“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

“JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (1989) Review

One of the most popular romance novelists to emerge during the 1970s and 1980s was Judith Krantz, whose series of novels seemed to be part romance/part family saga. At least six (or seven) of her novels were adapted as television miniseries. One of them was the 1988 novel, “Till We Meet Again”, which became the 1989 CBS miniseries, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN”

Set between 1913 and 1952, the early 1950s, “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” (aka “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”) focused on the lives of Eve, the daughter of a French provincial middle-class doctor and her two daughters, Delphine and Marie-Frederique ‘Freddy’ de Lancel. The story began in 1913 when Eve met a traveling music hall performer named Alain Marais. When she learned that her parents planned to agree to an arranged marriage for her, Eve joined Alain on a train to Paris and the pair became lovers and roommates. Within a year, Alain became seriously ill and Eve was forced to find work to maintain their finances. With the help of a neighbor and new friend, Vivianne de Biron, Eve became a music hall performer herself and Paris’ newest sensation. Out of jealousy, anger and embarrassment, Alain ended their romance.

During World War I, Eve met Paul de Lancel, the heir to an upper-class family that produces champagne who had been recently widowed by a suicidal wife. Following Eve’s marriage to Paul, the couple conceived Delphine and Freddy and Paul became a diplomat. The latter also became estranged from his son Bruno, who was eventually raised by his maternal aristocratic grandparents, who blamed Paul for their daughter’s suicide. By 1930, Eve and Paul found themselves in Los Angeles, where he served as that city’s French consul. And over the next two decades, the de Lancel family dealt with new careers, love, the rise of fascism, the movie industries, World War II, post-war economics, romantic betrayals and Bruno’s villainous and malicious antics.

“JUDITH KRANZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is not what I would call a television masterpiece. Or even among the best television productions I have ever seen. Considering its source, a period piece romance novel – something most literary critics would dismiss as melodramatic trash – it is not surprising that I would regard the 1989 this way. Then again, the 1972 Academy Award Best Picture winner, “THE GODFATHER”, was based on what many (including myself) believe was pulp fiction trash. However, “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” did not have Francis Ford Coppola to transform trash into Hollywood gold. I am not dismissing the 1989 miniseries as trash. But I would never regard it as a fine work of art.

And I did have a few problems with the production. I found the pacing, thanks to director Charles Jarrott, along with screenwriters Andrew Peter Marin and (yes) Judith Krantz; rather uneven. I think the use of montages could have helped because there were times when the miniseries rushed through some of its sequences . . . to the point that I found myself wondering what had earlier occurred in the story. This seemed to be the case with Eve’s backstory. Her rise from the daughter of a provincial doctor to Parisian music hall sensation to a diplomat’s wife struck as a bit too fast. It seemed as if Jarrott, Marin and Krantz were in a hurry to commence on Freddy and Delphine’s story arcs. Another problem I had was the heavy emphasis on Freddy’s post war story arc. Both Delphine and Eve were nearly pushed to the background, following the end of World War II. It is fortunate that the miniseries’ focus on the post-war years played out in its last 20 to 30 minutes.

I also had a problem with how Marin and Krantz ended Delphine’s relationship with her older half-brother Bruno. In the novel, Delphine ended her friendship with Bruno after his attempt to pimp her out to some German Army official during the Nazi’s occupation of France. This also happened in the miniseries, but Marin and Krantz took it too far by taking a page from Krantz’s 1980 novel, “Princess Daisy” . . . by having Bruno rape Delphine after her refusal to sleep with the German officer. I found this unnecessary, considering that the two screenwriters never really followed up on the consequences of the rape. If this was an attempt to portray Bruno a monster, it was unnecessary. His collaboration of the Nazis, his attempt to pimp out Delphine, his sale of the de Lancels’ precious stock of champagne and his participation in the murders of three locals who knew about the sale struck me as enough to regard him as a monster.

My remaining problems with “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” proved to minor. Many of Krantz’s novels tend to begin as period dramas and end in the present time. I cannot say the same about her 1988 novel. The entire story is set entirely in the past – a forty-year period between pre-World War I and the early 1950s. Yet, I managed to spot several anachronisms in the production. Minor ones, perhaps, but anachronisms nevertheless. One of the most obvious anachronisms proved to be the hairstyles for many of the female characters – especially the de Lancel sisters, Delphine and Freddy. This anachronism was especially apparent in the hairstyles they wore in the 1930s sequences – long and straight. Most young girls and women wore soft shoulder bobs that were slightly above the shoulders during that decade. Speaking of anachronism, the actor who portrayed Armand Sadowski, a Polish-born director in the French film industry, wore a mullet. A 1980s-style mullet during those same 1930s sequences. Sigh! The make-up worn by many of the female characters struck me as oddly modern. Another anachronistic popped up in the production’s music. I am not claiming that late 1980s songs were featured in the miniseries. The songs selected were appropriate to the period. However, I noticed that those songs were performed and arranged in a more modern style. It was like watching television characters performing old songs at a retro music show. It simply felt . . . no, it sound wrong to me.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. In fact, I believe that its virtues were strong enough to overshadow its flaws. One, Judith Krantz had created a first-rate family saga . . . one that both she and screenwriter Andrew Peter Marin did justice to in this adaptation. Two, this is the only Krantz family saga that I can remember that is set completely in the past. Most of her family sagas start in the past and spend at least two-thirds of the narrative in the present. Not “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”. More importantly, this family saga is more or less told through the eyes of three women. I have noticed how rare it is for family sagas in which the narratives are dominated by women, unless it only featured one woman as the main protagonist. And neither Eve, Delphine or Freddy are portrayed as instantaneous ideal women. Yes, they are beautiful and talented in different ways. But all three women were forced to grow or develop in the story.

Being the oldest and the mother of the other two, Eve was forced to grow up during the first third of the saga. However, she spent a great deal of emotional angst over her daughters’ lives and the fear that her past as a music hall entertainer may have had a negative impact on her husband’s diplomatic career. Eve and Freddy had to deal with a disappointing love (or two) before finding the right man in their lives. Delphine managed to find the right man at a young age after becoming an actress with the film industry in France. But World War II, and the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic policies managed to endanger and interrupt her romance. Freddy’s love life involved a bittersweet romance with an older man – the very man who taught her to become a pilot; a quick romance and failed marriage to a British aristocrat; and the latter’s closest friend, an American pilot who had harbored years of unrequited love for Freddy until she finally managed to to notice him.

Despite the saga being dominated by Eve, Delphine and Freddy; the two male members of the de Lancel family also had strong roles in this saga. I thought both Krantz and Marin did an excellent job in their portrayal of the complex relationship between Paul de Lancel and his only son and oldest child, Bruno de Lancel, who also happened to be Delphine and Freddy’s half-brother. I also found it interesting how Bruno’s unforgiving maternal grand-parents’ over-privileged upbringing of him and their snobbish regard for Eve had tainted and in the end, torn apart the relationship between father and son. Mind you, Bruno’s own ugly personality did not help. But he was, after all, a creation of the Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Fraycourt. Ironically, Paul also had his troubles with both Delphine and Freddy – especially during their late adolescence. Between Delphine’s forays into Hollywood’s nighttime society behind her parents’ backs and Freddy’s decision to skip college and become a stunt pilot, Paul’s relationships with his daughters endured troubled waters. And I thought the screenwriters did an excellent job in conveying the diplomat’s complex relationships with both of them.

And despite my low opinion of the hairstyles featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN”, I cannot deny that the production values featured in the miniseries struck me as quite impressive. Roger Hall did an excellent job in his production designs that more or less re-created various locations on two continents between the years of 1913 and 1952. His work was ably supported by Rhiley Fuller and Mike Long’s art direction, Donald Elmblad and Peter Walpole’s set decorations, and Alan Hume’s cinematography, which did such an exceptional job of capturing the beauty and color of its various locations. However, I must admit that I really enjoyed Jerry R. Allen and Robin Fraser-Paye’s costume designs. I thought they did an excellent job of recapturing the fashions of the early-to-mid 20th century.

If I must be honest, I cannot think of any performance that blew my mind. I am not claiming that the acting featured in “TILL WE MEET AGAIN” were terrible, let alone mediocre. Frankly, I believe that all of the major actors and actresses did a great job. Courtney Cox gave a very energetic performance as the ambitious and aggressive Freddy de Lancel. Bruce Boxleitner also gave an energetic performance as Jock Hampton, the best friend of Freddy’s husband . . . but with a touch of pathos, as he conveyed his character’s decade long unrequited love for the red-headed Mademoiselle de Lancel. Mia Sara gave a spot-on portrayal of Delphine de Lancel from an ambitious, yet insecure adolescent to a sophisticated and more mature woman. And again, I can the same about Lucy Gutteridge’s portrayal of Eve de Lancel, who developed the character from an impulsive adolescent to a mature woman who proved to be her family’s backbone. Hugh Grant was sufficiently sophisticated and hissable as the villainous Bruno de Lancel without turning his performance into a cliche. Charles Shaughnessy skillfully managed to convey to portray the worthy man behind director Armand Sadowski’s womanizing charm. John Vickery gave a interested and complex portrayal of Freddy’s British aristocrat husband, Anthony “Tony” Longbridge. And Maxwell Caufield was excellent as the charming, yet ego-driven singer Alain Marais. I believe one of the best performances came from Michael York, who was excellent as the emotionally besieged Paul de Lancel, struggling to deal with a stalled diplomatic career, two strong-willed daughters and a treacherous son. I believe the other best performance came from Barry Bostwick, who was excellent as Freddy’s first love Terrence ‘Mac’ McGuire. I thought he did a great job of portraying a man torn between his love for Freddy and his guilt over being in love with someone who was young enough to be his daughter.

Look, I realize that “JUDITH KRANTZ’S TILL WE MEET AGAIN” is basically a glorified period piece melodrama disguised as a family saga. I realize that. And I realize that it is not perfect. Nor would I regard it as an example of the best American television can offer. But at its heart, I thought it was basically a well written family saga that centered around three remarkable women. Thanks to Judith Krantz and Andrew Peter Marin’s screenplay; Charles Jarrott’s direction and a first-rate cast, the 1989 miniseries proved to be first-rate piece of television drama.

 

“EMMA” (1996) Review

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“EMMA” (1996) Review

There are times that I find it hard to believe I have seen at least four adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”, in the past year-and-a-half. Four adaptations. There have been a good deal more than four adaptations. But I have yet to watch any of them. The last adaptation I watched turned out to be writer/director Douglas McGrath’s 1996 film, which starred Gwyneth Paltrow. 

Although the actress had been working for a few years, it was her performance as Emma Woodhouse that put her on the map to stardom. In fact, I would say that “EMMA” also proved to be a professional milestone for co-stars Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. “EMMA” turned out to be the second movie that featured both Paltrow and Collette as co-stars. And the movie also proved to be the directorial debut of Douglas McGrath. Was the movie worth the importance in the careers of the four mentioned? Perhaps.

I would never claim that “EMMA” was the best adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel. There were aspects of it that I found unappealing or troubling. McGrath’s use of the Jane Fairfax character struck me as rather minimal. In fact, poor Polly Walker was barely able to speak more than five or six lines during her entire appearance in the movie. I got the feeling that the director/writer was not particularly interested in the character. And his limited use of poor Jane made me wonder why Emma would harbor any jealousy toward her in the first place. The characters of Isabella and John Knightley were barely used as well. I found this disappointing, since both have proved to be very interesting in other adaptations – especially the slightly rude John Knightley. Another problem I had with “EMMA” proved to be Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of Frank Churchill. I do not if the problem was the actor or McGrath’s writing. But the portrayal of the character seemed . . . off. Frank seemed more busy trying to hide his feelings for Jane, instead of forming any kind of connection to Emma. In other words, this movie did not do justice to the characters of Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, and the John Knightleys.

But despite these flaws, I must admit that “EMMA” turned out to be a very entertaining and first-rate movie. Personally, I believe that the movie’s top-notch owned a great deal to McGrath’s direction. The director shot “EMMA” with a steady pace that allowed the audience to enjoy the greater details of Austen’s tale. This is really a well paced movie, despite the few nips and tuck McGrath inflicted into the story. “EMMA” could never bore me with a slow pacing. Yet, at the same time, it did not race by with the speed of a comet. Another aspect that contributed greatly to “EMMA” proved to be its comic timing. I honestly have to say that the 1996 film might be the funniest adaptation of Austen’s novel. This was especially apparent in two particular scenes – the Westons’ Christmas party, Emma and Mr. Knightley’s conversation about Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, and a specific moment during the Coles’ supper party that I cannot really explain with words.

There were changes to Austen’s novel that many have protested against, but did not bother me one whit. Some have pointed out that Sophie Thompson had been too young in 1995-96 to portray the middle-aged Miss Bates. She was in her early 30s at the time. Even McGrath had initially rejected her for the role when she first auditioned. But once Thompson donned a pair of glasses that made her seem several years older. And the age range for middle-age is pretty uncertain – even to this day. One range stretches from the mid-30s to the mid-60s, in which Miss Bates would fit. Besides . . . Thompson’s portrayal of the chatty Miss Bates is so deliciously funny that in the end, I am glad that McGrath had cast her in the role. Other changes include both Harriet Smith and Emma being rescued from the gypsies by Frank Churchill, the location of Emma’s first meeting with Frank, and the convergence of both the strawberry picking and the Box Hill picnic into one outing.

Two of the bigger changes proved to be Harriet’s reaction to Emma’s engagement to Mr. Knightley and the circumstances that surrounded Emma’s insult to Miss Bates. I found these last two changes somewhat of an improvement to Austen’s story. I have always thought that Austen had glossed over Harriet’s reaction to Emma and Mr. Knightley’s engagement. After allowing Harriet to develop a crush over Donwell Abbey’s master, Austen went out of her way to avoid or evade how Harriet might have reacted to the news. McGrath, on the other hand, approached the matter with a little more realism by allowing Harriet to react with tears. The other change featured Emma’s insult to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In the novel and other versions, Emma’s insult regarding Miss Bates’ intelligence had been laced with humor. Emma’s insult was tinged with malice in this version, due to her anger over the Eltons’ cold reaction to Frank’s regard for her. And instead of Jane Fairfax refusing to see Emma during the latter’s visit to the Bates’ home following the picnic, it was Miss Bates who refused to see her. Now many “purists” might have a problem with these changes. I did not. As far as I am concerned, these changes did not harm the story.

I can say this about “EMMA” . . . it proved to be one of the most beautiful looking Austen adaptations I have ever seen. I am not familiar with Ian Wilson’s work, other than his photography for the 1981 miniseries, “THE FLAME TREES OF THIKA”. And I have not laid eyes on that particular production in many years. I only hope that it looks as beautiful and lush as Wilson’s photography in “EMMA”. My God, I never thought that such lush and sharp colors could look so elegant. The look and style of Wilson’s photography seemed to match Ruth Meyer’s costume designs. The light elegance and pastel coloring featured in Meyer’s costumes almost gave them an ethereal vision – especially those costumes for the female cast. Meyer had received criticism from those who claimed that her costumes did not accurately reflect the Regency decade or English fashion. I was too busy enjoying Meyer’s costume designs to really care.

“EMMA” provided some first-rate performances from the cast. Well . . . let me rephrase that statement. From most of the cast. Poor Ewan McGregor was nearly defeated by McGrath’s written portrayal of Frank Churchill and that damn wig he was forced to wear. The London Film Critics’ Circle gave him the British Actor of the Year award. I am sorry, but I do believe he did not deserve this award. And he would be the first to agree with me, considering his past criticism of his performance. And poor Polly Walker was damn near wasted in her role as Jane Fairfax, due to McGrath’s failure to give her any depth. And lines. There were times I felt that McGrath was more interested in Emma’s reaction to Jane’s “perfections” than in the character. But the rest of the cast fared just fine. Both Greta Scacchi and James Cosmo gave solid performances as Mrs. and Mr. Weston (Emma’s former governess and Frank’s father). I could say the same for Phyllida Law’s silent portrayal of the defeated Mrs. Bates. Denys Hawthorne gave a charmingly humorous portrayal of Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. But I did not find his performance as memorable as some of the other actors who have portrayed the character. But there were performances that really knocked the wind out of me. Juliet Stevenson was hilarious as the verbose and vulgar Mrs. Augusta Elton. She was so perfect (and annoying) in the role that I found myself wishing someone would bash her over the head to stop her prattling. However, I could stand and listen to Sophie Thompson’s prattling all day. I really enjoyed her portrayal as the equally verbose and pitiful verbose Miss Bates. I especially enjoyed her habit of loudly repeating a word or line in order for her silent mother to hear. Alan Cummings struck me as deliciously insidious as the fortune seeking Reverend Philip Elton. What I found amazing about his performance was his transformation from the slimy courtier to Mrs. Elton’s henpecked and dominated husband.

The three performances that really caught my attention came from Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Northam and Toni Collette. The latter gave one of the best comic performances I have ever seen in an Austen production. Her portrayal of the easily manipulated Harriet Smith reminded me of Debbie Bowen’s portrayal in the 1972 miniseries. But I believe Collette injected more comic skill into the role. Although Jeremy Northam was slightly younger than the literary George Knightley, he easily conveyed the character’s dignity and wisdom . . . and at the same time injected a great deal of wit and excellent comic timing into his performance. One of my favorite Northam moments turned out to be Knightley’s silent reaction to Emma’s duet with Frank Churchill at the Coles’ party. Northam’s Mr. Knightley looked as if he had found a worm in his salad and his expression had me shaking with laughter. Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal of the well-meaning, yet snobbish Emma Woodhouse projected her into stardom. And I can see why. She not only gave one of the best performances in her early career, but I also believe that she proved to be the funniest Emma I have yet to see in any adaptation. Yet, at the same time, Paltrow did a great job in conveying Emma’s more dramatic moments and character development.

Although I do not consider “EMMA” to be the best adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, I have to admit that Douglas McGrath both wrote and directed an excellent film. He was ably supported by Ian Wilson’s beautiful photography, Ruth Meyer’s gorgeous costumes and a first-rate cast led by the excellent Gwyneth Paltrow. McGrath’s body of work may not have been that perfect, but I believe he can look back on his work for “EMMA” with great pride.

“HALLOWE’EN PARTY” (2010) Review

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“HALLOWE’EN PARTY” (2010) Review

Many years have passed since I last read Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel, “Hallowe’en Party”. Although it is not considered one of Christie’s better novels, the story possessed a style that struck me as rich and atmospheric. I never forgot it. So, when I learned about ITV’s 2010 adaptation of the novel, I could not wait to see it. 

Directed by Charles Palmer and adapted by actor Mark Gatiss (who appeared in 2008’s “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH”), “HALLOWE’EN PARTY” begins with mystery author Adrianne Oliver visiting a friend named Judith Butler in the small village of Woodleigh Common. Because Mrs. Butler has a young daughter named Melinda, the two women accompany her to a children’s Halloween party being held at the home of a widow named Rowena Drake. A young girl named Joyce Reynolds announce that she had once witnessed a murder. Everyone assumes she is lying. A few hours later, Joyce is found drowned in a tub filled with water and bobbing apples. Determined to learn the identity of Joyce’s murder, Mrs. Oliver summons another friend, Belgian-born detective to Woodleigh Commons to solve the murder. During his investigation of Joyce’s murder, Poirot uncovers a series of murders, mysterious deaths and disappearances that the thirteen year-old girl may have witnessed.

I might as well be perfectly frank. I do not consider “HALLOWE’EN PARTY” to be one of the better written Christie adaptations I have seen. Ironically, the fault does not lay with screenwriter Mark Gatiss. I believe he did the best he could with the material given to him. But I believe that Christie’s 1969 novel was not one of her better works. I will be even franker. “HALLOWE’EN PARTY” nearly worked as a mystery. But looking back on it, I realized that it was one of those mysteries that I found easy to solve. Poirot’s investigation into past murders, suspicious deaths and disappearances at Woodleigh Common made the story somewhat easy to solve. Even worse, the murderer was nearly revealed some ten minutes before Poirot revealed his solution to the case. Like 2008’s “APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH” and 2010’s“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”“HALLOWE’EN PARTY” also touched on the subject of religion. Thankfully, Gatiss managed to keep the subject of religion on a subtle level – including the topic of paganism.

“Hallowe’en Party” was published in 1969 and heavily reflected the late 1960s. I cannot deny that this television adaptation looked very handsome, thanks to Jeff Tessler’s production designs, Cinders Forshaw’s photography and Sheena Napier’s costume designs. All three did an exceptional job of transporting viewers to a small English village in the late 1930s and capturing the mysterious atmosphere of Halloween. I only have two complaints about this. Despite the first-rate 1930s setting, I wish that the movie had been given the novel’s original late 1960s setting. I believe this story was more suited for this particular setting. Also, I wish that both Palmer and Gatiss had not included sounds of children chanting “Snap, Snap, Snap”, whenever a lone character seemed to be in a threatening situation. These chants brought back annoying memories of a handful of old “POIROT” movies from the 1990s that featured titles from nursery rhymes.

The saving grace of “HALLOWE’EN PARTY” proved to be the cast. David Suchet was in top form as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. I found his portrayal subtle, humorous and intelligent. Frankly, I consider his performance to be one of his better efforts in the past three or four years. Many “POIROT” fans have bemoaned the lack of Hugh Fraser as Arthur Hastings during the past decade. As much as I had enjoyed Fraser’s portrayal, I did not miss him that much, thanks to Zoë Wanamaker’s portrayal of Adrianne Oliver, a mystery author who became one of Poirot’s closest friends. I have already seen Wanamaker’s previous takes on the Adrianne Oliver character in other “POIROT” episodes. She was marvelous in those episodes and I can say the same about her performance in this one. Also, she and Suchet made a surprisingly effective and humorous screen team.

The supporting cast featured interesting performances from acting veterans. There was Timothy West, whose portrayal of Woodleigh Commons’ vicar, struck me as wonderfully subtle and complex. Eric Sykes, whom I remembered from the“DARING YOUNG MEN” movies of the 1960s, was in fine form as the elderly solicitor Mr. Fullerton. Fenella Woolgar made a poignant Elizabeth Whittaker, a local schoolteacher who continued to mourn the death of a potential lover. Sophie Thompson gave an interesting, yet slightly melodramatic performance as the religious mother of the dead Joyce, Mrs. Reynolds. I must say that I was surprised that Julian Rhind-Tutt managed to keep it together and prevent his portrayal of landscape gardener, Michael Garfield, from becoming hammy. Mind you, Rhind-Tutt has been more than capable of giving a subtle performance in other productions. But Michael Garfield is somewhat of a showy character. The movie also benefitted from solid performances from the likes of Amelia Bullmore, Phyllida Law, Mary Higgins, Ian Hallard and Georgia King. However, I believe that Deborah Findlay gave the best performance in the movie, aside from Suchet and Wanamaker. She was subtle, yet superb as the ladylike, yet pushy widow Rowena Drake, whose home served as the setting for the opening murder.

I would not consider “HALLOWE’EN PARTY” to be one of the better Christie stories. As I had stated earlier, I believe its main flaws originated from the author’s 1969 novel. However, both director Charles Palmer and screenwriter Mark Gatiss did the best they could. Their efforts were not able to overcome Christie’s narrative flaws. But I believe they still managed to provide television audiences with an entertaining and atmospheric story, with the help of a first-rate cast led by David Suchet.