“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

6a00e5500c8a2a883301b8d20b06ce970c

 

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.

Advertisements

“POLDARK” Series One (2015): Episodes One to Four

4818642ece176ff60775aea010ddfe0e

“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (2015): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

In the years between 2010 and 2015, I have not been able to stumble across a new British period drama that really impressed me. Five years. That is a hell of a long time for a nation with a sterling reputation for period dramas in both movies and television. Fortunately, the five-year dry spell finally came to an end (at least for me) with the arrival of “POLDARK”, the BBC’s new adaptation of Winston Graham’s literary series. 

I am certain that some people would point out that during this five-year period, the ITV network aired Julian Fellowes’ family drama, “DOWNTON ABBEY”. I must admit that I enjoyed the series’ first season. But Seasons Two to Six merely sunk to a level of mediocrity and questionable writing. I had never warmed to “RIPPER STREET” or “THE HOUR”. And I have yet to see either “PEAKY BLINDERS” or “INDIAN SUMMERS”.

A few years ago, I had tried a stab at the first episode of the 1975-1977 series, “POLDARK”, which starred Robin Ellis. After viewing ten minutes of theatrical acting and dated photography in Episode One on You Tube, I gave up. Last summer, I read all of the hullaballoo surrounding this new adaptation with Aidan Turner in the lead. Utilizing Netflix, I tried my luck again with the 1975 series and ended up enjoying the first four episodes (I have yet to watch any further episodes) and quite enjoyed it. Then I tried the first two episodes of the 2015 series and found it equally enjoyable. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the first series of the new version. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 2015 series.

Series One of “POLDARK” . . . well the 2015 version . . . is based upon Winston Graham’s first two novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” and 1946’s “Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790”. Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the 1945 novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark serving with the British Army in 1781 Virginia, during the American Revolution. During an attack by American troops, Ross is struck unconscious in the head by a rifle butt. The episode jumps two years later with Ross returning home to Cornwall by traveling coach. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his Uncle Charles Poldark at the latter’s Trenwith estate that his father had died broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, became engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left is his father’s estate, the smaller estate Nampara, which is now in ruins, two copper mines that had been closed for some time and two servants – the drunken Jud and Prudie Paynter – to help him work the estate. Even worse, a family named Warleggan, who had risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, were gaining financial control over the neighborhood. Not long after his decision to remain in Cornwall, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.

There have been a few complaints that this first season for the new “POLDARK” series had moved a bit too fast, in compared to the first one in 1975. After all, the latter spanned sixteen episodes in compare to the eight ones for this new first season. However, what many failed to consider is that the first series from 1975 had adapted four novels ranging from “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787” to Graham’s fourth novel, 1953’s “Warleggan”. Granted, the Demelza Carne character was first introduced in this version’s first episode, whereas she was introduced in the second episode of the 1975 series. This did not bother me at all . . . in compare to some other viewers.

There were other changes that did not bother me. Many have commented on the warmer nature of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark, Ross’ former love and cousin-in-law. Frankly, I am glad that showrunner Debbie Horsfield had decided to go this route with Elizabeth. Unlike many, I have never considered Elizabeth’s character to be cold. Considering that Elizabeth was never a cold parent, I found it difficult to conceive her as a cold woman. I have always suspected that she was simply a very internalized character who kept her emotions close to her chest. Although actress Heida Reed portrayed Elizabeth as a reserved personality, the screenplay allowed more of her emotions to be revealed to the audience in compare to Winston Graham’s first four novels. Elizabeth’s erroneous decision to marry Francis and her personality flaws – namely her penchant for clinging to society’s rules – remained intact. But she was not portrayed as some walking icicle in a skirt, even though a good number of fans had a problem with this. I did not. I never saw the need to demand for this icy portrayal of Elizabeth in order to justify Ross’ love for Demelza. Apparently, neither did Horsfield. Some viewers have complained about Elizabeth’s husband, Francis Poldark, as well. He seemed too weak and hostile in compare to Graham’s portrayal of Francis in his novels. First of all, Francis never really struck me as a strong character to begin with. And thanks to the screenplay and Kyle Soller’s performance, Francis began the series as a rather nice young man who seemed genuinely relieved that Elizabeth had decided to continue with their wedding plans, despite Ross’ return from America. But it was easy to see how his character began its downward spiral, starting with the villainous George Warleggan’s poisonous insinuations that Ross and Elizabeth still had feelings for one another. And when you combine that with Charles Poldark’s equally negative comments regarding his nature, it was not difficult to see how Francis allowed his insecurities to eventually get the best of him.

Horsfield certainly stayed true to the story arc regarding the romance between Francis’ sister Verity Poldark and a hot-tempered sea captain named Captain Blamey. I must be honest . . . I have slightly mixed feelings about the whole matter. A part of me recognized Verity’s loneliness and the fact that her family seemed willing to use her spinster state as an excuse to nearly regulate her to the status of a housekeeper. My problem with this story arc is Captain Blamey. Why oh why did Graham made a character who had killed his wife in a fit of alcoholic rage during a domestic quarrel? When I first learned about his background, I could easily see why Charles and Francis Poldark were so against the idea of Verity becoming romantically involved in this guy. Yes, I realize that people need a second chance in life. Yes, I realized that Blamey was honest about his alcoholism and the details surrounding his wife’s death. But he became the first sympathetically portrayed male character who ends up committing an act of violence against a woman. The first of . . . how many? Two? Three? Frankly, I find this rather disturbing coming from a politically liberal writer like Graham, let alone any other writer.

But if there is one aspect of Graham’s saga that I wish Horsfield had not so faithfully adapted, it was the series of circumstances that led to Ross’ wedding to his kitchen maid, Demelza. By the beginning of Episode Three, audiences became aware of Demelza’s unrequited love for Ross. Audiences also became aware of Ross’ growing dependence of her presence in his household. I find this understandable, considering that both Jud and Prudie proved to be questionable servants. However, two things happened. First of all, one of Ross’ field hands, Jim Carter, got arrested for poaching on the property belonging to another landowner named Sir Hugh Bodrugan. Ross tried to prevent Jim from being sent to prison. Unfortunately, his temper got the best of him at Jim’s trial and he ended up in a heated debate with the narrow-minded judge, Reverend Halse. Meanwhile, Demelza received word from her abusive and newly religious father that he wanted her back in his home after hearing rumors that she and Ross were having an affair. So what happened? Demelza decided to spend her last day appreciating the finer household goods at Nampara . . . while wearing a gown that once belonged to Ross’ late mother. A drunken Ross returns home, finds her in his mother’s gown, chastises her before she seduces him into having sex. A day or so later, Ross decides to marry her in a private wedding ceremony with only Jud and Prudie as witnesses.

What on earth was Winston Graham thinking? What was he thinking? I have never come across anything so unrealistic in my life. What led Ross to marry Demelza in the first place? Many fans have tried to put a romantic sheen over the incident, claiming that subconsciously, Ross had already fallen in love with Demelza. Yeah . . . right. I knew better. I knew that Ross did not fall in love with her, until sometime after the wedding. So, why did he marry her? Someone named Tim Vicaryposted a theory that Ross, drunk and still angry over Jim Carter being imprisoned, had married Demelza as a way of thumbing his nose at the upper-classes, whom he blamed for Jim’s fate. To me, this sounds like Ross had entered matrimony, while having a suppressed temper tantrum. Hmmm . . . this sounds like him. But despite Mr. Vicary’s theory, I still have a problem with the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s nuptials. Why? Let me put it this way . . . if I had returned home and found my servant roaming around the house wearing the clothes of my dead parent, I would fire that person. Pronto. The only way this sequence could have worked for me was if Ross had fallen in love with Demelza by Episode Three. Ross may have been fond of his kitchen maid and grown used to her presence. But he was not in love with her . . . not at this stage.

I really do not have many other complaints about these first four episodes. Well . . . I have two other complaints. Minor complaints . . . really. There was a scene in Episode Two in which Ross and a prostitute named Margaret discussed Elizabeth’s marriage to Francis. Margaret cheerfully consoled Ross with the prediction that he would find someone who will make him forget Elizabeth. The next scene shifted to Demelza strolling across Nampara with her dog Garrick closely at her heels. Talk about heavy-handed foreshadowing. And if there is nothing I dislike more it is ham-fisted storytelling . . . especially when it promises to be misleading. My other complaint centered around the Ruth Teague character and her mother. I could understand why Ruth would be interested in marrying Ross. He is young, extremely attractive, a member of the upper-class and the owner of his own estate – no matter how dilapidated. But why on earth would Mrs. Teague support her daughter’s desire to become Mrs. Ross Poldark? Despite Ross’ status as a member of the landed gentry and a landowner, he has no fortune. Thanks to his late father, he found himself financially ruined upon his return to Cornwall. Why would Mrs. Teague want someone impoverished as her future son-in-law? Especially when she seemed to be just as ambitious for her daughter as Mrs. Chynoweth was for Elizabeth?

Despite the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s wedding and that ham-fisted moment in Episode Two, I enjoyed those first four episodes of “POLDARK”. Enormously. Watching them made me realize that Winston Graham had created a rich and entertaining saga about complex characters in a historical setting. I have to confess. My knowledge of Great Britain during the last two decades of the 18th century barely exists. So, watching “POLDARK” has allowed me to become a little more knowledgeable about this particular era in Britain’s history. One, I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had an economic impact upon the country . . . a negative one, as a matter of fact. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I had no idea that Britain had struggled, as well. More importantly for Cornwall, the price of tin and copper had fallen during the 1770s and 1780s, thanks to this economic depression. This economic struggle contributed to the slow decline of the aristocracy and the landed gentry for Cornish families like the Poldarks and the Chynoweths. I read somewhere that this period also marked the increased rise of Methodism throughout the country. Although this phenomenon will play a bigger role later in the series, Episode Three revealed the first hint through Demelza’s ne’er do well father, who ended up becoming a fanatic Methodist after remarrying a widow with children.

But the heart and soul of this series is the drama that surrounds Ross Poldark and the other major characters in the saga. When I say all of the major characters, I meant it. I realize that many would regard both Ross and his kitchenmaid-turned-bride Demelza as the heart and soul of this saga. Well . . . yes, they are. But so are the other characters – including Francis, his father Charles, Verity, Jud, Prudie Cary Warleggan, Jim and Jinny Carter, Captain Blamey, Ruth Teague and especially George Warleggan and Elizabeth. I found them all fascinating. I especially enjoyed how their stories enriched Ross’ own personal arc.

More importantly, these first four episodes provided some very interesting moments and scenes that left a strong impression . . even now. I am certain that only a few would forget that moment when Ross experienced both joy and disbelief when he reunited with his family after three years. And at the same time, discovered that his lady love had moved past the reports of his death and became engaged to his cousin Francis. Wow, what a homecoming. Other memorable moments featured the first meeting between Ross and Demelza at the local street market and the first meeting between Verity and Captain Blamey at an assembly dance. Despite my feelings regarding the circumstances surrounding Ross and Demelza’s wedding, I must admit that I found her seduction of him rather sexy. The scene featuring Demelza and Verity’s growing friendship in early Season Four struck me as very charming and entertaining. I also enjoyed the Episode Threemontage that conveyed how Ross had grown accustomed to Demelza’s presence in his household and her ability to sense any of his particular needs. Another montage that I managed to enjoy, featured the community’s reaction to the couple’s wedding in early Episode Four, the poignant death of Charles Poldark in the same episode and the numerous conversations between Ross and George Warleggan that featured their growing enmity. But there were certain scenes – especially those that featured social gatherings – that stood out for me. They include:

*The assembly ball in Episode Two in which Verity met Captain Blamey for the first time. This scene also featured that very interesting and rather sexy dance between Ross and Elizabeth, which made it clear that the former lovers still harbored feelings for each . . . especially Ross. And this scene also marked the first time in which Francis became suspicious of those feelings, thanks to George’s poisonous insinuations.

*Charles and Francis’ confrontation with Ross regarding the latter’s support of Verity and Blamey’s courtship at Nampara. I found this scene to be very emotionally charged, due to the violent confrontation between Francis and Blamey that resulted in an ill-fated duel. It was capped by Elizabeth’s appearance at Nampara and her revelation that she was pregnant with Francis’ child.

*Ross tries to help his farm hand Jim Carter to avoid a prison sentence for poaching. This scene not only revealed Ross’ inability to control his temper and self-righteousness, but also featured a delicious confrontation between him and the judge, the Reverend Dr. Halse. And here is a lovely tidbit, the latter was portrayed by none other than Robin Ellis, who had portrayed Ross Poldark in the 1975-77.

*Episode Four also featured that marvelous Christmas at Trenwith sequence in which Ross and Demelza visit Francis and Elizabeth for the holidays. The entire cast involved in this sequence did a great job in infusing the tensions between the characters. I especially enjoyed the scene that featured the actual Christmas dinner.

Speaking of the cast, I have no complaints whatsoever. Everyone else have their favorites. But for me, the entire cast seemed to be giving it their all. Caroline Blakiston proved to be very witty as the elderly Aunt Agatha Poldark, who seemed bent upon making the other members of her family uncomfortable with her blunt comments. Warren Clarke gave a very memorable performance as Ross’ Uncle Charles. Unfortunately, he had passed away after filming his last scene in Episode Four. At least he went out with a first-rate role. Richard Harington made a very intense Captain Blamey and Harriet Ballard made an effectively bitchy Ruth Teague. “POLDARK” marked the first time I have ever really paid attention to Pip Torrens, who portrayed Cary Warleggan, George’s uncle. Which is not surprising, since he did a first-rate job in his portrayal of the greedy and venal banker, who seemed to be dismissive of both the upper and working classes. There were times when I could not decide whether to find Jud and Prudie Paynter funny or beneath contempt. This was due to the complex performances given by Phil Davis and Edney. I have already mentioned Robin Ellis, who was wonderfully intimidating and self-righteous as the bigoted Reverend Dr. Halse. Even after nine years away from the camera, he obviously has not lost his touch.

I first saw Ruby Bentall in the 2008 miniseries, “LOST IN AUSTEN”. But if I must be honest, I had barely noticed her. I certainly noticed her poignant and emotional performance as Verity Poldark, Ross’ “Plain Jane” cousin, who seemed doomed to spending the rest of her life serving her father’s and later, her brother’s household. Physically, Jack Farthing looks nothing like the literary George Warleggan from Graham’s novels. And I do not recall his character being featured so prominently in the first two novels. Personally, I do not care. I am really enjoying Farthing’s complex performance as the social climbing George, who seemed to resent the Poldarks’ upper-class status and especially Ross personally. Despite being as much of a greedy bastard as his uncle, Farthing did a great job in conveying George’s more humane nature. Fans have been so busy complaining that Kyle Soller’s portrayal of Ross’ cousin, Francis Polark, is nothing like the literary character, I feel they have been ignoring his superb performance. Personally, I suspect that Soller has been giving the best performance in the series. I have been really impressed by how he transformed Francis from a likable, yet mild young man to an embittered one filled with resentment and insecurities. I found myself wondering why Soller’s performance seemed familiar to me. Then it finally hit me . . . his portrayal of Francis reminded me of Robert Stack’s performance in the 1956 melodrama, “WRITTEN IN THE WIND”. Only Soller will be given the chance to take Francis’ character on another path before the series’ end.

The character of Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark seemed to produce a curious reaction from fans of Graham’s literary series. From my exploration of the Internet, I have noticed that many fans either tend to ignore the two actresses who have portrayed her – Heida Reed and Jill Townsend in the 1970s series – or criticize their performances. For this particular series, I feel that Reed has been knocking it out of the ballpark in her portrayal of the introverted Elizabeth. Yes, Debbie Horsfield’s production has allowed Reed to express Elizabeth’s inner feelings a bit more prominent to the television audiences. Yet at the same time, the actress managed to perfectly capture the internalized and complex nature of Elizabeth’s character. On the other hand, fans and critics have expressed sheer rapture over Eleanor Tomlinson’s portrayal of Demelza Carne Poldark, the kitchen maid who became Ross’ bride. Well, I certainly believe that Tomlinson is doing a hell of a job portraying the earthy Demelza. What makes me appreciate her performance even more is how she manages to combine Demelza’s feisty personality and the insecurities that lurk underneath.

Before “POLDARK” first aired in Great Britain, many of the country’s media outlets had speculated on whether actor Aidan Turner would be able to live up to Robin Ellis’ portrayal of Ross Poldark from the 1970s. I knew it the moment I had heard he had been cast in the lead of this new series, based upon his previous work in “DESPERATE ROMANTICS” and “THE HOBBIT” film series. And Turner prove me right. He turned out to be the right man for the right role. Turner seems obviously capable of carrying the series on his shoulders. He has a very strong presence and seems quite capable of conveying Ross’ strong will. But more importantly, he is doing a top-notch of portraying not only Ross’ virtues – the will to rebuild his life and especially his compassion for other – but also his personal flaws – namely his temper, his arrogance and self-righteousness (which were on full display during Jim Carter’s trial and his assumption that Demelza would immediately know how to become an upper-class wife), and especially his obsessive nature, which has been directed at Elizabeth ever since his return to Cornwall.

Considering that this article is mainly about the first four episodes of “POLDARK”, I am surprised that I have written such a great deal. To be honest, this series has really impressed me. I have not been this enthused about a story since John Jakes’ “NORTH AND SOUTH” series and its television adaptation. I suspect that it is not as highly regarded by critics, due to it being labeled a bodice ripper or a turgid melodrama. But for me . . . personally . . . “POLDARK” is more than that. Yes, it is a costumed melodrama. But it is also a good history lesson of life in Britain in the late 18th century. And more importantly, the melodrama and the historical drama serve as effective backdrops to a first-rate story filled with interesting and very complex characters – especially one Ross Poldark. I cannot wait to see how Debbie Horsfield handles the second half of this first season.

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

david-suchet-and-the-crowd

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, “Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Bonneville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army officer at the beginning of the story; and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that also bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man. Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film. He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him. As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the “POIROT” series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.

article-0-0C9180F2000005DC-637_468x428

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

6a00e5500c8a2a883301bb0888d40a970d

 

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (1956) Review

Based upon Jules Verne’s 1873 classic novel, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the story of a 19th century English gentleman named Phileas Fogg and his newly employed French valet, Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the world in eighty (80) days on a £20,000 wager set by his friends at the Reform Club. Produced by Michael Todd, the Academy Award winning film starred David Niven, Cantinflas, Shirley MacLaine and Robert Newton. 

Could someone please explain how ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” managed to win the 1956 Best Picture Academy Award? How on earth did this happen? Do not get me wrong. Ever since I first saw ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” on television years ago, I have been a fan of the movie. The idea of someone taking a long journey around the world – especially in an age before air travel – greatly appealed to me. It still does. I like the idea of travel, whether I am doing it myself or watching it on the big screen or on television. And even after all of these years, I still enjoy watching this movie. And yet . . . I simply cannot fathom the idea of it being considered the Best Picture of 1956. Even more surprising is the fact that John Farrow, S. J. Perelman, and James Poe all won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Perhaps the reason behind the movie’s accolades centered around Hollywood’s amazement that first time movie producer, Mike Todd, had succeeded in not only completing the film, but also creating an entertaining one. Two men directed this film – Michael Anderson, an Englishman who had only directed seven movies before ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”; and John Farrow, a well-known Australian director who had co-written the film’s script. Farrow, by the way, did not receive any credit for his work as a director of this film. Which makes me wonder how many scenes he actually directed. Considering the movie’s running time of 183 minutes (3 hours and 3 minutes), I find it surprising that it took only seventy-five (75) days to shoot it. Along with the four leading actors, the movie featured over forty (40) stars, 140 locations, 100 sets and over 36,000 costumes. No wonder Hollywood seemed amazed that Todd managed to finish the film.

Set around 1872, ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” told the story an English gentleman named Phileas Fogg (David Niven) who claims he can circumnavigate the world in eighty days. He makes a £20,000 wager with several skeptical fellow members of his London gentlemen’s club (Trevor Howard, Robert Morley and Finlay Currie included), the Reform Club, that he can arrive back within 80 days before exactly 8:45 pm. Together with his resourceful valet, Passepartout (Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”), Fogg sets out on his journey from Paris via a hot air balloon. Meanwhile, suspicion grows that Fogg has stolen his £20,000 from the Bank of England. Police Inspector Fix (Robert Newton) is sent out by Ralph the bank president (Robert Morley) to trail and arrest Fogg. Hopscotching around the globe, Fogg pauses in Spain, where Passepartout engages in a comic bullfight; and in India, Fogg and Passepartout rescue young widow Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine) from being forced into a funeral pyre so that she may join her late husband. The threesome visit Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco, and the Wild West. Only hours short of winning his wager, Fogg is arrested upon returning to London by the diligent, yet misguided Inspector Fix.

The main differences between Jules Verne’s novel and the movie centered around Fogg and Passepartout’s efforts to leave Europe. Quite frankly, the novel never featured Fogg’s journey through Europe. In the novel, there were no stops in either France or Spain. Fogg had considered using a hot air balloon in Chapter 32, but quickly dismissed it. Also, Fogg never punched Detective Fix after being released from jail near the film’s finale. He simply insulted the detective’s skills as a whist player.

I might as well stop beating around the bush. What is my opinion of the movie? Like I had stated earlier, I still find it entertaining after all these years. I love travel movies. And I found the movie’s caricatures of the different nationalities that Fogg, Passepartout, Aouda and Fix encounters on the journey rather amusing – including encounters with a boorish American politician portrayed by John Caradine, Charles Boyer’s Parisian travel agent/balloonist and Reginald Denny’s parody of an Anglo-Indian official. The movie’s funniest moment featured Fogg and Aouda’s encounter with a Chinese gentlemen portrayed by Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, who proved that his English was a lot better than Fogg’s Chinese-English pidgin. The locations in this movie are absolutely gorgeous, especially Fogg and Passepartout’s trip over France, and the rail journeys through India and the United States. And Lionel Lindon’s Oscar winning photography is accompanied by the memorable score written by another one of the film’s Oscar winners – Victor Young. In fact, the most memorable thing about ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is Young’s score. Even after 59 years, it is the first thing many fans mention about the film.

I was surprised to learn that Cantinflas had won a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for his portrayal of Passepartout. Frankly, I found this as astonishing as the movie’s Best Picture Oscar. Mind you, his performance was a little more animated than David Niven’s portrayal of the stiff-upper lip Phineas Fogg. And his dance with a young dancer at a Spanish cantina was entertaining. But a Golden Globe award? I cannot think of one actor or actress in that movie who deserved any acting award. As for Niven, I think he may have gone a little too far in his portrayal of the reserved Fogg. There were times when he came off as a bit inhuman. I have to wonder about Todd’s decision to cast a young American actress from Virginia to portray the Indian Princess Aouda. Shirley MacLaine, ladies and gentlemen? She is the last person I would have chosen for that particular role. I must give her credit for not succumbing to some clichéd portrayal that would have left moviegoers wincing and instead, gave a restrained yet charming performance. Robert Newton’s portrayal of the persistent detective, Mr. Fix, was just as restrained. Which turned out to be a miracle, considering his reputation as a cinematic ham. Sadly, Newton passed away from a heart attack before the movie’s release.

One might ask why I had expressed astonishment at the thought of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” winning the Best Picture Oscar for 1956. Quite frankly, I do not believe that the movie deserved such a major award. Sure, the movie is entertaining. And that is about the best thing I can say about the film. Granted, Victor Young’s score and Lionel Lindon’s photography deserved its Oscars. But I feel that the movie did not deserve to be acknowledged as 1956’s Best Picture. Not over other films like ”THE KING AND I””FRIENDLY PERSUASION””GIANT””THE SEARCHERS” or even ”THE TEN COMMANDMENTS”. Nor do I feel that the three men who won Oscars for Best Adapted Screenplay deserve their statuettes. Heck, the movie featured a major blooper carried over from the novel – namely Fix’s revelation to Passepartout in Hong Kong about the British authorities’ suspicions that Fogg may be responsible for robbing the Bank of England before his departure. Passepartout told Aouda about Fix’s suspicions . . . but neither of them ever told Fogg. Not even when they were about to reach the shores of Britain. Why?

Another scene that continues to baffle me centered around Passepartout’s bullfight in Spain. Impressed by the manservant’s cape work during a dance in a cantina, a Spanish-Arab sea captain named Achmed Abdullah (Gilbert Roland) promised to give Fogg and Passepartout passage to Marseilles if the manservant would take part in a bullfight. What started as a comic moment for Cantinflas turned into a bullfight that promised to never end. The damn thing lasted five minutes too long and I felt more than happy when Fogg and Passepartout finally arrived in Suez.

I have read Jules Verne’s novel. At best, it was entertaining fluff. I could say the same for the 1956 movie. Like the novel, it lacks any real substance. For me, both versions struck me as nothing more than a detailed travelogue disguised as a series of vaguely written adventures. Unfortunately, the movie’s entertaining fluff lasted slightly over three (3) hours. Three hours? I like the movie a lot, but an obviously dated three hour movie based upon a piece of fluff like Verne’s novel just does not seem worthy of a Best Picture Oscar. Despite the movie’s undeserved Oscar, I still find it entertaining after all these years.

“POLDARK” Series One (1975): Episodes One to Four

poldark1975-elizabethross

“POLDARK” SERIES ONE (1975): EPISODES ONE TO FOUR

A few years ago, I had tried a stab at the first episode of the 1975-1977 series, “POLDARK”, which starred Robin Ellis. After viewing ten minutes of theatrical acting and dated photography in Episode One on You Tube, I gave up. 

Last summer, I read all of the hullaballoo surrounding this new adaptation with Aidan Turner in the lead. Utilizing Netflix, I tried my luck again with the 1975 series and ended up enjoying the first four episodes (I have yet to watch any further episodes) and quite enjoyed it. I enjoyed both versions so much that I took the trouble to purchase both the entire 1975-77 series and the 2015 series. In fact, I have decided to watch both versions simultaneously. But I am here to discuss the first four episodes of the 1975 series.

Series One of “POLDARK”, which aired in 1975, is based upon Winston Graham’s first four novels in the saga – 1945’s “Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-1787”“Demelza: A Novel of Cornwall, 1788-1790” (1946), 1950’s “Jeremy Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1790-1791 and 1953’s “Warleggan (Poldark). Episodes One to Four seemed to be an adaptation of the first novel. The series begins with a young Ross Poldark returning home to Cornwall following military service with the British Army during the American Revolution. Ross spent the last year or two as a prisoner-of-war, unaware that he had been declared dead. He learns from a fellow coach passenger and later, his father’s solicitor that Joshua Poldark had died financially broke. More bad news follow with Ross’ discovery that his Uncle Charles Poldark had promised to sell his estate Nampara to the banking family, the Warleggans. And lady love, Elizabeth Chynoweth, had become engaged to Charles’ son, his cousin Francis, after receiving news of his “death”. The only possessions Ross has left are his father’s estate, Nampara, which is now in ruins, two mines that had been closed for some time and two servants – the drunken Jud and Prudie Paynter – to help him work the estate. Even worse, the Warleggans, who have risen from being blacksmiths to bankers, seemed to be gaining financial control over the neighborhood. In Episode Two, Ross rescues a miner’s daughter named Demelza Carne from a mob trying to use her dog Garrick as part of a vicious dogfight at a local fair. Taking pity on her, he decides to hire her as his new kitchen maid.

When I finally began to embark upon this series, I had no idea of its reputation as one of Britain’s most beloved period dramas. I discovered that “POLDARK” was regarded just as highly in the 1970s, as “DOWNTON ABBEY” had become some thirty-five to forty years later. Mind you, I regard Julian Fellowes’ series as the inferior series. My viewing of the first four episodes of this series made me finally appreciate why it was so highly regarded. It really is first-rate production. However . . . it had its problems. What movie or television production does not?

When it comes to an accurate adaptation of any novel or play, I tend to harbor ambiguous views on the matter. It depends upon how well it serves the story on screen or if it makes sense. Anyone familiar with Graham’s novels know that the 1975 adaptation is not accurate. I had no problems with the production starting with Ross’ stage journey to his home in Cornwall, considering that the novel started with a meeting between Ross’ dying father and his Uncle Charles. I had no problems with Elizabeth’s final reason for marrying Francis – to ensure that Charles Poldark would pay off her father’s debts. This little scenario even included an interesting scene in which Ross had volunteered to use his loan for Wheal Leisure to pay off Mr. Chynoweth’s debts in order to gain Elizabeth’s hand in marriage. Fortunately, she stopped him from committing such a stupid act. But I had a problem with one major change and a few minor ones.

My biggest problem with these first four episodes of “POLDARK” centered on the circumstances that led Ross to marry his kitchen maid, Demelza Carne. Apparently, the series’ producers and screenwriter Jack Pulman must have found Graham’s portrayal of this situation hard to swallow and decided to change the circumstances leading to Ross and Demelza’s marriage. In this version, Ross became drunk following his failure to prevent his former farmhand Jim Carter from being sentenced to prison for poaching. Demelza, who had been harboring a yen for Ross, decided to comfort him with sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes.h sex. The following morning, Ross decided it would be better if Demelza no longer work at Nampara, so that he would not be tempted to have sex with her again. And what happened? Demelza eventually went to live with her father Tom Carne, now a religious zealot, and his new wife. She also discovered that she was pregnant. To make matter worse, Ross managed to convince his former love, Elizabeth Poldark, to leave his adulterous cousin Francis and live with him.

One, I found it very implausible that a man of Ross’ station and time would marry his kitchen maid. He might sleep with her . . . yes. But marry her? A “responsible” man like Ross would have settled money upon Demelza, find a man of her class willing to accept her as a wife and the baby as his . . . or both. He would not marry her. As for Elizabeth’s willingness to leave Francis for Ross . . . I really found this implausible. Elizabeth is too pragmatic to be willing to sacrifice her respectability to leave her husband for another man. Nor would she be willing to risk losing her son Geoffrey Charles, for Francis would have never allowed her to see the boy again. The only way this whole situation could have worked is if Ross had been in love with Demelza at the time. If he had, he would have never suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for him.

There were other problems – minor problems – that I found in these first four episodes. One episode featured Francis’ violent encounter with Verity’s wannabee suitor, Captain Blamey and the other, a fight between Ross and his future father-in-law, Tom Carne. And I thought Christopher Barry handled both scenes in a rather clumsy manner. Both situations seemed to be a case of “now you see it, now you don’t”. In Ross’ fight with Carne, the 17 year-old Demelza got into the melee (which did not happen in the novel), allowing her to spout some nonsense about women’s right in one of those “a woman’s travails” speeches that came off as . . . well, clumsy and contrived. It did not help that actress Angharad Rees seemed to be screeching at the top of her voice at the time. In fact, screeching seemed to be the hallmark of Rees’ early portrayal of the adolescent Demelza in an emotional state. Some fans have waxed lyrical over Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark. So far, I have yet to see what the big deal was about. Other than three scenes, Francis spent these first four episodes portraying a cold and rather aloof Francis. I found it difficult to get emotionally invested in the character.

Considering all of the problems I had with Episodes One-Four, one would wonder why I enjoyed “POLDARK”. The series may not be perfect, but it was damn entertaining. Some have compared the production to the 1939 film, “GONE WITH THE WIND”. But honestly, it reminds me of the television adaptation of John Jakes’ literary trilogy, “North and South”. Both the Seventies series and the “NORTH AND SOUTH” Trilogy between 1985 and 1994 share so many similarities. Both series featured their own set of flaws, entertaining melodrama, strong characterizations and a historical backdrop. In the case of “POLDARK”, the historical backdrop featured Great Britain – especially Cornwall – after the American Revolution, during the last two decades of the 18th century. It is a period of which I have never been familiar – especially in Britain. I never knew that Britain’s conflict with and the loss of the American colonies had such a negative impact upon the country’s economic state. I had heard of the United States and France’s economic struggles during this period, but I never knew about Britain’s struggles. I also recently learned about the impact of the fallen tin and copper prices on Cornwall, during the 1770s and especially the 1780s. This economic struggle contributed to the slow decline of the aristocracy and the landed gentry for Cornish families like the Poldarks and the Chynoweths. 

I thought this economic depression was well-handled by the production team. Not once did the producers, Barry or Pulman rush through Ross’ struggles to establish a new fortune. They also took their time in conveying the struggles of nearly everyone else in the neighborhood – the other members of the Poldark family, the Cynoweths, and especially the working-class. This struggle of the working-class manifested not only Demelza’s story arc, but also that of Jim and Jinny Carter in the first three episodes. This struggled boiled down to a heartbreaking moment in which Jim was caught poaching on a local estate and sentenced to prison – despite Ross’ futile efforts to help him. I noticed that although the Warleggan family loomed menacingly in the background, only one member had made at least two appearances in these first four episodes – Nicholas Warleggan. The most famous member of the family – George Warleggan – had yet to make an appearance.

And despite my complaints about the situation that led to Ross and Demelza’s marriage, I must admit that the emotional journey of Ross and the other leading characters managed to grab my attention. Being familiar with Graham’s novel, I am well aware that Ross’ return, Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis, Ross’ meeting with Demelza, the marital fallout between Elizabeth and Francis and Ross’ inability to get over losing Elizabeth will have consequences down the road. I have to admit that “POLDARK” did a pretty damn good job in setting up the entire saga . . . despite a few hiccups. I found it interesting that Episode One solely featured Ross’ return and his emotional reaction to Elizabeth’s decision to marry Francis. He did not even meet Demelza until Episode Two

These first four episodes also set up a conflict between Demelza and Elizabeth. I have mixed feelings about this. Personally, I rather liked how Debbie Horsfield managed to set up a quasi-friendship between the two women in the new adaptation. But since Demelza and Elizabeth were probably doomed not to be friends, I see that screenwriter Jack Pulman decided to immediately go for the jugular and set up hostilities between the pair. In Episode Three, a jealous Demelza had maliciously blamed Elizabeth for Francis’ infidelity, even though she had yet to meet the pair. I found this even more ironic, considering the episode also featured a minor scene in which Elizabeth actually made an attempt to emotionally reach out to Francis. He rejected her due to an assignation with some prostitute. And the whole scenario regarding Ross’ suggestion that Elizabeth leave Francis and Demelza’s pregnancy boiled down to a long scene in which Ross informed Elizabeth of the situation and her angry reaction. Which included calling Demelza a whore. By the end of Episode Four, Pulman and Barry had firmly established hostility between the two women.

Much has been said about the series’ exteriors shot in Cornwall. Yes, they looked beautiful, wild and almost exotic for Great Britain. Not even the faded photography can hide the beauty of the Cornish landscape. I also found John Bloomfield’s costume designs very attractive, but not exactly mind blowing. Also, a few of the costumes for actress Jill Townsend seemed a bit loose – especially in the first two episodes. As for the series’ score written by Kenyon Emrys-Roberts . . . not exactly memorable.

I might as well come to the performances featured in Episodes One to Four. Overall, I found them pretty solid. Although I came away with the feeling that some of the cast members and director Christopher Barry thought “POLDARK” was a stage play. Yes, I found some of the performances a bit theatrical. And I have to include some of the main cast members. I have always liked the Charles Poldark character – not because he was likable. I simply found him rather colorful. And I thought actor Frank Middlemass did an excellent job in conveying this aspect of Mr. Poldark Senior. Jonathan Newth gave a solid, yet intense performance as the barely volatile Captain Blamey. Both Paul Curran and Mary Wimbush gave very colorful performances as Ross’ slothful servants, Jud and Prudie Paynter. And yet, some of that color threatened to become very theatrical. On the other hand, Stuart Doughty gave a solid and subtle performance as Ross’ former servant-turned-miner, Jim Carter. I could also say the same for Jillian Bailey, who portrayed Jim’s wife, Jinny. By the way, fans of the 1983 miniseries, “JANE EYRE” should be able to spot Zelah Clarke (a future Jane Eyre) in a small role as one of the stagecoach passengers in the opening scene of Episode One.

There have been a great deal of praise for Angharad Rees’ portrayal of Demelza Carne, Ross’ kitchen maid and soon-to-be wife. And yes, I believe she earned that praise . . . at least in the second half of Episode Three and all of Episode Four. I found her performance very lively and when the scene demanded it, subtle. I thought she was outstanding in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross. However, she was at least thirty or thirty-one when she portrayed Demelza in Series One. And her portrayal of a Demelza in early-to-mid adolescence struck me as loud and over-the-top. Thankfully, the screeching ceased in the second half of Episode Three. Clive Francis’ portrayal of Francis Poldark struck me as somewhat subdued or a bit on the cold side – except in two scenes. One of them featured Francis’ near death inside the Wheal Leisure mine, when he feared Ross would allow him to drown. Another featured his confrontation with Captain Blamey, the sea captain who became romantically interested in Francis’ sister Verity. In both cases, the actor came off as a bit theatrical. But I thought his performance in Episode Four, which featured Elizabeth’s announcement that she would leave Francis, seemed more controlled, yet properly emotional at the same time.

If I have to give awards for the best two performances in these first four episodes, I would give them to Jill Townsend as Elizabeth Chynoweth Poldark and Norma Streader as Verity Poldark. It seemed to me they were the only two members of the cast who managed to avoid any theatrical acting in any of their scenes. Even when their characters were in an emotional state. One of Streader’s finest moments occurred in Season Two, when she expressed her feelings about Captain Blamey in a conversation with her cousin Ross. Despite expressing Verity’s emotions in a fervent manner, Streader still managed to maintain control of her performance. For me, Townsend’s finest moments occurred throughout Episode Four. From the moment Ross suggested that Elizabeth leave Francis for good, Townsend conveyed Elizabeth’s emotional journey throughout this episode – from surprise to hopeful to desperation, relief, happiness, disbelief, anger and finally bittersweet disappointment. I may not have approved the producers’ decision to include a scene featuring Demelza’s pregnancy and Elizabeth’s decision to leave Francis. But dammit, Townsend acted her ass off and gave the best performance from the entire cast during this particular sequence. One of her best scenes featured a one-on-one conversation with Streader’s Verity.

I have seen actor Robin Ellis in other movie and television productions, including 1971’s “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and 1981’s “THE GOOD SOLDIER”. If I were to pick his best roles, I would choose two – the passive aggressive American John Dowell in “THE GOOD SOLDIER” and of course, Ross Poldark. The producers of the series selected the right actor to portray the volatile war veteran-turned-mine owner from Graham’s saga. He is Ross Poldark . . . of the 1970s that is. Granted, Ellis had his moments of theatrical acting. There were times during the first four episodes in which I had to turn down my television volume. But despite this, I thought he did an excellent job in capturing all aspects – both good and bad – of his character’s personality. Two scenes featuring his performance caught my attention. Ellis seemed a bit scary and intense when he expressed Ross’ reaction to being rejected by Elizabeth Chynoweth in Episode One. And I thought he gave a poignant performance in the scene that featured Demelza’s seduction of Ross.

There you have it . . . my impression of the first four episodes from the 1975 series, “POLDARK”. So far, this adaptation of the first novel in Winston Graham’s literary series had its share of flaws. But I feel that its virtues overshadowed the former. In fact, I found myself so captivated by Episodes One to Four that I feel more than ready to continue this saga. Onward to Episode Five!

 

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Four “Cape Gloucester & Pavuvu” Commentary

pacific104-00567

I wrote this commentary on the fourth episode of “THE PACIFIC”:

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) EPISODE FOUR “Cape Gloucester & Pavuvu” Commentary

When I first saw the featurettes about “THE PACIFIC” on HBO, I noticed that the filmmakers and screenwriters had made a big deal about the miniseries’ ninth episode, which featured the battle on Okinawa. From what I had gathered, this particular episode might serve as the miniseries’ darkest. Then I saw Episode Four, which featured the U.S. Marines First Division’s experiences during the Battle of Cape Gloucester. And I realized that I had been wrong.

Very little combat played a role in Episode Four. One scene featured Robert Leckie’s brief confrontation with a Japanese scout patrol near the beginning of the episode. And another scene featured Company “H” repelling an intense banzai attack by the Japanese, a few minutes later. But as the documentary had hinted around the beginning of the episode, the Marines’ main conflict during the Cape Gloucester campaign seemed to be the environment – the thick jungle and the rain. And because of this environment, Leckie and his fellow Marines suffered a drop in morale.

Before watching this episode, I had no idea how depressing it would be. So much about this episode struck me as depressing . . . especially from Leckie’s point of view. One, both he and Sidney Phillips had the bad luck to witness Gibson’s murder of the Japanese soldier. Judging from the slightly demented expression on Gibson’s face, I suspect that neither Leckie nor Phillips was willing to interrupt the murder. But they both obviously found the experience disturbing. Eventually, the rain, the mud and the jungles of Cape Gloucester on New Britain got to Leckie and he eventually found himself begging for someone to shoot him after he lost his shoes in the mud and fell down a slope. It got worse. Leckie found his confiscated Japanese chest stolen by a Marine officer. And instead of dismissing the chest lost, he stubbornly tried to get his chest back during a hostile confrontation. Leckie never got the chest back. Instead, the Marine officer transferred him from his duties as an intelligence scout to kitchen and latrine duties. The Marine officer also humiliated Leckie for wetting his trousers. But that was nothing in compare to Leckie witnessing the suicide of a Canadian-born Marine.

Company “H” of the First Marines Division was eventually sent to the island of Pavuvu for some rest and relaxation. Only, the island proved to be nothing like Melbourne. The Marines had to deal with pests like rats and crabs. Leckie’s sense of humor became increasingly irritating to Hoosier. And his bedwetting (enuresis) became even worse. At one point, “Chuckler” Juergens found Leckie lying on his cot, pissing uncontrollably and staring into space. Leckie had finally reached the nadir of his existence. The company’s doctor shipped Leckie to a Naval hospital located on Banika. Leckie discovered that the wing he had been assigned to was for psychiatric patients. Fortunately for him, the Naval doctor assigned to him – a Dr. Grant – realized that Leckie was simply suffering from enuresis and a case of exhaustion. By the end of the episode, he allowed the Marine to return to his company. Before that happened, Leckie made another discovery . . . Ronnie Gibson was also a patient at the hospital. Leckie learned from Dr. Grant that Gibson tried to steal a plane and later commit suicide, while Company “H” were on Pavuvu.

I doubt very much that Episode Four will ever be considered a personal favorite of mine. I simply found it too depressing. But I must admit that I also found it fascinating. And it is a credit to screenwriters Robert Schenkkan and Graham Yost, along with Yost’s direction that I managed to remain fascinated by it all. While watching Episode Four, it occurred to me that in some ways, it reminded me of the 2005 movie, “JARHEAD”. The Marines in Sam Mendes’ movie were suffering psychological stress, due to their inability to relieve their built-up aggression via combat. The Marines in Episode Four were suffering from a number of factors – including no combat against the Japanese, who had decamped to Rabaul on the other side of New Britain.

For the umpteenth time, actor James Badge Dale managed to knock it out of the ballpark with his portrayal of Robert Leckie. In fact, I would say that this episode marked his best performance in the miniseries to date. He did a superb job in portraying Leckie’s emotional descent without any heavy-handed acting. I especially enjoyed his performance during a scene that featured Leckie’s confrontation with the officer who had stolen the Japanese chest. Badge Dale’s performance conveyed a delicious mixture of aggression, sarcasm and subtlety. I also have to give kudos to Tom Budge’s portrayal of the demented Gibson. Mind you, his performance was not as subtle as Badge Dale’s, but it was just as convincing. And I believe I will never forget that expression on his face, after his character had strangled that Japanese soldier. I also found Leckie’s stay at that Naval hospital equally depressing. It reminded me of a line that the Bill Guernere character had said about military hospitals in one of the episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. Thanks to this episode, I finally understand what he was trying to say. The Banika sequence also featured Matt Craven, who gave a wonderfully subtle performance as Leckie’s doctor, the slightly sarcastic Dr. Grant. Thinking about this episode, it occurred to me that the one character who managed to remain steady throughout the entire mess was Chuckler, thanks to Josh Helman’s solid performance. It is easy to see why Lieutenant Corrigan had promoted him to corporal following the Alligator Creek action on Guadalcanal in Episode One.

After watching Episode Four, I found myself dubbing it ”Heart of Darkness – Part One”, considering that the entire episode featured a little combat, a murder, a suicide, illness, rodents and crabs and a stay for Leckie at a Naval psych ward. And I had no idea I would be watching this before it aired. The reason I had dubbed it ”Part One” is that I suspect that the Okinawa episode will proved to be just as depressing . . . or perhaps a little more.

“THUNDERBALL” (1965) Review

thunderball

“THUNDERBALL” (1965) Review

I had just viewed the 1965 Bond movie, “THUNDERBALL” for the first time in several years. And I can see why this movie is considered to be one of my all time favorite Bond flicks. But I do not think I can state why in one or two sentences.

“THUNDERBALL” turned out to be director Terrence Young’s third and last Bond film. Most Bond fans consider it to be his least superior film, but I consider it to be his second best, following 1963’s “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. The story, based upon an unfinished script called “Warhead”, co-written by Ian Fleming, Kevin McClory and Jack Whittingham. The unfinished script eventually became Fleming’s 1961 novel, “Thunderball”. This resulted in a major lawsuit between McClory and Fleming and eventually, EON Productions became dragged into it. The story is about SPECTRE’s theft of NATO nuclear warheads and how they used it to blackmail the U.S. and British government for the sum of 100,000,000 pounds. Naturally, MI-6 sends all of their “00” agents to recover the warheads before SPECTRE can carry out its threat to detonate the weapons on U.S. and British soil. Many moviegoers found the movie’s plot a little hard to buy and viewed it as part of the realm of fantasy. But considering the current obsession of terrorism and the high illegal weapons market, “THUNDERBALL” is probably one of the more relevant plots of any Bond film.

Aside from the underwater sequences, “THUNDERBALL” turned out to be an elegant and exciting thriller with excellent drama, a solid plot that managed to avoid any major plotholes, a classy score by John Barry and a first-class cast. Sean Connery portrayed James Bond for the fourth time in this film. Thankfully, he seemed to be at his top game in this one. It is a vast improvement over his performance in 1964’s “GOLDFINGER”, in which he seemed to come off as an immature prat. And he is ably assisted by a first-class cast – Claudine Auger as Domino Duval, Adolfo Celi as villain Emile Largo (SPECTRE’s Number 2), Rik Van Nutter as CIA Agent Felix Leiter and especially Luciana Paluzzi as villainess Fiona Volpe.

Below is a list of positive and negative aspects of the film. I have decided to start with the negative, since there was little that I did not care about the movie:

Negative:

*Rik Van Nutter as Felix Leiter – Do not get me wrong. Van Nutter’s performance as Leiter was competent and very personable. My problem was that his role was written as a “less-than-bright” sidekick of Bond’s, instead of an ally. Bond has been assisted by Leiter in other movies, but they have never come off as some dumb sidekick . . . except for Cec Linder in “GOLDFINGER”.

*Theme Song – I will not deny that the movie’s theme song, performed by Tom Jones is slightly catchy. But I also found the lyrics to be slightly sexist and off-putting.

*Underwater Sequences – Yes, the underwater sequences had threatened to drag the movie a bit. Actually, I can point out two sequences that came close to boring me – the sequence that featured Largo’s acquisition of the warheads and the final battle between Largo’s men and U.S. Navy frogmen.

Blackmail of Patricia Fearing – James Bond’s attempt to seduce Shrublands Clinic nurse, Patricia Fearing, came off as disturbing and tacky. It was bad enough to watch him make attempts to kiss the very professional Ms. Fearing without her consent. But when he resorted to blackmail – willingness to conceal his near death experience with the physiotherapy machine aka “the rack” in exchange for sex – the whole situation became rather sordid.

Positive:

*Luciana Paluzzi – Let us be honest, folks. The red-haired Paluzzi came dangerously close to stealing the picture from Connery. Like Honor Blackman before her, she radiated sexiness and a strong on-screen presence. She seemed to be even more of a threat than Emile Largo and his men.

*Adolpo Celi – What I like about Celi’s performance is that he does not come off as an over-the-top villain. He was elegant, intelligent, ruthless and egotistical. Perfect villain.

*Nassau Setting – The setting in Nassau gave the movie an exotic, yet elegant feel that really added substance to the movie.

*Villain’s Goal – Many critics have claimed that the villain’s goal in the movie – nuclear blackmail for money – seemed unrealistic, due to a belief there was little chance that an organization like SPECTRE could get its hands on a nuclear bomb from a NATO strategic bomber. And yet, I have never considered such a scenario unrealistic. Especially in today’s world. In a way, this scenario seems much more possible than some of scenarios featured in other Bond movies from the same period.

*Dialogue – The dialogue in this movie was unusually sharp and witty. But what really appealed to me was that Connery’s puns did not come out of his mouth every other minute, as it did in his previous two movies. In fact, the movie featured what I consider to be one of Connery’s best lines during his tenure with the franchise.</i>

Speaking of dialogue, below is what I consider to be some of my favorite lines:

* Moneypenny: In the conference room. Something pretty big. Every double-o man in Europe has been rushed in. And the home secretary too!
Bond: His wife probably lost her dog.

*Bond: My dear, uncooperative Domino.
Domino: How do you know that? How do you know my friends call me Domino?
Bond: It’s on the bracelet on your ankle.
Domino: So… what sharp little eyes you’ve got.
Bond: Wait ’til you get to my teeth.

*Do you mind if my friend sits this one out? She’s just dead.

*M: I’ve assigned you to Station “C” Canada.
Bond: Sir, I’d respectfully request that you change my assignment to Nassau.
M:Is there any other reason, besides your enthusiasm for water sports?

*Pat Fearing: James, where are you going?
Bond: Oh, nowhere. I just thought I’d take a little, uh… exercise.
Pat Fearing: You must be joking.

*But of course, I forgot your ego, Mr. Bond. James Bond, the one where he has to make love to a woman, and she starts to hear heavenly choirs singing. She repents, and turns to the side of right and virtue…[she steps on Bond’s foot]… but not this one.

I would like to conclude with this little note. In 1983, Kevin McClory – one of the original authors of “Warhead” – produced his own movie version of the story, which starred Connery as Bond. The movie, “NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN” was not exactly terrible, but it almost seemed like an overblown version of the 1965 movie.