Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1860s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1860s: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1860s

1. “Lincoln” (2012) – Steven Spielberg directed this highly acclaimed film about President Abraham Lincoln’s last four months in office and his efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Oscar nominee Sally Field and Oscar nominee Tommy Lee Jones starred.

2. “Shenandoah”(1965) – James Stewart starred in this bittersweet tale about how a Virginia farmer’s efforts to keep his family out of the Civil War failed when his youngest son is mistaken as a Confederate soldier by Union troops and taken prisoner. Andrew V. McLaglen directed.

3. “Angels & Insects” (1995) – Philip Haas directed this adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella, “Morpho Eugenia” about a Victorian naturalist who marries into the English landed gentry. Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit starred.

4. “Class of ’61” (1993) – Dan Futterman and Clive Owen co-starred in this television movie about recent West Point graduates and their experiences during the first months of the Civil War. Produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie was directed by Gregory Hoblit.

5. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Anthony Mann directed this suspenseful tale about a New York City Police sergeant who stumbles across a plot to kill President-elect Lincoln and travels aboard the train carrying the latter to stop the assassination attempt. Dick Powell starred.

6. “Far From the Madding Crowd” (1967) – John Schlesinger directed this adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel about a young Victorian woman torn between three men. The movie starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Peter Finch.

7. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (1966) – Sergio Leone directed this epic Spaghetti Western about three gunslingers in search of a cache of Confederate gold in New Mexico, during the Civil War. Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach starred.

8. “Cold Mountain” (2003) – Anthony Minghella directed this poignant adaptation of Charles Fraizer’s 1997 novel about a Confederate Army deserter, who embarks upon a long journey to return home to his sweetheart, who is struggling to maintain her farm, following the death of her father. The movie starred Oscar nominees Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, along with Oscar winner Renee Zellweger.

9. “Little Women” (1994) – Gillian Armstrong directed this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about four sisters from an impoverished, yet genteel New England family. The movie starred Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Christian Bale and Susan Sarandon.

10. “The Beguiled” (1971) – Clint Eastwood starred in this atmospheric adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel about a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at an all-girl boarding school in 1863 Mississippi. Directed by Don Siegel, the movie co-starred Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman.

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“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” (2003) Review

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS”. That is the name of this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1942 novel. Who would have thought that a story with a title straight from a nursery rhyme would lead me to view it as one of the best screen adaptations of a Christie novel I have ever seen?

I just gave the game away in the last paragraph, did I? I gave my opinion of “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” right off the bat. My recent viewing of “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” made me realize two things – a) it is a well-written and melancholic story with tragic overtones; and b) it is one of the finest Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Hmmm . . . I think I may have repeated myself. Well, I cannot help it. I feel that strongly about this movie.

The story began with Hercule Poirot receiving a visitor – a wealthy young woman from Canada named Lucy Lemarchant, who admitted to being the only child of a famous artist named Amyas Crale. According to her, Crale had been murdered fifteen years ago and Lucy’s mother, Caroline, ended up being arrested, convicted and executed for the murder. Years later, Lucy read a letter from Caroline in which the latter claimed her innocence. Despite his doubts, Poirot agreed to investigate Crale’s death. He ended up interviewing five other people who had been at the Crales’ house party fourteen years earlier – five people whom Poirot dubbed “the Five Little Pigs”:

*Phillip Blake – a stockbroker and old childhood friend of Amyas Crale
*Meredith Blake – a reclusive former amateur herbalist and Philip’s brother
*Elsa Greer (Lady Dittisham) – a spoiled society lady who had once been Crale’s mistress and subject
*Angela Warren – a disfigured archaeologist and Caroline Crale’s younger sister
*Cecilia Williams – Lucy and Angela’s devoted governess

“FIVE LITTLE PIGS” turned out to be one of those rare Agatha Christie stories in which most of the drama occurred in distant past. What started as a cold case involving the murder of a philandering, yet talented artist, ended as a tale of sad regrets and family tragedy. This was emphasized in the movie’s finale with one last flashback featuring Crayle and Caroline enjoying happier times with their daughter before murder and tragedy struck. That last scene made me realize that the murderer – in an act of emotion – had not only killed the artist, but destroyed a family.

Another one of the movie’s major assets turned out to be its cast. David Suchet gave his usual competent portrayal of Belgian-born sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But I must admit that one of his finest moments – not only in the movie, but during the entire series – came when he exposed the murderer. Suchet did an excellent job of revealing Poirot’s emotional outrage toward the murderer, without any histrionics whatsoever.

There were certain cast members that I believe stood out. Toby Stephens gave a surprisingly poignant performance as Philip Blake, Aymas Crale’s boyhood friend, who harbored a secret passion for the painter. Julie Cox portrayed Aymas’ young mistress, Elsa Bell (the future Lady Dittisham) with an interesting mixture of arrogance and innocence. And Aidan Gillen’s portrayal of Aymas Crale as a self-involved, occasionally immature and passionate man seemed spot-on for a character that was supposed to be a talented artist. But my favorite performance came from Rachael Stirling, who portrayed Aymas’ long suffering wife, Caroline. The interesting thing about her performance – at least to me – was that she seemed to be at the center of the story. In the end, it was Stirling – along with Suchet – who carried the film. And she managed to do this with a very subtle performance.

I also have to give kudos to cinematographer Christopher Gunning for his lush photography in the 1920s flashbacks. And costume designer Sheena Napier did a solid job of creating costumes for two eras – the mid 1920s and the late 1930s/early 1940s. But the movie’s real gems turned out to be Kevin Elyot’s adaptation of Christie’s sad and tragic tale and Paul Unwin’s direction. Thanks to the both of them, “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” ended up being one of the best cinematic adaptations of an Agatha Christie novel I have ever seen.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

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“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

There have been two adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye”. Well . . . as far as I know. I have already seen the recent adaptation that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” series in 2009. Recently, I watched an earlier adaptation that aired on the BBC “MISS MARPLE” series in 1985.

Directed by Guy Slater, this earlier adaptation starred Joan Hickson as the story’s main sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The story begins in the London office of financier Rex Fortescue, who suddenly dies after drinking his morning tea. At first suspicion falls upon the employees of Fortescue’s firm. But the police coroner discovers that Fortescue had died from taxine, n alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree. Due to this discovery, Detective-Inspector Neele realizes that someone within the Foretescue household may have poisoned the financier during breakfast. Suspicion falls upon Fortescue’s second and much younger wife, Adele after Neele learns of her affair with a local golf pro at a resort. However, Adele is murdered during tea, via poison. Even worse, a third victim, a maid named Gladys Martin, is found in the garden, strangled to death and with a peg on her nose. After Adele and Gladys’ murders are reported by the media; Miss Marple, who used to be Gladys’ employer, pays a visit to the Fortescue home to discover the murderer’s identity among the list of suspects:

*Percival Fortescue – Rex’s older son, who was worried over the financier’s erratic handling of the family business
*Jennifer Fortescue – Percival’s wife, who disliked her father-in-law
*Lance Fortescue – Rex’s younger son, a former embezzler who had arrived home from overseas on the day of Adele and Gladys’ murders
*Patricia Fortescue – Lance’s aristocratic wife, who had been unlucky with her past two husbands
*Mary Dove – the Fortescues’ efficient and mysterious housekeeper
*Vivian Dubois – Adele’s lover and professional golf instructor
*Aunt Effie Ramsbottom – Rex’s fanatically religious ex-sister-in-law

Despite Inspector Neele’s initial inclination to dismiss the elderly Miss Marple, he comes to appreciate her help in solving the three murders.

I like “A POCKETFUL OF RYE”. I like it a lot. I have always been a fan of Christie’s 1953 novel. And if I must be honest, I also enjoyed the 2009 adaptation, as well. Originally, one would be inclined to believe that this earlier adaptation is more faithful to Christie’s novel. Surprisingly, it is not. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen eliminated at least three characters from the novel and changed the murderer’s fate in the end. Otherwise, this adaptation was pretty faithful. But it is not its faithfulness to Christie’s novel that made me enjoy this production. I have read plenty of first-rate novels that translated badly to the television or movie screen. Fortunately, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” does not suffer from this fate. At least not too much.

Overall, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” is an entertaining and solid story that left me intrigued. It is also one of the few Christie stories in which the revelation of the murderer’s identity left me feeling very surprised . . . and a little sad. However, even sadder was the third murder . . . that of Gladys Martin. She was the only one of the three victims that was likable. Not only did I find her death sad, but also cruel. But it was also good drama. The movie also featured some strong characterization that I believe enhanced the story. Between the interactions between the members of the Fortescue family members, the interactions between Miss Marple and Inspector Neele, and the interaction between the latter and his assistant Sergeant Hay; this production reeked with strong characterization.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” did have its problems. One, I thought the movie’s pacing dragged a bit, following the death of Rex Fortescue. And because of this, the story took its time in reaching Miss Marple’s arrival at the Fortescues’ home. Another problem with Bowen’s script is that it strongly hinted the killer’s identity before Miss Marple could to the police. This problem has been a problem with the Joan Hickson movies throughout its run. For me, the real problem with “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be the killer’s fate. Apparently, Bowen and director Guy Slater decided that Christie’s version of what happened to the murderer was not enough. Instead, they decided to kill off the murderer in a convoluted manner via a traffic accident. Frankly, I found Christie’s original version more emotionally satisfying.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s performances. Joan Hickson was top-notch as usual, as Jane Marple. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s very entertaining performance as Inspector Neele. I find it hard to believe that it took another 13 years or so for him to achieve stardom. There were three other performances that I truly enjoyed. One came from Rachel Bell, who was first-rate in her portrayal the victim’s enigmatic daughter-in-law. Selina Cadell’s portrayal of housekeeper Mary Dove proved to be just as enigmatic and impressive. Both Peter Davidson and Clive Merrison gave interesting performances as the two Fortescue brothers, Lance and Percival, who seemed such complete opposites of one another. I also enjoyed Fabia Drake, who gave an excellent performance as the victim’s religious, yet observant sister-in-law, Effie Ramsbottom. The movie also featured solid performances from Timothy West (whose appearance was sadly too brief), Annette Badland, Stacy Dorning, Jon Glover, Frances Low and Martyn Stanbridge.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be an entertaining and solid adaptation of Christie’s novel, thanks to director Guy Slater and screenwriter T.R. Bowen. The movie also featured excellent performances from a cast led by the always incomparable Joan Hickson. However, I do feel that the movie was somewhat marred by a slow pacing in the middle of the story and an early and unsatisfying revelation of the killer’s identity. Oh well. At least “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” was not a bust or even mediocre.

The 18th Century in Television

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Recently, I noticed there were a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 18th century. In fact, I managed to count at least six productions. Astounded by this recent interest in that particular century, I decided to list them below in alphabetical order:

THE 18TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

banished

1. “Banished” (BBC TWO) – I do not whether this is a miniseries or regular series, but it is basically about a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia; where British convicts and their Royal Navy marine guards and officers live. Russell Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and MyAnna Buring star.

black sails

2. “Black Sails” (STARZ) – Toby Stephens stars in this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”, about the adventures of Captain Flint.

book of negroes

3. “Book of Negroes” (CBC/BET) – This six-part miniseries is an adaptation of Lawrence Hill historical novel about a West African girl who is sold into slavery around the time of the American Revolution and her life experiences in the United States and Canada. Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent and Cuba Gooding, Jr. star.

outlander

4. “Outlander” (STARZ) – This series is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” book series about a 1940s woman who ends up traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland. Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies star.

poldark

5. “Poldark” (BBC ONE) – Aidan Turner and Elizabeth Tomlinson star in this new television adaptation of Winston Graham’s book series about a former British Army officer who returns home to Cornwall after three years fighting in the American Revolution.

sons of liberty

6. “Sons of Liberty” (HISTORY Channel) – Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall and Henry Thomas starred in this three-part miniseries about the Sons of Liberty political group and the beginning of the American Revolution.

turn - washington spies

7. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC) – Jamie Bell stars in this series about a pro-American spy ring operating on behalf of General George Washington during the American Revolution.

“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review

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“ANGELS AND INSECTS” (1995) Review

I never thought I would come around to writing this review. I have seen the 1995 movie, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” a good number of times during the past five years. Yet, I never got around to posting a review of this movie, until recently. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. Nor do I have any idea why I had finally decided to write that review.

Based upon A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella called “Morpho Eugenia”, “ANGELS AND INSECTS” tells the story of a poor naturalist named William Adamson, who returns home to Victorian England after having spent years studying the natural wildlife – especially insects – in the Amazon Basin. Despite losing all of his possession during a shipwreck, he manages to befriend a baronet named Sir Harald Alabaster, who is also an amateur insect collector and botanist. The latter hires William to catalog his specimen collection and assist his younger children’s governess the natural sciences.

William eventually falls for Sir Harald’s oldest daughter, Eugenia, who is mourning the suicide of her fiance. Both of them eventually become emotionally involved and decide to marry. Much to William’s surprise, both Sir Harald and Lady Alabaster seems encouraging of the match. The only member of the Alabaster family who is against their upcoming wedding is Sir Harald’s eldest child, the arrogant Edgar. Not only is the latter close to Eugenia, he believes that William is unworthy of his sister’s hand, due to having a working-class background. The marriage between William and Eugenia seemed to be a happily lustful one that produces five children (among them two sets of twins). But Eugenia’s hot and cold control over their sex life, a constantly hostile Edgar, William’s growing friendship to Lady Alabaster’s companion Matilda “Matty” Crompton, and William’s own disenchantment over his role as Sir Harald’s official assistant brings their marriage to a head after several years of marriage.

The film adaptation of Byatt’s novella seemed to be the brainchild of Philip and Belinda Haas. Both worked on the film’s screenplay, while Philip also served as the film’s director and Belinda served as both co-producer (there are three others) and film editor. From my perusal of many period drama blogs, I get the feeling that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is not very popular with many of the genre’s fans. On the other hand, many literary and film critics seemed to have a very high regard for it. Despite my love for the usual romantic costume drama, I must admit that my opinions of the 1995 film falls with the latter group. It is simply too well made and too fascinating for me to overlook.

There were times I could not tell whether “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is some look at the age of Victorian science exploration, the close study of an upper-class 19th century family, or a lurid tale morality. Now that I realize it, the movie is probably an amalgamation of them all, wrapped around this view on Darwinism and breeding – in regard to both the insect world and humans. The topic of breeding seemed to seep into the screenplay in many scenes. Some of them come to mind – Sir Harald and Edgar’s debate on the breeding of horses and other animals, William and Eugenia’s second encounter with moths in the manor’s conservatory, Sir Harald’s despairing rant on his declining usefulness within his own household, the reason behind Edgar’s hostility toward William, and the visual comparisons between the bees and the inhabitants of the Alabaster estate, with Lady Alabaster serving as some metaphor for an aging Queen bee on her last legs. The metaphor of the Queen bee is extended further into Eugenia. Not only does she assume her mother’s role as mistress of the house following the latter’s death; but like Lady Alabaster before her, gives birth to a growing number of blond-haired children. If a person has never seen “ANGELS AND INSECTS” before, he or she could follow both the script and cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman’s shots carefully to detect the clues that hint the cloistered degeneracy that seemed to unconsciously permeate the Alabaster household.

I cannot deny that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” is a gorgeous film to behold. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the film’s other producers did an excellent job in creating a visually stunning film with a bold and colorful look. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann, along with production designer Jennifer Kernke and Alison Riva’s art direction provided great contributions to the film’s visual style. But in my opinion, Paul Brown’s Academy Award nominated costume designs not only conveyed the film’s colorful visual style more than anything else, but also properly reflected the fashion styles of the early 1860s for women – including the growing penchant for deep, solid colors – as shown below:

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Adding to the movie’s rich atmosphere was Alexander Balanescu’s memorable score. I thought the composer did an excellent job of reflecting both the movie’s elegant setting and its passionate, yet lurid story.

As much as I enjoyed and admired “ANGELS AND INSECTS”, I believe it had its flaws. I understand why Philip Haas had opened the movie with shots of William Adamson socializing with inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle, juxtaposing with the Alabaster ball given in his honor. Is it just me or did Haas use white – probably British – actors to portray Amazonian natives? I hope I am wrong, but I fear otherwise. I also feel that the movie was marred by a slow pacing that nearly crawled to a halt. I cannot help but wonder if Haas felt insecure by the project he and his wife had embarked upon, considering that “ANGELS AND INSECTS” was his second motion picture after many years as a documentarian. Or perhaps he got caught up in his own roots as a documentarian, due to his heavy emphasis on the natural world being studied by William, Matty and the younger Alabaster children. In a way, I have to thank Balanescu’s score for keeping me awake during those scenes that seemed to drag.

I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and subtle performances. Mark Rylance, who has a sterling reputation as a stage actor, gave such a quiet and superb performance that I hope his reputation has extended to film. Kristin Scott-Thomas was equally superb as the Matty Crompton, Lady Alabaster’s very observant companion, who shared William’s interests in natural sciences. I have no idea what reputation Patsy Kensit has as an actress, but I certainly believe she gave an excellent performance as William’s beautiful and aristocratic wife, Eugenia Alabaster, whose hot and cold attitude toward her husband kept him puzzled. Jeremy Kemp gave one of his more complex andentertaining performances as William’s father-in-law, the amateur scientist Sir Harald Alabaster. Douglas Henshall had a difficult job in portraying the bullying Edgar Alabaster, who seemed to view William as both beneath contempt and something of a threat to his views of the world. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Saskia Wickham, Chris Larkin, Clare Redman and Annette Badlands.

Some fans of period drama might be taken aback by the graphic sexuality featured in the film, along with the story’s lurid topic. And director Philip Haas’ pacing might be a bit hard to accept. But I feel that enduring all of this might be worth the trouble. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the crew and a cast led by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit did an excellent in re-creating A.S. Byatt’s tale on the screen, and creating a first-rate movie in the end.