“VANITY FAIR” (1987) Review

“VANITY FAIR” (1987) Review

I found myself wondering how many adaptations of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847-1848 novel there have been. As it turned out, this is one piece of literature that has been adapted countless number of times – in film, radio and television. I have seen at least five adaptations myself. And one of them turned out to be the sixteen-part television miniseries that aired on the BBC in 1987.

Since Thackeray’s novel is a very familiar tale, I will give a brief recount. Adapted by Alexander Baron and directed by Michael Owen Morris, “VANITY FAIR” told the story of one Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, an impoverished daughter of an English art teacher and French dancer in late Georgian Britain. Determined to climb her way out of poverty and into society, Becky manages to befriend Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant. When both finally graduate from Miss Pinkerton’s School for Girls, Becky is invited to spend some time with Amelia’s family, before she has to assume duties as a governess to the daughters of a minor baronet and landowner named Sir Pitt Crawley. During her time with the Sedleys, she almost manages to snare Amelia’s older brother, Jos, a “nabob” from India, as a husband. But the interference of George Osborne, the son of another merchant who happens to Amelia’s heart desire, leaves Becky single and employment as a governess. However, upon her arrival at Queen’s Crawley, the Crawleys’ estate, Becky’s charm and wiles inflict a shake-up with the family that would influence lives for years to come.

While viewing “VANITY FAIR”, it occurred to me that it is really a product of its time. Although not completely faithful to Thackeray’s novel, it struck me as being more so than any adaptation I have seen. Most literary adaptations on television tend to be rather faithful – at least between the 1970s and the 1990s. Especially during the decade of the 1980s. Another sign of this miniseries being a product of its age is the quality of its photography. It is rather faded – typical of many such productions during the 1970s and 1980s. But for me, complete faithfulness to a literary source is not a true sign of the quality of a television adaptation. Nor the quality of the film it was shot on. So, how do I feel about “VANITY FAIR”?

Remember the miniseries’ faded look I had commented upon? I really wish it had been shot on better film stock. Stuart Murdoch and Mickey Edwards’ visual effects struck me as too eye-catching to be wasted on film stock that quickly faded with time. Another problem I had proved to be the episode that centered around the Battle of Waterloo. I realize that it would make sense for the most of episode’s narrative to be told from Becky Sharp Crawley’s point of view. Yet, considering that it was able to feature the discovery of one dead character on the battlefield, I wish the episode had been willing to embellish the sequence a bit more. The sequence featured a great deal on Becky and Amelia saying good-bye to their respective spouses, along with Becky bargaining with Jos Sedley over her husband’s horses. Overall, the entire sequence . . . nearly the entire episode seemed to lack a sense of urgency over the entire Waterloo campaign and how it affected the main characters. I have one last complaint about “VANITY FAIR” . . . namely the Maquis of Steyne. To be honest, my complaint against him is rather minor. I have a complaint against his physical appearance. Thanks to Lesley Weaver’s makeup, I could barely make out actor John Shrapnel’s features. He seemed to be a whole mass of hair and whiskers plastered on a slightly reddish countenance.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed how the production went into full detail of Thackeray’s novel. Was it completely faithful? I rather doubt it. I noticed how Alexander Baron’s screenplay did not adhere to Thackeray’s rather nasty portrayal of non-white characters such as Miss Schwartz. Thankfully. On the other hand, Baron, along with director Michael Owen Morris did an excellent job in their portrayals of the novel’s main characters – especially Rebecca Sharp, Rawdon Crawley, Amelia Sedley, Jos Sedley, George Osborne, Mr. Osborne and William Dobbin. I will be honest. My favorite segments of the production . . . are basically my favorite segments of the novel. I enjoyed the production’s re-creation of Becky’s story that began with her departure from Miss Pinkerton’s School for Girls to hers and Amelia’s adventures during the Waterloo campaign.

Despite the miniseries’ limited photography, I must admit there are other aspects of “VANITY FAIR” that impressed me. I enjoyed Gavin Davies and Sally Engelbach’s production designs. Both did an admirable of re-creating the production’s setting of early 19th century Britain, Belgium, France and Germany. They were ably assisted by set decorations created by the art department, led by David Ackrill and Tony Fisher. But I really must commend Joyce Hawkins’ costume designs. I found them colorful and tailor-made. I also thought Ms. Hawkins did an excellent job in her re-creation of the early 19th century fashions.

There is one segment in Thackeray’s story I found difficult to enjoy – namely Becky’s rise in British society, her relationship with the Maquis of Steyne, the exposure of her as a cold parent and ending with the destruction of her marriage to Rawdon. It is not the fault of Baron, Morris or Thackeray. It is simply my least favorite part of the story. During this segment, Becky transformed from a morally questionable anti-heroine to an outright villainess. Perhaps this is why I found it difficult to revel in Becky’s eventual fall. One, I found this portrayal of Becky a bit too one-dimensional for my tastes. Two, there seemed to be this underlying theme in Becky’s downfall that she deserved it for being too ambitious, not knowing her place and not being the ideal woman. I realize that I should sweep these feelings away in the wake of her last crime. But for some reason, I cannot. A part of me wonders, to this day, if Thackeray had went too far in this transformation of Becky’s character.

I did not have a problem with the performances featured in “VANITY FAIR”. If I must be honest, I found them to be very competent. Morris handled his cast very well. The miniseries featured solid performances from Fiona Walker, Shaughan Seymour, Gillian Raine, Tony Doyle, Malcolm Terris, Vicky Licorish, Eileen Colgan, Irene MacDougall, Alan Surtees, and David Horovitch. I also enjoyed the performances from the likes of Freddie Jones, who made a very lively Sir Pitt Crawley; John Shrapnel, who gave an intimidating portrayal of the Maquis of Steyne, underneath the makeup and wig; Siân Phillips, who struck me as a very entertaining Matilda Crawley; David Swift, whose portrayal of Mr. Sedley seemed to reek with pathos; and Philippa Urquhart, who was excellent as the malleable Mrs. Briggs.

But there were those performances that truly impressed me. Robert Lang gave an excellent performance as the ruthless and ambitious Mr. Osborne, who seemed to be handicapped by his own stubborness. Benedict Taylor did a superb job in portraying the varied nature of George Osborne – his charm, his shallowness and selfish streak. James Saxon was equally impressive as the insecure, yet vain Joseph “Jos” Sedley. Simon Dormandy gave a very complex and skillful performance as the priggish William Dobbin, a character I have always harbored mixed feelings about. I personally think that Jack Klaff made the best on-screen Rawdon Crawley I have seen on-screen, so far. Although his character has always been described as an affable, yet empty-headed man who eventually realized he had married a woman beyond his depth. Klaff did an excellent job of conveying those traits more than actor I have seen in the role.

Rebecca Saire seemed perfectly cast as the demure, yet shallow Amelia Sedley, who spent years infatuated with a man she never really knew or understood. It is not often I find an actress who does an excellent of portraying a girl in a woman’s body, who at the end, is forced to grow up due to an unpleasant realization. If Saire seemed perfectly cast as the childish Amelia, Eve Matheson struck me as even more perfect as the charming and manipulative Rebecca Sharp. Unlike other actresses who have portrayed Becky, I would never describe Matheson as a beauty, despite being physically attractive. What I found impressive about Matheson’s performance is the manner in which she conveyed Becky’s ability to charm and seduce others, utilizing her eyes, mannerisms, the ability to cry on cue and her voice. Matheson managed to portray Becky as the most desirable woman around.

I have never seen another on screen Becky Sharp who managed to ooze charm and seduction the way Matheson did. And yet, she also managed to convey Becky’s unpleasant side without being theatrical about it. Someone had once described Matheson’s Beck as “spunky”. Oh please. Spunky? The 1987 Rebecca Sharp was a lot more than that, thanks to Matheson’s performance. Dammit, the woman should have received some kind of award for her performance. She was that good.

I have a few quibbles about “VANITY FAIR”. Basically, I wish the miniseries had been shot on better film stock. And I wish that the Waterloo sequence had been a bit more . . . embellished. Otherwise, I feel that this 1987 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel is the best I have seen so far. I am flabbergasted at how close I came to ignoring this production altogether.

“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.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999) Review

 

“STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE” (1999) Review

Sixteen years after the 1983 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI” hit the movie screens, producer-director George Lucas returned to the world of STAR WARS for a new trilogy that depicted the years before the 1977-1983 movies, starting with the 1999 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE I – THE PHANTOM MENACE”.

“THE PHANTOM MENACE” was received very poorly by critics and veteran STAR WARS fans when it was first released in 1999. Many believed that it failed to capture the spirit of Lucas’ saga first established in the first three films. Despite the negative opinions, the movie proved to be a blockbuster champion at the box office. But public opinion of the movie in the following thirteen years remained negative. In fact, public opinion has not been that kind to the two movies that followed. When Lucas announced his intentions to re-release “THE PHANTOM MENACE” in 3D, many either wondered why he would bother or accused the producer of trying to milk the STAR WARS cash cow even further. As for me, I received the news with mixed feelings. When the movie was first released in 1999, I must admit that I enjoyed it very much, even though I would never view it as one of my top favorite STAR WARS movies. On the other hand, I despise the 3D process. I despised the use of it in movies like 2009’s “AVATAR” and my feelings for it had not changed when I last saw it used for “THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER”. But my love for STAR WARS overcame my distaste for 3D and I went to see the movie.

Like other STAR WARS, this one began in a galaxy, far, far away . . . thirty-two years before the events of the 1977 movie. Instead of an empire, this story is set during the Old Republic in which knights and masters of the religious Jedi Order serve as “the guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy” on behalf of the Republic Senate. A Jedi Master named Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice (or padawan) have been dispatched by the Senate’s Chancellor Finis Valorum to negotiate a peace between the planet Naboo and the Trade Federation, an organization who has decided to establish a blockade of battleships in response to a taxation on trade routes. The Federation has made this move on the “advice” of their partner, a Sith Lord (and enemy of the Jedi) named Darth Sidious. Unfortunately for Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, the Trade Federation attempt to kill them on the order of Darth Sidious. Both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan escape from the Trade Federation battleship and make their way to Naboo’s surface, during the former’s invasion of the planet. The pair enlists the help of Jar-Jar Binks and his fellow Gungans (Naboo’s underwater inhabitants) to reach Queen Padme Amidala, the planet’s 14 year-old ruler. They save her and her entourage, before making their escape from Naboo. Due to a failing power converter, the entire party make an emergency landing on the remote Tatooine in order to find the parts to fix the ship. In one of Tatooine’s major cities, Mos Espa; Qui-Gon, Padme (who is disguised as a royal handmaiden), and Jar-Jar meet a young slave boy named Anakin Skywalker. It is not long before Qui-Gon Their meeting will prove to not only have major consequences on the outcome between Naboo and the Trade Federation, but also upon the galaxy.

My recent viewing of “THE PHANTOM MENACE” made me realize that after 13 years, I still love the movie. Nothing has changed my view of the movie, including the addition of the 3D effects. However, I cannot deny that “THE PHANTOM MENACE” is perfect. I have my complaints. My major complaint was Lucas’ addition of the 3D effects. They were not impressive. I had expected them to be, considering the outstanding 3D effects of the updated STAR WARS attractions at the Disney amusement parks. But the movie’s effects proved to be a poor comparison and a not-so-surprising disappointment. My second complaint centered around the use of Tatooine as a setting. In fact, the saga’s use of Tatooine has proven to be a major disappointment since the first movie, 1977’s “A NEW HOPE”. Aside from a few sequences, Tatooine proved to be a major bore. After Qui-Gon and Padme‘s first meeting with Anakin, I had to struggle to stay awake before the podrace sequence. Lucas’ slow pacing and John Williams’ less-than-stellar score nearly put me to sleep. The only movie in which Tatooine proved to be interesting from start to finish was 2002’s “ATTACK OF THE CLONES”. I realize that many STAR WARS fans dislike the Gungans and specifically, one Jar-Jar Binks. There are times that I feel I could write a detailed essay on the fans’ dislike of Jar-Jar, but this is not the time or place for such an article. Although I harbor no dislike of Jar-Jar, there were a few times when I had some difficulty understanding his and the other Gungans’ dialogue.

It may not be perfect, but I cannot deny that I found “THE PHANTOM MENACE” enjoyable as ever. George Lucas wrote a complex, yet comprehensive tale that set in motion the downfall of the Galactic Republic, the Jedi Order and most of the major characters. “THE PHANTOM MENACE” offered a great deal for all ages and tastes. It provided a complex political tale that culminated in an exciting military battle that freed Naboo from the clutches of the Trade Federation. It provided an exciting duel between the two Jedi – Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan – and Sith Lord Darth Sidious’ apprentice, Darth Maul. The movie provided characters such as a nine year-old Anakin Skywalker, his Tatooine friends and Jar-Jar Binks for children. But the one thing that really impressed me was the exciting Boonta Eve Podrace that Anakin participated in order to win parts for Qui-Gon, Padme and their ship. In fact, if I had to choose my favorite sequence in the entire STAR WARS movie saga, it had to be the one featuring the podrace. This sequence began with the Skywalkers, Qui-Gon, Padme and Jar-Jar arriving at the Mos Espa arena and ended aboard the Nabooan starship when Qui-Gon introduced Anakin to Obi-Wan, following his brief duel with Darth Maul.

“THE PHANTOM MENACE” provided some solid acting, despite George Lucas’ cheesy dialogue. This is no surprise, considering that a combination of solid acting and cheesy dialogue has been the hallmark of STAR WARS movies since the first one in 1977. Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Ahmed Best, Hugh Quarshie, Terence Stamp, Andrew Secombe and Ray Parks all did solid work. It was nice to hear vocals from STAR WARS veterans Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker. The movie also featured brief moments for British stars such as Keira Knightley, Oliver Ford-Davies, Celia Imrie, Brian Blessed, and Richard Armitage. But there were a few performances that stood out. One came from Ian McDiarmid, who returned to portray Senator Palpatine of Naboo aka Darth Sidious for the second time in his career. Unlike his portrayal of Palpatine in 1983’s “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, his performance was a great deal more subtle and layered with much charm. Jake Lloyd may not have been the best child actor in existence, but I cannot deny that his Anakin Skywalker was like a ball of solar energy that charmed the pants off of me. The good-bye scene between Anakin and his mother, Shmi was one of the most poignant in the saga. Both Lloyd and Pernilla August did such a superb job that their performances brought tears to my eyes. And aside from a few wooden moments, I thought he handled the role rather well. But if I had to choose the best performance in the movie, I would select Liam Neeson as Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn. First of all, he did a great job in conveying Qui-Gon’s warmth and appeal. He made it easy for many to see why both Anakin and Obi-Wan viewed him as a father figure.

Since this is a STAR WARS movie, one might as well discuss the technical aspects of “THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Without a doubt, it is a beautiful looking movie. It was so beautiful that I did not know who to single out. But I can think of a few. First of all cinematographer David Tattersall did a beautiful job in photographing the movie’s locations of England, Tunisia and especially Italy. Thanks to Ben Burtt and Paul Martin Smith’s editing, the podrace and the Battle of Naboo proved to be two of the best sequences in the movie. And what can I say about Trisha Biggar’s dazzling costume designs? Just how beautiful are they? Take a look:

 

It seems a crime that Biggar’s work was never acknowledged by the Academy Arts of Motion Pictures and Sciences or the Golden Globes. At least she won a Saturn Award for the costumes in this movie.

However, it was George Lucas who put it altogether in the end. Twenty-two years had passed between the time he directed “A NEW HOPE” and “THE PHANTOM MENACE”. Personally, I thought he did a pretty damn good job. The 1999 movie was not perfect. And if I must be perfectly frank, I was not impressed by the movie’s 3D effects. But I am glad that I went to see “THE PHANTOM MENACE” in the movie theaters again. It reminded me that the STAR WARS had not lost its magic on the big screen.