“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

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“NORTH AND SOUTH” (1975) Review

I had been a fan of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, ever since I first saw the 2004 television adaptation a few years ago. Mind you, I had never read the novel. And I still have yet to read it. Despite this, I became a fan of the story. And when I learned that the BBC planned to release an older adaptation of Gaskell’s novel, which first aired in 1975, I looked forward to seeing it. 

As one would assume from reading this review, I eventually purchased a copy of the 1975 adaptation on DVD. And if I must be honest, I do not regret it. “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty damn good adaptation. Like the 2004 version, it consisted of four (4) fifty-minute episodes. Gaskell’s novel told the story of one Margret Hale, who returns home after ten years to her cleric father’s rector in Helstone, after attending the wedding of her cousin, Edith Shaw. Margaret’s homecoming is short-lived when she and her mother learn that her father Richard Hale has left the Church of England as a matter of conscience, after he has become a dissenter. His old Oxford friend, Mr. Bell, suggests that the Hales move to the industrial town of Milton, in Northern England; where the latter was born and own property. 

Not long after the Hales’ arrival in Milton, both Margaret and mother Maria Hale find Milton harsh and strange. Due to financial circumstances, Mr. Hale works as a tutor. One of his more enthusiastic students turn out to be a wealthy cotton manufacturer named John Thornton, master of Marlborough Mills. Appalled by the conditions of the poverty-stricken mill workers, Margaret befriends the family of one Nicholas Higgins, a union representative. She also develops a dislike of Thornton, finding him gauche and seemingly unconcerned about his workers’ condition. Unbeknownst to Margaret, Thornton has grown attracted to her. The volatile relationship between Margaret and Thornton eventually plays out amidst the growing conflict between mill owners and angry workers.

As I had stated earlier, “NORTH AND SOUTH” proved to be a pretty good adaptation. I have a tendency to regard BBC miniseries produced in the 1970s with a jaundice eye, considering their tendency end up as televised stage plays. Thanks to the conflicts, social commentaries and romance featured in “NORTH AND SOUTH”, the miniseries was never boring. Many viewers who have seen this version of Gaskell’s novel claim that it was a more faithful adaptation than the 2004 miniseries. I cannot agree or disagree, considering that I have yet to read the novel. But I have never been too concern with the faithfulness of any movie or television adaptation, as long as the screenwriter(s) manage to come up with decent script that adheres to the main narrative of the literary source. Fortunately, David Turner did just that. His screenplay, along with Rodney Bennett’s direction, explored all of the aspects of Gaskell’s 1855 novel – the reason behind the Hales’ move to the North, the labor conflicts between the workers and the mill owners, Margaret Hale’s conflict/romance with John Thornton, the latter’s relationship with his mother, Nicholas Higgins’ conflict with fellow mill worker Boucher, and the fragmentation of the Hale family. Also, Bennett directed the entire miniseries with a steady pace that kept me alert.

It is a good thing that Bennett’s pacing kept me alert . . . most of the time. Like many BBC productions in the 1970s, “NORTH AND SOUTH” did come off as a filmed play in many scenes. Aside from Margaret’s arrival in Helstone in Episode One, the labor violence that erupts within the grounds of Marlborough Mills in Episode Two and the delivery of Boucher’s body in his neighborhood; just about every other scene was probably shot inside a sound stage. And looked it. This even includes the Milton train station where Margaret says good-bye to her fugitive brother, Frederick. Now many would state that this has been the case for nearly all BBC miniseries productions from that era. Yet, I can recall a handful of productions from the same decade – 1971’s “PERSUASION”, 1972’s “EMMA” and even “JENNIE, LADY RANDOLPH CHURCHILL” from 1974 – featured a good deal of exterior shots. And there were moments when some scenes continued longer than necessary, especially in Episode One. Margaret’s conversation with her cousin Edith and Mr. Hale’s announcement of his separation from the Church of England seemed to take forever. And due to this problem, there were moments went the miniseries threatened to bog down.

But as much as I liked Turner’s adaptation of the novel, it seemed far from perfect. One aspect of the script that really irritated me was that Turner had a habit of telling the audiences what happened, instead of showing what happened. In Episode One, following their arrival in Milton, Margaret tells her parents that she met the Higgins family. The miniseries never revealed how she met Nicholas or Betsy Higgins in the first place. The series never revealed the details behind Boucher’s death in Episode Four. Instead, a neighbor told Margaret, before his body appeared on the screen. We never see any scenes of Fanny Thornton’s wedding to mill owner Mr. Slickson. Instead, John tells Mr. Bell about the wedding in a quick scene between the two men on a train. Also, I found Margaret’s initial hostility toward John rather weak. A conversation between the two about the mill workers took part after audiences met the Higgins family. It is easy to see that John’s arrogant assumption regarding his control of his workers might seemed a bit off putting to Margaret. But it just did not seem enough for her hostility to last so long. And while the script probably followed Gaskell’s novel and allowed John’s regard for Margaret to be apparent before the end of Episode One, I never felt any growing attraction that Margaret may have felt toward John. Not even through most of Episode Four. In fact, Margaret’s open declaration of her love for John in the episode’s last few minutes seemed sudden . . . as if it came out of the blue.

The above mentioned problem may have been one reason why I found Margaret and John’s romance unconvincing. Another problem was that I found the on-screen chemistry between the two leads, Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart, rather flat. In short, they did not seemed to have any real chemistry. The two leads gave first-rate, if somewhat flawed performances in their roles. Aside from a few moments in which I found Shanks’ Margaret Hale a bit too passive, I thought she gave an excellent, yet intelligent performance. Stewart seemed as energetic as ever, even if there were moments when his John Thornton seemed to change moods faster than lightning. But they did not click as an on-screen couple. Also, Turner’s screenplay failed to any signs of Margaret’s growing attraction toward John. It simply appeared out of the blue, during the series’ last few minutes. 

I certainly had no problems with the other performances in the miniseries, save for a few performances. Robin Bailey did an excellent job in portraying Margaret’s well-meaning, yet mild-mannered father, Richard Hale. Bailey seemed to make it obvious that Mr. Hale was a man out of his depth and time. Kathleen Byron perfectly conveyed both the delicate sensibility and strong will of Margaret’s mother, Maria Hale. I was very impressed by Rosalie Crutchley’s portrayal of the tough, passionate and very complex Mrs. Hannah Thornton. I could also say the same about Norman Jones, who gave a very fine performance as union representative Nicolas Jones . . . even if there were times when I could barely understand him. Christopher Burgess’ portrayal of Boucher struck me as very strong . . . perhaps a little on the aggressive side. And Pamela Moiseiwitsch gave a very funny portrayal of John’s younger sister, Fanny; even if her performance came off as a bit too broad at times. It was a blast to see Tim Pigott-Smith in the role of Margaret’s fugitive brother, Frederick Hale. I say it was a blast, due to the fact that Pigott-Smith portrayed Richard Hale in the 2004 miniseries, 19 years later. As much as I enjoyed seeing him, there were times when his performance came off as a bit hammy.

Overall, “NORTH AND SOUTH” is a pretty solid adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Aside from a few changes, it more or less adhered to the original narrative, thanks to David Turner’s screenplay and Rodney Bennett’s direction. And although it featured some fine performances, the miniseries did suffer from some narrative flaws and a lack of chemistry between the two leads – Rosalie Shanks and Patrick Stewart. However, “NORTH AND SOUTH” still managed to rise above its flaws . . . in the end.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

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“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” (1985) Review

There have been two adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1953 novel, “A Pocket Full of Rye”. Well . . . as far as I know. I have already seen the recent adaptation that aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MARPLE” series in 2009. Recently, I watched an earlier adaptation that aired on the BBC “MISS MARPLE” series in 1985.

Directed by Guy Slater, this earlier adaptation starred Joan Hickson as the story’s main sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. The story begins in the London office of financier Rex Fortescue, who suddenly dies after drinking his morning tea. At first suspicion falls upon the employees of Fortescue’s firm. But the police coroner discovers that Fortescue had died from taxine, n alkaloid poison obtained from the leaves or berries of the yew tree. Due to this discovery, Detective-Inspector Neele realizes that someone within the Foretescue household may have poisoned the financier during breakfast. Suspicion falls upon Fortescue’s second and much younger wife, Adele after Neele learns of her affair with a local golf pro at a resort. However, Adele is murdered during tea, via poison. Even worse, a third victim, a maid named Gladys Martin, is found in the garden, strangled to death and with a peg on her nose. After Adele and Gladys’ murders are reported by the media; Miss Marple, who used to be Gladys’ employer, pays a visit to the Fortescue home to discover the murderer’s identity among the list of suspects:

*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
*Mary Dove – the Fortescues’ efficient and mysterious housekeeper
*Vivian Dubois – Adele’s lover and professional golf instructor
*Aunt Effie Ramsbottom – Rex’s fanatically religious ex-sister-in-law

Despite Inspector Neele’s initial inclination to dismiss the elderly Miss Marple, he comes to appreciate her help in solving the three murders.

I like “A POCKETFUL OF RYE”. I like it a lot. I have always been a fan of Christie’s 1953 novel. And if I must be honest, I also enjoyed the 2009 adaptation, as well. Originally, one would be inclined to believe that this earlier adaptation is more faithful to Christie’s novel. Surprisingly, it is not. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen eliminated at least three characters from the novel and changed the murderer’s fate in the end. Otherwise, this adaptation was pretty faithful. But it is not its faithfulness to Christie’s novel that made me enjoy this production. I have read plenty of first-rate novels that translated badly to the television or movie screen. Fortunately, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” does not suffer from this fate. At least not too much.

Overall, “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” is an entertaining and solid story that left me intrigued. It is also one of the few Christie stories in which the revelation of the murderer’s identity left me feeling very surprised . . . and a little sad. However, even sadder was the third murder . . . that of Gladys Martin. She was the only one of the three victims that was likable. Not only did I find her death sad, but also cruel. But it was also good drama. The movie also featured some strong characterization that I believe enhanced the story. Between the interactions between the members of the Fortescue family members, the interactions between Miss Marple and Inspector Neele, and the interaction between the latter and his assistant Sergeant Hay; this production reeked with strong characterization.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” did have its problems. One, I thought the movie’s pacing dragged a bit, following the death of Rex Fortescue. And because of this, the story took its time in reaching Miss Marple’s arrival at the Fortescues’ home. Another problem with Bowen’s script is that it strongly hinted the killer’s identity before Miss Marple could to the police. This problem has been a problem with the Joan Hickson movies throughout its run. For me, the real problem with “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be the killer’s fate. Apparently, Bowen and director Guy Slater decided that Christie’s version of what happened to the murderer was not enough. Instead, they decided to kill off the murderer in a convoluted manner via a traffic accident. Frankly, I found Christie’s original version more emotionally satisfying.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s performances. Joan Hickson was top-notch as usual, as Jane Marple. I also enjoyed Tom Wilkinson’s very entertaining performance as Inspector Neele. I find it hard to believe that it took another 13 years or so for him to achieve stardom. There were three other performances that I truly enjoyed. One came from Rachel Bell, who was first-rate in her portrayal the victim’s enigmatic daughter-in-law. Selina Cadell’s portrayal of housekeeper Mary Dove proved to be just as enigmatic and impressive. Both Peter Davidson and Clive Merrison gave interesting performances as the two Fortescue brothers, Lance and Percival, who seemed such complete opposites of one another. I also enjoyed Fabia Drake, who gave an excellent performance as the victim’s religious, yet observant sister-in-law, Effie Ramsbottom. The movie also featured solid performances from Timothy West (whose appearance was sadly too brief), Annette Badland, Stacy Dorning, Jon Glover, Frances Low and Martyn Stanbridge.

“A POCKETFUL OF RYE” proved to be an entertaining and solid adaptation of Christie’s novel, thanks to director Guy Slater and screenwriter T.R. Bowen. The movie also featured excellent performances from a cast led by the always incomparable Joan Hickson. However, I do feel that the movie was somewhat marred by a slow pacing in the middle of the story and an early and unsatisfying revelation of the killer’s identity. Oh well. At least “A POCKETFUL OF RYE” was not a bust or even mediocre.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

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“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” (2016) Review

After the 2011 movie “HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, PART II” hit the movie theaters, I had assumed that would be the last film set in J.K. Rowling’s “wizarding world of Harry Potter”. Her 2007 novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” was her last one in a series of seven books. But . . . lo and behold, Warner Brothers Studios, who had released the films based upon her novel, found a way to continue the series. The end result was the release of the recent film, “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” is based upon a 2001 book written by Rowling. Somewhat. First of all, the book is not a novel, but a “scholarly” book about the magical creatures found in the Harry Potter universe. Second of all, the book was published under the fictional pen name of one Newt Scamander. What Rowlings, who served as the film’s screenwriter, did was used the Newt Scamander pen name and transformed him into the movie’s main character. In the film, British wizard and “magizoologist” Newt Scamander arrives by boat to New York City in the fall of 1926. Newt has arrived in the United States to release a magical creature called the Thunderbird in the Arizona desert. While listening to a sidewalk speech given by a non-magical (No-Maj) fanatic named Mary Lou Barebone, one of his charges – a creature called Nifler escapes from his magically expanded suitcase, which contains other magical creatures. Even worse, he meets No-Maj cannery worker and aspiring baker Jacob Kowalski, and they accidentally swap suitcases. As Newt struggles to regain possession of his suitcase, Nifler and other magical creatures that have managed to escape; he runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), thanks to a demoted auror named Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein, eager to regain her position. Between his search for his missing magical creatures, regaining his suitcase from Jacob Kowalski and the MACUSA; Newt has to deal with a creature called the Obscurus, which uses children as host bodies and is causing destruction around Manhattan and not attract the attention of Ms. Barebone and her abused adopted children – including the adolescent Credence Barebone.

When I first saw “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was surprised to discover that J.K. Rowling was the movie’s sole screenwriter. I found this especially surprising, considering that one of the movie’s producers happened to be Steve Kloves, who had served as screenwriter for seven of the eight “HARRY POTTER” movies. And I must say that I thought she did a pretty damn good job. At first, I thought Rowling had created a disjointed tale. The movie seemed to possess at least three separate plot lines:

*Newt’s search for the missing creatures in his possession

*The Obscurus’ destruction

*Mary Lou Barebone’s anti-magic campaign

But Tina Goldstein finally exposed Newt’s magical suitcase to MACUSA, Newt’s plot line became connected to the story arc regarding the Obscurus. And both story arcs became connected to Mrs. Barebone’s anti-magic campaign when audiences learned that MACUSA Director of Magical Security Percival Graves had recruited Credence to help him locate the child who might be the Obscurus. Seeing how these individual story arcs formed to become part of one main narrative reminded me of the 2008 World War II Spike Lee drama, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. Speaking of World War II, I was happily surprised to learn that a major plot twist near the end of “FANTASTIC BEASTS” promises to lead to the featured a major plot twist that will serve as part of this new series’ main narrative about the upcoming Global wizarding war that will play out during the rise of fascism and the war. How clever of Rowling.

What else did I like about the movie? Frankly, the production designs. I was very impressed by Stuart Craig and James Hambidge’s re-creation of 1926 Manhattan. For me, among their best work proved to be their creation of a 1920s magical speakeasy operated by a goblin gangster named Gnarlack. Nor am I surprised that the pair managed to earn an Oscar nomination for their work. I was also impressed by Colleen Atwood’s costume designs for the film. One, she did an excellent job in re-creating the fashion of the mid-1920s. More importantly, Atwood put an interesting fantasy twist for the costumes worn by the magical characters. For some reason, the clothes worn by the American wizarding community of the 1920s seemed to be more tasteful and elegant than those worn by the British wizarding community of the late 20th/early 21st century. And guess what? Ms. Atwood also earned an Oscar nomination for her work. The only problem I had with the movie’s technical effects was Philippe Rousselot’s photography. Mind you, I had no problems with the film’s epic sweep. But I did not particularly care for the photography’s brown tint – a color that I personally found unnecessary and rather disappointing. I realize that the story is set during the middle of autumn. But was it really necessary to photograph the movie with an unflattering brown tint to indicate the time of the year?

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Eddie Redmayne did a marvelous job in portraying the introverted wizard Newt Scamander, who seemed to have an easier job of interacting with the creatures in his care instead of his fellow humans. I also noticed that in one hilarious scene, which involved Newt’s attempt to recapture an African Erumpent at the city zoo, Redmayne displayed a talent for physical comedy by engaging with a “mating dance” with the animal. Katherine Waterston, whom I last saw in the 2015 drama “STEVE JOBS”, gave a very intense, yet engaging performance as the demoted auror, Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein. I was impressed by how Waterston combined two aspects of Tina’s personality – her driving ambition, which has come close to undermining her strong penchant for decency on a few occasions. Dan Fogler gave a very entertaining and funny performance as the No-Maj cannery worker and wannabe baker, Jacob Kowalski. Not only did I find his performance very funny, he also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with both Eddie Redmayne and Alison Sudol, who portrayed Tina’s sister Quennie Goldstein. Sudol was an absolute delight as the carefree witch, who is not only proficient in Legilimens, but who also falls in love with Jacob.

I never thought I would see Colin Farrell in a “HARRY POTTER” film. To be honest, he never struck me as the type. But he seemed to fit quite well in his excellent portrayal of the ruthless and intense Auror and Director of Magical Security for MACUSA, Percival Graves. I was especially impressed with his performance in scenes that featured Graves’ interactions with Credence Barebone – scenes that seemed to hint some mild form of erotic manipulation. Speaking of Mr. Barebone, Ezra Miller was in fine form as the emotionally repressed Credence. The ironic thing about Miller’s performance is that at first, his character seemed slightly creepy. In fact, one could label his Credence a “young American Severus Snape with a bad haircut and no wit”. Thanks to Rowling’s screenplay and Miller’s performance, I came away with a portrait of a sad and abused young man, who hand channeled his anger at those who exploit him via magic.

“FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM” marked the first time in which I can recall a magical person of color as a major supporting role – namely the MACUSA’s elegant president Seraphina Picquery, portrayed by Carmen Ejogo. Unlike characters such as Dean Thomas or Kingsley Shacklebolt, President Picquery was not simply allowed to speak a few lines before being swept to the sidelines or off screen. Audiences received more than a glimpse of the glamorous Seraphina. I was also happy to discover that President Picquery was not portrayed as some one-dimensional character without any depth. Thanks to Ejogo’s skillful performance, she portrayed the MACUSA as a pragmatic and ruthless woman who could be quite ambiguous in her efforts to maintain order within the American wizarding community. I found myself equally impressed by Samantha Morton’s portrayal of the religious fanatic, Mary Lou Barebone. What really impressed me about Morton’s performance is that she did not resort to excessive dramatics to convey Mrs. Barebone’s fanatical . . . and abusive personality. Morton gave a subtle and intense performance that conveyed a portrait of a rather frightening woman – especially one who was not magical. The movie also featured solid performances from Jon Voight, Ronan Raftery, Josh Cowdery, Faith Wood-Blagrove and Ron Perlman’s voice. The movie also featured a surprise cameo appearance from Johnny Depp, whose character will play an important role in the sequel films that will follow this one.

I find it ironic that when I had first learned about the plans for “FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM”, I was against it. I thought J.K. Rowling and Warner Brothers Studio had taken the Harry Potter franchise as far as it could go after seven novels and eight films. And yet . . . after seeing this film, I immediately fell in love with it. The movie had a few flaws. But I ended up enjoying it, thanks to the complex plot written by Rowling, David Yates’ solid direction, the visual effects and the first-rate cast led by Eddie Redmayne. And now . . . I look forward to seeing more films about the different wizarding communities during the early 20th century.

 

 

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

Jane Eyre (1996)

“JANE EYRE” (1996) Review

According to the Wikipedia website, there have been sixteen film adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. And there have been ten television adaptations. That is a hell of a lot of adaptations for one novel. A lot. And judging by the numbers, I have no immediate plan to see every movie or television adaptation. But I have seen at least five or six adaptations. And one of them is Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 movie adaptation.

Adapted by Zeffirelli and Hugh Whitemore, “JANE EYRE” told the story of a 19th century English orphan named Jane Eyre, who is rejected by her aunt and sent to a strict girls school. After eight years as a student and two years as an instructor, Jane is hired as governess to the French ward of Edward Rochester, the brooding owner of an estate in Yorkshire called Thornfield Hall. Although Jane possesses a mild, unprepossing manner, she also possesses strong internal passions and strength in character that her employer finds attractive. Eventually, Jane and her Mr. Rochester fall in love. But a deep secret that exists at Thornfield Hall threatens their future relationship and forces Jane to mature in a way she did not expect.

I could have delved more into the movie’s plot, but why bother? The story of Jane Eyre is so familiar and has been recounted so many times that I believe it would be best to describe how I feel about this adaptation. And how do I feel about it? Honestly, it is not one of my favorite adaptations. Mind you, it is not terrible. In fact, I find it pretty solid. The movie’s production values seemed to be first rate. I was impressed by Roger Hall’s production designs, which did a very good job of re-creating Northern England of the 1830s and 1840s. Jenny Beavan, whom I am beginning to believe is one of the best costume designers on both sides of the Atlantic, did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions for both decades. And I also liked how David Watkin’s photography captured the beauty of Haddon Hall in Derbyshire, which served as the Rochester estate, Thornfield Hall.

I would probably rate Zeffirelli and Whitemore’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel as slightly below above average, but not quite average. I feel they did a first-rate job of re-creating at least three quarters of Brontë’s tale. However, their adaptation fell apart, following Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall. They allowed Bertha Rochester’s death and the burning of Thornfield to occur not long after Jane’s departure. At first, I found that odd. But now, I realize that Zeffirelli and Whitemore wanted to rush the story as fast as they possibly could. Matters did not improve when Jane met St. John and Mary Rivers. Jane’s inheritance of her uncle’s fortune and St. John’s loveless marriage proposal happened so fast that my head nearly spinned when she finally returned to Thornfield. The movie’s weakest writing proved to be in the last twenty to thirty minutes.

The biggest criticism that “JANE EYRE” received from critics proved to be Zeffirelli’s casting of William Hurt as Edward Rochester. Mind you, I found Hurt’s English accent a little shaky. But I really enjoyed the cynical and world weary air he projected into the character . . . especially in scenes featuring Rochester’s meeting with his brother-in-law, Richard Mason. And he also managed to achieve some kind of screen chemistry with leading lady Charlotte Gainsbourg. I find this quite miraculous, considering my belief that Gainsbourg’s portrayal of Jane Eyre proved to be the movie’s weakest link. I realize that this is not a popular view. But aside from one scene, I found Gainsbourg’s performance to be completely BORING. All she had to do was open her mouth and her flat tones nearly put me to sleep. The only time she really managed to effectively convey Jane’s deep emotions was in the famous scene in which the character revealed her love for Rochester. Only in this scene did Gainsbourg gave a hint of the acting talent she would eventually develop.

Other members of the cast gave solid performances. I noticed that the movie featured three cast members from 1995’s “PERSUASION” – Fiona Shaw, Amanda Root and Samuel West. Shaw was very emotional, yet vicious as Jane’s cold Aunt Reed. Root gave a warm performance as Miss Temple, Jane’s favorite teacher at Lowood. And West was very effective in his portrayal of Jane’s religious cousin and savior, St. John Rivers. It seemed a pity that the movie’s script did not allow for a further look into his character. John Wood was perfectly hypocrtical and cold as Jane’s religious headmaster, Mr. Brocklehurst. Joan Plowright gave a delightful performance as the outgoing housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax. And I was surprised by Elle Macpherson’s effective portrayal of the charming and self-involved Blanche Ingram. Edward de Souza gave a solid performance as Rochester’s emotionally delicate brother-in-law, Richard Mason. But like West, he was barely in the movie long enough to make any kind of an impression. Julian Fellowes made an appearance as one of Rochester’s friends, a Colonel Dent; but aside from a few witty lines, he was not that impressive. But the one supporting performance that really impressed me came from Anna Paquin’s portryal of the young and passionate Jane. It seemed a pity that Paquin was only 13 to 14 years old at the time. Because I believe that her performance as Jane seemed ten times better than Gainsbourg.

Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Brontë’s novel is not bad. Despite a shaky English accent, Hurt proved to be an effective Edward Rochester. And the movie also featured fine performances from many supporting performances. The director did a solid job of re-creating Brontë’s tale for at least three-quarters of the movie. However, the adaptation fell apart in the last quarter, when Jane flet Thornfield Hall following her aborted wedding. And Charlotte Gainsbourg’s flat performance as the titled character did not help matters. Like I said, “JANE EYRE” did not strike me as above average, but it seemed a little better than average.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” (1990) Review

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“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” (1990) Review

As a long time reader of Agatha Christie’s novels, I have been well aware of her first novel that was published in 1920, namely “The Mysterious Affair at Styles”. I read the novel once. But if I must be honest, I never became a fan of it.

Due to my lackluster feelings for the novel, it took me a while to watch the television adaptation of it, which aired on ITV’s “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” back in 1990. But eventually I got around to it and was amazed to discover that it had been the second Christie novel to be adapted as a feature-length film on that series. Another amazing aspect of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is that it is the first of two or three episodes that was not set during the 1930s decade. In the case of this film, it was set in 1917, during World War I.

The movie opens in London with Captain Arthur Hastings on sick leave from military duty. Hastings seemed to be suffering from a mild case of post traumatic stress disorder. An encounter with an old friend named John Cavendish leads him to eagerly accept the latter’s invitation to visit his family’s estate – Styles – in Essex. During his visit, Hasting’s meets John’s family:

*Emily Inglethorp, John’s wealthy stepmother and mistress of Styles
*Alfred Inglethorp, her much younger new husband, who is viewed as a fortune hunter
*Mary Cavendish, John’s wife
*Lawrence Cavendish, John’s younger brother
*Evelyn Howard, Mrs. Inglethorp’s companion, who dislikes Mr. Inglethorp
*Cynthia Murdoch, the orphaned daughter of a family friend

Hastings also reunites with an old acquaintance he had met before the war – a Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot, who has become a war refugee. Due to Mrs. Inglethorp’s generosity, Poirot has managed to find a place in the nearby village to harbor his fellow Belgian refugees in the area.

When the Styles Court’s residents wake up to find Mrs. Inglethorp dying of strychnine poisoning, they learn from the local doctor that she had been murdered. Hastings recruits the help of Poirot to investigate the murder. They discover that John Cavendish will automatically inherit Styles Court upon his stepmother’s death, due to being the estate’s vested Remainderman. His brother Lawrence will also inherit a nice sum of money. However, the income left to Mrs. Inglethorp by the late Mr. Cavendish would be distributed, according to her will. However, Mrs. Inglethorp was heard arguing with a man about his infidelity – either her stepson John or her husband Alfred. She made a new will after the quarrel, but no one can find it. Two suspects would end up falling under the suspicions of the law before Poirot can reveal the murderer.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is the kind of adaptation that most fans of Christie’s novel absolutely adore. Due to Clive Exton’s script, it is a detailed and nearly faithful adaptation of the novel. And for most moviegoers and television viewers these days, a faithful adaptation to a literary source is very important to the quality of a production. My view on the matter is a bit more ambiguous. It all depends on whether a faithful adaptation translate well to the movie or television screen. In the case of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES”, I would say that Clive Exton’s faithful adaptation served the story rather well. But the only reason I harbor this view is that I cannot think of a way how any change might serve the story. Because honestly? Christie’s 1920 novel did not exactly rock my boat. And I can say the same about this television movie.

“THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is not a terrible story. It is a pretty solid tale that made it a little difficult for me to guess the murderer’s identity. The story also featured mildly interesting characters that actually left me wondering about their fates. I especially found the stormy marriage between John and Mary Cavendish particularly interesting. And I also found myself scratching my head over Mrs. Inglethorp’s marriage to the younger and obviously unlikable Alfred Inglethorp. I had originally assumed that this tale featured the first meeting between Poirot and Hastings. But as it turned out, the two men first met during a murder investigation in Belgium before the war. Pity. Come to think of it, “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” did not feature the first meeting between Poirot and Scotland Yard Inspector Japp. They had first met before the war, as well. But the story did feature the first meeting between Hastings and Japp.

Okay . . . look. “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” is a pretty solid story. It is filled with competent performances from the cast, including David Suchet, Hugh Fraser, and Philip Jackson as Poirot, Hastings and Japp. I was especially impressed by Gillian Barge as Emily Inglethorp, Michael Cronin as Alfred Inglethorp, Joanna McCallum. I was especially impressed by David Rintoul and Beatie Edney as the emotional John and Mary Cavendish. I do have to give kudos to production designer Rob Harris of his re-creation of World War I England and also costume designer Linda Mattock. But in the end, this television adaptation of Christie’s story no more wowed me than the 1920 novel did. The most interesting aspects of “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES” proved to be the World War I setting and that it served as the beginning of Poirot’s relationship with both Hastings and Japp.

Before one comes away with the idea that I disliked “THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES”, I do not. Like I have been stating throughout this review, it is a pretty solid production. I am certain that many “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” fans would love this movie, due to screenwriter Clive Exton’s faithful adaptation. I liked the movie. But if I must be honest, my true reaction to it was simply – “Eh, not bad.”

“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

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“THE AMERICAN” (2010) Review

With the disappointing summer movie season of 2010 finally over, moviegoers received one of its first releases for the fall season. The movie in question happened to be a tight little thriller about an American assassin working on a job in Italy called ”THE AMERICAN”.

Directed by Anton Corbijn and starring George Clooney, ”THE AMERICAN” is a film adaptation of ”A Very Private Gentleman”, Martin Booth’s 1990 novel about an assassin named Jack, who is hired to construct a rifle for another assassin in a small town in Italy called Castel del Monte. During his stay there, Jack befriends a friendly, yet observant priest named Father Benedetto; and falls for a young prostitute named Clara. He also tries to prevent himself from becoming the target of another assassin.

I had mixed feelings about going to see this movie. After watching it, my feelings about it remained mixed. One, I managed to predict the end of this movie before I even saw it. And I have never read Booth’s novel. The ending seemed even more apparent, considering the movie’s style and story. Two, the pacing struck me as being unnecessarily slow in some scenes. Now, I am not demanding that Corbijn should have paced ”THE AMERICAN” with the same timing as any of the recent Jason Bourne movies. After all, it is basically a character study of an assassin who has come to realize that he has been in the killing game too long. But there were moments when the camera lingered too lovingly upon some of Jack’s more mundane tasks that I would not have minded avoiding. One last complaint I have about ”THE AMERICAN” is that Rowan Joffe’s screenplay never made it clear who was behind the attempts to kill Jack in Sweden and the assassin who stalked him in Castel del Monte. Mind you, I had a pretty good idea on the person’s identity. Unfortunately, the script never really made it clear.

But there were aspects of ”THE AMERICAN” that I enjoyed. I found George Clooney’s portrayal of the world weary assassin well done. In fact, I could honestly say that he did an excellent job in portraying Jack’s mixture of professional wariness, emotional bankruptcy and hopes of a romantic future with the prostitute, Clara. The role of Jack might prove to be one of his better ones. Both Paolo Bonacelli and Violante Placido, who portrayed Father Benedetto and Clara respectively, gave Clooney excellent support. So did actress Thekla Reuten, who portrayed Mathilde, the assassin that commissioned Jack to construct a rifle for her. However, there were times when she conveyed the femme fatale persona just a bit too thick.

Joffe’s screenplay almost seemed to strike a balance between an in-depth character study and a small, taunt thriller. I say almost, due to the movie’s occasional slow pacing and a vague subplot regarding a threat to Jack’s life. But director Corbijn did effectively utilize some tense scenes included in Joffe’s script. The two best scenes featured Jack’s final encounter with the assassin hired to stalk him around Castel del Monte and the explosive finale that featured a slight, yet surprising twist.

”THE AMERICAN has its share of faults. Nor would I consider to be one of the best movies of 2010.  But I must admit that George Clooney’s performance as the world-weary assassin, Jack, might be one of his better roles. And director Anton Corbijn managed to strike a nice balance between an in-depth character study and a tense-filled action thriller. I could honestly say that ”THE AMERICAN” one of 2010’s more “interesting” films.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

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“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

I suspect that many fans of the DC Comics character “Batman” and the “Zorro” character would be nonplussed at the idea that a novel written by a Hungary-born aristocrat had served as an inspiration for their creations. Yet, many believe that Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orczi’s 1905 novel, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” provided Western literature with its first “hero with a secret identity”, Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel.

There have been at least nineteen stage, movie or television adaptations of Orczy’s novel. Some consider the 1934 movie adaptation with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the most definitive adaptation. However, there are others who are more inclined to bestow that honor on the 1982 television adaptation with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. I have seen both versions and if I must be honest, I am inclined to agree with those who prefer the 1982 television movie.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” – namely its 1982 re-incarnation – is based upon the 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel, “Eldorado”. Set during the early period of the French Revolution, a masked man and his band of followers rescues French aristocrats from becoming victims of the Reign of Terror under France’s new leader, Maximilien de Robespierre. The man behind the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mask – or disguises – is a foppish English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney. For reasons never explained in the movie, Sir Percy has managed to gather a group of upper-class friends to assist him in smuggling French aristocrats out of France and sending them to the safety of England. During a visit to France, Sir Percy meets a young French government aide and the latter’s actress sister, Armand and Marguerite St. Just. He eventually befriends the brother and courts the sister.

Sir Percy also becomes aware of Armand’s superior and Marguerite’s friend, Robespierre’s agent Paul Chauvelin. Angered over Marguerite’s marriage to Sir Percy, Chauvelin has the Marquis de St. Cyr – an old enemy of Armand’s – executed in her name. After being sent to England to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Chauvelin discovers that Armand has become part of the vigilante’s band. He blackmails Marguerite – now Lady Blakeney – into learning the identity the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Blakeney marriage has chilled, due to the news of the Marquis de St. Cyr’s execution and Marguerite’s alleged connection. But a chance for a marital reconciliation materializes for Marguerite, when she discovers the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity.

Thirty years have passed since CBS first aired “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. In many ways, it has not lost its bite. Thanks to Tony Curtis’ production designs, late 18th century England and France (England and Wales in reality) glowed with elegance and style. Not even the questionable transfer of the film to DVD could completely erode the movie’s beauty. The movie’s visual style was aided by Carolyn Scott’s set decorations, Dennis C. Lewiston’s sharp and colorful photography, and especially Phyllis Dalton’s gorgeous costume designs, as shown in the following photographs:

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I feel that screenwriter William Bast made the very wise choice of adapting Baroness Orczy’s two novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel. In doing so, he managed to create a very clear and concise tale filled with plenty of drama and action. He also did an excellent job in mapping out the development of the story’s main characters – especially Sir Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Paul Chauvelin and Armand St. Just. I was especially impressed by his handling of Sir Percy and Marguerite’s relationship – before and after marriage. Sir Percy’s easy willingness to believe the worst about his bride provided a few chinks into Sir Percy’s character, which could have easily morphed into a too perfect personality. More importantly, Bast’s script gave Paul Chauvelin’s character more depth by revealing the latter’s feelings for Marguerite and jealousy over her marriage to Sir Percy. Bast’s re-creation of the early years of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror struck me as well done. However, I wish he had not faithfully adapted Orczy’s decision to allow the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men to rescue the Daupin of France (heir apparent to the French throne), Louis-Charles (who became Louis XVII, upon his father’s death). In reality, Louis-Charles died in prison from tuberculosis and ill treatment at the age of ten. Surely, Bast could have created someone else important for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” received a few Emmy nominations. But they were for technical awards – Costume Designs for Phyllis Dalton, Art Direction for Tony Curtis and even one for Outstanding Drama Special for producers David Conroy and Mark Shelmerdine. And yet . . . there were no nominations for Clive Donner and his lively direction, and no nominations for the cast. I am especially astounded by the lack of nominations for Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. In fact, I find this criminal. All three gave superb performances as Sir Percy Blakeney; Marguerite, Lady Blakeney; and Paul Chauvelin respectively. Andrews was all over the map in his portrayal of the fop by day/hero by night Sir Percy. And yet, it was a very controlled and disciplined performance. Jane Seymour did a beautiful job of re-creating the intelligent, yet emotional Marguerite. At times, she seemed to be the heart and soul of the story. This was the first production in which I became aware of Ian McKellen as an actor and after his performance as Paul Chauvelin, I never forgot him. Not only was his portrayal of Chauvelin’s villainy subtle, but also filled with deep pathos over his feelings for Marguerite Blakeney. He also had the luck to utter one of my favorite lines in the movie in the face of his character’s defeat:

“Oh, the English, and their STU-U-U-UPID sense of fair play!”

The movie also featured some first-rate performances by the supporting cast. Malcolm Jamieson did an excellent job in portraying Marguerite’s older brother, Armand. I was also impressed by Ann Firbank, who was first-rate as the embittered Countess de Tournay; James Villiers as the opportunistic Baron de Batz; Tracey Childs as the lovesick Suzanne de Tournay; and Christopher Villiers as Sir Percy’s most stalwart assistant, Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Julian Fellowes made a very colorful and entertaining Prince of Wales. And Richard Morant proved to be even more subtle and sinister than McKellen’s Chauvelin as Maximilien de Robespierre.

After my latest viewing of “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”, I found myself surprisingly less supportive of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s efforts than I used to be. Perhaps I have not only become more older, but even less enthusiastic about the aristocratic elite. It was then I realized that despite the presence of Marguerite and Armand St. Just, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” is based on two novels written by an aristocrat, with views that were probably as liberal as Barry Goldwater. Oh well. I still managed to garner a good deal of entertainment from a movie that has held up remarkable well after thirty years, thanks to some lively direction by Clive Donner, a first-rate script by William Bast and superb performances by the likes of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.