“VANITY FAIR” (2018) Review

“VANITY FAIR” (2018) Review

When I had first heard that the ITV channel and Amazon Studios had plans to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel, “Vanity Fair”, I must admit that I felt no interest in watching the miniseries. After all, I had already seen four other adaptations, including the BBC’s 1987 production. And I regard the latter as the best version of Thackeray’s novel I had ever seen.

In the end, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch the seven-part miniseries. In a nutshell, “VANITY FAIR” followed the experiences of Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, the social climbing daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer in late Georgian England during and after the Napoleonic Wars. The production also told the story of Becky’s school friend and daughter of a wealthy merchant, Amelia Sedley. The story begins with both young women leaving Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies. Becky managed to procure a position as governess to Sir Pitt Crawley, a slightly crude yet friendly baronet. Before leaving for her new position, Becky visits Amelia’s family. She tries to seduce Jos Sedley, Amelia’s wealthy brother and East India Company civil servant. Unfortunately George Osborne, a friend of Jos and son of another wealthy merchant, puts a stop to the budding romance.

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 becomes 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, George’s own father insists that he dump Amelia and marry a Jamaican heiress. George refuses to do so and thanks to his friend William Dobbin’s urging, marries Amelia. Mr. Osborne ends up disinheriting George. However, the romantic lives of Becky and Amelia take a backseat when history overtakes them and their husbands with the return of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I wish I could say that the 2018 miniseries was the best adaptation of Thackery’s novel I had seen. But it is not. The production had its . . . flaws. One, I disliked its use of the song “All Along the Watchtower” in each episode’s opening credits and other rock and pop tunes during the episodes’ closing credits. They felt so out of place in the miniseries’ production. Yes, I realize that a growing number of period dramas have doing the same. And quite frankly, I detest it. This scenario barely worked in the 2006 movie, “MARIE ANTOINETTE”. Now, this use of pop tunes in period dramas strike me as awkward, ham-fisted, unoriginal and lazy.

I also noticed that producer and screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes threw out the younger Pitt Crawley character (Becky’s brother-in-law), kept the Bute Crawley character and transformed him from Becky Sharp’s weak and unlikable uncle-in-law into her brother-in-law. Hughes did the same with the Lady Jane Crawley and Martha Crawley characters. She tossed aside the Lady Jane character and transformed Martha from Becky’s aunt-in-law to sister-in-law. Frankly, I did not care for this. I just could not see characters like Bute and Martha suddenly become sympathetic guardians for Becky and Rawdon’s son in the end. It just did not work for me. I have one last problem with “VANITY FAIR”, but I will get to it later.

I may not regard “VANITY FAIR” as the best adaptation of Thackery’s novel, I cannot deny that it is first-rate. Gwyneth Hughes and director James Strong did an excellent job of bringing the 1848 novel to life on the television screen. Because this adaptation was conveyed in seven episodes, both Hughes and Strong were given the opportunity retell Thackery’s saga without taking too many shortcuts. The miniseries replayed Becky Sharp’s experiences with the Sedley family, George Osbourne, and the Crawley family in great detail. I was especially impressed by the miniseries’ recount of Becky and Amelia’s experiences during the Waterloo campaign – which is the story’s true high point, as far as I am concerned. Also, this adaptation had conveyed George’s experiences during Waterloo with more detail than any other adaptation I have seen.

Aside from the Waterloo sequence, there were other scenes that greatly impressed me. I really enjoyed those scenes that featured the famous Duchess of Richmond’s ball in the fourth episode, “In Which Becky Joins Her Regiment”; Becky’s attempts to woo Jos Sedley in the first episode, “Miss Sharp In The Presence Of The Enemy”; the revelation of Becky’s marriage to Rawdon Crawley in ” “A Quarrel About An Heiress”; and her revelation to Amelia about the truth regarding George in the final episode, “Endings and Beginnings”. There were people who were put off that the series did not end exactly how the novel did – namely the death of Jos, with whom Becky had hooked up in the end. I have to be honest . . . that did not bother me. However, I was amused that Becky’s last line in the miniseries seemed to hint that Jos’ death might be a possibility in the near future.

The production values for “VANITY FAIR” struck me as quite beautiful. I thought Anna Pritchard’s production designs did an excellent job in re-creating both London, the English countryside, Belgium, Germany, India and West Africa between the Regency era and the early 1830s. Not only did I find the miniseries’ production values beautiful, but also Ed Rutherford’s cinematography. His images struck me as not only beautiful, but sharp and colorful. I would not say that Lucinda Wright and Suzie Harman’s costume designs blew my mind. But I cannot deny that I found them rather attractive and serviceable for the narrative’s setting.

One of the production’s real virtues proved to be a very talented cast. “VANITY FAIR” featured some solid performances from it supporting players. Well . . . I would say more than solid. I found the performances of Robert Pugh, Peter Wight, Suranne Jones, Claire Skinner, Mathew Baynton, Sian Clifford, Monica Dolan, and Elizabeth Berrington to be more than solid. In fact, I would say they gave excellent performances. But they were not alone.

Michael Palin, whom I have not seen in a movie or television production in years, gave an amusing narration in each episode as the story’s author William Makepeace Thackeray. Ellie Kendrick gave a very poignant performance as Jane Osborne, who seemed to be caught between her loyalty to her bitter father and her long-suffering sister-in-law. Simon Beale Russell gave a superb, yet ambiguous portrayal of the warm and indulgent John Sedley, who also had a habit of infantilizing his family. Frances de la Tour was deliciously hilarious and entertaining as Becky Sharp’s aunt-in-law and benefactress Lady Matilda Crawley. I could also say the same about Martin Clunes, who gave a very funny performance as the crude, yet lively Sir Pitt Crawley. One last funny performance came from David Fynn, who gave an excellent portrayal of the vain, yet clumsy civil servant, Jos Sedley. Anthony Head gave a skillful performance as the cynical and debauched Lord Styne. I thought Charlie Rowe was superb as the self-involved and arrogant George Osborne. Rowe, whom I recalled as a child actor, practically oozed charm, arrogance and a false sense of superiority in his performance as the shallow George.

I have only seen Johnny Flynn in two roles – including the role of William Dobbin in this production. After seeing “VANITY FAIR”, it seemed that the William Dobbin role seemed tailored fit for him. He gave an excellent performance as the stalwart Army officer who endured years of unrequited love toward Amelia Sedley. Tom Bateman was equally excellent as the charming, yet slightly dense Rawdon Crawley. At first, I thought Bateman would portray Rawdon as this dashing, yet self-confident Army officer. But thanks to his performance, the actor gradually revealed that underneath all that glamour and dash was a man who was not as intelligent as he originally seemed to be. Amelia Sedley has never been a favorite character of mine. Her intense worship of the shallow George has always struck me as irritating. Thanks to Claudia Jessie’s excellent performance, I not only saw Amelia as irritating as usual, but also sympathetic for once.

Television critics had lavished a great deal of praise upon Olivia Cooke as the sharp-witted and manipulative Becky Sharp. In fact, many have labeled her performance as one of the best versions of that character. And honestly? I have to agree. Cooke was more than superb . . . she was triumphant as the cynical governess who used her charms and wit in an attempt to climb the social ladder of late Georgian Britain. I would not claim that Cooke was the best on-screen Becky I have seen, but she was certainly one of the better ones. I have only one minor complaint – I found her portrayal of Becky as a poor parent to her only son rather strident. Becky has always struck me as a cold mother to Rawdon Junior. But instead of cold, Cooke’s Becky seemed to scream in anger every time she was near the boy. I found this heavy-handed and I suspect the real perpetrator behind this was either screenwriter Gwyneth Hughes or director James Strong.

I have a few complaints about “VANITY FAIR”. I will not deny it. But I also cannot deny that despite its few flaws, I thought it was an excellent adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel. Actually, I believe it is one of the better adaptations. “VANITY FAIR” is also one of the best period dramas I have seen from British television in a LONG TIME. And I mean a long time. Most period dramas I have seen in the past decade were either mediocre or somewhere between mediocre and excellent. “VANITY FAIR” is one of the first that has led me to really take notice in years. And I have to credit Gwyneth Hughes’ writing, James Strong’s direction and especially the superb performances from a first-rate cast led by Olivia Cooke. It would be nice to see more period dramas of this quality in the near future.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1870s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set in the 1870s:

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1870s

1. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey wrote this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s last novel about four American young women who marry into the British aristocracy is also another big favorite of mine. Directed by Philip Saville, the miniseries starred Carla Gugino, Alison Elliott, Rya Kihlstedt and Mira Sorvino.

2. “Around the World in 80 Days” (1989) – Pierce Brosnan starred in this television adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1872 novel about an Englishman’s journey around the world. Directed by Buzz Kulick, the miniseries co-starred Eric Idle, Julia Nickson and Peter Ustinov.

3. “Lonesome Dove” (1989) – Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones starred in this excellent adaptation of Larry McMurty’s 1985 novel about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Simon Wincer directed.

4. “The Way We Live Now” (2001) – Andrew Davies wrote this television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel about a Central European financier’s impact upon London society. Directed by David Yates, the four-part miniseries starred David Suchet, Matthew Macfayden, Shirley Henderson and Cillian Murphy.

5. “Daniel Deronda” (2002) – Andrew Davies adapted this television adaptation of George Eliot’s 1876 novel. Directed by Tom Hooper, the four-part miniseries starred Hugh Dancy and Romola Garai.

6. “The Sacketts” (1979) – Sam Elliott, Jeff Osterhage and Tom Selleck starred in this television adaptation of Louis L’Amour’s two novels – 1960’s “The Daybreakers” and 1961’s “Sackett”. Robert Totten directed.

7. “The Far Pavilions” (1984) – Ben Cross and Amy Irving starred in this adaptation of M.M. Kaye’s 1978 novel about the star-crossed romance between a British Army officer and a royal princess from Northern India. Peter Duffell directed.

8. “The Woman in White” (1997) – Tara Fitzgerald and Justine Waddell starred in this adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ 1859 novel about two half-sisters caught up in a grand conspiracy over a mysterious woman in white and a family fortune. Tim Fywell directed.

9. “Deadwood” (2004-2006) – Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane starred in HBO’s series about the famous Dakota mining town during the late 1870s. The series was created by David Milch.

10. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (2011) – Romola Garai starred in this adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a London prostitute’s impact upon the lives of a wealthy family. Marc Munden directed.

“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

“THE WAY WEST” (1967) Review

Years ago, I had watched a 1952 movie called “THE BIG SKY”. The movie was an adaptation of a novel written by A.B. Guthrie Jr. I eventually learned that Guthrie had used some of the characters featured in “THE BIG SKY” and created a series of novels set between 1830 and the 1880s. One of them was the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, “The Way West”.

Twenty-eight years after the 1949 novel’s release, Harold Hecht produced an film adaptation of it. Directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, “THE WAY WEST” told the story about an Oregon-bound wagon train being led west by a former U.S. senator. Throughout the journey, the wagon train emigrants endure weather, accidents, encounters with Native Americans and the usual personal dramas that beset a group of people forced to live with one another over a long period of time. Many film critics have dismissed “THE WAY WEST” over the years, comparing it unfavorably to the 1962 movie, “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. I never understood this comparison. The 1962 film was about the history of one family during most of the 19th century West. Out of the film’s five segments – two had focused on members of the family emigrating to the West. “THE WAY WEST” told the story of the members of one Oregon-bound wagon train in the year 1843.

Before one starts speculating over how a film with a 122 minutes running time could tell the story about all members of a wagon train. It cannot. Guthrie’s novel, along with Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann’s screenplay focused on a group of people:

*William Tadock – former U.S. senator and captain of the “Liberty Wagon Train”
*Lije Evans – restless Missouri farmer who decides to move his family to the Oregon Territory at the last moment
*Rebecca Evans – Lije’s pragmatic wife
*Brownie Evans – Lije and Rebecca’s shy son
*Dick Summers – widowed mountain man and guide for the wagon train
*Mr. McBee – Georgia-born farmer hoping to start a peach farm
*Mrs. McBee – wife of Mr. McBee
*Mercy McBee – flirtatious only child of the McBees and the object of Brownie’s desire
*John “Johnnie” Mack – recently married emigrant and object of Mercy’s desire
*Amanda Mack – Johnnie’s sexually frigid bride

There are aspects of “THE WAY WEST” that I found unappealing. One of those aspects proved to be Bronislau Kaper’s score for the film. I found it bombastic, awkward and unmemorable. Enough said. I was also not that impressed by some of the performances found in the film – especially from some of the supporting cast and one of the major leads. And like many other historical or period dramas, “THE WAY WEST” suffered from a few historical inaccuracies. Wagon trains were usually pulled by either oxen or mules. The stock used to convey the “Liberty Wagon Train” from Missouri to Oregon proved to be a hodge podge of horses, mules and oxen. I realize that “THE WAY WEST” is basically a Western about overland travel, but I found the costumes designed by Norma Koch very disappointing. The costumes looked as if they came straight from a warehouse. None of the women wore any layers of petticoats or corsets. And Koch’s costume designs for the McBee family proved to be a real head scratcher. I got the feeling she was trying to convey the family’s background as Georgia dirt farmers barely able to afford the journey to Oregon. Their clothes looked threadbare in compare to their fellow emigrants. And it is a miracle that the McBees did not finish their journey nearly naked. If the McBees were able to afford the journey to Oregon, they could afford to wear better quality clothing than what they wore.

The biggest historical head scratcher occurred midway into the film. During a social gathering between the emigrants and a group of Sioux warriors, one of the emigrants mistook the Sioux leader’s son for a wolf. The emigrant killed the boy and failed to inform the others of the incident. This led the Sioux to later track down the wagon party and demand the killer face justice. Initially, the wagon emigrants refused to comply until they discovered that a very large party of warriors had accompanied the Sioux leader. I am sorry, but I found this scenario improbable. The only times I could recall that many Native Americans gathering at one spot in the history of the American West was at the council for the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the Battle of Little Bighorn. And considering that the Cheyenne nation were spread out from present-day southern North Dakota and Wyoming to northern Colorado, I found this encounter between the Tadlock wagon party and the Sioux historically improbable.

Despite its flaws, I actually enjoyed “THE WAY WEST”. Very much. I can see why the original novel won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in the first place. First of all, I enjoyed how the movie opened with a montage of westbound emigrants arriving and organizing in Independence to the movie’s The plot struck me as a solid psychological drama about how a group of strangers struggled to tolerate each other, while traveling long distance during a period between four to five months in a wagon train. Knowing myself, I would probably go crazy dealing with strangers who irritated me after more than two weeks. Perhaps less. And having to deal with a ruthless and controlling personality like former U.S. Senator William Tadlock? Good Lord!

In fact, I find it interesting how the megalomaniacal Tadlock seemed to have an impact on the other major subplots in this film, one way or the other. He and the easy-going farmer Lije Evans managed to consistently clash with each other from the beginning. Evans resents his controlling style of leadership, but seemed reluctant to replace him. The former senator’s attraction toward Lije’s wife Rebecca did not help matters. In onescene, Tadlock had offered himself as a potential wife to Rebecca . . . in case Lije failed to survive the journey to Oregon. I could not decide whether to be surprised or disgusted by his suggestion. Tadlock even had an impact on the Brownie Evans-Mercy McBee romantic quagmire with John and Amanda Mack.

And yet . . . despite being such a megalomaniacal personality, I must admit that I found some of Tadlock’s decisions. For example, Lije Evans and the other wagon party members wanted to fight the Sioux, instead of giving in to the latter’s demand for the Sioux boy’s killer. I suspect that a combination of racism and braggadocio led the emigrants believe it would be better to fight the Sioux than submit one of their own to justice. Tadlock, to his credit, realized it would be wiser to give in to the Sioux’s demand. I also found myself agreeing with his order that the emigrants ditch all non-essential possession in order to lighten the load for the stock that pulled their wagons. Unfortunately, Tadlock’s anger at Evans’ stubborn refusal to give up Mrs. Evans’ floor clock spun out of control and cost him his position as the wagon train’s leader. I would expand more about the human drama found in “THE WAY WEST”. But to do so would give away the plot.

Although I had a problem with the film’s music and costume designs, I certainly had none with its cinematography. “THE WAY WEST” was shot on location in Arizona and Oregon. And I found William H. Clothier’s cinematography outstanding, thanks to its sharp and colorful photography shown in the images below:

Another aspect of “THE WAY WEST” that impressed me, proved to be the sequence for its opening credits. This sequence was basically a montage of emigrants arriving in Independence, Missouri or forming wagon trains for the westbound journey. Despite Bronislau Kaper’s forgettable score and equally forgettable theme song, I thought the sequence permeated with atmosphere and strong sense of how Independence must have been during that period in history. The sequence’s strong atmosphere benefited from Andrew V. McLeglen’s skillful direction, Otho Lovering’s editing and Robert Priestley’s set direction.

For me, the performances in “THE WAY WEST” proved to be a mixed affair. A good number of the supporting performers gave some hammy performances. Most of them portrayed minor characters. But the two hammy performances that seemed to stand out belonged to Richard Widmark as Lije Evans and Jack Elam as Preacher Weatherby. Widmark seemed as if he was trying too hard to convey Evans’ good-natured personality . . . to the point that his performance seemed forced. I did not enjoy admitting that. Mind you, Widmark had some good moments, especially in those scenes in which Lije clashed with Tadlock. Otherwise . . . I found him just a tad over-the-top for my tastes. Elam portrayed a minister named Preacher Weatherby, who had sneaked aboard one of the wagons in an effort to join the wagon train. Not only did I find his portrayal of the “hell and brimstone” minister over-the-top, but also one-dimensional. On the other hand, there was one performance that seemed to go in the complete opposite direction. I am referring to Michael Witney, who portrayed John “Johnnie” Mack, one half of the newlywed couple and the object of Mercy McBee’s desire. Witney may have avoided giving a hammy performance, but he ended up being rather wooden – at least in my eyes. Watching his performance, I found myself wondering how his character managed to generate so much emotion from both Mercy McBee and his wife, Amanda.

Thankfully, “THE WAY WEST” had its share of good and excellent performances. Ironically, two of them came from Harry Carey Jr. and Connie Sawyer. Yes, I will admit they gave hammy performances as Mr. and Mrs. McBee. But their hamminess struck me as so entertaining that I could not dismiss the performances. It seemed as if both really enjoyed themselves. “THE WAY WEST” also featured solid performances from the likes of Patric Knowles, Stubby Kaye, Katherine Justice and Eve McVeagh.

But there were also exceptional performances in “THE WAY WEST”. One came from the likes of Lola Albright, who gave a competent performances as Rebecca Evans, a woman torn between her love for Lije. I thought Michael McGreevey, who gave a very skillful performance as the Evans’ shy and lovesick son, Brownie. Sally Field revealed signs of future stardom with a great performance as the ebullient, sexual and painfully naive Mercy McBee. Robert Mitchum seemed to be the film’s backbone, thanks to his portrayal of the wagon train’s warm, yet pragmatic scout Dick Summers. I especially enjoyed his scenes with McGreevey. But if I had to give the award for the film’s best performance, it would go to Kirk Douglas for his superb portrayal of the very complex and magnetic former Senator William Tadlock. Douglas’ performance struck me as so exceptionally complex that there were times I found myself wondering whether or not I should like him or not.

What else can I say about “THE WAY WEST”? Well, the movie had its flaws. I cannot deny it. But I feel that its virtues definitely outweighed its flaws. And I think that it does not deserve the lukewarm opinions it has received over the years. Thanks to screenwriters Ben Maddow and Mitch Lindemann; a first-rate cast led by Kirk Douglas, Richard Widmark and Robert Mitchum; and excellent direction from Andrew V. McLaglen; I believe “THE WAY WEST” is a lot better than it is reputed to be.

“Irene Adler in Modern SHERLOCK HOLMES Adaptations”

“IRENE ADLER IN MODERN SHERLOCK HOLMES ADAPTATIONS”

What is it about the Irene Adler character from the 1891 Sherlock Holmes novella, “A Scandal in Bohemia” that bothers a lot of filmmakers and television producers? What is it about her that drives them to enact nearly drastic changes upon the character, when either adapting Sherlock Holmes novels or creating new movie and television productions, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters?

In Doyle’s original story, Irene was an American Opera singer who became involved in the King of Bohemia and ended up outwitting him and Sherlock Holmes over a photograph. The only movie or television adaptation I can think of that portrayed Irene any justice was the 1984 adaptation with Gayle Hunnicutt portraying the character in the BBC series, “THE ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES”.

But the other versions of the Irene Adler characters I have seen? Well:

*“SHERLOCK HOLMES IN NEW YORK” (1976) – Irene is an American actress who helps Sherlock Holmes solve a bank robbery planned by Professor James Moriarty in New York City. She becomes a “damsel-in-distress” when Moriarty kidnaps her son in order to prevent Holmes from solving the case.

*“SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE LEADING LADY” (1991) – Again, Irene is portrayed an American actress. In this television movie, she is performing at a theater in 1910 Vienna, when she has a reunion with Holmes and his companion, Dr. John Watson. She is merely portrayed as a former lover in this television movie.

*“SHERLOCK HOLMES” (2009)/”SHERLOCK HOLMES: GAME OF SHADOWS” (2011) – In the two films directed by Guy Ritchie, Irene is an American professional thief and femme fatale, who is occasionally hired by Professor Moriarty to assist in his schemes. Although she managed to outwit Holmes inside her London hotel room in the first film, Holmes eventually outwits her and she is transformed into a damsel in distress, despite her fighting abilities. Moriarty later kills her in the second film, after Holmes nearly interfered in the murder of another employee.

*“SHERLOCK” – “A Scandal in Belgravia” (2012) – Irene is a British dominatrix sex worker in this BBC series, who has incriminating information wanted by the British government. This was probably the most problematic portrayal of the character. In the end, she is not only outwitted by Holmes, but either loses or nearly loses her life to those who had hired her to acquire the information.

*“ELEMENTARY” (2013-15) – Irene is an American former lover of Holmes, who had apparently been killed by a serial killer. She is eventually revealed to be Jaime Moriarty, one of Holmes’ main nemesis.

Now, I realize that producers and directors like Guy Ritchie, Stephen Moffat, Mark Gatiss and Robert Doherty may have wanted to put some kind of twist on the Irene Adler character. But when they do, it is always to the character’s detriment. During the late 20th century, the filmmakers and television producers before them tend to thrust the role of main love interest upon her. After the turn of the 21st century, filmmakers like Ritchie and Moffat tend reduced Irene Adler to a damsel-in-distress, or transformed into a sex worker or criminal mastermind that required imprisonment.

But Irene Adler has never been the brilliant woman, who “rightly” had the last word on Sherlock Holmes since 1984. As far as today’s modern-day filmmakers and television producers are concerned, Holmes had to be the one who either saved or outwitted Irene. Or both. Is there something about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original creation that these filmmakers and producers find so threatening from a gender point of view? Apparently Mr. Conan Doyle did not.

Five Favorite Episodes of “GAME OF THRONES” Season Three (2013)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season Three of “GAME OF THRONES”, HBO’s adaptation of the first half of George R. R. Martin’s 2000 novel from his A Song of Ice and Fire series, “A Storm of Swords”. The series was created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss:

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “GAME OF THRONES” SEASON THREE (2013)

1. (3.09) “The Rains of Castamere” – Robb Stark, his mother Catelyn and their entourage arrive at the Twins for the wedding of Robb’s Uncle Edmure Tully to one of Walder Frey’s daughter. Jon Stark is put to the test by the Freefolk to see where his loyalties truly lie. Daenerys Targaryen plans to invade the Essos city of Yunkai.

2. (3.04) “And Now His Watch Is Ended” – Jaime Lannister mopes over his hand that was chopped off by Stark bannerman Roose Bolton’s man-at-arms, Locke. Jaime’s sister, Queen Cersei is growing uncomfortable with the her family’s new allies, the Tyrells. The Night’s Watch is growing impatient with its Freefolk ally, Craster. Daenerys buys the Unsullied army.

3. (3.07) “The Bear and the Fair Maiden” – Jon and his Freefolk companions travel south of the Wall. Robb’s wife, Talisa Maegyr Stark, reveals that she is pregnant. Arya Stark runs away from the Brotherhood. Daenerys arrives at Yunkai. Jaime is forced to leave his traveling companion/captor Brienne of Tarth behind at Harrenhal by Bolton.

4. (3.10) “Mhysa” – Bran Stark and his companions travel north beyond the Wall. Crow Sam Tarly and Craster’s wife/daughter Gilly returns to Castle Black. Jon tries to escape from Ygritte and his other Freefolk compansion. Jaime and Brienne return to King’s Landing. The Night’s Watch asks for help from Stannis Barantheon and his army. In Essos, the freed Yunkai slaves receive Daenerys as their “mother”.

5. (3.03) “Walk of Punishment” – Robb and Catelyn arrive at Riverrun for the funeral of the latter’s father, Lord Hoster Tully. Hand of the King Tywin Lannister names younger son Tyrion as the new Master of Coin. The Night’s Watch returns to Craster’s Keep. Brienne and Jaime are taken prisoner by Locke and his men. Daenerys barters for the 8,000 Unsullied warriors and the translator Missandei in exchange for one of her dragons.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1820s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the 1820s:

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1820s

1. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996) – Tara Fitzgerald starred in this superb 1996 adaptation of Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel. Directed by Mike Barker, the three-part miniseries co-starred Toby Jones and Rupert Graves.

2. “Wives and Daughters” (1999) – Andrew Davies adapted and Nicholas Renton directed this excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 novel (her last one). The four-part miniseries starred Justine Waddell, Keeley Hawes and Francesca Annis.

3. “Brother Future” (1991) – Phil Lewis starred in this television movie about a Detroit teenager in 1991, who finds himself transported to 1822 South Carolina as a slave and swept up in Denmark Velsey’s failed rebellion in Charleston. Directed by Roy Campanella II, the television movie starred Phil Lewis, Carl Lumbly and Moses Gunn.

4. “Shaka Zulu” (1986) – William C. Faure directed this adaptation of Joshua Sinclair’s 1985 novel about the life of King Shaka of the Zulus. Henry Cele, Edward Fox and Robert Powell starred in this ten-part miniseries.

5. “Little Dorrit” (2008) – Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen starred in this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1855-57 novel about a young woman who struggles to earn money for her family and look after her proud father, an inmate of the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The fourteen-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies.

6. “A House Divided: Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion” (1982) – Yaphet Kotto starred as Denmark Vessey in this television production about the latter’s attempt to start a slave rebellion in 1822 Denmark. Stan Lathan directed.

7. “Scarlet and Black” (1993) – Ewan McGregor starred in this adaptation of Stendhal’s 1830 novel, “The Red and the Black”. Directed by Ben Bolt, this three-part miniseries co-starred Rachel Weisz and Alice Kriege.

8. “Jamaica Inn” (2014) – Jessica Brown Findlay starred in this television adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1936 novel. Directed by Philippa Lowthorpe, the three-part miniseries co-starred Matthew McNulty and Sean Harris.

9. “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (2001) – James D’Arcy starred in this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1838-39 novel, “Nicholas Nickleby”. Stephen Whittaker directed this television movie.

“EMMA” (2020) Review

“EMMA” (2020) Review

Between 2009 and 2020, Hollywood and the British film/television industries had created a handful of productions that either spoofed or were inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, I can only recall one movie that was more or less a straightforward adaptation – 2016’s “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, an adaptation of Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan”. So imagine my surprise when I learned a new and straightforward adaptation of an Austen novel hit the movie theaters back in February 2020.

I had been even more thrilled that this new movie turned out to be a straightforward adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma” . . . which happened to be my favorite written by her. This 2020 adaptation, helmed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton, starred Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role. I am certain that many Austen fans are familiar with the 1815 novel’s narrative. “EMMA” is the story of a spoiled and over privileged young Englishwoman named Emma Woodhouse, who resides at her wealthy father’s country estate near the town of Highbury. Emma is not only spoiled and over privileged, but overestimates her own matchmaking abilities and is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives.

Ever since its release last year, film critics and moviegoers had been praising “EMMA” to the skies. In fact, the movie was so high on the critical list that I was surprised it failed to end up receiving major film award nominations during the 2020/2021 award season. A great deal of this praise was focused on the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn for his portrayal of George Knightley, Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse; and Autumn de Wilde’s direction. Does the movie deserve such high praise? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I certainly cannot deny that “EMMA” is a beautiful looking film. I found Christopher Blauvelt’s photography to be very sharp and colorful. In fact, the film’s color palette almost seemed similar to the color schemes found in Alexandra Byrne’s costume designs. Overall, the visual style for “EMMA” seemed to radiate strong and bright colors with a dash of pastels. Very stylized. But as much as I found all of this eye catching, I also found myself a little put off by this stylized artistry – especially for a movie in a period rural setting.

Speaking of artistry, there had been a great deal of praise for Byrne’s costumes. And I can see why. Granted, I am not fond of some of the pastel color schemes. I cannot deny I found her creations – especially those for the movie’s women characters – were eye catching, as shown below:

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I had a few complaints regarding the film’s costumes and hairstyles. The men’s trousers struck me as a little too baggy for the 1810s. I get it. Actors like Bill Nighy found historical trousers a bit tight. But I feel the trousers featured in “EMMA” struck me as a bit too comfortable looking from a visual viewpoint. And then there was the hairstyle used by Anya Taylor-Joy in the film. For some reason, I found her side curls a bit too long and rather frizzy looking. Instead of the mid-1810s, her hairstyle struck me as an example of hairstyles worn by women during the early-to-mid 1840s.

Someone had claimed that “EMMA” was a very faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel. Was it? Frankly, I thought it was no more or less faithful than any of the costumed versions. De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton followed the major beats of Austen’s novel, except for one scene – namely the Crown Inn ball. I will discuss that later. The movie also did an excellent job in capturing the comic nature of Austen’s novel. This was apparent in nearly every scene featuring Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse. I also enjoyed those scenes featuring the introduction of Augusta Elton, Emma’s reactions to Jane Fairfax and her attempts to play matchmaker for Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton. But the movie also featured some good dramatic moments, thanks to De Wilde’s direction and the film’s cast. I am speaking of the scenes that featured Mr. Knightley’s scolding of Emma for her rudeness towards the impoverished Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic; Mr. Knightley’s marriage proposal and the revelation of Harriet’s engagement to tenant farmer Robert Martin.

“EMMA” had received a great deal of acclaim from film critics, moviegoers and Jane Austen fans. Many had claimed it as the best adaptation of the 1815 novel. Do I feel the same? No. No, I do not. In fact, out of the five film and television adaptations I have seen, I would probably rank it at number four. Perhaps I had very high expectations of this movie. It is an adaptation of my favorite Austen novel. And it is the first straightforward Austen adaptation since the 2009 television miniseries of same novel. Perhaps this movie is better than I had original assume. Then again, looking back on some of the film’s aspects – I think not.

A good deal of my problems with “EMMA” stemmed from the portrayal of the main character, Emma Woodhouse. How can I say this? Thanks to Catton’s screenplay and De Wilde’s direction, Emma came off as more brittle and chilly than any other version I have ever seen. Granted, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. This was apparently in her strong sense of class status, which manifested in her erroneous belief that Harriet Smith was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat or gentry landowner, instead of someone from a lower class. Emma’s snobbery was also reflected in her contempt towards the impoverished Miss Bates, despite the latter being a “gentlewoman” and a member of the landed gentry. Emma’s snobbery, a product of her upbringing, also manifested in her own ego and belief that she is always right. Yes, Emma possessed negative traits. But she also had her share of positive ones. She possessed a warm heart, compassion for the poor (at least those not from her class), intelligence, and an ability to face her faults. This cinematic portrayal of Emma Woodhouse as a brittle and slightly chilly bitch struck me as a little off putting and extreme.

Another example of the exaggeration in this production was Mr. Knightley’s reaction to his dance with Emma at the Crown Inn ball. Many have not only praised the sensuality of the pair’s dance, but also Mr. Knightly’s reaction upon returning home to his estate, Donwell Abbey. What happened? George Knightley seemed to be in some kind of emotional fit, while he stripped off some of his clothes and began writhing on the floor. What in the fuck was that about? That scene struck me as so ridiculous. Other actors who have portrayed Knightley have managed to portray the character’s awareness of his love for Emma without behaving like a teenager in heat.

Speaking of heat, who can forget Harriet Smith’s orgasmic reaction to the idea of being Mrs. Elton? Many critics and Austen fans thrilled over the sight of a female character in a Jane Austen production having an orgasm. I will not castigate De Wilde for this directorial choice. I am merely wondering why she had included this scene in the first place. If Harriet was going to have an orgasm, why not have her bring up the subject to a possibly flabbergasted Emma? Why include this moment without any real follow through? Having an orgasm must have been something of a novelty for a young woman like Harriet, who was inexperienced with sexual thoughts or feelings.

And then there was Emma and Mr. Knightley’s dance at the Crown Inn ball. The latter sequence is usually one of my favorites in any adaptation of “EMMA”. The one exception proved to be the 1972 miniseries, which ended the sequence after Emma had suggested they dance. I almost enjoyed the sequence in this film . . . except it featured Emma obviously feeling attracted to Mr. Knightley during this dance. And I thought this was a big mistake. Why? Because Emma was never that consciously aware of her attraction to Mr. Knightley, until Harriet had confessed her crush on the landowner. And that happened near the end of the story. In other words, by showing Emma’s obvious feelings for Knightley during the ball, Autumn De Wilde rushed their story . . . and was forced to retract in the scene that featured Harriet’s confession. I feel this was another poor decision on the filmmaker’s part.

If I have to be honest, I think De Wilde, along with screenwriter Eleanor Catton, made a number of poor decisions regarding the film’s narrative. I have already pointed out three of those decisions in the previous paragraphs. But there were more. De Wilde and Catton changed the dynamics between Mr. Woodhouse and his older daughter and son-in-law, Isabella and John Knightley. In the novel and previous adaptations, the younger Mr. Knightley had always seemed more annoyed and at times, cankerous toward Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria. In this version, Isabella’s hypochondria is portrayed as more irritating. And instead of reacting to his wife’s complaints, John suppressed his reactions and ended up being portrayed as a henpecked husband. For some reason, De Wilde and Catton thought it was necessary to take the bite out of John Knightley, making him a weaker character. Why? I have not the foggiest idea, but I did miss the character’s biting wit.

In my review of the 1996 television version of “Emma”, I had complained how screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Diarmuid Lawrence had minimized part of Harriet’s character arc and focused just a bit too much on Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. In the 1996 movie version, the opposite happened. Writer-director Douglas McGrath had focused more on Harriet’s arc than the Frank/Jane arc. Well De Wilde and Catton ended up repeating McGrath’s mistake by focusing too much on Harriet, at the expense of Frank and Jane. Worse, Frank and Jane’s arc seemed focused on even less than in the 1996 McGrath film. The couple barely seemed to exist. And a result of this is that Frank’s father, Colonel Weston, barely seemed to exist. Mrs. Weston fared better due to her being Emma’s former governess. But I was really shocked at how little De Wilde and Catton focused on Mr. Elton and his overbearing bride, Augusta Elton. The movie did focus a good deal on Mr. Elton in those scenes featuring Emma’s attempts to match him with Harriet. But following his marriage, his character – along with Mrs. Elton’s – seemed to slowly recede into the background following their tea at Hartfield with the Woodhouses. By allowing very little focus on these characters, De Wilde and Catton had left out so many good moments in their effort to streamline Austen’s story for theatrical film. Even more so than the two versions from 1996.

Because of this streamlining, a good deal of the cast had very little opportunity to develop their characters on screen. Oliver Chris and Chloe Pirrie gave solid comic performances in their portrayal of John and Isabella Knightley, despite my irritation at the changing dynamics of their relationship. Rupert Graves was pretty much wasted as the over-friendly Colonel Weston. Miranda Hart gave a funny performance as the impoverished spinster Miss Bates. Unfortunately, I was distracted by her less-than-impoverished wardrobe in several scenes. If you had asked for my opinion of Amber Anderson’s portrayal of Jane Fairfax, I would not have been able to give it to you. I have no memory of her performance. She made no impact on the movie or its narrative, other than coming off as uncharacteristically supercilious. Tanya Reynolds struck me as a rather funny Mrs. Elton . . . at least in the scene featuring the Eltons’ tea with the Woodhouses at Hartfield. Otherwise, I have no real memory of her other scenes in the movie. Callum Turner has always struck me as a memorable performer. And I have to admit that his portrayal of Frank Churchill certainly made an impression on me. But the impression was not always . . . positive. One, he did not have enough scenes in this movie and his character arc struck me as rather rushed. And two, I thought his Frank Churchill was a bit too smarmy for my tastes.

Thankfully, “EMMA” did feature some memorable supporting performances. Gemma Whelen gave a lovely and warm performance as Emma’s former governess and close friend, Mrs. Weston. Josh O’Connor gave an excellent performance as the social-climbing vicar, Mr. Elton. I must say that I found his comic timing impeccable and thought he gave one of the best performances in the movie. However, I thought there were times when his Mr. Elton came off as a sexual predator. I get it . . . Mr. Elton was basically a fortune hunter. But I thought O’Connor went too far in the scene that featured Emma’s rejection of his marriage proposal. For a moment, I thought he was going to sexually assault her. That was a bit too much. Mia Goth’s portrayal of the clueless Harriet Smith struck me as spot-on and very skillful. Granted, I did not care for the “Harriet has an orgasm” moment, but I cannot deny that Goth’s acting was excellent in the scene. Bill Nighy gave a skillfully comic portrayal as the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse. Yes, there were moments when his usual tics (found in many of his performances) threatened to overwhelm his performance in this film. But I think he managed to more or less keep it together.

One performance that had acquired a great deal of acclaim came from Johnny Flynn, who portrayed Mr. Knightley. In fact, many are regarding him as the best Mr. Knightley ever seen in the movies or on television. I believe Flynn is a pretty competent actor who did an excellent job of conveying his character’s decency, maturity and burgeoning feelings for Emma. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Box Hill sequence in which Mr. Knightley chastised Emma for her rude comments at Miss Bates. But I do not regard him as the best screen Mr. Knightley I have seen. If I must be honest, I do not regard his interpretation of the character as even among the best. My problem with Flynn is that his Knightley struck me as a bit of a dull stick. And Knightley has always seemed like a man with a dry sense of humor, which is why I have always regarded him as one of my favorite Austen heroes. For me, Flynn’s Knightley simply came across as humorless to me. Perhaps “humorless” was the wrong word. There were scenes of Flynn’s Mr. Knightley reacting to the comedic actions of other characters and uttering the occasional witty phrase or two. But there was something about Flynn’s demeanor that made it seem he was trying too hard. I guess no amount of ass display, singing, laughing or writhing on the floor like a lovesick adolescent could make him more interesting to me.

Then we have the film’s leading lady, Anya Taylor-Joy. Unlike Flynn, the actress was given the opportunity to display her skills as a comic actress. And she more than lived up to the task. Honestly, I thought Taylor-Joy displayed excellent comic timing. Yet . . . I could never regard her as one of my favorite screen versions of Emma Woodhouse. She was too much of a bitch. Let me re-phrase that. I thought Taylor-Joy overdid it in her portrayal of Emma’s bitchiness and snobbery. To the point that her performance struck me as very brittle. Yes, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. But she could also be a warm and friendly young woman, capable of improving her character. I saw none of this in Taylor-Joy’s performance. If Catton’s screenplay demanded that Emma became aware of her flaws, the actress’ conveyance of those moments did not strike as a natural progression. Otherwise, she made a satisfying Emma Woodhouse. I also have one more criticism to add – Taylor-Joy did not have great screen chemistry with her leading man, Johnny Flynn. Their on-screen chemistry struck me as pedestrian at best, if I must be honest.

One would think that I disliked “EMMA”. Honestly, I did not. The movie managed to stick with Austen’s narrative. And although it did not change Austen’s story, it did feature some changes in some of the characteristics and character dynamics, thanks to director Autumn De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton. And some of these changes did not serve the movie well, thanks to De Wilde’s occasional bouts of ham-fisted direction. However, I still managed to enjoy the movie and the performances from a cast led by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. And if it had not been for the current health crisis that has struck the world, I probably would have seen it again in theaters.

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“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

“LITTLE WOMEN” (2019) Review

Ever since its release in movie theaters back in December 2019, many moviegoers have been in rapture over “LITTLE WOMEN”, filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. The movie did acquire several acclaims, including Oscar nominations for two of the film’s actresses, Best Adapted Screenplay and an actual Oscar for costume design. I never got the chance to see it in theaters. I finally managed to see it on the HULU streaming service.

Anyone familiar with Alcott’s novel knows that it conveyed the tale of four sisters from a Massachusetts family and their development from adolescence and childhood to adulthood during the 1860s. The first half of Alcott’s tale covered the March sisters’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War. In fact, Alcott had based the March family on herself and her three sisters. Unlike previous adaptations, Gerwig incorporated a nonlinear timeline for this version of “LITTLE WOMEN”.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” I truly admired. I did enjoy most of the performances. Or some of them. I thought Saoirse Ronan gave an excellent performance as the movie’s leading character Josephine “Jo” March. I thought she did a pretty good job of recapturing Jo’s extroverted personality and artistic ambitions. I do wish that Gerwig had allowed Jo to convey some of the less pleasant sides to her personality. Do I believe she deserved her Oscar nomination? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Although I thought she gave an excellent performance, I do not know if I would have considered her for an acting nomination.

But I was more than impressed by Eliza Scanlen, who portrayed third sister Elizabeth “Beth” March. Although her story more or less played out in a series of vignettes that switched back and forth between the period in which she first caught the scarlet fever and her death a few years later; Scanlen did a superb job in recapturing the pathos and barely submerged emotions of Beth’s fate. It seemed a pity that she had failed to acquire any acting nominations. One last performance that really impressed me came from Meryl Streep. I have always regarded the temperamental Aunt March as a difficult role for any actress. And although I do not regard Streep’s interpretation of the aging matriarch as the best I have seen, I must admit that for me, she gave one of the best performances in the film. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Bob Odenkirk and Florence Pugh, who also received an Oscar nomination for her performance as the youngest March sister, Amy. About the latter . . . I really admired her portrayal of the older Amy March. But I found her performance as the younger Amy rather exaggerated. And a part of me cannot help but wonder why she had received an Oscar nomination in the first place.

Jacqueline Durran won the film’s only Academy Award – namely for Best Costume Design. Did she deserve it? I honestly do not believe she did. I did enjoy some of her designs, especially for the older Amy March, as shown below:

I found the costumes worn by Pugh, Streep and many extras in the Paris sequences very attractive and an elegant expression of fashion from the late 1860s. Otherwise, I found Durran’s costumes for this film rather questionable. I realize both she and Gerwig were attempting to portray the March family as some kind of 19th century version of “hippies”. But even non-traditional types like the Marches would not wear their clothing in such a slap-dash manner with petticoat hems hanging below the skirts, along with bloomers showing, cuts and styles in clothing that almost seemed anachronistic, and wearing no corsets. The latter would be the equivalent of not wearing bras underneath one’s clothing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Someone had pointed out that many of today’s costume designers try to put a “modern twist” to their work in period dramas in order to appeal to modern moviegoers and television viewers. I really wish they would not. The attempt tends to come off as lazy costuming in my eyes. And this tactic usually draws a good deal of criticism from fans of period dramas. So . . . how on earth did Durran win an Oscar for her work in the first place?

I understand that “LITTLE WOMEN” was filmed in various locations around Massachusetts, including Boston and Cambridge. A part of me felt a sense of satisfaction by this news, considering the story’s setting of Concord, Massachusetts. I was surprised to learn that even the Paris sequences were filmed in Ipswich, Massachusetts. However, I must admit that I was not particularly blown away by Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography. Then again, I can say that for just about every adaptation of Alcott’s novel I have ever seen.

There were scenes from “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found memorable. Those include Jo March’s initial meeting with her publisher Mr. Dashwood; Amy March’s conflict with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence over his behavior in Paris; Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal, and especially the montage featuring Beth March’s bout with scarlet fever and its consequences. However . . . I had some problems with Gerwig’s screenplay.

As I have stated earlier, “LITTLE WOMEN” is not the first movie I have seen that utilized the non-linear plot technique. I have seen at least two adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. Two more famous examples of this plot device were the 1995 film, “12 MONKEYS” and two of Christopher Nolan’s movies – 2000’s “MEMENTO” and 2017’s “DUNKIRK”. How can I put this? I feel that Greta Gerwig’s use of non-linear writing had failed the film’s narrative. It simply did not work for me. Except for the brilliant montage featuring Beth’s fate, it seemed as if Gerwig’s writing had scattered all over the place without any real semblance of following Alcott’s plot. If I had not been already familiar with Alcott’s story, I would have found “LITTLE WOMEN” totally confusing.

I also feel that because of Gerwig’s use of the non-linear technique, she managed to inflict a little damage on Alcott’s plot. Despite the excellent scene featuring Laurie’s marriage proposal, I felt that Gerwig had robbed the development of his relationship with Jo. I also believe that Gerwig had diminished Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer. In the film, Bhaer had expressed harsh criticism of Jo’s earlier writing . . . without explaining his opinion. But he never added that Jo had the potential to write better stories than her usual melodrama crap. Why did Gerwig deleted this aspect of Professor Bhaer’s criticism? In order to make him look bad? To set up the idea of Jo ending the story as a single woman, because that was Alcott’s original intent? Did Gerwig consider the original version of this scene a detriment to feminist empowerment? I am also confused as to why Gerwig allowed the March family to push her into considering Professor Bhaer as a potential mate for Jo? This never happened in the novel. Jo had come to her decision to marry the professor on her own perogative. She did not have to be pushed into this decision. Come to think of it, exactly how did Jo’s fate end in the movie? I am confused. Did she marry Bhaer after rushing to the train station in order to stop him from leaving for California? Or did she remain single? Whatever.

And why on earth did she position Amy and Laurie’s first meeting after the former’s hand had been caned by her school teacher? Gerwig had transformed an incident that had taught Amy a lesson about self-respect and generated the Marches’ righteous anger against a schoolteacher’s abuse to one of comic relief and a cute rom.com meet for Amy and Laurie. What the hell? Someone had once complained that Gerwig may have assumed that everyone was familiar with Alcott’s story when she wrote this screenplay. And I agree with that person. Earlier I had questioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to award the Best Costume Design statuette to Jacqueline Durran and nominate Florence Pugh for Best Supporting Actress. But I also have to question the organization’s decision to nominate Gerwig’s writing for Best Adapted Screenplay. I honestly believe she did not deserve it.

There were aspects of “LITTLE WOMEN” that I found admirable. I was certainly impressed by some of the film’s dramatic moments. And there were a handful of performances from the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Meryl Streep that truly impressed me. But I cannot deny that the other members of the cast gave either first-rate or solid performances. In the end, I did not like the movie.

I believe “LITTLE WOMEN” should have never been nominated for Best Picture. Greta Gerwig’s use of the nonlinear technique did not serve Louisa May Alcott’s plot very well. If I had not been familiar with the novel’s plot, I would have found this movie confusing. Aside from Ronan’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, I feel that the other nominations and Best Costume Design win were undeserved. And a part of me feels a sense of relief that Gerwig had never received a nomination for Best Director.

“THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” (1977) Review

“THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” (1977) Review

I have seen my share of movie and television productions that are based on novels and plays by Alexandre Dumas père and his son Alexandre Dumas fils And for some reason, I never get tired of watching them – over and over again. And one of them is the 1977 television movie, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK”.

Directed by Mike Newell and adapted by William Bast, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” is loosely based on Alexandre Dumas père‘s 1847-50 novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”. The novel was the third and last of the author’s “The d’Artagnan Romances” literary trilogy, following “The Three Musketeers” and “Twenty Years After”. The movie begins with Philippe Bourbon being snatched by a group of mysterious men from his small French estate and imprisoned at the Bastille. It turns out that the men behind this kidnapping is King Louis XIV’s finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert and the head of the Musketeers, D’Artagnan.

Aware that Philippe is the twin brother of the king (and the rightful monarch of France), the pair plan to conduct a bloodless coup to eventually switch Philippe with the corrupt and malicious Louis. However, their plans are stymied when the Chevalier Duval, an aide of the also corrupt Superintendent of Finances Nicolas Fouquet, stumbles across Philippe. Fouquet, via instructions from Louis, orders Duval to take Philippe from the Bastille and install him in another prison on the coast. Fortunately for Colbert and D’Artagnan, they learn of Philippe’s fate from Louis’ reluctant and disenchanted mistress Louise de La Vallière and plot to rescue the royal twin and continue with their plot to replace him with Louis.

When I saw “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” for the first time, I thought it was perfect. Flawless. And it became one of my favorite Alexandre Dumas adaptations and television movies for years. After my recent viewing of the television movie, I now realize that it is not perfect. I feel that screenwriter William Bast had changed one aspect of Dumas’ novel, “The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later”, that had an impact on the 1977 movie’s narrative. The novel had portrayed Louis as the older twin and rightful king of France. For some reason, Bast had made Philippe the oldest twin. Why? I have no idea. To justify Philippe’s theft of the French throne? Unfortunately, this narrative change left me wondering why Philippe, as the “older twin” was not allowed to be his father’s heir and later, successor. In one scene, Colbert explained that former French minister and lover of the twins’ mother Queen Anne, Cardinal Mazarin, had Philippe taken away following the latter’s birth, in order to manipulate then King Louis XIII. This explanation struck me as lame and confusing. And Bast should have never changed this aspect of Dumas’ plot.

Many moviegoers have become increasingly critical of any production that have not closely adhere to its literary source over the years. I have no idea how many of them felt about this 1977 television movie. But I have a pretty good idea how I feel about it. Although I found the major change mentioned in the above paragraph troubling, I had no problems with many of other Bast’s changes. I have read Dumas’ novel. It was interesting . . . to say the least. I have no problems reading or watching a story with a downbeat ending if it suits the narrative or if I am in the mood to embrace it. I have never been in the mood to embrace Dumas’ 1847-50 novel. Which would probably explain why I enjoyed the changes in this adaptation a lot. But wait . . . extreme changes had been made in other adaptations of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne”. What was it about this particular adaptation that I enjoyed? I found it better written than the other adaptations.

For me, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” was a tight and well-written story that did not drag or rush the movie’s narrative. Which is more than I can say for Dumas’ story. Most Dumas’ adaptations tend to be part-dramas/part-swashbucklers. “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” – at least this version – seemed to be eighty-five percent drama and fifteen percent action. In fact, the only real action sequence in this production turned out to be D’Artagnan’s rescue of Philippe from the coastal prison. And if I must be honest, I thought Mike Newell’s direction, Freddie Young’s cinematography and Bill Blunden’s editing made that sequence a tense, yet exciting affair.

However, the meat of “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” centered around its dramatic scenes. Thanks to Newell’s direction, Bast’s screenplay and a talented cast, the television movie featured some very memorable scenes. Among my favorites are Philippe’s discovery that he is the King of France’s twin brother, Louis’ malicious reaction to his failure to impress Louise de La Vallière, a tense conversation between Philippe and Queen Marie-Therese, and the last verbal duel between Colbert and Fouquet. If I had to select my absolute favorite scene, it had to be the one that featured Louis’ “Sun King” ballet, Louise’s failure to be impressed and Louis’ malicious act of using the Queen as a scapegoat for his embarrassment.

As I had earlier stated, the dramatic scenes in “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” would have never been fully satisfying to me without its top notch cast. Yes, there were solid performances from the likes of Denis Lawson, Hugh Fraser and Brenda Bruce. But I found myself impressed by other members of the cast. They include Vivien Merchant, who did an excellent job in conveying Queen Marie-Therese’s mixed emotions toward her emotionally abusive spouse – whether it was desire, resentment or a combination of both. Ian Holm was excellent as Minister Fouchet’s aide, the Chevalier Duval, who seemed to be brimming with cunning intelligence and stealth. I would never associate Louis Jordan portraying a swashbuckling figure. But I must admit that he made an excellent man-of-action in his portrayal of the experienced, competent and quick-thinking D’Artagnan.

Jenny Agutter gave a sublime and passionate performance as Louise de La Vallière, Louis’ reluctant mistress who ended up falling in love with the latter’s twin. Ralph Richardson’s portrayal of France’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert struck me as one of the more entertaining performances in the production. I found Richardson’s Colbert cunning, intelligent, patient and more importantly – at least to me – witty. I have seen Patrick McGoohan in several heroic and villainous roles. But I must admit that his Nicolas Fouquet struck me as one of the most subtlety portrayed villains I have ever seen on screen. McGoohan’s Fouquet could put Sheev Palpatine from the STAR WARS saga when it comes to subtle villainy. And I like subtle villains. I find them more dangerous.

If I had to give an award for the best performance in “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK”, I would give it to its leading man, Richard Chamberlain. Mind you, Chamberlain had to portray two characters – the decent, yet slightly hot-headed Philippe Bourbon; and the vain and egotistic King Louis XIV. Mind you, I thought Chamberlain did an excellent job of conveying Philippe’s sense of confusion, anger and passion. But the actor’s portrayal of Louis literally knocked my socks off. Chamberlain’s performance was not over-the-top. He did a subtle job of conveying Louis’ villainy. And yet, he managed to inject a great deal of – how can I put it – a joie de vivre quality in his performance that I found truly entertaining. There was no doubt that Chamberlain’s Louis was a villain. But his Louis proved to be one of the most entertaining villains I have seen on screen.

I realize that I have yet to discuss the television movie’s production values. We are talking about the 1970s. Although I can recall a good number of television miniseries with first-rate production values, I cannot say the same about several period television productions from both sides of the Atlantic. And “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” is a television movie with a 100 minutes running time. However, I thought its production values were first-rate. Despite being a made-for-TV movie, “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” was shot on several locations in both France and Great Britain. Thankfully, Freddie Young’s photography did an excellent job in enhancing those locations. John Stoll took advantage of those locations and skillfully re-created France and Louis XIV’s court of the late 1660s or early 1670s. I am not an expert of 17th century fashion – in France or anywhere else. I have no idea whether Olga Lehmann’s costume designs or Betty Glasow’s hairstyle are historically accurate. But I cannot deny that I found the hairstyles satisfying and Lehman’s costumes beautiful, as shown below:

In the end, I am happy to state that “THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK” remains one of my all time favorite adaptations of an Alexandre Dumas père novel. Despite my quibble of one of William Bast’s changes in Dumas’ story, I feel more than satisfied with his other changes and thought he had presented a first-rate story. And my satisfaction also extends to Mike Newell’s top-notch direction and the excellent performances from a cast led by the always superb Richard Chamberlain.

Ranking of “HIS DARK MATERIALS” Season One (2019) Episodes

Below is my ranking of the Season One episodes of “HIS DARK MATERIALS”, HBO’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s 1995 novel, “The Golden Compass” aka “Northern Lights” and the first part of his 1997 novel, “The Subtle Knife”. Written by Jack Thorne, the series stars Dafne Keen:

RANKING OF “HIS DARK MATERIALS” SEASON ONE (2019) Episodes

1. (1.02) “The Idea of North” – Orphan Lyra Belacqua starts a new life in London with the charming socialite, Mrs. Marisa Coulter; determined to find her missing friend, Roger Parslow. The Gyptians continue searching for their missing children and the elusive Gobblers, a group of government sanctioned child snatchers.

2. (1.06) “The Daemon-Cages” – Lyra discovers the horrific truth behind the Gobblers’ activities at a science station in the North called Bolvangar.

3. (1.08) “Betrayal” – As the Magesterium, a religious-political body, closes in; Lyra learns more about Lord Asriel’s rebellion. But her assistance to him comes at a great personal cost.

4. (1.01) “Lyra’s Jordan” – Lyra’s world at Jordan College in Oxford, is turned upside-down by the arrival of her long-absent uncle Lord Asriel from the North. Meanwhile, she meets the glamorous Mrs. Coulter for the first time.

5. (1.04) “Armour” – As Lyra and the Gyptians head up North, she searches for allies in her search for Lord Asriel. With the help of a balloonist named Lee Scoresby, she comes across an armored bear named Iorek Byrnison at a port town in Svalbard.

6. (1.03) “Spies” – Lyra is rescued from the clutches of the Gobblers by the Gyptians, who helps her piece together more about her past and keep her safe from the Magisterium.

7. (1.07) “Fight to the Death” – Separated from her friends and captured by the armoured bears ruled the usurper king Iofur Raknison, Lyra must use all of her methods of deception to thwart him in order to be rescued by Iorek Byrnison, the true king. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter plots her next move.

8. (1.05) “The Lost Boy” – On their journey to the Bolvangar Station, Lyra and the Gyptians finally discover what the Gobblers have been doing to the missing children. In the alternate World, an adolescent named Will Parry and his mentally ill mother Elaine are being stalked by Magisterium official Lord Carlo Boreal, who seeks Will’s father, a missing explorer named John Parry.