“PERSUASION” (1971) Review

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“PERSUASION” (1971) Review

This adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1818 novel turned out to be the first of the old Jane Austen television adaptations that the BBC aired during the 1970s and 80s. Produced and directed by Howard Baker, and adapted by Julian Mitchell; this two-part miniseries starred Ann Firbanks and Bryan Marshall.

As many fans of Austen’s novel would know, ”PERSUASION” told the story of Anne Elliot, the middle daughter of a vain and spendthrift baronet, who finds herself reunited with her former finance, a Naval officer of lesser birth named Frederick Wentworth. Eight years before the beginning of the story, Anne’s godmother, Lady Russell, had persuaded her to reject Wentworth’s marriage proposal, citing the Naval officer’s lack of family connections and fortune. She reunites with Wentworth, during a prolonged family visit to her younger sister and brother-in-law, Mary and Charles Musgrove. And the Naval officer has managed to acquire a fortune during the Napoleonic Wars. Anne is forced to watch Wentworth woo Mary’s sister-in-law, Louisa Musgrove, while he ignores his earlier attraction to her.

Many diehard Austen fans have expressed the opinion that this adaptation of her last novel has a running time that allows for the characters to be expressed with more depth than they were in the 1995 and 2007 versions. I must admit that the miniseries’ running time of 210 minutes allowed a greater depth into Austen’s plot than the two later movies. Yet, despite the longer running time, ”PERSUASION” managed to be only a little more faithful than the other two versions. One of the plotlines that Mitchell failed to include featured the injury suffered by one of Charles Musgrove’s sons, following a fall from the tree. It was this injury that delayed Anne’s reunion with Wentworth near the beginning of the story. Fortunately, the changes or deletions that Mitchell made in his script did not bother me one whit. Especially since ”PERSUASION” turned out to be a pretty solid adaptation.

However, there were times when Mitchell was too faithful to Austen’s novel. I still have nightmares over the second scene between Anne and her old school friend, Mrs. Smith; in which the latter finally revealed the true nature of Anne’s cousin, William Elliot. That particular scene seemed to take forever. And I never understood Anne’s outrage over William’s comments about Sir Walter and Elizabeth in his old letters to Mrs. Smith’s husband. He had only expressed what Anne also felt about her father and older sister. And once again, an adaptation of ”Persuasion” failed to correct the problem surrounding the William Elliot character – namely his attempt to woo and marry Anne in order to prevent Sir Walter from marry Elizabeth’s companion, Mrs. Clay, or any other women . . . and guarantee his inheritance of the Elliot baronetcy. As I had stated in my reviews of the two other ”PERSUASION” movies, William’s efforts struck me as irreverent, since there was no way he could have full control over Sir Walter’s love life. Why was it necessary to show William sneaking away with Mrs. Clay in order to elope with her? Both were grown adults who had been previously married. They were not married or engaged to anyone else. I found their clandestine behavior unnecessary. And why on earth did Mitchell include Sir Walter spouting the names and birthdates of himself and his offspring in the script’s opening scene? I do not think so. In fact, this scene merely dragged the miniseries from the outset.

The production values for ”PERSUASION” struck me as top-rate . . . to a certain extent. I have to commend Peter Phillips for his colorful production designs and Mark Hall for the miniseries’ art work. ”PERSUASION” permeated with rich colors that I found eye catching. However, I have some qualms about Esther Dean’s costumes designs. How can I put it? I found some of the costumes rather garish. And the photography for the exterior scenes struck me as . . . hmmm, unimpressive. Dull. Flat. And I had some problems with the hairstyle for the leading lady, Ann Firbank. Her hairdo seemed like a uneasy mixture of an attempt at a Regency hairstyle and an early 1970s beehive. Think I am kidding? Take a gander:

My opinion of the cast is pretty mixed. There were performances that I found impressive. Marian Spencer gave a complex, yet intelligent portrayal of Anne Elliot’s godmother and mentor, Lady Russell. I was also impressed by Valerie Gearon’s subtle performance as Anne’s vain older sister, Elizabeth Elliot. And both Richard Vernon and Rowland Davies gave colorful performances as Admiral Croft and Charles Musgrove, respectively. On the other hand, Basil Dignam got on my last nerve as the vain Sir Walter Elliot. There was nothing really wrong with his performance, but many of his scenes dragged the miniseries, due to the number of unnecessary dialogue over topics that had very little to do with the main storyline. Quite frankly, a great deal of Sir Walter’s dialogue bore me senseless.

And what about the story’s two leads? Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall gave very competent performances as the two former lovers, Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth. They competently expressed their characters’ intelligence and emotions. They also made the eventual reconciliation between Anne and Wentworth very believable. Unfortunately, Firbank and Marshall lacked the strong chemistry that Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds possessed in the 1995 adaptation; or the strong chemistry that Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones had in the 2007 film. I never got the feeling that Firbank’s Anne and Marshall’s Wentworth were struggling to contain their emotions toward each other in the first half of the miniseries. Every now and then, Firbank utilized sad and pensive expressions, reminding me of Evangeline Lilly’s early performances on ABC’s ”LOST”. And Marshall’s Wentworth seemed too friendly with the Musgrove sisters and polite toward Anne to hint any sense of remaining passion toward her. It was not until their encounter with William Elliot at Lyme Regis that I could detect any hint – at least on Wentworth’s part – of emotion toward Anne. And it was only from this point onward, in which Firbank and Marshall finally conveyed a strong screen chemistry.

In the end, I have to admit that this adaptation of ”PERSUASION” struck me as entertaining. I cannot deny it. Despite being the most faithful of the three known adaptations, I feel that it was probably more flawed than the later two versions. Screenwriter Julian Mitchell and director Howard Baker’s close adherence to Austen’s novel did not really help it in the long run. In doing so, the miniseries adapted some of the faults that could be found in the novel. And the miniseries’ close adaptation also dragged its pacing needlessly. But the solid performances by the cast, led by Ann Firbank and Bryan Marshall; along with the colorful production designs and the story’s intelligence allowed me to enjoy it in the end.

Adapting “WARLEGGAN”

 

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ADAPTING “WARLEGGAN”

Do many fans of the current adaptation of Winston Graham’s “POLDARK” saga have an unnatural hatred of the character known as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan?  Or do they merely dislike her?  Did this “dislike” lead producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC to sanction a major change in the relationship between Elizabeth and the saga’s protagonist, Ross Poldark during the series’ Season Two?  A change that I personally found disturbing?  Or was it something else?

Last summer, I encountered rumors that “POLDARK” producer Debbie Horsfield and the BBC had decided to make a major change to the series’s adaptation of the 1953 novel, “Warleggan” – a change that eventually reflected in Episode Eight (Episode Seven in the U.S.) of the series’ second season.  Horsfield and the BBC decided to deliberately change the nature of an encounter between Ross Poldark and Elizabeth Poldark in an effort to preserve Ross’ “heroic” image.  Nearly a month after learning this decision, I learned that both leading man Aidan Turner and co-star Heida Reed (who portrays Elizabeth Poldark) had met with Horsfield.  Turner claimed, along with Horsfield and Graham’s son, Andrew Graham that the May 9, 1793 encounter between Ross and Elizabeth had been consensual sex and not rape, when the protagonist appeared at his cousin-in-law’s home (the Trenwith estate) to convince her not to marry his on-going nemesis, banker George Warleggan. Judging from what I had read in the novel, I find this opinion hard to accept:

‘I can’t help this either.’ He kissed her. She turned her face away but could not get it far enough round to avoid him.

 When he lifted his head, her eyes were lit with anger. He’d never seen her like it before, and he found pleasure in it.

 ‘This is – contemptible! I shouldn’t have believed it of you! To force yourself … To insult me when – when I have no one …

 ‘I don’t like this marriage to George, Elizabeth. I don’t like it! I should be glad of your assurance that you’ll not go through with it.’

 ‘I’d be surprised if you believed me if I gave it you! You called me a liar! Well, at least I do not go back on my promises! I love George to distraction and shall marry him next week-‘

 He caught her again, and this time began to kiss her with intense passion to which anger had given an extra relish, before anger was lost. Her hair began to fall in plaited tangles. She got her hand up to his mouth, but he brushed it away. Then she smacked his face, so he pinioned her arm …

 She suddenly found herself for a brief second nearly free. ‘You treat me -like a slut-‘

 ‘It’s time you were so treated-‘

 ‘Let me go, Ross! You’re hateful — horrible! If George –‘

 ‘Shall you marry him?’

 ‘Don’t! I’ll scream! Oh, God, Ross … Please .. .’

 ‘Whatever you say, I don’t think I can believe you now. Isn’t that so?’

 ‘Tomorrow-‘

 ‘There’s no tomorrow,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t come. Life is an illusion. Didn’t you know? Let us make the most of the shadows.’

‘Ross, you can’t intend … Stop! Stop, I tell you.’

 But he took no further notice of the words she spoke. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the bed.

This is how Graham had ended both the chapter and the scene . . . with Ross forcing Elizabeth on her bed … against her will.  It did not end with any hint that they were about to embark upon consensual sex.

Many fans of the series, especially young female fans had reacted with joy over the news.  What they had failed to realize was that in making this change, Horsfield threatened to undermine the lesson of Ross and Elizabeth’s story arc and what it really meant.  Winston Graham – a male writer – had the balls to show that even the “heroic” Ross Poldark was capable of a monstrous act. He had the courage to reveal that Ross was not some romance novel hero, but a complex and ambiguous man, capable of not only decent acts, but monstrous ones as well.  Like any other human being on the face of this Earth.  More importantly, his assault of Elizabeth revealed the consequences that rape victims tend to pay in a patriarchal society – past or present – in the novels that followed.  It seemed Debbie Horsfield and the BBC were only willing to portray Ross as an adulterer.  Is it possible they believed it would be easier for viewers to accept Ross simply as an adulterer, instead of an adulterer/rapist?  Some individuals, including Turner, claimed that Ross was incapable of rape.  Bullshit! Although a fictional character, Ross Poldark is also a human being.  And humans are basically capable of anything.  Hell, Agatha Christie had the good sense to realize this.  Why is it that so many other humans are incapable of doing the same?

The moment I had learned that she had decided to turn Ross’ rape into an act of consensual sex between him and Elizabeth, I suspected that fans would end up slut shaming the latter.  I suspected that even though many fans would be “disappointed” in Ross, they would eventually forgive him.  However, I also suspected that these same fans would end up branding Elizabeth as a whore until the end of this series.  It is soooo typical of this sexist society.  The woman is always to blame.  Even in the eyes of other women.

So, what actually happened between Ross and Elizabeth in the BBC’s recent adaptation of “Warleggan”?  In Episode 8 (Episode 7 in the U.S.), Ross returned home to Nampara, his personal estate, and discovered a letter from Elizabeth in which she announced her engagement to George Warleggan.  Despite his wife Demelza’s protests, Ross decided to go to Trenwith and try to convince or perhaps coerce Elizabeth into breaking the engagement.  He showed up at Trenwith, barged into both the house and Elizabeth’s bedroom.  An argument commenced between the two in which Ross tried to shame Elizabeth into breaking the engagement.  She refused to comply, making it clear that her actions stemmed from saving her immediate family at Trenwith from further financial problems and ensuring her son (and Ross’ cousin) Geoffrey Charles’ future.

And … what happened next?  Ross began to force himself upon Elizabeth.  She tried to put up a fight, while insisting that he leave.  He eventually forced her on the bed.  And just as he was about to rape her, Elizabeth capitulated at the last minute. This last moment of consent was Horsfield and the BBC’s way of stating that the entire scene between Ross and Elizabeth was basically consensual sex.  Can you believe it?  Considering the manner in which Elizabeth tried and failed to fight off Ross before she “consented”, the entire scene might as well have been rape. After all, Elizabeth fought Ross until he had her pinned on the bed. If she had not “consented”, chances are he would have raped her anyway. Worse, the culmination of the entire scene projected the negative image of the “rape fantasy”.  I am sure that many of you know what I mean.  When a woman or a man says “no”, he or she really means “yes”.

You may be wondering why I would include a potential male victim in this scenario.  Simple … many people harbor the illusion that men do not mind being the victim of a woman’s rape.  Also, I saw this same scenario play out in the “BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER” Season Six episode called (6.11) “Gone”.  In this episode, the series’ protagonist had been rendered invisible by some ray gun invented by a trio of geeky scientists.  Using her invisibility to indulge in her own desires, Buffy decided to pay a call to chipped vampire Spike (with whom she had begun an affair) at his crypt.  She barged into the latter, shoved a frightened Spike against the wall and started to rip off his clothes.  He consented to sex at the last minute when an uncontrolled giggle revealed Buffy’s identity.  What made this scene rather sickening to watch was that it was written as a comedic moment.  I have the oddest feeling that producer Debbie Horsfield may have seen this particular episode and decided to write her own version of the situation in order to spare Ross Poldark from being labeled a rapist.

Someone had pointed out that the 1975 adaptation produced by Morris Barry and Anthony Coburn had adapted this sequence with more honesty.  After a recent viewing of this series, I am afraid that I cannot agree.  What happened?  Well … one scene featured a conversation between Elizabeth and her sister-in-law, Verity Poldark Blamey, in which she made it clear that her reason for marrying George Warleggan was for money and more social clout.  To make matters worse, the scene had Verity instructing Elizabeth to explain to Ross that the latter was considering the family’s salvation from a future filled with poverty and Geoffrey Charles’ future. But Elizabeth made it clear – in a rather bitchy and unsympathetic manner conveyed by actress Jill Townsend – that her reasons for George was all about a new life for her – with a wealthy husband.  And she set out to include this in her letter to Ross.  Even worse, the screenwriter had drastically changed Elizabeth’s personality once the series had commenced upon adapting “Warleggan” in Episode Thirteen.  She suddenly began behaving as “The Bitch of the Century”.

When Ross had finally confronted her in Episode Fifteen, Elizabeth still insisted that a marriage to George was a way for her to have a new life.  What I found distasteful about the whole thing is that this was NOT Elizabeth’s true reason for marrying George Warleggan in the 1953 novel.  She truly made the decision to marry George in order to spare her family – especially Geoffrey Charles – a long future trapped in poverty, as was conveyed in the 2016 series.  But I ended up acquiring the ugly feeling that Barry, Coburn and screenwriter Jack Russell had decided to change Elizabeth’s reason for marrying George in order to justify Ross’ rape of her.

And yes … Ross did rape Elizabeth in the 1975 series.  Unlike the 2016 version, there was no last minute consent on Elizabeth’s part.  But I found the entire scene rather rushed. Once Ross and Elizabeth barely had time to discuss or argue over the matter, the former quickly tackled the latter to the bed and began to rape her, as the scene faded to black.  However, both versions set out to regain Ross’ reputation with the viewers by the end of their respective adaptations of “Warleggan”.  How did they achieve this?  Screenwriter Jack Russell included a scene in the last episode of the 1975 series in which George Warleggan had enclosed the Trenwith land from the tenants, forcing them to transform from small peasant proprietors and serfs into agricultural wage-laborers. This action led to a riot in which the former tenant farmers stormed the Trenwith manor house and burn it to the ground. During the riot, Ross and Demelza arrived to save the recently married Elizabeth and George from mob violence. This also gave the series’ producers and Russell to have Elizabeth ask Ross why he had decided to save George from the mob.  What the hell?  The enclosures happened in the novel.  But not the riot. What was the purpose of this?  To give Ross an opportunity to give Elizabeth a “you are beneath me” glare?

Debbie Horsfield decided to resort to a similar scenario in the 2016 version.  However, before she could subject television audiences to this idiocy, she included a scene in which an angry Demelza Poldark got a chance to slut shame Elizabeth during an encounter between the pair on a deserted road.  This scene, by the way, never happened in the novel. And quite frankly, I never understood Horsfield’s purpose by including this scene.  What did she expect from the audience?  Viewers pumping their fists in the air while crying, “Demelza, you go girl?”  Perhaps there were fans that actually did this or something similar. I did not.  In fact, I merely shook my head in disbelief. Pardon me, but I found it difficult to cheer on Demelza’s behalf, when I just recently watched her husband force himself on Elizabeth.  Unlike the 1975 version, the Trenwith riot sequence did not end with the house burned to the ground.  Instead, it ended with Nampara servant Jud Paynter, whipping up a mob to march on Trenwith and Ross preventing Demelza (who had gone to Trenwith to warn Elizabeth and George about the impending riot) from being shot by one of the rioters. The scene even included Ross riding through the crowd on a horse and sweeping Demelza up onto the saddle.  It seemed like a scene straight from a Harlequin Romance novel.  And I had to struggle to force down the bile that threatened to rise up my throat.

From the moment Elizabeth Poldark had decided to inform Ross of her upcoming marriage to George Warleggan to the latter’s confrontation with Ross over the Trenwith enclosures, the adaptations of Winston Graham’s 1953 novel for both the 1975 and 2016 series … well, for me they have been major disappointments.  Were producers Morris Barry, Anthony Coburn and Debbie Horsfield unwilling to allow television audiences to face Ross’ violent act against his soon-to-be former cousin-in-law?  Was that why all three had insisted upon changing the circumstances that surrounded Ross and Elizabeth’s encounter on that May 1793 night? Or were they pressured by the BBC to make these changes, who may have feared that television audiences could not openly face or accept Ross as a rapist?  Or perhaps the three producers, along with the BBC, knew that many viewers could accept Ross as an adulterer, but not as a rapist?  Who knows?  I know one thing.  I hope and pray that one day, some television producer would be able to adapt “Warleggan” without resorting to excessive changes.

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“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

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“JANE EYRE” (1943) Review

Many fans of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”, are aware that numerous (probably over twenty) television and movie adaptations of it had been made over the past several decades. While perusing the Internet, I was surprised to discover that the opinion of the 1943 adaption seemed to be extremely divided. Fans either regard it as the best adaptation or the worst. There seemed to be no middle ground.

As many know, “JANE EYRE” told the story of young 19th century English orphan who is forced to live at the Yorkshire estate of her widowed aunt-by-marriage, Aunt Reed. After a recent altercation between niece and aunt, the latter sends Jane Eyre to be educated at an all-girls school operated by a tyrannical and religious zealot named Mr. Lowood. Jane spends eight years at the school as a student and two years as a teacher. She eventually leaves Lowood School after she is hired as a governess for Adèle Varens, the French-born ward of a mysterious landowner named Mr. Edward Rochester. Not long after her arrival at Thornfield Hall, the Rochester estate, Jane meets her enigmatic employer. It does not take long before Jane and Rochester’s relationship evolve from employee/employer to friends, before it eventually becomes romantic. However, a possible romantic rival for Jane and a secret in Thornfield’s attic prove to be major obstacles in the road to romance for the young governess and her employer.

So . . . how does “JANE EYRE” hold up after 71 to 72 years? Actually, I believe it holds up pretty well. I thought director Robert Stevenson and the screenplay he co-wrote with John Houseman, Aldous Huxley, and Henry Koster did a solid job in translating Brontë’s novel to the screen. Many critics and movie fans have noted that this adaptation seemed to have convey the novel’s Gothic atmosphere a lot stronger than other versions. I supposed one has cinematographer George Barnes, production designer William L. Pereira and set decorator Thomas Little to thank. However, I recently learned it was Orson Welles (who not only served as leading man, but also an uncredited producer) who had convinced Stevenson and his fellow co-producers William Goetz and Kenneth Macgowan to inject more Gothic visuals into the movie. I could not say that René Hubert’s costume designs contributed to the movie’s Gothic atmosphere. But I was impressed by how Hubert’s costumes reflected the movie’s early 1840s setting, as shown in the images below:

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I certainly had no problems with how the movie handled Jane’s story through most of the film. From the opening scene in which the leading character found herself harassed by the Reed film to her disrupted wedding to Edward Rochester. I usually find it difficult to endure the Lowood School scenes in other adaptations of Brontë’s novels. But I cannot say the same about this adaptation. I really had no problem with it. It could be that I was so fascinated by the performances of Peggy Ann Garner, Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Daniell that I completely forgot that I was watching one of my least favorite sequences in the story. And of course, the best part of “JANE EYRE” remained the growing friendship and romance between the titled character and Rochester. This was especially apparent in two sequences – Rochester’s courtship of Blanche Ingram during his house party and Jane’s confession of her love for him.

Although I was impressed by how Stevenson and the film’s other screenwriters handled Brontë’s tale up to Jane and Rochester’s disastrous wedding ceremony, I could not say the same about the rest of the film. In fact, it suffered from the same narrative problem that plagued several other adaptations – a weak finale. First of all, this is the only adaptation in which Jane never meets the Rivers siblings – St. John, Diana and Mary. She does meet a Doctor Rivers, who first treated Jane when she was a Lowood student. Instead of seeking refuge with the trio, Jane returns to Gateshead Hall, the home of her dying Aunt Reed. Following her aunt’s death, Jane reunites with Rochester. That is it. And I hate to say this, but the entire sequence – between Jane’s departure from Thornfield Hall to her return – seemed very rushed and unsatisfying.

I also have another major problem with the movie – its Gothic elements. There were times when these elements served the mysterious aspects of the movie very well. However, a good deal of these “Gothic touches” struck me as heavy handed . . . to the point that they ended up annoying me. This was apparent in Jane’s first meeting with Rochester, with so much fog swirling around the pair that at times they seemed almost hidden. The worst aspect of these “Gothic touches” occurred in the scene in which Jane and Rochester confessed their love for one another. The moment the pair sealed their engagement with a kiss, a bolt of lightning came out of the sky and struck a nearby log. I mean . . . come on! Really?

A good number of critics and movie fans did not seem particularly impressed by Joan Fontaine’s portrayal of Jane Eyre. I never understood the complaints. I thought she did an excellent job. More importantly, her portrayal of the passionate, yet introverted Jane seemed spot on. What were these critics expecting? An over-the-top performance by Fontaine? Jane Eyre is not an overtly emotional character – at least as an adult. However, I am happy to note that Fontaine certainly had a strong screen chemistry with her leading man, Orson Welles. Many have stated that Welles pretty much dominated the movie. To me, that is like saying every actor who has portrayed Edward Rochester overshadowed the actresses who have portrayed Jane. Personally, I thought Welles’ enigmatic and quick-witted portrayal of Rochester complimented Fontaine’s more introspective performance rather well. I guess these fans and critics did not want balance . . . just two very theatrical performances.

The other performances in the movie struck me as first-rate. Agnes Moorehead, who was part of Welles’ Mercury Theater company before her arrival in Hollywood, portrayed Jane’s haughty Aunt Reed. And I must say that she did an excellent job in portraying the character with a not-too-shabby English accent. Henry Daniell was equally impressive as the tyrannical head of Jane’s school, Mr. Lowood. But I was really impressed by Margaret O’Brien, who did a remarkable job as Rochester’s French ward, Adèle Varens. I would not know an authentic French accent, if I was stuck in the middle of Paris. But I must say that O’Brien’s accent was just as good as the other young actresses who portrayed Adèle. And she gave such a charming performance . . . at the age of six.

But O’Brien was not the only child star who gave an excellent performance. Peggy Ann Garner was equally impressive as the young Jane Eyre, who had no qualms about butting heads with the haughty Reed family. Also in the film was a young Elizabeth Taylor, who gave a mesmerizing performance as Jane’s doomed young friend, Helen Burns. I was surprised to discover that Hillary Brooke, who portrayed Blanche Ingram, was an American actress. I thought she was very convincing as the charmingly bitchy and very English Blanche. The movie also featured solid performances from Sara Allgood, John Sutton, Edith Barrett and Barbara Everest.

So . . . do I feel that “JANE EYRE” is the best or worst adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s novel? Honestly? I would say neither. Yes, there were times I could barely deal with the movie’s over-the-top Gothic atmosphere. And yes, I found the last quarter of the film both weak and rushed. But overall, I would say that it is a pretty good film. And I believe that it still holds up rather well after 73 to 74 years.

“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

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“EVELYN PRENTICE” (1934) Review

“EVELYN PRENTICE” marked the third collaboration between William Powell and Myrna Loy in 1934. MGM Studios first had the pair co-star with Clark Gable in the hit crime melodrama, “MANHATTAN MELODRAMA”. Then the pair hit gold and became solidified as a screen team in “THE THIN MAN”. Following the success of the latter, MGM paired them in a melodrama called “EVELYN PRENTICE”.

William K. Howard directed this adaptation of W.E. Woodward’s 1931 novel about Evelyn Prentice, the neglected wife of a successful attorney, who drifts into dangerous waters when she becomes involved with another man. Although she loves her husband, John Prentice, Evelyn begins to despair of his long hours and begins to wonder if his career is more important to him than his family. John becomes engrossed in defending a young socialite named Nancy Harrison and has a brief affair with her before she is acquitted. Before Evelyn can celebrate his latest success, John is called to Boston for another case and during the train journey, encounters Miss Harrison. When Evelyn learns about Miss Harrison’s presence aboard the Boston-bound train, she commences upon a flirtation with a handsome man named Lawrence Kennard. Unfortunately, Lawrence proves to be a gold-digging gigolo, who blackmails Evelyn with a compromising letter. Just as Evelyn finds a gun inside a desk drawer, Lawrence’s girlfriend, Judith Wilson hears gunfire. But Evelyn manages to leave Lawrence’s room before being spotted by Judith. Evelyn eventually learns that Judith has been arrested for murder. And out of a sense of guilt, she convinces John to defend the younger woman.

I did not know what to expect with “EVELYN PRENTICE”. I had never heard of it, until recently. I knew it was a drama and did not expect any of the usual witty exchanges that highlighted the best of their “THIN MAN” movies and other comedies. Actually, screenwriters Lenore J. Coffee and Howard Emmett Rogers (uncredited) provided a good deal of witticism in “EVELYN PRENTICE”, but only for Una Merkel, who portrayed Evelyn’s best friend, Amy Drexel. I liked the costume designs created by Dolly Tree, who had served as Myrna Loy’s usual designer at MGM . . . even if I found them a tad over-the-top. Frank E. Hull’s editing proved to be valuable in the scene that featured Lawrence Kennard’s shooting. As for the performances, they proved to be solid, although not exactly dazzling. There were two or three performances that impressed me. They came from Merkel’s sharp-witted performance as best friend Amy; Isabel Jewell, who gave a passionate performance as Lawrence’s abused girlfriend, Judith Wilson; and even veteran actress Jessie Ralph, who gave a brief, yet lively performance as a charwoman who lived in the same building as the victim. Rosalind Russell made her screen debut as John Prentice’s lovesick client, Nancy Harrison. Mind you, I found her performance a bit theatrical, but at least she injected some fire into the movie.

Unfortunately, there was a good deal about “EVELYN PRENTICE” that made it difficult for me to really enjoy this film. I have nothing against melodrama. But there is good melodrama and there is bad. As far as I am concerned, “EVELYN PRENTICE” was not good melodrama. One, the performances of the two leads – Myrna Loy and William Powell – annoyed me. They did not give bad performances. But Loy spent a good deal of the movie utilizing enough pensive expressions that rivaled Evangeline Lilly from Season One of “LOST”. She almost bored me senseless. Powell, on the other hand, bored me. Although his John Prentice did not cheat on his wife during that train journey from New York to Boston, he did sleep with his client earlier in the film. I never realized that adultery could be so boring and I am afraid that Powell is to blame, not Russell. Cora Sue Collins portrayed the Prentices’ young daughter, Dorothy. She was sweet, cute and typical of the early 1930s child actors that I have always found nauseating. Shirley Temple made this kid look refreshing. And Harvey Stephens’ Lawrence Kennard proved to be one of the dullest gigolos in film history. This guy made sexiness seem like a bore.

In the end, it was Coffee and Rogers’ adaptation of Woodward’s novel, along with Howard’s direction that sunk this movie for me. For about the first fifteen or twenty minutes, I had no problems maintaining interest in this movie. But it did not take long for my interest to drift away from the plot. I was in danger of falling asleep. My interest perked again, following the death of the Lawrence Kennard character. I found myself wondering when Evelyn would tell the truth about what happened and save the girlfriend from a noose. I have never read the 1933 novel, so I do not know whether the solution to the movie’s plot came directly from the novel or was created by Coffee and Rogers. Needless to say, the legal solution to the Kennard murder took me by surprise . . . in a very negative way. I found myself disgusted by how the writers resolved the whole matter, when I first saw the film. And thinking about it later, I am still shaking my head in disbelief.

What else can I say about “EVELYN PRENTICE”? I have read some reviews of the movie and there are some movie fans who liked it. I had hoped to become a fan of the movie. But between the lackluster performances of the leads, the mind-boggling bad writing, and William K. Howard’s dull direction; I can honestly say that I hope to never lay eyes on this film again. I am a big fan of Powell and Loy, but I feel this movie was one of their major missteps during their tenure as a screen team.

“ANGELS & INSECTS” (1995) Review

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“ANGELS & INSECTS” (1995) Review

I never thought I would come around to writing this review. I have seen the 1995 movie, “ANGELS & INSECTS” a good number of times during the past five years. Yet, I never got around to posting a review of this movie, until recently. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. Nor do I have any idea why I had finally decided to write that review.

Based upon A.S. Byatt’s 1992 novella called “Morpho Eugenia”, “ANGELS & INSECTS” tells the story of a poor naturalist named William Adamson, who returns home to Victorian England after having spent years studying the natural wildlife – especially insects – in the Amazon Basin. Despite losing all of his possession during a shipwreck, he manages to befriend a baronet named Sir Harald Alabaster, who is also an amateur insect collector and botanist. The latter hires William to catalog his specimen collection and assist his younger children’s governess the natural sciences.

William eventually falls for Sir Harald’s oldest daughter, Eugenia, who is mourning the suicide of her fiance. Both of them eventually become emotionally involved and decide to marry. Much to William’s surprise, both Sir Harald and Lady Alabaster seems encouraging of the match. The only member of the Alabaster family who is against their upcoming wedding is Sir Harald’s eldest child, the arrogant Edgar. Not only is the latter close to Eugenia, he believes that William is unworthy of his sister’s hand, due to having a working-class background. The marriage between William and Eugenia seemed to be a happily lustful one that produces five children (among them two sets of twins). But Eugenia’s hot and cold control over their sex life, a constantly hostile Edgar, William’s growing friendship to Lady Alabaster’s companion Matilda “Matty” Crompton, and William’s own disenchantment over his role as Sir Harald’s official assistant brings their marriage to a head after several years of marriage.

The film adaptation of Byatt’s novella seemed to be the brainchild of Philip and Belinda Haas. Both worked on the film’s screenplay, while Philip also served as the film’s director and Belinda served as both co-producer (there are three others) and film editor. From my perusal of many period drama blogs, I get the feeling that “ANGELS & INSECTS” is not very popular with many of the genre’s fans. On the other hand, many literary and film critics seemed to have a very high regard for it. Despite my love for the usual romantic costume drama, I must admit that my opinions of the 1995 film falls with the latter group. It is simply too well made and too fascinating for me to overlook.

There were times I could not tell whether “ANGELS & INSECTS” is some look at the age of Victorian science exploration, the close study of an upper-class 19th century family, or a lurid tale morality. Now that I realize it, the movie is probably an amalgamation of them all, wrapped around this view on Darwinism and breeding – in regard to both the insect world and humans. The topic of breeding seemed to seep into the screenplay in many scenes. Some of them come to mind – Sir Harald and Edgar’s debate on the breeding of horses and other animals, William and Eugenia’s second encounter with moths in the manor’s conservatory, Sir Harald’s despairing rant on his declining usefulness within his own household, the reason behind Edgar’s hostility toward William, and the visual comparisons between the bees and the inhabitants of the Alabaster estate, with Lady Alabaster serving as some metaphor for an aging Queen bee on her last legs. The metaphor of the Queen bee is extended further into Eugenia. Not only does she assume her mother’s role as mistress of the house following the latter’s death; but like Lady Alabaster before her, gives birth to a growing number of blond-haired children. If a person has never seen “ANGELS AND INSECTS” before, he or she could follow both the script and cinematographer Bernard Zitzerman’s shots carefully to detect the clues that hint the cloistered degeneracy that seemed to unconsciously permeate the Alabaster household.

I cannot deny that “ANGELS & INSECTS” is a gorgeous film to behold. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the film’s other producers did an excellent job in creating a visually stunning film with a bold and colorful look. Cinematographer Bernard Zitzermann, along with production designer Jennifer Kernke and Alison Riva’s art direction provided great contributions to the film’s visual style. But in my opinion, Paul Brown’s Academy Award nominated costume designs not only conveyed the film’s colorful visual style more than anything else, but also properly reflected the fashion styles of the early 1860s for women – including the growing penchant for deep, solid colors – as shown below:

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Adding to the movie’s rich atmosphere was Alexander Balanescu’s memorable score. I thought the composer did an excellent job of reflecting both the movie’s elegant setting and its passionate, yet lurid story.

As much as I enjoyed and admired “ANGELS & INSECTS”, I believe it had its flaws. I understand why Philip Haas had opened the movie with shots of William Adamson socializing with inhabitants of the Amazonian jungle, juxtaposing with the Alabaster ball given in his honor. Is it just me or did Haas use white – probably British – actors to portray Amazonian natives? I hope I am wrong, but I fear otherwise. I also feel that the movie was marred by a slow pacing that nearly crawled to a halt. I cannot help but wonder if Haas felt insecure by the project he and his wife had embarked upon, considering that “ANGELS & INSECTS” was his second motion picture after many years as a documentarian. Or perhaps he got caught up in his own roots as a documentarian, due to his heavy emphasis on the natural world being studied by William, Matty and the younger Alabaster children. In a way, I have to thank Balanescu’s score for keeping me awake during those scenes that seemed to drag.

I cannot deny that the movie featured some top-notch and subtle performances. Mark Rylance, who has a sterling reputation as a stage actor, gave such a quiet and superb performance that his reputation has extended to film, resulting in a Best Actor Oscar over a year ago. Kristin Scott-Thomas was equally superb as the Matty Crompton, Lady Alabaster’s very observant companion, who shared William’s interests in natural sciences. I have no idea what reputation Patsy Kensit has as an actress, but I certainly believe she gave an excellent performance as William’s beautiful and aristocratic wife, Eugenia Alabaster, whose hot and cold attitude toward her husband kept him puzzled. Jeremy Kemp gave one of his more complex and entertaining performances as William’s father-in-law, the amateur scientist Sir Harald Alabaster. Douglas Henshall had a difficult job in portraying the bullying Edgar Alabaster, who seemed to view William as both beneath contempt and something of a threat to his views of the world. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Anna Massey, Saskia Wickham, Chris Larkin, Clare Redman and Annette Badlands.

Some fans of period drama might be taken aback by the graphic sexuality featured in the film, along with the story’s lurid topic. And director Philip Haas’ pacing might be a bit hard to accept. But I feel that enduring all of this might be worth the trouble. Philip and Belinda Haas, along with the crew and a cast led by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Patsy Kensit did an excellent in re-creating A.S. Byatt’s tale on the screen, and creating a first-rate movie in the end.

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Two “Guadalcanal II’ Commentary

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“THE PACIFIC” (2010) EPISODE TWO “Guadalcanal II” Commentary

Episode Two of HBO’s ”THE PACIFIC” continued the saga of the U.S. Marines during the Guadalcanal campaign. Episode One focused mainly on Robert Leckie’s combat experiences during the campaign. This latest episode centered on the combat experiences of Sergeant John Basilone and his fellow comrades from the 7th Marines regiment.

By the time I had finished watching Episode Two, I found myself battling a tension headache. And it was all due to action sequences featured in this episode. Granted, I also found the battle scenes in Episode One rather tense, but the action in this second episode knocked it out of the ballpark for me. Around late October 1942, John Basilone and a handful of his fellow Marines were forced to fight off a frontal assault by the Japanese Army. Between the assault and Basilone’s encounters with Japanese troops, while fetching more ammunition literally had me squirming on my living room sofa. And I must say that Jon Seda did a great job of portraying Basilone’s heroics and making it look natural in the process. I also have to give kudos to actor Joshua Biton for his emotional portrayal of one of Basilone’s close friends, J.P. Morgan.

With the exception of an aerial bombing sequence, this particular episode did not feature Leckie and his friends in actual combat. Instead, the episode focused upon them dealing with various other problems during their stay on Guadalcanal – lack of supplies, inadequate arms and . . . um, health issues. Poor Runner dealt with an attack of the runs and Leckie found himself throwing up after consuming stolen canned peaches on a half-empty stomach. Leckie and a good number of other Marines stole supplies left on the beach for the arriving U.S. Army. In a hilarious scene, Leckie managed to pinch the peaches, along with cans of other food; and a pair of moccasins and a box of cigars that belonged to an Army officer. I never knew that actor James Badge Dale had a talent for comic timing . . . until now.

Episode Two also revealed a glimpse of Eugene Sledge back in Mobile. He and his father, Dr. Sledge, have discovered that Sledge’s heart murmur no longer exists. Upon this discovery, Sledge wasted no time in announcing his intention to join the Marines. And viewers will eventually see the results of that decision by Episode Five.

By the end of the episode, the Marines were ordered to leave the island, much to the relief of many. Both Basilone and Morgan found themselves trying to rationalize the death of their friend, Manny Rodriguez, while other Marines loaded up in boats taking them off the island. A scene that featured good, solid acting by both Seda and Biton. The episode’s last scene featured Leckie and his friends learning from a Navy cook aboard ship that their actions on Guadalcanal had been reported in American newspapers and that they were now all regarded as heroes. Judging from the expressions on the Marines’ faces, they seemed conflicted on how to accept the news. This wonderfully performed scene by Badge Dale and the actors portraying Leckie’s friends – Josh Helman (Chuckler), Keith Nobbs (Runner) and Jacob Pitts (Hoosier)- was mentioned in Leckie’s memoirs.

Like Episode One, this was a well done that left me feeling tense and an array of other emotions. I only hope that the miniseries’ remaining episodes will match the quality of the first two.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) Review

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“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” (2011) Review

Matt Damon made his second (or perhaps third) foray into the science-fiction/fantasy genre, when he starred in his 2011 film called “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU”. The movie turned out to be a loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1954 short story, “Adjustment Team”.

Adapted and directed by George Nolfi, “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” is about an aspiring politician named David Norris, whose encounter with a talented modern dancer sparks a romance between the two. However, members of a mysterious force called the Adjustment Bureau keep interfering with their romance, explaining that Norris’ political career would be affected by his romance with Elise Sellas, the young dancer. They also explained that Elise’s future as a famous dancer would also be affected. At first, David agrees to stay away from Elise, when Richardson (one of the “angels” of the Adjustment Bureau) tells him that he will be “reset” or lobotomized, if he tells anyone about the Bureau. But three to four years later, David finds it difficult to forget Elise. And with the help from Harry Mitchell, the Bureau “angel” that has been overseeing his life, David sets out to fight the Bureau’s abilities to control his choices and form a permanent relationship with Elise.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” struck me as one of those pleasant and whimsical movies that I usually find mildly interesting. Both Matt Damon and Emily Blunt gave believable performances as the politician and dancer who find themselves attracted to one another. If I must be honest, the two had a very strong screen chemistry. The movie also gave moviegoers an interesting glimpse into the possibility of a supernatural force that determined the paths of all individuals. And the movie presented this premise in an interesting way that perfectly balanced reality with fantasy. An interesting aspect of the movie’s plot is that the Adjustment Bureau “angels” used doorways to instantly teleport from one location to another. And in order for them to accomplish this, each “angel” has to be wearing the Bureau’s signature fedora hat.

However, I had some problems with the movie. I never understood how both David and Elise managed to remember each other after three years. At the beginning of the movie, they had briefly met inside the men’s bathroom at a local hotel. The following morning, they met again aboard a public bus and spoke for a few minutes. Three years passed before they laid eyes upon each other again . . . and they clearly remembered one another. Why do I find that implausible? And the Bureau’s decision to finally let David and Elise alone, because; a) they somehow “discovered” that the two were always meant to be together struck me as a bit saccharine, and b) they fought so hard to stay together struck me as rather saccharine. Every time I think of that final scene, flashes of the movie, “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” enters my mind. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” might be a slight remake of the 1945 movie. But at least “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” had more of a punch than “THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU”. And that is my final complaint about the movie. It simply lacked punch. It failed to blow my mind. It was a nice movie that I would have enjoyed more, watching on my television screen.

The performances in the movie were pleasant, but did not strike me as particularly memorable. Well . . . I take that back. I was impressed by two performances. One came from Anthony Mackie, who portrayed David Norris’ personal Bureau “angel”, Harry Mitchell. With very few lines, Mackie did a first rate job in conveying Harry’s increasing disenchantment with the Bureau’s policy of controlling the choices of others with an intensity that struck me as perfectly balanced. I was also impressed by Terence Stamp’s portrayal of Thompson, one of the senior members of the Bureau, who is called to deal with David, when the latter proves to be troublesome. Stamp was commanding, intimidating, slightly ruthless and very convincing in his character’s arguments to keep David and Elise apart. As I had stated earlier, both Matt Damon and Emily Blunt gave charming performances as the two protagonists. During the scenes in which Damon’s David Norris flirted with Blunt’s Elise Sallas, I was struck by the similarities in Damon’s flirtations with Vera Farmiga in “THE DEPARTED” and Minnie Driver in “GOOD WILL HUNTING”. And I began to wonder if Damon had a standardized method for on-screen romances. I also enjoyed John Slattery’s performance as another one of the Bureau’s “angels”, Richardson. But if I must be honest, his character struck me as another variation on his Roger Sterling character from “MAD MEN”. It would be nice to see him in another kind of role.

“THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU” is a charming and clever movie. It benefited from solid performances from a first-rate cast and a solid adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story by George Nolfi. But in the end, I found it slightly disappointing. It failed to pack a punch that this kind of story would have the potential to deliver.