“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” (2009) Review

“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” (2009) Review

About a year or so before his popular television series, “DOWNTON ABBEY” hit the airwaves, Julian Fellowes served as screenwriter to the lavish biopic about the early life and reign of Britain’s Queen Victoria called “THE YOUNG VICTORIA”. The 2009 movie starred Emily Blunt in the title role and Rupert Friend as the Prince Consort, Prince Albert.

“THE YOUNG VICTORIA” began during the last years in the reign of King William IV, Victoria’s uncle. Acknowledge as the next ruler of Britain, Victoria became the target of a political tug-of-war between her mother, the Duchess of Kent royal aide Sir John Conroy on one side, and King Leopold I of Belgium on the other. The Duchess of Kent and Sir John want to assume power of the country by having Victoria sign papers declaring a regency. And Leopold I tries to influence the British throne by securing a marriage between Victoria and one of his two nephews – Prince Albrt and Prince Ernst of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Meanwhile, King William eventually dies and Victoria becomes Queen. Once she assumes the throne, Victoria becomes beseiged by her mother and many others to assume some kind control over her.

I was surprised to discover that one of the producers for “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” was Hollywood icon, Martin Scorsese. A biopic about the early reign of Queen Victoria did not seem to be his type of movie. Then I remembered that this is the man who also directed an adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel and a movie about Jesus Christ. But for the likes of me, I never could see his interest in this film. Did he ever read Julian Fellowes’ screenplay before he took on the role as one of the movie’s executive producers? Or was there another reason why he became interested in this project? Perhaps Fellowes’ screenplay seemed more interesting before it was translated to screen. Because if I must be honest, I was not that impressed by it.

You heard me right. I did not like “THE YOUNG VICTORIA”. Perhaps it was the subject matter. Aside from being Britain’s longest reigning monarch, until her great-great granddaughter surpassed her record last year, Victoria never struck me as an interesting subject for a motion picture. I am surprised that both the Hollywood and British film and television industries were able to create a few interesting movie and television productions about her. Unfortunately, “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” did not prove to be one of them.

I am not saying that “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” was a total washout. It had a good number of first-rate performances and other technical details to admire. Emily Blunt did an excellent job in portraying the young Victoria by effectively conveying the character from a naive teenager to an emotional, yet slightly matured young mother in her early twenties. Blunt had a decent screen chemistry with Rupert Friend, whom I thought made a superb Prince Albert. If I must be frank, I feel that Friend was the best on-screen Albert I have seen so far. Miranda Richardson gave her usual uber-competent performance as Victoria’s mother, the Duchess of Kent. Actually, I believe that both she and Friend gave the two best performances in the movie. Paul Bettany gave a very smooth, yet ambiguous performance as one of Victoria’s favorite ministers – William Lamb, Viscount Melbourne. Other members of the cast that included Jim Broadbent (as an emotional William IV), Thomas Kretschmann, Julian Glover, Genevieve O’Reilly, Rachael Stirling, Jesper Christensen, Michael Huisman, Jeanette Hain and David Robb all gave solid performances.

I also thought the movie’s physical appearance was sharp, colorful and elegant thanks to Hagen Bogdanski’s beautiful photography. Patrice Vermette did a first-rate job in re-creating royal Britain of the late 1830s and early 1840s, thanks to her elegant production designs; and the art direction team of Paul Inglis, Chris Lowe and Alexandra Walker, who all received an Academy Award nomination for their work. Of course I cannot mention “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” without mentioning Hollywood legend Sandy Powell’s gorgeous costume designs shown below:

Not only were Powell’s costumes gorgeous, they accurately reflected the movie’s setting between 1836 and 1842. It is not surprising that Powell won both the Academy Award and BAFTA for Best Costume Design.

So, why am I not enamored of this movie? Well . . . I found it boring. Let me rephrase that answer. I found most of the movie boring . . . as hell. I will admit that I found Victoria’s emotional struggles with her mother and the latter’s courtier, Sir John Conroy, rather interesting. There seemed to be some kind of quasi-fairy tale quality to that particular conflict. And I will admit to finding Victoria’s relationship with her first Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne slightly fascinating. Otherwise, the movie bored me. Most of the movie centered around Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert. But despite Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend’s sterling performances, I was not able to sustain any interest in that particular relationship. It did not help that Fellowes made a historical faux pas by allowing Albert to attend her coronation in 1838 – something that never happened. The most interesting aspect of the royal pair’s relationship – at least to me – was their shitty relationship with their oldest son, the future King Edward VII. Unfortunately, the movie’s narrative ended before his birth.

There were other aspects of “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” that did not appeal to me. Although I found Victoria’s early struggles against the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy rather interesting, I was not impressed by the movie’s portrayal of the latter. I do not blame actor Mark Strong. He still managed to give a competent performance. But his Sir John came off as a mustache-twirling villain, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ ham fisted writing. And could someone explain why Paul Bettany had been chosen to portray Lord Melbourne in this movie? The Prime Minister was at least 58 years old when Victoria ascended the throne. Bettany was at least 37-38 years old at the time of the film’s production. He was at least two decades too young to be portraying Victoria’s first minister.

The one aspect of “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” that I found particularly repellent was this concept that moviegoers were supposed to cheer over Victoria’s decision to allow Albert to share in her duties as monarch. May I ask why? Why was it so important for the prince consort to co-reign with his wife, the monarch? Granted, Victoria was immature and inexperienced in politics when she ascended the throne. Instead of finding someone to teach her the realities of British politics, the government eventually encouraged her to allow Albert to share in her duties following an assassination attempt. This whole scenario smacks of good old-fashioned sexism to me. In fact, I have encountered a similar attitude in a few history books and one documentary. If Victoria had been Victor and Albert had been Alberta, would Fellowes had ended the movie with Alberta sharing monarchical duties with Victor? I rather doubt it. Even in the early 21st century, the idea that a man was more suited to be a monarch than a woman still pervades.

It is a pity that “THE YOUNG VICTORIA” failed to appeal to me. It is a beautiful looking movie. And it featured fine performances from a cast led by Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend. But the dull approach to the movie’s subject not only bored me, but left me feeling cold, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ ponderous screenplay and Jean-Marc Vallée’s pedestrian direction. How on earth did Martin Scorsese get involved in this production?

“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.

Favorite Films Set in the 1810s and 1820s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the 1810s and 1820s:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1810s AND 1820s

1 - Sense and Sensibility

1. “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) – Ang Lee directed this superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1811 novel about two sisters in love and financial straits. Adapted by Emma Thompson, the movie starred both her and Kate Winslet.

 

 

2 - Persuasion 1995

2. “Persuasion” (1995) – Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel about the reunion between two former lovers. Roger Michell directed. – Tie

 

 

2 - Persuasion 2007

2. “Persuasion” (2007) – I am also a big fan of this equally entertaining adaptation of Austen’s 1818 novel about the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. Adrian Shergold directed. – Tie

 

 

3 - Vanity Fair 2004

3. “Vanity Fair” (2004) – I rather enjoyed this surprisingly first-rate adaptation of William Thackery Makepeace’s 1848 novel about the rise, fall and rise of an ambitious early 19th century Englishwoman. Directed by Mira Nair, the movie starred Reese Witherspoon.

 

 

4 - The Deceivers

4. “The Deceivers” (1988) – Pierce Brosnan starred in this exciting adaptation of John Masters’ 1952 novel about a British Army officer’s discovery of the Thugee cult. Directed by Nicholas Meyer, the movie co-starred Saeed Jaffrey and Helena Michell.

 

 

5 - The Journey of August King

5. “The Journey of August King” (1995) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this first-rate adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about a North Carolina farmer, who unexpectedly finds himself helping a young slave escape from her master.

 

 

6 - Northanger Abbey

6. “Northanger Abbey” (2007) – Felicity Jones and J.J. Feild starred in this delightful adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1817 novel about a young girl’s misadventures during a visit to the resort town of Bath and at a family’s mysterious estate. Jon Jones directed.

 

 

7 - Davy Crockett and the River Pirates

7. “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates” (1956) – Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen starred in this superior sequel to the first Davy Crockett television movie about the adventures of the frontiersman and his friend George Russel along the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

 

 

8 - Emma 1997

8. “Emma” (1996-97) – Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong starred in this solid adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about the matchmaking efforts of a wealthy young woman in early 19th century England. The movie was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence.

 

 

9 - Brother Future

9. “Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in this entertaining historical/science-fiction movie about a Detroit teen who is hit by a car and wakes up to find himself a slave in 1822 Charleston. Directed by Roy Campanella II, the movie co-starred Carl Lumbly and Moses Gunn.

 

 

10 - Hawaii

10. “Hawaii” (1966) – George Roy Hill directed this energetic adaptation of James A. Michener’s 1959 novel about the experiences of a missionary couple from New England in the early 19th century Hawaiian Islands. Julie Andrews, Max Von Sydow and Richard Harris starred.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

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“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

Over four decades ago, 1969 to be precise, a play written by novelist Barry England was first staged at the Theater Royal in Bristol, England. Set during the height of the British Empire, England’s play focused upon an Army regiment stationed in India. The play became a hit and was eventually adapted into a movie released to the public in 1975.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” begins with two young British officers arriving in Indian to join a prestigious regiment. Lieutenant Drake comes from a middle-class background and is eager to make the right impression. Lieutenant Millington is the son of a General and does not seem enthusiastic over the idea of a military career. He plans to leave the Army at the first opportunity. While Drake manages to make a positive impression with his fellow officers, Millington antagonizes them with his cynical behavior, causing the other officers to dislike him. A military ceremony takes place, honoring the deceased members of the regiment and their widows, including Mrs. Marjorie Scarlett, whose husband won a posthumous Victoria Cross after being killed during a battle on the North-West Frontier.

Later that evening, the regiment holds a ball. The younger officers take part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig in the mess. Lieutenant Millington tries to charm Mrs. Scarlett, but is lightly dismissed. Later, the disheveled widow bursts into the mess, claiming to have been attack. She identifies Milington as her attacker. During an evening in the mess, involving the younger officers taking part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig, Mrs Scarlett runs in claiming to have been attacked, and identifies Lieutenant Millington as her attacker. Although he is innocent, Millington sees the potential disgrace as an easy way to leave the Army and return to England. He does not bother to cooperate with Drake, who has been selected to defend him at his secret trial. But when both men realize that Millington might suffer a more serious punishment other than a dishonorable discharge and Drake discovers that another widow had been similarily attacked six months earlier, the latter officer goes out of his way to clear Millington.

I have not seen “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” for a good number of years – over a decade and a half, to be exact. I recall being very impressed when I last saw it a long time ago. I still am – to a certain extent. But there were two aspects of the movie that left me feeling a little unsettled. One of them focused upon the movie’s setting. With the exception of the first ten to fifteen minutes, most of “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” was either set in the regiment’s mess, other exterior shots or on the cantoment grounds, which could have easily been shot on a sounstage. By the time the movie ended, I felt as if I had watched a filmed play. And I never could understand Lieutenant Millington’s original attitude toward the charges against him. I mean . . . this is the Victorian Age we are talking about in which women – especially white upper and middle-class women – were put on pedestals by men. I could understand Millington’s attitude if he had been accused of assaulting the other acknowledged victim in the story – an Indian soldier’s widow named Mrs. Bandanai. But surely he should have realized that he could have suffered serious repercussion for assaulting someone as cherished as Mrs. Scarlett, right off the bat.

Despite these shortcomings, I must admit that “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” is a first-rate movie. Playwright Barry England wrote a tantalizing peek into the world of British India that featured not only a psychological drama, but also a very interesting mystery and the damages causes by misogyny and racism (in the case of Mrs. Bandanai) that was rampant during the Victorian Age (as well as now). I feel that England created a murder mystery that would have done Agatha Christie proud. I also feel that Robert Enders did an excellent job in adapting England’s play.

The movie began with a great set-up of the mystery – the ceremony honoring the dead Captain Scarlett and the other men who died with him, intertwining with with the arrivals of Lieutenants Drake and Millington at the regiment’s cantonment. The movie also had a rather creepy scene that featured the younger officers engaged in the “stick-the-pig-in-the-anal” game, which foreshadowed the attack on Mrs. Scarlett later in the evening. But what I really admired about the film is that it did not make it easy for the audience to guess the identity of Mrs. Scarlett’s attacker. For that I am truly grateful. If there is one kind of mystery I cannot abide is one that gives away the culprit’s identity prematurely.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” also benefited from a first-rate cast. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of James Faulkner (who portrayed Millington), Michael Culver, Rafiq Anwar, Persis Khambatta and James Donald. Christopher Plummer gave an interesting performance as the intimidating Major Alastair Wimbourne. Although there were moments when I found his performance a little theatrical. I certainly cannot accuse Trevor Howard’s performance as theatrical. He gave an appropriately poignant performance as the regiment’s aging commander, who finds it difficult to accept a possible scandal within his command. Richard Attenborough proved to be equally complex as Major Lionel E. Roach, who seemed to live and breathe the regiment. I was surprised to see Stacy Keach in this cast as Captain Harper, the officer charged with prosecuting Millington. He did an excellent job in developing his character from the hard-nosed, blindingly loyal officer, to one who finds himself appalled by the possibility of a serial attacker. Susannah York gave a superb role as the enticing Mrs. Scarlett, who seemed first amused by Millington’s attempt at seduction and later, angry over what happened to her. But the film actually belonged to Michael York, who more than carried his weight as the main character. I was impressed by how he managed to dominate this film, while retaining his character’s quiet and reserved nature.

Would I consider “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” a classic? I do not know. I certainly would not consider it a candidate for a Best Picture nomination. And it certainly had its flaws. But due to its first-rate story, solid direction from Michael Anderson and an excellent cast led by Michael York, I still would consider it a very good story that is worth viewing time and again.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1977) Review

I have heard of the 1977 adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’ 1902 adventure film. But I never thought I would see it. Recently, it occurred to me to rent the movie from Netflix, because I have yet to run across it at any store that sells DVDs. I did rent“THE FOUR FEATHERS”. Needless to say, it produced some rather interesting feelings within me. 

Anyone familiar with Mason’s tale knows that “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is the story about a 19th century British Army officer named Harry Faversham, who harbor plans to resign from his commission in the Royal North Surrey Regiment and live out the rest of his days with future wife Ethne Eustace. During a ball held at his family estate, telegrams for Harry and three of his friends – Jack Durrance, William Trench and Thomas Willoughby – ordering them to report for duty, due to their regiment being shipped out to the Sudan to participate in the Mahdist War. Being the first to receive the telegrams, Harry had them destroyed so that he would not have to report for duty a day before his resignation from the Army was due to be official. Realizing what Harry had done, his father ostracized him, his three friends gave him white feathers that labeled him as a coward, and Ethne breaks off their engagement and also hands him a white feather. Also, Harry’s best friend, Captain Durrance, becomes a rival for Ethne. Haunted by his efforts to avoid combat, Harry travels to the Sudan to help his friends any way possible and return their feathers.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” attracted a good deal of critical acclaim, after it aired on British and American television. The movie also earned a Primetime Emmy nomination. And if I must be honest, I find that particularly surprising. I have seen this movie twice. Granted, it seemed pretty decent as far as television movies go. But . . . an Emmy nomination? “THE FOUR FEATHERS”? It just did not strike me as being that memorable. The Wikipedia site claimed that it was a very faithful to Mason’s 1902 novel. Actually, it was no more faithful than any other adaptation I have seen. But I do feel that the movie’s critical acclaim might be overrated.

The movie can boast its virtues. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” provided a small, but detailed peek into Harry Faversham’s childhood that gave audiences a good idea behind his aversion to continuing his military career. It also featured at least two excellent action sequences – the skirmish that led to the destruction of Durrance’s company and his blindness, and Harry and Trench’s escape from the prison-of-war camp at Omdurman. Dramatic scenes abound in the film, especially one that featured the breakup of Harry and Ethne’s engagement and the former’s final confrontation with his militant father, retired General Faversham. 

And I cannot deny that some very good performances were also featured in “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. David Robb, Harry Andrews and Robin Bailey all gave solid performances. I found Simon Ward’s portrayal of William Trench rather intense, but believable. Both Robert Powell and Jane Seymour were excellent as Jack Durrance and Ethne Eustace. Beau Bridges proved to be an enjoyable surprise in his portrayal of the lead character, Harry Faversham. I recall reading one review of this movie, in which the critic praised the rest of the cast, but put down Bridges’ performance. Apparently, he found the idea of an American portraying a Victorian British military officer unbelievable. I have seen Americans portray British characters before. And quite honestly, I thought Bridges did an excellent job by giving a subtle performance and avoiding histronics . . . unlike his performance in the 1976 film, “SWASHBUCKLER”.

And while I found the production’s quality solid, I did not find it particularly dazzling. I can only assume that as a television production, it would not be on the same quality as a theatrical release. The movie’s costume designs by Olga Lehmann seemed a little more impressive. I especially enjoyed her costumes for Jane Seymour, despite my confusion over whether the costumes reflected the 1870s or the 1880s. But if I must be honest, I have seen other television productions a lot more impressive. I was also disappointed to find that the story’s jingoistic portrayal of the British Empire somewhat off-putting, especially for a television movie that had aired in the 1970s. I would even add that the sympathetic portrayal of Harry’s anti-military attitude struck me as a bit hypocritical, considering that the movie’s conservative view of British imperialism. I must also admit that I found myself slightly repelled at the sight of white English actors portraying Sudanese soldiers. Did the producers really find it that difficult to find non-white actors to portray the Sudanese? Speaking of white actors portraying African ones:

RJohnson - Four Feathers 77

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. The above photo is an image of British actor Richard Johnson portraying a Sudanese Arab named Abou Fatma, who assists Harry in his efforts to save his friends. Johnson gave a nice, solid performance as Fatma, but . . . why? Why??? Why on earth did the producers cast Johnson in this role? He looked like a performer in a 19th century minstrel show . . . or a cast member from “THE BIRTH OF A NATION”. This kind of wince-inducing casting may have been common in the film industry during the first half of the 20th century. But “THE FOUR FEATHERS” aired on television around 1977/78. Nearly a year after the ABC miniseries, “ROOTS”. What in the hell were the producers and casting director Paul Lee Lander thinking?

Do not get me wrong. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a pretty solid adventure movie that can boast a first-rate cast led by Beau Bridges. But I do feel that the movie is critically overrated. I did not find it that impressive, dramatically or production wise. I found the casting of white actors portraying non-white characters rather repulsive. And the movie’s sympathetic portrayal of the character’s anti-military stance in comparison to its pro-conservative portrayal of British imperialism struck me as hypocritical. Still . . . it was not a bad movie.

“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Three (2012) Retrospective

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“DOWNTON ABBEY” – Series Three (2012) Retrospective

It took me a while to get around watching Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I had been inclined to watch it, while it aired on PBS last winter. But in the end, I decided to wait until the DVD release was offered through Netflix. 

I suspect that some of my reluctance to watch the show’s Series Three could be traced to my major disappointment over the lackluster Series Two. In fact, a part of me is amazed that the series’ shoddy look at World War I could end up with an Emmy nomination for Best Drama. But I figured that series creator, Julian Fellowes, would make up for the Emmy-nominated disaster known as Series Two with an improved third season. In the end, Series Three proved to be an improvement. Somewhat.

What did I like about Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY”? It possessed three plot lines that I found a good deal to admire:

1) The estate’s financial crisis
2) Valet Thomas Barrow’s infatuation with new footman Jimmy Kent
3) Lady Sybil Branson’s death

Downton Abbey’s financial crisis, kick-started by Robert, the Earl of Grantham’s disastrous investment into Canada’s Grand Trunk Railway, which truly emphasized the peer’s inability to handle money and his estate. In fact, this story line also exposed Lord Grantham’s other flaws – stubborness and inability to move with the times – in full force. Actually, the third story line involving the death of his youngest daughter, Lady Sybil Branson – of childbirth, did not paint a pretty picture of the peer, considering that his decision to ignore Dr. Clarkson’s medical advice led to Lady Sybil’s tragic death, following the birth of his oldest grandchild. The plot regarding Thomas Barrow’s feelings for Jimmy Kent allowed Fellowes to explore the status of homosexuals during early 20th century Britain. The plot surrounding Lady Sybil’s death in Episode Five not only proved to be heartbreaking, but also featured fine performances from the departing Jessica Findlay-Brown as the doomed Lady Sybil; Allen Leech as Sybil’s husband Tom Branson; David Robb as the desperate Dr. Clarkson; Rob James-Collier as a grieving Thomas Barrow; Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham; a guest appearance by Tim Pigott-Smith as the society doctor recruited by Lord Grantham to treat Lady Sybil; and especially Elizabeth McGovern, who I believe gave the best performance as Lady Sybil’s grieving mother, the American-born Countess of Grantham.

But even these first-rate story lines were marred by some questionable writing. Lord Grantham’s bad investment and financial loss had the family flailing for a bit, until salvation appeared in the form of a possible inheritance for the peer’s heir presumptive, son-in-law Matthew Crawley. The latter learned that Reginald Swire, the recently dead father of his late fiancée had named him as an heir to his vast fortune. Matthew felt reluctant to accept money from Lavinia Swire’s money, considering what happened before her death in Series Two. Most fans expressed frustration at Matthew’s reluctance to accept the money and save Downton Abbey. I felt nothing but contempt toward Fellowes for utilizing this ludicrous plot point to save the estate from financial ruin. I found it absolutely tasteless that Matthew would inherit money from the father of the fiancée who witnessed him kissing his future wife Lady Mary Crawley, before succumbing of the Spanish Flu. This was just tackiness beyond belief.

And I wish Fellowes had found another way for Lord Grantham or Matthew to acquire the cash needed to save the estate. Lady Sybil’s death and Lord Grantham’s participation in it led to a serious marital estrangement between the peer and his wife, who angrily blamed him for ignoring Dr. Clarkson’s medical advice. Lady Grantham’s anger lasted through most of Episode Six, until the Dowager Lady Grantham convinced the good doctor to lie to her son and daughter-in-law that his medical advice may not have saved Lady Sybil in the end, ending Lady Grantham’s anger and the marital strife between the pair. I suspect the majority of the series’ fans were relieved that Lord and Lady Grantham’s marriage had been saved before it could get any worse. I was not. I saw this as Fellowes’ reluctance or inability to fully explore the negative consequences of Sybil’s death. Even worse, I saw this as artistic cowardice on Fellowes’ part. A martial conflict between Robert and Cora could have spelled a dramatic gold mine.

Even the Thomas Barrow-Jimmy Kent storyline was marred by aspects that led me to shake my head in disbelief. The entire matter began with a minor feud between former friends Thomas and lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien over the former’s unwillingness to help the latter’s nephew, Alfred Nugent, with his duties. One, why would Thomas refuse to help the nephew of his only friend on the estate? And two, this little incident led O’Brien to escalate the feud, leading her to set up a scheme that would expose Thomas’ homosexuality? It seemed to come out of no where. This story line ended with more head scratching for me. First, Fellowes had Thomas sneaking into Jimmy’s bedroom for some petting and caresses, making for the former look like a sexual molester. One would think after his experiences with the Duke of Crowborough and Mr. Pamuk would have led him to be more careful. And following his exposure, Thomas faced losing his job and being arrested and convicted for his sexual preference. And while he faced personal censure from Mr. Carson, Alfred and the object of his desire, Jimmy Kent; most of Downton Abbey’s inhabitants seemed unusually tolerate of Thomas’homosexuality. Only Lord Grantham’s tolerance seemed to ring true, in light of his comments.

But there were other aspects of Series Three that failed to impress me. I read somewhere that Dan Stevens had informed Fellowes that he would not return for a fourth season, before they started filming this season. Judging from most of Stevens’ clunky dialogue in many of the episode, I got the feeling that Fellowes took his revenge on the actor. Stevens’ last lines following the birth of Matthew and Lady Mary’s son seemed like pure torture – “Can this hot and dusty traveler enter?” and “Oh my darling, I feel like I’ve swallowed fireworks!”. Fortunately, Stevens was provided with one scene in which he truly shone – when Matthew lost his temper over his father-in-law’s refusal to consider modernizing Downton Abbey’s estate management. And Matthew’s death in that last episode was one of the most clumsily directed sequences I have ever seen during the series’ three seasons, so far. Many critics and viewers blamed Shirley MacLaine for the poor characterization of Lady Grantham’s American mother, Martha Levinson. Even Fellowes went so far as to claim in this 2012 article that Americans cannot do period drama. Frankly, I found his comment full of shit and those critics and viewers unwilling to admit that the producer-writer did a piss-poor job in his creation of Martha’s character. Poor MacLaine was saddled with some ridiculous dialogue that no actor or actress – no matter how good they are – can overcome. Look at what happened to Dan Stevens. And he is British. Like Stevens, MacLaine had her moment in the sun, when her character saved a disastrous dinner party-in-the-making by transforming it into a cocktail party in Episode Two.

Poor Brendan Coyle and Joanne Foggett were saddled with the long and tedious story line surrounding Bates’ time in prison and his wife Anna’s efforts to exonerate. Every time that particular plot appeared on the screen, I found myself forced to press the Fast-Forward button of my DVD remote control. When Bates finally left prison, he and Anna proved that their romance had become incredibly dull by three seasons. And could someone explain why the Crawleys suddenly believed that Sir Anthony Strallan was too old for middle daughter, Lady Edith Crawley. They certainly felt differently six years ago in Series One, as they considered him as a potential mate for both Lady Edith and Lady Mary. And I find it hard to believe that an arm damaged by the war would turn him into an unwanted son-in-law. I find that too ridiculous to believe. And when Lady Edith found love again, she discovered that the object of her desire – a magazine editor named Michael Gregson – was a married man. And he could not get a divorce, because his wife was mentally handicapped and living in an asylum. In other words, Fellowes had to borrow from Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre” to make this story interesting. Unfortunately, I did not find the circumstances of Gregson’s marriage interesting. Merely unoriginal.

I could go on about the numerous problems I encountered in Series Three. Believe me, I found more. Among them are the number of story lines that Fellowes introduced and dropped during this season. I have already discussed how he ended a potential estrangement between Lord and Lady Grantham before it could get into full swing. Other dropped story lines included:

*Mrs. Hughes’ cancer scare
*Mrs. Patmore’s relationship with a new shopkeeper
*A potential romance between Isobel Crawley and Dr. Clarkson
*Tom and Lady Sybil Branson in Ireland, which was never explored
*Tom Branson’s revolutionary beliefs nipped in the bud

I noticed that “DOWNTON ABBEY” recently received several Emmy nominations – including one for Best Drama. Best Drama? I was disgusted when I heard the news. My disgust did not stem from any dislike of the show. “DOWNTON ABBEY” may be flawed, but it is still entertaining. But I believe it is not good enough to be considered for a Best Drama Emmy nomination. Even worse, a far superior series like FX’s “THE AMERICANS” was overlooked for the same category. Series Three of “DOWNTON ABBEY” had some good moments – especially Episode Five, which featured the death of Lady Sybil Branson. And I found it slightly better than Series Two. But the series remains a ghost of its former self. It still failed to reach the same level of quality of Series One. And even that was not perfect.

“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

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“THE DECEIVERS” (1988) Review

I have heard of British writer John Masters ever since I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION”, the 1956 adaptation of one his novels, on television years ago. Mind you, I did not love the film. But it did ignite an interest in a few of Masters’ stories – including his 1952 novel, “The Deceivers”

Not long after I saw “BHOWANI JUNCTION” on television, film producers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory made their own adaptation of Masters’ 1952 novel. Released in 1988 and directed by Nicholas Meyer, “THE DECEIVERS” told the story of Englishman William Savage, an officer with the British East Indian Company in 1825, who stumbles across the murderous activities of an organized gang of assassins and robbers called Thuggees, who worship the goddess Kali. Frustrated by his commanding officer/father-in-law’s refusal to investigate further, Captain Savage “recruits” a captured Thug named Hussein to help him infiltrate one of the gangs in order to expose the organization. Despite the risk of exposure and vengeance, Captain Savage finds himself undergoing a psychological transformation when he not only becomes close to his new companions, but also begins to succumb to the cult’s bloodlust and murderous behavior.

If one is expecting “THE DECEIVERS” to be one of those costume dramas or adventures on the epic scale, one is bound to be face with disappointment. In fact, I suspect that most critics back in 1988 were very disappointed with the movie’s small scale. Despite some large-scale action, a little horror and historical drama; “THE DECEIVERS” struck me as small-scale period drama and character study of an early 19th century man whose worldview would change in ways he had not imagined. At the beginning of the film, William Savage is not a highly regarded officer with the East Indian Company. Although he speaks several Indian dialects fluently, is dedicated to his duties as magistrate of his district and is friendly with the local aristocrat; his new father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, does not seem particularly impressed by him, especially since he refuses to succumb to the Company’s corruption by taxing the local inhabitants of nearly every rupee they possess. In the company of his father-in-law and other officers within the East Indian Company – including his friend George Anglesmith – Captain Savage seemed like the odd man out or the black sheep. But in the company of those Indian citizens inside his district and the sepoys (Indian soliders) under his command, he is very much the Imperial Englishman. This attitude is especially apparent following his discovery of the Thugs’ activities and their victims. He even go so far as to regard himself redeeming a Thug he and his men had earlier captured – a man named Hussein.

But when his father-in-law, Colonel Wilson, refuses to initiate any further investigations into the Thuggees; Captain Savage decides to take matters into his own hands and infiltrate one of their bands. He disguises himself as a native of Northern India and asks Hussein to help him infiltrate the latter’s own band of robbers. Although Savage eventually succeeds in his mission, his journey with the Thug band nearly tears apart his self-esteem as an Englishman and a civilized man. One of the movie’s more interesting scenes featured Savage, Hussein and the other Thugs engaged in a religious ceremony in which they pay homage to the goddess Kali. During this ceremony, Savage notices that the group’s priest uses an instrument similar to the thurible used during his wedding ceremony. He also discovers that underneath his so-called “civilized” English demeanor, he was capable of a great deal of blood lust and violence . . . including deliberate and cold-blooded murder. As I had earlier stated, the film ended on a triumphant note for Savage’s professional career. The East Indian Company appoints Savage as their main commissioner on the suppression of the Thuggee cult throughout the subcontinent. But despite this career high note, Savage’s psyche and self-esteem as an Englishman in India has been greatly shaken by his experiences with the Thug band.

For me, Savage’s emotional journey into darkness is probably the highlight of “THE DECEIVERS”. And this is due not only to the willingness of Michael Hirst’s screenplay and Pierce Brosnan’s superb performance to explore the darker aspects of Savage’s psyche. It is a pity that the movie ended up as a critical and box office failure. Personally, I feel that“THE DECEIVERS” was a lot better than most it is generally regarded. In many ways, it went against the grain of the typical British Empire action film. Perhaps it is not really an action film . . . and many critics and moviegoers could not accept this. Like I said, it is a pity that many were not willing to accept this aspect of “THE DECEIVERS”. Not only did I find it to be the movie’s most interesting aspect, but I also found it unusual for a movie set in pre-20th century British India.

Mind you, “THE DECEIVERS” is not perfect. I found the movie’s finale, which featured a pitched battle between Company soldiers led by Colonel Wilson and many Thugs to be a rushed affair. Before Nicholas Meyer could further delve into it, he switches his focus solely upon the wounded Savage’s attempt to evade a vengeful Feringea, leader of the Thuggee band with whom he had been following. I was also somewhat disappointed by the story’s handling of the George Anglesmith character. David Robb did an excellent job in his portrayal of the morally corrupt Anglesmith, who is also jealous of Savage’s recent marriage to Sarah Wilson. But the script did very little justice to his character, aside from a surprising revelation regarding his knowledge of the Thugs. There has also been a good deal of criticism directed toward the film’s handling of a Sati (Suttee) situation regarding the wife of a local weaver, who had disappeared, whose identity Savage had used to infiltrate Hussein’s Thug band. Savage’s use of Gopal the Weaver’s identity ended up having far reaching circumstances for the latter’s wife . . . circumstances that repelled a good deal of critics and moviegoers.

I have already commented on the excellent performances of both Pierce Brosnan and David Robb. I might as well touch upon the film’s other performances. Saeed Jaffrey was superb as the redeemed Hussein, who becomes disturbed by Savage’s increasing embrace of his darker psyche. Shashi Kapoor gave a warm, yet complex performance as Chandra Singh, the aristocrat who befriends Savage. Helena Michell gave solid support as Savage’s loyal and passionate new wife. Her father, Keith Michell, gave an intense performance as Colonel Wilson . . . even if there were times I found it a bit hammy. Another intense performance came Tariq Yunus, who portrayed the leader of Savage’s Thug band, Feringea. Fortunately, he managed to restrain the ham.

Visually, “THE DECEIVERS” is a gorgeous movie to behold. Most of the movie was filmed around Jaipur, India. Walter Lassally’s photography did a beautiful job in capturing the natural beauty of Jaipur’s local terrain. What made this particular appealing to me was the fact that a good deal of the movie was set in parts of India not occupied or inhabited by the British. I cannot say that “THE DECEIVERS” revealed the “true” Indian of the mid-1820s. But I found it interesting to view an India not populated by British cantonments or inhabitants. But the movie’s visual of the Indian countryside was not the only thing I found appealing. I also enjoyed the costumes designed by Academy Award winner Jenny Beavan and John Bright. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing the period fashions for both the British and Indian characters of the period.

I suppose there is nothing I can say to convince anyone that “THE DECEIVERS” is an interesting movie. It went against the grain of what many considered an enjoyable movie about 19th century British India. The movie seemed too focused on Savage’s internal psyche and less on any real action. But I enjoyed it, despite its dark topic (or because of it) and the lack of epic scope, I managed to enjoy “THE DECEIVERS”, thanks to Nicholas Meyer’s direction and a first-rate cast led by Pierce Brosnan.