court, despite the tension from unwelcome guests and personal problems.

3. (2.01) “A Soldier’s Daughter” – While Victoria deals with postnatal depression following the birth of her oldest child, Princess Victoria, Albert and Peel scramble to hide the grisly details of the Retreat From Kabul near the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

4. (2.07) “The King Over the Water” – Following two assassination attempts, Victoria and Albert travel to the Scottish Highlands becomes guests at the 6th Duke of Atholl’s home, Blair Castle, for a private retreat. However, the retreat is nearly ruined when the couple ends up lost in the countryside.

5. (2.08) “The Luxury of Conscience” – Albert unwittingly creates more political problems for Peel, when he supports the latter’s efforts to repeal the Corn Laws.

6. (2.04) “The Sins of the Father” – Victoria gives birth to a second child, Prince Albert-Edward (future King Edward VII). While she deals with postnatal depression for the second time, Albert’s father dies. Albert travels to Coburg and learns an ugly family secret from his uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians.

7. (2.05) “Entente Cordiale” – Victoria drags Albert and the British Court to France in an effort to convince the country’s King Louis Phillippe I to deter the latter from arranging a marriage between his son Duke of Montpensier and Queen Isabel II of Spain.

8. (2.03) “Warp and Weft” – Moved by the plight of a silk weaver in Spitalfields, Victoria throws a lavish medieval ball at Buckingham Palace with all attendees wearing outfits made in the impoverished area. Meanwhile, she becomes aware of former Prime Minister Lord Melbourne’s failing health.

9. (2.02) “The Green-Eyed Monster” – Victoria becomes pregnant with her second child and develops a jealous suspicion that Albert might be attracted to Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is a mathematician associated with the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

Top Five Favorite Episodes of “THE CROWN” Season One (2016)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season One of the Netflix series, “THE CROWN”. Created by Peter Morgan, the series starred Claire Foy and Matt Smith as Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “THE CROWN” SEASON ONE (2016)

1. (1.02) “Hyde Park Corner” – Due to King George VI’s poor health, Princess Elizabeth and her husband Philip, Duke of Edinburgh embark upon a tour of the Commonwealth on his behalf. However, a family tragedy forces the couple to end their tour in Kenya and return home to Britain.

2. (1.05) “Smoke and Mirrors” – This episode focuses on the death of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth II’s grandmother and on her own coronation over two months later. Meanwhile, the Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Windsor, clashes with her private secretary, Tommy Lascelles, after being asked not to attend the coronation.

3. (1.08) “Pride & Joy” – While Elizabeth and Philip embark upon a stressful Commonwealth tour in 1954, the Queen’s younger sister Princess Margaret takes on more royal engagements, much to the consternation of Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

4. (1.07) “Scientia Potentia Est” – While the Soviet Union tests their new H-bomb, both Prime Minister Churchill and Deputy Prime Minister experience major health crisis, unbeknownst to the Queen. Meanwhile, she becomes aware of her limited education and hires a tutor.

5. (1.06) “Gelignite” – When Princess Margaret and her divorced lover, Peter Townsend, ask Elizabeth’s permission to get married, the latter promises to give her support. Unfortunately, Private Secretary Lascelles and the Queen Mother advise against supporting the marriage.

 

“VICTORIA” Season One (2016) Episode Ranking

Below is my ranking of the Season One episodes of the ITV series called “VICTORIA”. Created by Daisy Goodwin, the series stars Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria: 

 

“VICTORIA” SEASON ONE (2016) EPISODE RANKING

1. (1.05) “An Ordinary Woman” – After the young Queen Victoria announces her engagement to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, the Tory-controlled Parliament reacts with hostility at the idea of a German consort.

2. (1.03) “Brocket Hall” – Victoria receives pressure to get married as soon as possible from her mother, the Duchess of Kent; the latter’s corrupted aide, Sir John Conroy; and her uncle, King Leopold of Belgium, who wants her to marry Prince Albert.

3. (1.02) “Ladies in Waiting” – When the popularity of Whig Prime Minister Lord Melbourne wanes, the Tory party under Sir Robert Peel eagerly anticipates assuming power and demand that the Queen dismiss her four Whig Ladies of the Bedchamber and replace them with the wives of Tories.

4. (1.07) “The Engine of Change” – Tory ministers plot to disrupt a pregnant Victoria and Albert’s visit to northern England, after she declared that in the event of her death from childbirth, Albert will become regent.

5. (1.04) “A Clockwork Prince” – Prince Albert arrives in England to visit and officially court Victoria. The pair proved to be mutually aloof, and resentful for being pushed toward each other.

6. (1.01) “Doll 123” – Upon the death of King William IV, his 18 year-old niece, Victoria of Kent, becomes Britain’s new sovereign and immediately declares her independence from the Duchess of Kent and Sir John. This also leads her into a royal scandal involving her mother’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Flora Hastings.

7. (1.06) “The Queen’s Husband” – Feeling listless in court, Prince Albert becomes interested in the abolitionist movement. Meanwhile, Victoria curries favor with her paternal uncle, the Duke of Sussex, who is unable to present his wife at court because their morganatic marriage.

8. (1.08) “Young England” – A heavily pregnant and bored Victoria defies the advice of her husband and mother by a drive to escape the confines of Buckingham Palace, attracting the attention of a deranged would-be assassin.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

“CARDS ON THE TABLE” (2005) Review

“CARDS ON THE TABLE” (2005) Review

Most Agatha Christie fans tend to regard movie and television adaptations of her novels with a kindly eye. Especially if those adaptations closely followed its literary source. Not all adaptations have done this, including “CARDS ON THE TABLE”, ITV’s 2005 adaptation of the author’s 1936 novel.

I have always wondered how Christie fans regarded “CARDS ON THE TABLE”. I suspect many Christie fans would not regard it as a close adaptation of the 1936 novel. Also, the story turned out to be one of those mysteries of the “locked room” variety that many fans sometimes find frustrating. I say . . . almost. After all, the victim was not killed or found in a locked room. Instead, he was quietly killed, while sitting in the same room as the suspects.

The story begins when Belgian-born private detective Hercule Poirot and his friend, crime novelist Ariadne Oliver at an art exhibit, they meet the wealthy art collector Mr. Shaitana, who also has an interest in “collecting” successful murderers. He invites both Poirot and Mrs. Oliver to his dinner party for the following evening. His guests include two more “detectives” – military intelligence officer Colonel Hughes and Scotland Yard’s Superintendent James Wheeler. Mr. Shaitana has also invited four people that he believes have gotten away with murder:

*Dr. Roberts – a successful Harley Street physician who may have deliberately killed a patient
*Mrs. Lorrimer – a well-to-do socialite who may have killed her first husband
*Major Despard – a dashing ex-military explorer and hunter who may have killed a married botanist during his last expedition
*Anne Meredith – an impoverished young woman from a good family who may have killed a former employer who caught her stealing

During supper, Mr. Shaitana expresses veiled hints that the four suspects have successfully committed murder. After the meal, he organizes two bridge games – one with the suspects playing in the main drawing room, and the “detectives” playing in another room. Mr. Shaitana settles in a chair near the four suspects and fall asleep. When the “detectives” finish their game, they return to the main dining room and find Shaitana’s body, with a knife in his chest. The four “sleuths” – Poirot, Mrs. Oliver, Superintendent Wheeler and Colonel Hughes – set about investigating Mr. Shaitana’s murder.

For those Christie fans who demand that all movie and television adaptations be faithful to their literary sources, “CARDS ON THE TABLE” just might disappoint them. Director Sarah Harding and screenwriter Nick Dear obviously made changes to Christie’s story. One, they changed the identity of one of the story’s murderers. Two, they allowed two of the characters that died in the novel . . . survive. Colonel Race in the novel became Colonel Hughes in the movie, due to James Fox (who portrayed Race in 2004’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”) being unavailable for the production. And they allowed one of the characters that survived in the book to die. Harding and Dear also changed the motives for both main killers in the story. And . . . they allowed one of the investigators, Superintendent Wheeler, to become a suspect.

Did these changes ruin the story for me? Overall . . . no. First of all, I have to admit that “CARDS ON THE TABLE” is a pretty damn good story. Although I liked Christie’s novel very much, there were moments when I found it somewhat convoluted. I cannot say the same about Nick Dear’s screenplay. He managed to make Christie’s story more coherent without dumbing down the story. The movie also benefited from Sarah Harding’s competent direction. She did a first-class job in maintaining my interest in the story. Not once did her direction ground the movie to a halt. Harding also produced excellent performances from the cast. Contrary to what many may think, even competent actors and actresses can have their performances ruined by an incompetent director. But more importantly, despite the energetic pacing, she managed to maintain the movie’s suspense and mystery. This was greatly enhanced by flashbacks of not only the actual murder, but also the characters’ meetings with Mr. Shaitana.

I certainly did not have a problem with the movie’s production and look. Jeff Tessler, who has worked for both “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” and “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” did an excellent job in re-creating London of the mid-1930s. With the help of cinematographer David Marsh, Denise Ball’s art direction and the movie’s art department; Tessler’s work radiated class and style. The crew’s work also benefited from Sheena Napier’s costume designs, which I found very stylish and close to what the well-born or successful English had worn during the Thirties. I do not know who worked on the actresses’ hairstyles, but I must admit that I was impressed by how close they resembled how women styled their hair eighty years ago. My only complaint was Honeysuckle Weeks’ hairstyle, which seemed more suited to the 1940s, instead of the 1930s.

The performances featured in “CARDS ON THE TABLE” struck me as first-rate. David Suchet was excellent, as usual, in his portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was surprised that his performance seemed a little introverted and I cannot help but wonder if the presence of three other “investigators” had an impact. “CARDS ON THE TABLE” proved to be Zoë Wanamaker’s first appearance as mystery writer Ariadne Oliver and the actress never looked back. Right from the beginning, Wanamaker had a lock on the character. Also, she and Suchet created immediate chemistry on screen, which is not surprising since both had worked on stage together. I also have to comment on Alexander Siddig’s performance. Personally, I believe Mr. Shaitana might prove to be my favorite role he has ever performed. Shaitana seemed like such a departure from anything else he has done and he did such a marvelous job in radiating a mixture of mystery, humor and wit from his character.

I also enjoyed the performances from the other cast members. Aside from Suchet, Wanamaker and Siddig; I also enjoyed Tristan Gemmill as Major Despard, who seemed to be a curious mixture of warmth and coldness; Lyndsey Marshal as the charming, yet morally ambiguous Anne Meredith; Honeysuckle Weeks as Anne’s domineering roommate, Rhoda Dawes; Robert Pugh as the conservative, yet pragmatic Colonel Hughes; and David Westhead, who gave an interesting performance as the slightly suspect Superintendent Jim Wheeler. But my two favorite performances from the supporting cast came from Lesley Manville and Alex Jennings. Manville gave a very enigmatic performance as the mysterious Mrs. Lorrimer, who seemed to have a passion for bridge. And Alex Jennings gave an entertaining performance performance as the verbose Doctor Roberts, who seemed to have something of a touch of gallows humor.

Was there anything about “CARDS ON THE TABLE” that I did not like or found unappealing? Well . . . yes. I had a problem with the motives of the story’s two main killers. Mr. Shaitana’s murderer killed the former to hide a homosexual relationship. I could have tolerated this if Dear had not made the second murderer in the story a homosexual, as well. The second murderer killed due to love for another character and the latter’s interest in a third party. Both murderers turned out to be homosexual and I cannot help but wonder if Nick Dear, Sarah Harding or even the producers are homophobic. It certainly seems likely. This portrayal of two separate murderers as homosexuals proved to be one of the worst examples of bigotry I have ever encountered in any movie or television production in recent years.

Even though I found the homophobia tasteless, I otherwise enjoyed “CARDS ON THE TABLE” a lot. Nick Dear more or less did an excellent job in adapting Agatha Christie’s novel. I was very impressed by Sarah Harding’s energetic, yet atmospheric direction. And I was especially impressed by the talented cast, led by David Suchet. Despite a major setback, “CARDS ON THE TABLE” still proved to be a first-rate movie.

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

return to cranford for christmas

 

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

Due to the success of the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the BBC aired a two-part sequel called “RETURN TO CRANFORD” (also known as the “CRANFORD CHRISTMAS SPECIAL”), some two years later. Like the original miniseries, it was adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis. 

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” was based on material from Elizabeth Gaskell’s two novellas and a short story – “Cranford”,“The Mooreland Cottage”, and “The Cage at Cranford”, were all published between 1849 and 1863. Also, themes from “My Lady Ludlow”“Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”, and “The Last Generation in England” were included to provide continuity with the first miniseries. The new miniseries took place between August and December 1844. The citizens of Cranford find themselves facing major changes in their society, as the railroad continues to be constructed near the edge of town. In fact, I was surprised to learn that a great deal of the story surrounding the new railroad was not in any of Gaskell’s novellas and short story. Only the storylines featuring about Mrs. Jameson’s (Barbara Flynn) cousin, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) and Captain Brown (Jim Carter), Miss Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) Parisian “cage” for her pet cockatoo, and a magician named Signor Brunoni (Tim Curry) putting on a show came from Gaskell’s works.

I have to be frank. It did not bother me that most of the material featured in the miniseries did not come from any of Gaskell’s novellas and short stories. Thanks to some decent writing by Heidi Thomas, I believe that it all worked out fine. Unlike the 2007 miniseries, ”CRANFORD”, the screenplay for ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” seemed tighter and more focused. In fact, I noticed that the majority of major storylines featured in the miniseries have ties to the main story about the railroad’s construction. Because of this, ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” avoided the episodic style of storytelling that I believe marred ”CRANFORD”. My favorite storyline featured the budding romance between two newcomers to the town of Cranford – William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), the Eton-educated son of a salt baron (Jonathan Pryce) and Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of a less-affluent widow (Lesley Sharp). Mr. Buxton wants William to marry his ward, the Brussels-educated Erminia (Michelle Dockery). But neither are interested in each other. And Peggy has to deal with her ambitious and greedy brother, Edward (Matthew McNulty), who dislikes William. What I liked best about ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” was that most of the storylines were tied to the new rail line being constructed near Cranford – even the William/Peggy romance.

As much as I hate to admit it, ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” had its problems. Another storyline featured the problematic pregnancy suffered by Miss Matty’s maid, Martha Hearne (Claudie Blakley). The problem arose, due to the lack of doctors in Cranford. And I found this confusing. The 2007 miniseries ended with two doctors residing in the town – the recently married Dr. Frank Harrison and longtime resident Dr. Morgan. A year later, both no longer resided in Cranford and Heidi Thomas’ script never revealed their whereabouts or fate. Thomas’ real misstep featured the death of Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) and the arrival of her ne’er-do-well son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear). The latter’s attempt to cheat young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) out of the money he had inherited from the late Mr. Carter was a poorly conceived and written storyline. And despite the built-up, it failed to have any real impact upon the Harry Gregson character, due to its vague ending. As much as I found Signor Brunoni’s Christmas show rather charming, I thought it also reeked of a sentimentality that made my teeth hurt. Especially when Miss Matty’s reunion with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) and his daughter entered the picture.

The production design for ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” was top notch as ever. And Alison Beard’s supervision of the costumes proved to be just as first-rate as Jenny Beavan’s work in the 2007 miniseries. The cast continued its first-rate work from the previous miniseries – especially Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns, Imelda Staunton as town gossip Octavia Poole, Francesca Annis as the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, Emma Fielding as her assistant Laurentia Galindo, Alex Etel as Harry Gregson, Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Forrester, Jim Carter as Mr. Brown, and Barbara Flynn as the pretentious Mrs. Jamieson. But the newcomers that impressed were Tom Huddleston as William Buxton, Jonathan Pryce as the tyrannical Mr. Buxton, Jodie Whittaker as Peggy Bell, Celia Imrie as the earthy Lady Glemire and Tim Curry as the warm-hearted magician Signor Brunoni.

For a while, I had been reluctant to watch ”RETURN TO CRANFORD”. Because it was a sequel to the 2007 miniseries, I figured that it could never be as good as ”CRANFORD”. I was wrong. I do not know if I would consider it better than the first miniseries. But the latter is certainly not better than the sequel. And ”RETURN TO CRANFORD” does have one major advantage . . . namely Heidi Thomas’ screenplay turned out to be more tightly written, due to her decision not to use much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s material. Personally, I find that rather ironic.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

 

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

To my knowledge, there have been seven cinematic versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 adventure story, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS”. The first version was released in 1915 as a black-and-white silent film. The most famous and highly revered version was produced by legendary producer Alexander Korda in 1939. And the latest version – the focus of this review – was released in 2002. Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson and Wes Bentley starred in the film. And it was directed by Shekhar Kapur.

”THE FOUR FEATHERS” began with Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young British officer of the Royal Cumbrians infantry regiment and the son of a stern British general, celebrating his recent engagement to the beautiful young Ethne (Kate Hudson) in a lavish ball with his fellow officers and his father in attendance. When the regimental colonel announced that the regiment is being dispatched to Egyptian-ruled Sudan to rescue the British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon (who was being besieged in Khartoum by Islamic rebels of The Mahdi), young Faversham became nervous and resigned his commission. After resigning his commission, Harry’s charmed life began to fall apart. Despite his claims that his decision to in order to stay in England with new fiancée because he would never “go to war for anyone or anything”, three of his fellow officers – Tom Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones), Edward Castleton (Kris Marshall) and William Trench (Michael Sheen) censured Harry by delivery three white feathers (signs of cowardice). Ethne ended their engagement and presented him with a fourth feather. And both Harry’s best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) and his father, General Faversham (Tim Piggott-Smith) disavowed him. With his former comrades already en route to the conflict, the young Faversham questioned his own true motives, and resolved to redeem himself through combat in Sudan. Disguised as an Arab laborer, he accompanied a French slave trader to take him deep into the Sudanese desert. Faversham is left alone in the vast sands when the slave trader is killed by his own Sudanese slaves. Eventually a lone black Sudanese warrior named Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), who is against the Mahdists’ rebellion, came to Harry’s aid and helped the latter redeem himself through combat against the Mahdists.

In the beginning, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” bore a strong resemblance to the 1902 novel it is based upon and the 1939 movie. Granted, in this version, General Faversham is a living and somewhat stern parent, and not some dead military hero in whose shadow Harry is forced to live. And Ethne’s father is dead. The most important aspect of this version of the story is the fact that the British presence in the Sudan is not portrayed in a sympathetic light. Following Colonel Hamilton’s (Alex Jennings) announcement of the Royal Cumbrians being deployed to the Sudan, Harry made this comment to Jack:

” “What does a godforsaken desert, in the middle of nowhere, have to do with Her Majesty the Queen?”

Mind you, I did not take Harry’s question as a commentary against British Imperialism. I suspect that Harry’s question had more to do with him dreading the idea of going to war than any anti-Imperialist sympathies. But once the story shifted toward the Sudan, the anti-British Imperialism messages came across in the following scenes:

*The Royal Cumbrians’ encounter with a Sudanese sniper
*Harry’s travels with the French slave trader and the latter’s “merchandise”
*Abou Fatma’s attempt to warn the Royal Cumbrians of an impending attack and his treatment at their hands
*Ethne’s regret over her rejection of Harry
*Harry and Abou’s conversations about the differences between Eastern and Western culture

Surprisingly, the European characters are not the only ones shown to be capable of bigotry. Abou Fatma has to deal with the Sudanese Arab soldiers who seemed offended by his presence, due to his kinship with the tribe that had served as slaves for the soldiers’ families and ancestors. Also, both Harry and Trench, along with other British and anti-Mahdist prisoners have to deal with the malevolent commander of the prison camp at Omdurman, Idris-Es-Saier, whose hatred toward them stemmed from the death of his family by British artillery.

As I had stated earlier, the 1939 version (which starred John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson) is considered to be the best version of Mason’s novel. I have seen the 1939 version and I must admit that I found it pretty damn enjoyable. As much as I found the 1939 version entertaining, I must admit that this latest version – directed by Shekhar Kapur – happens to be my favorite. Like the other versions of this tale, it is filled with exciting action and does an excellent job of recapturing both British and the Sudanese societies in the late nineteenth century, thanks to Allan Cameron’s production design, Ahmed Abounouom and Zack Grobler’s art direction and Robert Richardson’s photography. But for me, the movie proved to be more than simply a costumed adventure film. Thanks to the ”political correctness” slant provided by screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini and especially Shekhar Kapur’s direction; this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” seemed to have more emotional depth and ambiguity than other versions. Not only did Kapur and the two writers challenge the positive view on the British Empire, but also Western views on masculinity and Islamic cultures.

One of the biggest criticisms directed at this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” centered around the movie’s major action sequence – namely the Battle of Abu Klea. During the actual historical battle, which had been fought between January 16-18, 1885, the famous British square had been briefly broken by the Mahdists before it closed, forcing the latter to retreat. In the movie, the square formed by the Royal Cumbrians was permanently broken, resulting in the regiment’s retreat, Castleton’s death and Trench’s capture by Mahdists. In other words, the movie received criticism for not being historically accurate. The charge of historical inaccuracy does have validity. But I do find the critics’ accusations rather hypocritical, considering that hardly no one paid attention to the historical inaccuracy of another Kapur movie, namely the 1998 Academy Award nominated film, ”ELIZABETH”. I can only assume that it is easier to criticize a film that challenged Western culture for historical inaccuracy and ignore the same flaw in a film that celebrated a famous Western monarch.

Before I end this review, I want to say something about the performances. ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” possessed an excellent supporting cast that featured an entertaining Michael Sheen as the witty and extroverted William Trench, a competent Rupert Penry-Jones as the regiment’s finicky and slightly narrow-minded Tom Willoughby, and an excellent Deobia Oparei who portrayed the intimidating Idris-Es-Saier. Kris Marshall’s performance as the religious Edward “Vicar” Willoughby seemed pretty solid, but there were moments when I found it slightly overwrought. Wes Bentley portrayed Jack Durrance, Harry’s reserved best friend who was also in love with Ethne. I must admit that I found myself very impressed by Bentley’s performance. He did an excellent job of portraying a very intense character whose emotions were conveyed through his eyes and expressions. And as far as I am concerned, Djimon Hounsou could do no wrong in this movie. His portrayal of the enigmatic Abou Fatma was spot on. His performance could have easily become another example of one of those ”Magical Negro” roles in which a non-white character dispensed wisdom and comfort to the main white character. Yes, Fatma offered some advice and assistance to Harry Faversham. But thanks to Schiffer and Amini’s script and Hounson’s performance, Fatma became a more complicated character that ended up undergoing his own journey in becoming acquainted with someone from another culture.

Kate Hudson did an excellent job in portraying the spirited Ethne, Harry’s fiancée and the object of Jack’s desire. Hudson’s portrayal of Ethne was interesting and a little unexpected. I had expected her to react with anger over Harry’s lies about his resignation from the Army and fear over the opinions of society. I had expected her to form a closer friendship with Jack – a friendship that eventually led to their engagement. What I had not expected was for Ethne to express regret over her rejection of Harry. In this movie, Harry did not have to earn back her love through heroic acts in the Sudan. Interestingly, Ethne felt both guilt and self-disgust for worrying about how the rest of society would view Harry’s resignation and her association with him. I realize this is another example of the ”political correctness” found in the movie’s script. Frankly, I welcomed it. This slant made Ethne’s character a lot more interesting to me. And Hudson did a hell of a job with what was given to her.

We finally come to Heath Ledger’s performance as Harry Faversham, the disgraced Army officer who tried to find redemption in the Sudanese desert. The interesting thing about Harry’s character was that he truly was guilty of cowardice. Some of his cowardice centered on his lie to Ethne about his reason for leaving the Army. But for me, Harry’s worst act of cowardice occurred before the movie began. He buckled under pressure from society and especially his father, General Faversham, and joined the Royal Cumbrians as an officer. He allowed society, Ethne and his father to pressure him into assuming a life filled with lies. I suspect that Harry believed that as long as his regiment remained in England, he would have no problems maintaining the lie. But he could no longer maintain the lie when Colonel Hamilton announced the regiment’s deployment to the Sudan. The most interesting aspect about Harry’s journey was that he did not reach the nadir of his emotional journey until late into the film. The nadir did not happen when he received the white feathers from his friends and Ethne. Nor did it happened when he found himself stranded in the desert with nothing but a camel, when he discovered via Jack’s letters that the latter and Ethne had formed a deeper bond, or when he found himself in the Omdurman prison camp with Trench. No, Harry’s nadir finally arrived when he stripped away any civil façade of himself and he killed Idris-Es-Saier. At that moment, Harry’s true animal self – something that all human beings possessed – was finally revealed.

I must admit that I am curious over Ledger’s reputation as an actor before he did ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” (2005). I would be very surprised if it took his role as Ennis de Mar for critics to take his skills as an actor seriously. Quite frankly, I was very impressed by his performance as Harry Faversham. Both the script and Kapur’s direction gave Ledger the opportunity to reveal the full length of his character’s journey – from the self-satisfied, yet cowardly Army officer to the private gentleman who is not only more sure of himself, but more honest as well.

I wish I could say that Kapur’s version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” is for everyone. I suspect that it is not. If I must be brutally honest, I suspect that a good number of fans of the Mason’s story would be put off by the so-called ”revisionist”take on the story. They would probably prefer a version in which Harry Faversham learns to find his capacity for physical or military courage. Or a version in which the British victory over the Mahdist rebels are celebrated and the Empire appreciated. But as much as I like this version of Mason’s story – especially embodied in the 1939 film – I must admit that I much prefer this latest version directed by Shekhar Kapur. Not only did I find myself impressed by the cast’s performances, I found the movie more emotionally deep and complex. More importantly, it questioned the ideals and beliefs that had been the bulwark of 19th century and still harbor some influence upon many societies today.

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

Four years ago, the BBC aired a five-part miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s series of stories about a small town in North West England. After viewing the 2004 miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, my curiosity regarding the 2007 miniseries became piqued and I turned my attention toward it. 

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, and adapted by Heidi Thomas;”CRANFORD” is based upon three of Gaskell’s novellas published between 1849 and 1858 – ”Cranford””My Lady Ludlow”, and”Mr Harrison’s Confessions”. Birtwistle, Conklin and Thomas took aspects of Gaskell’s stories, re-shuffled them and added some of their own plotlines to create the five-episode miniseries. ”CRANFORD” mainly focused upon the small English village between 1842-1843, during the early years of the Victorian Age. On the surface, Cranford seemed like an idyllic community in which time remained stuck in the late Georgian Age. However, progress – both technological and social – began its intrusion upon the community for better or worse. The arrival of a young doctor named Frank Harrison with modern new ideas about medical practices, and a railway construction crew on the town’s outskirts that meant the arrival of the railway, change and possibly unwelcomed citizens; seemed to be the prime symbols of the encroaching Industrial Age.

Many humorous and tragic incidents shown as minor plotlines are scattered throughout ”CRANFORD”. But the main stories seemed to focus upon the following characters:

*Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkyns – the younger of two elderly sisters who had to endure a series of travails that included the death of a loved one, the reunion with an old love and the loss of her income.

*Dr. Frank Harrison – Cranford’s new young doctor who has to struggle to win the trust of Cranford’s citizens and the love of the vicar’s oldest daughter, Sophy Hutton.

*Lady Ludlow – the Lady of Hanbury Court who struggles to maintain funds for her spendthrift son and heir living in Italy.

*Mr. Edmund Carter – Lady Ludlow’s land agent, who views Lady Ludlow’s attempts to raise funds for her dissolute son with a leery eye and clashes with his employer over the fate of the young son of a poacher.

*Harry Gregson – the very son of the poacher, whom Mr. Carter views as promising and whom Lady Ludlow views as someone who should remain in his station.

*Octavia Pole – a spinster and Cranford’s town gossip who proves to be the subject of a series of hilarious events.

I realize that ”CRANFORD” is a highly acclaimed program. And I also understand why it became so popular. The production team for “CRANFORD” did an excellent job in conveying television viewers back in time to the early Victorian Age. The miniseries possessed some very whimsical moments that I found particularly funny. These moments included Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ assistance in helping Miss Jessie Brown and Major Gordon stay in beat during their rendition of ”Loch Lomond” with a spoon and a teacup; Miss Pole’s hysteria over a thief in Cranford; Caroline Tomkinson’ infatuation with Dr. Harrison; and especially the incident regarding the cat that swallowed Mrs. Forrester’s valuable lace.

Yet, ”CRANFORD” had its poignant moments. Dr. Harrison’s futile efforts to save young Walter Hutton from the croup, along with Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ death allowed Episode 2 to end on a sober note. And the doctor’s more successful efforts to save Sophy Hutton from typhoid gave the last episode a great deal of drama and angst. I found it almost difficult to watch Miss Matty endure one crisis after another – until she finally prevailed with the establishment of her own tea shop, with the help of the ladies of Cranford and her reunion with her long lost brother. My heartstrings also tugged when the conflict between Mr. Carter and Lady Ludlow over Harry Gregson ended on a tragic, yet poignant note. But the one scene that left me in tears turned out to be the series’ final shot of Cranford’s citizens bidding good-bye to the recently married Dr. Harrison and Sophy. The miniseries closed on what seemed to be a real sense of community.

And that is what the theme of ”CRANFORD” seemed to be about – at least to me. Community. However, this theme and the Gaskell novellas that the miniseries were based upon have led me to a conclusion. There seemed to be a lack of balance or blending between the series’ format and the material. If ”CRANFORD” had been based upon one novel or a series of novels that served as a continuing saga, I would never have any problems with its tight structure of a five-episode miniseries. But”CRANFORD” was based upon three novellas written over a period of time that were certainly not part of a continuing saga. And if I must be frank, I personally feel that the miniseries could have served its source of material a lot better as a one or two-season television series.

I realize that producing a television series that was also a period drama would have been more expensive than a miniseries or a series set in the present. But Heidi Thomas’ script seemed vague for the miniseries format. With the exception one particular storyline, ”CRANFORD” seemed to be filled with minor stories that were usually resolved within one to three episodes. For example, the Valentine card storyline that left Dr. Harrison in trouble with the ladies of Cranford stretched across three episodes. Even the railway construction storyline only appeared in three episodes and not in any particular order. Miss Matty’s financial situation only stretched into two episodes. And plots featuring the lace-swallowing cat, Miss Matty’s relationship with Mr. Thomas Holbrook, and Jem Hearne’s broken arm only appeared in one episode. The only storyline that consistently appeared in all five episodes turned out to be the conflict between Lady Ludlow and Mr. Carter over Harry Gregson’s future.

But one cannot deny that ”CRANFORD” was blessed with a first-rate cast. The cream of this cast consisted of a sterling group of veteran British actresses, whose characters dominated the series. However, only a handful of performances really caught my attention. Two of them belonged to Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the Jenkyns sisters – the mild-mannered Matty and the domineering Deborah. Judging from their outstanding performances, I can easily understand how one of them earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and the other won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for Outstanding Lead Actress. Another outstanding performance from a veteran actress came from Francesca Annis, who portrayed the intensely conservative Lady Ludlow. Annis did a wonderful job in conveying her character’s rigid opposition to education for the lower classes and struggle to overcome these feelings in the face of her kindness and compassion. Philip Glenister, who made a name for himself in the 1995 miniseries ”VANITY FAIR” and in the award winning series ”LIFE ON MARS” and its sequel, ”ASHES TO ASHES”; certainly proved his talents as an actor and strong screen presence in his portrayal of the intense, yet very practical Mr. Edmund Carter. I especially enjoyed Glenister’s scenes with Annis, while their characters clashed over the fate of young Harry Gregson. Providing the bulk of comic relief were actresses Imelda Staunton (from 1995’s ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and ”HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”) and Julia McKenzie (the new Miss Jane Marple for ITV). They portrayed two of Cranford’s biggest gossips, Miss Octavia Pole and Mrs. Forrester. Staunton seemed truly hilarious, while portraying Miss Pole’s terror and anxiety over becoming the victim of a thief. And not only was McKenzie funny as the finicky Mrs. Forrester, she gave a poignant soliloquy in which her character recalled a past act of kindness from Miss Matty.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed ”CRANFORD”. Thanks to directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, along with production designer Donal Woods, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and costume designer Jenny Beavan; the miniseries gave television audiences a warm, humorous and poignant look into village life in early Victorian England. But despite the production team and the cast, I believe the miniseries has a major flaw. Its source material – three novellas written by Elizabeth Gaskell – did not mesh very well with the miniseries format. I believe that ”CRANFORD” would have been better off as a television series. Such a format could have served its stories a lot better.