Favorite Films Set in the 1800s

Below is a list of my favorite movies set during the decade between 1800 and 1809: 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1800s

1. “Emma” (1996) – Gwyneth Paltrow starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about an upper-class Englishwoman’s attempts to play matchmaker for her friends and neighbors. Co-starring Jeremy Northam, the movie was adapted and directed by Douglas McGrath.

2. “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003) – Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany starred in this Oscar-nominated adaptation of several of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin series. The movie was co-written and directed by Peter Weir.

3. ‘Buccaneer’s Girl” (1950) – Yvonne De Carlo starred in this entertaining romantic adventure about the relationship between a Boston singer and an elite sea trader/pirate in old New Orleans. Directed by Frederick de Cordova, the movie co-starred Philip Friend and Robert Douglas.

4. “Captain Horatio Hornblower” (1951) – Gregory Peck and Virginia Mayo starred in this adaptation of three of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The movie was directed by Raoul Walsh.

5. “Mansfield Park” (1999) – Patricia Rozema adapted and directed this adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about an impoverished young woman living with her wealthy relations. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

6. “The Duellists” (1977) – Ridley Scott directed this adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1908 short story, “The Duel” about a small feud between two Napoleonic officers that evolves into a decades-long series of duels. Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel starred.

7. “Lloyd’s of London” (1936) – Tyrone Power was featured in his first starring role as a young man who worked for the famous insurance corporation, Lloyd’s of London, during the Napoleonic Wars. Directed by Henry King, Madeleine Carroll and George Sanders co-starred.

8. “Carry On Jack” (1963) – Bernard Cribbins, Kenneth Williams and Juliet Mills starred in this eighth entry in the “Carry On” comedy series, which is a spoof of the high-seas adventure genre. Gerald Thomas directed.

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“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

I just realized something. I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1932 novel, “Peril at End House”. I find this ironic, considering that I have seen the 1990 television movie adaptation of this novel at least three or four times. One of these days, I will get around to reading Christie’s novel and comparing it to the television adaptation. Right now, I am going to focus on the latter.

Directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Clive Exton, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” is the first full-length television movie aired on “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It is also about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s efforts to prevent the murder of a young socialite, during his vacation in Cornwall. The movie begins with Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings arriving at a Cornish seaside resort for their vacation. While conversing with socialite Magdala “Nick” Buckley on the resort’s grounds, Poirot notices that someone had fired a bullet into the brim of her floppy hat. Poirot exposes the bullet hole to Nick, who finds it difficult to believe that someone wants to kill her. She points out that aside from her house – End House – has no real assets. Poirot decides to investigate her inner circle, who includes the following:

*Charles Vyse – Nick’s cousin and an attorney
*Mr. and Mrs. Croft – an Australian couple that has leased the lodge near End House, who had suggested Nick make a will six months earlier
*Freddie Rice – a close friend of Nick’s, who is also an abused wife
*Jim Lazarus – an art dealer in love with Nick
*Commander George Challenger – a Royal Navy officer who is also attracted to Nick

Poirot eventually advises Nick to invite a relative to stay with her for a few weeks. Nick invites her distant cousin Maggie Buckley. Unfortunately, someone kills Maggie, after she makes the mistake of wearing Nick’s dress shawl during an evening party. Even worse, the killer eventually achieves his/her goal by sending a box of poisoned chocolates to Nick, while she was recuperating at a local hospital.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” possessed a certain plot device that Christie had used in several of her novels. I would describe this plot device. But to do so would spoil the rest of the story. It took me years to spot this plot device. And I should be surprised that I have not come across anyone else who has spotted it. And yet . . . I am not. The fact that it took me several years to spot this particular plot device only tells me that Christie has utilized it with great effect in some of her more interesting and well-written mysteries. Thankfully, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be one of those well-written mysteries.

I must admit that Clive Exton did a pretty damn good job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. He stuck very closely to the original novel’s plot . . . with a few changes that did no harm to the overall movie. Both Exton and Rye presented a well-paced production to the audiences. They set up the story with Poirot and Hastings’ arrival to Cornwall and continued on with without any haste or dragging feet. The only time the movie threatened to put me to sleep occurred between the story’s second murder and the revelation of the killer . . . . when the story threatened to ground to a halt. I have one last problem – namely the appearance of Chief Inspector Japp. I realize that Japp did appear in the novel. But his appearance merely dealt with Poirot’s request that he investigate the Crofts, whom the Belgian detective suspected of being forgers. The cinematic Japp immediately appeared following Maggie Buckley’s death as the main police investigator. And Cornwall is not under Scotland Yard’s main jurisdiction.

The production values for “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be top-notch. Rye shot the film’s exterior scenes in Salcombe, Devon; instead of the county of Cornwall. I found that curious. However, both he and cinematographer Peter Bartlett certainly took advantage of the movie’s setting with Bartlett’s photography of Salcombe’s charming, Old World style. This was especially apparent in the movie’s opening sequence that featured Poirot and Hasting’s arrival by airplane. Actually, production designer Mike Oxley did an excellent job of recreating an English vacation resort in the early 1930s. The production practically reeked of the Art Deco style of that time period. However, I was especially impressed by Linda Mattock’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by those costumes worn by actresses Polly Walker, Pauline Moran and Alison Sterling. My only complaints about the movie’s visual styles were the actresses’ hairstyles. No one seemed capable of re-creating the early 1930s soft bob. The actresses either wore a chignon or in the case of Sterling, a Dutch Boy bob made famous by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” featured some solid performances by the cast. David Suchet gave his usual excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was especially impressed by the on-screen chemistry he managed to produce with Polly Walker. The latter gave a standout performance as the killer’s main target, Madgala “Nick” Buckley. Walker did an excellent job of transforming Nick from the charming “Bright Young Thing” to a wary and frightened woman, who realizes that someone is trying to kill her. Alison Sterling was also excellent as one of Nick’s closest friends, “Freddie” Rice. Next to Walker’s Nick, Sterling gave an interesting and skillful portrayal of the very complex Freddie. Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson were also excellent as Arthur Hastings, Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. All three, along with Suchet, managed to re-create their usual magic. The movie also featured solid performances from Paul Geoffrey (whom I found particularly convincing as an early 30s social animal), John Harding, Christopher Baines and Elizabeth Downes. I found the Australian accents utilized by Jeremy Young and Carol Macready, who portrayed the Crofts, rather wince inducing. But since their accents were supposed to be fake in the first place, I guess I had no problems.

For some reason, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” has never become a big favorite of mine. It is a well done adaptation of Christie’s novel. And I found it visually attractive, thanks to the movie’s production team. The movie also featured some excellent performances – especially from David Suchet, Polly Walker and Alison Sterling. Naturally, it is not perfect. But that is not the problem. I cannot explain my lack of enthusiasm for “PERIL AT END HOUSE”. I can only assume that I found nothing particularly mind blowing or fascinating about its plot. It is simply a good, solid murder mystery that has managed to entertain me on a few occasions. Perhaps . . . that is enough.

“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

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“AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” (2007) Review

Not long ago, I had written a review of an Agatha Christie television movie called “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL”. It was a 1987 adaptation of the writer’s 1965 novel. Twenty years later, ITV aired its own version that starred Geraldin McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. 

But I am not interested in comparing the two adaptations. Instead, I want to discuss only one of them – the recent 2007 televised film. The movie began with a flashback to the early 1890s in which a young Jane Marple stayed at the fashionable London hotel, Bertram’s, with a relative. Sixty years later, the elderly resident of St. Mary Mead’s pay another visit to the hotel and discovers that its interior has not really changed over the years. Miss Marple is there She is there to meet an old friend named Lady Selina Hazy, who is visiting for the reading of a will of her millionaire second cousin, who had been declared dead after being missing for seven years and owned Bertram’s. Also there for the reading of the hotel owner’s will are his ex-wife Bess, Lady Sedgwick; and daughter Elvira Blake. Bertram’s Hotel also seemed to be used as a center to smuggle Nazi war criminals and their stolen treasure; and for jewel thieves.

Christie’s 1965 novel is not considered one of her stronger ones and I can see why. The story’s murder mystery is rather weak and easy to solve. They mystery behind the hotel proved to be more interesting. The 1987 television movie with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple closely followed the novel. Despite a sluggish pacing, it still proved to be entertaining. Screenwriter Tom McRae decided to “solve” the matter of Christie’s narration by “improving” it with major changes. And you know what? It sucked. Big time. Without a doubt, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” – at least this 2007 version – is one of the worst Christie adaptations I have ever seen. Period.

One of the first sentences that Miss Marple observes when she arrives at Bertam’s after many years is that the hotel had not changed . . . even after sixty years. And yet that was NOT the impression I encountered. In Christie’s novel and the 1987 film, the elderly sleuth noticed that the hotel’s quiet and elegant atmosphere had remained intact after many years. I NEVER got that impression in this 2007 film . . . certainly not with the noisy bustling going on upon her arrival. To make matters worse, McRae’s script had Louis Armstrong and his band break out into a jam session in one of the hotel’s ballroom. He is joined by one of the writer’s fictional characters, an American-born black jazz singer Amelia Walker. WTF????? I cannot image Louis Armstrong staying at some quaint little London hotel like Bertram’s. The screenplay also had the Lady Sedgwick character receiving clumsily written death threats, Nazi war criminals and their hunters disguised as hotel guests. The screenplay even featured an extra murder victim – a hotel maid named Tilly Rice. It also made the actual murder of Bertram’s commissionaire a lot more complicated than necessary. And to make matters even more worse, McRae added another maid character named Jane Cooper, who becomes a younger version of Miss Marple – another talented amateur sleuth. And she acquired a love interest of her own – an Inspector Larry Byrd, a World War II veteran with post-traumatic stress. He also replaced the much older Chief Inspector Fred Davy character, as the story’s main police investigator. The screenplay allowed the young Miss Cooper to reveal most of the hotel’s mysteries before Miss Marple exposed the actual killer.

I do not mind if changes were made to Christie’s story. I can think of a good number of Christie adaptations in which changes were made to her original novels and ended up being well-made movies. But I feel that those changes needed to be well-written or be necessary as an improvement to the author’s original tale. “At Bertram’s Hotel” was not a perfect or near-perfect novel. But the changes made for this particular adaptation did not improve the story. On the contrary, the changes made for “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” transformed Christie’s rather eccentric tale into one big convoluted mess. The only positive change that emerged in this adaptation was a shorter running time of ninety-three (93) minutes. Thanks to this shorter running time, “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” managed to avoid the occasionally sluggish pacing of the 1987 movie.

The performances in “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” proved to be a mixed bag. I had nothing against Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of the quiet, yet intelligent Miss Jane Marple. She was her usual more than competent self. I enjoyed her performance so much that I wish that the screenplay had not seen fit to saddle her with the Jane Cooper character. Yes, I hated the idea of another amateur sleuth in this tale. But I must admit that Martine McCutcheon gave a very good performance as Jane. But the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” want another amateur sleuth that badly, create another series for her . . . or him. Francesca Annis managed to rise above the material given to her and gave a very funny and entertaining performance as Miss Marple’s old friend, Lady Selina Hazy. However, why do most or all of Miss Marple friends tend to look more glamorous . . . and older than her? Stephen Mangan gave a solid and intense performance as Inspector Larry Byrd. More importantly, he managed to portray a post-traumatic stress victim without engaging in excessive acting. I was not particularly thrilled by McRae and director Dan Zeff’s changes to the Lady Sedgwick character. They replaced Christie’s vivacious and elegant socialite/adventuress into a hard-nosed and somewhat cold businesswoman. However, I cannot deny that actress Polly Walker gave a more than competent performance as Lady Sedgwick, despite the changes to the character.

Naturally, there were the performances that either failed to impress me, or I found troubling. I was not that impressed by Emily Beecham’s portrayal of the young Elvira Blake. I simply found it unmemorable. I can say the same for Mary Nighy’s portrayal of Elvira’s friend, Brigit Milford; Vincent Regan’s performance as hotel commissionaire Mickey Gorman; Nicholas Burns’ portrayal of twin brothers Jack and Joel Britten; and Charles Kay as one Canon Pennyfather, who struck me as a dull and stuffy character. Ed Stoppard portrays a Polish race car driver named Malinowski, who is suspected by many of being a former Nazi. He gave a pretty good performance, although there were a few moments when he dangerously veered into hammy acting. The role of Amelia Walker proved to be singer Mica Paris’ second and (so far) last dramatic role. Mind you, she gave a pretty good performance, but the moment she opened her mouth, I immediately knew she was not an American. I found her accent rather exaggerated at times. I have always been impressed by Peter Davidson in the past. But I must admit that I did not care much for his portrayal of hotel employee Hubert Curtain. I found it unnecessarily exaggerated . . . especially in one scene.

What else can I say? “AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL” does featured a good deal of atmosphere. Unfortunately, it struck me as the wrong kind of atmosphere for this particular story. And some of the good performances featured in this movie – especially by Geraldine McEwan, Francesca Annis and Polly Walker – could not save the movie from the shabby screenplay written by Tom MacRae. Honestly, I found the whole thing a mess. I only hope that there will be a better written adaptation some time in the future.

“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.