Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

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“CARDS ON THE TABLE” (2005) Review

“CARDS ON THE TABLE” (2005) Review

Most Agatha Christie fans tend to regard movie and television adaptations of her novels with a kindly eye. Especially if those adaptations closely followed its literary source. Not all adaptations have done this, including “CARDS ON THE TABLE”, ITV’s 2005 adaptation of the author’s 1936 novel.

I have always wondered how Christie fans regarded “CARDS ON THE TABLE”. I suspect many Christie fans would not regard it as a close adaptation of the 1936 novel. Also, the story turned out to be one of those mysteries of the “locked room” variety that many fans sometimes find frustrating. I say . . . almost. After all, the victim was not killed or found in a locked room. Instead, he was quietly killed, while sitting in the same room as the suspects.

The story begins when Belgian-born private detective Hercule Poirot and his friend, crime novelist Ariadne Oliver at an art exhibit, they meet the wealthy art collector Mr. Shaitana, who also has an interest in “collecting” successful murderers. He invites both Poirot and Mrs. Oliver to his dinner party for the following evening. His guests include two more “detectives” – military intelligence officer Colonel Hughes and Scotland Yard’s Superintendent James Wheeler. Mr. Shaitana has also invited four people that he believes have gotten away with murder:

*Dr. Roberts – a successful Harley Street physician who may have deliberately killed a patient
*Mrs. Lorrimer – a well-to-do socialite who may have killed her first husband
*Major Despard – a dashing ex-military explorer and hunter who may have killed a married botanist during his last expedition
*Anne Meredith – an impoverished young woman from a good family who may have killed a former employer who caught her stealing

During supper, Mr. Shaitana expresses veiled hints that the four suspects have successfully committed murder. After the meal, he organizes two bridge games – one with the suspects playing in the main drawing room, and the “detectives” playing in another room. Mr. Shaitana settles in a chair near the four suspects and fall asleep. When the “detectives” finish their game, they return to the main dining room and find Shaitana’s body, with a knife in his chest. The four “sleuths” – Poirot, Mrs. Oliver, Superintendent Wheeler and Colonel Hughes – set about investigating Mr. Shaitana’s murder.

For those Christie fans who demand that all movie and television adaptations be faithful to their literary sources, “CARDS ON THE TABLE” just might disappoint them. Director Sarah Harding and screenwriter Nick Dear obviously made changes to Christie’s story. One, they changed the identity of one of the story’s murderers. Two, they allowed two of the characters that died in the novel . . . survive. Colonel Race in the novel became Colonel Hughes in the movie, due to James Fox (who portrayed Race in 2004’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”) being unavailable for the production. And they allowed one of the characters that survived in the book to die. Harding and Dear also changed the motives for both main killers in the story. And . . . they allowed one of the investigators, Superintendent Wheeler, to become a suspect.

Did these changes ruin the story for me? Overall . . . no. First of all, I have to admit that “CARDS ON THE TABLE” is a pretty damn good story. Although I liked Christie’s novel very much, there were moments when I found it somewhat convoluted. I cannot say the same about Nick Dear’s screenplay. He managed to make Christie’s story more coherent without dumbing down the story. The movie also benefited from Sarah Harding’s competent direction. She did a first-class job in maintaining my interest in the story. Not once did her direction ground the movie to a halt. Harding also produced excellent performances from the cast. Contrary to what many may think, even competent actors and actresses can have their performances ruined by an incompetent director. But more importantly, despite the energetic pacing, she managed to maintain the movie’s suspense and mystery. This was greatly enhanced by flashbacks of not only the actual murder, but also the characters’ meetings with Mr. Shaitana.

I certainly did not have a problem with the movie’s production and look. Jeff Tessler, who has worked for both “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” and “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” did an excellent job in re-creating London of the mid-1930s. With the help of cinematographer David Marsh, Denise Ball’s art direction and the movie’s art department; Tessler’s work radiated class and style. The crew’s work also benefited from Sheena Napier’s costume designs, which I found very stylish and close to what the well-born or successful English had worn during the Thirties. I do not know who worked on the actresses’ hairstyles, but I must admit that I was impressed by how close they resembled how women styled their hair eighty years ago. My only complaint was Honeysuckle Weeks’ hairstyle, which seemed more suited to the 1940s, instead of the 1930s.

The performances featured in “CARDS ON THE TABLE” struck me as first-rate. David Suchet was excellent, as usual, in his portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was surprised that his performance seemed a little introverted and I cannot help but wonder if the presence of three other “investigators” had an impact. “CARDS ON THE TABLE” proved to be Zoë Wanamaker’s first appearance as mystery writer Ariadne Oliver and the actress never looked back. Right from the beginning, Wanamaker had a lock on the character. Also, she and Suchet created immediate chemistry on screen, which is not surprising since both had worked on stage together. I also have to comment on Alexander Siddig’s performance. Personally, I believe Mr. Shaitana might prove to be my favorite role he has ever performed. Shaitana seemed like such a departure from anything else he has done and he did such a marvelous job in radiating a mixture of mystery, humor and wit from his character.

I also enjoyed the performances from the other cast members. Aside from Suchet, Wanamaker and Siddig; I also enjoyed Tristan Gemmill as Major Despard, who seemed to be a curious mixture of warmth and coldness; Lyndsey Marshal as the charming, yet morally ambiguous Anne Meredith; Honeysuckle Weeks as Anne’s domineering roommate, Rhoda Dawes; Robert Pugh as the conservative, yet pragmatic Colonel Hughes; and David Westhead, who gave an interesting performance as the slightly suspect Superintendent Jim Wheeler. But my two favorite performances from the supporting cast came from Lesley Manville and Alex Jennings. Manville gave a very enigmatic performance as the mysterious Mrs. Lorrimer, who seemed to have a passion for bridge. And Alex Jennings gave an entertaining performance performance as the verbose Doctor Roberts, who seemed to have something of a touch of gallows humor.

Was there anything about “CARDS ON THE TABLE” that I did not like or found unappealing? Well . . . yes. I had a problem with the motives of the story’s two main killers. Mr. Shaitana’s murderer killed the former to hide a homosexual relationship. I could have tolerated this if Dear had not made the second murderer in the story a homosexual, as well. The second murderer killed due to love for another character and the latter’s interest in a third party. Both murderers turned out to be homosexual and I cannot help but wonder if Nick Dear, Sarah Harding or even the producers are homophobic. It certainly seems likely. This portrayal of two separate murderers as homosexuals proved to be one of the worst examples of bigotry I have ever encountered in any movie or television production in recent years.

Even though I found the homophobia tasteless, I otherwise enjoyed “CARDS ON THE TABLE” a lot. Nick Dear more or less did an excellent job in adapting Agatha Christie’s novel. I was very impressed by Sarah Harding’s energetic, yet atmospheric direction. And I was especially impressed by the talented cast, led by David Suchet. Despite a major setback, “CARDS ON THE TABLE” still proved to be a first-rate movie.

“TOPSY-TURVY” (1999) Review

 

“TOPSY-TURVY” (1999) Review

I have very limited past experience with the world of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. I have never seen a stage production of any of their works. And I am vaguely familiar with one of the tunes featured in their most famous play, “The Mikado”, thanks to the 1978 comedy thriller, “FOUL PLAY”. Pathetic is it not?

I never saw “TOPSY-TURVY”, Mike Leigh’s dramatization of the duo’s creation of “The Mikado”, when it first hit the theaters back in 1999. Considering my penchant for costume dramas, I find it surprising that it took me so long to see this film. It spanned the 14-month period that began with the premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s play, “Princess Ida” in January 1884 and ended with the premiere of the “The Mikado” in March 1885. During this period, the summer heat discouraged theatergoers from attending more shows of “Princess Ida” and ticket sales decline. Producer Richard D’Oyly Carte called on Sullivan and Gilbert to create a new musical play for the Savoy Theater. The duo encountered creative impasse after impasse, until a visit to the Japanese Village Exhibit in Knightsbridge by Gilbert and his wife Kitty, inspired the dramatist write a liberetto set in Japan – an idea that Sullivan agreed to write the music for.

The rest of “TOPSY-TURVY” focused upon Gilbert, Sullivan, the cast and the stage crew working to make “The Mikado”a success. Leigh allowed audiences glimpses into the lives of the cast and crew members that include scenes of them negotiating their salaries with Carte, costume fittings in which both Durward Lely and Jessie Bond express their concerns over C. Wilhelm‘s designs, the women’s chorus learn to walk like Japanese women, Sullivan’s rehearsals with both the orchestra and the cast, and Gilbert’s rehearsals with the cast over lines. The movie also depicts the world of late Victorian England through the characters’ private lives with scenes that include Geprge Grossmith‘s morphine addiction, three actors’ discussion of the Charles Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum, Leonora Braham‘s alcoholism and lesbianism, and Sullivan’s visit to a French brothel, Gillbert’s family circumstances and encounter with a beggar. And throughout the movie’s second half, director Mike Leigh interjected scenes of Gilbert and Sullivan’s preparation of the operetta with actual performances from the production by the cast.

“TOPSY-TURVY” received four Academy Award nominations and won two. But none of the nominations were in the Best Picture, Best Director or any of the acting nominations. I found this a bit disappointing. Mind you, the movie was not perfect. With a running time of 160 minutes, the movie struck me as too long. Someone once complained that the movie featured too many vignettes of late Victorian life . . . scenes that had nothing to do with the creation of The Mikado. To a certain extent, I agree with this complaint. I had no problems with the film starting off with the opening night for “Princess Ida” and the conversations between Carte, Gilbert and Sullivan about the creative pair’s partnership. There was one particular vignette of Victorian life that I found entertaining – namely Rutland Barrington, Lely and Grossmith’s conversation about Gordon’s defeat at Khartoum and their upcoming appointments with Carte. But there was a great deal in the movie I could have done without. I really did not need to view an extended scene from one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s earlier works, “The Sorcerer”. I did not need extended views of Sullivan’s visit to a Parisian brothel or Gilbert’s private life – especially his relationship with this father. In fact, Leigh’s portrayal of Gilbert’s wife, Lucy “Kitty” Gilbert as this meek and mild woman constantly longing for children proved to be inaccurate. The only time “TOPSY-TURVY” provided an accurate portrayal of the dramatist’s wife was the scene in which she dragged him to the Knightsbridge Japanese Village Exhibit. In fact, by the time the movie shifted to the Gilberts’ visit to the exhibit, which inspired the dramatist to write “The Mikado”, at least 50 to 60 minutes of the film had passed.

But despite these flaws, I still believe that “TOPSY-TURVY” should have received Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. At least. Flawed or not, it is a superb movie that not only explored late Victorian England, Gilbert and Sullivan’s collaboration, but more importantly, the world of creating a work of art. As a lover of movies, theater and books, watching the creation of “The Mikado” through Gilbert becoming inspired, costume fittings and various rehearsals sent a thrill through my veins. Someone with the Motion Pictures Academy must have agreed. Leigh received an Oscar nomination for his original screenplay. I especially enjoyed those scenes in which both Jessie Bond and Durward Lely griped about their costumes, Gilbert and choreographer John D’Auban argued over the stage directions for the “Three Little Maids From School” number, and especially the hullabaloo over Gilbert’s initial decision to cut the A More Humane Mikado”, which was eventually performed by Richard Temple.

The film’s Victorian vision would not have been possible by the work of production designer Eve Stewart. She did such an exceptional job of recapturing London of the mid-1880s that I did not realize that the movie featured very few exterior shots until my last viewing. Helen Scott’s Oscar nominated art direction added to Stewart’s re-creation of Victorian London, along with the set decorations she created with John Bush. As for Lindy Hemming, she won a most deserved Academy Award for the brilliant costumes she had designed for the film, as shown below:

Aside from Leigh’s exploration of how “The Mikado” was created, the movie also benefited from strong performances, thanks to its talented cast. Jim Broadbent was the first cast member selected for the movie and he did a superb job as the blunt-speaking, sardonic and artistic William S. Gilbert. Allan Courduner was equally superb as the more extroverted Arthur Sullivan, who seriously considered breaking up the partnership in order to embark on a career as a “more serious” composer. There were supporting performances that left a strong impression with me. They include Lesley Manville as “Kitty” Gilbert. Her characterization may have been off, thanks to Leight, but Manville gave a brilliant performance. Ron Cook gave one of the most subtle and satisfying performances as Savoy Theater owner, Richard D’Oyly Carte. I especially enjoyed Timothy Spall, Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd and Martin Savage as Richard Temple, Leonora Braham, Durward Lely and George Grossmith, respectively.

No movie is perfect. And that includes “TOPSY-TURVY”. My main problem is that it required more editing than it actually received. It really needed a shorter running time. But the movie’s flaws were overshadowed by its virtues – an in-depth look into the world of Victorian theater and the creation of “The Mikado”, a beautiful production design that came very close to reflecting life in the late Victorian era, a first-rate cast led by Jim Broadbent and Allan Courduner, and excellent direction and writing from Mike Leigh, himself. It was not perfect, but I believe it could have received Oscar nods for both Best Picture and Best Director.

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

 

“MALEFICENT” (2014) Review

I am probably the last person on this earth who would associate Angelina Jolie with a Disney film, let alone one made for children. Then again, I have never seen Jolie in another movie like her recent film, “MALEFICENT”.

Despite some adult themes found in this new film, I honestly believe that “MALEFICENT” is basically a movie for children. It is not just based upon Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale, “La Belle au Bois Dormant”, but also the Disney Studios’ 1959 animated adaptation, “SLEEPING BEAUTY”. Only this film is told with a twist. Some would say with a feminist twist. Linda Woolverton’s screenplay features the story’s main villainess, the evil and vindictive fairy, Maleficent, as the movie’s main protagonist. The film begins with Maleficent as a young and powerful fairy who serves as the main protector of a fairy realm called Moors that borders a human kingdom ruled by ruthless monarch named King Henry, who covets it. Maleficent befriends a young boy named Stefan, who works as a kitchen servant for the king.

The years pass as Maleficent and Stefan’s friendship grows to something close to a romance. But King Henry’s latest attempt to invade Moors leads him to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage and his kingdom to the man able to kill Maleficent. Ambitious and longing to rise above his station, Stefan sets out to collect the bounty on his old friend. Unable to kill her because of their friendship, Stefan drugs Maleficent and burns her wings off with iron (a substance lethal to fairies) and presents the latter to King Henry as proof of her death. Stefan eventually marries King Henry’s daughter, Princess Leila, and eventually assumes the throne following his father-in-law’s death. When Maleficent learns about the birth of Stefan and Leila’s infant daughter, Aurora, she appears uninvited at the christening and places a curse on the infant princess. On her sixteenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and fall into a death-like sleep. After Stefan is forced by Maleficent to beg for his daughter, she alters the curse with the addition that it can be broken by true love’s kiss. Stefan arranges for Aurora to be raised by three pixie fairies – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit. And despite her initial dislike of Aurora, Maleficent begins to secretly care about the girl, when the neglectful pixie fairies fail to take properly care of her.

There is a good number of elements for “MALEFICENT” that I found very admirable. I believe it is one of the more visually stunning films I have seen in recent years. A great deal of credit has to go to Dylan Cole and Gary Freeman’s production designs. The pair did an excellent job in recapturing medieval life . . . at least in a fantasy world. Dean Semler’s photography of parts of rural England, which served as King Stefan’s realm, added to the movie’s visual style. But the work from the special effects team, especially for creation of the fairy realm and other sequences that featured magic, truly enhanced the movie’s visual style. I also have to add a word about Anna B. Sheppard’s costume designs for the film. I could wax lyrical on how beautiful they looked. But there are times when I believe that images can speak louder than words:

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I will not claim that Sheppard’s costumes are an accurate reflection of medieval fashion. But . . . hey! I cannot deny that I found them beautiful.

As for the plot for “MALEFICENT”, I cannot deny that it proved to be something of a conundrum for me. Woolverton’s screenplay and Robert Stromberg’s direction clearly seemed to hint that it is basically a movie for children. The dialogue, the movie’s style of humor and especially its use of the three fairy sisters as the movie’s comic relief practically screams “Kiddie Film” to me. And yet . . . Woolverton’s screenplay also featured elements that seemed to indicate a movie with strong adult themes. The most obvious element proved to be the theft of Maleficent’s wings. Unless I am mistaken, the entire scene struck me as a metaphor for rape. Think about it. Stefan drugs Maleficent (a stand-in for any rape drug) to knock her unconscious. Using iron – an indication of violence – he physically violates her by burning off her wings. The relationship that develops between Maleficent and Aurora not only proved to be unexpected, but is given a feminist twist. Aside from Maleficent’s relationship with her aide Diaval, a raven whom she had saved by transforming him into a human; the male-female relationships in this movie proved to be either ineffective or disastrous. Even the use of “True Love’s Kiss” had a twist I had failed to foresee . . . until several minutes before it actually occurred.

There have been other productions – both television and film – that mixed elements of children’s stories and adult themes. ABC Television’s “ONCE UPON A TIME” seemed to use a great deal of adult themes in its twist on fairy tales. Yet, the series continues to maintain some semblance of childlike morality in its portrayal of magic. J.K. Rowling’s “HARRY POTTER” literary (and film adaptations) series becomes increasingly ambiguous as the saga progresses. And aside from the first film, George Lucas’ “STAR WARS” film saga strikes me as a case study of moral ambiguity with touches of humor and characterizations for children. But these science-fiction/fantasy sagas seem capable of balancing humor and storytelling for children with adult themes.

I cannot say the same about “MALEFICENT”. The movie’s childish humor – courtesy of the three fairy sisters – struck me as heavy-handed and not at all funny. I also believe the movie’s 97-minute running time made it difficult for Woolverton’s script to maintain that balance between children and adult themes. More importantly, the movie’s running time forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the story forward at a unnecessarily fast pace, especially during the movie’s last half hour. Other aspects of the plot – Maleficent’s background, her relationships with both Stefan and Diaval, and especially her developing relationship with Aurora. But there are two aspects that struck me as rushed – namely Aurora’s relationship with the fairy sisters (which barely seemed to exist) and the last half hour in which the sleeping curse is played out. I cannot help but wonder if Disney’s penchant for cinematic penny-pinching forced Stromberg and Woolverton to rush the movie’s climatic act.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Angelina Jolie was outstanding as the movie’s protagonist, the fairy Maleficent. Being the top-notch actress that she is, Jolie effortlessly captured every nuance of Maleficent’s character – both the good and the bad. I have been a great admirer of Sharlto Copley in the past – with the exception of his villainous turn in the 2013 sci-fi movie, “ELYSIUM”. Thankfully, his complex portrayal of this movie’s villain, King Stefan, reminded me of his skill at portraying complex roles. At first, Elle Fanning seemed to be stuck with a role that struck me very sweet, kind . . . and boring. Fortunately for her, the Princess Aurora character became more interesting in the movie’s second half and Fanning got the chance to show off her acting chops – especially in the scene in which Aurora confronts Maleficent about the curse.

The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Riley as Maleficent’s confidant Diaval, Kenneth Cranham as King Henry and Hannah New as Queen Leila. I have been longtime fans of Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville and Juno Temple. But I have to be honest – I was not that impressed by their portrayals of the three fairy sisters. It was quite obvious to me that Staunton, Manville and Temple did their best to make the three sisters – Knotgrass, Flittle and Thistlewit – interesting. Nor can I accuse them of bad acting. They were obviously giving it their all. There are times when external forces have a way of affecting an actor or actress’ performance, whether due to bad direction or bad writing. In the case of the three actresses who portrayed Aurora’s fairy guardians, I suspect their performances were sabotaged by Linda Woolverton’s writing. The screenwriter’s sense of humor struck me as subtle as a stampeding buffalo. I also believe that her screenplay may have hampered Brenton Thwaites’ performance as Prince Philip. How can I put it? Thwaites gave a bland and boring performance, because he was forced to portrayed a bland and boring character. The 1959 animated version of the prince had more zing than this latest version. And I blame Woolverton’s screenplay, not the actor.

Do not get me wrong. I rather liked “MALEFICENT”. I found it to be a visually stunning film with some strong moral ambiguity in its plot and in some of the major characters, and a solid cast led by outstanding performances from Angelina Jolie and Sharlto Copley. I also enjoyed the feminist twist on the “Sleeping Beauty” tale. But due to some flawed characterizations and a failure to balance both the children and adult theme in its plot, I can honestly say that I did not love “MALEFICENT”.

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Favorite AGATHA CHRISTIE Movies

About two years ago, I had posted my ten favorite movies based upon some of Agatha Christie’s novel. Two years later, my tastes have changed a bit. Here is my new list: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE AGATHA CHRISTIE MOVIES

1. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his debut as Hercule Poirot in this intriguing mystery about the detective’s investigation into the death of a wealthy Anglo-American bride on her honeymoon, during a cruise down the Nile River. Directed by John Guillerman, David Niven co-starred.

2. “Evil Under the Sun” – Peter Ustinov portrays Hercule Poirot for the second time in this witty and entertaining mystery about the detective’s investigation into the murder of a famous stage actress. Guy Hamilton directed.

3. “Five Little Pigs” (2003) – Poirot investigates the 15 year-old murder of a famous, philandering artist in order to clear the name of his widow, who had been hanged for killing him. David Suchet and Rachael Stirling starred.

4. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this classic, all-star mystery about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of the death of a mysterious wealthy American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

5. “A Murder Is Announced” (1986) – Joan Hickson stars as Jane Marple in this superb adaptation of Christie’s story about an unusual newspaper announcement that leads curious village inhabitants to a supper party and a murder. John Castle co-starred.

6. “After the Funeral” (2006) – When a man disinherits his sole beneficiary and bequeaths his wealth to others just prior to his death, Poirot is called in to investigate. David Suchet and Geraldine James stars.

7. “Towards Zero” (2007) – Geraldine McEwan starred as Jane Marple in this excellent adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel about the investigation of the murder of a wealthy, elderly woman.

8. “Sad Cypress” (2003) – Poirot races against time in this haunting tale to prove whether or not a young woman was responsible for the murder of her aunt and the latter’s companion.

9. “Cards on the Table” (2005) – In this fascinating mystery, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a mysterious dinner host named Mr. Shaitana, in which four of the suspects may have committed a previous murder. David Suchet and Zoë Wanamaker starred.

10. “The Mirror Crack’d” (1980) – Four years before she stepped into the role of television sleuth Jessica Fletcher, Angela Landsbury portrayed Jane Marple in this entertaining mystery about a visiting Hollywood star filming a movie in St. Mary’s Mead. Guy Hamilton directed.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

Below is my review of the 2004 BBC miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, which is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel:

 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

If someone had told me years ago that I would find myself watching the 2004 BBC television adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, let alone purchase a DVD copy of the miniseries, I would have dismissed that person’s notion as inconceivable. I have never shown any previous interest in “NORTH AND SOUTH”. And I am still baffled at how I suddenly became interested in it.

Mind you, I have been aware of the 2004 miniseries for the past several years. This was due to my interest in the three miniseries based upon John Jakes’ literary trilogy about two families during the years before, during and after the American Civil War. Every time I tried to find photographs or websites about Jakes’ trilogy, I would end up encountering material on the BBC miniseries. It took me at least three to four years to express any real interest in “NORTH AND SOUTH”. But in the end, I found it difficult to ignore the mid-Victorian setting (a period I have always been interested in) and decided to include the miniseries on my Netflix rental list.

But when Netflix decided to offer the opportunity to view “NORTH AND SOUTH” via the computer, I watched the first fifteen minutes of Episode One . . . and became intrigued. Then I accessed at least two scenes from the miniseries on YOU TUBE – namely John Thornton’s marriage proposal to Margaret Hale and Nicholas Higgins’ castigation of Boucher for ruining the strike via violence and became hooked. I had to see the entire miniseries as soon as possible. So what did I do? Instead of moving “NORTH AND SOUTH” to the top of my Netflix list, I purchased a DVD copy of the miniseries. Just like that. Yes, I know I could have easily done the former. But for some reason, I found myself longing to own the DVD. And you know what? I am very glad that I made the purchase.

The miniseries is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the cultural clash between England’s pastoral South and the industrial North in the 1850s. It told the story of Margaret, a well-to-do young woman from southern England who is forced to move to the North after her clergyman father became a church dissenter and decided to leave the clergy. With the help of a family friend named Mr. Bell, the Hales managed to find a home in the city of Milton (a stand-in for Manchester). However, they end up struggling to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family that owns a cotton mill called Marlborough Mills. The story explored the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to John Thornton.

Many have compared “NORTH AND SOUTH” to the 1995 miniseries “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Personally, I only saw scant resemblance between the two stories. Both featured a romance between a plucky, yet genteel heroine and a brooding hero. But the personalities of Margaret Hale and John Thornton seemed a far cry from those of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Also, “NORTH AND SOUTH” seemed more than just a costumed romantic story filled with misunderstandings. As I had mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is a social drama about class and gender differences. It is also an exploration of the rise of the Industrial Age and its effects upon people, Great Britain’s economy and the environment. Most importantly, the story is a cultural clash between the pastoral South represented by Margaret Hale and John Thornton’s industrial North.

The miniseries’ exploration of the cotton textile industry led me to ponder a few things about the story’s background. A conversation between Thornton and some of his fellow mill owners led to a mention of the cotton they have purchased from cotton planters in the American South. Although their conversation only touched upon the different locations where cotton is grown, the subject would end up having an impact upon England’s cotton textile industry following the outbreak of the American Civil War. I also noticed that mill workers like Nicholas Higgins and his daughters Bessie and Mary refer to their bosses as”Master” – the same term African-American slaves use for their owners. I can only speculate on that astounding coincidence.

I have never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Perhaps I will, one day. But I understand there had been a few changes in this adaptation. One, the miniseries depicted Margaret’s initial meeting with Thornton at a time when he was beating one of his employees for smoking on the Marlborough Mills premises. Naturally, Margaret viewed Thornton’s actions as cruel and barbaric – typical of men in that region. Screenwriter Sandy Welch had created the scene for the miniseries, believing it would better serve as an opening salvo for Margaret’s dislike of Thornton and her prejudices against the North in a more dramatic manner. Although some fans have complained against this artistic license, I have not. Especially since Welch’s screenplay explained that the worker’s smoking could have endangered the employees with a devastating fire. I also feel that this scene visually worked better than Gaskell’s literary introduction of the two main characters.

Another major change in the miniseries featured Margaret and Thornton’s final reconciliation at a railway station between London and Milton. The scene featured Margaret offering financial aid to Thornton for the defunct Marlborough Mills and a romantic kiss between the two. Many have pointed out the lack of discretion of such a kiss in Victorian Britain and they are probably right. But I must admit that I found it damn romantic – probably more so than Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation in most of the“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” adaptations I have seen.

Production designer Simon Elliot did a first-rate job in recapturing Great Britain in the early 1850s. I especially applaud his decision to use parts of Edinburgh as a stand-in for Milton. This was a wise decision, considering that the Scottish metropolis managed to retain many of its buildings from the Victorian industrial era. Elliot ended up receiving a much deserved British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. Not only did Peter Greenhalgh’s photography also captured the period’s mood, but also used different tints of color to distinguish the three main settings in the story – Helstone in Southern England, the Northern industrial town of Milton and London. Mike O’Neill’s costumes suited the period, the personalities of each major character and their circumstances throughout the story. In fact, the miniseries even touched upon the differences between Fanny Thornton’s wide crinoline skirts and the Hale women’s more subdued ones – pinpointing the financial differences between the three female characters and their families. And what can I say about Martin Phipps’ score? Not only was it beautiful, but also haunting enough to be memorable.

The only problems I had with “NORTH AND SOUTH” centered on its pacing in late Episode 3 and in Episode 4. I think the miniseries could have benefitted from a fifth episode. There seemed to be too many deaths and other incidents during this period of the story for two episodes. I suppose one could blame Gaskell or also her editor – author Charles Dickens – for rushing her toward the end. Too much occurred during these last two episodes – the deaths, Thornton’s friendship with Higgins, Frederick Hale’s reunion with his family, Margaret’s legal problems, Fanny Thornton’s marriage, Thornton’s financial crisis and Margaret’s reunion with her family members in the South and Henry Lennox. I do believe that a fifth episode could have suffice. Also, Welch introduced two characters to the story – a banker named Latimer and his daughter Ann. I believe Ann was used or to be used as Margaret’s rival for Thornton’s romantic interest. Only the so-called rivalry never really went anywhere.

“NORTH AND SOUTH” was really blessed with a first-rate cast – both leading and supporting. Try as I might, I could not find a performance I would consider to be out-of-step. Neither Tim Piggot-Smith or Lesley Manville had received much notice for their portrayal of Margaret’s parents – Richard and Maria Hale. It seemed a shame, considering I found myself very impressed by their performances. Both did an excellent job in conveying how dysfunctional and emotionally repressed the Hale household tended to be. This was especially made apparent in an emotionally charged scene in which Maria Hale expressed her dislike of Milton and lack of understanding toward her husband’s decision to give up the clergy. Brian Protheroe portrayed Mr. Hale’s closest friend and Margaret’s godfather, Mr. Bell. I have not seen Protheroe since he portrayed Maryam D’Abo’s love interest in the 1990 adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s novel, “NOT A PENNY MORE, NOT A PENNY LESS”. As Mr. Bell, he was just as charming and ambiguous as he had been back in 1990. Jo Joyner gave a funny and interesting performance as Fanny Thornton, John’s shallow and capricious younger sister. There were times I wondered if Fanny’s character had a one-dimensional note about it, despite Joyner’s hilarious performance. However, the actress did manage to convey the character’s jealousy of not only Margaret, but also her older brother. I also got the feeling, thanks to some subtle moments in Joyner’s performance that Fanny did not like her mother very much. And resented the older woman.

One could never harbor doubts that Sinéad Cusack’s portrayal of Hannah Thornton might be one-dimensional. Aside from the two leads, she gave one of the best performances in the miniseries. Thanks to Cusack’s complex performance, there were times when I could not decide whether to dislike Mrs. Thornton for her hostile attitude toward Margaret, or like her for her warm and devoted relationship with John. In the end, I guess I liked her. She seemed too interesting, too well-written and well-acted by Cusack for me to dismiss her. Besides, I suspect that her attitude toward Margaret had a great deal to do with concern for her son. I found Brendan Coyle and Anna Maxwell Martin’s performances as the mill workers, Nicholas and Bessie Higgins just as impressive. Costume dramas rarely focused upon working-class characters. Yet, both Coyle and Martin ably breathed life into their roles, they did an excellent of conveying the strong impact that both father and daughter had upon the lives of other main characters – especially through their friendships with Margaret and Thornton.

Before I actually saw “NORTH AND SOUTH”, I had read a great deal about the John Thornton character and actor Richard Armitage, who had portrayed him. Granted, the man possessed unusual looks, but I never gave him much thought . . . until I saw a clip of his performance in the miniseries’ marriage proposal scene. But once I saw the miniseries in its entirety, I could see why Armitage’s performance had generated a slew of fans. His John Thornton blew me away. Literally. The actor gave an outstanding performance as the hard-nosed, yet emotion cotton mill owner who found himself falling in love with this stranger from the South. As a rule, I am not particularly inclined toward overtly masculine types and I am still not. Armitage’s Thornton might have been described in that manner . . . superficially. Yet, the actor managed to transcend this cliché by infusing Thornton with a passionate, yet insecure nature. His Thornton was a man who literally wore his heart on his sleeve. Armitage’s performance is truly remarkable.

I could probably say the same about Daniela Denby-Ashe’s portrayal of the story’s central character, Margaret Hale. I had read an article that Denby-Ashe had auditioned for the role of Fanny Thornton. All I can say is thank goodness that producer Kate Baylett had the good sense to realize that the actress would be the right person to portray Margaret. And Denby-Ashe was magnificent. Not only did she perfectly capture the genteel and internalized aspects of Margaret’s personality, she also conveyed the character’s strong-willed and opinionated nature. And Denby-Ashe’s Margaret proved to be just as intimidating as Armitage’s Thornton. This was especially apparent in two scenes – Margaret’s demand that Thornton do something to protect his new Irish workers from the strikers and her hostile outburst toward Helstone’s new vicar after he had criticized her father’s dissention. She was magnificent in the role.

I really must applaud how producer Kate Barlett, screenwriter Sandy Welch and especially director Brian Percival did a superb job in adapting Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. In fact, I firmly believe it is one of the best programs that aired on television in the past decade. And yet . . . the only real accolade it managed to receive was a British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. And nothing else. No nominations for acting, writing or direction. Frankly, I consider this to be a travesty. Am I to believe that the bigwigs at BBC and the British media had this little respect for”NORTH AND SOUTH” or Elizabeth Gaskell? I am even beginning to suspect that the American media has little respect for it. The only airing of the miniseries was a chopped up version that aired on BBC America, instead of PBS or the A&E Channel. How sad that certain people do not know a really good thing when they see it.