“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

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“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” (1981) Review

Some might find this hard to believe, but I used to be an avid viewer of PBS’s “MASTERPIECE THEATER” years ago. Even when I was a child. That is right. Even as a child, I was hooked on period dramas set in Great Britain’s past. One of the productions that I never forgot happened to be one that is rarely, if ever, discussed by period drama fans today – namely the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”.

“THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” is really a biopic – an adaptation of author Elspeth Huxley’s 1959 memoirs of her childhood in Kenya during the last year of the Edwardian Age . . . that last year before the outbreak of World War I. The story begins in 1913 when young Elspeth Grant and her mother Tilly arrive in British East Africa (now known as Kenya) to meet her father, Robin. The latter, who is a British Army veteran, has plans to establish a coffee plantation. The Grants encounter many problems in setting up their new home. With the help of a Boer big game hunter named Piet Roos, they hire a Kikuyu local named Njombo to serve as translator for any new workers. Two of those workers are another local of Masai/Kikuyu descent named Sammy, who serves as the Grants’ headman; and a Swahili cook named Juma. As life begins to improve for the Grants, they acquire new neighbors, who include a recently arrived couple named Hereward and Lettice Palmer, a Scottish-born former nurse named Mrs. Nimmo, a young and inexperienced farmer named Alec Wilson and a very dashing big game hunter named Ian Crawford. However, just as the Grants were learning to adjust to life in British East Africa, World War I begins and they are forced to adjust to a new future all over again.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as a pretty decent production. It is a beautiful series to look at, thanks to Ian Wilson’s cinematography. He did a marvelous job in recapturing the space and scope of Kenya. Yes, the miniseries was filmed on location. My only qualm is that Wilson may have used slightly inferior film stock. The production’s color seemed to have somewhat faded over the past twenty to thirty years. Roy Stannard’s art direction greatly contributed to the miniseries’ look. I can also say the same about Maggie Quigley’s costume designs. They looked attractive when the scene or moment called for borderline glamour. But Quigley remained mindful of her characters’ social standing, age and personalities. I feel that Stannard and Quigley, along with production managers Clifton Brandon and Johnny Goodman did a very good job in recapturing the look and feel of colonial pre-World War I East Africa. Let me clarify . . . colonial East Africa for middle-class Britons.

I might as well be frank. Many years had passed between the first and last times I saw “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. It took this recent viewing for me to realize that the production’s narrative was not as consistent as I had originally assumed it was. Let me put it another way . . . I found the narrative for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” a bit episodic. I tried to think of a continuous story arc featured in the miniseries, but I could only think of one – namely the love affair between Lettice Palmer, the wife of the Grants’ boorish neighbor; and big game hunter Ian Crawford. And this story arc only lasted between Episodes Three and Seven. Otherwise, the viewers experienced vignettes of the Grants’ one year in East Africa. And each vignette only seemed to last one episode. I must admit that I found this slightly disappointing.

There were some vignettes that enjoyed. I certainly enjoyed Episode One, which featured the Grants’ arrival in East Africa and their efforts to recruit help from the locals to establish their farm. I also enjoyed those episodes that featured the Grants and the Palmers’ efforts to kill a leopard; a major safari in which Tilly Grant, the Palmers and Ian Crawford participated in Episode Six; and the impact of World War I upon their lives in the miniseries’ final episode. However, I had some problems with other episodes. I found Episode Two, which featured young Elspeth’s rather strange New Year’s experiences nearly boring. Nearly. I must admit that some of the characters featured in that particular episode struck me as rather interesting. The episode that featured a personal quarrel between the Grants’ translator Njombo and their headman Sammy ended up pissing me off. It pissed me off because its resolution, namely an “Act of God” in the form Tilly, struck me as a typical example of European condescension . . . even in the early 1980s.

The performances for “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” struck me as pretty first-rate. I rather enjoyed Hayley Mills and David Robb’s performances as young Elspeth’s parents, Tilly and Robin Grant. Although both actors came off as likable, they also did an excellent job in portraying Tilly and Robin’s less than admirable qualities . . . including an insidious form of bigotry. What I am trying to say is . . . neither Tilly or Robin came off as overt bigots. But there were moments when their prejudices managed to creep out of the woodwork, thanks to Mills and Robb’s subtle performances. Sharon Maughan and Nicholas Jones were also excellent as the Grants’ neighbors, Lettice and Hereward Palmer. It was easier for me to like the delicate and ladylike Lettice, even though there were times when she came of as self-absorbed. Jones’ Hereward struck me as somewhat friendly at first. But as the series progressed, the actor did a great job in exposing Hereward’s more unpleasant nature, which culminated in the safari featured in Episode Six. Ben Cross gave a charming and slightly virile performance as big game hunter Ian Crawford. But if I must be honest, the character was not exactly one of his more complex and interesting roles. But the one performance that shined above the others came from the then twelve year-old Holly Aird, who portrayed Elspeth Grant, the miniseries’ main character. Not only did Aird give a delightful performance, she also held her own with her much older cast mates. Quite an achievement for someone who was either eleven or twelve at the time.

There were other performances in “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” that I found impressive. Carol MacReady was entertaining as the somewhat narrow-minded Mrs. Nimmo. Mick Chege gave a charming performance as the always cheerful and popular . David Bradley’s portrayal of young neighbor Alec struck me as equally charming. Paul Onsongo gave a solid performance as the Grants’ major domo/cook Juma. However, Onsongo’s last scene proved to be very complex and interesting when Juma discovered that he could not accompany the Grants back to Britain. One of the series’ most interesting performances came from William Morgan Sheppard, who portrayed Boer big game hunter, Piet Roos. The interesting aspect of Sheppard’s performance is that although he conveyed Roos’ more unpleasant and racist side in Episode One, he did an excellent in winning the audience’s sympathy as his character dealt with the more unpleasant Hereward Palmer during the leopard hunt in Episode Five. Another interesting performance came from Steve Mwenesi as the Grants’ headsman, Sammy. Mwenesi did an excellent job in portraying the very complex Sammy. The latter seemed so cool and subtle. Yet, Mwenesi also made audiences aware of Sammy’s emotions by utilizing facial expressions and his eyes.

Overall, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA” was an entertaining production that gave audiences a peek into the lives of colonial Britons during the last year of peace before the outbreak of World War I. Realizing that the story deal with members of the British middle-class and the Kikuyu and Swahili locals, the production team ensured that the miniseries was rich in atmospheric details without over-glamorizing the setting and costumes. And although the miniseries’ narrative came off as somewhat episodic, I also managed to enjoy the performances of a first-rate cast led by Hayley Mills, David Robb and an enchanting Holly Aird.

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Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

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September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“STAR TREK” (2009) Review

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“STAR TREK” (2009) Review

Many fans of the STAR TREK franchise seemed to be in agreement that its last television series – “ENTERPRISE” (2001-2005) – had more or less killed the franchise. That opinion proved to be false with the release of the 2009 film – “STAR TREK”, directed by J.J. Abrams.

This latest installment in the franchise is about the early years of the U.S.S. Enterprise NCC-1701 from “THE ORIGINAL SERIES” (1966-1969). In other words, the movie is about how James T. Kirk became captain of the Enterprise and Spock, its first officer. What made this particular story unique is that the film’s opening sequence – an attack upon the Federation starship, U.S.S. Kelvin in 2233 led to an alternate timeline for the rest of the film.

When a supernova threatened the galaxy in 2387 (nine years after the U.S.S. Voyager’s return to Earth), Ambassador Spock piloted a ship carrying “red matter” that can create a gravitational singularity, drawing the supernova into a black hole. Before Spock completed his mission, the supernova destroyed the planet Romulus. Captain Nero of the Romulan mining ship Narada blamed Spock and the Federation for his planet’s destruction and its inhabitants, which included his wife and unborn child; and attempted to exact revenge on Spock. But both ships are caught in the black hole’s event horizon and travel to different points in the past. The Narada arrived first in 2233 and attacked the Kelvin. The attack resulted in the death of the Kelvin’s commander, Richard Robau and first officer Lieutenant George Kirk; and James T. Kirk’s birth aboard a shuttle fleeing from the damaged starship. The rest of the movie featured both Kirk and Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) early years, their subsequent first meeting at Starfleet Academy and their clashes aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, commanded by Captain Christopher Pike. Meanwhile, Nero has survived and 25 years following Kirk’s birth, is still seeking to exact revenge upon Spock.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman penned an adventure filled with time travel, plenty of action and characterization. Which is not surprising, considering that the story strongly reminded me of the Season Four episode from “STAR TREK: VOYAGER” (1995-2001), (4.08-4.09) “Year of Hell”. But there were differences. Whereas ”Year of Hell”dealt with the moral ramifications of time travel, “STAR TREK” merely revealed what happened after the timeline was changed. After all, it is more action oriented than the majority of TREK episodes. I had no problems with that. Somewhat. But this slight difference deprived the movie of the depth found in “Year of Hell”. And I did have problems with other aspects of Orci and Kurtzman’s script.

First of all, I want to point out one thing. This alternate reality or timeline created by Orci and Kurtzman has its origins in the arrival of the Narada – and Nero, to the year 2233, 154 years before his time. His arrival marked the destruction of the U.S.S. Kelvin, along with Robaud and George Kirk. But it is Kirk’s birth aboard the shuttle where the movie hit its first snag. Many TREK fans pointed out that James Kirk had been born in Iowa, not aboard a Starfleet vessel or one of its shuttles. Robert Orci replied that Kirk would have been born in Iowa if Nero had not arrived from the late 24th century and attacked the Kelvin. I say . . . bullshit to that. Why? One, Winona Kirk was never a Starfleet officer in the original timeline. This has been supported in “THE ORIGINAL SERIES”. And Nero’s arrival would have NOT changed that. She had no business being aboard the Kelvin . . . even before Nero’s arrival. Two, crewman families were not allowed aboard Starfleet ships, until the 24th century. Orci and Kurtzman also failed to hint that Kirk had an older brother named Sam. Another problem I had with the film was the manner in which Kirk joined Starfleet Academy. At a bar near Kirk’s home in Iowa, Captain Pike urged him to apply for the Academy, claiming that Kirk would attain an officer’s commission within four years and command of a starship within eight. So, what does Kirk do? He shows up at a Starbase the following morning on his motorbike . . . without even encountering one sign of security. Then he boards a shuttle for San Francisco . . . just like that. He never even submitted an application. Nor was he wearing the uniform of an Academy cadet. Come to think of it, neither did Leonard McCoy. Was this Starfleet’s idea of military discipline in the mid-23rd century? What the hell was this, anyway?

Within three years, Kirk is close to completing his Academy training. Yet, he ended up getting into trouble, when he passed the Kobayashi Maru test by cheating. When Starfleet receives a distress signal from Vulcan regarding a lightning storm in space, the cadets are mobilized to help the Starfleet ships in orbit. Kirk is unable to join this expedition due to being suspended from the Academy. I have two problems with this scene. One, why on earth was it necessary for Starfleet to mobilize so many cadets for a distress signal over a lightning storm in Vulcan space? Two, no one inside the U.S.S. Enterprise’s Sick Bay bothered to questioned Kirk’s presence on board and McCoy ended up ordering others around, despite the fact that he was a mere cadet and not the ship’s Chief Medical Officer. In fact, where was the CMO before his death? And why was it so important for Uhura to join the Enterprise’s crew? She was a cadet. She was not supposed to be there on a permanent basis, in the first place. And could someone please tell me why the cadets assigned aboard the Enterprise were wearing the same uniforms as the regular crew . . . instead of cadet uniforms? They had not graduated from the Academy.

Upon reaching Vulcan space, the Enterprise finds the fleet destroyed and the Narada drilling into Vulcan’s core. Pike promotes Kirk to First Officer. Then he orders Kirk, Lieutenant Sulu and Chief Engineer Olson to an orbital skydive onto the Romulan drilling platform and destroy it before it can drill a hole into Vulcan’s core. Meanwhile, he would meet with Nero aboard the Narad. Unfortunately, Olson is killed during their dive. Kirk and Sulu are forced to fight Romulan miners aboard the drill platform before stopping the drill, using phasers. However, Nero manages to successfully drill the hole, drop the red matter into the planet’s core and destroy Vulcan. Spock transports to Vulcan to save his parents and the planet’s High Council. However, his mother, Amanda Grayson, is killed before she could be transported safely from the planet. Not only did I find this sequence, heavily contrived, I found it so unnecessary. Why was it necessary to promote Kirk to First Officer? Aside from identifying the lightning storm for what it was, he did nothing to earn that promotion. What was Amanda doing with the Vulcan High Council? And if Starfleet issued phasers could stop the drill, then why not the Enterprise’s phasers? If Captain Pike had simply ordered his Weapons Officer to fire at the drill, then perhaps it would have been destroyed before it reached Vulcan’s core. Alas . . . we are given this exciting, but contrived nonsense with a fight on the drill platform, the Chief Engineer and Amanda Grayson dead, Vulcan destroyed and Captain Pike a prisoner of Nero’s.

Chekov manages to transport Kirk and Sulu back to the Enterprise. Pike is tortured by Nero for information on Earth’s defenses. Meanwhile, Kirk (who is now First Officer) and Spock (the Acting Captain) have a quarrel on the Bridge about Spock’s decision to return to Starfleet. Kirk wants to go after Nero. During the quarrel, Spock has Kirk marooned on Delta Vega. There, Kirk has an encounter with snow monster straight out of ”STAR WARS” and meets the elder Ambassador Spock. Old Spock informs Kirk about what led Nero and himself to the 23rd century. He then leads Kirk to a Starbase, where they encounter engineer Montgomery Scott. I really disliked this sequence. Nero needed information on Earth’s defenses, but did not need the same for Vulcan’s defenses? And both planets were the premiere members of the Federation? And why maroon Kirk on some snow planet? Spock could have easily hauled the Human’s ass into the brig for insubordination. As for Kirk . . . what is this guy’s problem? Confronting the Captain on the Bridge? Kirk would have never tolerated any officer or crewman doing the same to him. Kirk’s monster encounter was a joke. And after meeting Old Spock, the latter reveals his knowledge of a nearby Starbase. Now, I really have a problem with this. Why did Spock fail to warn Starfleet about Nero? He was pulled into the 23rd century, captured and marooned on Delta Vega by Nero at least two days before Vulcan’s destruction. This was not merely a joke. This was criminal. And why was it imperative to transport Scotty to the Enterprise, along with Kirk? Without Starfleet knowing?

Before Spock transported Kirk and Scotty to the Enterprise, he informs Kirk that the latter needs to assume command of the Enterprise. Once aboard, Kirk deliberately enrages Spock to force him to acknowledge that he is emotionally compromised, thereby forfeiting command which then passes to Kirk. Here was another scene with which I had a problem. Kirk . . . should NOT have assumed command of the Enterprise when Spock removed himself as captain. You see, Kirk had been relieved of duty by Spock before the latter marooned the former on Delta Vega. And Kirk was never reinstated back to duty upon his return to the Enterprise. Nor do I recall Spock deliberately handing over command to Kirk. Whoever was acting as Spock’s first officer during Kirk’s adventures on Delta Vega, should have assumed command. Not Kirk.

Spock, Scott, and Chekov devise a plan to ambush the Narada by dropping out of warp behind Saturn’s moon, Titan. Kirk and Spock beam aboard the Narada. While Kirk rescues Pike, Spock retakes the elder Spock’s ship, destroys the drill and lures the Narada away from Earth before piloting a collision course. The Enterprise arrives and beams Kirk, Pike, and Spock away before the collision, which ignites the remaining red matter and creates a black hole within the Narada’s superstructure. Kirk offers to help rescue Nero and his crew, but the Romulan refuses and the Narada is destroyed. The Enterprise escapes the same fate by ejecting and igniting the ship’s warp drive reactor cores, the resulting explosion pushing them clear. Why were Chekov and Scotty needed to devise a plan to ambush the Narada in the first place? What was Scotty doing on the Bridge? What was he doing aboard the Enterprise? He was not an official member of the crew. And could someone please explain how Spock managed to fly a starship that was 154 years ahead of his time? Who was in command of the Enterprise, while Kirk and Spock were aboard the Narada?

The movie ends with Kirk receiving adulation by Starfleet for his actions against Nero and command of the Enterprise. Spock decides to remain in Starfleet and become the Enterprise’s First Officer. God, I hate this. What exactly did Kirk do in this movie, besides act like a complete asshole? Well, he did rescue Captain Pike. But the latter also assisted in the rescue. It was Spock who came up with the plan to ambush the Narada. It was the person in command of the Enterprise who prevented Spock from being blown to bits by Romulan missiles, while he was inside Old Spock’s ship. It was Spock who destroyed the Narada. Sulu’s flying and Scotty’s engineering skills prevented the Enterprise from being destroyed by the black hole that destroyed the Narada. Why in the hell would Starfleet give most of the credit to Kirk? How in the hell did a cadet, who had yet to graduate, end up with command of Starfleet’s flagship? What kind of military organization is this?

I had one last problem with the movie . . . namely one Pavel Chekov. In the original timeline, Chekov was born in 2245, which would have made him thirteen years old in this movie. According to one of the screenwriters, Roberto Orci, Nero’s appearance in the past caused a ripple effect, allowing Chekov to be born four years earlier in 2241. God, how lame! I suppose one could accept this explanation. But how does one explain Chekov’s transformation from an intelligent and competent Starfleet junior officer to a child prodigy? I really cannot see how a time ripple effect could change a character’s personality traits. Not to that degree.

The movie’s only strengths proved to be the characters originally created by Gene Roddenberry, and the cast of actors hired to portray them in this film. Both Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto did excellent jobs in creating the genesis of the Kirk/Spock friendship. They also managed to re-capture the essence of both characters without parodying William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy’s past performance. Zoe Saldaña’s Nyota Uhura seemed a little more fiery than Nichelle Nichols’ interpretation, but I thought she was great as the Communications officer. Her only misstep was that she had been forced to attempt some kind of romantic chemistry with Quinto. And as I had stated earlier, both were doomed to fail, due to the characters they were portraying. And so was Karl Urban as Leonard McCoy. Granted there were moments when he seemed to be aping DeForrest Kelly, but I had enjoyed his performances so much that I tolerated those moments. John Cho was deliciously cool and slightly sardonic as Sulu. And I thought it was a great touch that the screenwriters remembered Sulu’s penchant for fencing . . . and used it in a great fight scene. Anton Yelchin made a charming and energetic Chekov with probably a more authentic Russian accent than Walter Koenig. However, I found his role as a 17 year-old commissioned Starfleet officer rather questionable, considering that Chekov has never been portrayed as some kind of “boy genius” like Wesley Crusher. I hate to say this, but I found Simon Pegg’s interpretation of Montgomery “Scotty” Scott disappointing and rather annoying. Pegg tried to infuse the character with a lot of broad humor. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too broad. His Scotty was so over-the-top that I found myself longing for another character to shoot him with a phaser.

I had seen “THE ORIGINAL SERIES” pilot episode, (1.01) “The Cage” only once in my life. Which means I have vague memories of the late Jeffrey Hunter’s portrayal of Christopher Pike, Kirk’s predecessor aboard the Enterprise. However, I thought that Bruce Greenwood’s portrayal of Pike in the movie to be definitely memorable. Clifton Collins Jr. gave admirable support as Nero’s henchman, Ayel. Both Winona Ryder and especially Ben Cross were believable as Spock’s parents – Amanda Grayson and Ambassador Sarek. I would not exactly call Nero one of the best villains in the TREKfranchise. But I must admit that Eric Bana had given it his all with a performance that infused the character with a great deal of passion, malice and complexity without going over-the-top. Last, but not least, there was Leonard Nimoy portraying the late 24th century Spock. There were times when Nimoy seemed to be struggling with the role due to his age (he was at least 77 years old when the movie was filmed). Fortunately, these moments were very few and his Spock was a warm and more matured character who finally seemed to be a peace with his mixed heritage.

Look . . . I will admit that “STAR TREK” had a lot of exciting action sequences. And some of the performances seemed top-notch. But upon second viewing, I discovered that I disliked Daniel Mindel’s photography. I especially disliked the fact that most of the scenes seemed to have been shot with close-ups. I disliked the new transporter style that featured swirling circles. But what I realized that I disliked the most was the script penned by Orci and Katzman. Not only did I disliked the fact that they used an alternate timeline plot device to stray away from the franchise’s original continuity; I disliked that they used badly written plot holes to achieve this goal. “STAR TREK” might have been considered one of the best movie of the 2009 summer season. But in my opinion, it was the lesser movies I had seen during that particular.

“THE FAR PAVILIONS” (1984) Review

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“THE FAR PAVILIONS” (1984) Review

Thirty-four years ago saw the publication of an international best seller about a young British Army officer during the British Raj in 19th century India. The novel’s success not brought about a not-so-successful musical stage playin 2005, but also a six-part television miniseries, twenty-one years earlier. 

Directed by Peter Duffell for HBO, “THE FAR PAVILIONS” tells the story of Ashton “Ash” Pelham-Martyn, the only son of prominent British botanist Hillary Pelham-Martyn and his wife in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains in 1853. After his mother dies of childbirth, Ashton is mainly raised by his ayah (nurse) Sita, who is a part of his father’s retinue. Cholera takes the lives of all members of the Pelham-Martyn camp some four years later, with the exception of Ash and Sita. The latter tries to deliver Ash to his mother’s family in Mardan, but the uprising of the Sepoy Rebellion leads her to adopt the slightly dark-skinned Ash as her son. Both eventually take refuge in the kingdom of Gulkote. While Ash forgets about his British ancestry, he becomes the servant for Crown Prince Lalji and befriends the neglected Princess Anjuli, Master of Stables Koda Dad, and his son Zarin. Ashton eventually leaves Gulkote after learning from the dying Sita about his true ancestry. After reaching his relatives in Mardan, Ash is sent back to Great Britain to live with his Pelham-Martyn relations. Within less than a decade, he returns to India as a newly commissioned British Army. Not only does he make new acquaintances, but also renews old ones – including the Princess Anjuli.

British costume dramas have always been popular with American television and movie audiences for decades. But aside from the Jane Austen phenomenon between 1995 and 2008, there seemed to be an even bigger demand for period pieces from the U.K. during the 1980s . . . a major consequence from the popular royal wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. HBO and Peter Duffell took M.M. Kaye’s 1978 bestseller and transformed it into a miniseries filled with six one-hour episodes. Aside from a few changes, “THE FAR PAVILIONS” was more or less a television hit. And in many ways, it was easy to see why.

First of all, Kaye’s story about a forbidden love story between a British Army officer viewed as an outsider by most of his fellow Britons and an Indian princess with a touch of European blood (Russian) was bound to appeal to the most romantic. Add an epic trek across the Indian subcontinent (in the form of a royal wedding party), action on the North West frontier and a historical event – namely the start of the Second Anglo-Afghan War – and one is faced with a costumed epic of the most romantic kind. And I am flabbergasted at how the story managed to criticize the British presence in both India and Afghanistan, and at the same time, glorify the military aspect of the British Empire. If I must be honest, M.M. Kaye not only wrote a pretty damn good story, but she and screenwriter Julian Bond did a solid job in adapting the novel for television.

Now, I said solid, not excellent. Even the most first-rate miniseries is not perfect, but I feel that “THE FAR PAVILIONS” possessed flaws that prevented it from being the superb production it could have been. The miniseries’ main problem seemed to be its look. I had no problems with Robert W. Laing’s production designs. His work, along with George Richardson’s art direction, Jack Cardiff’s superb cinematography, and Hugh Scaife’s set decorations superbly brought mid-to-late 19th century British India to life. I was especially impressed by the crew’s re-creation of the Rana of Bhithor’s palace, the cantonments for the Corps of Guides regiment and the royal wedding procession for the Rana of Bhitor’s brides – Princess Shushila and Princess Anjuli of Karidkote (formerly Gulkote). For a miniseries that cost $12 million dollars to produce, why shoot it on such poor quality film, whose color seemed to have faded over the past two or three decades? It seemed criminal that such a lush production was shot on film of bad quality.

As much as I admired Bond and Kaye’s adaptation of the latter’s novel, there were two aspects of their script that annoyed me. One, the screenplay skipped one of the novel’s best parts – namely Ash’s childhood in Gulkote. Instead, the story of his birth, early travels with Sita and his time in Gulkote were revealed in a montage that served as backdrop for the opening credits. And I was not that impressed at how the script handled Ash’s early romance with a young English debutante named Belinda Harlowe. I found it rushed and unsatisfying. More importantly, the entire sequence seemed like a waste of Felicity Dean and Rupert Everett’s (who played Ash’s doomed rival George Garforth) time. And some of the dialogue for the romantic scenes between Ash and Juli struck me as so wince inducing that it took me a while to unclench my teeth after the scenes ended.

I had other problems with “THE FAR PAVILIONS”. The casting of American actress Amy Irving as the adult Princess Anjli (“Juli”) produced a “what the hell?” response from me when I first saw the miniseries. That startled feeling remained after my last viewing. Irving simply seemed miscast in the role, despite a decent performance from her and her solid chemistry with lead actor Ben Cross. Another role that failed to match with the performer was that of British military administrator, Sir Louis Cavagnari, portrayed by John Gielgud. Cavagnari was 39 years old, when he met his death at the British mission in Kabul, Afghanistan. Gielgud was 79 to 80 years old when he portrayed the military officer . . . naturally too old for the role. The makeup department tried to take years off the actor with hair dye and make-up. Let us just say that Amy Irving was more convincing as an Indian princess than Gielgud was as a character 40 years his junior.

Aside from my quibbles about the casting of Amy Irving and John Gielgud, I have no complaints about the rest of the cast. Ben Cross did a superb job in his portrayal of the hot tempered and impatient Ashton Pelham-Martyn. Ash has always been a frustrating character for me. Although I sympathized with his feelings and beliefs, his occasional bursts of impatience and naiveté irritated me. And Cross perfectly captured all of these aspects of Ash’s nature. Despite my strong belief that she was miscast, I cannot deny that Amy Irving gave a subtle and well acted performance as Princess Anjuli. But I could never accuse Omar Sharif of being miscast. He did a superb job in his portrayal of the wise and very witty horsemaster of Gulkote/Karidkote, Koda Dad. Sharif made it easy to see why Ash came to regard Koda Dad as more of a father figure than any other older male. Although I believe that Irving was miscast as Princess Anjuli, I was surprised at how impressed I was by Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Anjuli’s uncle, Prince Kaka-ji Rao. The Anglo-Spanish actor did an excellent job of portraying a character from a completely different race. I suspect the secret to Lee’s performance was that he did not try so hard to sell the idea of him being an Indian prince. And Saeed Jaffrey was superb as the effeminate, yet manipulate and murderous courtier, Biju Ram. It seemed a pity that the miniseries did not explore Ash’s childhood. Audiences would have been able to enjoy more of Jaffrey’s performance.

Sneh Gupta was excellent as childishly imperious and self-absorbed Princess Shushila, Juli’s younger sister. She did a first-rate job of transforming Shushila from a sympathetic character to a childishly imperious villainess. Robert Hardy gave a solid performance as the Commandant of the Guides. Benedict Taylor was charming and outgoing as Ash’s only military friend, Walter “Wally” Hamilton. I really do not know how to describe Rosanno Brazzi’s performance as the Rana of Bhithor. I feel that too much makeup made it difficult for me to get a grip on his character. I was surprised to see Art Malik as Koda Dad’s son, Zarin. But his role did not seem big enough to produce a comment from me. Rupert Everett was excellent as George Garforth, the British civil servant with a secret to hide. Unfortunately, I was less than impressed with the miniseries’ portrayal of the story line in which he played a part.

I realize that “THE FAR PAVILIONS” has a good number of strikes against it. But its virtues outweighed its flaws. And in the end, it proved to be an entertaining miniseries, thanks to the lush production and the first-rate cast led by Ben Cross.