“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.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005) Review

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” (2005) Review

To my knowledge, there have been at least ten screen (film and/or television) adaptations of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”. I believe it has been adapted more times than her other five novels. This is not surprising. It is probably the most beloved of her six novels. I have seen four of those adaptations, myself. And one of them is director-writer Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation.

“PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” starred Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. The story focuses on Elizabeth’s dealings with marriage, manners and other issues in the landed gentry society of late Georgian England. Elizabeth and her four sisters are encouraged by their mother to find a suitable husband before their father’s estate is inherited by a distant male cousin. The Bennet family is heartened by the blossoming romance between Elizabeth’s older sister Jane and a wealthy bachelor named Charles Bingley, who has rented a neighboring estate. But the family are unaware that Mr. Bingley’s even wealthier friend, Fitzwilliam Darcy, has grown attracted to the extroverted Elizabeth. However, obstacles block the path of true love. Mr. Darcy and Bingley’s snobbish sister Caroline disapprove of his romance with Jane, due to the poor behavior of Mrs. Bennet and her three youngest daughters. And Elizabeth has developed a deep dislike of Mr. Darcy, due to his own distant and haughty behavior. Through a series of setbacks and misunderstandings, true love finally flourishes in the end.

Wright’s adaptation of Austen’s novel was a box office hit and earned numerous award nominations, including a Best Actress nomination for star Keira Knightley. But like the 1940 adaptation with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, this 2005 film has attracted a great deal of criticism from Austen fans for its failure to be closely faithful to the novel. Many have complained how Wright changed the dynamics within the Bennet family. Others have complained by the less than sterile appearance of the Bennet estate and the movie’s late 18th century. As far as many readers were concerned, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” should have been set between 1811 and 1820 – Britain’s Regency era, since the novel was published in 1813. So, how did I feel about Wright’s take on Austen’s novel?

I might as well be frank. I did have problems with “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. I could have understood Wright’s decision to portray the Bennet household with a less than pristine appearance. The Bennet manor was not the first to be portray in this style. The Western home in 1963’s “TOM JONES” looked a lot messier. But Squire Western lived on the estate by himself, until the arrival of his daughter Sophie and his sister Aunt Western. Mrs. Bennet managed the family estate in Wright’s movie. One would think she and the house servants would be able to keep a cleaner home. And I was not that impressed by most of the costumes worn by the Bennets. I found them rather plain and worn for an upper class family from the landed gentry. Mind you, they did not have the same amount of money as Mr. Darcy or the Bingleys. Except for the Netherfield ball sequence, their costumes seemed to hint that they barely possessed enough money to scratch out a living. Yet, at the same time, they had both house and field servants?

I was not impressed by the change of dynamics between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. They seemed a bit too affectionate in comparison to their portrayals in other movies. Wright’s decision to make this change seemed to defeat the purpose of Austen’s narrative. He forgot that the incompatible marriage between the well-born, yet caustic Mr. Bennet and the middle-class and boorish Mrs. Bennet was one of the major reasons that led youngest daughter Lydia to leave Brighton with the roguish George Wickham. Mrs. Bennet’s shrill manners and obsession with matrimony for her daughters, and Mr. Bennet’s cynical disregard for his wife and society led to their failure to discipline their youngest daughters – Lydia and Kitty. But we never see this in Wright’s film. He had every right to justify Mrs. Bennet’s search for future sons-in-law. But the affection between her and Mr. Bennet makes it difficult to explain their failure to discipline Lydia and Kitty.

I also had a problem with George Wickham. I felt sorry for Rupert Friend. He is a very good actor who was handed a role that turned out to be a ghost of its former self in Wright’s screenplay. Friend is also a very handsome actor. But he was really not given the opportunity to display Wickham’s charm and talent for emotional manipulation. Worse, the Elizabeth/Wickham scenes failed to convey any real friendship between the two, before Elizabeth’s discovery of his true nature. They were simply not on screen together long enough to justify Elizabeth’s outrage over Mr. Darcy’s alleged treatment of Wickham. Wright’s treatment of the Charles Bingley character was also a problem for me. I am aware that Mr. Bingley has always sought his friend Mr. Darcy’s approval, regarding the other man as his social superior. But Mr. Bingley has always struck me as a more social and extroverted man. Wright made sure that his Mr. Bingley, portrayed by Simon Woods, was socially active. But he also transformed Bingley into a shy and reticent man. And the idea of a quiet Mr. Darcy and a shy Mr. Bingley as close friends does not quite seem right to me.

However, there is no such thing as a perfect film – at least not in my experience. Yes, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” is a flawed movie. But it is not the disaster that some Austen fans would have many to believe. Despite some changes in the characterization and the 129 minutes running time, Austen’s tale remained intact under Wright’s direction and Deborah Moggach’s pen. And a few of the changes made by Wright and Moggach did not bother me one bit. In fact, I found them rather interesting. One change in the movie involved the Elizabeth Bennet character. This “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” delved more into the impact of the Bennet family’s shenanigans upon her psyche with scenes that featured Elizabeth’s brief flight from the crowds of the Netherfield ball, her penchant of keeping personal secrets from her closest sister Jane, and occasional bursts of temper. Many also complained about the film’s late 18th century setting, claiming that Austen’s novel was a Regency tale. I said this in my review of the 1940 adaptation and I will state it again. There was no law that “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” had to be set in the 1810s because of its final publishing date. Austen’s tale is not a historical drama, merely a comedy of manners and a romantic tale. Besides, her novel was originally completed sometime in the late 1790s – the same time frame as this movie.

Despite my complaints about the plain wardrobe for the Bennet family, I must admit that I was impressed by most of Jacqueline Durran’s costumes – especially for the Netherfield Ball sequence. I felt that the most interesting costume was worn by Kelly Reilly (as Caroline Bingley in the aforementioned sequence:

netherfield-ball-miss-bingley-in-modern-dress

Some fans felt that Durran made a misfire in the creation of this particular costume, which they believed evoked the high-waisted fashions of the first two decades of the 19th century. They especially took umbrage at her gown’s lack of sleeves. What they failed to realize was that women’s fashion was in a stage of transition between the late 18th and early 19th century. Older women like Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh wore the older 18th century fashions, while younger females began wearing dresses and gown with a higher waistline. It made sense that Caroline Bingley, being familiar with the more sophisticated London society, would wear such a gown. There is a 1798-99 painting called “Madame Raymond de Verninac” in which the subject wore a similar looking gown:

1799-Verninac-David

Other technical aspects of the movie proved to be a lot less controversial. Roman Osin’s photography provided to be one of the movie’s biggest assets. I found it lush, yet sharp and rich in color. And it certainly did justice to Sarah Greenwood’s production designs and Katie Spencer’s set decorations, which captured the look of Britain at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century beautifully. I especially enjoyed the photography featured in Elizabeth’s journey with her Gardiner relations to Derbyshire. Another segment that displayed Osin’s photography and Greenwood’s work beautifully was the Netherfield Ball. I especially enjoyed the tracking shot that touched upon the behaviors and emotional states of the major characters, before finally settling upon a secluded Elizabeth, heaving a sigh of relief.

Wright had the good luck to find himself with a first-rate cast for his movie. Jena Malone’s Lydia Bennet struck me as more of a show boater or poseur than any other interpretation of the role. Carey Mulligan gave ample support as her slightly older sister and emotional pet, Kitty. Talulah Riley did a very good job in capturing Mary Bennet’s self-righteous nature. Yet, at the same, she was surprisingly poignant – especially during the Netherfield ball sequence. Despite Moggach and Wright’s attempts to paint Mrs. Bennet’s determination to marry off her daughters in a more positive light, Brenda Blethyn still managed to capture the character’s gauche manners and silliness. And for that I am grateful to the actress. Donald Sutherland’s take on Mr. Bennet seemed less cynical than Austen’s take on the character. Thanks to Moggach’s script, Sutherland’s Mr. Bennet almost loses his bite. But not completely. Sutherland managed to retain some of the character’s sardonic humor. And I really enjoyed his performance in the scene that featured Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth’s discussion about her feelings for Mr. Darcy.

Despite my complaints about the characterizations of Charles Bingley and George Wickham, I cannot deny that both Simon Woods and Rupert Friend gave first-rate performances. However, I suspect that Woods was given more to work with, even if Moggach’s portrayal of his character struck a wrong note within me. There is an interesting post-script regarding Woods’ casting – he was Rosamund Pike’s (Jane Bennet) ex-boyfriend, when they filmed “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” together. The movie featured only one of Mr. Bingley’s sisters – namely the gold-digging Caroline Bingley. Kelly Reilly’s take on the role strongly reminds me of Frieda Inescort’s performance in the 1940 movie – cool and sarcastic. Reilly had some choice lines, my favorite being her comment about her brother’s guests at the Netherfield Ball:

“I can’t help thinking that at some point someone is going to produce a piglet and we’ll all have to chase it.”

Yes, I realize that Jane Austen did not write it. But who cares? It is such a droll line, even if it was spoken by the unspeakable Caroline. I read somewhere that Joe Wright had convinced Judi Dench to portray Lady Catherine de Bourgh, claiming that he loved it when she “played a bitch”. And yes . . . Dench’s Lady Catherine was deliciously bitchy. On the other hand, Claudie Blakely gave a nice performance as Elizabeth’s best friend, Charlotte Lucas. She also had one memorable moment in which her character tried to explain her decision to marry William Collins, Elizabeth’s unpalatable cousin. “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” marked the first time Keira Knightley worked with Tom Hollander. His Mr. Collins did not strike me as obsequious as previous versions. For some reason, Hollander reminded me of a socially awkward geek. The scene featuring Mr. Collins’ attempt to get Mr. Darcy’s attention struck me as particularly funny. Penelope Wilton and Peter Wight gave solid performances as Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle, the Gardiners. But I did not find them particularly memorable. Rosamund Pike made a very beautiful and charming Jane Bennet. She perfectly conveyed the character’s shyness and penchant for thinking too good of others.

Matthew MacFadyen was not that well known to U.S. audiences when he was cast in the role of Mr. Darcy. I realize that I am going to attract a good deal of flak for this, but I am glad that MacFadyen did not try to recapture Colin Firth’s take on the role. An actor or actress should never try to copy another’s performance. Frankly, I thought MacFadyen did a fine job on his own. He is the only actor to openly convey Mr. Darcy’s inability to easily socialize before the story’s second half, due to some silent acting on his part. I especially enjoyed his performance with Knightley featuring Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Darcy’s first marriage proposal. But Keira Knightley, as Elizabeth Bennet, contributed just as much to the scene as he did. For some reason, the actress has attracted a great deal of bashing from moviegoers. I will not try to determine the reason behind their behavior. But I will compliment Knightley for her performance. Like the other actresses who have portrayed Elizabeth, she conveyed all of the character’s wit, prejudices and exuberant nature. But thanks to Moggach’s screenplay, Knightley was given a chance to put a new spin on Elizabeth’s character. Due to the Bennet family’s behavior, Knightley was able to convey Elizabeth’s increasing emotional distance from them. Many critics did not care for this new spin on the character. I, on the other hand, found it fascinating and new.

Joe Wright’s “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” has its flaws. There is no denying it. But I can say the same for the other three adaptations of Jane Austen’s novel that I have seen. For me, the movie’s virtues outweighed its flaws. And its biggest virtues were Roman Osin’s photography, and a memorable cast led by the talented Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen. This was Joe Wright’s first film and so far, my favorite he has done during his sixteen years as a director.

 

 

 

“PERSUASION” (2007) Review

“PERSUASION” (2007) Review

When it comes to adaptations of Jane Austen novels, I tend to stick with a trio of titles – ”Pride and Prejudice”,”Emma” and ”Sense and Sensibility”. Before this year, I have never seen a screen adaptation of any remaining Austen novels. Until I saw the 2007 adaptation of her last completed novel published in 1818, ”Persuasion”

Directed by Adrian Shergold, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the sensible middle daughter of a vain and spendthrift baronet named Sir Walter Elliot. At the age of 19, Anne had fallen in love with a young naval officer named Frederick Wentworth. But due to his lack of fortune and family connections, Sir Walter and Anne’s friends expressed displeasure at the idea of her becoming Mrs. Wentworth. But it was a family friend named Lady Russell who persuaded Anne into breaking off her engagement to Frederick. Eight years later, the Elliot family found themselves in financial straits due to the careless spending of Sir Walter and his oldest daughter, Elizabeth. They ended up leasing their house and estate – Kellylynch Hall in Somersetshire – to an Admiral Croft and his wife. The latter turned out to be the older sister of the now Captain Wentworth.

While Elizabeth and Sir Walter set off for their new residence in Bath, Anne remained behind to take care of further business in Somersetshire; including taking care of her hypochondriac sister Mary Musgrove, who is married to Charles Musgrove and living in a nearby estate. During one of his visits to his sister, Frederick re-entered Anne’s life. He had risen to the rank of Captain and has become rich from prize money awarded for capturing enemy vessels during the Napoleonic Wars. Frederick also became viewed as a catch by every eligible young woman – including her brother-in-law’s two sisters, Louisa and Henrietta Musgrove. But Anne suspected that Frederick had not forgiven her for rejecting his offer of marriage so many years ago. And both end up learning how to overcome their personal demons in order to let go of the past and find a new future together.

Hands down, ”PERSUASION” has to be the most emotional Jane Austen tale I have ever come across. In fact, I would go as far to say that this tale literally had me squirming on my living room sofa in sheer discomfort during many scenes that featured Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. Or . . . I found myself heaving with frustration – especially during the movie’s last ten to fifteen minutes, as Frederick made an effort to emotionally reconnect with Anne, while the latter’s family continued to put obstacles in her way. However, it eventually struck me that the main barrier between Anne and Frederick’s reconciliation came from the two lovers. I would probably go as far to say that the couple’s personal demons over the past broken engagement perpetrated the entire story. And I truly enjoyed this – in a slightly perverse way.

Thanks to screenwriter Simon Burke’s writing and Sally Hawkins’ performance, I came away with a feeling that Anne had existed in a fog of resignation ever since her rejection of Frederick’s proposal, eight years ago. Aside from struggling to keep her family out of financial straits – despite Sir Walter and Elizabeth’s spending – I wondered if she had spent all of those years flagellating herself for allowing Lady Russell to persuade her into giving up Frederick. Her self-flagellation seemed to have continued during moments when Frederick either snubbed her or when their past connections came up in conversation. Frederick’s attitude did not help matters, considering that he spent most of the movie coldly rebuffing Anne or wallowing in resentment. This especially seemed to be the case after he learned that Anne had rejected another suitor after Lady Russell (again) persuaded her that he would be an unsuitable match for her. Frederick’s anger and resentment assumed a righteous tone following that revelation. His attitude ended up blinding him from the fact that his friendliness toward the Musgrove sisters – especially Louisa – had led many to assume he was seriously interested in her. At that moment, Frederick realized two things – his inability to forgive Anne had nearly led him to a marriage he did not desire; and that he still loved her. In other words, ”PERSUASION” had the type of romance that really appealed to me. I found it complex, difficult and slightly perverse.

In the movie’s third act, Anne joined Sir Walter and Elizabeth in Bath. She became acquainted with an old friend named Mrs. Smith. She also acquired a new suitor – her cousin, the widowed and now wealthy Mr. William Elliot. Unfortunately, the William Elliot character proved to be the story’s weakest link. Many fans of Austen’s novel have complained that Simon Burke’s screenplay failed to adhere closely to the author’s portrayal of the character. I have read a few reviews of the 1995 adaptation and came across similar complaints. In the Austen novel, William Elliot happened to be heir to Sir Walter’s baronetcy and the Kellylynch estate upon the older man’s death due to a lack of sons. Fearing that Sir Walter might marry Elizabeth’s companion, Mrs. Clay, and produce a son; William set out to ensure his inheritance by re-establishing ties with Sir Walter and marry one of the latter’s remaining single daughters . . . namely Anne.

I can see why many have criticized the movie’s portrayal of William Elliot. But I find it interesting that many have not considered the possibility that the fault originated with Austen’s novel. Think about it. Why did William go through so much trouble to court Anne? Could he not tell that she had little interest in him? Why not court the daughter who did express interest – namely Elizabeth? And why did William believe that a marriage to Anne or any of Sir Walter’s daughters would secure his inheritance of the Elliot baronetcy and Kellylynch? How would such a marriage prevent Sir Walter from marrying a younger woman capable of giving him a son? After all, the man remained a vital and attractive man at the age of 54. And even if William had prevented Mrs. Clay from marrying Sir Walter, there would be other eligible young women (preferably wealthy) that would not mind marrying Sir Walter in order to become Lady Elliot and mistress of Kellylynch. Personally, I feel that the William Elliot storyline in the novel was a contrived and flawed attempt to provide a romantic complication for Anne and Frederick. And instead of re-writing Austen’s portrayal of William or getting rid of him altogether, Burke and director Adrian Shergold decided to vaguely adhere to the literary version.

Another problem I had with ”PERSUASION” turned out to be the supporting cast. Well . . . some of the supporting cast. Poor Tobias Menzies could barely do anything but project a bit of smugness and false warmth with the poorly written William Elliot character. And if I must be frank, I could not remember the faces of characters like Mary Elliot Musgroves’ husband and sisters-in-law, the Crofts, and Mrs. Smith. Mind you, it was nice to see television and movie veteran Nicholas Farrell in the role of the older Mr. Musgrove. Fortunately, I cannot say the same about those who portrayed Anne’s immediate family, Captain Harville and Lady Russell. The always competent Anthony Stewart Head gave a spot-on performance as the vain and arrogant Sir Walter Elliot. One can only assume that Anne had inherited her personality from her mother. Both Julia Davis and Amanda Hale were memorably amusing as Anne’s sisters – the equally vain and arrogant Elizabeth Elliot and the self-involved hypochondriac Mary Elliot Musgrove. Mary Stockley gave a subtle performance as Elizabeth’s obsequious companion, Mrs. Penelope Clay. I also enjoyed Joseph Mawle’s portrayal of Captain Harville, one of Wentworth’s closest friend. I found his performance quiet and subtle in a very satisfying way. And Alice Kriege’s portrayal of the well-meaning, yet snobbish Lady Russell struck me as very complex and very subtle. Her performance made Lady Russell seem like a kind woman with a surprising lack of tolerance that ended up wreaking havoc on Anne’s life for eight years.

For my money, ”PERSUASION” truly belonged to Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones as Anne Elliot and Captain Frederick Wentworth. I believe that both did beautiful jobs in breathing life into the two lead characters. Someone had once complained in another article that in ”PERSUASION”, the two leads exchanged very little dialogue with each other and other characters. This person also added that it almost felt like watching a silent movie. This only confirmed my belief that both Hawkins and Penry-Jones are more than competent screen actors. Through their expressions and very little dialogue, they managed to convey their characters’ emotions, demons and development.

Not only did Hawkins express Anne Elliot’s resignation to a life as Sir Walter’s unmarried and overlooked daughter; she also revealed Anne’s despair and discomfort over dealing with Frederick Wentworth’s silent anger and contempt. And in the movie’s last half hour, the actress made it a joy to watch Anne bloom again under the attentions of her morally questionable Cousin William Elliot and Frederick’s renewed interest. One would think that Penry-Jones’ had an easier job in his portrayal of Captain Wentworth. Well . . . he had less screen time. Though his character did strike me to be just as complex as Anne’s. Penry-Jones took Frederick’s character through an emotional journey during the entire film; via anger, contempt, indifference, mild cheerfulness, longing, jealousy, desperation and joy. Some of his best moments featured Frederick’s struggles to keep his emotions in check. More importantly, both Hawkins and Penry-Jones had such a strong screen chemistry that most of their scenes that featured them staring longingly at each other had me muttering ”get a room” under my breath.

I just realized that I have not mentioned a word about Anne Elliot’s infamous run through the streets of Bath. Many fans have complained that no decent young English lady of the early 19th century would ever do such a thing. Others have viewed it as simply a ludicrous scene that made Anne look ridiculous. I must admit that a part of me found the sequence rather ridiculous looking. But I have managed to consider some positive aspects to this scene. One, it represented Anne’s desperate attempt to connect with Frederick before it was too late. And two, the scene provided colorful views of the very distinctive-looking Bath.

Many fans have complained about the movie’s 93-minute running time. They claimed that ”PERSUASION” should have been a lot longer. Perhaps they had a point. After all, the 1971 adaptation had a running time of 210 minutes. And the 1960-61 version aired as a series of four episodes. On the other hand, some fans of the movie claimed that Austen’s novel was not as long as some of her previous ones. Also, the much-admired 1995 version had a running time of only 107 minutes.

The 93-minute running time for ”PERSUASION” did not bother me one bit. I really enjoyed this latest version of Austen’s novel very much. Granted, it had its flaws – namely the handling of the William Elliot character. But I believe that this flaw can be traced to Austen’s novel. Flaws or not, I enjoyed ”PERSUASION” so much that I immediately purchased a DVD copy of it after seeing the movie on television. In my opinion, director Adrian Shergold’s BAFTA nomination was very well-deserved.

 

 

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

 

“ATONEMENT” (2007) Review

Based upon Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel, ”ATONEMENT” told the story about how the lies and misunderstandings of 13-year-old girl from a nouveau-riche English family affected the romance between her older sister and the son of the family’s housekeeper. The movie starred James McAvoy, Keira Knightely and Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan.

Comprised in four parts (like the novel), ”ATONEMENT” began with the 13-year-old Briony Tallis (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring novelist with a crush on Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the family’s housekeeper. Robbie, along with Briony’s older sister Cecilia (Keira Knightley) have both returned for the summer in 1935, following their education at Cambridge. Although both Robbie and Cecilia have been aware of each other at Cambridge, neither have not bothered to acknowledge their romantic interest in each other until recently. Also at the Tallis home for the weekend are Briony and Cecilia’s cousins – the 15-year-old Lola Quincey (Juno Temple) and her younger twin brothers – and their older brother Leon’s friend, the owner of a chocolate factory named Paul Marshall (Benedict Cumberbatch).

After Briony had witnessed several disturbing scenes – at least in her eyes – between Robbie and Cecilia, she comes to the conclusion that Robbie might be a sexual threat to Cecilia. Matters worsened when Briony joined the rest of the household in the search for Lola’s twin brothers, who had ran off in protest against their parents’ upcoming divorce. During the search for the twins, Briony witnessed the rape of her cousin Lola on the family estate by a man in a dinner suit. In the end, Briony claimed that the man she saw raping Lola was Robbie. Aside from Cecilia, the rest of the family believed Briony and Robbie ends up being sent to prison. At the outset of World War II, the British government released Robbie from prison on condition that he enlist as a private in the British Expeditionary Force. The rest of the movie, set during the early years of World War II, featured Robbie’s brief reunion with Cecilia – who had become a nurse – before his journey to France and the now 18-year-old Briony’s (Romola Garai) experiences as a wartime nurse.

”ATONEMENT” turned out to be a first-rate film about the destructive consequences of lies and illusions. Both director Joe Wright and screenwriter Christopher Hampton structured the movie in an unusual way in which not only did they allow moviegoers different conflicting perspective on certain incidents in the story – a prime example would be both Briony and Robbie’s different points-of-view on an incident regarding Cecilia’s retrieval of a broken vase from the estate fountain, but also quite cleverly hinted that certain aspects of story – especially the World War II segments – may have been colored by Briony’s own emotions and imagination. Also, Wright, along with art directors Ian Bailie, Nick Gottschalk and Niall Moroney; and production designer Sarah Greenwood did an excellent job in re-creating the rich atmosphere of Britain in the mid-1930s and 1940 and especially the Dunkirk expedition. I also have to commend Paul Tothill for the film’s superb editing. Tothill managed to give”ATONEMENT” a rhythmic style that matched the sound of a typewriter that added an illusionary sense to the unfolding story. In other words, by editing the story in a way that allowed certain scenes to be told from different points of view and added a sense of illusion, Tothill’s work gave the audience a false sense of illusion – at least for those who have never read McEwan’s novel.

I do have one quibble about the movie’s production . . . and I have to place the blame on Wright’s direction. I am referring the sequence that featured Robbie’s arrival at the beach at Dunkirk. At first glance, I was struck by the spectacle of Wright’s direction and Seamus McGarvey’s photography of the entire montage. Like I said . . . at first. Unfortunately, the montage ended up lasting several minutes too long. Not much time had passed when I found myself longing for it to end. I realized that Wright wanted to reveal the horror and chaos of war in all of its glory. But in the end, he simply went too far.

I must admit that I was not as impressed by most of the cast of ”ATONEMENT” as most critics and moviegoers. There was nothing earth-shattering about most of the performances . . . just good, solid work. Many moviegoers and critics had been surprised when both James McAvoy and Keira Knightley failed to earn Academy Award nominations. After watching the movie, I am not really surprised. Mind you, both gave very competent performances as the two lovers – Robbie and Cecilia.  But I had two problems with McAvoy and Knightley. One, their screen chemistry was not that explosive, considering the heated romance of their characters. It took a love scene inside the Tallis library to truly generate any heat between them. And two, I think their performances were hampered by Wright’s decision to allow the characters to speak in a staccato style that was prevalent in the movies of the 1930s and 40s in both Hollywood and Britain. I hate to say this, but McAvoy and Knightley never really managed to utilize this speech pattern with any effectiveness. There were times when their attempts to use it threatened to make their performances seem stiff and rushed. Perhaps they were simply too young and inexperienced.

On the other hand, I was very impressed by the three actresses who portrayed Briony Tallis at different stages in her life. Legendary actress Vanessa Redgrave portrayed a 70–80-year-old Briony, who had not only written a novel based upon the events surrounding Robbie’s arrest, but also confessed to the mistake she had committed decades earlier. And Romola Garai portrayed the character as an 18 year-old wartime nurse. Both actresses did an excellent job of portraying these older versions of Briony. But it was the young actress Saoirse Ronan who stole the movie as the 13-year-old Briony, whose naivety, jealousy toward Cecilia and Robbie’s budding romance and penchant for illusions led to devastating consequences for the romantic pair. Unlike McAvoy and Knightley, Ronan gave a superb and natural performance as the confused and emotional Briony. It is not surprising that her work eventually earned BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress.

Before I end this review, I have to point out something that trouble me about ”ATONEMENT”. I might as well admit that I have never read McEwan’s novel . . . which is why the following storyline left me feeling confused. From what I have read about the film and the novel, Briony’s cousin, Lola Quincey, had been raped by the Tallis’ guest, Paul Marshall. And yet . . . she married the man, five years later. Why? Was it because she never knew that Marshall had been the one who had raped her? But judging from the hostile look she had given Briony at her wedding, Lola seemed well aware of that fact. Did Marshall actually raped her? Or had he seduced her that night the twins disappeared, and Robbie was arrested? Perhaps the novel made the details of Lola’s storyline clearer. The movie left it murky. At least for me.

In the end, I must admit that ”ATONEMENT” proved to be one of the best movies released in 2007. Was it the best movie of that year? I have no idea. I have not seen “NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN”. At least not yet. But despite some of the movie’s flaws, director Joe Wright managed to lift the usual Merchant Ivory façade of Britain’s past and create an emotionally dark film from Ian McEwan’s novel.