“AN IDEAL HUSBAND” (1999) Review

“AN IDEAL WOMAN” (1999) Review

I have a confession. I have not seen that many adaptations of Oscar Wilde’s plays and novels. And it has been quite a while since I viewed my last adaptation, namely the 1999 film, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I was surprised to discover that this 1999 movie was not the first adaptation of Wilde’s 1895 stage play. There have been other adaptations – including four other films and several radio productions. But this is the only adaptation I have ever seen.

Written and directed by Oliver Parker, “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” opens with a ball held at the home of British government minister Sir Robert Chiltern and his wife, Lady Gertrude Chiltern. Among those attending the ball are:

*Arthur, Viscount Goring, a close friend of the Chilterns
*Mrs. Laura Cheveley, a former British socialite and Lady Gertrude’s former schoolmate
*Miss Mabel Chiltern, Sir Robert’s younger sister
*Earl of Caversham, Lord Arthur’s father
*Lady Markby, a friend of Mrs. Cheveley
*Tommy Trafford, Sir Robert’s aide and potential suitor for Mabel
*Sir Edward, a newspaper baron

During the ball, Mrs. Cheveley approaches Sir Robert with a request to help support a fraudulent scheme she is financing to build a canal in Argentina. Mrs. Cheveley’s request is tainted with blackmail. If Sir Robert does not agree to her request, she plans to reveal that he had sold a Cabinet secret to her late mentor and lover, Baron Arnheim, which enabled the latter to buy shares in the Suez Canal Company three days before the British government announced its purchase of the company. Arnheim’s payoff was the basis of Sir Robert’s fortune and Mrs. Cheveley has Robert’s letter to Arnheim as proof of the latter’s crime. In desperation, Robert turns to his friend, Arthur Goring, to help him deal with the blackmailing socialite, who was a former lover of Arthur.

I understand there had been changes made to Oscar Wilde’s original plot. Since I have never read or seen the play, I will not comment on these changes. Instead, I want to discuss the movie. Overall, I thought it was an entertaining and charming tale about the slippery slopes of moral ambiguity and social hypocrisy. As I watched the movie’s narrative unfold, it occurred to me that it revolved around a good deal of hiding, deception and misconceptions – the very traits that have been a part of romantic comedies in Hollywood for years. The epitome of this kind of storytelling could be found in the sequence in which Lord Goring found himself greeting a variety of visitors inside his home during the space of one night, while he and his valet struggled to keep all or most of them hidden in separate rooms. “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” also featured some sparkling dialogue, thanks to the pens of Oscar Wilde and the movie’s screenwriter/director, Oliver Parker. Both Rupert Everett and Julianne Moore received the cream of the lines:

“Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear. Other people are quite dreadful. The only possible society is oneself.” – Arthur, Lord Goring

“Do you know, Gertrude, I don’t mind your talking morality a bit. Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. You dislike me, I am quite aware of that, and I have always detested you.” – Mrs. Laura Cheveley

“All I know, Gertrude, is that it takes great courage to see the world in all its tainted glory, and still to love it. And even more courage to see it in the one you love. Gertrude, you have more courage than any woman I have ever known. Do not be afraid now to use it.” – Lord Goring

As one can see, Lord Goring and Mrs. Cheverley are among my two favorite characters in the story, along with young Mabel Chiltern. Most of the other characters seemed to wallow in arrogance, self-deception or priggishness. My least favorite character proved to be Sir Robert Chiltern. I found him not only priggish, but also hypocritical and dishonest. I realize that audiences are supposed to regard Mrs. Cheveley as the worst kind. And perhaps she is. But her dishonesty did not strike me as hypocritical, as Sir Robert’s.

I have two problems with the plot for “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. I also found it rather annoying that she was the only character who suffered for her dishonesty . . . unlike Sir Robert. The worst he had suffered was a scare and a wife whose disappointment in him only lasted a few days. Then again . . . Oscar Wilde was a man. I should not have been surprised that he would have allowed Sir Robert to suffer as little consequences as possible for his transgressions. Another problem I had with the movie was its last half hour. Following Laura Cheveley’s departure from London, Lord Goring finally asked Mable Chiltern for her hand in marriage. However, Sir Robert had refused to give, due to his discovery that Lord Goring and Laura Cheveley had been lovers in the past. The plot for the film’s last half hour seemed like a completely different story, aside from it being a consequence of Lord Goring’s past. I think Laura Cheveley left the story some twenty to thirty minutes too soon. This made the last half hour feel almost disjointed and unnecessary.

I have no complaints about the movie’s production and look. I really enjoyed Michael Howells’ production designs for the film. I thought he did an excellent job of re-creating late Victorian London. This was especially apparent in crowd scenes that featuring the elite riding along Hyde Park’s Rotten Row and balls and parties for the elite, including the Chiltern’s ball during the film’s first half. Howells’ work was greatly enhanced by Rod McLean’s art direction and Katie Lee’s set decorations. Yes, I have not forgotten about the costume designs created by Caroline Harris. What can I say? They were exquisite, as shown in the images below:

 

The performances featured in “AN IDEAL HUSBAND” struck me as first-rate. There was not a performance in this movie that did not failed to impress me. The movie featured solid, yet charming performances from the likes of Ben Pullen, Nikolas Grace, Peter Vaughn, Marsha Fitzlan, Simon Russell Beale and Lindsay Duncan, whom I found especially entertaining as Laura Cheveley’s witty friend, Lady Markby. Jeroen Krabbé did an excellent job in conveying the ambiguous, yet corrupt nature of Sir Robert’s mentor, Baron Arnheim. John Wood gave a slightly funny performance as Lord Goring’s stuffy father, the Earl of Caversham. Minnie Driver’s portrayal of Sir Robert’s younger sister Mabel Chiltern not only struck me as funny, witty and completely charming.

I must admit that I found the characters of Sir Robert and Lady Gertrude Chiltern a bit off-putting, but I cannot deny that both Jeremy Northam and Cate Blanchett breathed life into their characters. Northam did an excellent job in capturing the hypocrisy and ambition of Sir Robert Chiltern. And Northam also ably conveyed Sir Robert’s obvious love for his wife. Blanchett gave an equally skillful performance as Lady Gertrude Chiltern. The actress did an excellent job of portraying how Gertrude’s love for Sir Robert dangerously edged toward blind idealism and the character’s emotional devastation upon learning about her husband’s past transgression. Julianne Moore earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Mrs. Laura Cheveley. And it was a well deserved nomination, as far as I am concerned. I thought she gave one of the film’s best performances as the scheming blackmailing socialite, who also possessed a talent for acute and pragmatic observations of human nature and society. The film’s other best performance came from Rupert Everett, who portrayed the superficially self-absorbed Lord Goring. And that is one of the reasons why I enjoyed Everett’s performance so much. He managed to convey the warmth and wisdom underneath the shallow playboy with style, wit and subtlety. Like Moore, Everett managed to earn a Golden Globe nomination.

I enjoyed “AN IDEAL HUSBAND”. Well . . . most of it. I thought Oliver Parker did an excellent job of adapting Oscar Wilde’s play with a witty script and a first-rate cast led by Rupert Everett. It is a pity that the last act of the movie seemed almost like an afterthought. Oh well.

“VICTORIA” Season Two (2017) Episode Ranking

Below is my ranking of the Season Two episodes of the ITV series called “VICTORIA”. Created by Daisy Goodwin, the series stars Jenna Coleman as Queen Victoria: 

“VICTORIA” SEASON TWO (2017) EPISODE RANKING

1. (2.06) “Faith, Hope & Charity” – Horrified by the Great Famine in Ireland, both Queen Victoria and the Reverend Robert Traill try to persuade Prime Minister Robert Peel’s government and the British clergy in the country to take action.

2. (2.09) “Comfort and Joy” – In this Christmas episode, a pregnant Victoria receives a “gift” from King Gezo of Dahomey in the form of a young African princess who had been his political prisoner. Meanwhile, Prince Albert desperately tries to introduce the German Christmas custom to the British court, despite the tension from unwelcome guests and personal problems.

3. (2.01) “A Soldier’s Daughter” – While Victoria deals with postnatal depression following the birth of her oldest child, Princess Victoria, Albert and Peel scramble to hide the grisly details of the Retreat From Kabul near the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War.

4. (2.07) “The King Over the Water” – Following two assassination attempts, Victoria and Albert travel to the Scottish Highlands becomes guests at the 6th Duke of Atholl’s home, Blair Castle, for a private retreat. However, the retreat is nearly ruined when the couple ends up lost in the countryside.

5. (2.08) “The Luxury of Conscience” – Albert unwittingly creates more political problems for Peel, when he supports the latter’s efforts to repeal the Corn Laws.

6. (2.04) “The Sins of the Father” – Victoria gives birth to a second child, Prince Albert-Edward (future King Edward VII). While she deals with postnatal depression for the second time, Albert’s father dies. Albert travels to Coburg and learns an ugly family secret from his uncle, King Leopold of the Belgians.

7. (2.05) “Entente Cordiale” – Victoria drags Albert and the British Court to France in an effort to convince the country’s King Louis Phillippe I to deter the latter from arranging a marriage between his son Duke of Montpensier and Queen Isabel II of Spain.

8. (2.03) “Warp and Weft” – Moved by the plight of a silk weaver in Spitalfields, Victoria throws a lavish medieval ball at Buckingham Palace with all attendees wearing outfits made in the impoverished area. Meanwhile, she becomes aware of former Prime Minister Lord Melbourne’s failing health.

9. (2.02) “The Green-Eyed Monster” – Victoria becomes pregnant with her second child and develops a jealous suspicion that Albert might be attracted to Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, who is a mathematician associated with the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

“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.

Kedgeree

kedgeree

Below is an article about the dish called Kedgeree

 

KEDGEREE

One of the aspects that developed from the British presence and later, occupation of the India subcontinent was the Anglo-Indian cuisine. This form of cooking developed when British wives interacted with the Indian cooks employed by them. One form of Anglo-Indian cuisine that became popular was the dish known as Kedgeree. 

What is Kedgeree? It is basically a legume-and-rice dish that consists of flaked fish, boiled rice, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder, butter or cream, and occasionally sultana raisins. Smoked haddock is traditionally used in Kedgeree, but salmon or tuna can also be used. Kedgeree also consists of a spice mixture and is cooked either dry-toasted or fried in oil.

The dish is believed to have originated with an Indian rice-and-lentils dish called Khichri, which was first mentioned by a Muslim scholar named Ibn Battuta around 1340. Khichiri was not prepared with fish in Gujarat, a region where the dish remains popular. However, fish is sometimes eaten with Khichdi in coastal villages where seafood is plentiful.

When the British first arrived in India during the early 1600s, they established trading posts under the control of the East India Trading Company. It was just a matter of time before they became familiar with Khichdi. By the late eighteenth century, Khichdi (at least for the British) became Kedgeree – Khichdi with no lentils, eggs, fish, butter or cream. A recipe for Kedgeree was featured as early as 1790 in a book by Stephana Malcolm of Burnfoot, Dumfriesshire. The National Trust for Scotland’s book called “The Scottish Kitchen” by Christopher Trotter notesthat the Malcolm recipe expressed the belief that Kedgeree was devised by Scottish regiments hankering for the tastes of India. The dish was eventually introduced to the British Isles as a breakfast dish during the Victorian Age.

Below is a recipe for Kedgeree from the TheSpruceEats.com website:

Kedgeree

Ingredients

4 large fresh free-range eggs
6 oz. rice (Basmati works well)/175 g
1/2 pint of cold water
Salt and pepper to taste
2 0z. butter/55 g
2 large onions (peeled and finely sliced)
1 lb smoked haddock/450 g
7 fl oz. milk/200 ml
4 teaspoon curry powder6 Cardamom pods
2 bay leaves
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
1/2 oz./15 g flat leaf parsley (finely chopped)

Preparation

*Bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, add the eggs and turn down to a gentle simmer for 3 minutes. Remove the eggs from the heat, cover with a tight-fitting lid and leave for 10 minutes. After 10 minutes remove the eggs from the water, peel, and keep to one side.

*In another large saucepan put the rice with 1/2 pint of cold water and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down to a simmer, cover with a lid and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and keep covered for a further 10 minutes.

*Meanwhile, melt the butter in a large roomy pan or casserole dish, add the onion, cover with a lid and cook gently until the onions are soft, approx 10 minutes.

*While the onions are cooking, you should place the fish in another large saucepan, and cover it with the milk. If the milk doesn’t cover the fish, add little boiling water. Bring to the boil, turn the heat down and cook the fish, uncovered for 6 minutes or until the thickest part of the fish turns opaque. Take the fish from the milk and remove any skin and bones.

*To the onions add the curry powder, cardamom, and bay leaves. Cook for 2 minutes then add the rice. Stir well. You should now have a lovely golden color throughout.

*Flake the fish into large chunks, add to the rice and onions. Quarter the cooked eggs, add to the rice and stir gently, reserving 4 of the quarters for decoration. Add the lemon juice, season with a little salt and pepper and stir again. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley and serve immediately garnished with the eggs and lemon wedges if using.

gujarat1

“BLEAK HOUSE” (2005) Review

 

“BLEAK HOUSE” (2005) Review

Previously, I have confessed to not being much of a fan of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens. And if I must be brutally honest, that confession still stands. I have only seen at least five adaptations of his novels – two movies and three television miniseries. Out of the five productions, I tend to be more tolerable of the three television productions. And one of them is the 2005 miniseries, “BLEAK HOUSE”, the third adaptation of Dickens’ 1852-53 novel. 

“BLEAK HOUSE” has several subplots . . . typical Dickens. But all of them are somehow connected to one plot that centers around a long-running legal case called Jarndyce v Jarndyce, which came about due to conflicting wills. One of the potential beneficiaries under the case is landowner named John Jarndyce, who is designated the legal guardian of two wards, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone, who are also potential beneficiaries. He also becomes the guardian of a third ward, an orphan named Esther Summerson, whom he hires as housekeeper for his estate and Ada’s companion. Unbeknownst to everyone, Esther is the illegal daughter of a former Army officer and drug addict named Captain James Hawdon aka “Nemo”, who makes his living as a copyist for law firms; and Lady Honoria Dedlock, the wife of baronet Sir Leicester Deadlock.

As it turns out, Lady Deadlock is also a potential beneficiary of the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. When she and Sir Leicester are informed of the court’s decision regarding the three wards by the latter’s solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, Lady Deadlock visibly reacts to the handwriting on an affidavit. Mr. Tulkinghorn notices and sets out to investigate the identity of the affidavit’s copyist, in the hopes of financially benefiting from Lady Deadlock’s past. He also recruits the help of Lady Deadlock’s maid Mademoiselle Hortense, his associate Mr. Clamb, a greedy moneylender named Mr. Smallweed and the unintentional assistance of a young man named Mr. Guppy, who works as a legal associate for John Jarndyce’s solicitor, Mr. Kenge.

I also enjoyed two other Dickens productions to a certain degree – the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, and the 2008 miniseries, “LITTLE DORRIT”. But if I must be honest, I found the narratives for both productions a bit hard to follow, due to the slightly chaotic nature of the source materials. “BLEAK HOUSE” turned out to be a different kettle of fish. Like the other two productions, it possessed a good number of subplots. In a way, it reminded me of “LITTLE DORRIT”, as it focused on the mindless and useless confusion of the chancery. But what I really admiIt was probably due to all of the subplots’ connections to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. Or it could be that Dickens had simply created a main narrative that I found easier to follow. Just about every subplot either connected directly or indirectly to the Jarndyce and Jarndyce case. A good example of a subplot that connected directly to the story’s main theme would be Richard Carstone’s blatant attempt to pursue a ruling on the case that would favor him and his fiancée/wife, Ada Clare, who also happened to be a potential beneficiary. And excellent example of the narrative’s indirect connection to the Jarndyce case proved to be the subplot involving Lady Deadlock (another beneficiary), her illegitimate daughter Esther Summerson and her husband’s solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn. In fact, this particular subplot proved to have the biggest impact upon Dickens’ narrative. I thought it was certainly the most interesting.

It also helped that the story’s leading woman character, Esther Summerson, did not prove to be another one of Dickens’ “angels in the house” types. Yes, Esther was a warm and decent woman whom most of the characters liked. But she was also a woman who remained traumatized by her status as an illegitimate child and the emotional abuse she had endured from a self-righteous and highly religious woman she believed to be her godmother, but who turned out to be her aunt. Because of her abusive past, Esther suffered from a lack of esteem. I must admit that I am only familiar with at least four Dickens novels. Because of this, Esther proved to be the first Dickens leading lady who was portrayed with such complexity.

In regard to characterization, my only disappointment with “BLEAK HOUSE” proved to be the story’s antagonists. As I had earlier pointed out, I am only familiar with four of Dickens’ novels. For a man who had no problems with pointing out the evils of modern 19th century society, he seemed very reluctant in creating villains who are from the social elite. His villains are either lower or middle-class . . . or they are foreigners. The closet Dickens came to a well-born antagonist in “BLEAK HOUSE” was the selfish and amoral sponger Harold Skimpole. However, in compare to Sir Leicester Deadlock’s middle-class solicitor, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and Lady Deadlock’s French-born maid, Madame Hortense; Skimpole is, at best, a minor comic villain.

I have few other complaints about “BLEAK HOUSE”. One complaint I have about the production was Kieran McGuigan’s cinematography. I had no problem with the production’s exterior shots. Since the miniseries was shot in High Definition Television format, McGuigan’s photography in the exterior shots captured all of the details of the set designs, props, the performers’ costumes and make-up. However, I could barely see anything in those shots set at night time and especially many of the interior shots. There were times when I felt I was merely looking at a dark screen. And I must admit that I found some of McGuigan’s camera angles rather disconcerting and there were times when I found it difficult to ascertain what was going on in a particular scene. Jason Krasucki and Paul Knight’s editing did not help. Both men had utilized an editing method that I found irritating. Whenever the miniseries moved from one scene to another, the two film editors utilized a fast shift that I found unnecessary and tonally off-putting. Perhaps producer Stafford-Clark had hoped that the fast shifts between scenes and the odd camera angles would make “BLEAK HOUSE” look modern. Honestly, I found these aspects of the production tonally off and unnecessary.

I have one last complaint. I never understood why Stafford-Clark and the BBC felt it was necessary to present the miniseries, with the exception of the first one, in half-hour episodes. Others had complained, as well. The response to this criticism was that Dickens’ long and complex novel required the fifteen installments in which it was presented. But honestly . . . the BBC could have presented the miniseries in eight hour-long episodes. Why was that so hard to consider? Every time an episode ended after 27-to-30 minutes, I felt a sense of frustration. And there were times when I found myself trying to remember which episode out of the fifteen installments I had to choose to continue. Unfortunately, the BBC went on to utilize the same format for its 2008 miniseries, “LITTLE DORRIT”.

Aside from those complaints, I really did enjoy “BLEAK HOUSE”. For me, the heart and soul of the production proved to the array of characters and the fabulous actors and actresses who portrayed them. “BLEAK HOUSE” featured first-rate performances from the likes of Timothy West, Alun Armstrong, Richard Harrington, John Lynch, Sheila Hancock, Tom Georgeson, Anne Reid, Richard Griffiths, Joanna David, Catherine Tate, Louise Brealey, Harry Eden and especially Ian Richardson, whom I found particularly entertaining as the kindly, yet witty Chancellor. I also enjoyed those performances from Warren Clarke, who gave a broadly entertaining performance as Mr. Boythorn, an old friend of John Jarndyce; Hugo Speer, the proud and struggling former Army sergeant and former friend/subordinate of Captain Hawdon; Pauline Collins, who struck me as particularly poignant in her role as the warm-hearted, yet long-suffering Miss Flite; Lilo Baur as the ambitious and vindictive foreign-born lady’s maid, Madame Hortense; and especially Phil Davis, whose colorful portrayal of the mean-tempered and greedy moneylender, Mr. Smallweed, made evil look so entertaining with his caustic remarks and now famous catchphrase:

“Shake me up, Judy! Shake me up!”

Nathaniel Parker gave a particularly memorable performance as the manipulative, yet self-absorbed sponger, Harold Skimpole. A part of me remains amazed that John Jarndyce had regarded him as a friend for so long. Carey Mulligan gave a warm, yet interesting performance as one of Mr. Jarndyce’s wards, Ada Clare. What made the actress’s performance interesting to me was her ability to convey not only Ada’s positive traits, but the character’s unrelenting blindness to her love’s flaws. Speaking of Ada’s love, Patrick Kennedy was excellent as Mr. Jarndyce’s other ward – the charming, yet undependable Richard Carstone. I must admit that Richard proved to be one a rather pathetic personality, who was always chasing a path toward quick riches, whether it was by jumping from one profession to another or putting all of his hopes on the Jarndyce v Jarndyce case. Burn Gorman was a hoot as the friendly, yet ambitious and clever law clerk, William Guppy, who became enamored of Esther Summerson and who figured out the connection between her and Lady Deadlock. As much as I liked him and Gorman’s performance, I could not help but suspect that Guppy’s idea of love was somewhat shallow

In my personal opinion, there were four performances in “BLEAK HOUSE” that reigned supreme. Those four performances came from Anna Maxwell-Martin, Gillian Anderson, Denis Lawson and Charles Dance. Now, I would not regard the character of Josiah Tulkinghorn as subtle or even two-dimensional. But thanks to Charles Dance’s subtle and malevolent portrayal, which earned him an Emmy nominatino, audiences were privy to Mr. Tulkinghorn’s talent for manipulation and coercion. Denis Lawson earned an Emmy nomination for his portrayal of John Jarndyce, the kind-hearted landowner who took in Esther, Richard and Ada. Lawson did an excellent job in balancing Mr. Jarndyce’s wise counseling of the three young people, willful blindness to Mr. Skimpole’s machinations and subtle selfish desire for Esther’s hand in marriage. Gillian Anderson earned both an Emmy and a British Academy Television Awards nominations for her portrayal of the story’s femme fatale, so to speak – Lady Honoria Dedlock. The American-born Anderson did a superb job in conveying her character’s complex and mysterious personality. Superficially, the Esther Summerson character seemed like another one of Dickens’ “angels in the house”. Thanks to the author’s pen and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s superb performance, Esther proved to be a warm, yet troubled young woman struggling to find a place for herself in the world and overcome her past trauma at the hands of an emotionally abusive guardian. Not only was Maxwell-Martin received a well-deserved nomination from the British Academy Television Awards, she also won.

No movie or television production is perfect. I had some problem with the miniseries’ editing, camera angles, and television format for “BLEAK HOUSE”. But aside from these quibbles, I can honestly say that I truly enjoy this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ 1852-53 novel. It is one of the few Dickens’ stories that do not seemed marred by too many subplots that are unrelated. And I believe that screenwriter Andrew Davies, directors Justin Chadwick and Susanna White, along with a superb cast led by Anna Maxwell-Martin truly did justice to the novel.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (2015) Review

I have never seen “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, the 2015 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, in the theaters. And yet . . . my knowledge of this film led me to view two previous adaptations. And finally, I found the chance to view this adaptation, directed by Thomas Vinterberg. 

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” told the story of a young 19th century rural English woman named Bathsheba Everdeene and the three men in her life – a sheep farmer-turned-shepherd named Gabriel Oak; her neighbor and owner of the neighborhood’s largest farm, William Boldwood; and an illegitimate Army sergeant named Frank Troy. Bathsheba first met Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who had leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel proposed marriage, but Bathsheba rejected his proposal even though she liked him. She valued her independence more. Later, Bathsheba inherited her uncle’s prosperous farm, while Gabriel’s fortune disappeared when his inexperienced sheep dog drove his flock over a cliff. When the pair’s paths crossed again, Bathsheba ended up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd. Meanwhile, Bathsheba became acquainted with her new neighbor, a wealthy farmer named William Boldwood. He became romantically obsessed with her after she sent him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. But before she could consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy entered her life and she immediately fell in love and married him. Eventually, Bathsheba came to realize that Frank was the wrong man for her.

A good number of people compared this adaptation of Hardy’s novel to the 1967 movie adapted by John Schlesinger. Personally, I did not. As much as I enjoyed the 1967 movie, I have never regarded it as the gold-standard for any movie or television adaptation of the 1874 novel. But like the other two version, Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation had its flaws. Looking back on “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, I can honestly say that I had at least a few problems with it.

I wish the running time for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” had been a bit longer than 119 minutes. I believe a longer running time would have given the film’s narrative more time to explore the downfall of Bathsheba and Frank’s marriage. Unfortunately, it seemed as if Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls had rushed through this entire story arc. I was surprised when Bathesheba admitted to Gabriel that her marriage to Frank had been a mistake on the very night of hers and Frank’s harvest/wedding party, when an upcoming storm threatened to ruin her ricks. I realize that this conversation also occurred during the night of the harvest/wedding party in the novel. But from a narrative point-of-view, I believe this conversation between Bathsheba and Gabriel would have worked later in the story . . . when it has become very obvious that her marriage to Frank has failed.

In fact, Frank Troy’s entire character arc seemed to be rushed in this film. Many have complained that Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank was flawed. I do not agree. I did not have a problem with the actor’s performance. I had a problem with Vinterberg and Nicholls’ portrayal of Frank. In my review of the 1967 adaptation, I had complained about the overexposure of Frank’s character in that film. In this version of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, Frank’s character seemed to be underexposed. Aside from a few scenes that included Bathsheba and Frank’s first meeting, his display of swordsmanship, his revelation about his true feelings for Bathsheba and Boldwood’s Christmas party; I do not think that this movie explored Frank’s character as much as it could have.

Another aspect of Frank Troy’s arc that suffered in this film was the character of Fanny Robin. Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel should know that Fanny was a local girl who worked at the Everdene farm. Before Gabriel’s arrival, she had left to become Frank’s wife. Unfortunately, the wedding never happened because Fanny went to the wrong church. Frustrated angry, Frank prematurely ended their relationship. If Frank was underexposed in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, poor Fanny was barely developed. I could solely blame Thomas Hardy for this poor use of Fanny’s character, since he was also guilty of the character’s underdevelopment. But I have to blame Vinterberg and Nicholls as well. They could have easily added a bit more to Fanny’s character, which is what the 1998 miniseries adaptation did. Alas . . . audiences barely got to know poor Fanny Robin.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may not have been perfect, but I still found it to be a first-rate film. One, it is a beautiful movie to watch. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may have lacked the sweeping cinematography featured in the 1967 movie, but I must admit that I enjoyed Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s elegant, yet colorful photography. I can also say the same about the Art Design team of Julia Castle, Tim Blake and Hannah Moseley; and Kave Quinn’s production designs, which did a stupendous job of re-creating a part of rural England in the late 19th century. But I really enjoyed Janet Patterson’s costume designs, as shown in the images below:

 

Although the novel was published in 1874, Patterson’s costumes made it apparent to me that Vinterberg had decided to set this adaptation during the late 1870s or early 1880s. Did this bother me? No. I was too distracted by Patterson’s elegant, yet simple costumes to care.

Yes, I had a problem with the film’s limited portrayal of Frank Troy and especially Fanny Robin. But I still enjoyed this adaptation very much. The reason I enjoyed it so much is that Vinterberg and Nicholls did an excellent job of staying true to the narrative’s main theme – namely the character development of Bathsheba Everdene. From that first moment when Gabriel Oak spotted the spirited Bathsheba riding bareback on her horse, to her early months as moderately wealthy farmer, to the infatuated bride of an unsuitable man, to the emotionally battered but not bowed woman who learned to appreciate and love the right man in her life; “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” allowed filmgoers share Bathsheba’s emotional journey during an important period in her life.

The ironic thing is that Bathsheba’s story arc is not the only one featured in this film. Both Vinterberg and Nicholls also explored Gabriel Oak’s personal journey, as well. Superficially, Gabriel seemed to be the same man throughout the film. And yet, I noticed that Gabriel seemed a bit too sure of himself in the film’s opening sequence. He seemed sure of his possible success with a sheep farm and his efforts to woo Bathsheba. And yet, between the loss of his herd and Bathsheba’s rejection, Gabriel found himself forced to start all over again with his life. Although he remained constant in his love for Bathsheba and his moral compass, it was interesting to watch him struggle with his personal frustrations and setbacks – especially in regard to his feelings for Bathsheba.

Whereas audiences watch Bathsheba and Gabriel develop, they watch both John Boldwood and Francis Troy regress to their tragic fates. The strange thing about Frank was that he had a chance for a happier life with Fanny Robin. I still remember that wonderful sequence in which Frank waited for Fanny to appear at the church for their wedding. It was interesting to watch his emotions change from mild fear, hope and joy to outright anger and contempt toward Fanny for leaving him at the altar, all because she went to the wrong church. I still find it interesting that Frank allowed his pride and anger to get the best of him and reject the only woman that he truly loved. Boldwood . . . wow! Every time I watch an adaptation of Hardy’s story, I cannot help but feel a mixture of pity, annoyance and some contempt. He truly was a pathetic man in the end. Perhaps he was always that pathetic . . . even from the beginning when he seemed imperious to Bathsheba’s presence. After all, it only took a Valentine’s card – given to him as some kind of joke – to send him on a path of obsessive love and murder.

The performances in “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” certainly added to the film’s excellent quality. The movie featured some pretty first-rate performances from the supporting cast. This was apparent in Juno Temple’s charming and poignant portrayal of the doomed Fanny Robin. I was also impressed by Jessica Barden for giving a very lively performance as Liddy, Bathsheba’s extroverted boon companion. The movie also featured solid performances from Sam Phillips, who portrayed Frank’s friend, Sergeant Doggett; Victor McGuire as the corrupt Bailiff Pennyways; and Tilly Vosburgh, who portrayed Bathsheba’s aunt, Mrs. Hurst.

As I had earlier pointed out, many have criticized Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Frank Troy. I do not disagree with this criticism. If I must be honest, I was very impressed with Sturridge’s performance. I thought he conveyed the very aspect of Frank’s nature – both the good and the bad. This was especially apparent in three scenes – Frank’s aborted wedding to Fanny, his initial seduction of Bathsheba, and his emotional revelation of his true feelings for Fanny. It really is a pity that Vinterberg did not give Sturridge more screen time to shine. Thankfully, Michael Sheen was given plenty of screen time for his portrayal of Bathsheba’s possessive neighbor, John Boldwood. I must confess . . . I have never seen Sheen portray any other character like Boldwood. It was a revelation watching the actor beautifully embody this emotionally stunted man, who allowed a silly Valentine’s Day joke to lead him to desperately grasped at at prospect for love.

I had never heard of Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts until I saw this film. This is understandable, considering that “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was the first English-speaking movie in which I had seen him. Vinterberg must have been a major fan of Schoenaerts to be willing to cast him as the obviously 19th century English shepherd, Gabriel Oak. I am certainly a fan of his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel. Schoenaerts did a superb job in conveying Gabriel’s emotional journey – especially in regard to the ups and downs in the character’s relationship with Bathsheba. I am still amazed by how the actor managed to convey Gabriel’s emotional state, while maintaining the character’s reserve nature.

I believe Carey Mulligan may have been at least 28 or 29 years old, when shooting “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, making her the second oldest actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Some have complained that Mulligan seemed a bit too old to be portraying the early 20s Bathsheba.  I can honestly say that I do not agree. During the film’s first 20 minutes or so, Mulligan’s Bathsheba did come off as a bit sophisticated and all knowing. It eventually occurred to me that the actress was merely conveying the character’s youthful arrogance. And yet, Mulligan skillfully  conveyed the character’s personal chinks in that arrogance throughout the movie – whether expressing Bathsheba’s insistence that Gabriel regard her solely as an employer, the character’s embarrassment over being pursued by the obsessive Boldwood or Frank’s overt sexual attention to her, or her desperation and humiliation from his emotional abuse. Mulligan gave an excellent and memorable performance.

I cannot say that the 2015 movie, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is perfect. Come to think of it, none of the adaptations I have seen are. Despite its flaws, I can honestly say that it is another excellent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, thanks to Thomas Vinterberg’s direction, David Nicholls’ screenplay and a superb cast led by Carey Mulligan.

 

 

“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

“THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” (1976) Review

There have been countless number of plays, movie and television productions based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” novels and short stories. Some of these productions have touched upon or portrayed Sherlock Holmes as a drug addict. Only two have actually explored this topic. And one of them was the 1976 film, “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”

Film director and novelist Nicholas Meyer had written his first novel – a Sherlock Holmes tale – called “The Seven-Percent Solution” – and it was published in 1974. A year or two later, Meyer adapted the novel as a movie. Directed by Herbert Ross, the film starred Nicol Williamson as Sherlock Holmes, Robert Duvall as Dr. John Watson and Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud. “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” began when Army veteran Dr. John Watson becomes convinced that his close friend and colleague, private detective Sherlock Holmes, has developed a drug-induced obsession with proving that a professor named James Moriarty is a criminal mastermind. After Moriarty complains to Watson that he is being harassed by Holmes, the good doctor enlists the aid of Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, to trick Holmes into traveling to Vienna, where he can be treated by a clinical neurologist named Dr. Sigmund Freud. While being treated by Freud for his cocaine addiction, Holmes becomes involved with a kidnapping case involving an actress, who happens to be another patient of Dr. Freud’s.

It is quite obvious that “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” is a mystery . . . like any other Sherlock Holmes tale. Only, Holmes is not the person who solves the film’s major mystery. It is Dr. Sigmund Freud. “Wait a minute . . . “ many of you might say. Holmes is the main character in this tale. And the film’s narrative includes the famous detective being forced to solve a kidnapping. But the kidnapping of Lola Devereaux seemed to be the movie’s B-plot. The real mystery seemed to be the reasons behind Holmes’ addiction . . . and his harassment of Professor Moriarty. And that mystery remained unsolved – by Dr. Freud – until the film’s final ten to fifteen minutes. Sherlock Holmes might be the film’s main character, but the main investigator in this tale is none other than Dr. Sigmund Freud. This is one of the reasons why I still find “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” so fascinating. For once, Sherlock Holmes is not the main investigator in one of his tales . . . he is the mystery. No wonder this film is so rare among the many works of fiction – on screen or off – about the famous detective. Not only did I find it rare, but also very interesting.

Since the real mystery behind “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was about Sherlock Holmes’ personal demons and his drug use, I also have to give kudos to Nicholas Meyer in the manner in which he structured the narrative. He must have realized that he could not simply present a story about Holmes’ demons and his drug addiction and keep movie audiences interested. Especially since Holmes is the main character. Meyer had to include an adventure for the fictional detective, Dr. Watson and Dr. Freud. And I believe that Meyer was very smart to first center the story around Holmes’ addiction and his harassment of James Moriarty. Yet, at the same time, Meyer injected small clues that foreshadowed the trio’s adventures surrounding Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. By the time Freud managed to “dry out” Holmes’ drug addiction, the story finally shifted full time to the kidnapping. I also thought Meyer was very clever to portray her as another one of Freud’s patients, in order to include the neurologist into the adventure. And yet, the rescue of Miss Devereaux was not the end of the story, for the real mystery had yet to be solved – namely what traumatic event led Holmes to his drug use and his harassment of Moriarty. Like I said . . . very clever. Meyer’s story was basically a character study of Sherlock Holmes, yet he included an exciting adventure into the narrative in order to maintain the audience’s interest.

Another aspect of “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” that I truly enjoyed was its production values. It is a very beautiful looking film. I believe the three people responsible for the movie’s visual style were cinematographer Oswald Morris, costume designer Alan Barrett and two veterans of the James Bond franchise – art director Peter Lamont and the legendary production designer Ken Adams. One of the aspects that I enjoyed about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” was Morris’ beautiful and colorful photography of England and Austria, especially Vienna. I have only one complaint about Morris’ photography was the hazy sheen that seemed to indicate that the film is a period drama. I found that unnecessary. I was very impressed with Barrett’s costumes – for both the men and women characters. I thought he did an excellent job in creating exquisite costumes for a story set in the early 1890s. As much as I admire most of Morris’ photography for its sheer visual beauty, I also admire it for enhancing both Ken Adams’ production designs and Peter Lamont’s art designs. And I have to say . . . both did a great job in re-creating both late Victorian England and Vienna during the middle period of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The performances featured in “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION” were pretty solid, with perhaps a few outstanding ones. Would I regard Nicol Williamson’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes outstanding? I am not sure. I have to admit that I was impressed by his performance in many scenes – especially those that featured Holmes’ investigation of Lola Devereaux’s kidnapping. However, there were a good number of moments when I found Williamson’s performance a bit theatrical – especially in those scenes when Holmes’ obsession of Moriarty seemed to be overwhelming or when the character was in the throes of cocaine withdrawal. Many filmgoers and critics have claimed that Robert Duvall was miscast as Dr. John Watson, Holmes’ closest friend and chronicler. Perhaps. I suspect that this belief is solely based upon the British accent that Duvall had utilized for the role. It was not impressive. In fact, I found it lumbering and somewhat wince-inducing. However . . . a bad accent does not exactly mean a bad performance. Despite his inability to get a handle on a decent British accent, I cannot deny that Duvall gave a classy and first-rate performance as the loyal and intelligent Watson.

Vanessa Redgrave gave an exquisite performance as Lola Devereaux, the sensuous, yet intelligent actress, who becomes the target of kidnappers. Jeremy Kemp was marvelous as the arrogant and bigoted Baron Karl von Leinsdorf, who also could be rather dashing . . . at least to women like Miss Deveareaux. Joel Grey gave an interesting performance as a mysterious figure named Lowenstein, who played a prominent role in Miss Devereaux’s kidnapping. The movie also benefited from solid performances from Samantha Eggar, Charles Gray, Anna Quayle, Georgia Brown, Régine and John Hill. Jill Townsend, who was married to Williamson at the time, made a very effective cameo as the Holmes brothers’ mother in a flashback.

But for me, the two best performances came from Alan Arkin as Dr. Sigmund Freud and Laurence Olivier as Professor James Moriarty. Arkin was superb as the brilliant neurologist, whose cool demeanor is constantly tested by Holmes’ abrasive personality, Baron von Leinsdorf’s bigotry and the adventure that he, Holmes and Watson are drawn into. I believe the other great performance came from Laurence Olivier, who gave a fascinating performance as the target of Holmes’ ire, Professor James Moriarty. What I found fascinating about Olivier’s performance is that he managed to not only convey Moriarty’s obsequious behavior, but also a hint that the character was hiding a pretty awful secret.

I realized that I only had a few quibbles about “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”. I did not care for the hazy sheen that layered an otherwise excellent photography by Oswald Morris. There were times when lead actor Nicol Williamson seemed a bit hammy and if I must be honest, Robert Duvall’s English accent was rather ponderous and fake. But overall, both actors and the rest of the cast provided some pretty good performances, especially Alan Arkin and Laurence Olivier. But I was especially impressed by the narrative for “THE SEVEN PER-CENT SOLUTION”, a unique Sherlock Holmes tale in which the main mystery was focused on the detective’s own psyche.