“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair. 

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed“VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that“VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

“MANSFIELD PARK” (2007) Review

“MANSFIELD PARK” (2007) Review

There have been three screen adaptations of Jane Austen‘s 1814 novel, “Mansfield Park”. And I have just finished viewing the most recent one – a ninety (90) minute television movie that first aired on the ITV network in March 2007. 

As many Austen fans know, “MANSFIELD PARK” told the story of an English girl sent at the age of 10 to live with her maternal aunt and the latter’s wealthy family at a vast estate called Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is treated as a poor relation of the Bertram family, as a semi-servant for her aunt, Lady Bertram. Only second son, Edmund, treats her with any real kindness. As a result, Fanny finds herself romantically in love with her cousin after eight years at Mansfield Park. Her feelings come to naught when the Bertram family becomes acquainted with a pair of sophisticated siblings named Henry and Mary Crawford. While Henry amuses himself with Fanny’s cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram; Edmund falls in love with Mary, who returns his affections. Jealous over Edmund’s romance with Mary, Fanny is oblivious of Henry’s sudden interest to her. And when he makes it obvious with a proposal of marriage, Fanny finds herself divided between her true feelings about both Edmund and Henry, and her uncle Sir Thomas’ desire to see her married to an eligible man of wealth.

“MANSFIELD PARK” was one of three Jane Austen adaptations aired by the ITV during the spring of 2007. All three movies possessed a running time of at least 90 minutes. Yet, for some reason, the production for “MANSFIELD PARK”seemed like a cheap television production, in compare to “PERSUASION” and “NORTHANGER ABBEY”. It had nothing to do with the changes to Austen story, made by screenwriter Maggie Wadey. However, I do suspect that some of the changes were a result of the movie’s budget. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that the budget had a lot to do with my dissatisfaction with “MANSFIELD PARK”.

Of the three movies aired for ITV’s “The Jane Austen Season”“MANSFIELD PARK” was the only one that was limited to one setting. Although Austen’s novel was mainly set on the Bertram estate, it also included the Rushworth family’s estate, Sotherton, the Mansfield Park parsonage occupied by Dr. and Mrs. Grant, and heroine Fanny Price’s hometown of Portsmouth. Thanks to Wadey’s script, the production did not include the setting of the Mansfield Park parsonage and Portsmouth. Henry and Mary Crawford were never seen at the parsonage. And to prevent shifting the setting to Portsmouth, Wadey’s script allowed Sir Thomas Bertram to isolate Fanny at the estate . . . alone, instead of shipping her back to her immediate family in Portsmouth. This robbed the television viewers of a chance to meet Fanny’s immediate family, aside from brother William. Another change was made by Wadey that seemed to reflect the movie’s limited budget. Instead of a ball, a picnic was held in Fanny’s honor by the Bertrams, following Maria Bertram’s marriage to Mr. Rushworth. A picnic, instead of a ball. How cheap could one get?

Another aspect of “MANSFIELD PARK” that rubbed me the wrong way turned out to be the fast pacing. The television production moved at such a fast pace that I could barely blink before the scene featuring the Rushworths’ wedding appeared. In fact, the entire story from Fanny’s arrival at Mansfield Park to Maria’s marriage to Mr. Rushworth seemed to move at an extremely fast and somewhat unsatisfying pace. If there is one thing about Wadey’s script that did not move me one way or the other was its approach to the topic of slavery. She turned out to be the only screenwriter who adhered to Austen’s novel. The 1999 movie allowed the topic of the Bertram family’s participation in slavery to become a major theme in the movie. The 1983 miniseries completely ignored the subject. However, this version followed Austen’s novel by allowing Fanny to question Sir Thomas about his role as a slave owner, before dropping the subject altogether.

Remember the outrage over Fanny Price’s characterization in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of the novel? Well, there were some changes made by Wadey in this movie. Maggie O’Neill’s portrayal of Fanny’s Aunt Norris seemed less comic and broad than any other version I have encountered. Normally, I would applaud such a change. But one of the more entertaining aspects of “MANSFIELD PARK” has always been the use of Aunt Norris as a comic figure. O’Neill’s Aunt Norris struck me as slightly boring. Also, Wadey’s characterization of Mary Crawford struck me as slightly cold . . . darker. Portrayed by the talented Hayley Atwell, this version of Mary seemed to lack a sense of humor or true wit. Atwell’s Mary never really tried to form a friendship with Fanny or display any kindness toward the latter. I got the feeling that Wadey deliberately portrayed Mary in this cold fashion to discourage sympathy or any other kind of positive feelings toward her. Because of this, Atwell was almost forced to portray Mary as a one-note villainess. Almost. Thankfully, the actress manage to somewhat rise the character above such mediocrity. Michelle Ryan made a lovely Maria Bertram. Unfortunately, her character failed to make an impact on the television screen, thanks to Wadey’s limited handling of her character.

But not all of Wadey’s characterizations irritated me. I liked her handling of the Lady Bertram character, portrayed by Jemma Redgrave. Instead of the vague and selfish woman portrayed by both Angela Pleasence and Lindsay Duncan, Redgrave portrayed Lady Bertram as a concerned parent and a woman with a deep interest in her children’s love lives, if not their moral compasses. Douglas Hodge made a first-rate Sir Thomas Bertram, in all of his intimidating glory. He had taken the role as an to his mentor, actor/director Harold Pinter, who portrayed the role in Patricia Rozema’s 1999 adaptation. James D’Arcy made an entertaining Tom Bertram. His sharp bon mots kept me smiling through most of the movie’s first half. Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Mr. Rushworth seemed spot on. It seemed a pity that Wadey’s script did not allow him the chance for a deeper characterization.

Both Blake Ritson and Joseph Beattie portrayed the two men in Fanny’s life – her cousin Edmund Bertram and other suitor Mary Crawford. Ritson failed to make me like Edmund as a character. But this was no reflection on his skills as an actor. I simply dislike Edmund. But Ritson is the third actor to give an excellent performance in the role. He perfectly conveyed all of Edmund’s traits that I heartily despise. When I first saw “MANSFIELD PARK”, I was a little reluctant to praise Beattie’s performance. I now realize that my judgement of his portrayal had been rushed. At first, he seemed like a womanizing stalker. But once his character began to fall in love in Fanny, Beattie conveyed a great deal of warmth and subtlety into the role.

Even Billie Piper’s performance as Fanny Price seemed a lot different than Sylvestra Le Touzel and Frances O’Connor’s extreme takes on the character. Due to Wadey’s script and Piper’s portrayal was not Le Touzel’s wooden Fanny or O’Connor’s Jane Austen 2.0 characterization. Piper’s Fanny was quiet, but without the passive aggression that I found so exasperating in Austen’s novel. When I first saw “MANSFIELD PARK”, I believed that Piper’s Fanny also lacked the hypocrisy of the previous version. I realize that I had blinded myself from what was obvious on the screen. Although Fanny did not indulge in heavily criticizing Mary Crawford behind the latter’s back, or hid her dislike and jealousy behind a facade of moral outrage; she did express hypocrisy. Like her predecessors, Piper’s Fanny failed to be honest with Henry Crawford about the real reason behind her rejection of his marriage proposal.

Visually, “MANSFIELD PARK” is beautiful to behold. Nick Dance’s photography was sharp and filled with beautifully lush colors. It is a pity that the movie’s budget limited it to one setting. Tim Hutchinson’s production designs contributed to Dance’s lush photography of Newby Hall in Yorkshire, which served as the Bertram estate. And Mike O’Neill’s costume designs were absolutely beautiful – especially those costumes for the Bertram women and Mary Crawford.

What is my final verdict of “MANSFIELD PARK”? Honestly? Of the three movies for ITV’s “Jane Austen’s Season”, it seemed the least impressive. It could boast some first-rate performances, along with great costumes and photography. Unfortunately, the movie’s fast pacing in the first half and its limited budget did not serve it well. In the end, I believe“MANSFIELD PARK” could have benefited from a longer running time and bigger budget.

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

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“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

Over ten years ago, the BBC aired “”, a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by David Yates, the miniseries starred David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” told the story of a Central European financier’s impact upon upper-crust British society during the Victorian era. Augustus Melmotte arrives in London with his second wife and his daughter, Marie in the 1870s. Not long after his arrival, Melmotte announces a new scheme to finance a railroad project from Salt Lake City in Utah to the Gulf of Mexico. And he promises instant fortune to those who would invest in his scheme. The Melmotte family is also surrounded by a circle of decadent aristocrats and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. One of the investors is Sir Felix Carbury, a young and dissolute baronet who is quickly running through his widowed mother’s savings. In an attempt to restore their fortunes, his mother, Lady Matilda Carbury writes historical potboilers – a 19th century predecessor to 20th century romance novels. She also plans to have Felix marry Marie, who is an heiress in her own right; and marry daughter Henrietta (Hetta) to their wealthy cousin, Roger Carbury. Although Marie falls in love with Felix, Melmotte has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a penniless aristocrat. And Hetta shows no interest in Roger, since she has fallen in love with his young ward, an engineer named Paul Montague.  However, Montague also proves to be a thorn in Melmotte’s side, due to his suspicions about the legitimacy over the railroad scheme.

As one can see, the story lines that stream from Trollope’s novel seemed to be plenty. In a way, the plot reminds me of the numerous story arcs that permeated 2004’s “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. Although some of the story arcs have nothing to do with Augustus Melmotte, nearly everyone seemed to have some connection to the financier. The exceptions to this rule proved to be the characters of American-born Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury and Ruby Ruggles, a young farm girl who lives on Roger’s estate. Mrs. Hurtle’s story was strictly limited to her efforts to regain the affections of former lover and help Ruby deal with the licentious Sir Felix. Roger’s story arc was limited to his unsuccessful efforts to win Henrietta’s heart and deal with his knowledge of Paul and Mrs. Hurtle’s relationship. Fortunately, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” seemed to possess a tighter story than “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. To a certain degree.

But I cannot deny that “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” was one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Trollope novel I have ever seen. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it more than I did “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” or 1982’s “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was due to its portrayal of society’s greed and opportunism. I have heard that Trollope had written the novel in protest against the greed and corruption of the 1870s, which resulted in the Long Depression that lasted between 1873 and 1879. The ironic thing is that the economic situation that Trollope believed had permeated British society during the 1870s had been around for a long time and would continue to permeate the world’s economic markets time again – including the recent downturn that has cast a shadow on today’s economies. Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte is today’s Bernie Madoff or Robert Maxwell.

Another aspect of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is that it revealed the darker aspects of Victorian society on a more personal level. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted by the manner in which young British scions such as Sir Felix Carbury scrambled to win the affections of Marie Melmotte and get their hands on her money; or desperate debutantes like Georgiana Longestaffe willing to marry Jewish banker Mr. Brehgert, despite her contempt for his religious beliefs and social position. I doubt that the likes of Georgiana would never contemplate becoming an author of cheesy novels, like Lady Carbury or marrying a man with no funds – like .

Thanks to Davies’ screenplay and David Yates’ direction, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” permeated with a richly dark and comic style that beautifully suited Trollope’s tale. Hardly anyone – aside from a few such as Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury and Mr. Brehgert – was spared from the pair’s biting portrayal of Trollope’s characters. Two of my favorite scenes featured a ball held by the Melmottes in Episode One and a banquet in honor of the Chinese Emperor in Episode Three. The banquet scene especially had me on the floor laughing at the sight of British high society members gorging themselves on the dishes prepared by Melmotte’s cook.

Although “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is my favorite Trollope adaptation – so far – I must admit that I had a few problems with it. One, Andrew Davies’ portrayal of the Paul Montague character struck me as slightly boring. Like his literary counterpart, Paul found himself torn between his love for Hetta and his sexual past with Mrs. Hurtle. But Davies’ Paul seemed so . . . noble and stalwart that I found it hard to believe this is the same gutless wonder from Trollope’s novel. And if I must be brutally honest, I found his relationship with Hetta Carbury to be another example of a boring romance between two boring young lovers that seemed to permeate Victorian literature. A part of me longed for Paul to end up with Winifred Hurtle. At least he would have found himself in a more interesting romance. I have one more quibble. In a scene featuring a major quarrel between Melmotte and his daughter Marie, there was a point where both were in each other’s faces . . . growling like animals. Growling? Really? Was that necessary? Because I do not think it was.

One would think I have a problem with Cillian Murphy and Paloma Baeza’s performances as Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury. Trust me, I did not. I thought both gave solid and competent performances. I feel they were sabotaged by Trollope’s portrayal of their characters as “the young lovers” and Davies’ unwillingness to put some zing into their romance. Miranda Otto made a very interesting Mrs. Hurtle, despite her bad attempt at a Southern accent. And Allan Corduner and Fenella Woolgar both gave solid performances that I did not find particularly memorable. On the other hand, I felt more than impressed by Cheryl Campbell as the charming and somewhat manipulative Lady Carbury; Douglas Hodge as the love-sick Roger Carbury; Oliver Ford-Davies as the grasping, yet bigoted Mr. Longestaffe; Helen Schlesinger’s funny performance as the clueless Madame Melmotte; a poignant performance from Jim Carter, who portrayed Mr. Brehgert; and Anne-Marie Duff, who managed to create a balance between Georgiana Longstaffe’s strong-willed willingness to marry a man of another faith and her self-absorption and bigotry.

However, the three performances that stood head above the others came from David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. Suchet could have easily portrayed the scheming and gregarious Augustus Melmotte as a cartoonish character. And there were times when it seemed he was in danger of doing so. But Suchet balanced Melmotte’s over-the-top personality with a shrewdness and cynicism that I found appealing – especially when those traits mocked the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society. Shirley Henderson proved to be the perfect person to portray Melmotte’s only daughter, Marie. Superficially, she seemed like a chip off the old block. But Henderson injected a great deal of compassion and poignancy into Marie’s character, making it very easy for me to sympathize toward her unrequited love for Sir Felix Carbury and the heartache she felt upon discovering his lack of love for her. Matthew Macfadyen must have finally made a name for himself in his memorable portrayal of the dissolute Sir Felix Carbury. I cannot deny that Macfadyen revealed a good deal of Sir Felix’s charm. But the actor made it pretty obvious that his character’s charm was at best, superficial. Considering some of the roles he has portrayed over the decade that followed “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, I believe Macfadyen’s Sir Felix must have been one of the most self-absorbed characters in his repertoire. And he did a superb job with the role. It is a pity that he never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

One cannot talk about “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” without pointing out the sumptuous production designs created by Gerry Scott. They were superb. With contributions from Diane Dancklefsen and Mark Kebby’s art direction, Caroline Smith’s set decorations, Chris Seager’s photography and Andrea Galer’s costume designs; Scott and his team did a wonderful job in re-creating Victorian society in the 1870s. I was especially impressed at how Galer’s costumes captured the early years of that decade. I would never call Nicholas Hooper’s score particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it suited both the story’s theme and setting.

Although I found a few aspects of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” to complain about – notably the Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury characters. I cannot deny that it is a first-rate production, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation, David Yates’ direction and a fine cast led by David Suchet. More importantly, the story’s theme of greed and corruption leading to economic chaos was not only relevant to the mid-to-late Victorian era, but also for today’s society. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” strike me as a story for all times.

“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw “MIDDLEMARCH”, the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production. 

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, “MIDDLEMARCH” told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch’s mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s prosperous banker, who is married to Fred’s aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch’s citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated “MIDDLEMARCH”. One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else – including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage’s proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies’ best works. Mind you, “MIDDLEMARCH”is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching“MIDDLEMARCH”, I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga’s main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. While the miniseries revealed Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon, Davies’ screenplay in the first three episodes, Davies did a first rate job in balancing both hers and Lydgate’s stories. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries – the last three episodes – as his story shoved Dorothea’s to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I found the Lydgates’ marriage fascinating. But Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea’s story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will’s relationship following Casaubon’s death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because “MIDDLEMARCH” still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production’s many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order with allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot’s ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters – Dorothea and Lydgate – are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a “happily ever after” and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to “MIDDLEMARCH”, I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot’s saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . “MIDDLEMARCH” is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone’s performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey’s spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon’s poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey’s complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy’s love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates’ passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies’ writing or Page’s direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea’s self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy’s performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

“MIDDLEMARCH” could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries’ production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story’s period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott’s use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano’s photography beautifully captured Scott’s work and the town itself.

Yes, “MIDDLEMARCH” has a few flaws. And the photography featured in the latest DVD copy seems a bit faded. But I believe that it is, without a doubt, one of the finest British television productions from the last twenty to twenty-five years. After all of these years, I have a much higher regard for it than when I first saw it.

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

 

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

When I had first learned that Ridley Scott planned to direct his own version of the Robin Hood legend, I merely responded with a shake of my head. The last thing I wanted to see was another take on the famous English outlaw. But since I was a fan of the director, I decided to give it a chance. 

For years, I had harbored the belief that the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, was the true story myth about the famous outlaw. Imagine my shook when I discovered I had been wrong. One of the featurettes from the movie’s DVD release revealed that there had been numerous versions of the Robin Hood folklore. With that in mind, I found it easy to prepare myself for any version that might appear in Scott’s new movie.

”ROBIN HOOD” opened in the year 1199. Robin Longstride is a common archer who had fought alongside King Richard the Lionheart of England during the Third Crusade. Following the death of Richard during a battle in which the English Army attempted to ransack a French castle; Robin and three other common soldiers – Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlett, and Little John – attempt to return to their homeland after ten years of fighting abroad. Along the way, they come across an ambush of the Royal guard by Sir Godfrey, an English knight with French lineage and allegiance. The King of France had ordered Sir Godfrey to assassinate Richard. Having discovered that the King was already dead, Sir Godfrey is chased off by the arrival of Robin and his companions. Aiming to return to England safely and richer in pocket than they left it, Robin and his men steal the armor of the slain Knights and head for the English ships on the coast under the guise of noblemen. Before leaving the scene of slaughter, Robin promises a dying Knight, Sir Robert Loxley, to return a sword to the man’s father in Nottingham.

Upon arriving in England, Robin (disguised as Loxley) informs the Royal family of the King’s death and witnesses the crowning of King John, Richard’s younger brother. Robin and his companions head to Nottingham, where Loxley’s father, Sir Walter, asks him to continue impersonating his son in order to prevent the family lands being taken by the Crown. Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion, is initially distrustful of Robin, but soon warms to him. But before long, Robin and his friends find themselves swept into England’s political intrigue between the English Northern barons and King John; along with a threat of invasion by the King of France.

I will not deny that ”ROBIN HOOD” has a few problems. If I must be honest, there were three aspects of the film that I either disliked or left me feeling puzzled. One, I did not care for the presence of Lady Marion’s presence on the battlefield between the French invaders and the English defenders. If this was an attempt to make Lady Marion’s character more action-oriented and politically correct, it did not work with me. She did not have any experience as a warrior. Nor did the movie ever made it clear that she had been trained to fight battles or handle weapons of war, like the Éowyn character in the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy. I had no problems with the scene of Marion killing the French officer who tried to rape her. But her presence on that battlefield beneath the White Cliffs of Dover struck me as utterly ridiculous.

I also found the sequence that led to Sir Walter’s revelation that Robin’s father, Thomas Longstride, had earlier led some civil rights movement against the Crown before his death rather irrelevant. Before this revelation, Sir Walter kept hinting that he knew something about Robin. I had suspected that he would reveal that Robin was his illegitimate son or something like that. Considering that Robin seemed determined to protect the Loxleys and take up their cause against King John, I found this revelation about Robin’s father somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. My last problem with ”ROBIN HOOD” centered around the movie’s ending. Following the English army’s successful defense against the French, King John reneged on his promise to the English barons that he would sign the Charter of the Forest – a document for constitutional reforms. I had no problems with this turn of events, considering that John resisted signing the document until he added it as a supplement to the Magna Carta, some sixteen to seventeen years later. Unfortunately, in addition to refusing to sign the document, King John also declared Robin Longstride aka Sir Robert Loxley an outlaw. Why? How did the King know about Robin’s true identity in the first place? Who told him? Certainly not the main villain, Sir Godfrey, who died before he could inform John that the real Sir Robert was killed in France. Neither Sir Walter or Lady Marion would have told him. Who did? And why did the King name Robin as an outlaw? Did he decided to make this declaration upon learning that Robin was NOT Sir Robert Loxley? Even if someone could provide answers to my questions, the entire scenario regarding Robin’s status at the end of the film came off as rushed to me.

But despite these misgivings of ”ROBIN HOOD”, I ended up enjoying it very much. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland did a pretty damn good job in portraying the Robin Hood legend from a new and completely fresh point-of-view. Well, perhaps it was not completely fresh. After all, the movie is obviously an origins tale about how one Robin Longstride became “Robin Hood”. I have seen a similar origins tale in the 1991 Kevin Reynolds film, ”ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES”. However, Robin’s origin tale was merely rushed in that film’s first half hour. Scott and Helgeland decided to create a more in-depth story about the outlaw’s origin in this film. In fact, the movie only featured one scene in which Robin and his friends actually participated in an act of theft. It involved the return of grain confiscated by the Crown. I would not be surprised if many had complained about this, considering that it went against the traditional grain of what to expect in a movie about Robin Hood. However, I was too busy enjoying the movie to really care.

Another aspect of ”ROBIN HOOD” that I found very admirable was its complex portrayal of the English Royal Family. Most versions of the Robin Hood tale tend to have conflicting views of the two Royal brothers – Richard and John. John is usually portrayed as a sniveling and greedy prince who resented the reputation of his older brother. And Richard is usually portrayed as the older and noble brother – something of a “straight arrow” type. Scott and Helgeland somewhat skewered these portraits in the movie. Superficially, Richard is portrayed as noble, popular with his men and pure at heart. Yet, a closer look at the monarch revealed him to be avaricious, thin-skinned and somewhat petty. After all, the movie did start with him leading an attack against a French noble’s castle in an attempt to ransack it for riches to add to the Royal coffers. And when Robin Longstride revealed his true feelings about a vicious battle led by Richard in Jeruseleum upon the monarch’s urging, the archer and his friends found themselves locked in a wooden stock during Richard’s last battle. Prince (later King) John is portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man only concerned with his desires and ego. Yet, the second half of the movie also portrayed him as a man willing to fight alongside his men in the defense of England and willing to occasionally listen to good advice. Neither Richard nor John are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. Which I found very satisfying.

In fact, I would go as far to say that ”ROBIN HOOD” is a somewhat complex and tale about the effects of the Third Crusade upon the English Royal Family, its adversarial relationship with France, which ended up lasting for centuries, and the clash between the Crown and the country’s Northern citizens. Mind you, some of these plotlines have popped up in other Robin Hood movies. But Scott and Hegeland managed to weave all of these aspects into the movie’s story with surprising skill. Mind you, they did not achieve this with any perfection, but it turned out to be a lot better than most movies are capable of handling. And all of this culminated in a superbly directed sequence in which King John, Robin and many other Englishmen defended the country’s shores against the invading French. The only aspect that slightly spoiled this scene was the presence of Lady Marion in battle. Some critics have compared this movie unfavorable to the 1938, accusing it of being lifeless and grim. Hmm . . . perhaps they were thinking of another Ridley Scott film. Because ”ROBIN HOOD” struck me as the liveliest film that he has ever directed. It did have its dark moments. But I had no problem with that. Liveliness mixed with some darkness has always appealed to me. I have always had a problem with the lack of darkness in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. It prevented that movie from having an edge of darkness that I usually like to see in an adventure film.

The movie’s technical aspects were superb. I especially have to give kudos John Mathieson for his beautiful photography. I had feared that ”ROBIN HOOD” would end up with a slightly dark look, which could be found in the 1991 Robin Hood film and even in part of ”GLADIATOR”. Mind you, the France sequences did come off as slightly dark. But once Robin and his friends reached England . . . oh my God! The photography was just beautiful. I can think of three scenes that literally blew my mind – the journey up the Thames River to London, Lady Marion and the Loxley hands working in the fields with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing in the background, and the English Army’s journey to the South East coast near Dover. I also enjoyed Janty Yates’ costumes, as well. Were her costumes historically accurate? I have not the foggiest idea. That particular period in history has never been familiar to me.

The acting in ”ROBIN HOOD” was superb. I could say ”of course”, but I have come across movies with an exceptional cast that ended up featuring some pretty bad performances. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about this movie. Russell Crowe was superb as Robin Longstride. His performance was not as flashy as the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or even Patrick Bergin. But I am thankful that it was not, because such a performance would not suit him. His screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett sizzled. I found this surprising, considering that the two actors from Down Under never worked together. Or have they? Anyway, Blanchett was just as superb as Crowe and gave an interesting take on a Lady Marion who was older and more experienced in life than the previous takes on the character. Mark Strong portrayed the traitorous Sir Godfrey. He gave his usual competent performance, but I have to admit that I found nothing exceptional about his performance. One performance that did caught my attention belonged to Oscar Isaac, who gave a complex and interesting portrayal of the young King John.

I also enjoyed Eileen Atkins’ sardonic portrayal of John and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seemed a pity that her role was not that large. I am glad that Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle and especially Kevin Durand got a chance to strut their stuff. Their performances as Robin’s friends – Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle and Little John – really enlivened the film. It helped that Crowe had recruited Doyle for the film, due to the latter’s musical collaboration with the actor. And considering that Crowe, Doyle and Grimes are all musicians as well, I suspect they must have had a merry time with some of the film’s musical interludes. Another performance that enlivened the movie came from Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Lady Marion’s father in-law, Sir Walter Loxley. There seemed to be a constant twinkle in his eyes in most of his scenes that made his presence enjoyable. There was one performance that left me feeling unsatisfied and it belonged to Matthew McFayden’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I am not saying that McFayden gave a poor performance. I am merely saying that his presence was nothing more than a waste of time. McFayden appeared long enough to sneer and make a pass at Lady Marion, attempt to placate the invading French troops in a cowardly manner and express surprise and fear at the first note received from the new “Robin Hood” near the end of the film. Like I said . . . a waste of time.

Considering that ”ROBIN HOOD” did not utilize the usual myth found in other films about the English outlaw, I am not surprised that many would dismiss it as one of Ridley Scott’s lesser films. Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I had a few problems with the movie. But overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it very much . . . considering my initial assumptions about it. Once again, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe failed to disappoint me and delivered a very entertaining film.