“DOCTOR THORNE” (2016) Review

 

“DOCTOR THORNE” (2016) Review

Two years ago, the ITV aired “DOCTOR THORNE”, Julian Fellowes’ four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1858 novel. As it turned out, the latter was the third novel in Trollope’s literary series known as the Chronicles of Barsetshire

From what I know, the 1858 novel seemed to have little in common to the rest of Trollope’s Barstshire series. Dr. Thomas Thorne, the main character in “DOCTOR THORNE”, was a distant cousin of Mr Wilfred Thorne, a minor character in “Barchester Towers”. Aside from that, the rest of the characters in “DOCTOR THORNE” seemed to have very little or no connections to the remaining Barstshire series.

The plot for “DOCTOR THORNE” seemed pretty straightforward. Our main protagonist is a respected doctor who has been raising his niece, Mary Thorne, on his own. Years earlier, Doctor Thorne’s ne’er-do-well older brother Henry had seduced one Mary Scatcherd. When her stonemason brother Roger Scatcherd had learned about his sister’s pregnancy, he engaged in a fight with Henry and killed him. Scatcherd ended in prison for several years, his sister gave birth to a daughter before moving to Australia with a new husband, and Doctor Thorne ended up raising his niece and keeping her parents’ identities a secret.

Following his release from prison, Roger Scatcherd becomes wealthy as railway project undertaker, got married, became a father and acquired a baronet. He also becomes a chronic alcoholic. Thorne becomes the family doctor to the Greshams, a local family of the landed gentry. He he persuades Scatcherd to lend money Mr. Francis Greshams, the local squire, who has troubles managing his finances. Within time, much of the Gresham estate is put up as collateral. Meanwhile, Mary forms a close friendship with the Gresham children and falls in love with Frank Gresham, Squire Gresham’s only son and heir of the squire, and he with her. But due to the family’s finances, Squire Gresham’s wife, Lady Arabella, plots to end Mary and Frank’s romance and find a wealthy wife for her son. However, Sir Roger’s only son and heir, Louis Scatcherd, also falls in love with Mary. And like his father, Louis has also acquired a drinking habit. Dr. Thorne is forced to struggle to help his niece find happiness, while at the same time, deal with Lady Arabella’s scheming for her son, and the tenuous financial situation between the Scatcherds and the Greshams.

“DOCTOR THORNE” received mixed reviews when it aired on both British and American television. I suspect that many critics believed that the production seemed to lack the bite of previous Trollope adaptations. And if I must be honest, I agree with them. Overall, “DOCTOR THORNE” struck me as a fluff piece into the life of Victorian society, despite the social snobbery portrayed in the miniseries, along with the fact that two of the characters were alcoholics. I believe it had something to do with the production’s tone. Thanks to Julian Fellowes’ writing, the miniseries felt more like a light comedy with flashes of melodrama. Especially for a story that featured social bigotry, family secrets and alcoholism.

It did not help that the only characters in this story who truly suffered in the end were the members of the Scatcherd family. Personally, I wish that Lady Arabella Gresham had suffered a lot more than a slight embarrassment over the discovery of Mary Thorne’s newly inherited wealth by the end of the story. I found the aristocratic matriarch’s efforts to break up Frank Jr.’s romance with Mary a lot more perfidious than the Scatcherds’ financial hold over the Greshams or even the malice and hostility that Sir Roger’s son Louis had harbored toward the high-born family. After all, the Greshams had found themselves in financial difficulties, thanks to Squire Gresham’s mishandling of the family’s income and the family’s spending habits.

But despite my qualms over the production, I still managed to enjoy it. “DOCTOR THORNE” proved to be a humorous and romantic story about Mary Thorne’s relationship with Frank Gresham Jr. and the obstacles – both socially and emotionally – they were forced to overcome. I also enjoyed the humorous subplot involving the political going-ons in Barsetshire and the upcoming election between Sir Roger Scatcherd and Mr. Moffat, another self-made man who had managed to gain support from the Gresham family. The miniseries also proved to be a poignant family drama involving the Thorne and Scatcherd families, with a big emotional payoff. And all of this romance and family drama was witnessed by the always dependable Doctor Thorne, who seemed to serve as the story’s backbone.

The production values for “DOCTOR THORNE” proved to be top-notch. Production designer Kristian Milsted did a solid job in re-creating Barsetshire, the fictional mid-19th century community (for its middle-class and upper-class citizens) featured in this story. Her efforts were ably assisted by Caroline Story’s art direction and Jan Jonaeus’s sharp and colorful photography, which did justice to various locations utilized in various counties in Southern England. I especially enjoyed the costumes created by Colleen Kelsall as shown below:

However, I felt a bit disturbed when I noticed that the day dresses worn by some of the women characters exposed a bit of cleavage:

Unless I happened to be wrong, 19th century women did not reveal any cleavage during the daytime. It was considered appropriate to do so in the evening for formal dinners and parties. I also noticed in the image above that actress Gwyneth Keyworth is also wearing a flower crown. A flower crown with daytime casual wear? I do not think so. Flower crowns – popularized by Queen Victoria during her wedding to Prince Albert – were usually worn by brides and bridemaids during wedding ceremonies, formal dinners and parties. I have one last complaint. The mid 19th century hairstyles worn by the women cast members seemed spot on to me . . . with one exception:

What on earth was the production’s hairstylist thinking by allowing this modern touch to actress Stefanie Martini’s hairstyle? Or was the hairstylist trying to copy the following look?

The problem is that the above style was prevalent in the 1840s, a decade before the setting for “DOCTOR THORNE”. And Ms. Martini’s “curls” are a tad too short.

The miniseries featured a mixture of solid and excellent acting. I can honestly say that there was not a bad performance in the production. Performers such as Nicholas Rowe, Alex Price, Cressida Bones, Janine Duvitski, Danny Kirrane, Tim McMullan, Nell Barlow all provided solid performances. More solid performances came from Edward Franklin, who seemed a tad over-the-top as the hostile and alcoholic Sir Louis Scatcherd; Harry Richardson, whose portrayal of Frank Gresham Jr. struck me as a bit bland; and Stefanie Martini’s performance as Mary Thorne struck me as charming, but not quite interesting. The real problem proved to be the character, who seemed to lack any interesting personality traits.

One of the more interesting performances came from Rebecca Front, who did an excellent job in conveying Lady Arabella Gresham’s snobbish and ruthless nature. Phoebe Nicholls’ Countess de Courcy (Lady Arabella’s sister-in-law) proved to be equally snobbish and ruthless. However, Nicholls skillfully conveyed how Lady de Courcy’s ruthlessness proved to be more subtle. Richard McCabe did an excellent job of portraying Francis Gresham’s likable, yet slightly weak nature. Gwyneth Keyworth gave an excellent performance as Frank Jr.’s complex and slightly mercenary sister, Augusta Gresham. Kate O’Flynn gave a skillful performance as Augusta’s equally mercenary cousin, Lady Alexandrina de Courcy, who proved to be a lot more manipulative. Alison Brie gave a very charming, yet sly performance as the wealthy American heiress Miss Dunstable, who proved to be a very sensible and wise woman. One of two best performances in the miniseries came from Ian McShane, who gave a superb performance as the alcoholic, yet proud and loyal Sir Roger Scatcherd. The other best performance came from Tom Hollander, who did a superb job as the leading character, Doctor Thomas Thorne, a sensible and put upon man, who constantly struggles to look after his niece from the likes of Lady Arabella and keep Squire Gresham from folding under the weight of debts.

What else can I say about “DOCTOR THORNE”? It is not one of the best television productions I have seen. It is probably the least impressive Anthony Trollope I have ever come across. But despite its flaws, I rather enjoyed it. I found it rather charming and likable, thanks to Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and the excellent cast led by Tom Hollander.

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“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

“WAR AND PEACE” (2016) Review

I have a confession to make. I have never seen a movie or television adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel, “War and Peace”. Never. Well . . . I once made an attempt to watch the 1956 movie adaptation directed by King Vidor. Unfortunately, I could never go the distance. In fact, I have never read the novel. 

However, many years passed. When I heard about the BBC’s latest adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to give “WAR AND PEACE” a chance. The six-part miniseries is simply about the experiences of five Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century. Those families include the Bezukhovs, the Bolkonskys, the Rostovs, the Kuragins, and theDrubetskoys. The miniseries seemed to be divided into three segments during a period between 1805 and 1812-13. The first segment featured the introduction of the main characters and Russia’s preparation of a war against Napoleon’s France. This culminates into the Battle of Austerlitz in which two major characters – Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky and Count Nikolai Ilyich Rostov – participate.

The second segment featured the characters’ personal experiences at home. During this period, the miniseries explored Count Pyotr “Pierre” Kirillovich Bezukhov’s failed marriage with the beautiful, but vapid and unfaithful Princess Yelena “Hélène” Vasilyevna Kuragina; the Rostov family’s financial woes and how it affected Nikolai Rostov; the emotional strains within the Bolkonsky family; Prince Boris Drubetskoy’s efforts to advance his military career; and especially Countess Natalya “Natasha” Ilyinichna Rostova’s love life, which included both Andrei Bolkonsky and Prince Anatole Vasilyevich Kuragin. This segment also included news of Treaties of Tilsit of 1807, which ended hostilities between Imperial France and Imperial Russia and Prussia. The miniseries’ final segment focused on France’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and the characters’ efforts to survive it.

I could compare director Tom Harper and screenwriter Andrew Davies’ adaptation with Tolstoy’s novel, but it would be a useless effort. As I had earlier pointed out, I have never read the novel. But I do have at least two complaints about the productions. One of them revolved around the relationship between Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky. I realize that the publicity machine on both sides of the Atlantic had undergone a great effort to build up the relationship between the pair. Frankly, I found the publicity campaign rather wasted. The Natasha/Andrei romance struck me as a disappointing and wasted effort. The majority of their story arc – which began with their meeting at a ball near the end of Episode Three, continued with Natasha’s brief romance with the slimy Anatole Kuragin, and ended with Natasha’s romances with both men crashing around her by the end of Episode Four; had moved . . . so damn fast that it left my head spinning. I cannot help but wonder if the entire arc could have been portrayed with more detail if the series had stretched a bit longer.

I also had a problem with Edward K. Gibbon’s costume designs. I found most of them very colorful, especially for the aristocratic characters. But I also found most of them rather troublesome. Well . . . to be honest, I found them either mediocre or historically questionable. One of them left me gritting my teeth:

But my jaw had literally dropped at the sight of a few costumes worn by actresses Tuppence Middleton and Gillian Anderson – including those shown in the images below:

 

WHAT IN THE HELL??? Their costumes looked more appropriate for present-day evening wear than the early 19th century. What was Mr. Gibbons thinking?

Despite the rushed Natasha Rostova/Andrei Bolkonsky romance and despite the rather questionable costumes, I managed to enjoy “WAR AND PEACE” very much. I am a sucker for family sagas, especially when they are seeped in a historical background. And “WAR AND PEACE” nearly pushed every one of my buttons when it comes to a well made saga. It had everything – romance, family struggles, historical events and personages. When I realized that Tolstoy had originally focused his tale on five families, I did not think Andrew Davies would be able to translate the author’s novel in a tight story without losing its epic quality.

There were certain sequences that really blew my mind, thanks to Davies’ writing and especially, Tom Harper’s direction. I thought Harper did an outstanding job of re-creating battles like Austerlitz and Borodino, along with the French Army’s retreat from Moscow. Harper also did a great job in directing large parties and ball scenes. My two favorites are the party held at St. Petersburg socialite Anna Pavlovna Scherer’s salon in Episode 1 and the ball where Natasha and Andrei met in Episode 3.

But it was not just the battle and crowd scenes that impressed me. “WAR AND PEACE” is – after all – a melodrama, even if many literary critics are inclined not to admit it. I never thought I would find myself getting caught up in the lives of the saga’s main characters. But I did. I must admit that I admire how Tolstoy . . . and Davies managed to allow the three main characters – Pierre, Natasha and Andrei – to interact with the five families, regardless of blood connection or marriage. I especially enjoyed the explorations into the lives of Pierre, the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys. At first glance, some might regard the miniseries’ ending that featured a picnic with the families of the three leads as a bit on the saccharine. It did have a “happily ever after” tinge about it. But I read in a newspaper article that complained about Tolstoy’s “realistic” ending – one that featured a less-than-happy view of the protagonists’ lives and a critique from Tolstoy on all forms of mainstream history. Thanks to Davies’ screenplay, audiences were spared of this.

“WAR AND PEACE” featured a good number of first-rate performances from a supporting cast that included Stephen Rea, Gillian Anderson, Tuppence Middleton, Callum Turner, Mathieu Kassovitz, Jessie Buckley, Adrian Edmondson, Aisling Loftus, Rebecca Front and Aneurin Barnard. However, I was especially impressed by certain supporting performances. One came from Greta Scacchi, who portrayed the Rostov family’s practical and sometimes ruthless matriarch Countess Natalya Rostova. I also enjoyed Brian Cox’s portrayal of the world weary General Mikhail Kutuzov, who has to contend with not only Napolean’s army, but also the amateurish interference of the Czar. Tom Burke did a great job in portraying the wolfish and ambitious army officer, Fedor Dolokhov, who eventually becomes a better man following Napoleon’s invasion. Jack Lowden’s portrayal of the young Count Nikolai Rostov really impressed me, especially when his character found himself torn between following his heart and marrying a wealthy woman to restore his family’s fortunes. And Jim Broadbent gave a very colorful performance as Prince Nikolai Bolkonsky, the mercurial and controlling patriarch of the Bolkonsky family.

And what about the production’s three leads? Lily James gave a very charming performance as Countess Natasha Rostova. Well . . . I take that back. Describing James’ performance as simply “charming” seemed to hint that I found it rather shallow. Yes, James handled Natasha’s “light” moments with her usual competence. More importantly, she did an excellent job in conveying Natasha’s personal struggles – especially during the series’ second half. There were times when I did not know what to make of the Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. He struck me as a very unusual protagonist. Although I found him rather honorable and filled with valor, Andrei did not always struck me as likable – especially in his relationship with adoring, yet ignored wife Lise. And Norton superbly captured the many nuances of Andrei’s character. If Andrei Bolkonsky struck me as an unusual protagonist, Count Pierre Bezukhov struck me as one of a kind. Well . . . one of a kind for a literary piece written in the 19th century. Sometimes, I get the feeling that someone like Pierre could easily translate into a late 20th century or early 21st century geek. Or perhaps not. I think Pierre is too kind and open-minded to be considered a geek. But he is very unusual for a leading man. And thanks to Paul Dano’s superb portrayal, Pierre has become one of my favorite fictional characters. He did a stupendous job in conveying Pierre’s character from this insecure and rather naive man to a man who learned to find wisdom and inner peace through his struggles. Dano was so good that I had assumed that his performance would garner him a major acting nomination. It did not and I am still flabbergasted by this travesty.

My taste in period dramas usually focused on stories set in the United States or Great Britain . . . with the occasional foray into France. I was very reluctant to tackle this latest adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous novel. But I was in the mood for something new and decided to watch the six-part miniseries. I am happy to say that despite some flaws, I ended up enjoying “WAR AND PEACE” very much, thanks to Andrew Davies’ screenplay, Tom Harper’s direction and an excellent cast led by Paul Dano, James Norton and Lily James.

The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in alphabetical order:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.