“BLANCHE FURY” (1948) Review

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“BLANCHE FURY” (1948) Review

I suspect that many fans of costume dramas would be fascinated to know about the series of period dramas released by the British film industry during the post-World War II era. A good number of those films were released by a British film studio known as Gainsborough Pictures. But not all of them were released through this particular studio. Some were released through other studios or production companies . . . like the 1948 period drama, “BLANCHE FURY”

Based upon the 1939 novel written by Marjorie Bowen (under the pseudonym of Joseph Stearling), “BLANCHE FURY”told the story of two lovers during the 1850s, who become embroiled in adultery, greed and murder. More importantly, Bowen’s novel and the movie was inspired by a real-life case involving the 1848 murder of an estate owner and his adult by a tenant farmer trying to stave off a bad mortgage. The story surrounding “BLANCHE FURY” proved to be a bit more complicated and melodramatic.

The story begins with a beautiful impoverished gentlewoman named Blanche Fuller, who is forced to serve as a domestic companion for a wealthy woman (think of Joan Fontaine in 1940’s “REBECCA”). To Blanche’s great relief, she receives an invitation to become governess for the granddaughter of her rich uncle Simon Fuller. Upon her arrival, Blanche becomes romantically involved with Simon’s only son, the weak-willed Laurence. She learns that her uncle and cousin have assumed the surname of Fury, which belonged to the previous owner of the estate, the late Adam Fury. She also meets Philip Thorn, Adam’s illegitimate son, who serves as the estate’s head groom and resents Simon and Laurence’s possession of his father’s estate. Blanche decides to marry Laurence for the sake of security and wealth, but becomes dissatisfied with her marriage. She and Philip also fall in love and quickly drifts into a sexual affair. Longing for possession of both Blanche and the estate, Philip drags Blanche into a plot that leads to double murder.

The first thing that caught my attention about “BLANCHE FURY” that it is a beautiful looking film. Producer Anthony Havelock-Allan, director Marc Allégret and cinematographers Guy Green and Geoffrey Unsworth really made use of the Technicolor process. And if I must be brutally honest, I could say the same for the costumes designed by Sophie Devine, who created some colorful outfits for leading lady, Valerie Hobson, as shown below:

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Despite my admiration for the photography and costumes, I was not that impressed by the set designs and especially the production designs. Well . . . let me take some of that back. I had no problems with John Bryan’s production designs for scenes featured in smaller rooms – Philip’s quarters and a private bedroom or two. But I was not impressed by scenes in large rooms – you know, the drawing room, foyer or library of the Fury manor. Quite frankly, these “sets” resembled badly made matte paintings instead of lived-in rooms. Lifeless. An individual museum room with a collection of paintings looked warmer.

But I certainly had no problems with the story. The latter begins with Blanche in the process of giving birth before it flashes back to her days as a paid companion. Thanks to the screenplay written by Audrey Erskine-Lindop and Cecil McGivern, audiences received several glimpses into Blanche’s mindset – her frustrations as a paid companion and later, as wife to the weak-willed Laurence Fury; her sexual fascination with Philip Thorn and the later realization that she had bitten off more than she could chew, thanks to Philip’s murder plot. For me, the most memorable scene in the entire movie featured an argument between the unfaithful Blance and the arrogant Laurence, who had insisted that she interrupt her rest to entertain a guest who had arrived with him and his father in the late evening. Blanche’s blatant refusal to blindly obey her husband nearly caused me to stand up and cheer, despite the fact she had spent the last 24 hours cheating on him with Philip. I had an easier time understanding Blanche than I did Philip. He seemed to have this attitude that the Fury estate should have been given to him, despite being born on the wrong side of the blanket. And the fact that he was willing to destroy the Fuller-Fury clan (with the exception of Blanche), including Laurence’s young daughter, left me feeling cold toward him in the end.

“BLANCHE FURY” featured some very solid performances, despite a penchant for some of the cast to nearly drift into slightly hammy acting. I could never accuse Valerie Hobson of overacting. Mind you, her performance did not exactly knock my socks off, but I thought she did a pretty job. Her best moments proved to be the Blanche/Laurence quarrel and Blanche’s horror over Philip’s arrogant behavior following the deaths of her husband and father-in-law. I had recently come across an article suggesting that Stewart Granger was not exactly the most skillful actor. Recalling his performances in movies like “KING SOLOMON’S MINES”“SCARAMOUCHE” and “BHOWANI JUNCTION”, I found this opinion hard to accept. But a part of me could not help but noticed that his performance in “BLANCHE FURY” – especially in the movie’s last half hour – threatened to wander in the realm of the melodramatic. Otherwise, I found his performance satisfactory. Michael Gough fared just as well as Miss Hobson as Laurence Fury – especially in the memorable Blanche/Laurence quarrel scene. Though, there were moments when I thought he would go a little overboard. Sybille Binder, who portrayed the Furys’ stoic housekeeper Louisa was just that . . . stoic. I thought she would play a major role in the movie. But in the end, I felt that her time was more or less wasted. Susanne Gibbs made a very charming Lavinia Fury, Laurence’s young daughter. But I thought the best performance came from Walter Fitzgerald, who portrayed Blanche’s no-nonsense uncle (later, father-in-law) Simon Fury. I found it rather interesting that Fitzgerald could portray such a blunt character with great subtlety. He seemed to be the only cast member who did not threatened to become melodramatic.

I may have had a few problems with “BLANCHE FURY”. But if I must be honest, I found it entertaining and rather satisfying. Thanks to Marc Allégret’s direction, Audrey Erskine-Lindop and Cecil McGivern’s entertaining screenplay, Guy Green and Geoffrey Unsworth’s photography and a solid cast led by Valerie Hobson and Stewart Granger, I found the movie more than satisfying.

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“HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” (2004) Review

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”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” (2004) Review

My knowledge of 19th century author, Anthony Trollope, can be described as rather skimpy. In fact, I have never read any of his works. But the 2004 BBC adaptation of his 1869 novel, ”He Knew He Was Right”, caught my interest and I decided to watch the four-part miniseries. 

”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” told the decline and fall of a wealthy gentleman named Louis Trevelyan (Oliver Dimsdale) and his marriage to the elder daughter of a British Colonial administrator named Sir Marmaduke Rowley (Geoffrey Palmer) during the late 1860s. Louis first met the spirited Emily Rowley (Laura Fraser) during a trip to the fictional Mandarin Islands. Their marriage began on a happy note and managed to produce one son, young Louis. But when Emily’s godfather, the rakish Colonel Osborne (Bill Nighy), began paying consistent visits to her, the house of cards for the Trevelyan marriage began to fall. Doubts about his wife’s fidelity formed clouds in Louis’ mind upon learning about Osborne’s reputation as a ladies’ man. His insistence that Emily put an end to Osborne’s visits, along with her stubborn opposition to his demands and outrage over his lack of trust finally led to a serious break in their marriage. What followed was a minor public scandal over their estrangement, a change of addresses for both husband and wife, Louis’ kidnapping of their son and his final descent into paranoia and madness.

The miniseries also featured several subplots. One centered around the forbidden romance between Emily’s younger sister, Nora (Christina Cole), and a young journalist named Hugh Stansbury (Stephen Campbell Moore), who happened to be Louis’ closest friend. Another featured the efforts of Hugh’s wealthy Aunt Jemima Stansbury (Anna Massey) to pair his younger sister Dorothy (Caroline Martin) to a local vicar in Wells named Reverend Gibson (David Tennant). Unfortunately for Aunt Stansbury, her desires for a romance between Dorothy and Reverend Gibson ended with Dorothy’s rejection of him and his lies about her moral character. Later, Dorothy and Aunt Stansbury found themselves at odds over Dorothy’s friendship and burgeoning romance with the nephew of her old love, Brooke Burgess (Matthew Goode). Gibson found himself in hot water with the socially powerful Aunt Stansbury over his lies about Dorothy. But that was nothing in compare to his being the center of a bitter sibling rivalry between two sisters, Arabella and Camilla French (Fenella Woolgar and Claudie Blakley). One last subplot evolved from Nora Rowley’s rejection of a wealthy aristocrat named Mr. Glascock (Raymond Coulthar). While traveling through Italy, he became acquainted with Caroline Spalding (Anna-Louise Plowman), one of two daughters of an American diplomat; and began a romance with her.

Most of the subplots from ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” proved to be mildly entertaining or interesting. But the one subplot that really caught my attention featured Reverend Gibson and the French sisters. There were times when I could not even describe this story. I found it hilarious in a slightly twisted and surreal manner. Considering the vicar’s sniveling personality, there were times I felt it served him right to find himself trapped in the rivalry between the sweetly manipulative Arabella and the aggressive Camilla. But when the latter proved to be obsessive and slightly unhinged, I actually found myself rooting for Reverend Gibson to be free of her grasp. In some ways, Camilla proved to be just as mentally disturbed as Louis Treveylan.

For me, the best aspect of ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” proved to be the main plot about the Treveylan marriage. I have to give kudos to Andrew Davies for his excellent job in adapting Trollope’s tale. I found the Louis and Emily’s story to be fascinating and well written. When their marriage ended in separation at the end of Episode One, I wondered if Davies had rushed the story. Foolish me. I never realized that the separation would lead toward a slow journey into madness for Louis and one of frustration and resentment for Emily. Her resentment increased tenfold after Louis kidnapped their young son, Little Louis; and upon her discovery that as a woman, she did not have the law on her side on who would be considered as the boy’s legal guardian. For me, the most surprising aspect of ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” was that despite all of the hell Louis forced Emily to endure, I ended up feeling very sorry for him. Due to his own insecurities over Colonel Osborne’s attentions to Emily and her strength of character, Louis ended up enduring a great deal of his own hell.

Another aspect I found rather interesting about ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” was the topic of power abuse that permeated the tale. Many film and literary critics have used the Louis Trevelyan character as an argument that the story’s main theme was the abuse of paternal or male power. I heartily agree with that argument. To a certain extent. After all, Louis’ hang-ups regarding Emily’s relationship with Colonel Osborne seemed to be centered around her unwillingness to blindly obey him or his fear that he may not be enough of a man for her. And Sir Marmaduke’s insistence that Nora dismiss the idea of marrying the penniless Hugh Stanbury for a wealthier gentleman – namely Mr. Glascock. But the miniseries also touched upon examples of matriarchy or female abuse of power – something that most critics or fans hardly ever mention. Jemima Stanbury’s position as the Stanburys’ matriarch and only wealthy family member gave her the belief she had the power to rule over the lives of her family. This especially seemed to be the case in her efforts to control Dorothy’s love life. Camilla French struck me as another female who used her position as Reverend French’s fiancée to abuse it – especially in her aggressive attempts to ensure that he would give in to her desires and demands. And when that failed, she used her anger and threats of violence to ensure that her sister Arabella did not win in their rivalry over the spineless vicar. Some would say that Camilla was merely indulging in masculine behavior. I would not agree. For I believe that both men and women – being human beings – are capable of violence. For me, aggression is a human trait and not associated with one particular gender. In the end, both Sir Marmaduke and Aunt Stanbury relented to the desires of their loved ones. Camilla had no choice but to relent to Arabella’s victory in their race to become Reverend Gibson’s wife, thanks to her mother and uncle’s intervention. As for Louis, he continued to believe he was right about Emily and Colonel Osborne . . . at least right before the bitter end.

Oliver Dimsdale proved to be the right actor to portray the complex and tragic Louis Trevelyan. He could have easily portrayed Louis as an unsympathetic and one-note figure of patriarchy. Instead, Dimsdale skillfully conveyed all of Louis’ faults and insecurities; and at the same time, left me feeling sympathetic toward the character. Dimsdale’s Louis was not a monster, but a flawed man who believed he could control everything and especially everyone in his life. And this trait proved to be his Achilles heel. But despite my sympathies toward him, I could never accept the righteousness of Louis’ behavior. And the main reason proved to be Laura Fraser’s portrayal of the high-spirited and stubborn Emily Rowley Trevelyan. One could say that Emily should have conceded to her husband’s wishes. As the spouse of a pre-20th century male, one would expect her to. I could point out that she did concede to Louis’ wishes – while protesting along the way. And Fraser not only did a marvelous job with Emily’s strong will and stubbornness, but also anger at Louis’ paternalism. Amazingly, she also effectively portrayed Emily’s continuing love for Louis and doubts over the character’s actions with a great deal of plausibility. This last trait was especially apparent in Emily’s conversations with Hugh Stanbury’s sister, Priscilla, in Episode Two. And both Dimsdale and Fraser created a strong and credible screen chemistry, despite their characters’ flaws, mistakes and conflicts.

Another reason I managed to enjoy ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” turned out to be the solid performances by the supporting cast. However, several performances stood out for me. Three came from veteran performers such as Bill Nighy, Anna Massey and Ron Cook. Nighy, ever the chameleon, gave a delicious performance as the mischievous and rakish Colonel Osborne; who proved to be something of a blustering phony in the end. Anna Massey gave a wonderful and entertaining portrayal as the wealthy matriarch of the Stanbury family, Jemima Stanbury. Despite being a tyrannical and no-nonsense woman, Massey’s Aunt Stanbury also proved to be a likeable and vulnerable individual. And Cook did a marvelous job in portraying Mr. Nozzle as more than just a study in one-dimensional seediness. Cook aptly conveyed the private detective’s conflict between his greedy desire for Louis’ business and his sympathy toward Emily’s plight.

The second trio of performances that impressed me came from David Tennant, Fenella Woolgar and Claudie Blakley, who portrayed the Reverend Gibson and the French sisters. Tennant, who was two years away from portraying the 10th Doctor Who, gave a hilarious performance as the avaricious vicar with a spine made from gelatin. Both Woolgar and Blakley were equally funny as the two sisters battling for his affections . . . or at least a marriage proposal. Blakley also seemed a tad frightening, as she delved into Camilla’s aggressive and homicidal determination to prevent Mr. Gibson from returning his “affections” to the more mild-tempered and manipulative Arabella.

The production values for ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” seemed pretty solid. But I found nothing exceptional about it, except for Mike Eley’s photography and Debbie Wiseman’s haunting score, which seemed appropriate for the Trevelyans’ doomed marriage. However, I do have one major problem with Trollope’s tale . . . and Davies’ script. Quite simply, the story suffered from one too many subplots. Many have counted at least five subplots in ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” and they would be correct. At least three of them – Dorothy’s problems with Reverend Gibson, her conflict with Aunt Stanbury over Brooke Burgess, and Reverend Gibson’s problems with the French sisters – having nothing to do with the main storyline. Despite the fact that I found them either interesting or entertaining, I felt as if they belonged in another novel or series. I realize that Trollope had used these subplots as examples of comparisons to the Trevelyan marriage, but I always have this strange sensation that I am watching a completely different series altogether. I believe that Davies should have realized this before writing his script.

Despite my problems with the tale’s numerous subplots, I found ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” to be a first-rate adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s novel. I must admit that all of the plotlines proved to be interesting. And Tom Vaughn’s direction, along with a first-rate cast led by Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser, ”HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”proved to be a literary adaptation worth watching.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1967) Review

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“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

To my knowledge, there have been five adaptations of Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel, “Far From the Madding Crowd”. One of them is even a modern day adaptation. I have not seen this modern version of Hardy’s novel. But I have seen at least three adaptations, including the 1967 version directed by John Schlesinger. 

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” – at least the 1967 version – has been highly regarded by critics, moviegoers and fans of Hardy’s novel for nearly five decades. It is the adaptation that other ones have been measured against . . . much to their detriment. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” was a different direction for Schlesinger. It would prove to be the first of five period productions directed by him. Schlesinger and screenwriter Frederic Raphael stuck as closely to Hardy’s novel as they possibly could. The movie was not a hundred percent adaptation of Hardy’s novel, but it was pretty close.

Anyone familiar with Hardy’s novel know the tale. It begins with a young 19th century Englishwoman named Bathsheba Everdene, living on a farm with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She meets Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who has leased and stocked a sheep farm. Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba and eventually proposes marriage. Although she likes Gabriel, Bathsheba values her independence too much and rejects his marriage proposal. Gabriel’s fortunes take a worse for turn, when his inexperienced sheep dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, bankrupting him. Bathsheba, on the other hand, inherits her uncle’s prosperous estate. Their paths crosses again, and she ends up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd.

Bathsheba has also become acquainted with her new neighbor, the wealthy farmer John Boldwood, who becomes romantically obsessed with her after she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. He sets about wooing her in a persistent manner that she finds difficult to ignore. But just as Bathsheba is about to consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy enters her life and she becomes infatuated with him. Frank was set to marry one of Bathsheba’s former servants, a young woman named Fanny Robin. Unfortunately, the latter showed up at the wrong church for the wedding and an angry and humiliated Frank called off the wedding. Bathsheba finds herself in the middle of a rather unpleasant love triangle between Boldwood and Frank, while Gabriel can only watch helplessly as the situation develops into tragedy.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” is a beautiful movie to behold . . . visually. One can credit the movie’s sweeping and colorful look to its iconic cinematographer Nicolas Roeg. Thanks to the latter, the English counties of Wiltshire and Dorset never looked lovelier. Not surprisingly, Roeg earned a BAFTA nomination for his work. The movie also benefited from Richard Macdonald’s production designs, which did an excellent job in recreating rural England in the mid 19th century. This was especially apparent in those scenes that featured Gabriel’s arrival at Shottwood, and his attempts to get hired as a bailiff or a shepherd at a hiring fair; the harvest meal at the Everdene farm; Bathsheba’s meeting with Frank in Bath; the rural fair attended by Bathsheba and Mr. Boldwood; and the Christmas party held by Mr. Boldwood. I will not pretend that I found Richard Rodney Bennett’s score particularly memorable. But I must admit that it blended well with the movie’s plot and Schlesinger’s direction. I also noticed that Bennett added traditional English folk songs in various scenes throughout the movie.

I have seen at least two movie versions and one television adaptation of Hardy’s novel. And it occurred to me that the main reason why I ended up enjoying all three adaptations so much is that I really liked Hardy’s tale. I really do. More importantly, all three adaptations, including this 1967 movie, did an excellent job in capturing the novel’s spirit. With a running time of 169 minutes, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” took its time in conveying Hardy’s story . . . with a few little shortcuts. And thanks to Schlesinger’s direction and Raphael’s screenplay, the movie not only recaptured both the idyllic nature of 19th century rural England, but also its harsh realities. More importantly, the movie brought alive to the screen, Hardy’s complex characters and romances. Hollywood once made a movie about a woman torn between three men in 1941’s “TOM, DICK, AND HARRY” with Ginger Rogers. But the complexity between the one woman and the three men was nothing in compare to this tale. Especially, when the leading lady is such a complex and ambiguous character like Bathsheba Everdene. Another aspect of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that I enjoyed were the interactions between the movie’s leads and the supporting cast who portrayed Bathsheba’s employees. Like her relationships with Gabriel, Frank and Mr. Boldwood; the leading lady’s relationships with her employees – especially the women who worked inside her home – proved to be very interesting.

There was a good deal of controversy when Julie Christie was announced as the actress to portray Bathsheba Everdene. Apparently, the media did not consider her capable of portraying the tumultuous mid-Victorian maiden . . . or any other period character. Well, she proved them wrong. Christie gave a very skillful and nuanced performance as the ambiguous Bathsheba, capturing the character’s passion, vanity and at times, insecurity. Terence Stamp was another actor more associated with the Swinging Sixties scene in London, but unlike Christie, his casting did not generate any controversy. I might as well place my cards on the table. I think Stamp proved to be the best Frank Troy I have seen on screen, despite the first-rate performances of the other two actors I have seen in role. He really did an excellent job in re-creating Frank’s charm, roguishness and unstable nature. Thanks to Stamp’s performance, I can see why Schlesinger became so fascinated with the character.

Despite Christie and Stamp’s popularity with moviegoers, the two actors who walked away with nominations and an award were Peter Finch and Alan Bates. No matter how interesting all of the other characters were, I personally found the William Boldwood character to be the most fascinating one in Hardy’s tale. And Peter Finch, who won the National Board of Review Award for Best Actor did a superb job in bringing the character to life. Finch beautifully re-captured the nuances of a character that I not only found sympathetic, but also a bit frightening at times. Alan Bates earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of the stalwart Gabriel Oak, which I believe he fully deserved. I think portraying such a minimalist character like Gabriel must be quite difficult for any actor. He is a character that required real skill and subtlety. Bates certainly did the job. The actor managed to convey the passion that Gabriel harbored for Bathsheba without any theatrical acting and at the same time, convey the character’s introverted and sensible nature. The movie also benefited from some skillful and solid work from its supporting cast that included Golden Globe nominee Prunella Ransome, who portrayed the tragic Fanny Robin; Fiona Walker (from 1972’s “EMMA”); Alison Leggatt; John Barrett; and iconic character actor, Freddie Jones.

As much as I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”, there were some aspects of the production that I found troublesome. Earlier, I had pointed out that Schlesinger had seemed so fascinated by the Frank Troy character. And while this contributed to Terence Stamp’s presence in the movie, Schlesinger’s handling of the character threatened to overshadow the entire movie. Quite frankly, he seemed a bit too obsessed with Frank for my tastes. This heavy emphasis on Frank – especially in two-thirds of the movie – also seemed to overshadow Bathsheba’s relationship with Gabriel Oak. At one point, I found myself wondering what happened to the character. Worse, the chemistry between Julie Christie and Alan Bates had somewhat dissipated by the movie’s last act to the point that it barely seemed to exist by the end of the movie. And Schlesinger allowed the “ghost” of Frank Troy to hover over Bathsheba and Gabriel’s future relationship by ending the movie with a shot of a toy soldier inside the Everdeen-Oak household. No wonder Stamp was credited as the male lead in this film.

There were other aspects of “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” that either troubled me or failed to impress me. I am at a loss on how Prunella Ransome earned a Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Robin. Mind you, she gave a very good performance. But she was on the screen for such a small amount of time that there seemed to be no opportunity for the narrative to delve into her character. Ransome’s Fanny came off as a plot device and a part of me cannot help but blame Hardy’s original novel for this failure. Although I cannot deny that Nicholas Roeg’s cinematography was visually beautiful to me; I also found myself annoyed by his and Schlesinger’s overuse of far shots. It reminded me of how director William Wyler and cinematographer Franz F. Planer nearly went overboard in their use of far shots in the 1958 western, “THE BIG COUNTRY”. I read somewhere that Alan Barrett had earned a BAFTA nomination for Best Costume Designs for this film. I do not mean to be cruel, but how in the hell did that happened? I have to be frank. I was not impressed with the costumes featured in this film. Although I managed to spot a few costumes that struck me as a well-done re-creation of fashion in the mid-to-late 1860s, most of the other costumes looked as if they had been rented from a warehouse in Hollywood or London. Not impressed at all.

Aside from my complaints, I enjoyed “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” very much. A good deal of delight in the film originated with Thomas Hardy’s original tale. But if I must be honest, a good deal of filmmakers have screwed up a potential adaptation with either bad writing, bad direction or both. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about “FAR FROM MADDING CROWD”. Thanks to the first-rate artistry of the film’s crew, a well-written screenplay by Frederic Raphael, a very talented cast led by Julie Christie; director John Schlesinger did an excellent in bringing Hardy’s tale to the screen.

 

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

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“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” (2001) Review

Over seventeen years ago, the BBC aired “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, a four-part television adaptation of Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel. Adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by David Yates, the miniseries starred David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. 

“THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” told the story of a Central European financier’s impact upon upper-crust British society during the Victorian era. Augustus Melmotte arrives in London with his second wife and his daughter, Marie in the 1870s. Not long after his arrival, Melmotte announces a new scheme to finance a railroad project from Salt Lake City in Utah to the Gulf of Mexico. And he promises instant fortune to those who would invest in his scheme. The Melmotte family is also surrounded by a circle of decadent aristocrats and nouveau riche businessmen, all trying to get a piece of the financial pie. One of the investors is Sir Felix Carbury, a young and dissolute baronet who is quickly running through his widowed mother’s savings. In an attempt to restore their fortunes, his mother, Lady Matilda Carbury writes historical potboilers – a 19th century predecessor to 20th century romance novels. She also plans to have Felix marry Marie, who is an heiress in her own right; and marry daughter Henrietta (Hetta) to their wealthy cousin, Roger Carbury. Although Marie falls in love with Felix, Melmotte has no intention of allowing his daughter to marry a penniless aristocrat. And Hetta shows no interest in Roger, since she has fallen in love with his young ward, an engineer named Paul Montague.  However, Montague also proves to be a thorn in Melmotte’s side, due to his suspicions about the legitimacy over the railroad scheme.

As one can see, the story lines that stream from Trollope’s novel seemed to be plenty. In a way, the plot reminds me of the numerous story arcs that permeated 2004’s “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. Although some of the story arcs have nothing to do with Augustus Melmotte, nearly everyone seemed to have some connection to the financier. The exceptions to this rule proved to be the characters of American-born Mrs. Winifred Hurtle, Roger Carbury and Ruby Ruggles, a young farm girl who lives on Roger’s estate. Mrs. Hurtle’s story was strictly limited to her efforts to regain the affections of former lover and help Ruby deal with the licentious Sir Felix. Roger’s story arc was limited to his unsuccessful efforts to win Henrietta’s heart and deal with his knowledge of Paul and Mrs. Hurtle’s relationship. Fortunately, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” seemed to possess a tighter story than “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT”. To a certain degree.

But I cannot deny that “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” was one of the most entertaining adaptations of a Trollope novel I have ever seen. If I must be honest, I enjoyed it more than I did “HE KNEW HE WAS RIGHT” or 1982’s “THE BARCHESTER CHRONICLES”. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was due to its portrayal of society’s greed and opportunism. I have heard that Trollope had written the novel in protest against the greed and corruption of the 1870s, which resulted in the Long Depression that lasted between 1873 and 1879. The ironic thing is that the economic situation that Trollope believed had permeated British society during the 1870s had been around for a long time and would continue to permeate the world’s economic markets time again – including the recent downturn that has cast a shadow on today’s economies. Trollope’s Augustus Melmotte is today’s Bernie Madoff or Robert Maxwell.

Another aspect of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is that it revealed the darker aspects of Victorian society on a more personal level. I did not know whether to be amused or disgusted by the manner in which young British scions such as Sir Felix Carbury scrambled to win the affections of Marie Melmotte and get their hands on her money; or desperate debutantes like Georgiana Longestaffe willing to marry Jewish banker Mr. Brehgert, despite her contempt for his religious beliefs and social position. I doubt that the likes of Georgiana would never contemplate becoming an author of cheesy novels, like Lady Carbury or marrying a man with no funds – like .

Thanks to Davies’ screenplay and David Yates’ direction, “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” permeated with a richly dark and comic style that beautifully suited Trollope’s tale. Hardly anyone – aside from a few such as Paul Montague, Hetta Carbury and Mr. Brehgert – was spared from the pair’s biting portrayal of Trollope’s characters. Two of my favorite scenes featured a ball held by the Melmottes in Episode One and a banquet in honor of the Chinese Emperor in Episode Three. The banquet scene especially had me on the floor laughing at the sight of British high society members gorging themselves on the dishes prepared by Melmotte’s cook.

Although “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” is my favorite Trollope adaptation – so far – I must admit that I had a few problems with it. One, Andrew Davies’ portrayal of the Paul Montague character struck me as slightly boring. Like his literary counterpart, Paul found himself torn between his love for Hetta and his sexual past with Mrs. Hurtle. But Davies’ Paul seemed so . . . noble and stalwart that I found it hard to believe this is the same gutless wonder from Trollope’s novel. And if I must be brutally honest, I found his relationship with Hetta Carbury to be another example of a boring romance between two boring young lovers that seemed to permeate Victorian literature. A part of me longed for Paul to end up with Winifred Hurtle. At least he would have found himself in a more interesting romance. I have one more quibble. In a scene featuring a major quarrel between Melmotte and his daughter Marie, there was a point where both were in each other’s faces . . . growling like animals. Growling? Really? Was that necessary? Because I do not think it was.

One would think I have a problem with Cillian Murphy and Paloma Baeza’s performances as Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury. Trust me, I did not. I thought both gave solid and competent performances. I feel they were sabotaged by Trollope’s portrayal of their characters as “the young lovers” and Davies’ unwillingness to put some zing into their romance. Miranda Otto made a very interesting Mrs. Hurtle, despite her bad attempt at a Southern accent. And Allan Corduner and Fenella Woolgar both gave solid performances that I did not find particularly memorable. On the other hand, I felt more than impressed by Cheryl Campbell as the charming and somewhat manipulative Lady Carbury; Douglas Hodge as the love-sick Roger Carbury; Oliver Ford-Davies as the grasping, yet bigoted Mr. Longestaffe; Helen Schlesinger’s funny performance as the clueless Madame Melmotte; a poignant performance from Jim Carter, who portrayed Mr. Brehgert; and Anne-Marie Duff, who managed to create a balance between Georgiana Longstaffe’s strong-willed willingness to marry a man of another faith and her self-absorption and bigotry.

However, the three performances that stood head above the others came from David Suchet, Shirley Henderson and Matthew Macfadyen. Suchet could have easily portrayed the scheming and gregarious Augustus Melmotte as a cartoonish character. And there were times when it seemed he was in danger of doing so. But Suchet balanced Melmotte’s over-the-top personality with a shrewdness and cynicism that I found appealing – especially when those traits mocked the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of British high society. Shirley Henderson proved to be the perfect person to portray Melmotte’s only daughter, Marie. Superficially, she seemed like a chip off the old block. But Henderson injected a great deal of compassion and poignancy into Marie’s character, making it very easy for me to sympathize toward her unrequited love for Sir Felix Carbury and the heartache she felt upon discovering his lack of love for her. Matthew Macfadyen must have finally made a name for himself in his memorable portrayal of the dissolute Sir Felix Carbury. I cannot deny that Macfadyen revealed a good deal of Sir Felix’s charm. But the actor made it pretty obvious that his character’s charm was at best, superficial. Considering some of the roles he has portrayed over the decade that followed “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW”, I believe Macfadyen’s Sir Felix must have been one of the most self-absorbed characters in his repertoire. And he did a superb job with the role. It is a pity that he never received an acting nomination or award for his performance.

One cannot talk about “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” without pointing out the sumptuous production designs created by Gerry Scott. They were superb. With contributions from Diane Dancklefsen and Mark Kebby’s art direction, Caroline Smith’s set decorations, Chris Seager’s photography and Andrea Galer’s costume designs; Scott and his team did a wonderful job in re-creating Victorian society in the 1870s. I was especially impressed at how Galer’s costumes captured the early years of that decade. I would never call Nicholas Hooper’s score particularly memorable. But I cannot deny that it suited both the story’s theme and setting.

Although I found a few aspects of “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” to complain about – notably the Paul Montague and Hetta Carbury characters. I cannot deny that it is a first-rate production, thanks to Andrew Davies’ adaptation, David Yates’ direction and a fine cast led by David Suchet. More importantly, the story’s theme of greed and corruption leading to economic chaos was not only relevant to the mid-to-late Victorian era, but also for today’s society. “THE WAY WE LIVE NOW” strike me as a story for all times.

 

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“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

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“RETURN TO CRANFORD” (2009) Review

Due to the success of the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the BBC aired a two-part sequel called “RETURN TO CRANFORD” (also known as the “CRANFORD CHRISTMAS SPECIAL”), some two years later. Like the original miniseries, it was adapted by Heidi Thomas and directed by Simon Curtis.

“RETURN TO CRANFORD” was based on material from Elizabeth Gaskell’s two novellas and a short story – “Cranford”“The Mooreland Cottage”, and “The Cage at Cranford”, were all published between 1849 and 1863. Also, themes from “My Lady Ludlow”“Mr. Harrison’s Confessions”, and “The Last Generation in England” were included to provide continuity with the first miniseries. The new miniseries took place between August and December 1844. The citizens of Cranford find themselves facing major changes in their society, as the railroad continues to be constructed near the edge of town. In fact, I was surprised to learn that a great deal of the story surrounding the new railroad was not in any of Gaskell’s novellas and short story. Only the storylines featuring about Mrs. Jameson’s (Barbara Flynn) cousin, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie) and Captain Brown (Jim Carter), Miss Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) Parisian “cage” for her pet cockatoo, and a magician named Signor Brunoni (Tim Curry) putting on a show came from Gaskell’s works.

I have to be frank. It did not bother me that most of the material featured in the miniseries did not come from any of Gaskell’s novellas and short stories. Thanks to some decent writing by Heidi Thomas, I believe that it all worked out fine. Unlike the 2007 miniseries, “CRANFORD”, the screenplay for “RETURN TO CRANFORD”seemed tighter and more focused. In fact, I noticed that the majority of major storylines featured in the miniseries have ties to the main story about the railroad’s construction. Because of this, “RETURN TO CRANFORD” avoided the episodic style of storytelling that I believe marred “CRANFORD”. My favorite storyline featured the budding romance between two newcomers to the town of Cranford – William Buxton (Tom Hiddleston), the Eton-educated son of a salt baron (Jonathan Pryce) and Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker), the daughter of a less-affluent widow (Lesley Sharp). Mr. Buxton wants William to marry his ward, the Brussels-educated Erminia (Michelle Dockery). But neither are interested in each other. And Peggy has to deal with her ambitious and greedy brother, Edward (Matthew McNulty), who dislikes William. What I liked best about “RETURN TO CRANFORD” was that most of the story lines were tied to the new rail line being constructed near Cranford – even the William/Peggy romance.

As much as I hate to admit it, “RETURN TO CRANFORD” had its problems. Another story line featured the problematic pregnancy suffered by Miss Matty’s maid, Martha Hearne (Claudie Blakley). The problem arose, due to the lack of doctors in Cranford. And I found this confusing. The 2007 miniseries ended with two doctors residing in the town – the recently married Dr. Frank Harrison and longtime resident Dr. Morgan. A year later, both no longer resided in Cranford and Heidi Thomas’ script never revealed their whereabouts or fate. Thomas’ real misstep featured the death of Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) and the arrival of her ne’er-do-well son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear). The latter’s attempt to cheat young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) out of the money he had inherited from the late Mr. Carter was a poorly conceived and written storyline. And despite the built-up, it failed to have any real impact upon the Harry Gregson character, due to its vague ending. As much as I found Signor Brunoni’s Christmas show rather charming, I thought it also reeked of a sentimentality that made my teeth hurt. Especially when Miss Matty’s reunion with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) and his daughter entered the picture.

The production design for “RETURN TO CRANFORD” was top notch as ever. And Alison Beard’s supervision of the costumes proved to be just as first-rate as Jenny Beavan’s work in the 2007 miniseries. The cast continued its first-rate work from the previous miniseries – especially Judi Dench as Miss Matty Jenkyns, Imelda Staunton as town gossip Octavia Poole, Francesca Annis as the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, Emma Fielding as her assistant Laurentia Galindo, Alex Etel as Harry Gregson, Julia McKenzie as Mrs. Forrester, Jim Carter as Mr. Brown, and Barbara Flynn as the pretentious Mrs. Jamieson. But the newcomers that impressed me were Tom Huddleston as William Buxton, Jonathan Pryce as the tyrannical Mr. Buxton, Jodie Whittaker as Peggy Bell, Celia Imrie as the earthy Lady Glemire and Tim Curry as the warm-hearted magician Signor Brunoni.

For a while, I had been reluctant to watch “RETURN TO CRANFORD”. Because it was a sequel to the 2007 miniseries, I figured that it could never be as good as “CRANFORD”. I was wrong. I do not know if I would consider it better than the first miniseries. But the latter is certainly not better than the sequel. And “RETURN TO CRANFORD” does have one major advantage . . . namely Heidi Thomas’ screenplay turned out to be more tightly written, due to her decision not to use much of Elizabeth Gaskell’s material. Personally, I find that rather ironic.

“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

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“AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review

The year 2004 marked the umpteenth time that an adaptation of Jules Verne’s travelogue movie, “Around the World in Eighty Days” hit the movie screen. Well . . . actually, the fifth time. Released by Disney Studios and directed by Frank Coraci, this adaptation starred Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile de France, Ewan Bremmer and Jim Broadbent. 

This adaptation of Verne’s novel started on a different note. It opened with a Chinese man named Xau Ling (Jackie Chan) robbing a precious statuette called the Jade Buddha from the Bank of England. Ling managed to evade the police by hiding out at the home of an English inventor named Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). To keep the latter from turning him in to the police, Ling pretends to be a French-born national named Passepartout, seeking work as a valet. After Fogg hired “Passepartout”, he clashed with various members of the Royal Academy of Science, including its bombastic member Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). Kelvin expressed his belief that everything worth discovering has already been discovered and there is no need for further progress. The pair also discussed the bank robbery and in a blind rage, Phileas declared that that the thief could be in China in little over a month, which interests “Passepartout”. Kelvin pressured Phileas Fogg into a bet to see whether it would be possible, as his calculations say, to travel around the world in 80 days. If Fogg wins, he would become Minister of Science in Lord Kelvin’s place; if not, he would have to tear down his lab and never invent anything again. Unbeknownst to both Fogg and “Passepartout”, Kelvin recruited a corrupt London police detective named Inspector Fix to prevent the pair from completing their world journey. However, upon their arrival in Paris, they met an ambitious artist named Monique Larouche (Cécile de France), who decides to accompany them on their journey. Ling also became aware of warriors under the command of a female warlord named General Fang (Karen Mok), who also happens to be an ally of Lord Kelvin.

I might as well make this short. “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” did not do well at the box. In fact, it bombed. In a way, one could see why. In compare to the 1956 and 1989 versions, it took a lot more liberties with Verne’s original story. Phileas Fogg is portrayed as an eccentric inventor, instead of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. He takes on a bet with a rival member of the Royal Academy of Science, instead of members of the Reform Club. Passepartout is actually a Chinese warrior for an order of martial arts masters trying to protect his village. Princess Aouda has become a cheeky French would-be artist named Monique. And Inspector Fix has become a corrupt member of the London Police hired by the venal aristocrat Lord Kelvin to prevent Fogg from winning his bet. Fogg, Passepartout and Monique traveled to the Middle East by the Orient Express, with a stop in Turkey. Their journey also included a long stop at Ling’s village in China, where Fogg learned about Ling’s deception.

Some of the comedy – especially those scenes involving Fix’s attempts to arrest Fogg – came off as too broad and not very funny. Also, this adaptation of Verne’s tale was not presented as some kind of travelogue epic – as in the case of the 1956 and 1989 versions. The movie made short cuts by presenting Ling and Fogg’s journey through the use of day-glow animation created by an art direction team supervised by Gary Freeman. Frankly, I thought it looked slightly cheap. I really could have done without the main characters’ stop in Turkey, where Monique almost became Prince Hapi’s seventh wife. It slowed down the story and it lacked any humor, whatsoever. I am a major fan of Jim Broadbent, but I must admit that last scene which featured his rant against Fogg and Queen Victoria on the steps of the Royal Academy of Science started out humorous and eventually became cringe-worthy. Poor man. He deserved better.

Did I like “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”? Actually, I did. I found it surprisingly entertaining, despite its shortcomings. Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan made a rather funny screen team as the resourceful and clever Ling who had to deceive the slightly arrogant and uptight Fogg in order to quickly reach China. Cécile de France turned out to be a delightful addition to Chan and Coogan’s screen chemistry as the coquettish Monique, who added a great deal of spark to Fogg’s life. Granted, I had some complaints about Broadbent’s performance in his last scene. Yet, he otherwise gave a funny performance as the power-hungry and venal Lord Kelvin. It was rare to see him portray an outright villain. And although I found most of Bremner’s scenes hard to take (I am not that big of a fan of slapstick humor), I must admit that two of his scenes left me in stitches – his attempt to arrest Ling and Fogg in India and his revelations of Lord Kelvin’s actions on the Royal Academy of Science steps.

There were many moments in David N. Titcher, David Benullo, and David Goldstein’s script that I actually enjoyed. One, I really enjoyed the entire sequence in Paris that featured Ling and Fogg’s meeting with Monique and also Ling’s encounter with some of General Fang’s warriors. Not only did it featured some top notch action; humorous performances by Chan, Coogan and de France; and colorful photography by Phil Meheux. Another first-rate sequence featured the globe-trotting travelers’ arrival at Ling’s village in China. The action in this sequence was even better thanks to the fight choreography supervised by Chan and stunt/action coordinator Chung Chi Li. It also had excellent characterization thanks to the screenwriters and Chan, Daniel Wu, Sammo Hung and other actors.  One particular scene had me laughing. It featured Coogan and the two actors portraying Ling’s parents during a drunken luncheon for the travelers.

I wish I could say that this version of “AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the best I have seen. But I would be lying. To be honest, all three versions I have seen are flawed in their own ways. This version is probably more flawed than the others. But . . . I still managed to enjoy myself watching it. The movie can boast some first-rate performances from the cast – especially Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan and Cécile de France. And it also featured some kick-ass action scenes in at least three major sequences. Thankfully, it was not a complete waste. In fact, I rather liked the movie, despite its flaws.

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