“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” (1978) Review

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“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” (1978) Review

I have noticed in the past decade or so, there have been an increasing number of television and movie productions that either featured the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (aka King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson), either as supporting characters or lead characters. Actually, only one production – the 2011 movie, “W.E.” – featured them as leads. And yet . . . with the exception of the 2011 movie, the majority of them tend to portray the couple as solely negative caricatures.

There have been other productions that portrayed Edward and Wallis as complex human beings. Well . . . somewhat complex. Television movies like 1988’s “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” and 2005’s “WALLIS & EDWARD” seemed to provide viewers with a highly romanticized view of the couple. Perhaps a bit too romanticized. And there was Madonna’s 2011 movie, “W.E.”, which seemed to offer a bit more complex view of the couple. But I thought the movie was somewhat marred by an alternate storyline involving a modern woman who was obsessed over the couple. I have seen a good number of productions about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Yet, for my money, the best I have ever seen was the 1978 miniseries, “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”.

Adapted by Simon Raven from Frances Donaldson’s 1974 biography, “Edward VIII” and directed by him, the seven-part miniseries is basically an account of Edward VIII Abdication Crisis in 1936 and the pre-marital romance of the king and American socialite, Wallis Simpson, that led to it. The story began in 1928, when Edward Windsor was at the height of his popularity as Britain’s Prince of Wales. At the time, the prince was courting two women – both married – Mrs. Freda Dudley Ward and Thelma Furness, Viscountess Furness. Some two or three years later, Thelma introduced Edward to Ernest and Wallis Simpson, a pair of American expatriates living in London. The couple became a part of the Prince of Wales’ social set. But when Thelma left Britain in 1934 to deal with a family crisis regarding her sister Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, Edward and Wallis grew closer. By the time Thelma returned to Britain, Wallis had become the Prince of Wales’ official mistress. And both Thelma and Mrs. Dudley Ward found themselves unceremoniously dumped.

The miniseries eventually continued with the couple’s growing romance between 1934 and 1935, despite disapproving comments and observations from some of the Prince of Wales’ official staff and members of the Royal Family. But the death of King George V, Edward’s father, led to the prince’s ascension to Britain’s throne as King Edward VIII. By this time, Edward had fallen completely in love with Wallis. And despite the opinion of his family, certain members of his social set and the British government, he became determined to marry and maker her his queen in time for his coronation.

“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” is not perfect. I do have a few complaints about the production. I realize that screenwriter Simon Raven wanted to ensure a complex and balanced portrayal of both Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. But there were times when I found his characterization a bit too subtle. This was most apparent in his portrayal of Edward’s admiration of the fascist governments of Germany and Italy. It almost seemed as if Raven was trying to tiptoe around the topic and I found it rather frustrating. On the other hand, Raven’s portrayal of Wallis at the beginning of her romance with Edward struck me as a bit heavy-handed. Quite frankly, she came off as some kind of femme fatale, who had resorted to deceit to maneuver Edward’s attention away from his other two mistresses – Freda Dudley Ward and Lady Furness, especially when the latter was in the United States visiting her sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt. The production’s screenplay did indicate that Lady Furness may have conducted a flirtation with the Prince Aly Khan on the voyage back to Great Britain. Yet, Raven’s screenplay seemed to hint that Wallis’ machinations were the main reason Edward gave up both Mrs. Dudley Ward and Lady Furness.

Otherwise, I have no real complaints about “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”. Ten or perhaps, twenty years ago, I would have complained about the last three or four episodes that focused on Edward’s determination to marry Wallis and the series of political meetings and conferences that involved him, her, her attorneys, the Royal Family, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the king’s equerries, politicians, lawyers and journalists. Now, I found it all rather interesting. What I found interesting about these scenes were the various reactions to Wallis Simpson. Many of them – especially the Royal Family, the equerries and Baldwin – seemed to regard her as some kind of “Jezebel” who had cast some kind of spell over Edward. In its worst form, their attitude came off as slut shaming. The majority of them tend to blame her for Edward’s occasional lapses of duty and ultimate decision to abdicate. As far as I can recall, only two were willing to dump equal blame on Edward himself – Royal Secretary Alexander Hardinge and Elizabeth, Duchess of York, later queen consort and “Queen Mother”.

Another reason why I found this hardened anti-Wallis attitude so fascinating is that the Establishment seemed very determined that Edward never marry Wallis. I understand the Royal Marriages Act 1772 made it possible for the British government to reject the idea of Wallis becoming Edward’s queen consort, due to being twice divorced. But they would not even consider a morganatic marriage between the couple, in which Wallis would not have a claim on Edward’s succession rights, titles, precedence, or entailed property. I am not saying that both Edward and Wallis were wonderful people with no flaws. But . . . this hostile attitude toward the latter, along with this hardened determination that the couple never marry struck me as excessive. Were the British Establishment and the Royal Family that against Edward marrying Wallis, let alone romancing her? It just all seem so unreal, considering that the pair seemed to share the same political beliefs as the majority of the British upper class. And considering that Wallis was descended from two old and respectable Baltimore families, I can only conclude that the British Establishment’s true objection was her American nationality.

Although the political atmosphere featured in “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” seemed very fascinating to me, the social atmosphere, especially the one that surrounded Edward, nearly dazzled me. “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” is one of the few productions on both sides of the Atlantic that did a superb job in conveying the look and style of the 1930s for the rich and famous. This was especially apparent in the miniseries’ first three episodes that heavily featured Edward’s social life between 1928 and 1936. First, one has to compliment Allan Cameron and Martyn Hebert’s production designs for re-capturing the elegant styles of the British upper classes during the miniseries’ setting. Their work was ably enhanced by Ron Grainer’s score, which he effectively mixed with the popular music of that period and Waris Hussein’s direction, which conveyed a series of elegant montages on Edward’s social life – including his royal visit to East Africa with Thelma Furness, the weekend parties held at his personal house, Fort Belevedere; and the infamous 1936 cruise around the Adriatic Sea, aboard a yacht called the Nahlin. But if there was one aspect of “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” that truly impressed me were Jennie Tate and Diane Thurley’s costume designs. When any costume designer has two leading characters known as major clothes horses, naturally one has to pull out all the stops. Tate and Thurley certainly did with their sumptious costume designs – especially for actress Cynthia Harris – that struck me as both beautiful and elegant, as shown in the images below:

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that I was I was not surprised to learn that they had won BAFTAs for their work. Come to think of it, Cameron and Herbert won BAFTAs for their production designs, as well. Which they all fully deserved.

“EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” featured some solid and outstanding performances from the supporting cast. Cheri Lunghi and Kika Markham, who portrayed Edward’s two previous mistresses Thelma Furness and Freda Dudley Ward; along with Andrew Ray and Amanda Reiss as the Duke and Duchess of York; gave very charming performances. I could also say the same for Trevor Bowen, Patricia Hodge and Charles Keating as Duff Cooper, Lady Diana Cooper and Ernest Simpson. Veterans such as Peggy Ashcroft, Marius Goring, Maurice Denham and Jesse Matthews provided skillful gravitas to their roles as Queen Mary, King George V, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Aunt Bessie Merryman (Wallis’ aunt). And Nigel Hawthorne gave a warm and intelligent performance as Walter Monckton, who served as an adviser for both Edward and Wallis. And if you pay attention, you might spot Hugh Fraser portraying Anthony Eden in one particular scene.

But there were four performances that really impressed me. One came from John Shrapnel, who portrayed the King’s Private Secretary Alexander Hardinge. It seemed as if Shrapnel had the unenviable task of portraying a man who seemed bent upon raining on Edward’s parade . . . for the sake of the country and the Empire. There were times when I found his character annoying, yet at the same time, Shrapnel managed to capture my sympathy toward Hardinge’s situation. I was also impressed by David Waller, who portrayed Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Waller also portrayed the politician in the 1988 television movie, “THE WOMAN HE LOVED”. But I felt more impressed by Waller’s performance in this production. I came away not only with Baldwin’s dislike of Wallis and frustration with Edward; but Waller also made me realize how much of a politician Baldwin truly was . . . especially when the latter tried to convince Wallis to disavow Edward.

The true stars of “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” proved to be the two leads – Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris. Of all of the actresses I have seen portray Wallis Warfield Simpson aka the Duchess of Windsor, I would say that Harris is the best I have ever seen. Not once did the actress succumb to hammy or heavy-handed acting . . . even when Simon Raven’s screenplay seem bent upon portraying the American-born socialite as some kind of gold digger in the first episode, “The Little Prince”. The late Art Buchwald and his wife Ann had recalled meeting the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at one of the latter’s dinner parties in post-World War II Paris. Although their recollection of Edward was not that impressive, they seemed very impressed by Wallis, whom they described as a cool, yet charming and savy woman. And that is exactly how Harris had portrayed the future Duchess. More importantly, Harris revealed – especially in the last three episodes – that Wallis was more than a cool and witty woman. She was also a complex human being. Edward Fox won a BAFTA for his portrayal of King Edward VIII, the future Duke of Windsor. As far as I am concerned, he more than deserved that award. I was really impressed by how Fox portrayed Edward as a complex individual, instead of some one-note hedonist, as many productions were inclined to do in the past decade. Fox recaptured all of the warmth, charm and charisma of the future Duke of Windsor. And the same time, the actor revealed his character’s frustration with his emotionally distant parents, his occasional bouts of immaturity, insecurity, self-absorption and single-minded love for Wallis. On one hand, Fox managed to skillfully express dismay at the economic conditions of the country’s working-class and in other scenes revel in his character’s luxurious lifestyle with abandonment. The actor’s performance struck me as a great balancing act.

If I must be honest, the real reason why I managed to enjoy “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON” to this day is that it is almost a balanced portrayal of the British monarch and his lady love. Simon Raven, director Waris Hussein and a talented cast led by Edward Fox and Cynthia Harris managed to convey both the good and bad about the infamous royal pair without resorting to the cliches that have been apparent in other past and recent productions.

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“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” (1988) Review

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“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” (1988) Review

I have come to the conclusion that any movie producer willing to do a project on Wallis Warfield Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor would eventually realize that said project is bound to generate a great deal of emotion – not only in Great Britain, but even in the United States. I have never come across a female historical figure who has polarized the public the way this 20th century American-born socialite has.

The first screen production about Wallis Simpson and her romance with Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and the Duke of Windsor I ever saw was the 1978 BBC miniseries, “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”. But I have seen screen portrayals of both Mrs. Simpson and Edward VIII in other productions, including this television movie called “THE WOMAN HE LOVED”. The television movie aired on CBS in 1988. I wish I could say this movie was the best on-screen interpretation of the infamous romance that rocked the British monarchy back in the mid-1930s. However, I would be lying if I did. But I certainly do not believe it is the worst.

“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” told the story of the famous romance mainly from Mrs. Simpson’s point-of-view, via flashbacks. The movie began in 1972 with her arrival in Britain for the first time in years to attend the funeral of her third and final husband, the Duke of Windsor. While the recently widowed Duchess seeks solitude inside Buckingham Palace as a guest of the Royal Family, she reminisces about about her marriage to American-born businessman Ernest Simpson in 1928 and how it led to her entry into British high society and to her relationship with Edward Windsor. Aside from the 1972 flashbacks, most of the movie began with Wallis’ marriage to Simpson and ended with her marriage to the newly created Duke of Windsor in May 1937. It also covered Wallis and Edward’s affair, which began when he was Prince of Wales and continued after he became King Edward VIII. Also, Wallis’ marital problems with Simpson, along with their divorce and the Abdication Crisis, which occurred during the fall of 1936 were also covered in this film. This is not surprising, considering this is the narrative formula that is used in most productions about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

How did I feel about the movie? Well . . . I did not hate it. But I did not exactly love it. I must admit that its production values were top notch for a television film with a foreign setting. One has to give Kenneth Sharp credit for a detailed re-creation of London and Great Britain between 1928 and 1936. If there is one thing I can say about “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” is that it is a beautiful looking period drama. Sharp’s work was ably assisted by Brian Morgan’s sharp and colorful cinematography. Hell, his work looked better than many period dramas I have seen on both the small and large screen. Although I found Allyn Ferguson’s score not particularly memorable, I thought he and director Charles Jarrott did an excellent in selecting certain tunes that added to the movie’s 1930s setting. But one aspect of the movie’s technical aspect that really blew my mind was Robin Fraser-Paye’s costume designs. Can I say . . . WOW? Or better yet, below are images of Fraser-Paye’s work:

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On the other hand, William Luce’s screenplay failed to have the same effect upon me. As I had hinted earlier, the screenplay for“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” was the basic narrative used for most productions about the historic couple. I would go even further to say that Luce’s work was basically a paint-by-the-numbers job. There were moments that did impress me. Most of those moments featured conversations between Wallis and Simpson – especially when their marriage was breaking apart. I was especially amused by one particular quarrel between them that ended with Wallis sharply ordering their dog from her bed. Some of the biggest problems I had with “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” is that Wallis and Edward’s story was treated solely as a movie adaptation of a romance novel. And I am not a fan of romance novels. I did not expect the movie to be some Charles Higham-style trashy revelation about the Windsor couple. I have seen plenty of recent productions – “UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (Season One)” and “THE KING’S SPEECH” – that portray Wallis as some kind of gauche, gold digging whore. Unfortunately, “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” went to another extreme – painting Wallis as some kind of American-born Cinderella and Edward as this poor, misunderstood prince who had been denied some sliver of happiness due to royal tradition. The movie did offer crumbs of the couple’s ambiguity – Wallis’ affair with Edward and the latter’s determination to steal another man’s wife. But despite these moments of ambiguity, “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” was simply an exercise in romantic gloss.

“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” featured the screen reunion of Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews, who first co-starred with each other in the 1982 television costume movie, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. Both were outstanding in that film. I wish I could say the same about their performances in “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” . . . but I cannot. I am not saying they gave bad performances. Their screen chemistry remained intact. And both Seymour and Andrews offered some examples of their talent in a few scenes. Most of Seymour’s best scenes were with actor Tom Wilkinson, who portrayed Ernest Simpson. Perhaps her performances in these scenes led to her Emmy nomination. Perhaps. However, I found it easy to question this nomination, due to Seymour being forced to portray Mrs. Simpson as an occasionally star-struck adolescent. I could blame her questionable Upper South accent (the American socialite came from an old Baltimore family), but I never believed that a bad or questionable accent could really harm a performance. Andrews had a particularly effective scene in which his Edward angrily expressed his frustration with the British Establishment, who refused to accept Wallis as his future wife. I found this scene to be a breath of fresh air, considering most of his consisted of dialogue that struck me as wooden. But in the end, both actors were simply hampered by Luce’s romantically one-note screenplay.

Olivia De Havilland also received an Emmy nomination – a Best Supporting Actress nod for her portrayal of Wallis’ aunt, Bessie Merryman. And if I must be honest, I find this puzzling. I am not criticizing De Havilland. I thought she gave a solid performance, considering the slight amount of screen time given to her. But there was nothing about it that dazzled me. Lucy Gutteridge portrayed Edward’s previous mistress, the American-born Thelma, Viscountess Furness. By some ironic twist, Gutteridge portrayed Furness’ twin sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, in the 1982 television movie, “LITTLE GLORIA, HAPPY AT LAST” and earned an Emmy nomination. As for her portrayal of Thelma, it was pretty solid, but not particularly mind dazzling. In fact, none of the other supporting performances in the movie – Julie Harris, Robert Hardy, Phyllis Calvert and David Waller – did not strike me as particularly memorable. I must admit I was surprised to see Waller reprise his role as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, which he had originated in “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”. Only Tom Wilkinson’s wry and cynical portrayal of the cuckolded Ernest Simpson came close to really impressing me. While everyone else seemed to be a bit too theatrical or simply going through the motions, Wilkinson made the low-key Simpson a rather interesting personality.

I really do not know what else to say about “THE WOMAN HE LOVED”. I cannot deny that visually, it is a very beautiful looking movie that did an excellent job of re-creating Great Britain during the two decades between the two world wars. But instead of providing a balanced and ambiguous portrait of Wallis Simpson and her third husband, King Edward VIII; director Charles Jarrott and screenwriter William Luce decided to portray their relationship as some kind of cinematic romance novel. And I believe their work may have hampered the performances of the cast led by the usually talented Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews. If you want a realistic feel of the Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII affair, this may not be your movie. But if it is a onscreen fairy tale romance you are looking for, this might be your cup of tea.

“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (1987) Review

 

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“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” (1987) Review

The 1957 Agatha Christie novel, “4.50 From Paddington” aka “What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw” has been a favorite of mine since I was in my early teens. There have been one film and two television adaptations of the story. I never saw the film adaptation, which starred Margaret Rutherford. But I have seen the two television versions. One of them was the 1987 BBC adaptation that featured Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple. 

“4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” begins when Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, an old friend of Miss Marple, travels by train to visit the latter in St. Mary’s Mead. When her train passes another on a parallel track, she witnesses a woman being strangled inside a compartment of the latter. Mrs. McGillicuddy reports the murder to Miss Marple, who suggests that she contact the police. But due to her age and inability to see the murderer’s face, Mrs. McGillicuddy is ignored by the police. Miss Marple decides to take matters into her own hands by tracing Mrs. McGillicuddy’s rail journey. The elderly sleuth’s investigation leads her to the Rutherford Hall estate, where the railway borders at a curved embankment. Miss Marple recruits an acquaintance of hers, a young professional housekeeper named Lucy Eyelesbarrow, to hire herself out to the family that resides at Rutherford Hall, the Crackenthorpes, to continue the investigation.

Considering that the 1957 novel happened to be a favorite of mine, I had hoped this adaptation by T.R. Bowen would prove to be very satisfying. Needless to say . . . it did not. I am not one of those who demand that a movie or television adaptation adhere closely to its source. But some of the changes made by Bowen in his adaptation proved to be rather annoying to me. And I do not believe these changes served the movie very well. Among Bowen’s changes were:

*No one was stricken by food poisoning

*Only one member of the Crackenthorpe family was murdered, instead of two

*The above mentioned victim was killed in a hunting accident, instead of being poisoned

*The nature of the romantic triange between Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Cedric Crackenthorpe and Bryan Eastley has been changed considerably

*Instead of Detective Inspector Dermot Craddock investigating the case, Detective Inspector Slack from three previous“AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” productions served as the main investigator

*The addition of Chief Inspector Duckham, who was an invention of the screenwriter, was added.

As I had stated earlier, the novel featured the second appearance of Dermot Craddock as the chief investigating officer in a Miss Marple mystery. But instead of hiring John Castle to reprise his Detective Inspector Craddock role from 1985’s “A MURDER IS ANNOUNCED”, the producers brought back David Horovitch to portray the irritating Detective Inspector Slack. Horovitch had already portrayed Slack in two previous Miss Marple movies, “A BODY IN THE LIBRARY” and“MURDER IN THE VICARAGE”. Horovitch is a first-rate actor, but the character of Detective Inspector Slack has always annoyed me. I would have preferred if Craddock had made his second appearance in this movie. To make matters worse, actor David Waller, who had worked with T.R. Bowen for “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”, was added to portray Chief Inspector Duckham, a character who never appeared in the novel.

Screenwriter T.R. Bowen made matters worse with more changes. Instead of two, only one member of the household ended up murdered – Harold Crackenthorpe, who was a banker. And his murder was disguised as a hunting accident. Harold was murdered with poisoned pills. Bowen completely left out the scene featuring a mass case of food poisoning from which the family suffered. Although the subject of Martine was brought up, Bowen never made the connection between her and the best friend of Bryan Eastley’s son, Alexander. And instead of following Christie’s portrayal of the “love triangle” between Lucy, Cedric Crackenthorpe and Eastley, who happened to the widower of the late Edith Crackenthorpe; Friend decided to settle matters by having Lucy fall in love with Eastley, who was portrayed as an infantile and suggestible man. Even worse, Lucy seemed to have lost her sense of humor, thanks to Bowen’s script and Jill Meager’s uninspiring performance. Friend also transformed Cedric into an annoying and oozing ladies’ man who tries to hit on Lucy every chance he could. In the novel, Cedric never openly displayed his attraction to Lucy, when he was swapping witty bon motswith her. Yet, Christie made it obvious that he was attracted. And the novel left the matter open on whom Lucy would choose open.

But the one change made by Friend that really annoyed me, turned out to be the big revelation scene. After Miss Marple identified the killer to the police, the Crackenthorpes and Elspeth McGillicuddy; a ridiculous action scene was tacked on by Bowen, allowing Eastley to run after and have a fight with the fleeing killer. It was quite obvious to me that this scene was nothing more than a setup for the audiences to approve of the unconvincing love story between the humorless Lucy and the infantile Eastley. What an incredibly stupid ending to the story!

But despite these flaws, I still managed to somewhat enjoy the movie. One, Joan Hickson was great as ever as Jane Marple. She was supported by solid performances from Joanna David as Emma Crackenthorpe, Andrew Burt as Dr. John Quimper, young Christopher Haley as Alexander Eastley, Robert East as Alfred Crackenthorpe, David Waller as Chief Inspector Duckham, Mona Bruce as Elspeth McGillicuddy and even David Horovitch as Inspector Slack. Slack may have struck me as an annoying character, but I cannot deny that Horovitch gave a competent performance.

Another aspect of “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” that impressed me was its production design. Raymond Cusick did a first rate job in transforming television viewers back to the mid-to-late 1950s. He was ably supported by Judy Pepperdine’s convincing costumes – especially for Jill Eager and Joanna David’s characters. I was not that impressed by most of John Walker’s photography. However, I must admit that along with Martyn Friend’s direction, Walker injected a great deal of atmosphere and mystery into the scene featuring the murder that Mrs. McGillicuddy witnessed.

It really pains me to say this, but despite Hickson’s first rate performance and the production design, “4.50 FROM PADDINGTON” does not strike me as one of the best Miss Marple movies to feature the late actress. Another version was made in 2004 and quite frankly, it was not an improvement. Hopefully, someone will make a first-rate adaptation of one of my favorite Christie novels.