Top Ten Favorite Movies Set Between 1750 and 1799

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set between 1750 and 1799: 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET BETWEEN 1750 AND 1799

1 - The Last of the Mohicans

1. “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) – Michael Mann directed what I believe is the best film adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 novel set during the Seven Years War. The movie starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, Wes Studi and Russell Means.

2 - Dangerous Liaisons

2. “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) – Stephen Frears directed this sumptuous Oscar nominated adaptation of screenwriter Christopher Hampton’s 1985 stage play, which was an adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel. The movie starred Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfieffer.

3 - Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

3. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) – Ang Lee directed this superb Oscar winning adaptation of Wang Dulu’s wuxia novel. The movie starred Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi.

4 - Amazing Grace

4. “Amazing Grace” (2006) – Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch and Romola Garai starred in this biopic about British politician/abolitionist William Wilberforce’s efforts to end Britain’s TransAtlantic slave trade. Michael Apted directed.

5 - The Scarlet Pimpernel

5. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1982) – Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour starred in this superb adaptation of Baroness Orczy’s 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel, “Eldorado”. Directed by Clive Donner, the movie co-starred Ian McKellen.

6 - Pride and Prejudice 2005

6. “Pride & Prejudice” (2005) – Joe Wright directed this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. The movie starred Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen.

7 - 1776

7. “1776” (1972) – William Daniels, Howard da Silva and Ken Howard starred in this adaptation of Peter Stone’s 1969 Broadway musical set during the American Revolution. Peter H. Hunt directed.

8 - The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

8. “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh” (1963) – Patrick McGoohan starred in this Disney adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel, “Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Marsh”. James Neilson directed.

9 - Jefferson in Paris

9. “Jefferson in Paris” (1995) – Ismail Merchant co-produced and James Ivory directed this semi-fictionalized account of Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to France. The movie starred Nick Nolte, Greta Scacchi, Gwyneth Paltrow and Thandie Newton.

10 - April Morning

10. “April Morning” (1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Delbert Mann directed.

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005) Review

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“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005) Review

To my knowledge, there have been at least ten screen (film and/or television) adaptations of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”. I believe it has been adapted more times than her other five novels. This is not surprising. It is probably the most beloved of her six novels. I have seen four of those adaptations, myself. And one of them is director-writer Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” starred Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The story focuses on Elizabeth’s dealings with marriage, manners and other issues in the landed gentry society of late Georgian England. Elizabeth and her four sisters are encouraged by their mother to find a suitable husband before their father’s estate is inherited by a distant male cousin. The Bennet family is heartened by the blossoming romance between Elizabeth’s older sister Jane and a wealthy bachelor named Charles Bingley, who has rented a neighboring estate. But the family are unaware that Mr. Bingley’s even wealthier friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, has grown attracted to the extroverted Elizabeth. However, obstacles block the path of true love. Mr. Darcy and Bingley’s snobbish sister Caroline disapprove of his romance with Jane, due to the poor behavior of Mrs. Bennet and her three youngest daughters. And Elizabeth has developed a deep dislike of Mr. Darcy, due to his own distant and haughty behavior. Through a series of setbacks and misunderstandings, true love finally flourishes in the end.

Wright’s adaptation of Austen’s novel was a box office hit and earned numerous award nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for star Keira Knightley. But like the 1940 adaptation with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, this 2005 film has attracted a great deal of criticism from Austen fans for its failure to be closely faithful to the novel. Many have complained how Wright changed the dynamics within the Bennet family. Others have complained by the less than sterile appearance of the Bennet estate and the movie’s late 18th century. As far as many readers were concerned, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” should have been set between 1811 and 1820 – Britain’s Regency era, since the novel was published in 1813. So, how did I feel about Wright’s take on Austen’s novel?

I might as well be frank. I did have problems with “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. I could have understood Wright’s decision to portray the Bennet household with a less than pristine appearance. The Bennet manor was not the first to be portray in this style. The Western home in 1963’s “TOM JONES” looked a lot messier. But Squire Western lived on the estate by himself, until the arrival of his daughter Sophie and his sister Aunt Western. Mrs. Bennet managed the family estate in Wright’s movie. One would think she and the house servants would be able to keep a cleaner home. And I was not that impressed by most of the costumes worn by the Bennets. I found them rather plain and worn for an upper class family from the landed gentry. Mind you, they did not have the same amount of money as Mr. Darcy or the Bingleys. Except for the Netherfield ball sequence, their costumes seemed to hint that they barely possessed enough money to scratch out a living. Yet, at the same time, they had both house and field servants?

I was not impressed by the change of dynamics between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. They seemed a bit too affectionate in comparison to their portrayals in other movies. Wright’s decision to make this change seemed to defeat the purpose of Austen’s narrative. He forgot that the incompatible marriage between the well-born, yet caustic Mr. Bennet and the middle-class and boorish Mrs. Bennet was one of the major reasons that led youngest daughter Lydia to leave Brighton with the roguish George Wickham. Mrs. Bennet’s shrill manners and obsession with matrimony for her daughters, and Mr. Bennet’s cynical disregard for his wife and society led to their failure to discipline their youngest daughters – Lydia and Kitty. But we never see this in Wright’s film. He had every right to justify Mrs. Bennet’s search for future sons-in-law. But the affection between her and Mr. Bennet makes it difficult to explain their failure to discipline Lydia and Kitty.

I also had a problem with George Wickham. I felt sorry for Rupert Friend. He is a very good actor who was handed a role that turned out to be a ghost of its former self in Wright’s screenplay. Friend is also a very handsome actor. But he was really not given the opportunity to display Wickham’s charm and talent for emotional manipulation. Worse, the Elizabeth/Wickham scenes failed to convey any real friendship between the two, before Elizabeth’s discovery of his true nature. They were simply not on screen together long enough to justify Elizabeth’s outrage over Mr. Darcy’s alleged treatment of Wickham. Wright’s treatment of the Charles Bingley character was also a problem for me. I am aware that Mr. Bingley has always sought his friend Mr. Darcy’s approval, regarding the other man as his social superior. But Mr. Bingley has always struck me as a more social and extroverted man. Wright made sure that his Mr. Bingley, portrayed by Simon Woods, was socially active. But he also transformed Bingley into a shy and reticent man. And the idea of a quiet Mr. Darcy and a shy Mr. Bingley as close friends does not quite seem right to me.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect film – at least not in my experience. Yes, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is a flawed movie. But it is not the disaster that some Austen fans would have many to believe. Despite some changes in the characterization and the 129 minutes running time, Austen’s tale remained intact under Wright’s direction and Deborah Moggach’s pen. And a few of the changes made by Wright and Moggach did not bother me one bit. In fact, I found them rather interesting. One change in the movie involved the Elizabeth Bennet character. This “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” delved more into the impact of the Bennet family’s shenanigans upon her psyche with scenes that featured Elizabeth’s brief flight from the crowds of the Netherfield ball, her penchant of keeping personal secrets from her closest sister Jane, and occasional bursts of temper. Many also complained about the film’s late 18th century setting, claiming that Austen’s novel was a Regency tale. I said this in my review of the 1940 adaptation and I will state it again. There was no law that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had to be set in the 1810s because of its final publishing date. Austen’s tale is not a historical drama, merely a comedy of manners and a romantic tale. Besides, her novel was originally completed some time in the late 1790s – the same time frame as this movie.

Despite my complaints about the plain wardrobe for the Bennet family, I must admit that I was impressed by most of Jacqueline Durran’s costumes – especially for the Netherfield Ball sequence. I felt that the most interesting costume was worn by Kelly Reilly (as Caroline Bingley in the aforementioned sequence:

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Some fans felt that Durran made a misfire in the creation of this particular costume, which they believed evoked the high-waisted fashions of the first two decades of the 19th century. They especially took umbrage at her gown’s lack of sleeves. What they failed to realize was that women’s fashion was in a stage of transition between the late 18th and early 19th century. Older women like Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh wore the older 18th century fashions, while younger females began wearing dresses and gown with a higher waistline. It made sense that Caroline Bingley, being familiar with the more sophisticated London society, would wear such a gown. There is a 1798-99 painting called “Madame Raymond de Verninac” in which the subject wore a similar looking gown:

1799-Verninac-David

Other technical aspects of the movie proved to be a lot less controversial. Roman Osin’s photography provided to be one of the movie’s biggest assets. I found it lush, yet sharp and rich in color. And it certainly did justice to Sarah Greenwood’s production designs and Katie Spencer’s set decorations, which captured the look of Britain at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century beautifully. I especially enjoyed the photography featured in Elizabeth’s journey with her Gardiner relations to Derbyshire. Another segment that displayed Osin’s photography and Greenwood’s work beautifully was the Netherfield Ball. I especially enjoyed the tracking shot that touched upon the behaviors and emotional states of the major characters, before finally settling upon a secluded Elizabeth, heaving a sigh of relief.

Wright had the good luck to find himself with a first-rate cast for his movie. Jena Malone’s Lydia Bennet struck me as more of a show boater or poseur than any other interpretation of the role. Carey Mulligan gave ample support as her slightly older sister and emotional pet, Kitty. Talulah Riley did a very good job in capturing Mary Bennet’s self-righteous nature. Yet, at the same, she was surprisingly poignant – especially during the Netherfield ball sequence. Despite Moggach and Wright’s attempts to paint Mrs. Bennet’s determination to marry off her daughters in a more positive light, Brenda Blethyn still managed to capture the character’s gauche manners and silliness. And for that I am grateful to the actress. Donald Sutherland’s take on Mr. Bennet seemed less cynical than Austen’s take on the character. Thanks to Moggach’s script, Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet almost loses his bite. But not completely. Sutherland managed to retain some of the character’s sardonic humor. And I really enjoyed his performance in the scene that featured Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth’s discussion about her feelings for Mr. Darcy.

Despite my complaints about the characterizations of Charles Bingley and George Wickham, I cannot deny that both Simon Woods and Rupert Friend gave first-rate performances. However, I suspect that Woods was given more to work with, even if Moggach’s portrayal of his character struck a wrong note within me. There is an interesting post-script regarding Woods’ casting – he was Rosamund Pike’s (Jane Bennet) ex-boyfriend, when they filmed “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” together. The movie featured only one of Mr. Bingley’s sisters – namely the gold-digging Caroline Bingley. Kelly Reilly’s take on the role strongly reminds me of Frieda Inescort’s performance in the 1940 movie – cool and sarcastic. Reilly had some choice lines, my favorite being her comment about her brother’s guests at the Netherfield Ball:

“I can’t help thinking that at some point someone is going to produce a piglet and we’ll all have to chase it.”

Yes, I realize that Jane Austen did not write it. But who cares? It is such a droll line, even if it was spoken by the unspeakable Caroline. I read somewhere that Joe Wright had convinced Judi Dench to portray Lady Catherine de Bourgh, claiming that he loved it when she “played a bitch”. And yes . . . Dench’s Lady Catherine was deliciously bitchy. On the other hand, Claudie Blakely gave a nice performance as Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas. She also had one memorable moment in which her character tried to explain her decision to marry William Collins, Elizabeth’s unpalatable cousin. “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” marked the first time Keira Knightley worked with Tom Hollander. His Mr. Collins did not strike me as obsequious as previous versions. For some reason, Hollander reminded me of a socially awkward geek. The scene featuring Mr. Collins’ attempt to get Mr. Darcy’s attention struck me as particularly funny. Penelope Wilton and Peter Wight gave solid performances as Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. But I did not find them particularly memorable. Rosamund Pike made a very beautiful and charming Jane Bennet. She perfectly conveyed the character’s shyness and penchant for thinking too good of others.

Matthew MacFadyen was not that well known to U.S. audiences when he was cast in the role of Mr. Darcy. I realize that I am going to attract a good deal of flak for this, but I am glad that MacFadyen did not try to recapture Colin Firth’s take on the role. An actor or actress should never try to copy another’s performance. Frankly, I thought MacFadyen did a fine job on his own. He is the only actor to openly convey Mr. Darcy’s inability to easily socialize before the story’s second half, due to some silent acting on his part. I especially enjoyed his performance with Knightley featuring Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal. But Keira Knightley, as Elizabeth Bennet, contributed just as much to the scene as he did. For some reason, the actress has attracted a great deal of bashing from moviegoers. I will not try to determine the reason behind their behavior. But I will compliment Knightley for her performance. Like the other actresses who have portrayed Elizabeth, she conveyed all of the character’s wit, prejudices and exuberant nature. But thanks to Moggach’s screenplay, Knightley was given a chance to put a new spin on Elizabeth’s character. Due to the Bennet family’s behavior, Knightley was able to convey Elizabeth’s increasing emotional distance from them. Many critics did not care for this new spin on the character. I, on the other hand, found it fascinating and new.

Joe Wright’s “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its flaws. There is no denying it. But I can say the same for the other three adaptations of Jane Austen’s novel that I have seen. For me, the movie’s virtues outweighed its flaws. And its biggest virtues were Roman Osin’s photography and a memorable cast led by the talented Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. This was Joe Wright’s first film and so far, my favorite he has done during his seven years as a director.

“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

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“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

In 1999, actor Bob Balaban had approached director Robert Altman with the idea of developing a film together. Altman suggested a whodunit set at an English country estate. The two approached actor/writer Julian Fellowes if he could take their concept and write a screenplay. Their collective efforts resulted in the 2001 comedy-drama, “GOSFORD PARK”.

In the movie, a group of wealthy Britons, a British actor/entertainer, an American movie producer and their servants gather at Gosford Park, the country estate of a wealthy industrialist named Sir William McCordle, for a shooting party over the weekend. Sir William is not a popular man. His wife and most of his in-laws despise him. And most of his servants (aside from one or two) dislike him. When Sir William is found murdered inside his study during the second night of the weekend, there seemed to be a list of suspects who have a very good reason to kill him:

*Lady Sylvia McCordle – Sir William’s bitchy wife, who despises him and had married Sir William for his money

*Commander Anthony Meredith – One of Sir William’s brothers-in-law, who is desperate for the industrialist’s financial backing in a venture regarding shoes for Sudanese soldiers

*Raymond, Lord Stockbridge – Sir William’s snobbish brother-in-law, whose wife might be having an affair with him

*Lady Lavinia Meredith – Sir William’s younger sister-in-law and devoted wife to Commander Meredith

*Mrs. Croft – Gosford Park’s head cook and former employee at one of Sir William’s factories, who despised him

*Mrs. Wilson – Gosford Park’s housekeeper, Mrs. Croft younger sister and another former employee of one of Sir William’s factories

*Lord Rupert Standish – a penniless aristocrat who wants to overcome Sir William’s opposition and marry his only child, Isobel McCordle

*Constance, Countess of Trentham – Sir William’s aunt-in-law, who is dependent upon a regular allowance from him

The weekend party include other guests and servants, such as:

*Mary Maceachran – Lady Trentham’s lady maid

*Elsie – Head housemaid whom Mary befriended, and who was definitely having an affair with Sir William

*Ivor Novello – Famous actor/singer and Sir William’s cousin

*Morris Weissman – Producer from Fox Studios

*Henry Denton – Weissman’s valet, who is actually a Hollywood minor actor studying for an upcoming role

*Robert Parks – Lord Stockbridge’s new valet

*Jennings – Major domo of Gosford Park, who has a secret to hide

*Honorable Freddie Nesbitt – A local impoverished aristocrat who had earlier seduced Isobel. At the shooting party, he tries to blackmail her into convincing Sir William to give him a job

*Mabel Nesbitt – The daughter of a self-made glove manufacturer whom Freddie married for her money, before spending the latter.

*Louisa, Lady Stockbridge – Sir William’s other sister-in-law, with whom he might have had an affair

*Probert – Sir William’s personal valet and one of the few who actually grieved him.

Needless to say, the list of characters is a long one. Following Sir William’s murder, the local police in the form of one Inspector Thompson and Constable Dexter arrive to solve the murder. Being incompetent and a complete snob, Inspector Thompson seemed to regard the higher class guests as worthy suspects for the murder of Sir William. Constable Dexter, on the other hand, seemed more interested in Jennings’ World War I past and the clues at hand. In fact, Dexter managed to ascertain that Sir William had been poisoned by one person, before another drove an ax into his back. But it was lady’s maid Mary Maceachran who managed to figure out the culprits in the end.

I cannot deny that after ten years or so, “GOSFORD PARK” remains a big favorite of mine. When the movie first reached the movie screens in December 2001, many admitted to enjoying the film, but predicted that it would age with time. There are perhaps some critics who believe this has actually happened. But I do not agree. Considering the increasingly bleak social landscape of today, I believe that the theme behind “GOSFORD PARK” has remained relevant as ever. Despite my love for the film, would I consider it perfect? Honestly? No. Other critics may be able to find more than two flaws in the film. On the other hand, I was able to find two that bothered me.

The pacing for most of “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be on spot . . . at least for me. It possessed a great set-up for introducing the characters, the setting’s atmosphere and the revelation of the suspects’ motives for wanting Sir William dead. However, the murder did not occur until two-thirds into the movie. Once Inspector Thompson appeared on the scene, the movie’s pacing began to drag. And it did not pick up again until the movie’s last twenty minutes. For me, the pacing during the last third of the film struck me as merely a minor flaw. There was another that proved to be a bigger one for me – namely the Henry Denton character.

I have nothing against Ryan Phillipe’s performance as Denton. Trust me, I thought he did a superb job. But Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of the character left me shaking my head in confusion. According to the script, Denton was an American actor for Fox Studios who accompanied Morris Weissman as his Scottish valet in order to study British servants for a role in a “CHARLIE CHAN” movie. This little deception strikes me as something actors did for a role during the past thirty or forty years . . . certainly not in 1932. The deception ended when Henry admitted his true identity to the police. But the one thing that really disturbed me about the character was his attempted rape of Mary Maceachran during the first night of the weekend. Why did Fellowes include that scenario in the first place? Henry had already made a date for some nocturnal activity with Lady Sylvia McCordle, several minutes earlier. If he had already scheduled a night for sex with the mistress of the house, why have him assault Mary a few mintues later? I suspect that Fellowes wanted to establish a character that most of the characters – aristocratic and lower-class – would dislike. Both aristocrats and servants alike reacted with glee when one of the servants, portrayed by Richard Grant, dumped a cup of hot tea (or coffee) on Henry’s lap. With Henry being an American, I can only assume he made an easier target for the derision of everyone. I can only wonder why Altman and Balaban did not question this heavy-handed characterization of Henry. Regardless of Fellowes’ reason for vilifying Henry, I found the rape attempt as an example of clumsy and unnecessary writing on his part.

Thankfully, most of “GOSFORD PARK” proved to be quite a cherished gem. Not even the flaws I had pointed out in the above paragraphs can overcome my appreciation of this movie. Altman, Balaban and Fellowes took a classic literary device – “country house mystery” – and used it to explore the British class system of the early 1930s. “GOSFORD PARK” revealed the changes that affected Britain’s social landscape by 1932. Aside from Lord Stockbridge, most of the aristocratic characters seemed to be struggling to make ends meet financially in order to maintain a lifestyle they had been born into. Those from a middle-class or working-class background like Sir William McCordle, his “cousin” Ivor Novello, Morris Weissman and Mabel Nesbitt have become successful, wealthy or in the case of Mabel, the offspring of a self-made man. Their success and wealth has allowed them to socialize amongt the aristocracy and upper-class. But their origins continue to attract scorn from the likes of Lady Sylvia, her sister Lady Lavinia and their aunt, the Countess of Trentham. The servants featured in “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be divided into three categories – those who are blindly loyal to their employers; those like Elsie, Robert Parks and Mrs. Croft, who despise their employers; and those like Mary, Jennings and Mrs. Wilson who do not love or hate their employers, but simply take pride in their professionalism.

What I found interesting about “GOSFORD PARK” is that both servants and guests possessed both positive and negative traits. The exceptions to the rule proved to be Mary, who struck me as a bit too ideal for my tastes; and of course, Henry Denton, whose portrayal I had already complained about. Most people would add that Sir William had also been portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. But the humiliations he endured under the snobbish Lady Sylvia and Elsie’s warm recollections of him saved the character from such a fate.

Another aspect about “GOSFORD PARK” that I truly enjoyed was its overall production design. Stephen Altman did a superb job of re-creating the atmosphere of a country manor home in the early 1930s. He was ably supported by Anna Pinnock’s set decorations, along with John Frankis and Sarah Hauldren’s art direction. For me, it was Jenny Bevan’s costumes and the women’s hairstyles that made me realize that the production team really knew what they were doing. I have rarely come across a movie or television production set in the 1930s that was completely accurate – especially in regard to costumes and hairstyles.

There were plenty of first-rate performances in “GOSFORD PARK”. But there were a handful that stood out for me. Both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of Mrs. Wilson and the Countess of Trentham, respectively. Mirren was superb as the no-nonsense housekeeper, whose stoic personality hid a passionate nature that would eventually be revealed upon a discovery she made. In my review of Season One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, I had complained that Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham bore a strong resemblance to her Lady Trentham in “GOSFORD PARK”. I stand by that observation. But there is something about Smith’s portrayal of Lady Trentham that struck me as a lot more subtle and a little more poisonous in her class bigotry. Clive Owen gave a charismatic performance as the mysterious valet, Robert Parks, whose past attracts the attention of both Mary Maceachran and Mrs. Wilson.

Michael Gambon gave one of his more interesting performances as the mystery’s main victim, Sir William McCordle. Superficially, he was as crude and cold-blooded as many regarded the character. Yet, Gambon injected a certain charm into his performance that made it easier for me to see why Sir William had a way with the ladies. Bob Balaban provided some fine comic moments as the droll Hollywood producer that harbored a slight contempt toward his aristocratic hosts behind a polite veneer. I have already pointed out Ryan Phillipe’s portrayal of Henry Denton. I must admit that he did a first-rate job in conveying the portrait of a smooth hustler. Many have commented on Maggie Smith’s wit in the movie. However, I thought that Emily Watson’s portrayal of head housemaid Elsie was equally sharp and sardonic. Alan Bates gave one of his last best performances as the stuffy, yet likable major domo of the McCordle household, who harbored a secret about his past as a conscientious objector during World War I. At the same time, Watson was wonderfully poignant as one of the few people who not only mourned Sir William, but appreciated his friendship and words of wisdom to her. I found it surprising that the movie’s moral center proved to the be the sweet and eventually wise Mary Maceachran, Lady Trentham’s new personal maid. Kelly MacDonald was in her mid-20s when she did this movie and her character was not particularly flashy in compare to many of the other roles. Yet, not only did she held her own against the likes of Maggie Smith and Emily Watson, she did a great job in becoming the movie’s emotional anchor . . . even if her character was a bit too ideal for my tastes.

“GOSFORD PARK” earned a good deal of accolades after its release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won a Best Original Screenplay for Julian Fellowes. It also earned five Golden Globe awards and Robert Altman won for Best Director. Would I have voted “GOSFORD PARK” as the Best Picture of 2001? Not really. I was more impressed by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. But thanks to a superb cast, Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and Robert Altman’s direction, it not proved to be one of the cinematic gems of 2001, but also of the entire decade.

“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

“THE CAT’S MEOW” (2001) Review

There have been many accounts of the infamous November 1924 cruise held aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht, in honor of Hollywood producer Thomas H. Ince’s birthday. But the biggest . . . and probably the most fictionalized account was featured in “THE CAT’S MEOW”, Peter Bogdanovich’s adaptation of screenwriter Steven Peros’ stage play. 

The movie takes place aboard Hearst’s yacht on a weekend cruise celebrating Ince’s 42nd birthday. Among those in attendance include Hearst’s longtime companion and film actress Marion Davies, fellow actor Charlie Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, columnist Louella Parsons, and actress Margaret Livingston. Many of the guests harbor agendas that revolve around Hearst and Davies. Chaplin, who has become infatuated with the actress, sees the weekend cruise as a chance to declare his feelings for her . . . and convince Davies to end her relationship with the publisher. Parsons sees the cruise as a chance to develop a stronger professional relationship with her boss, Hearst, and relocate from the East Coast to Hollywood. Faced with a bad financial situation and accompanied by his mistress Margaret Livingston, Ince hopes to convince Hearst to allow him to become a partner in the publisher’s Cosmopolitan Pictures. Hearst suspects that Davies and Chaplin are engaged in an affair and has great difficulty in battling his jealousy. Thanks to this jealousy, a violent death ends the cruise, which becomes a subject of Hollywood legend.

After watching “THE CAT’S MEOW”, I realized that after so many years of documentaries and somewhat mediocre films, Peter Bogdanovich had maintained his touch as a first-rate director. At least back in 2000-2001. “THE CAT’S MEOW”struck me as a first-rate character study of a good number of film and publishing luminaries in the world of 1920s Hollywood. What I found interesting is that aside from one or two characters, most of them are not what I would call particularly sympathetic. Well, superficially, hardly any of them are sympathetic – including the very likable Marion Davies, who was not only Hearst’s official mistress, but who was doing a piss-poor job of hiding her attraction for Charlie Chaplin. But despite the lack of superficial charm, the movie managed to reveal the demons and desires of each major character. And thanks to Steven Peros’ screenplay and Bogdanovich’s direction, characters like Hearst, Davies, Chaplin and Ince rose above their superficial venality and ambiguity to be revealed as interesting and complex characters. The most interesting aspect of “THE CAT’S MEOW” was that many of the characters’ agendas either succeeded or failed, due to the romantic drama that surrounded Hearst, Davies and Chaplin.

For costume drama fans such as myself, “THE CAT’S MEOW” offered a tantalizing look into the world of Old Hollywood in the 1920s. Bogdanovich made a wise choice in hiring Jean-Vincent Puzos to serve as the movie’s production designer. In fact, I was so impressed by his re-creation of November 1924 that I felt rather disappointed that his efforts never received an Academy Award nomination. Puzos’ work was aided by the art direction team led by Christian Eisele and Daniele Drobny’s set decorations. But the second biggest contributor to the movie’s 1920s look were the gorgeous costumes designed by Caroline de Vivaise. I was extremely impressed by how the costumes closely adhered to the fashions worn during that particular decade. But de Vivaise did something special by designing all of the costumes in black and white – as some kind of homage to the photography used during that period in Hollywood. And if anyone is wondering whether de Vivaise won any awards or nominations for her work . . . she did not. What a travesty.

Bogdanovich gathered an impressive cast for his movie. “THE CAT’S MEOW” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Claudie Blakley and Chiara Schoras as a pair of fun-loving actresses that embodied the spirit of the 1920s flappers; Claudia Harrison as Ince’s frustrated mistress, actress Margaret Livingston; Ronan Vibert as one of Hearst’s minions, the stoic Joseph Willicombe; and Victor Slezak as Ince’s sardonic and witty colleague, George Thomas. But the more interesting performances came from Jennifer Tilly, who gave a delicious performance as the toadying and opportunistic columnist, Louella Parsons; Joanna Lumley as the wise and occasionally self-important novelist Elinor Glyn; and especially Eddie Izzard, who was surprisingly subtle and witty as the wise-cracking, yet passionate Charlie Chaplin.

But in my opinion, the three best performances in “THE CAT’S MEOW” came from Edward Herrmann, Cary Elwes and Kirsten Dunst. The latter was the only member of the cast to earn an award (Best Actress at the Mar del Plata Film Festival) for her performance as Hollywood starlet and W.R. Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies. What made Dunst’s performance so remarkable was that she was the only one – as far as I know – who portrayed the actress as a complex and intelligent personality, instead of the one-note stereotype that director Orson Welles had introduced in his 1941 movie,“CITIZEN KANE”. I suppose one could credit screenwriter Steven Peros for writing a more realistic portrayal of Davies’ true nature. But it would have never worked without Dunst’s performance. Cary Elwes gave – in my opinion – the best performance of his career so far as the harried and ambitious movie producer, Thomas Ince. What made Elwes’ performance so impressive was the subtle manner in which he conveyed Ince’s desperation to save his career as a Hollywood producer through any means possible. But for me, the best performance came from Edward Herrmann as the wealthy and controlling William R. Hearst. Herrmann did a superb job in conveying some of the worst aspects of Hearst’s nature – sense of privilege, arrogance, his bullying and bad temper. Yet, Herrmann also managed to convey Hearst’s desperate love for Davies and vulnerabilities through the more unpleasant mask. It was a remarkable performance that failed to garner any real recognition. And this is more of a travesty to me than the lack of awards for production design or costumes.

I tried to recall anything about the movie that left a negative mark within me and could only come up with one or two matters. The movie seemed to be in danger of slowing down to a crawl, following the tragic shooting that followed Ince’s birthday party. I wonder if Bogdanovitch had tried too hard to reveal the details that led to the cover up of the incident. However, one particular scene really annoyed me to no end. It was the scene that featured Elinor Glyn’s theory about the“California Curse”:

“The California Curse strikes you like a disease the Minute you set foot into California..so pay close attention, my dear. You See this place you’ve arrived in, the place we call home…isn’t a place at all. But a living creature. Or more precisely an evil wizard like in the old stories. And we all live on him like fleas on the belly of a mutt. But unlike the helpless dog, this wizard is able to banish the true personalities of those he bewitches. Forcing them against their will to carry out his command, to forget the land of their birth, the purpose of their journey, and what ever principals they once held dear. The Curse is taking hold of you if you experience the following: You see yourself as the most important person in any room. You accept money as the strongest force in nature. And finally your morality vanashes without a trace.”

As far as I am concerned, Elinor Glyn was full of shit. She could have easily described any individual who forgets his or her principles, no matter where that person resided. And according to Ms. Glyn, the curse has three symptoms – seeing yourself as the focus of all conversations, using money as the most important measure of success, and the disappearance of all traces of morality. Why she seemed to believe that such a mindset only existed in Calfornia . . . or better yet, Hollywood, is beyond me. Anyone with too much ambition could acquire this curse in many other places in the world. Peros and Bogdanovich’s decision to include this crap in the movie damn near came close to ruining my enjoyment of the movie.

But in the end, I managed to overcome my annoyance of the so-called “California Curse”. Why? Because “THE CAT’S MEOW” remained a first-rate and entertaining movie about Old Hollywood that impresses me, even after ten years.“Hooray for Hollywood!”.

“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.

“HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” (2004) Review

 

“HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” (2004) Review

My knowledge of 19th century author, Anthony Trollope, can be described as rather skimpy. In fact, I have never read any of his works. But the 2004 BBC adaptation of his 1869 novel, ”He Knew He Was Right”, caught my interest and I decided to watch the four-part miniseries. 

”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” told the decline and fall of a wealthy gentleman named Louis Trevelyan (Oliver Dimsdale) and his marriage to the elder daughter of a British Colonial administrator named Sir Marmaduke Rowley (Geoffrey Palmer) during the late 1860s. Louis first met the spirited Emily Rowley (Laura Fraser) during a trip to the fictional Mandarin Islands. Their marriage began on a happy note and managed to produce one son, young Louis. But when Emily’s godfather, the rakish Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy), began paying consistent visits to her, the house of cards for the Trevelyan marriage began to fall. Doubts about his wife’s fidelity formed clouds in Louis’ mind upon learning about Osborne’s reputation as a ladies’ man. His insistence that Emily put an end to Osborne’s visits, along with her stubborn opposition to his demands and outrage over his lack of trust finally led to a serious break in their marriage. What followed was a minor public over their estrangement, a change of addresses for both husband and wife, Louis’ kidnapping of their son and his final descent into paranoia and madness.

The miniseries also featured several subplots. One centered around the forbidden romance between Emily’s younger sister, Nora (Christina Cole), and a young journalist named Hugh Stansbury (Stephen Campbell Moore), who happened to be Louis’ closest friend. Another featured the efforts of Hugh’s wealthy Aunt Jemima Stansbury (Anna Massey) to pair his younger sister Dorothy (Caroline Martin) to a local vicar in Wells named Reverend Gibson (David Tennant). Unfortunately for Aunt Stansbury, her desires for a romance between Dorothy and Reverend Gibson ended with Dorothy’s rejection of him and his lies about her moral character. Later, Dorothy and Aunt Stansbury found themselves at odds over Dorothy’s friendship and burgeoning romance with the nephew of her old love, Brooke Burgess (Matthew Goode). Gibson found himself in hot water with the socially powerful Aunt Stansbury over his lies about Dorothy. But that was nothing in compare to his being the center of a bitter sibling rivalry between two sisters, Arabella and Camilla French (Fenella Woolgar and Claudie Blakley). One last subplot evolved from Nora Rowley’s rejection of a wealthy aristocrat named Mr. Glascock (Raymond Coulthar). While traveling through Italy, he became acquainted with Caroline Spalding (Anna-Louise Plowman), one of two daughters of an American diplomat; and began a romance with her.

Most of the subplots from ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” proved to be mildly entertaining or interesting. But the one subplot that really caught my attention featured Reverend Gibson and the French sisters. There were times when I could not even describe this story. I found it hilarious in a slightly twisted and surreal manner. Considering the vicar’s sniveling personality, there were times I felt it served him right to find himself trapped in the rivalry between the sweetly manipulative Arabella and the aggressive Camilla. But when the latter proved to be obsessive and slightly unhinged, I actually found myself rooting for Reverend Gibson to be free of her grasp. In some ways, Camilla proved to be just as mentally disturbed as Louis Treveylan.

For me, the best aspect of ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” proved to be the main plot about the Treveylan marriage. I have to give kudos to Andrew Davies for his excellent job in adapting Trollope’s tale. I found the Louis and Emily’s story to be fascinating and well written. When their marriage ended in separation at the end of Episode One, I wondered if Davies had rushed the story. Foolish me. I never realized that the separation would lead toward a slow journey into madness for Louis and one of frustration and resentment for Emily. Her resentment increased tenfold after Louis kidnapped their young son, Little Louis; and upon her discovery that as a woman, she did not have the law on her side on who would be considered as the boy’s legal guardian. For me, the most surprising aspect of ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” was that despite all of the hell Louis forced Emily to endure, I ended up feeling very sorry for him. Due to his own insecurities over Colonel Osborne’s attentions to Emily and her strength of character, Louis ended up enduring a great deal of his own hell.

Another aspect I found rather interesting about ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” was the topic of power abuse that permeated the tale. Many film and literary critics have used the Louis Trevelyan character as an argument that the story’s main theme was the abuse of paternal or male power. I heartily agree with that argument. To a certain extent. After all, Louis’ hang-ups regarding Emily’s relationship with Colonel Osborne seemed to be centered around her unwillingness to blindly obey him or his fear that he may not be enough of a man for her. And Sir Marmaduke’s insistence that Nora dismiss the idea of marrying the penniless Hugh Stanbury for a wealthier gentleman – namely Mr. Glascock. But the miniseries also touched upon examples of matriarchy or female abuse of power – something that most critics or fans hardly ever mention. Jemima Stanbury’s position as the Stanburys’ matriarch and only wealthy family member gave her the belief she had the power to rule over the lives of her family. This especially seemed to be the case in her efforts to control Dorothy’s love life. Camilla French struck me as another female who used her position as Reverend French’s fiancée to abuse it – especially in her aggressive attempts to ensure that he would give in to her desires and demands. And when that failed, she used her anger and threats of violence to ensure that her sister Arabella did not win in their rivalry over the spineless vicar. Some would say that Camilla was merely indulging in masculine behavior. I would not agree. For I believe that both men and women – being human beings – are capable of violence. For me, aggression is a human trait and not associated with one particular gender. In the end, both Sir Marmaduke and Aunt Stanbury relented to the desires of their loved ones. Camilla had no choice but to relent to Arabella’s victory in their race to become Reverend Gibson’s wife, thanks to her mother and uncle’s intervention. As for Louis, he continued to believe he was right about Emily and Colonel Osborne . . . at least right before the bitter end.

Oliver Dimsdale proved to be the right actor to portray the complex and tragic Louis Trevelyan. He could have easily portrayed Louis as an unsympathetic and one-note figure of patriarchy. Instead, Dimsdale skillfully conveyed all of Louis’ faults and insecurities; and at the same time, left me feeling sympathetic toward the character. Dimsdale’s Louis was not a monster, but a flawed man who believed he could control everything and especially everyone in his life. And this trait proved to be his Achilles heel. But despite my sympathies toward him, I could never accept the righteousness of Louis’ behavior. And the main reason proved to be Laura Fraser’s portrayal of the high-spirited and stubborn Emily Rowley Trevelyan. One could say that Emily should have conceded to her husband’s wishes. As the spouse of a pre-20th century male, one would expect her to. I could point out that she did concede to Louis’ wishes – while protesting along the way. And Fraser not only did a marvelous job with Emily’s strong will and stubbornness, but also anger at Louis’ paternalism. Amazingly, she also effectively portrayed Emily’s continuing love for Louis and doubts over the character’s actions with a great deal of plausibility. This last trait was especially apparent in Emily’s conversations with Hugh Stanbury’s sister, Priscilla, in Episode Two. And both Dimsdale and Fraser created a strong and credible screen chemistry, despite their characters’ flaws, mistakes and conflicts.

Another reason I managed to enjoy ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” turned out to be the solid performances by the supporting cast. However, several performances stood out for me. Three came from veteran performers such as Bill Nighy, Anna Massey and Ron Cook. Nighy, ever the chameleon, gave a delicious performance as the mischievous and rakish Colonel Osborne; who proved to be something of a blustering phony in the end. Anna Massey gave a wonderful and entertaining portrayal as the wealthy matriarch of the Stanbury family, Jemima Stanbury. Despite being a tyrannical and no-nonsense woman, Massey’s Aunt Stanbury also proved to be a likeable and vulnerable individual. And Cook did a marvelous job in portraying Mr. Nozzle as more than just a study in one-dimensional seediness. Cook aptly conveyed the private detective’s conflict between his greedy desire for Louis’ business and his sympathy toward Emily’s plight.

The second trio of performances that impressed me came from David Tennant, Fenella Woolgar and Claudie Blakley, who portrayed the Reverend Gibson and the French sisters. Tennant, who was two years away from portraying the 10th Doctor Who, gave a hilarious performance as the avaricious vicar with a spine made from gelatin. Both Woolgar and Blakley were equally funny as the two sisters battling for his affections . . . or at least a marriage proposal. Blakley also seemed a tad frightening, as she delved into Camilla’s aggressive and homicidal determination to prevent Mr. Gibson from returning his “affections” to the more mild-tempered and manipulative Arabella.

The production values for ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” seemed pretty solid. But I found nothing exceptional about it, except for Mike Eley’s photography and Debbie Wiseman’s haunting score, which seemed appropriate for the Trevelyans’ doomed marriage. However, I do have one major problem with Trollope’s tale . . . and Davies’ script. Quite simply, the story suffered from one too many subplots. Many have counted at least five subplots in ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” and they would be correct. At least three of them – Dorothy’s problems with Reverend Gibson, her conflict with Aunt Stanbury over Brooke Burgess, and Reverend Gibson’s problems with the French sisters – having nothing to do with the main storyline. Despite the fact that I found them either interesting or entertaining, I felt as if they belonged in another novel or series. I realize that Trollope had used these subplots as examples of comparisons to the Trevelyan marriage, but I always have this strange sensation that I am watching a completely different series altogether. I believe that Davies should have realized this before writing his script.

Despite my problems with the tale’s numerous subplots, I found ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” to be a first-rate adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel. I must admit that all of the plotlines proved to be interesting. And Tom Vaughn’s direction, along with a first-rate cast led by Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser, ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” proved to be a literary adaptation worth watching.