“EMMA” (2020) Review

“EMMA” (2020) Review

Between 2009 and 2020, Hollywood and the British film/television industries have created a handful of productions that either spoofed or were inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. Actually, I can only recall one movie that was more or less a straightforward adaptation – 2016’s “LOVE & FRIENDSHIP”, an adaptation of Austen’s novella, “Lady Susan”. So imagine my surprise when I learned a new and straightforward adaptation of an Austen novel was due to hit the theaters.

I was even more thrilled that this new movie would be a straightforward adaptation of Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma” . . . which happened to be my favorite written by her. This new adaptation, helmed by Autumn de Wilde and written by Eleanor Catton, starred Anya Taylor-Joy in the title role. I am certain that many Austen fans are familiar with the 1815 novel’s narrative. “EMMA” is the story of a spoiled and over privileged young Englishwoman named Emma Woodhouse, who resides at her wealthy father’s country estate near the town of Highbury. Emma is not only spoiled and over privileged, but overestimates her own matchmaking abilities and is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives.

Ever since its release in February 2020, film critics and moviegoers have been praising “EMMA” to the skies. In fact, the movie is so high on the critical list that I would not be surprised if it ends up receiving major film award nominations next winter. A great deal of this praise has been focused on the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn for his portrayal of George Knightley, Bill Nighy’s portrayal of Mr. Woodhouse; and Autumn de Wilde’s direction. Does the movie deserve such high praise? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

I certainly cannot deny that “EMMA” is a beautiful looking film. I found Christopher Blauvelt’s photography to be very sharp and colorful. In fact, the film’s color palette almost seemed similar to the color schemes found in Alexandra Byrne’s costume designs. Overall, the visual style for “EMMA” seemed to radiate strong and bright colors with a dash of pastels. Very stylized. But as much as I found all of this eye catching, I also found myself a little put off by this stylized artistry – especially for a movie in a period rural setting.

Speaking of artistry, there has been a great deal of praise for Byrne’s costumes. And I can see why. Granted, I am not fond of some of the pastel color schemes. I cannot deny I found her creations – especially those for the movie’s women characters – were eye catching, as shown below:

I had a few complaints regarding the film’s costumes and hairstyles. The men’s trousers struck me as a little too baggy for the 1810s. I get it. Actors like Bill Nighy found historical trousers a bit tight. But I feel the trousers featured in “EMMA” struck me as a bit too comfortable looking from a visual viewpoint. And then there was the hairstyle used by Anya Taylor-Joy in the film. For some reason, I found her side curls a bit too long and rather frizzy looking. Instead of the mid-1810s, her hairstyle struck me as an example of hairstyles worn by women during the early-to-mid 1840s.

Someone had claimed that “EMMA” was a very faithful adaptation of Austen’s novel. Was it? Frankly, I thought it was no more or less faithful than any of the costumed versions. De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton followed the major beats of Austen’s novel, except for one scene – namely the Crown Inn ball. I will discuss that later. The movie also did an excellent job in capturing the comic nature of Austen’s novel. This was apparent in nearly every scene featuring Bill Nighy as Mr. Woodhouse. I also enjoyed those scenes featuring the introduction of Augusta Elton, Emma’s reactions to Jane Fairfax and her attempts to play matchmaker for Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton. But the movie also featured some good dramatic moments, thanks to De Wilde’s direction and the film’s cast. I am speaking of the scenes that featured Mr. Knightley’s scolding of Emma for her rudeness towards the impoverished Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic; Mr. Knightley’s marriage proposal and the revelation of Harriet’s engagement to tenant farmer Robert Martin.

“EMMA” has received a great deal of acclaim from film critics, moviegoers and Jane Austen fans. Many are claiming it as the best adaptation of the 1815 novel. Do I feel the same? No. No, I do not. In fact, out of the five film and television adaptations I have seen, I would probably rank it at number four. Perhaps I had very high expectations of this movie. It is an adaptation of my favorite Austen novel. And it is the first straightforward Austen adaptation since the 2009 television adaptation of same novel. Perhaps this movie is better than I had original assume. Then again, looking back on some of the film’s aspects – perhaps not.

A good deal of my problems with “EMMA” stemmed from the portrayal of the main character, Emma Woodhouse. How can I say this? Thanks to Catton’s screenplay and De Wilde’s direction, Emma came off as more brittle and chilly than any other version I have ever seen. Granted, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. This was apparently in her strong sense of class status, which manifested in her erroneous belief that Harriet Smith was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat or gentry landowner, instead of someone from a lower class. Emma’s snobbery was also reflected in her contempt towards the impoverished Miss Bates, despite the latter being a “gentlewoman” and a member of the landed gentry. Emma’s snobbery, a product of her upbringing, also manifested in her own ego and belief that she is always right. Yes, Emma possessed negative traits. But she also had her share of positive ones. She possessed a warm heart, compassion for the poor (at least those not from her class), intelligence, and an ability to face her faults. This cinematic portrayal of Emma Woodhouse as a brittle and slightly chilly bitch struck me as a little off putting and extreme.

Another example of the exaggeration in this production was Mr. Knightley’s reaction to his dance with Emma at the Crown Inn ball. Many have not only praised the sensuality of the pair’s dance, but also Mr. Knightly’s reaction upon returning home to his estate, Donwell Abbey. What happened? George Knightley seemed to be in some kind of emotional fit, while he stripped off some of his clothes and began writhing on the floor. What in the fuck was that about? That scene struck me as so ridiculous. Other actors who have portrayed Knightley have managed to portray the character’s awareness of his love for Emma without behaving like a teenager in heat.

Speaking of heat, who can forget Harriet Smith’s orgasmic reaction to Mr. Knightley’s company? Many critics and Austen fans thrilled over the sight of a female character in a Jane Austen production having an orgasm. I will not castigate De Wilde for this directorial choice. I am merely wondering why she had included this scene in the first place. If Harriet was going to have an orgasm, why not have her bring up the subject to a possibly flabbergasted Emma? Why include this moment without any real follow through? Having an orgasm must have been something of a novelty for a young woman like Harriet, who was inexperienced with sexual thoughts or feelings.

And then there was Emma and Mr. Knightley’s dance at the Crown Inn ball. The latter sequence is usually one of my favorites in any adaptation of “EMMA”. The one exception proved to be the 1972 miniseries, which ended the sequence after Emma had suggested they dance. I almost enjoyed the sequence in this film . . . except it featured Emma obviously feeling attracted to Mr. Knightley during this dance. And I thought this was a big mistake. Why? Because Emma was never that consciously aware of her attraction to Mr. Knightley, until Harriet had confessed her crush on the landowner. And that happened near the end of the story. In other words, by showing Emma’s obvious feelings for Knightley during the ball, Autumn De Wilde rushed their story . . . and was forced to retract in the scene that featured Harriet’s confession. I feel this was another poor decision on the filmmaker’s part.

If I have to be honest, I think De Wilde, along with screenwriter Eleanor Catton, made a number of poor decisions regarding the film’s narrative. I have already pointed out three of those decisions in the previous paragraphs. But there were more. De Wilde and Catton changed the dynamics between Mr. Woodhouse and his older daughter and son-in-law, Isabella and John Knightley. In the novel and previous adaptations, the younger Mr. Knightley had always seemed more annoyed and at times, cankerous toward Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria. In this version, Isabella’s hypochondria is portrayed as more irritating. And instead of reacting to his wife’s complaints, John suppressed his reactions and ended up being portrayed as a henpecked husband. For some reason, De Wilde and Catton thought it was necessary to take the bite out of John Knightley, making him a weaker character. Why? I have not the foggiest idea, but I did miss the character’s biting wit.

In my review of the 1996 television version of “Emma”, I had complained how screenwriter Andrew Davies and director Diarmuid Lawrence had minimized part of Harriet’s character arc and focused just a bit too much on Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. In the 1996 movie version, the opposite happened. Writer-director Douglas McGrath had focused more on Harriet’s arc than the Frank/Jane arc. Well De Wilde and Catton ended up repeating McGrath’s mistake by focusing too much on Harriet, at the expense of Frank and Jane. Worse, Frank and Jane’s arc seemed focused upon even less than in the 1996 McGrath film. The couple barely seemed to exist. And a result of this is that Frank’s father, Colonel Weston, barely seemed to exist. Mrs. Weston fared better due to her being Emma’s former governess. But I was really shocked at how little De Wilde and Catton focused on Mr. Elton and his overbearing bride, Augusta Elton. The movie did focus a good deal on Mr. Elton in those scenes featuring Emma’s attempts to match him with Harriet. But following his marriage, his character – along with Mrs. Elton’s – seemed to slowly recede into the background following their tea at Hartfield with the Woodhouses. By allowing very little focus on these characters, De Wilde and Catton had left out so many good moments in their effort to streamline Austen’s story for theatrical film. Even more so than the two versions from 1996.

Because of this streamlining, a good deal of the cast had very little opportunity to develop their characters on screen. Oliver Chris and Chloe Pirrie gave solid comic performances in their portrayal of John and Isabella Knightley, despite my irritation at the changing dynamics of their relationship. Rupert Graves was pretty much wasted as the over-friendly Colonel Weston. Miranda Hart gave a funny performance as the impoverished spinster Miss Bates. Unfortunately, I was distracted by her less-than-impoverished wardrobe in several scenes. If you had asked for my opinion of Amber Anderson’s portrayal of Jane Fairfax, I would not have been able to give it to you. I have no memory of her performance. She made no impact on the movie or its narrative. Tanya Reynolds struck me as a rather funny Mrs. Elton . . . at least in the scene featuring the Eltons’ tea with the Woodhouses at Hartfield. Otherwise, I have no real memory of her other scenes in the movie. Callum Turner has always struck me as a memorable performer. And I have to admit that his portrayal of Frank Churchill certainly made an impression on me. But the impression was not always . . . negative. One, he did not have enough scenes in this movie and his character arc struck me as rather rushed. And two, I thought his Frank Churchill was a bit too smarmy for my tastes.

Thankfully, “EMMA” did feature some memorable supporting performances. Gemma Whalen gave a lovely and warm performance as Emma’s former governess and close friend, Mrs. Weston. Josh O’Connor gave an excellent performance as the social-climbing vicar, Mr. Elton. I must say that I found his comic timing impeccable and thought he gave one of the best performances in the movie. However, I thought there were times when his Mr. Elton came off as a sexual predator. I get it . . . Mr. Elton was basically a fortune hunter. But I thought O’Connor went too far in the scene that featured Emma’s rejection of his marriage proposal. For a moment, I thought he was going to sexually assault her. That was a bit too much. Mia Goth’s portrayal of the clueless Harriet Smith struck me as spot-on and very skillful. Granted, I did not care for the “Harriet has an orgasm” moment, but I cannot deny that Goth’s acting was excellent in the scene. Bill Nighy gave a skillfully comic portrayal as the hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse. Yes, there were moments when his usual tics (found in many of his performances) threatened to overwhelm his performance in this film. But I think he managed to more or less keep it together.

One performance that seemed to be garnering a great deal of acclaim came from Johnny Flynn, who portrayed Mr. Knightley. In fact, many are regarding him as the best Mr. Knightley ever seen in the movies or on television. I believe Flynn is a pretty competent actor who did an excellent job of conveying his character’s decency, maturity and burgeoning feelings for Emma. I was especially impressed by his performance in the Box Hill sequence in which Mr. Knightley chastised Emma for her rude comments at Miss Bates. But I do not regard him as the best screen version of Mr. Knightley I have seen. If I must be honest, I do not regard his interpretation of the character as even among the best. My problem with Flynn is that his Knightley struck me as a bit of a dull stick. And Knightley has always seemed like a man with a dry sense of humor, which is why I have always regarded him as one of my favorite Austen heroes. For me, Flynn’s Knightley simply came across as humorless to me. Flynn’s portrayal of the character almost reminded me of his portrayal of the William Dobbin character from the 2018 miniseries, “VANITY FAIR”. Perhaps “humorless” was the wrong word. There were scenes of Flynn’s Mr. Knightley reacting to the comedic actions of other characters and uttering the occasional witty phrase or two. But there was something about Flynn’s demeanor that made it seem he was trying too hard. I guess no amount of ass display, singing, laughing or writhing on the floor like a lovesick adolescent could make him more interesting to me.

Then we have the film’s leading lady, Anya Taylor-Joy. Unlike Flynn, the actress was given more opportunity to display her skills as a comic actress. And she more than lived up to the task. Honestly, I thought Taylor-Joy displayed excellent comic timing. Yet . . . I could never regard her as one of my favorite screen versions of Emma Woodhouse. She was too much of a bitch. Let me re-phrase that. I thought Taylor-Joy overdid it in her portrayal of Emma’s bitchiness and snobbery. To the point that her performance struck me as very brittle. Yes, Emma Woodhouse was a snob. But she could also be a warm and friendly young woman, capable of improving her character. I saw none of this in Taylor-Joy’s performance. If Catton’s screenplay demanded that Emma became aware of her flaws, the actress’ conveyance of those moments did not strike as a natural progression. Otherwise, she made a satisfying Emma Woodhouse. I also have one more criticism to add – Taylor-Joy did not have great screen chemistry with her leading man, Johnny Flynn. Their on-screen chemistry struck me as pedestrian at best, if I must be honest.

One would think that I disliked “EMMA”. Honestly, I did not. The movie managed to stick with Austen’s narrative. And although it did not change Austen’s story, it did feature some changes in some of the characteristics and character dynamics, thanks to director Autumn De Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton. And some of these changes did not serve the movie well, thanks to De Wilde’s occasional bouts of ham-fisted direction. However, I still managed to enjoy the movie and the performances from a cast led by newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy. And if it had not been for the current health crisis that struck the world, I probably would have seen it again in theaters.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1920s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1920s:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1920s

 

1. “Boardwalk Empire” (2010-2014) – Terence Winter created this award winning crime drama about Atlantic City, New Jersey during the Prohibition era. Inspired by Nelson Johnson’s 2002 book, “Boardwalk Empire: The Birth, High Times and Corruption of Atlantic City”, the series starred Steve Buscemi.

 

 

2. “Agatha Christie’s Poirot: Five Little Pigs” (2003) – In this beautifully poignant tale, Hercule Poirot investigates a fourteen year-old murder of a philandering artist, for which his client’s mother was erroneously convicted and hanged. David Suchet starred as Hercule Poirot.

 

 

3. “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” (2012-2015) – Essie Davis starred in this television adaptation of Kerry Greenwood’s historical mystery novels about a glamorous socialite who solves mysteries in 1920s Melbourne. The series was created by Deb Cox and Fiona Eagger.

 

 

4. “Rebecca” (1997) – Emilia Clarke, Charles Dance and Diana Rigg starred in this television adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 novel about a young bride haunted by the presence of her new husband’s first wife. Jim O’Brien directed.

 

 

5. “Peaky Blinders” (2013-2019) – Steven Knight created this television drama about a Birmingham crime family in post World War I England. Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory and Paul Anderson starred.

 

 

6. “The Day the Bubble Burst” (1982) – Joseph Hardy directed this fictionalized account of the events and forces that led to the Wall Street Crash of 1929. The television movie’s cast included Richard Crenna, Robert Vaughn, Robert Hays and Donna Pescow.

 

 

7. “The Great Gatsby” (2000) – Robert Markowitz directed this television adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel about the Jazz Age. Toby Stephens, Paul Rudd and Mira Sorvino starred.

 

 

8. “The Forsyte Saga: To Let” (2003) – Damian Lewis, Gina McKee and Rupert Graves starred in this adaptation of John Galsworthy’s 1921 novel, “To Let”, an entry in his The Forsyte Chronicles.

 

 

9. “The House of Eliott” (1991-1994) – Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins created this television series about two sisters who create this dressmaking business in 1920s London. Stella Gonet and Louise Lombard starred.

Favorite Miniseries Set in 19th Century Britain

Below is a list of my favorite movies and television miniseries set in Britain of the 19th century (1801-1900):

FAVORITE MINISERIES SET IN 19TH CENTURY BRITAIN

1. “North and South” (2004) – Sandy Welch wrote this superb and emotional adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel about the well-born daughter of a former English clergyman, who is forced to move north to an industrial city after her father leaves the Church of England and experiences culture shock, labor conflict and love. Daniela Danby-Ashe and Richard Armitage made a sizzling screen team as the two leads.

 

 

2. “Pride and Prejudice” (1995) – Even after twenty-four years, this adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, which stars Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehrle, remains my all time favorite Austen adaptation, thanks to Andrew Davies’ excellent screenplay and the cast’s performances. I cannot describe it as anything else other than magic.

 

 

3. “The Buccaneers” (1995) – Maggie Wadey wrote this excellent adaptation of Edith Wharton’s last novel about four American young women who marry into the British aristocracy is also another big favorite of mine. I especially enjoyed the performances of Carla Gugino, Cherie Lughi, James Frain and Greg Wise.

 

 

4. “Emma” (2009) – Sandy Welch struck gold again in her superb adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel about a genteel young woman with an arrogant penchant for matchmaking. Directed by Jim O’Hanlon, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller starred in this fabulous production.

 

 

5. “The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996) – Tara Fitzgerald, Toby Stephens and Rupert Graves are fabulous in this excellent adaptation of Anne Brontë’s 1848 novel about a woman attempting to evade an abusive and alcoholic husband. Mike Barker directed this three-part miniseries.

 

 

6. “Wives and Daughters” (1999) – Andrew Davies wrote this excellent adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1865 unfinished novel about the coming-of-age of a country doctor’s daughter. Justine Waddell and Keeley Hawes starred in this four-part miniseries.

 

 

7. “Jane Eyre” (1983) – Alexander Baron wrote this excellent adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel about a destitute, but strong-willed governess who falls in love with her mysterious employer. Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton made a superb screen team in my favorite adaptation of the novel.

 

 

8. “Middlemarch” (1994) – Andrew Davies adapted this superb adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel about the lives of the inhabitants of an English town during the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The superb cast includes Juliet Aubrey, Douglas Hodge, Robert Hardy and Rufus Sewell.

 

 

9. “Jack the Ripper” (1988) – This two-part miniseries chronicled the investigations of Scotland Yard inspector Fredrick Abberline of the infamous “Jack the Ripper” murders of the late 1880s. Excellent production and performances by Michael Caine, Lewis Collins, Jane Seymour and the supporting cast.

 

 

10. “Bleak House” (2005) – Once again, Andrew Davies struck gold with his excellent adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1852-53 novel about the pitfalls of the 19th British legal system and a family mystery. Anna Maxwell-Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson and Charles Dance led a cast filled with excellent performances.

 

Ranking of “GARROW’S LAW” Series Two (2010) Episodes

Below is my ranking of the Series Two episodes of the period legal drama, “GARROW’S LAW”. Created by Tony Marchant and based upon the life of 18th century English barrister William Garrow, the series starred Andrew Buchan:

RANKING OF “GARROW’S LAW” SERIES TWO (2010) Episodes

1. (2.02) “Episode Two” – William Garrow defends an Army captain accused of sexually assaulting a young man who works at a London shoemaker’s shop. Sir Arthur Hill hires a slimy lawyer to prove that is wife Lady Sarah Hill and Garrow are guilty of infidelity. Andrew Scott and Matthew McNulty guest star.

2. (2.04) “Episode Four” – While suffering from guilt over his failure to save a twelve year-old mute boy from the gallows, Garrow enters the civil court to hear Sir Arthur’s accusation of adultery against him and Lady Sarah. Samuel West and Emma Davies guest star.

3. (2.01) “Episode One” – The directors of the Liverpool Assurance insurance Company hire Garrow to prosecute a ship’s captain for committing fraud by throwing 133 African slaves overboard during a voyage to Jamaica. A jealous Sir Arthur accuses his wife of adultery and giving birth to Garrow’s son. Jasper Britton, and Danny Sapani guest star.

4. (2.03) “Episode Three” – Garrow defends one Captain Baillie, who is charged with malicious libel after he reports the abuse of retired British sailors at the charitably-run Greenwich Hospital to the Admiralty. Ron Cook, David Robb, Simon Dutton and Brian Pettifer guest star.

Favorite Television Productions Set in the 1700s

Below is a list of my favorite television productions (so far) that are set in the 1700s:

 

FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1700s

 

1. “John Adams” (2008) – Emmy winners Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams in this award winning HBO miniseries about the second U.S. President from his years as a Boston lawyer to his death. Tom Hooper directed.

 

 

2. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (2014-2017) – Jamie Bell starred in this television series that is an adaptation of Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”. The series was created by Craig Silverstein.

 

 

3. “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1982) – Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour starred in this television adaptation of Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s novels about a British aristocrat who adopts a secret identity to save French aristocrats from the guillotine during France’s Reign of Terror. Directed by Clive Donner, Ian McKellen co-starred.

 

 

4. “The History of Tom Jones – A Foundling” (1997) – Max Beesley and Samantha Morton starred in this adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel about the misadventures of an illegitimate young man in the mid-1700s, who had been raised by a landowner. Metin Hüseyin directed.

 

 

5. “The Book of Negroes” (2015) – Aunjanue Ellis starred in this television adaptation of Laurence Hill’s novel about the experiences of an African woman before, during and after the American Revolution; after she was kidnapped into slavery. Clement Virgo directed.

 

 

6. “Black Sails” (2014-2017) – Toby Stephens starred in this television series, which was a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”. The series was created by Jonathan E. Steinberg
and Robert Levine.

 

 

7. “Garrow’s Law” (2009-2011) – Tony Marchant created this period legal drama and fictionalized account of the 18th-century lawyer William Garrow. Andrew Buchan, Alun Armstrong and Lyndsey Marshal starred.

 

 

8. “Poldark” (1975/1977) – Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn created this series, an adaptation of the first seven novels in Winston Graham’s Poldark literary series. Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees starred.

 

 

9. “Outlander” (2014-present) – Ronald Moore developed this series, which is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s historical time travel literary series. Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan starred.

 

 

10. “Poldark” (2015-2019) – Debbie Horsfield created this series, an adaptation of the first seven novels in Winston Graham’s Poldark literary series. Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson stars.

Ranking of “GARROW’S LAW” Series One (2009) Episodes

Below is my ranking of the Series One episodes of the period legal drama, “GARROW’S LAW”. Created by Tony Marchant and based upon the life of 18th century English barrister William Garrow, the series starred Andrew Buchan: 

RANKING OF “GARROW’S LAW” SERIES ONE (2009) Episodes

1. “Episode 03” – Following an argument with rival John Silvester, London barrister William Garrow is spurred on to defend the rapist of a servant. Later, he has a second encounter with thief-taker Edward Forrester, while defending a couple accused of theft and murder.

2. “Episode 01” – In the series opener, Garrow’s first encounter with Forrester leads to his unsuccessful defense of a man accused of highway robbery. Later, he defends a maid accused of the infanticide of her own baby at childbirth.

3. “Episode 04” – This season finale features Garrow defending a political activist against false evidence and a government determined to see him hanged.

4. “Episode 02” – Now a celebrated Old Bailey barrister, Garrow defends a young man accused of being the alleged attacker of women, the London Monster.

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

 

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” (2009) Review

While the producers of “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” seemed to regard the 1930s as the “golden age” of Hercule Poirot mysteries, I get the feeling that the producers for both “MISS MARPLE” and the recent “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” regard the 1950s in a similar manner for those stories featuring Miss Jane Marple. As a fervent reader of Christie’s novels, I must admit that I believe most of the best Jane Marple mysteries had been published during the 1950s and the first half of the 1960s. One of those mysteries was the 1953 novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye”.

The novel was first adapted into a television movie in the mid-1980s, which starred Joan Hickson. Another television adaptation aired on ITV some twenty-four-and-a-half years later, starring Julia McKenzie as Miss Marple. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” centered around the mysterious death of a London businessman named Rex Fortescue. After drinking his morning tea at his office, the businessman dies suddenly, attracting the attention of the police in the form of Inspector Neele. Neele and his men discover rye grain in the dead man’s pocket and that he had died from taxine, an alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree. Neele realizes that Fortescue may have been initially poisoned at home due to presence of yew trees at the latter’s country home and the time it took for the poison to work.

Fortescue’s second and much younger wife, Adele, becomes the main suspect, due to her affair with a golf instructor at a nearby resort named Vivian Dubois. However, Adele is murdered, while drinking tea laced with cyanide. On the same day, a third victim is found in the garden, all tangled in the clothesline and with a peg on her nose. She was a maid named Gladys, who used to work for Jane Marple. When Gladys and Adele’s murders are reported in the media, Miss Marple pays a visit to the Fortescue home to learn what happened to Gladys. Miss Marple informs Inspector Neele that she believes the three murders adhered to the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”, which may have something to do with one of Rex Fortescue’s old dealings – the Blackbird Mine in Kenya, over which he was suspected of having killed his partner, MacKenzie in order to swindle it from the latter’s family. However, an investigation of Fortescue’s financial holdings and family connections reveal the possibility of other motives, as the following list of suspects would attest:

*Percival Fortescue – Rex’s older son, who was worried over the financier’s erratic handling of the family business
*Jennifer Fortescue – Percival’s wife, who disliked her father-in-law
*Lance Fortescue – Rex’s younger son, a former embezzler who had arrived home from overseas on the day of Adele and Gladys’ murders
*Patricia Fortescue – Lance’s aristocratic wife, who had been unlucky with her past two husbands
*Elaine Fortescue – Rex’s only daughter, who resented his opposition to her romance with a schoolteacher
*Gerald Wright – Elaine’s fiancé, a schoolteacher who resented Rex’s hostile attitude toward him
*Mary Dove – the Fortescues’ efficient housekeeper, who harbored a few secrets in her past
*Vivian Dubois – Adele’s lover and professional golf instructor
*Mrs. MacKenzie – the slightly senile widow of Rex’s former partner, who urged her children to seek revenge against the financier

I honestly did not know how I would view “A POCKET FULL OF RYE”. To my surprise, I enjoyed it very much . . . aside from a few scenes that I felt were out of place. The movie turned out to be a well-paced mystery that featured some solid acting from the cast. Although not completely faithful to Christie’s novel, the television movie proved to be a little more faithful, thanks to screenwriter Kevin Elyot and director Charlie Palmer. The character of Miss Henderson, Rex’s religious sister-in-law from his first marriage, was deleted from this production. And I did not miss her. I am also very grateful that Elyot and Palmer stuck to the novel’s original ending and avoided a ridiculous chase sequence that seemed to mar the 1985 adaptation. Although there was nothing really dramatic about the story’s final scene, it projected an air of justice finally achieved that I found particularly satisfying, thanks to Julia McKenzie’s performance.

I was also impressed by the movie’s production values. One, production designer Jeff Tessler and his crew did a top-notch job of re-creating the movie’s mid-1950s setting. I should add . . . “as usual”. After all, Tessler worked as production designer for the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” series since it debuted back in 2004. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” proved to be the first of four episodes for the series, in which she served as costume designer. Her work in this film provided audiences with the color and top-notch skill in which she created costumes for that particular time period. Another veteran of the “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” was cinematographer Cinders Forshaw, whose sharp and colorful photography proved to be one of the hallmarks of the series. One thing I cannot deny about “A POCKET FULL OF RYE”, it is damn beautiful to look at.

Did I have any problems with the movie? Well . . . yes. A few. Actually, I have only one major problem with the production . . . namely the addition of sexual situations in at least two or three scenes in the film. I am not a prude. Trust me, I am not. But . . . I found the sexual scenes featured in “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” out of place. Yes, the Christie novels have featured the topic of sex in many variations – including adultery, incest and homosexuality. And I have seen on-screen sex in one other production – namely 1965’s “TEN LITTLE INDIANS” and 2004’s “DEATH ON THE NILE”. I have never seen “TEN LITTLE INDIANS”. But the sex featured in “DEATH ON THE NILE” seemed so minimalized. I can say otherwise about “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” and the performers involved were clothed. But the way Palmer shot the scenes seemed so in-your-face. I can tolerate the scene featuring Adele Fortescue and Vivian Dubois. Personally, I thought their sex scene pretty much fit the narrative and confirmed (in a rather ham fisted manner) that the pair was involved in an affair. But the sex scenes featuring Lance and Patricia Fortescue seemed just as ham fisted. Even worse, I could not see how they served the narrative. The scene (or scenes) seemed to come out of no where.

I can certainly state that I had no problems with the performances in this production. Well, I had a problem with one performance. Julia McKenzie was excellent as soft-spoken Jane Marple, who seemed very determined to learn the murderer’s identity, due to her past with one of the victims. I can also say the same about Matthew MacFadyen’s performance, which struck me as intelligent, yet deliciously sardonic as Inspector Neele. I also enjoyed Helen Baxendale’s subtle performance as the quiet, yet observant housekeeper, Mary Dove. On the other hand, Rupert Graves gave an exuberant and very entertaining portrayal of the Fortescue family’s black sheep, Lance. And he clicked very well with actress Lucy Cohu, who gave a charming performance as Lance’s wife, Patricia. Another interesting performance came from Liz White, who portrayed Rex Fortescue’s enigmatic daughter-in-law, Jennifer. Actually, I believe she gave one of the better performances in the movie. Another first-rate performance came from Anna Madeley, who portrayed Rex’s shallow and adulterous wife, Adele.

I really enjoyed Joseph Beattie’s portrayal of Adele’s sexy, yet desperate lover, Vivian Dubois. And Ben Miles gave a subtle, yet complex performance as Rex’s pragmatic older son, Percival. Kenneth Cranham, Laura Haddock and Prunella Scales gave memorable performances as Rex Fortescue, his secretary, Miss Grosvenor and Mrs. MacKenzie. It seemed a pity they were not on the screen long enough for me to truly enjoy their performances. “A POCKET FULL OF RYE” also featured solid performances from Hattie Morahan, Chris Larkin, Ken Campbell, Wendy Richards and Rose Heiney.

“A POCKET FULL OF RYE” proved to be an entertaining movie and a worthy adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel. Along with a fine cast led by Julia McKenzie, I thought director Charlie Palmer and screenwriter Kevin Elyot handled the adaptation very well, aside from the sex scenes that struck me as unnecessary. Despite that . . . setback, I still managed to enjoy the movie.

Favorite Films Set in the 1900s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1900s decade:

 

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1900s

1 - Howards End

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this exquisite adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel. The movie starred Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, Helena Bonham-Carter, Samuel West and Oscar nominee Vanessa Redgrave.

 

2 - The Assassination Bureau

2. “The Assassination Bureau” (1969) – Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas starred in this delicious adaptation of Jack London’s unfinished novel about a woman journalist who uncovers an organization for professional assassins. Basil Dearden directed.

 

3 - A Room With a View

3. “A Room With a View” (1985-86) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this excellent adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel. The movie starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis and Oscar nominees Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

 

4 - Gigi

4. “Gigi” (1958) – Oscar winner Vincente Minelli directed this superb adaptation of Collette’s 1944 novella about a young Parisian girl being groomed to become a courtesan. Leslie Caron and Louis Jordan starred.

 

5 - The Illusionist

5. “The Illusionist” (2006) – Neil Burger directed this first-rate adaptation of Steven Millhauser’s short story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist”. The movie starred Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti and Rufus Sewell.

 

6 - The Great Race

6. “The Great Race” (1965) – Blake Edwards directed this hilarious comedy about a long-distance road race between two rival daredevils. The movie starred Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood.

 

7 - Flame Over India aka North West Frontier

7. “Flame Over India aka North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this Imperial adventure about a British Army officer who serves as escort to a young Hindu prince being targeted by Muslim rebels. J. Lee Thompson directed.

 

8 - Meet Me in St. Louis

8. “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944) – Judy Garland starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Sally Benson’s short stories about a St. Louis family around the time of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition World’s Fair in 1904. Vincente Minelli directed.

 

9 - The Golden Bowl

9. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Ismail Merchant and James Ivory created this interesting adaptation of Henry James’ 1904 novel about an adulterous affair in Edwardian England. The movie starred Uma Thurman, Nick Nolte, Kate Beckinsale and Jeremy Northam.

 

10 - North to Alaska

10. “North to Alaska” (1960) – John Wayne, Stewart Granger and Capucine starred in this surprisingly fun Western about how a mail-to-order bride nearly came between two partners during the Nome Gold Rush. Henry Hathaway directed.

“A ROOM WITH A VIEW” (1985-86) Review

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“A ROOM WITH A VIEW” (1985-86) Review

Ah, Merchant and Ivory! Whenever I hear those particular names, my mind usually generates images of Britons in Edwardian dress, strolling along a London street, across a wide lawn or even along some city boulevard in a country other than Great Britain. In other words, the images from their movie, “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” usually fills my brain. 

Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory produced and directed this adaptation of E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel, which first hit the theaters in Great Britain during the early winter of 1985. Four months later, the movie was released in American movie theaters. Forster’s tale is basically a coming-of-age story about a young Edwardian woman, who finds herself torn between her superficial and snobbish fiancé and the free-thinking son of a retired journalist, whom she had met during her Italian vacation. The movie begins with the arrival of young Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin/chaperone Charlotte Barlett to a small pensionein Florence, Italy. Not only does Lucy have a reunion with her family’s local clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Beebe; she and Charlotte meet a non-conformist father and son pair named Mr. Emerson and his son, George. The Emersons agree to exchange their room – which has a view – with the one occupied by Lucy and Charlotte. Lucy becomes further acquainted with George after the pair witness a murder in the city’s square and he openly expresses his feelings to her. Matters come to a head between the young couple when George kisses Lucy during a picnic for the pensione‘s British visitors, outside of the city. Charlotte witnesses the kiss and not only insists that she and Lucy return to the pensione, but also put some distance between them and the Emersons by leaving Florence.

A few months later finds Lucy back at her home in Windy Corners, England. She had just accepted a marriage proposal from the wealthy, yet intellectually snobbish Cecil Vyse; much to her mother and brother Freddy’s silent displeasure. Matters take a turn for the worse when George and Mr. Emerson move to an empty cottage in Windy Corners, she soon learns that both George and his father have moved to her small village, thanks to Cecil’s recommendation. With George back in her life, Lucy’s suppressed feelings return. It is not long before she is internally divided between her feelings for George and her growing fear that Cecil might not be the man for her.

What can I say about “A ROOM WITH THE VIEW”? It was the first British-produced costume drama I had ever seen in the movie theaters. Hell, it was the first Merchant-Ivory production I had ever seen . . . period. Has it held up in the past twenty-eight years? Well . . . it is not perfect. The problem is other than Julian Sands’ performance, I cannot think of any real imperfections in the movie. A view have pointed out that its quaintness has made it more dated over the years. Frankly, I found it fresh as ever. Who am I kidding? I loved the movie when I first saw it 28 years ago, and still loved it when I recently watched it.

One would think that the movie’s critique of a conservative society would seem outdated in the early 21st century. But considering the growing conservatism of the past decade or so, perhaps “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” is not as outdated as one would believe, considering its Edwardian setting. Mind you, I found some the Emersons’ commentaries on life rather pretentious and in George’s case, a bit long-winded. But I cannot deny that their observations, however long-winded, struck me as dead on. More importantly, Foster’s novel and by extension, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, makes Foster’s observations more easy to swallow thanks to a very humorous and witty tale. Another aspect that I enjoyed about “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” was how Foster’s liberalism had an impact on the love story between Lucy and George. I find it interesting how Foster managed to point out the differences between genuine liberals like the Emersons and pretenders like Cecil Vyse, who use such beliefs to feed his own sense of superiority.

While watching “A ROOM WITH A VIEW”, it seemed very apparent to me, that it is still a beautiful movie to look at. The movie not only won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala; but also two technical awards for the movie’s visual style. Gianni Quaranta, Brian Ackland-Snow, Brian Savegar, Elio Altamura served as the team for the movie’s art direction and won an Academy Award for their efforts. The art designs they created for the movie’s Edwardian setting is stunning. I can also say the same about the Academy Award winning costume designs created by Jenny Beavan and John Bright. Below are two examples of their work:

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And Tony Pierce-Roberts earned a much deserved Oscar for his beautiful and lush photography of both Tuscany in Italy and various English locations that served as the movie’s settings.

One of the best aspects of “A ROOM WITH A VIEW” has to be its cast of entertaining, yet flawed characters. First of all, the movie featured rich, supporting characters like Lucy’s charming, yet gauche brother Freddy; the very verbose and open-minded Reverend Beebe; the always exasperated Mrs. Honeychurch; the indiscreet and pretentious novelist, Eleanor Lavish (in some ways another Cecil); and the snobbish and controlling Reverend Eager. And it is due to the superb performances of Rupert Graves, the always entertaining Simon Callow, Rosemary Leach, the even more amazing Judi Dench and Patrick Godfrey that allowed these characters to come to life.

Both Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot earned well-deserved Academy Award nominations for their unforgettable performances as Charlotte Barlett, Lucy’s passive-aggressive cousin; and George’s brash and open-minded father, Mr. Emerson. Charlotte must be one of the most fidgety characters ever portrayed by Smith, yet she conveyed this trait with such subtlety that I could not help but feel disappointed that she did not collect that Oscar. And Elliot did a marvelous job in portraying Mr. Emerson with the right balance of humor and pathos. Daniel Day-Lewis did not earn an Oscar nomination for his hilarious portrayal of Lucy’s snobbish and pretentious fiancé, Cecil Vyse. But he did win the National Board of Review award for Best Supporting Actor. Although there were moments when I found his performance a bit too mannered, I cannot deny that he deserved that award.

The role of Lucy Honeychurch made Helena Bonham-Carter a star. And it is easy to see why. The actress did an excellent job of not only portraying Lucy’s quiet, yet steady persona as a well-bred Englishwoman. And at the same time, she also managed to convey the character’s peevishness and a passive-aggressive streak that strongly reminded me of Charlotte Barlett. The only bad apple in the barrel proved to be Julian Sands’ performance as the overtly romantic, yet brooding George Emerson. Too be honest, I found a good deal of his performance rather flat. This flatness usually came out when Sands opened his mouth. He has never struck me as a verbose actor. However, I must admit that he actually managed to shine in one scene in which George openly declared his feelings for Lucy. And with his mouth shut, Sands proved he could be a very effective screen actor.

Looking back on “A ROOM WITH A VIEW”, I still find it difficult to agree with that blogger who stated that it had become somewhat dated over the years. Not only does the movie seem livelier than ever after 28 years or so, its theme of freedom from social repression still resonates . . . something I suspect that many would refuse to admit. Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, along with Oscar winner screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala created a work of art that has not lost its beauty and its bite after so many years.

Ten Favorite Movies Set in the EDWARDIAN AGE (1901-1914)

Below is a list of my ten favorite movies set during the Edwardian Age (1901-1914) in Great Britain: 

Ten Favorite Movies Set in the EDWARDIAN AGE

1. “Howard’s End” (1992) – This Academy Award nominated film is an superb adaptation of E.M. Foster’s 1910 novel about class relations in turn-of-the-20th-century England. This Merchant-Ivory production starred Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anthony Hopkins, Samuel West and Vanessa Redgrave.

2. “A Room With a View” (1986) – Merchant-Ivory also produced and directed this excellent adaptation of E.M. Foster’s 1908 novel about a young woman struggling with her individuality in the face of the restrictive Edwardian culture of turn-of-the century England and her love for a free-spirited young man. This film starred Helena Bonham-Carter, Julian Sands, Daniel Day-Lewis, Maggie Smith and Denholm Elliot.

3. “Mary Poppins” (1964) – Julie Andrews won an Oscar for her performance in this magical Disney musical based upon the “Mary Poppins” books series by P. L. Travers. Directed by Robert Stevenson, this classic film also starred Dick Van Dyke, David Tomilson, Glynnis Johns, Karen Doctrice, Matthew Garber and Ed Wynn.

4. “The Assassination Bureau, LTD.” (1968) – Basil Dearden directed this a tongue-in-cheek dark comedy that was based on an unfinished novel, “The Assassination Bureau, Ltd” by Jack London. It starred Oliver Reed, Diana Rigg, Telly Savalas, and Curt Jürgens.

5. “Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines” (1965) – Ken Annakin directed this charming all-star comedy about an 1910 air race from London to Paris. The cast included Stuart Whitman, Sarah Miles, James Fox, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Gert Frobe and Terry-Thomas.

6. “A Night to Remember” (1958) – In my opinion, this Golden Globe Award winning adaptation of Walter Lord’s 1955 book about the R.M.S. Titanic is the best movie about the famous ocean liner. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, this film starred Kenneth More, Laurence Naismith, Ronald Allen and Honor Blackman.

7. “The Golden Bowl” (2000) – Based upon Henry James’ novel, this is a tale of love, marriage and adultery amongst American expatriates and an Italian nobleman in turn-of-the-century England. Starred Uma Thurman, Jeremy Northam, Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, Angelica Huston and James Fox.

8. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed this excellent adaptation of Christopher Priest’s novel about rival show magicians in turn-of-the-century England. The movie starred Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Scarlett Johansson, Piper Perabo, David Bowie, Andy Serakis and Michael Caine.

9. “My Fair Lady” (1964) – George Cukor directed this Academy Award winning adaptation of Lerner and Lowe’s hit Broadway musical . . . which was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play, “Pygmalion”. Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn star.

10. “Titanic” (1997) – This latest version of the sinking of the RMS Titanic won eleven Academy Awards. Directed by James Cameron, it starred Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Frances Fisher, Bill Paxton and Gloria Stuart.