“VANITY FAIR” (1987) Review

“VANITY FAIR” (1987) Review

I found myself wondering how many adaptations of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1847-1848 novel there have been. As it turned out, this is one piece of literature that has been adapted countless number of times – in film, radio and television. I have seen at least five adaptations myself. And one of them turned out to be the sixteen-part television miniseries that aired on the BBC in 1987.

Since Thackeray’s novel is a very familiar tale, I will give a brief recount. Adapted by Alexander Baron and directed by Michael Owen Morris, “VANITY FAIR” told the story of one Rebecca “Becky” Sharp, an impoverished daughter of an English art teacher and French dancer in late Georgian Britain. Determined to climb her way out of poverty and into society, Becky manages to befriend Amelia Sedley, the daughter of a wealthy London merchant. When both finally graduate from Miss Pinkerton’s School for Girls, Becky is invited to spend some time with Amelia’s family, before she has to assume duties as a governess to the daughters of a minor baronet and landowner named Sir Pitt Crawley. During her time with the Sedleys, she almost manages to snare Amelia’s older brother, Jos, a “nabob” from India, as a husband. But the interference of George Osborne, the son of another merchant who happens to Amelia’s heart desire, leaves Becky single and employment as a governess. However, upon her arrival at Queen’s Crawley, the Crawleys’ estate, Becky’s charm and wiles inflict a shake-up with the family that would influence lives for years to come.

While viewing “VANITY FAIR”, it occurred to me that it is really a product of its time. Although not completely faithful to Thackeray’s novel, it struck me as being more so than any adaptation I have seen. Most literary adaptations on television tend to be rather faithful – at least between the 1970s and the 1990s. Especially during the decade of the 1980s. Another sign of this miniseries being a product of its age is the quality of its photography. It is rather faded – typical of many such productions during the 1970s and 1980s. But for me, complete faithfulness to a literary source is not a true sign of the quality of a television adaptation. Nor the quality of the film it was shot on. So, how do I feel about “VANITY FAIR”?

Remember the miniseries’ faded look I had commented upon? I really wish it had been shot on better film stock. Stuart Murdoch and Mickey Edwards’ visual effects struck me as too eye-catching to be wasted on film stock that quickly faded with time. Another problem I had proved to be the episode that centered around the Battle of Waterloo. I realize that it would make sense for the most of episode’s narrative to be told from Becky Sharp Crawley’s point of view. Yet, considering that it was able to feature the discovery of one dead character on the battlefield, I wish the episode had been willing to embellish the sequence a bit more. The sequence featured a great deal on Becky and Amelia saying good-bye to their respective spouses, along with Becky bargaining with Jos Sedley over her husband’s horses. Overall, the entire sequence . . . nearly the entire episode seemed to lack a sense of urgency over the entire Waterloo campaign and how it affected the main characters. I have one last complaint about “VANITY FAIR” . . . namely the Maquis of Steyne. To be honest, my complaint against him is rather minor. I have a complaint against his physical appearance. Thanks to Lesley Weaver’s makeup, I could barely make out actor John Shrapnel’s features. He seemed to be a whole mass of hair and whiskers plastered on a slightly reddish countenance.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed how the production went into full detail of Thackeray’s novel. Was it completely faithful? I rather doubt it. I noticed how Alexander Baron’s screenplay did not adhere to Thackeray’s rather nasty portrayal of non-white characters such as Miss Schwartz. Thankfully. On the other hand, Baron, along with director Michael Owen Morris did an excellent job in their portrayals of the novel’s main characters – especially Rebecca Sharp, Rawdon Crawley, Amelia Sedley, Jos Sedley, George Osborne, Mr. Osborne and William Dobbin. I will be honest. My favorite segments of the production . . . are basically my favorite segments of the novel. I enjoyed the production’s re-creation of Becky’s story that began with her departure from Miss Pinkerton’s School for Girls to hers and Amelia’s adventures during the Waterloo campaign.

Despite the miniseries’ limited photography, I must admit there are other aspects of “VANITY FAIR” that impressed me. I enjoyed Gavin Davies and Sally Engelbach’s production designs. Both did an admirable of re-creating the production’s setting of early 19th century Britain, Belgium, France and Germany. They were ably assisted by set decorations created by the art department, led by David Ackrill and Tony Fisher. But I really must commend Joyce Hawkins’ costume designs. I found them colorful and tailor-made. I also thought Ms. Hawkins did an excellent job in her re-creation of the early 19th century fashions.

There is one segment in Thackeray’s story I found difficult to enjoy – namely Becky’s rise in British society, her relationship with the Maquis of Steyne, the exposure of her as a cold parent and ending with the destruction of her marriage to Rawdon. It is not the fault of Baron, Morris or Thackeray. It is simply my least favorite part of the story. During this segment, Becky transformed from a morally questionable anti-heroine to an outright villainess. Perhaps this is why I found it difficult to revel in Becky’s eventual fall. One, I found this portrayal of Becky a bit too one-dimensional for my tastes. Two, there seemed to be this underlying theme in Becky’s downfall that she deserved it for being too ambitious, not knowing her place and not being the ideal woman. I realize that I should sweep these feelings away in the wake of her last crime. But for some reason, I cannot. A part of me wonders, to this day, if Thackeray had went too far in this transformation of Becky’s character.

I did not have a problem with the performances featured in “VANITY FAIR”. If I must be honest, I found them to be very competent. Morris handled his cast very well. The miniseries featured solid performances from Fiona Walker, Shaughan Seymour, Gillian Raine, Tony Doyle, Malcolm Terris, Vicky Licorish, Eileen Colgan, Irene MacDougall, Alan Surtees, and David Horovitch. I also enjoyed the performances from the likes of Freddie Jones, who made a very lively Sir Pitt Crawley; John Shrapnel, who gave an intimidating portrayal of the Maquis of Steyne, underneath the makeup and wig; Siân Phillips, who struck me as a very entertaining Matilda Crawley; David Swift, whose portrayal of Mr. Sedley seemed to reek with pathos; and Philippa Urquhart, who was excellent as the malleable Mrs. Briggs.

But there were those performances that truly impressed me. Robert Lang gave an excellent performance as the ruthless and ambitious Mr. Osborne, who seemed to be handicapped by his own stubborness. Benedict Taylor did a superb job in portraying the varied nature of George Osborne – his charm, his shallowness and selfish streak. James Saxon was equally impressive as the insecure, yet vain Joseph “Jos” Sedley. Simon Dormandy gave a very complex and skillful performance as the priggish William Dobbin, a character I have always harbored mixed feelings about. I personally think that Jack Klaff made the best on-screen Rawdon Crawley I have seen on-screen, so far. Although his character has always been described as an affable, yet empty-headed man who eventually realized he had married a woman beyond his depth. Klaff did an excellent job of conveying those traits more than actor I have seen in the role.

Rebecca Saire seemed perfectly cast as the demure, yet shallow Amelia Sedley, who spent years infatuated with a man she never really knew or understood. It is not often I find an actress who does an excellent of portraying a girl in a woman’s body, who at the end, is forced to grow up due to an unpleasant realization. If Saire seemed perfectly cast as the childish Amelia, Eve Matheson struck me as even more perfect as the charming and manipulative Rebecca Sharp. Unlike other actresses who have portrayed Becky, I would never describe Matheson as a beauty, despite being physically attractive. What I found impressive about Matheson’s performance is the manner in which she conveyed Becky’s ability to charm and seduce others, utilizing her eyes, mannerisms, the ability to cry on cue and her voice. Matheson managed to portray Becky as the most desirable woman around.

I have never seen another on screen Becky Sharp who managed to ooze charm and seduction the way Matheson did. And yet, she also managed to convey Becky’s unpleasant side without being theatrical about it. Someone had once described Matheson’s Beck as “spunky”. Oh please. Spunky? The 1987 Rebecca Sharp was a lot more than that, thanks to Matheson’s performance. Dammit, the woman should have received some kind of award for her performance. She was that good.

I have a few quibbles about “VANITY FAIR”. Basically, I wish the miniseries had been shot on better film stock. And I wish that the Waterloo sequence had been a bit more . . . embellished. Otherwise, I feel that this 1987 adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel is the best I have seen so far. I am flabbergasted at how close I came to ignoring this production altogether.

“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” (1979) Review

 

“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” (1979) Review

As I have stated in many previous movie reviews, I am a sucker for period drama. However, I am an even bigger sucker when said drama turns out to be something different from the usual narrative for this kind of genre. In the case of the 1979 movie, “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY”, it turned out to be one of those rare kind of films. 

Like Michael Crichton’s 1975 novel, “The Great Robbery”“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a fictional account of a famous robbery known as the “Great Gold Robbery of 1855”. Before one thinks that the movie is a faithful account of this historical event or a faithful adaptation of Crichton’s novel . . . you are bound to be disappointed. Not only did Crichton play a little fast and loose with history in his novel, he also wrote the movie’s screenplay and made even more changes to the tale.

“THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” began with a failed attempt by some nameless criminal to rob the gold used to pay the British troops fight in the Crimean War being shipped monthly on the London-to-Folkestone train. This failed robbery, which ended with the criminal’s death, had been masterminded by a successful criminal named Edward Pierce. Finally realizing that the gold is guarded in two safes with two locks each, Pierce and his mistress, Miriam, recruit a pickpocket and screwsman named Robert Agar to make copies of the safes’ four keys. They also set about attaining copies of the keys by exploiting the weaknesses of two key holders – bank president Edgar Trent and bank manager Henry Fowler.

When they discover that the other two keys are locked in a cabinet, inside the office of the South Eastern Railway at the London Bridge train station, Pierce and Agar recruit a cat burglar named “Clean Willie” to help them break into rail office and make impressions of the keys. At first, Pierce is able to execute his plan with very few problems. But obtaining the keys inside the South Eastern Railway office and recruiting “Clean Willie” end up producing major obstacles that he and his accomplices are forced to overcome.

I would not claim that “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a favorite movie of mine. But I must admit that every time I watch it, I usually end up enjoying it very much. And I cannot deny that it proved to be different than the usual period drama. Although “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” is a literary adaptation that also features a historical event, it is not the usual period piece. I mean . . . how many period dramas are about a real-life crime? Especially a crime that had occurred before the 20th century? If there is another movie with a similar narrative, I have yet to come across it.

Even more interesting is that Crichton utilized great details to show audiences how the crime was planned and carried out. Yes, I realize that Crichton had made changes to his portrayal of the 1855 gold robbery, but I still cannot help but admire that he portrayed this crime in such a detailed manner. And this allowed me to enjoy the film even more, for it provided audiences a detailed look into the criminal and business worlds of the Victorian Age during the 1850s. This was especially the case in the movie’s second half in which the protagonists schemed to get their hands on copies of the third and fourth set of keys inside a London railway station. And if I must be honest, I enjoyed the movie’s first half even more – especially those scenes that featured the robbers’ attempts to acquire copies of the first two keys. Since those two keys were in the hands of bank executive Trent and bank manager Fowlers, the movie allowed peeks into the lives of an early Victorian family and a Victorian bachelor, all from the upper-middle-classes. These scenes included one featuring Pierce’s wooing of Trent’s only daughter, while riding along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, a popular riding spot for upper and middle-class Londoners; and another featuring Miriam’s seduction of the always lustful Fowler inside an exclusive London bordello.

Another aspect of “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY” that I enjoyed was its production values. Crichton and producer John Foreman had gathered a first-rate crew for this movie. There were four aspects of the movie’s production values that I enjoyed . . . somewhat. I certainly had no problem with Maurice Carter’s production designs for the movie. I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating Victorian London – especially in crowd scenes like the Rotten Row sequence, the bordello and the railway station. I also enjoyed Jerry Goldsmith’s score. Although I did not find it particularly memorable, I thought it blended well with various scenes throughout the movie and was original enough in a jaunty way. I have slightly mixed feelings about Anthony Mendleson’s costume designs. On one hand, I thought many of them – especially those for the male characters – wonderfully recaptured the fashion styles of the mid-1850s. My feelings regarding his designs for the female characters were another matter. There were some designs that I admired very much – especially those for the Pamela Trent and Emily Trent characters. Yet, I found those designs for Lesley-Anne Down’s character rather theatrical. I also have mixed about Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography. On one hand, I found many of the film’s wide shots – especially in many of the exterior shots – rather colorful and beautiful. Unfortunately . . . I also noticed that Unsworth’s photography seemed to project this hazy film, indicating that the movie was a period drama. Personally, I found this . . . haze rather annoying and a bit detrimental to the movie’s sharp colors.

I can only recall at least three or four sequences that might be considered action-oriented. Three of them involved the “Clean Willie” character and I found them well shot by Crichton. The fourth action sequence – the actual train robbery – was also well shot by Crichton. The problem is that I am not a big fan of the actual robbery sequence. What can I say? It bored me. I could explain that I am becoming less tolerant of action sequences in my old age. But if I must be honest, I never really liked this sequence when I first saw it when I was a lot younger. There is nothing like an actual action sequence on top a train to bore the living daylights out of me. It was not Crichton’s fault. This is simply a case of my personal preferences.

I certainly had no problems with the cast. Sean Connery was the perfect embodiment of middle-age debonair as the charismatic, clever and occasionally ruthless criminal mastermind, Edward Pierce. I would not exactly regard this role as a challenge for him. But he seemed to be enjoying himself. The role of Pierce’s mistress, Miriam, seemed to be quite rare for Lesley-Anne Down. I can only recall her portraying a similar character in another heist film that released the same year. Personally, I thought she did a great job portraying Miriam not only as a sexy paramour for Pierce, but also as an equally intelligent and talented partner-in-crime.

The movie also featured some interesting performances from Malcolm Terris as the lustful bank manager Henry Fowler with a penchant for prostitutes. Michael Elphick was effective as the cool and collected bank guard Burgess, who accepts Pierce’s bribe to be a part of the heist. Gabrielle Lloyd gave an interesting performance as Edgar Trent’s rather stuffy and plain daughter Elizabeth whom Pierce pretends to court. And Pamela Salem gave a sly performance as Elizabeth’s stepmother Emily Trent, who hides her lust for Pierce with a cool attitude and pointed comments. Other fine supporting performances came from Alan Webb, Wayne Sleep, Robert Lang and André Morell.

“What about Donald Sutherland?” many might be thinking. Why was he left out of the praise? Trust me, he was not. If I must be honest, Sutherland gave my favorite performance in the film. I really enjoyed his colorful take on the witty and sly pickpocket/screwsman Robert Agar. However, I do have one complaint to make . . . and it not about Sutherland’s peformance. As I had just stated, I found it very enjoyable. But I had read somewhere that the real Agar was more or less the brains behind the bank robbery. Also, Crichton had somewhat “dumbed down” the character in his 1975 novel and in the movie. I noticed, while watching the film that Sutherland’s Agar seemed to flip-flop between an intelligent criminal and a buffoon. Personally, I found this inconsistent and unnecessary . . . especially for a successful criminal like Agar.

Yes, I have a few quibbles regarding “THE FIRST GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY”. And if I must be honest, it is not a great favorite of mine. But I certainly do not regarding it as a mediocre piece of filmmaking. In fact, I thought it was not only an excellent movie, but also rather original for a period piece. Michael Crichton may not have been that faithful to what actually happened during the “Great Gold Robbery of 1855”, but I found his fictionalized account rather exciting. And the movie was topped by fine performances from a cast led by Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley-Anne Down.