“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

George-Lazenby

 

“ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE” (1969) Review

At least ten years or more must have passed since I last saw the 1969 Bond movie, “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (OHMSS)”. EON Production’s sixth entry in the Bond franchise has the distinction of being the only movie that starred Australian male model-turned-actor, George Lazenby. It was the first EON movie that did not star Sean Connery – already fixed in the public’s mind as the only actor who can portray James Bond. And it was the only movie that was directed by former film editor, Peter Hunt. 

I first became aware of “OHMSS” back in the mid-1980s. I had seen it on television once, when I was a child. But ABC Television’s botched editing had turned me off from the movie. I eventually became a fan during repeated viewings of the movie during the mid and late 1980s. By the beginning of the 1990s, “OHMSS” had been fixed as my favorite Bond movie. For years, it remained in this position, despite repeating viewings of other Bond movies, the release of the Brosnan films and my own mysterious reluctance to watch “OHMSS”. It seemed as if I was afraid to watch it again, fearful that my earlier adulation of the film might prove to be misguided. And then EON Productions released “CASINO ROYALE” in the theaters back in 2006. “CASINO ROYALE” had impressed me so much that my doubts about “OHMSS”increased even further. After seeing “CASINO ROYALE” for the third time and 2008’s “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, I finally decided to watch “OHMSS” for the first time in years.

In the end, my fears seemed groundless. My latest viewing of “OHMSS” proved that I had every right to view it as one of my all time favorite Bond movies. After 41 years, the movie still holds up as one of the finest Bond movies in the entire franchise, if not the finest. And it also one of the few Bond films to closely follow its source, namely the 1963 novel penned by Ian Fleming. What makes the latter remarkable is that the previous Bond entry, “YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE” barely resembled its literary source, aside from a few characters and the setting.

“OHMSS” picks up with Bond searching for Blofeld, now wanted by various governments for his past forays into international terrorism and extortion. His search leads to meeting the most important woman in his life other than Vesper Lynd – Teresa (Tracy) Draco di Vicenzo. Not only will his meeting with Tracy lead to a serious change in his private life, it will also affect his professional life, thanks to Tracy’s father, Marc-Ange Draco when he provides Bond with information leading to Blofeld. Of course, Draco was only willing to provide this information, if Bond courts his daughter. In the end, Bond not only tracks down Blofeld, but destroy the latter’s latest attempt to extort the United Nations. But as many know, Bond’s latest professional conflict will result in tragedy for his private life.

I only have a few problems with “OHMSS”. One of them was the director Peter Hunt’s decision to have actor George Baker (portraying the real Sir Hilary Bray), dub Lazenby’s voice, while Bond is impersonating Sir Hilary at Piz Gloria. Why they had decided to do this confounds me. It seemed very unnecessary, unless the director was aiming for Sir Hilary to sound like a cliché of a British scholar. Another problem I had were some of the jokes that came out of Bond’s mouth. I consider this problem minor, since “OHMSS” – like many other Bond movies had its share of good and bad jokes. One particularly good joke was the St. Bernard who came to Bond’s “rescue” after the latter had survived his bobsled fight against Blofeld. And last, but not least, there were a few moments when the editing seemed a bit . . . questionable. A good example would be the scene that featured Bond’s first meeting with Draco. There is a moment when it seemed that Bond had asked Draco for Blofeld’s whereabouts. It seemed as if Lazenby had spoken too soon, cutting off actor Gabriele Ferzetti’s lines too soon. Another viewing seemed to reveal that poor editing might have been at fault and not Lazenby’s acting. And another review seemed to agree with my findings.

Aside from the previously mentioned quibbles, I had no problems with “OHMSS”. In fact there is so much to enjoy about this movie – including the main star, George Lazenby. Many critics and fans either tend to dismiss his performance as wooden or give him minor credit for his valiant attempt at a decent performance. Frankly, I think that he was a lot better than many give him credit for. I must admit that he has a rather odd voice (which I suspect has been influenced by his Australian accent), but so did most of the other Bonds – including Connery’s tendency to indulge in pre-adolescent diction, Moore’s drawl, Dalton’s Welsh accent and Brosnan’s . . . well, I cannot really describe Brosnan’s voice. I just find it odd. But despite Lazenby’s odd voice, his acting comes off very natural and he seems to project Bond’s emotions with an ease that should not have come easy to him. But he does. And instead of portraying Bond as some kind of action/sexual icon, he portrays the character as very human. This is very obvious in the following scenes:

-Bond’s growing impatience with Tracy’s antics
-Bond’s surprise that M had given him leave instead of accepting his resignation
-Bond’s breakthrough with Tracy
-the Piz Gloria dinner sequence
-Bond’s fear of capture during his escape from Piz Gloria
-Bond’s proposal of marriage to Tracy
-Bond’s quarrel with M over Tracy and Blofeld
-Tracy’s death

Personally, I thought that Lazenby really shined in the marriage proposal scene, those scenes that featured Bond’s quarrels with M and the Piz Gloria dinner sequence. Despite having his voice dubbed by George Baker in the latter, Lazenby managed to express Bond’s emotions during that scene effortlessly without having to say a word.

The movie also benefited from the presence of Diana Rigg, who had recently left “THE AVENGERS” to begin a movie career. What can one say about the great Diana? Not only did she effortlessly combine all the complex personality traits of Tracy di Vicenzo – witty, emotional, sad, brave, determined, etc. Is it any wonder that Tracy is viewed by many actresses as the ultimate Bond woman? Even better, both Rigg and Lazenby managed to create great chemistry together as the romantically doomed pair.

Not only did “OHMSS” benefited from both Lazenby and Rigg’s performances, the pair was ably supported by a fine cast that included the warm and charismatic Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, the talented Ilse Steppat who portrayed the intimidating Irma Bunt shortly before her death (she never lived to experience the movie’s release), the always dependable Bernard Lee as M – giving one of his better performances, and the charming and fun Angela Scoular as Blofeld’s English patient, Ruby. Of course one cannot forget the legendary Telly Savalas, who became the second actor to portray Ernst Blofeld on-screen. And as far as I’m concerned, he was the best. He was not impeded by Donald Pleasance’s ridiculous scar and questionable accent or Charles Gray’s foppish portrayal. Instead, he radiated intelligence and menace, making him the only Blofeld (in my opinion) worthy of being Bond’s nemesis.

I also have to commend Peter Hunt’s direction. “OHMSS” was his first time at bat as a director. Any other inexperienced director could have turned one of Ian Fleming’s best novels into a hash job. Fortunately, Hunt proved to be a talented director and did justice to the novel – although I did have a problem with the editing of a few of his scenes. Hunt was not only ably supported by a fine cast, but by screenwriter Richard Maibaum, editor and future director John Glen, and John Barry’s marvelous score and Hal David’s haunting lyrics to the song, “We Have All the Time In the World”. Cinematographer Michael Reed superbly recaptured the majesty of the Swiss Alps and the exotic elegance of Portugal with his photography. And one cannot forget skier Willy Bogner Jr. and Alex Barbey for creating the first and probably best ski chase in the Bond franchise.

I could probably go on about how much I love “OHMSS”, but I do not want to sound repetitive. What can I say? After 48 years, I consider to still be one of the best Bond movies in the franchise . . . and definitely one of my favorites. And I am happy to see that “OHMSS” is finally being recognized by many as the fine film it is. If you have not seen this film, I suggest that you rent or buy it as soon as possible. Or else you will be missing something special.

Advertisements

“EMMA” (1972) Review

762819697

\

“EMMA” (1972) Review

I am aware of at least four adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”. But I have noticed that the one adaptation that rarely attracts the attention of the novelist’s fans is the 1972 BBC miniseries, “EMMA”

Directed by John Glenister and adapted by Denis Constanduros, “EMMA” told the story of the precocious younger daughter of a wealthy landowner that resides near
the village of Highbury. Emma Woodhouse imagines herself to be naturally gifted matchmaker, following her self-declared success in arranging a love match between her governess and Mr. Weston, a village widower. Following their marriage, Emma takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, a young woman named Harriet Smith. However, Emma’s efforts to match Harriet with Highbury’s vicar, Mr. Elton, end in disaster. Also the return of two former Highbury residents, Jane Fairfax and Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill, and her continuing efforts to find a husband for Harriet leads Emma to question her talents as a matchmaker and her feelings for long time neighbor and friend, George Knightley.

Aired in six episodes, this “EMMA” was given the opportunity to be a lot more faithful to Austen’s novel. Many critics and fans would view this as an example of the miniseries’ ability to delve deeper into the story’s plots and characterizations. I do not know if I would agree. The 1815 novel seems such a strong piece of work that even a 90 to 120 minute film could do justice to the story by adhering to the main aspects of the plot. Mind you, I have complainedabout Andrew Davies’ adaptation of the novel in the 1996-97 television movie. But even I cannot consider that a failure.

I do have a few complaints about “EMMA”. The majority of my complaints have to do with the casting. But there were some aspects of the production that I found less than satisfying. Director John Glenister’s direction of major scenes such as the Westons’ Christmas party and the Crown Inn ball failed to impress. The sequence featuring the Westons’ Christmas party lacked the holiday atmosphere that I found in the other versions. And I failed to noticed any sense of a change in the weather that led the Woodhouses and the Knightleys to depart from Randalls (the Westons’ estate) earlier than they had intended. As for the Crown Inn ball, it struck me as somewhat rushed. Dialogue seemed to dominate the entire sequence . . . to the point where only one dance was featured to the tune of the miniseries’ theme song. Both Glenister and screenwriter Denis Constanduros made such a big effort in building up the ball in the previous episode or two. But when it came to the actual execution, it simply fell flat and rushed for me. Even worse, they failed to provide the audience with the Emma/Knightley dance, which could have provided the first real hint of romantic feelings between the pair. And what happened to Jane Fairfax and Mr. Elton at the Box Hill picnic? Where were they? Frank Churchill’s flirting with Emma during the picnic had led to Jane’s eventual breakdown and observations of the Eltons’ quick marriage. The Box Hill sequence played an important part in Jane and Frank’s relationship. But without Jane in the scene, the importance of their storyline was somewhat robbed.

And there were performances, or should I say . . . casting that seemed rather off to me. Fiona Walker made an interesting Mrs. Augusta Elton. In fact, she was downright memorable. However, her Mrs. Elton came off as rather heavy-handed . . . to the point that she seemed more like an over-the-top 1970s divorcee, instead of a vicar’s pushy and ambitious wife of Regency England. She seemed to lack both Juliet Stevenson and Christina Cole’s talent for sly and subtle humor. Belinda Tighe gave a solid performance as Emma’s older sister, Isabella Knightley. But she seemed at least a decade-and-a-half older than Doran Godwin’s Emma. Donald Eccles would have made a perfect Mr. Woodhouse, if he had not come off as slightly cold in a few scenes. I find it odd that many Austen fans had complained of Godwin’s occasionally chilly performance. But Eccles seemed even more chilly at times, which is how I never would describe Mr. Woodhouse. At least Godwin’s Emma became warmer and slightly funny in the miniseries’ second half. It seemed as if the arrival of Augusta Elton allowed Godwin to inject more warmth and humor into the role. I also had a problem with Ania Marson as the reserved Jane Fairfax. I understand that Jane went through a great deal of stress and fear, while awaiting for a chance to finally marry Frank. But Marson’s performance struck me as . . . odd. The intense look in her eyes and frozen expression made her resemble a budding serial killer.

I really enjoyed Robert East’s portrayal of the mercurial Frank Churchill. Although I felt that East did not seem effective in his portrayal of Frank’s penchant for cruel humor and at times, his handling of the character’s many traits seemed a bit off balanced, I still believe that his performance was overall, first-rate. Timothy Peters was excellent as Mr. Elton. In fact, he was spot on. Of all the characters featured in Austen’s novel, Mr. Elton seemed to be the only that has been perfectly cast in all four productions I have seen. I really enjoyed Debbie Bowen’s performance as the slightly naive Harriet Smith. In fact, I believe she was the perfect embodiment of Harriet. One of the funniest scenes in the entire miniseries featured Harriet’s efforts to make up her mind on which color ribbons she wanted to purchase. And Constance Chapman made an excellent Miss Bates. She perfectly conveyed all of the character’s likeability and verbosity that made her irritable to Emma. And the scene that featured Emma’s attempt to apologize for the insult during the Box Hill picnic was beautifully acted by Chapman.

But I was impressed by John Carson’s performance as George Knightley. Perhaps he seemed a bit old for the role, at age 45. But he perfectly conveyed all of Mr. Knightley’s warmth, dry humor and love for Emma. And surprisingly, he and Doran Godwin had a strong screen chemistry. I also have to give credit to Doran Godwin for a first-rate portrayal of Emma Woodhouse. Mind you, there were times in the first three episodes when she seemed a bit too chilly for the gregarious Emma. But Godwin did an excellent job in developing the character into a more mature young woman, who became mindful of her flaws. And as I had stated earlier, her Emma also became warmer and slightly funnier upon the introduction of Augusta Elton.

There were also aspects of the miniseries’ production that I enjoyed. Aside from the Weston Christmas party, I was very impressed by Tim Harvey’s production designs. The miniseries’ photography seemed crisp and colorful, even after 39 years. I found this impressive, considering that most BBC television miniseries between 1971 and 1986 seemed to fade over the years. I also liked Joan Ellacott’s costume designs – especially for Emma and Jane. However, I noticed that the high lace featured in some of Emma’s dresses seemed a bit theatrical and cheap . . . as if they came off outfits found in some minor costume warehouse.

Yes, I do have some quibbles regarding the production and casting for “EMMA”. After all, there is no such thing as perfect. But the good definitely outweighed the bad. And for a miniseries with six episodes, I can happily say that it failed to bore me. Personally, I think it is the best Jane Austen adaptation from the 1970s and 1980s I have ever seen.

 

“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.

“HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary

375114_original

“HEAVEN AND HELL:  NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III” (1994) – EPISODE ONE Commentary

If there is one chapter in John Jakes’ NORTH AND SOUTH saga that is reviled by the fans, it the television adaptation of the third one, set after the American Civil War. First of all, the theme of post-war Reconstruction has never been that popular with tales about the four-year war. More importantly, fans of Jakes’ saga seemed to have a low opinion of “HEAVEN AND HELL”, the 1994 adaptation of Jakes’ third North and South novel, published back in 1987. 

My opinion of the 1994 miniseries slightly differs from the opinions formed by the majority of the saga’s fans. The three-part miniseries failed to achieve the same level of production quality that its two predecessors had enjoyed. But unlike the second miniseries, 1986’s “NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II”, this third miniseries was more faithful to Jakes’ original novel – as I had pointed out in a previous article. And to my surprise, I discovered that some aspects of the miniseries were an improvement from the novel.

Episode One of “BOOK THREE” struck me as a solid return to John Jakes’ saga. Not only did it re-introduce some of the old characters from the previous two miniseries, but also introduced new characters. Ironcially, one of the new characters turned out to be the oldest Main sibling – Cooper Main. As many fans know, his character was left out of the first two miniseries. Why? I do not know. But Cooper was introduced as a humorless man, embittered by the South’s defeat. And Robert Wagner gave one of the best performances in the miniseries in his portrayal of Cooper. Another praiseworthy addition turned out to be Rya Kihlstedt, who portrayed Charles Main’s new love interest, actress Willa Parker. Not only did Kihlstedt did a great job in portraying the idealistic Willa, she had great chemistry with Kyle Chandler, who took over the role of Charles Main. Many fans had howled with outrage over Chandler assuming the role of Charles, following Lewis Smith’s portrayal in the previous miniseries. So did I. But after seeing Chandler do a superb job of conveying Charles’ post-war angst and desperation to find a living to support his son. James Read gave a solid performance as a grieving George Hazard, who seemed to be having difficulty in dealing with the death of his best friend, Orry Main, at the hands of their former enemy, Elkhannah Bent. Cliff De Young made a surprisingly effective villain as Gettys LaMotte, the manipulative and vindictive leader of the local Ku Klux Klan.

Unfortunately, there were performances that failed to impress me. I got the feeling that director Larry Peerce harbored an odd idea on how a 19th century upper-class Southern woman would behave. This was quite apparent in the performances of Lesley-Anne Down as Madeline Fabray Main and Terri Garber as Ashton Main Huntoon. The performances of both actresses struck me as unusually exaggerated and melodramatic – something which they had managed to avoid in “BOOK I” and “BOOK II”. Fortunately for Garber, she occasionally broke out of her caricature, when portraying Ashton’s more sardonic nature. Down only got worse, when her voice acquired a breathless tone. Being a fan of character actor Keith Szarabajka from his stint on “ANGEL” and other television and movie appearances, I was shocked by his hammy performance as a vengeful Kentucky-born Union officer named Captain Venable, whose family had been ravaged by Confederate troops. His performance was one of the most wince-inducing I have witnessed in years.

Episode One possessed some bloopers that left me scratching my head. Cooper’s sudden appearance in the miniseries was never explained by the screenwriters. Neither was the introduction of former slave Isaac, who was portrayed by Stan Shaw. And I am still curious about how Gettys LaMotte learned about Madeline’s African-American ancestry, let alone the other neighbors in the parish. I do not recall Ashton or Bent telling anyone.

Fortunately, Episode One was filled with excellent scenes and moments. One of the scenes that really seemed to stand out featured George and Madeline’s argument about the state of post-war Mont Royal. Charles’ hilarious introduction to a Cheyenne village involved marvelous acting by Chandler and Rip Torn, who portrayed mountain man Adolphus Jackson. One other scene that had me on the floor laughing featured Ashton, who became a prostitute in Santa Fe, kicking a smelly would-be customer out of her room. The episode featured very chilly moments. One of them featured Gettys LaMotte’s creepy rendition of the KKK theme song (I forgot that De Young was also a singer). Another was the murder of Adolphus Jackson and his nephew Jim by a Cheyenne warrior named Scar. But the best scene in the entire miniseries (and probably the entire trilogy) was Elkhannah Bent’s murder of Constance Hazard, George’s wife. I found it subtle, creepy and beautifully shot by Peerce. Also, Philip Casnoff and Wendy Kilbourne acted the hell out of that scene.

Despite some bloopers that either left me confused or wincing with discomfort – including some hammy performances by a few members of the cast – I can honestly say that“HEAVEN AND HELL:  BOOK III” started off rather well.  Better than I had originally assumed it would.

 

“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.

 

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

5538_10_large

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” (1990) Review

I just realized something. I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1932 novel, “Peril at End House”. I find this ironic, considering that I have seen the 1990 television movie adaptation of this novel at least three or four times. One of these days, I will get around to reading Christie’s novel and comparing it to the television adaptation. Right now, I am going to focus on the latter. 

Directed by Renny Rye and adapted by Clive Exton, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” is the first full-length television movie aired on “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”. It is also about Belgian-born detective Hercule Poirot’s efforts to prevent the murder of a young socialite, during his vacation in Cornwall. The movie begins with Poirot and his friend Arthur Hastings arriving at a Cornish seaside resort for their vacation. While conversing with socialite Magdala “Nick” Buckley on the resort’s grounds, Poirot notices that someone had fired a bullet into the brim of her floppy hat. Poirot exposes the bullet hole to Nick, who finds it difficult to believe that someone wants to kill her. She points out that aside from her house – End House – has no real assets. Poirot decides to investigate her inner circle, who includes the following:

*Charles Vyse – Nick’s cousin and an attorney
*Mr. and Mrs. Croft – an Australian couple that has leased the lodge near End House, who had suggested Nick make a will six months earlier
*Freddie Rice – a close friend of Nick’s, who is also an abused wife
*Jim Lazarus – an art dealer in love with Nick
*Commander George Challenger – a Royal Navy officer who is also attracted to Nick

Poirot eventually advises Nick to invite a relative to stay with her for a few weeks. Nick invites her distant cousin Maggie Buckley. Unfortunately, someone kills Maggie, after she makes the mistake of wearing Nick’s dress shawl during an evening party. Even worse, the killer eventually achieves his/her goal by sending a box of poisoned chocolates to Nick, while she was recuperating at a local hospital.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” possessed a certain plot device that Christie had used in several of her novels. I would describe this plot device. But to do so would spoil the rest of the story. It took me years to spot this plot device. And I should be surprised that I have not come across anyone else who has spotted it. And yet . . . I am not. The fact that it took me several years to spot this particular plot device only tells me that Christie has utilized it with great effect in some of her more interesting and well-written mysteries. Thankfully, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be one of those well-written mysteries.

I must admit that Clive Exton did a pretty damn good job in adapting Christie’s novel for the television screen. He stuck very closely to the original novel’s plot . . . with a few changes that did no harm to the overall movie. Both Exton and Rye presented a well-paced production to the audiences. They set up the story with Poirot and Hastings’ arrival to Cornwall and continued on with without any haste or dragging feet. The only time the movie threatened to put me to sleep occurred between the story’s second murder and the revelation of the killer . . . . when the story threatened to ground to a halt. I have one last problem – namely the appearance of Chief Inspector Japp. I realize that Japp did appear in the novel. But his appearance merely dealt with Poirot’s request that he investigate the Crofts, whom the Belgian detective suspected of being forgers. The cinematic Japp immediately appeared following Maggie Buckley’s death as the main police investigator. And Cornwall is not under Scotland Yard’s main jurisdiction.

The production values for “PERIL AT END HOUSE” proved to be top-notch. Rye shot the film’s exterior scenes in Salcombe, Devon; instead of the county of Cornwall. I found that curious. However, both he and cinematographer Peter Bartlett certainly took advantage of the movie’s setting with Bartlett’s photography of Salcombe’s charming, Old World style. This was especially apparent in the movie’s opening sequence that featured Poirot and Hasting’s arrival by airplane. Actually, production designer Mike Oxley did an excellent job of recreating an English vacation resort in the early 1930s. The production practically reeked of the Art Deco style of that time period. However, I was especially impressed by Linda Mattock’s costume designs. I was especially impressed by those costumes worn by actresses Polly Walker, Pauline Moran and Alison Sterling. My only complaints about the movie’s visual styles were the actresses’ hairstyles. No one seemed capable of re-creating the early 1930s soft bob. The actresses either wore a chignon or in the case of Sterling, a Dutch Boy bob made famous by actress Louise Brooks in the late 1920s.

“PERIL AT END HOUSE” featured some solid performances by the cast. David Suchet gave his usual excellent portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I was especially impressed by the on-screen chemistry he managed to produce with Polly Walker. The latter gave a standout performance as the killer’s main target, Madgala “Nick” Buckley. Walker did an excellent job of transforming Nick from the charming “Bright Young Thing” to a wary and frightened woman, who realizes that someone is trying to kill her. Alison Sterling was also excellent as one of Nick’s closest friends, “Freddie” Rice. Next to Walker’s Nick, Sterling gave an interesting and skillful portrayal of the very complex Freddie. Hugh Fraser, Pauline Moran and Philip Jackson were also excellent as Arthur Hastings, Miss Lemon and Chief Inspector Japp. All three, along with Suchet, managed to re-create their usual magic. The movie also featured solid performances from Paul Geoffrey (whom I found particularly convincing as an early 30s social animal), John Harding, Christopher Baines and Elizabeth Downes. I found the Australian accents utilized by Jeremy Young and Carol Macready, who portrayed the Crofts, rather wince inducing. But since their accents were supposed to be fake in the first place, I guess I had no problems.

For some reason, “PERIL AT END HOUSE” has never become a big favorite of mine. It is a well done adaptation of Christie’s novel. And I found it visually attractive, thanks to the movie’s production team. The movie also featured some excellent performances – especially from David Suchet, Polly Walker and Alison Sterling. Naturally, it is not perfect. But that is not the problem. I cannot explain my lack of enthusiasm for “PERIL AT END HOUSE”. I can only assume that I found nothing particularly mind blowing or fascinating about its plot. It is simply a good, solid murder mystery that has managed to entertain me on a few occasions. Perhaps . . . that is enough.

 

“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

Europeans1

“THE EUROPEANS” (1979) Review

Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter,
Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released “THE EUROPEANS”, an adaptation of Henry James’ 1878 short novel, “The Europeans: A Sketch”

Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, “THE EUROPEANS” begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family – patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix’s sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.

It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins’ lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia’s marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins’ Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie’s distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand – including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.

I might as well say it. “THE EUROPEANS” is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film’s period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when “THE EUROPEANS” struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie’s production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.

But there were plenty of aspects of “THE EUROPEANS” that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James’ story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region’s beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story’s period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft’s costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft’s successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:

protectedimage

Despite my complaints about the movie’s staid adaptation of James’ novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie’s plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is “neither”. But individuals won, especially three particular characters – Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in “THE EUROPEANS” proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.

As I had stated earlier, I would never consider “THE EUROPEANS” as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company’s bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie’s flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James’ tale.