Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Third Outing for Tess takes a tumble

What a shame. I was really getting to grips with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, the BBC's latest period drama offering. Episode One was a bit bland and iffy. Episode Two was a comparative cracker. Episode Three stalled. Badly.

I'm trying to work out whether I found this particular quarter of Hardy's novel similarly dull and inspiring. But no. I always remember being gripped by Tess and Angel's brief 'honeymoon' at the creepy old D'Urberville mansion. And overwhelmed with fury at Angel's callous priggishness.

In this production, I found these scenes oddly lifeless. It's not for want of trying on the part of Gemma Arterton's Tess. She really does pucker up her bottom lip nicely, and her large, soulful eyes glow with fearful sorrow. Having thought Eddie Redmayne made for a decent enough Angel Clare in Episode Two, I was now forced into second thoughts. His entire demeanour was wooden, his voice flat and unemotional. To my surprise, I found myself hankering for Oliver Milburn's performance in ITV's 1998 version of Hardy's epic.

Tess's gruelling farm-work was also well-portrayed in the 1998 ITV version; genuinely resonant of hardship and suffering. You could see why Alex's offer to take Tess away from the grime and misery of peasant life was so inviting?

Which perhaps points to the main difficulty I am having with this piece right now. The BBC prides itself on authentic period drama, but has shied away from any semblance of the grit and grime which would have besmirched daily rural life at this time.

We need a real sense of Tess's sufferings here. And I'm just not getting it.

Hopefully things will pick up in next week's final episode. I'll post a fuller review then.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Last Lost In Austen lacking

How very, very sad. Having enjoyed, for the most part, Lost In Austen, ITV's 'fan fiction' take on Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, the final episode was all too rushed and really, a little bit rubbish.

Unlike numerous comments I have encountered on other blogs, I was not disappointed by Darcy winding up with the eternally irritating Amanda Price (she never grew on me ... I tried. Honest). In fact, I thought it was the logical conclusion to what turned out to be a Mary Sue-Supreme, in Fan Fiction parlance. Amanda managed to ensnare the interest of just about every chap in Austen-land she came across, and Darcy was no exception.

I couldn't help but notice, during my perusal of other review sites, that rascally Wickham has become a firm fan favourite, ousting Darcy himself as Totty Numero Uno. While considering him pleasant enough , I was glad he didn't become the 'hero'. There was definitely something a little odd about him though - almost too knowing, too wily. Perhaps if there is a sequel (which I rather doubt; viewing figures weren't that great), I imagine Wickham might be unveiled as a fellow time-traveller, which would be VERY interesting - and I only wish it had been the case in this series.

In the final episode, Amanda returned to the hurly-burly of modern London, pursued by a perplexed Mr Darcy, convinced he was suffering some kind of psychotic, delusional episode. More could have been made out of this.

We also met Lizzy Bennet again - now a fully-fledged 21st century girl, complete with mobile phone and a passion for the Internet. I must say, I rather wish that Gemma Arterton would actually play Elizabeth in a more traditional transposition of Austen's novel. She'd be smashing in the role - a darn sight better than her Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, currently showing on BBC1, in which she is fine enough, but her Elizabeth Bennet really is a missed opportunity.

The same in fact could be said of all the cast in Lost In Austen. There really wasn't a single false note among them, which is a rare occurence. Hugh Bonneville's Mr Bennet was fabulous. Alex Kingston made for an interesting, youthful take on Mrs Bennet. Morvern Christie was a sweet and endearing Jane, and the remaining Bennet sisters were nicely cast too. Guy Henry was a delightfully unctuous, wheedling Mr Collins, while Tom Mison made for a winning Bingley and Tom Riley was fine as Wickham. Elliot Cowan has his fair share of detractors as Mr Darcy, but actually, he did well ... nothing scintillating, but certainly pleasing enough (most especially in his wet shirt ... OK, that was hideously shallow).

It is a shame that ITV can't remake Pride & Prejudice with this same cast and nicely honed production values, (better than the actual Austen adaptations they screened last year). Then again, I mainly enjoyed Lost In Austen, even if it did get very, very silly, and the script creaked horribly in parts, during Episode Four. Amanda's desperation to steer the cast and plot in the same direction as Austen's novel eventually became a little too wearing, but some truly hilarious moments were had along the way.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Tess perks up for Episode Two

The second episode of the BBC's Tess of the D'Urbervilles was a marked improvement on the first. Good, solid performances all-round - especially from Gemma Arterton as Tess - and lush production values, basking in the luxuriant glow of Sunday-friendly BBC period drama in full throttle.

There was a sweeping range of emotions on offer in this single hour; from heart-felt tragedy when Tess's baby dies, (as a mother of a baby myself, I found the scene where Tess, dry-eyed with grief, holds her baby's corpse, especially hard to bear), through to the radiant sappiness of young love, when Tess and Angel Clare fall head over heels for one another.

Particularly enjoyable was Angel Clare's visit home, to his God-fearing family; bastions of middle-class Victorian respectability, the lot of them. Angel's feistiness in the face of avuncular adversity, was pleasantly evinced by Eddie Redmayne.

As her happiness grew, Arterton's Tess also became increasingly fearful that her soiled past would rise up and derail her current happiness. Her tension was well-played, skilfully infecting the tenor of the piece. Even for those who have not read the novel, the moment Tess allows her letter to Clare, announcing the truth about her 'impure' past, to flutter from her hands, into an open fire, we are left with a sense of forboding - which augurs well for Episode Three.

This is not vintage BBC adaptation. It fails to scale the heights of former glories such as Cranford, Bleak House or Pride & Prejudice. But it is solid fare; competent, presentable, heritage drama, offering little new or challenging in its reading of Hardy's novel. I suspect it will be pretty forgettable, but it is pleasant enough viewing for now.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Surprises all round in third episode of Lost In Austen

ITV's third episode of Lost In Austen was the funniest yet. Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) has captured the devoted attentions of Mr Darcy - unintentionally of course - and she has found that she loves him in return. But, alas, the poisonous Caroline Bingley has derailed any potential marital happiness by insinuating that Amanda has a nefarious past, and to top it off, Darcy finds Amanda's copy of 'Pride & Prejudice' and accuses her of writing a Roman a Clef, rudely failing to disguise the identities of himself and the Bennets.

This series has prospered by taking a well-loved plot and characters, altering the course of their lives beyond recognition, with the surprising result, that the new plot has become rather gripping, and the characters themselves more and more intriguing.

Surprises reigned in Episode Three. Georgiana Darcy was a sly little snake who had tricked her brother into hating Wickham, who has proved to be an honourable little sod, and a handy friend for Amanda. Caroline Bingley turns out to be a lesbian, despite her vaunted ambitions to wed Darcy and his mountain of money. Mrs Bennet is overcome with remorse for wedding sweet Jane to the abominable (albeit hilarious) Mr Collins. And Bingley is a drunk.

Hugh Bonneville continued to be marvellous as Mr Bennet - now sleeping in his beloved library to escape the hysterics of his family.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh was a formidable characterisation from Lindsey Duncan; snobbish, disdainful and astute.

Meanwhile, Elliot Cowan's Darcy really had a moment to shine - his very own wet shirt scene a la Colin Firth. His Darcy has become a formidable beast (another surprise, frankly); much more multi-layered and disarmingly 'emotional' than, certainly Austen conceived.

I still have lingering doubts about Hooper's Amanda Price; a little too forced and chipper for my liking. But this series has myriad compensations - all of them surprising. And often in a good way.

Monday, September 15, 2008

BBC's Tess proves a turgid tale

As is increasingly the case in the field of text-to-screen adaptation, former adapted works often come to dominate and haunt their successors.

In the case of Thomas Hardy's many works (frequently adapted for film and TV), there have been two definitive Hardy adaptations which overshadow any subsequent attempts to capture the essence of Hardy's rustic melodramas. Both are films: Roman Polanski's 1979 version of Tess, starring a luminous Nastassja Kinski, and John Schlesinger's 1967 Far From the Madding Crowd, offering stellar performances from Julie Christie (Bathsheba Everdene), Alan Bates (Gabriel Oak), Terence Stamp (Sgt. Troy) and Peter Finch (Farmer Boldwood).

Both novels have also been adapted for TV - most recently, Tess in 1998 for ITV, starring Justine Waddell as the tragic heroine, and Far From the Madding Crowd, also in 1998, and again for ITV, with Paloma Baeza in the starring role, supported by Nathaniel Hawthorne as Oak and Jonathan Firth as Sgt. Troy.

The BBC has not been a notable Hardy-adaptor, hence last night's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, written by David Nichols and directed by David Blair, was a fairly unusual venture. The mini-series has been much-heralded, in part because of the latest Brit-IT girl of the silver screen and new Bond Girl, Gemma Arterton, taking on the central role.

In the circumstances, Gemma does fine - although her West country accent grates a little. She makes for a very pretty Tess with a delightful pout - one which even Keira Knightley would be proud of.

And the production is determinedly pretty too, with some lovely landscapes serving as a pleasant backdrop to the increasingly tragic events unfolding before us.

But I still can't shake off the nagging thought that this is BBC Adaptation-by-Numbers: albeit slick, smart, and well-presented.

There are a few pleasant touches. The episode opens and closes with country girls dancing in a circle, symbolising ancient fertility rites, celebrating youthful innocence. Tess is one of the dancers at the opening of the episode, but is excluded by its close, as she is now an unwed mother.

There is also a strong showing from Ian Puleston-Davies as Tess's father John, whose delusions regarding their heritage as descendants of the ancient landed family of the D'Urbervilles, prove to be the catalyst, launching Tess into her own personal tragedy.

We catch an early glimpse of Angel Clare (Eddie Redmayne), Tess's later love, and have prolonged exposure to the amoral cad Alec d'Urberville, played here with weary insouciance by Hans Matheson. Alec entices Tess to his country pile, ostensibly to help out his 'relation', but he has nefarious plans in store for her. He eventually rapes Tess, thus destroying her future.

In truth, however, what should be compelling, atmospheric and prescient, winds up a little perfunctory and disinterested.

Undoubtedly, the BBC is the driving force behind classic screen adaptation for TV. But in this instance, the ITV production of Tess, first broadcast in 1998, is the superior version. Of course, only one episode of the BBC's Tess has been aired, and there are three more episodes to persuade me otherwise.

Even so, I cannot imagine how the BBC's Tess will ever live up to Polanski's Tess, which is deserving of the accolades and fond remembrances lavished on it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A few false notes but entertaining froth from Lost In Austen's second outing

Just a quick opinion on the second episode of ITV's Lost In Austen, aired on the 10th September. After last week's bright start, we are now fully immersed with Amanda Price in Austenland. Elizabeth Bennet has been banished in perpetuity it seems, to 21st century Hammersmith - until, no doubt, the end of the series.

Lost In Austen
remains sparkling, often witty with some nice acting along the way. This week Mr Collins, played by Guy Henry, was the star performer. He was suitably spiderish and unctuous, to an almost queasy degree. His little self-handling habit was aptly stomach-churning.

I'm still not sure about Jemima Rooper's Amanda Price. Her chattering internal voice irritated me, and her constant Thoroughly Modern Miss-iness began to grate on my nerves.

Amanda's constant and desperate drive to steer the Pride & Prejudice plot in the right direction also began to pall. I hardly know how Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan) tolerated her constant pratings about 'Elizabeth' and there were further jarring moments too, when Amanda bluntly told characters what they were like, based on her reading of Austen's novel. Occasionally this worked well, particularly when she complained that she never really got Miss Bingley's character!

In sum, Lost In Austen's second outing was less impressive than the series' opener - too many false notes and excessive exposition, and an over-flustered heroine sporting a pained grimace as her plans to put the plot right, encountered one dramatic failure after another. But overall, I am enjoying this series more than I thought I would (or should).

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Lost In Austen not such a loss at all

I had abysmally low expectations for last night's ITV premiere of Lost In Austen, a four-part serial from writer Guy Andrews. Lost In Austen offers us a rather far-fetched and decidedly kooky tale - 21st century Austen-obsessive Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper), encounters Jane Austen's favourite heroine Elizabeth Bennet in her bathroom, and then enters the world of Pride & Prejudice via a mysterious portal in her shower.

I was sure that this conceit would collapse under the weight of its own silliness within the first fifteen minutes. More fool me!

Lost In Austen proved to be a delightfully frothy and highly amusing wee jaunt, with some neat acting performances and moments of exquisitely-honed dialogue. Sure, the original concept reads like something from Fan Fiction, and I rather fear for the show's success as a result. After all, there can't be that vast an audience who have as intimate a knowledge of Austen's most beloved novel as this series appears to presume. In truth, though, Lost In Austen is mainly targeting viewers who have eagerly consumed the multiple filmic and TV adaptations of Austen's texts. Indeed, the show almost seems to parody, even subvert these adaptations, often to hilarious effect.

There are numerous echoes of the BBC's hugely successful and iconic 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, which launched Colin Firth's Darcy as a major heart-throb, ranging from similar musical undertones to Amanda Price's quip, on considering her first meeting with Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan), that he he's no Colin Firth, adding that even Colin Firth's no Colin Firth! Our first shot of Cowan's Darcy is surely another visual joke, as he is seen from behind, broodily staring out of a window at Netherfield Hall. Firth's Darcy was often shot in the same manner, signifying his desire to escape from the narrow-minded confines of the polite drawing-room into the sensual wilds of nature beyond the window-frame - clearly more representative of Andrew Davies, the screenwriter who penned the BBC adaptation, than Jane Austen herself.

The 2002 Working Title film, Pride and Prejudice, is also subtly parodied in Lost In Austen. Again, theme music often bears a distinct resemblance to Dario Marianelli's award-winning score which accompanied the film, and there are strong visual reminiscences.

Lost In Austen
wallows unashamedly, with glorious gusto, in its status as Austen rip-off hypertext. Clearly influenced in terms of tone and sensibility by earlier adaptations, there is also a joyous, witting irreverence at play, which is carried off with considerable verve and brio by an excellent cast. Hugh Bonneville as a suitably droll Mr 'Claude' Bennet is exceptional, and he nabs the best lines. Alex Kingston plays his shrill wife, with her notoriously nervous temperament. This Mrs Bennet has a tough-as-nails interior, and gives short shrift to Amanda Price's interloping presence. The Bennet girls are nicely cast, especially Mary, who is almost comically plain. The skittish Lydia (Perdita Weekes) actually resembles her mother, which is a neat bit of casting, as, arguably, Lydia and Mrs Bennet are closest in personality. Charlotte Lucas is brilliantly played here as smarmy and sceptical by Michelle Duncan. Meanwhile, Christina Cole takes on the snidey, 'villainess' role of Caroline Bingley, although I wonder if she might have made a better Jane, here played by Morvern Christie.

Elliot Cowan's Darcy is ridiculously smouldering and aristocratic, to almost comic degree, and Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) is charming and sweet with modern good looks. Unsurprisingly, our thoroughly postmodern heroine Amanda attracts Mr Bingley, thus complicating Austen's plot, where Bingley falls for Jane Bennet - and to make matters worse, a tipsy Amanda also snogs Bingley outside the assembly halls! It's all very, very silly, and hugely entertaining to boot. Another laugh-out-loud moment is when Amanda Price, convinced she is stumbled into a reality TV show (and who can blame her in the circumstances!) 'flashes' Lydia, who is more than a little taken aback.

Gemma Arterton, famously known in the media as the next Bond Girl, plays Elizabeth Bennet - so far little more than 'glimpsed' in Amanda Price's Hammersmith bathroom. We can expect much more, presumably, from her character, in later episodes, as we get to see the adventures of Elizabeth Bennet in the modern world.

Jemima Rooper's Amanda Price is fine enough, although for such a strong showing in most other departments (barring occasional jars in the scripting), Rooper is a slightly weak link. She has the unmistakeable looks and bearing of a 21st century girl - her face is wholly modern. But her acting occasionally borders on 'mugging.'

Even so, this is a fun piece of work, and I look forward to Amanda Price's further adventures in Austen-land.