“DANIEL DERONDA” (2002) Review

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“DANIEL DERONDA” (2002) Review

With the exception of the 1994 miniseries, “MIDDLEMARCH”, I am not that familiar with any movie or television adaptations of George Eliot’s works. I finally decided to overlook my earlier lack of interest in Eliot’s final novel, “Daniel Deronda” and watch the television version that aired back in 2002. 

This adaptation of Eliot’s 1876 novel was set during the same decade of its publication, although the literary version was set a decade earlier – during the 1860s. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Hooper, “DANIEL DERONDA”contained two major plot arcs, united by the story’s title character. In fact, Davies followed Eliot’s narrative structure by starting its tale mid-way. The miniseries began in the fictional town of Leubronn, Germany with the meeting of Daniel Deronda, the ward of a wealthy landowner; and the oldest daughter of an impoverished, yet respectable family, Gwendolen Harleth. The two meet inside a casino, where Gwendolen manages to lose a good deal of money at roulette. When she learns that her family has become financially ruined, Gwendolen pawns her necklace and considers another round of gambling to make her fortune. However, Daniel, who became attracted to her, redeemed the necklace for her. The story then flashes back several months to the pair’s back stories.

Following the death of her stepfather, Gwendolen and her family moves to a new neighborhood, where she meets Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, a taciturn and calculating man who proposes marriage safter their first meeting. Although originally tempted to be courted by Grandcourt, Gwendolen eventually flees to Germany after learning about Grandcourt’s mistress, Lydia Glasher and their children. Meanwhile, Daniel is in the process of wondering what to do with his life, when he prevents a beautiful Jewish singer named Milah Lapidoth from committing suicide. Kidnapped by her father as a child and forced into an acting troupe, Milah finally fled from him when she discovered his plans to sell her into prostitution. Daniel undertakes to help Milah find her mother and brother in London’s Jewish community before he departs for Germany with his guardian, Sir Hugo Mallinger. Although Daniel and Gwendolen are attracted to each other, she eventually marries the emotionally abusive Grandcourt out of desperation, and he continues his search for Milah’s family and becomes further acquainted with London’s Jewish community. Because Grandcourt is Sir Hugo’s heir presumptive, Daniel and Gwendolen’s paths cross on several occasions.

There are times when I find myself wondering if there is any true description of Eliot’s tale. On one hand, it seemed to be an exploration of Jewish culture through the eyes of the Daniel Deronda character. On the other hand, it seemed like an exploration of an abusive marriage between a previously spoiled young woman who finds herself out of her depth and a cold and manipulative man. Most critics and viewers seemed more interested in the plotline regarding Gwendolen’s marriage to Henleigh Grandcourt. At the same time, these same critics and viewers have criticized Eliot’s exploration of Jewish culture through Daniel’s eyes, judging it as dull and a millstone around the production’s neck. When I first saw“DANIEL DERONDA”, I had felt the same. But after this second viewing, I am not so sure if I would completely agree with them.

Do not get me wrong. I thought Andrew Davies, Tom Hopper and the cast did an excellent job of translating Gwendolen’s story arc to the screen. I was especially transfixed in watching how the arrogant and spoiled found herself drawn into a marriage with a controlling and sadistic man like Henleigh Grandcourt. However by the first half of Episode Three, I found myself growing rather weary of watching Hugh Bonneville stare icily into the camera, while Romola Garai trembled before him. Only Gwendolen’s pathetic attempts to rattle her husband and Grandcourt’s jealousy of Daniel provided any relief from the constant mental sadism between the pair. In contrast, Daniel’s interest in Milah, her Jewish ancestry and especially his confusion over his own identity struck me as surprisingly interesting. I also found the conflict between Daniel’s growing interest in Judaism and his godfather’s determination to mold him into an “English gentleman” also fascinating. When I first saw “DANIEL DERONDA”, I thought it could have benefited from a fourth episode. Or . . . the producers could have stretched the second and third episodes to at least 75 or 90 minutes each. But you know what? Upon my second viewing, I realized I had no problems with the production’s running time. Besides, I do not think I could have endured another episode of the Grandcourts’ marriage.

I have to give George Eliot for creating an interesting novel about self-discovery . . . especially for the two main characters, Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth. And I want to also credit screenwriter Andrew Davies for his first-rate translation of Eliot’s novel to the television screen. I would not say that Davies’ work was perfect, but then neither was Eliot’s novel. I have to praise both the novelist and the screenwriter for effectively conveying Daniel’s confusion over his own identity and his fascination toward a new culture and how both will eventually converge as one by the end of the story. Although Gwendolen plays a part in Daniel’s inner culture clash, she has her own struggles. I do not simply refer to her struggles to endure Grandcourt’s emotional control over her. I also refer to Gwendolen’s moral conflict – one in which she had earlier lost when she had agreed to marry Grandcourt. But a trip to Italy will eventually give her a second chance to resolve her conflict. On the other hand, I do have some quibbles about Davies’ screenplay. Daniel was not the only character who had developed feelings for Milah. So did his close friend, Hans Meyrick. Unfortunately, Davies’ screenplay did little to explore Hans’ feelings for Milah and toward her relationship with Daniel. Speaking of Milah, I could not help but feel fascinated by her backstory regarding her relationship with her father. In many ways, it struck me as a lot more traumatic than Gwendolen’s marriage to Grandcourt. A part of me wishes that Eliot had explored this part of Milah’s life in her novel. Speaking of Milah, Episode Two ended on an interesting note in which she finally became aware of the emotional connection between Daniel and Gwendolen. And yet, the story never followed through on this emotional and character development. Which I feel is a damn shame.

Some fans and critics have expressed regret that Daniel ends up marrying Milah, instead of Gwendolen. After all, Eliot allowed two other characters to form a mixed marriage – the Jewish musician Herr Klesmer and one of Gwendolen’s friends, Catherine Arrowpoint. Surely, she could have allowed Daniel and Gwendolen to marry. I do believe that they had a point. I feel that Daniel and Gwendolen would have made emotionally satisfying partners for each other. But if I must be honest, I can say the same about Daniel and Milah. I believe the two women represented choices in lifestyles for Daniel. Gwendolen represented the lifestyle that both Sir Hugo and Daniel’s mother wanted him to pursue – namely that of an upper-class English gentleman. Milah represented a lifestyle closer to his true self. In the end, Eliot wanted Daniel to choose his “true self”.

I cannot deny that the production values for “DANIEL DERONDA” struck me as outstanding. Don Taylor’s production designs for the miniseries did a beautiful job in re-creating Victorian England and Europe during the 1870s. The crew who helped him bring this era to life also did exceptional jobs, especially art director Grant Montgomery and set decorator Nicola Barnes. However, there were technical aspects that truly stood out. Simon Starling’s colorful and sharp photography of Great Britain and Malta (which served as Italy) truly took my breath away. I could also say the same for Caroline Noble, who did an excellent job of re-creating the hairstyles of the early and mid-1870s. As for Mike O’Neill’s costume designs for the production . . . in some cases, pictures can speak louder than words:

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Truly outstanding and beautiful. I was especially impressed by Romola Garai’s wardrobe.

“DANIEL DERONDA” also featured a good deal of outstanding performances. If I must be honest, I cannot find a single performance that struck me as below par or even mediocre. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Celia Imrie, Anna Popplewell, Anna Steel, Jamie Bamber and Daniel Marks. “DANIEL DERONDA” also included some interested supporting performances, especially Allan Corduner’s skillful portrayal of the blunt-speaking musician Herr Klesmer; David Bamber as Grandcourt’s slimy sycophant, Lush; Edward Fox as Sir Hugo Mallinger, Daniel’s loving benefactor; Amanda Root’s interesting portrayal of Gwendolen’s rather timid mother; Daniel Evan’s intense performance as Miriam’s long lost brother; and Greta Scacchi’s very complex portrayal of Grandcourt’s former mistress, Lydia Glasher.

Superficially, the character of Miriam Lapidoth seemed like the type that would usually bore me – the “nice girl” with whom the hero usually ended. But actress Jodhi May projected a great deal of depth in her portrayal of Miriam, reflecting the character’s haunted past in a very subtle and skillful manner. Barbara Hershey more or less made a cameo appearance in“DANIEL DERONDA” that lasted a good five to ten minutes. However, being an excellent actress, Hershey gave a superb performance as Daniel’s long lost mother, a former opera singer named Contessa Maria Alcharisi, who gave him up to Sir Hugo in order to pursue a singing career. Perhaps I should have been horrified by her decision to give up motherhood for a career. But Hershey beautifully conveyed the contessa’s frustration over her father’s determination that she adhere to society’s rules by limiting her life to being a wife and mother. And I found myself sympathizing her situation.

Like Miriam Lapidoth, the Daniel Deronda character seemed like the type of character I would find boring. Superficially, he seemed too upright and not particularly complex. However, I was surprised and very pleased by how Hugh Dancy injected a great deal of complexity in his portrayal of Daniel. He did an effective job in portraying Daniel’s conflict between the lifestyle both Sir Hugo and his mother had mapped out for him and the one represented by Miriam, her brother Mordecai, and their friends, the Cohens. Romola Garai was equally superb as the complex Gwendolen Harleth. She did such an excellent job in conveying Gwendolen’s growth from a spoiled and ambitious young woman, to the matured and more compassionate woman who had survived an emotionally traumatic marriage that I cannot help but wonder how she failed to earn an action nomination, let alone award, for her performance. Hugh Bonneville also gave an excellent job as Gwendolen’s emotionally abusive husband, Henleigh Grandcourt. I read somewhere that the role helped Bonneville break out of his usual staple of good-natured buffoons that he had portrayed in movies like 1999’s “MANSFIELD PARK” and“NOTTING HILL”. I can see how. I found his Grandcourt rather chilly and intimidating.

“DANIEL DERONDA” may have a few flaws. But overall, it is a prime example of the British period dramas at its zenith during the fifteen-year period between 1995 and 2010. It is a superb production and adaptation of George Eliot’s novel, thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, Andrew Davies’ writing, the excellent work by its crew and the first-rate cast led by Hugh Dancy and Romola Garai. It is something not to be missed.

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

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“LES MISERABLES” (2012) Review

There were a few movies released in 2012 that I was very reluctant to see in the theaters. One of those movies turned out to be “LES MISERABLES”, the recent adaptation of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1985 stage musical of the same name. And that musical was an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel.

Directed by Oscar winning director Tom Hooper, “LES MISERABLES” told the story of early 19th century French convict Jean Valjean released from prison on parole by a guard named Javert in 1815. Nineteen years earlier, Valjean had been imprisoned for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family. Because of his paroled status, Valjean is driven out of every town. He is offered food and shelter by the Bishop of Digne, but steals the latter’s silver during the night. Valjean’s former prison guard, the police captures him. But the Bishop informs them that he had given the silver to Valjean as a gift. The former convict eventually breaks his parole and Javert vows to capture him. Eight years later, Valjean has become a wealthy factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Some of Valjean’s factory workers discover that one of their own, a woman named Fantine, one of his workers, has been sending money to an illegitimate daughter named Cosette. Fantine uses her salary to pay an unscrupulous innkeeper named Thénardiers, his equally shady wife and their daughter Éponine to take care of Cosette. However, Valjean’s foreman dismisses Fantine and she resorts to desperate measures to support her daughter by selling her hair and teeth, before becoming a prostitute. Javert, who has become the town’s chief inspector, arrests Fantine for striking an abusive customer. Valjean saves her and has her hospitalized. He also learns that a man believed to be him, has been arrested. Refusing to allow an innocent man to become condemned in his place, Valjean reveals his identity during the man’s trial. Then then returns to the hospital and he promises the dying Fantine that he will look after Cosette.

Javert arrives to take Valjean into custody, but Valjean escape with a jump into the local river. He then pays the Thénardiers to allow him to take Cosette. The pair elude Javert’s pursuit and begin a new life in Paris. The story jumps nine years later in which the grandson of a wealthy man and student and named Marius Pontmercy becomes involved in a growing revolutionary movement following the death a government official sympathetic to the poor named Jean Maximilien Lamarque. He also falls in love with Cosette, much to Valjean’s dismay, who believes he is an agent of Javert’s. Meanwhile, Marius is unaware that Éponine Thénardier, the daughter of Cosette’s former caretakers, has fallen in love with him. Most of these storylines – Valjean’s reluctance to acknowledge Cosette and Marius’ love; Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius; and Valjean’s problems with Javert, who has joined the Paris police force, culminates in the long and detailed sequence that features the June Rebellion of 1832.

After watching my DVD copy of “LES MISERABLES”, I cannot deny that the movie has some great moments and struck me as pretty damn good. The sequence featuring Fantine’s troubles greatly moved me. After winning an Academy Award for her outstanding performance as the doomed woman, Anne Hathaway had expressed a hope that one day the misfortunes of Fantine would be found only in fiction in the future. That is a lovely hope, but knowing human nature, I doubt it will ever happen. And watching Fantine’s life spin out of control, due to the narrow-minded views of society and male objectivity of her body, I think my views on human nature sunk even further. Some critics had the nerve to claim that Fantine’s situation was something from the past and could never be considered relevant today. I am still amazed that adults – even those who considered themselves civilized and intelligent – could be so completely blind and idiotic. Even Valjean’s attempts to make a life for himself, following his release from prison struck me as relevant – echoing the attempts of some convicts to overcome the criminal pasts and records in an effort to make a new life. Usually with little or no success, thanks to the chilly attitude of the public. Hugh Jackman’s performance beautifully reflected the struggles of many convicts – past and present – to make new lives for themselves – especially in the movie’s first half hour. Although many people tend to view the police officer Javert as evil, I suspect they view his villainy as a product of any society that creates rules – at times rigid – to keep the general population in check. While watching “LES MISERABLES”, I realized that I could never view Javert as a villain of any kind. He merely seemed to be a foil or object to Valjean’s chances for a new life. More than anything, Javert seemed to be a victim of his own rigid views on good, evil and upholding the law. Russell Crowe did a beautiful job of expressing Javert’s inability to be flexible in his views on morality . . . even when his own flexibility comes to the fore when he allows Valjean to finally escape in the end. And it is a shame that he never earned an Academy Award or Golden Globe Award nomination.

“LES MISERABLES” has a running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes. Yet, only 50 minutes of the film focused on Valjean’s early years as an ex-convict, his tenure as mayor of Montreuil-sur-Merhis, Fantine’s troubles and young Cosette’s time with the Thénardiers. The rest of the movie is set in 1832 Paris, leading up to the outbreak of the June Rebellion. And if I must honest . . . I found that a little disappointing. Mind you, not all of the 1832 segment was a waste. Thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction, the segment featured a well directed and detailed account of the June Rebellion – especially from Marius Pontmercy, Valjean and Javert’s viewpoints. It featured more fine performances from Jackman and Crowe, as Valjean and Javert continued their game of cat and mouse. It also featured an excellent performance from Samantha Barks, who made a very impressive film debut as Éponine Thénardier, the oldest daughter of Cosette’s cruel caretakers. Many filmgoers and critics had complained about the romance between Cosette and Marius Pontmercy, claiming that it seemed forced. I do not know if I could agree with that assessment. I thought Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne did a pretty good job in conveying the young couple’s romantic interest in each other. The problem with their romance centered on Cosette’s character.

I realized that Seyfried did all she could to infuse some kind of energy into the role. I could say the same for Isabelle Allen. Both Seyfriend and Allen gave first-rate performances. Unfortunately, both were saddled with a one-dimensional character. At times, I found myself wishing that Éponine and not Cosette had ended up with Marius. In fact, I felt the movie could have explored Cosette and the Thénardiers’ relationship with a little more depth. As for the Thénardiers, they proved to be the story’s true villains. Unfortunately, Helen Bonham-Carter and Sascha Baron Cohen injected a little too much comedy into their performances. The couple came off more as comic relief, instead of villains. And I blame both Hooper and the screenwriters. Cosette and the Thénardiers were not the only problems. Although I had complimented Hooper’s direction of the June Rebellion scenes, the entire sequence threatened to go on and on . . . almost forever. I ended up as one relieved moviegoer when the sequence ended with quick violence and Valjean’s rescue of Marius. I have a deep suspicion that “LES MISERABLES” was really about the June Rebellion. Many claimed that Hugo was inspired by his witness of the insurrection. Which would explain why the story’s earlier period between 1815 and 1823 were rushed in a span of 50 minutes or so. Pity. Other moviegoers complained about Hooper’s constant use of close-ups in the film. And I have to agree with them. For a movie that was supposed to be a historic epic wrapped in a musical production, the balance between wide shots and close-ups somewhat unbalanced. During Valjean’s death scene, he envisioned not only the long dead Fatine, but also the insurrectionists who had fought alongside Marius before getting killed. One of those insurrectionists turned out to be Éponine Thénardier. Only she had died before Valjean had arrived at Marius’ barricade. So . . . why was he experiencing images of her?

I could comment on the singing performances of the cast. I thought they had more or less did a pretty good job. Many had criticized Crowe’s singing, but I honestly felt nothing wrong about it. Hathaway’s acting during her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” impressed me a lot more than her singing voice, which struck me as pretty solid. I had expected Jackman’s singing to knock my socks off. It did not quite reach that level. Like Hathaway and Crowe, his acting impressed me a lot more than his singing. Both Redmayne and Seyfried sang pretty well. So did Helen Bonham-Carter and Cohen. But the one musical performance that really impressed me was Samantha Barks’ rendition of “On My Own”. The actress/singer has a beautiful voice.

I liked “LES MISERABLES” very much. The movie featured fine performances from the cast. And Tom Hooper did a very good job in directing the film, despite the many close-ups. And I do believe that it deserved a Best Picture nomination. Do not get me wrong. I enjoy musicals very much. But I simply could not endure a musical that not only featured songs, but dialogue acted out in song. It stretched my patience just a little too much – like the drawn out sequences leading up to the violence that ended the June Rebellion. I would like to say that I regret missing “LES MISERABLES” in the movie theaters. But I would be lying. I have no regrets . . . as much as I like the film.