Monday, December 17, 2007

The BBC's Cranford proves a triumph

Well, having wept my way through the final episode of BBC1's Cranford last night, (I was deeply saddened at the death of Carter, one of my favourite characters), I felt I should write a few paragraphs of heartfelt praise for what has been one of the BBC's most successful and brilliant TV series.

I wasn't over-hopeful about the televising of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford when it was first announced, even when supplemented by two of Gaskell's novellas, to ensure a little romance (Dr Harrison's troubled courtship of Sophie Hutton) and the moving redemptive arc presented by the story of arch-conservative Lady Ludlow and her relationship with her estate manager.

How wrong I was! First, the screenwriter who adapted Gaskell's works, should have inspired me with sufficient confidence. Heidi Thomas has proven to be one of our foremost writing talents with an increasingly illustrious CV, and Cranford was a highly worthy addition. Thomas's script here was delightfully fluid, cohesive and wonderfully witty. It was also replete with its fair share of moving moments, which often reduced me to a blubbering mess, at least twice per episode.

The second key factor in ensuring Cranford was one of the BBC's most brilliant outings was its extraordinary cast. Judi Dench made for a winsomely endearing Matty Jenkyns, but Cranford was typified by a strong supporting ensemble - hearteningly female-centric and often middle-aged or older. Special mention must go to Eileen Atkins, who was majestic in the role of Deborah Jenkyns - kindly, conservative and thoroughly uptight, a real bastion of Cranford's 'Amazonian' society - and Imelda Staunton was simply fabulous in the comic role of Miss Pole. Her hilarious 'double-take' when catching sight of Mr Holbrook's sewing table in Dr Harrison's drawing room in Episode Four was one of my favourite TV moments of all time. Julia McKenzie was also a welcome supporting comic character as Mrs Forester, and her speech in Episode Five, explaining her fondness for Miss Matty, was one of the most affecting moments in the entire series. Philip Glenister also put in a flawless performance as Carter, Lady Ludlow's estate manager, who is devoted to educating young Harry Gregson.

But it seems almost churlish to pick out any particular standout performances from such a wonderful cast. I cared about each and every character. Each and every storyline. Which is why, amidst the laughs and smiles prompted by so much of the narrative action, there was also so much potential for genuine poignancy and humanity. For example, Deborah Jenkyn's unexpected joining Jessie Brown behind her sister's coffin in Episode One, was such a moment, establishing this series, very quickly, as a classic in the making.

Cranford was equally adept at portraying charming, whimsical fun (for example, the hysterical sequence depicting Mrs Forest's cat eating her prized lace), with darker, heavyweight satire exploring a broad swathe of hot potato topics which dominated mid-Victorian society, including the education of the lower classes, rural poverty and lawlessness, gender roles, and the inexorable advent of modernity, as represented by the railway coming to Cranford and the utilisation of modern medicinal methods by young Dr Harrison.

These themes were all resonant of George Eliot's Middlemarch, which was set some twenty years earlier, and were strongly representative of Gaskell's own writing, which never shied away from the issues dogging her day. Mary Barton, for example, spotlights the trials and tribulations of the Chartist petitioners, while North and South offers a study of industrial unrest in Northern mill towns (notably via a fictionalised version of Manchester). In contrast, and at first glance, Cranford seems to provide a more benign view of society, focusing on the demure, regimented lives of the lady inhabitants of small town England. But this is deceptive. Gaskell is cleverly covering a whole range of topics, albeit with a soft, deft, ultimately feminine and arguably proto-feminist touch - a charge which would have likely horrified Gaskell herself. Still, Heidi Thomas's script has ensured that these issues are elicited, fleshed out, and given full rein in this production.

After the dismal period adaptations broadcast by ITV this year, it was enormously refreshing to finally relax and unwind in the company of a BBC masterclass, reveling in what has proven to be a highly satisfying and successful TV experience, judging by the ratings. Hopefully Heidi Thomas will be gainfully employed in adapting more literary works to screen, as she has taken what might have been viewed as tricky source material, most particularly in view of Cranford's notable lack of 'sexy romance', which is the preferred mainstay of most period drama on TV these days, and penned a classy, engaging narrative, which will endure as an example of one of the BBC's finest for many years to come.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

More Downs than Ups with BBC's Fanny Hill

I was genuinely pleased to see that the BBC were producing an adaptation of John Cleland’s bawdy 18th century novel, Fanny Hill. It made for a refreshing change from the typical cycle of Austen, Dickens and Bronte, which dominates the ‘classic’ text-to-screen adaptation genre on British TV.

This two-parter, commissioned specially for BBC 4, was scripted by the illustrious Andrew Davies – probably the best candidate to handle the risqué subject matter in view of his instinctual sensualisation of classic works – and was directed by James Hawes. Newcomer Rebecca Night was taking on the main role of Fanny Hill, a simple country girl forced through financial destitution to become a courtesan in 18th century London. But she was to be ably supported by a strong cast, including Alison Steadman as Mrs Brown, the owner of a house of ‘ill-repute’ while Samantha Bond played Mrs Coles, her classier rival. Hugo Speers played Mr H, one of Fanny’s lovers.

Unfortunately, this production didn’t quite match my high expectations. My primary difficulty with the piece was the lead actress. I found Rebecca Night’s performance as Fanny to be wooden and smug in equal measure. Some minor roles were similarly frustrating. However, Samantha Bond as Mrs Coles was very well-done and Hugo Speers’s Mr H was sufficiently compelling.

Some reviewers have focused on the sensual content of the mini-series, seeing it as unnecessarily sensationalist – ‘porn for Daily Mail readers’ was one rather amusing description I read. I hasten to disagree on this point actually. I think the series might have worked better if it was a little more sensual in its depiction of sexual activity rather than dourly mechanical. Even with much of the action taking place in brothels, the show lacked the lush, decadent vibe it really needed.

Scripting was fine, although I rarely welcome the Brechtian approach in TV drama, where the protagonist addresses us directly, in this instance as Fanny has recorded her past in her memoirs. Of course this approach was a direct take on the novel’s own structure, but it remains a narrative form I find uncomfortable viewing.

Clearly budgetary demands ensured a relatively narrow scope in terms of location choices and set design, but the show could have benefited from a wider geographical range rather than the few interior sets and extremely limited array of exteriors we were presented with. There was zero sense of Fanny having switched from the country to the hustle and bustle of London.

All in all, I’m glad to see the BBC attempting different ‘product’ to the usual fare. But this Fanny Hill lacked sparkle and verve and could have benefited from a stronger, central acting performance.

Monday, November 05, 2007

ITV's A Room With A View lacks sparkle

It was a piece of inspired programming from FilmFour surely, to broadcast the 1985 Merchant Ivory version of EM Forster's A Room With A View, just hours before ITV unveiled its own, new adaptation of the much-loved tale, featuring the sensual awakening of young Edwardian Lucy Honeychurch amidst the lush glories of Italy. However, FilmFour's scheduling decision was a poor one for ITV, serving only to highlight the stark difference between the two films. The Merchant Ivory version, which virtually epitomises 1980s Heritage Cinema as a nostalgic, sunkissed fest of chocolate-box prettiness, is rendered an exquisite jewel beside this latest ITV offering, which sadly comes across as bland and depressing, despite some strenuous efforts to inject fresh relevancy and context.

First and foremost, this latest adaptation has been shot in a darker palette compared to the brilliant hues of its Merchant Ivory predecessor. This clearly ensures a more sombre, even melancholy tone, which pervades this production, further encapsulated by an invented framing device, offering us a flash-forwards to 1922 when Lucy Honeychurch returns, solo, to the pensione where she first met her future husband George Emerson. This device moves full-circle, bar a few intrusions into the main narrative, closing the film with Lucy revisiting the cornfield where she and George first kissed, accompanied by - of all people - the Italian coach-driver who first steered the young Lucy towards her lover.

Oddly, Lucy and driver picnic together, hand in hand, reminiscing, although there is an unexpected, even unwelcome romantic frisson between the two, rendered all the more peculiar by the scenes preceding this moment, fading Lucy and George's frenetic honeymoon lovemaking into a ghastly still of George, lifeless on the battlefields of WWI.

In this sense, screenwriter Andrew Davies has certainly wrought a clearcut change between the frothy but warm Merchant Ivory picture and this new version. It has been hailed in the press previews as closer to Forster's intent, but is in itself a deviation from the source. Forster made it clear in an afterword to his novel, that George was a conscientious objector in the war - itself a clear political message if one was genuinely being sought here by the ITV producers. As it stands, George's death seems strangely tacked-on and unnecessarily gloomy, even though, it is obvious that Davies and Nicholas Renton (the tele-film's director) are making a clear statement about the transient nature of the Edwardian fin-de-siecle period - the bucolic calm before the ghastly storm which was soon to embroil Europe, destroying life after life, cruelly ending a multiplicity of love affairs.

This ITV production also chose to make Reverend Mr Beebe's homosexuality a little more explicit by way of a snippet of a scene where Lucy spies Mr Beebe talking to a couple of Italian guys in a shady Florence alleyway - inferring that he is trying to pick them up. Although this scene is subtly rendered and certainly adds to Mr Beebe's characterisation, the moment is slightly ruined by Lucy's clear, though unspoken recognition of the significance of Mr Beebe's actions, as she then appears a lot more worldly wise than would have been the case.

In one other crucial way, the ITV production also differs from the Merchant Ivory film, in that the Emersons - George especially - are shown to be thoroughly lower in class and standing than the Honeychurchs and their ilk. This is an important distinction to make, because Lucy is concerned by her attraction to George, in large part because, in comparison to herself and her class, he is 'common' and works as a clerk for the railways. In the Merchant Ivory production, Julian Sands, while determinedly wooden in his acting abilities, certainly glowed with physical prowess and gilded good looks - appearing every inch the patrician, a far cry from Rafe Spall's cockney characterisation in the ITV production.

But yet again, despite ITV's best attempts to offer us some kind of veracity, a real insight into Lucy's fear of George, Spall's George is uninspiring and altogether charmless. This is a very real shame. In BBC 4's Wide Sargasso Sea, Rafe Spall made for a hugely charismatic young Rochester, but his appeal falters badly here. And as A Room With A View is, foremost, a love story, this failing is particularly affecting.

It doesn't seem fair to draw too many comparisons with the 1985 film in terms of actor choice per role - after all, each new adaptation should be taken as a fresh reading, a novel interpretation of the source material. But the Merchant Ivory film is so powerful a picture, comparisons are inevitable. On just about every level, the ITV tele-film falls short.

Sophie Thompson, for example, is a fine actress, but here, her take on Charlotte Bartlett, when compared to the inimitable Maggie Smith in 1985, is woeful. She stammers and giggles, a cross between her own version of Miss Bates in the 1996 Miramax adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma, and her comedic (and hugely successful) Mary Musgrove in the BBC's 1995 Persuasion (also Austen). As a consequence, her Charlotte Bartlett feels ill-defined and ineffectual.

Timothy Spall is another marvelous actor, but his Mr Emerson feels workmanlike and laboured when compared to Denholm Elliott. Judy Dench in 1985 also made for a better Miss Lavish, the breathlessly excited romantic novelist, compared to Sinead Cusack in 2007. And what was Elizabeth McGovern doing? She might as well have faxed in her performance in the role of Mrs Honeychurch.

For me, the greatest absence was Daniel Day-Lewis as Cecil Vyse - one of my favourite comic acting performances of all time. Sure, he was a parodic figure of fun, and Laurence Fox's latest version offers, arguably, more of a genuine romantic choice for Lucy. But, boy, was Day-Lewis missed! I could hardly bear to watch Fox. Rather than an effete, book-loving smarm, Fox came across as someone desperate to play a 'lad', and bore the air of someone who was injured, and therefore unable to play tennis with Freddie, rather than someone who would rather immerse himself in a book.

As for Lucy herself. Elaine Cassidy was absolutely fine in the role. She lacked the arch sweetness of Helena Bonham-Carter, but she acted rather than pouted, which could only be a good thing. Except ... I have actually grown a lot fonder of Bonham-Carter's stilted performance over the years - and now respect her acting talents too - but Cassidy certainly brought more innate drama to Miss Honeychurch. And yet I still missed the 1985 Lucy - buttoned-up and wide-eyed with surprise at the unexpected emotions roiling through her. In the ITV production, Cassidy was a little too shrewish, too sharp and far too knowing - especially sexually, as made evident by the blatant ogling between Lucy and George.

Nicholas Renton tried to demonstrate Lucy's rejection of overt sensuality in alternative ways. There is a prolonged sequence where she gawps at the naked forms of the classical statues thronging Florence's piazzas. The scene, which seems to be a direct smash and grab from Joe Wright's 2005 Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet finally confronts her erotic nature and her attraction to Darcy while gazing at naked statues, is intended to signify Lucy's own sensual awakening, which she then markedly rejects when she refuses to buy a postcard depicting the familiar naked form of Michelangelo's 'David'.

Overall, direction was perfectly serviceable, and there were a couple of noteworthy performances, in addition to Cassidy herself. Timothy West's pompous Reverend Eager was spot-on and Mark Williams was fine as Reverend Mr Beebe - a less hearty and rather more serious portrayal compared to Simon Callow's brash buffoonery in 1985, although there was a gently wrought sensitivity hovering just beneath the surface of Callow's Beebe which was enormously endearing.

Italy made for a lovely location of course, although this was a shadowy Florence and Santa Croce was remarkably devoid of crowds. Summer Street was a pleasantly pastoral English locale, and we lost London altogether, meaning we lost the delightful irony of Cecil smugly enticing the Emersons to Summer Street himself, after encountering them in the Italian art section of the National Gallery. We gained Rome, however, when Lucy and Charlotte visit the Vyses.

The 1985 film placed greater emphasis, it seemed, on the aesthetic qualities of Forster's work - both in a filmic, visual sense and also through its interpretation of the novel, stressing the difference between those characters that languished indoors - by extension more inward-looking, bookish and repressed - and those who ventured more outdoors, indicating a more forward, progressive nature, thrusting towards modernity rather than the past and tradition. The Emersons, Freddy and Lucy are shown to revel in the outdoors, and Lucy is peeved that propriety has cooped her inside more than she would like.

The 2007 version seemed to place less emphasis on this particular binary, focusing, laudably it should be said, on the class differences between the Emersons and the remaining cast (except the Italian coach-driver, although his inflated role only serves to enhance the theme of inter-class reconciliation). There is one particular scene where Miss Lavish and Charlotte Bartlett hoot with disdainful laughter at George Emerson's professional association with the railways. Their snobbery is unseemly, and Lucy herself is disgusted.

It is a shame that with so much wanting to be 'said' in this production, the sum of its parts is a letdown; a bland, slightly miserable potage. There is a melancholy mood throughout, which does little to engage the viewer, most especially as this sobriety isn't even juxtaposed with sunny, sensual warmth, which would have served to enhance the narrative's poignancy. The musical scoring from Gabriel Yared has been much-praised in reviews, but the plaintive piano pieces only added to the uneasy sense of melancholia in a way that depressed rather than enlightened.

It is unnerving that the sparkling technicolour Merchant Ivory production, glorying in its sentimentality and featuring the thrilling, resonating strains of Puccini's 'Chi Bel Sogno' from La Rondine as the lovers first kiss, is ultimately more poignant for me than ITV's darker, one-note production, which strives far too hard to emphasise that the much-fabled halycon pre-war days of Edwardian England were soon to draw to a horrific and shocking close with WWI. The glowing lustre of the Merchant Ivory production expressed this in less stark terms and without the unnecessary addition of George's staring corpse, abandoned in no-man's land, because the beauty that film captures is unreal, removed and wistful. Forever lost, because we know the 20th century was a brutal place, a cruel time, and that the sharp pangs of nostalgia we experience are ultimately for something that was never really there.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Please sir, must we REALLY have some more?

So we have yet another Oliver Twist coming to our screens this Winter. The BBC is set to broadcast a new version of Charles Dickens's well-loved tale starring newcomer William Millar as Oliver, Timothy Spall as Fagin and Tom Hardy as the pyschopathic Sykes with Sophie Okonedo as poor Nancy. The five-part series has been penned by Sarah Phelps, who is best-known for her work on Eastenders, while Coky Giedroyc, who directed Elizabeth: The Virgin Queen, takes the helm.

But do we really need more Oliver Twist? There are plentiful other 'classic' novels to adapt to screen ... so why the paltry lack of imagination?

Clearly this is seen as wholesome, on-message family viewing with a heart of gold; a re-working of a familiar, well-loved tale. However, a truly searing, realistic version of Oliver Twist , which offered an unflinching portrayal of the despicable cruelties and craven hypocrisies of the Victorian era, would probably prove to be wholly unpalatable to the family audiences TV broadcasters hope to entice. Dickens certainly intended Oliver Twist to expose the crass indecencies and misfortunes inflicted on children at the heart of his society. Sure, he over-sentimentalised his subject (as was his wont), but this was nothing compared to the sanitised saccharine-sweetness which has sugar-coated almost every televisual/filmic outing of the novel ever since. Let's hope the BBC's promises (as stipulatd in the corporation's press release) for a 'darkly thrilling' production with a 'modern edge', lives up to its hype.

Confession ...

... I am absolutely loving The Tudors, the Showtime import currently airing on BBC2. OK, I know it's high-blown, ridiculous nonsense, riddled with historical inaccuracies and dogged by some egregious acting, most particularly from the otherwise insanely delectable Jonathan Rhys Meyers playing King Henry VIII. But what a hoot!

I can't help loving it, even though in Episode Four, we have just had the nonsensical re-casting of Henry's sister 'Mary Rose' as 'Margaret' (ensuring an amalgamation of both Henry's sisters, including the historically vital Princess Margaret who wed James IV of Scotland) who is dispatched to marry the decrepit and infirm King of Portugal, when in reality, she married the King of France. And then, at the close of the episode, Princess 'Margaret' proceeds to suffocate the ailing king with a pillow! In truth, 'Mary Rose' was reputed to have danced her old king to death, wearing him out with her youth and vitality ... but a murderer?? It's an absurdly crazy notion, but completely in keeping with the high-blown silliness we have come to expect from this TV series.

Of course, I am unabashedly tuning in for the eye candy. Jonathan Rhys Meyers is extremely easy on the eye, and luckily the producers have managed to get him 'out' of his shirt as much as possible. Similarly eye-catching is young Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, who steals Princess 'Margaret's' heart, while escorting her to her political marriage in Portugal. Brandon did indeed fall for Princess 'Mary Rose', and they (eventually) made for a happily handsome married couple, once her first husband had been danced to his grave.

I'm not sure of Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn. She's a little too chocolate-box and less arch and witty than how I envisage the real Anne. But I love Maria Doyle Kennedy as poor, downtrodden Katherine of Aragon. Sam Neill is good value as always as Cardinal Wolsey, and it was good to see James Frain, a terrific actor, entering the fray in Episode Four as Thomas Cromwell.

I'm rather hoping The Tudors can continue for a fair few series to come. There's an awful lot of mileage in that particular dynasty ... the reign of Henry VIII alone is enormously eventful.

Michael Hirst is the creator/writer of this series. He is well-known for penning Shekhar Kapur's exotically sumptuous Elizabeth, with Cate Blanchett resplendent in the title role and Geoffrey Rush excellent as her conniving adviser Walsingham. Elizabeth was recently aired on Channel Four and was definitely worth a (re)-watch, if only for the extremely moving final 20 minutes, when the young queen realises her fate - the political need to forgo her personal desires and humanity in favour of becoming a hallowed virginal icon instead; effectively a PR hologram, to be marketed as the divine, omniscient and quick-witted ruler, almost a self-parody, rather than a real-life flesh and blood woman.

Sure enough, the scripting and the direction in Elizabeth are clearly targeting a fun-seeking postmodern audience, hoping to accrue maximum cultural capital at minimum cost to the old grey matter and/or personal comfort, and history has been reshaped accordingly. But as with The Tudors, Elizabeth is not trying to push itself as a historically accurate tele-document - farcical as such a notion could ever be. The aim is to entertain foremost, and this is definitely achieved.

The success of The Tudors has led me to believe that a cracking TV series could be formed out of yet another formidably exciting period of England's history - The War of the Roses, which encompasses numerous personal rivalries, wars, battles and love affairs stemming from Edward III's reign through to Henry VIII's own father and the final de facto 'victor', Henry VII. Indeed, I'm of a mind to plot out a script myself!

A Room With A View to air on ITV on Nov 4th

ITV's adaptation of EM Forster's A Room With A View is set to air November 4th, on ITV1 at 9.00pm. The trailer looks promising enough - lots of high drama and high octane kissing action, but definitely darker than the famous 1985 Merchant Ivory version, which launched Helena Bonham-Carter's acting career. I loved the earlier film, despite its being a piece of frothy, nostalgic whimsy, set in sun-soaked Edwardian England and a gloriously luminous Italy, and even with an abysmal Julian Sands as Lucy Honeychurch's young love interest, George Emerson - the eponymous Merchant Ivory 'heritage' film. Almost defining a genre unto itself.

I'm looking forward to Elaine Cassidy in the main role. She is a very fine actress, if a little older than I would have hoped for the youthful Lucy. I especially loved her work in the BBC adaptation of Sarah Walter's Fingersmith. Rafe Spall should make for an interesting George Emerson, and I look forward to seeing his real-life father Timothy Spall playing his fictional father too. I particularly welcome Sophie Thompson, a splendid actress, in the role of Aunt Charlotte. (Although she has a lot to do to face off the wonderful Maggie Smith).

In truth, this version really needs to give it some welly to face off the 1985 version, which never fails to delight.

The ITV production has Andrew Davies as the screenwriter (no surprises there) and Nicholas Renton directing.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Hello again ...

Long, long time no write - but I do have a valid excuse, as I have had a baby and been a little preoccupied, to say the least!

Anyway, I now have lots of little news items to catch up on, as it looks like a heavyweight viewing season is coming our way this Autumn.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: REVIEW

Finally … a long overdue review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (‘Phoenix’), directed by David Yates, which was released mid-July.

This was yet another resounding commercial success for Warner Brothers, although there didn’t seem to be the same ‘buzz’ for this movie as others in the series – partly perhaps because publishers were poised to release the final long-awaited installment of JK Rowling’s septology, and partly I think because Phoenix was one in a long line of what has felt like chronic sequelitis this Summer.

I enjoyed this particular outing of the Harry Potter franchise more than any other movie in the series bar one – Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, which remains the high point of the series and is an outstanding movie in its own right.

Phoenix’s director David Yates has a hugely respectable career in TV. Indeed, State of Play (2003) and the Trollope adaptation, The Way We Live Now (2001), are, to my mind, two of the best televisual experiences of the decade. Warner Brothers gambled, to some extent, on Yates. Phoenix is his first major Hollywood movie – and boy, what a baptism of fire, taking on one of the world’s best-known and best-loved heroes (Harry), orchestrating the cream of Britain’s acting talent, and handling a blockbuster budget.

Yates copes admirably well, truly rising to the challenge. Phoenix is a superbly crafted film, darkly atmospheric, successfully relaying the often convoluted narrative of Rowling’s rather bloated source with concision and style.

Indeed, Michael Goldenberg, the screenwriter in this instance, deserves kudos for tackling Rowling’s rather over-stuffed novel, adapting it into a manageable 138 minutes, without us losing any of the substance or flavour of the original.

In many respects, this novel out of all of Rowling’s Potter instalments, was probably the most suited to Yates’s talents. There are strong political overtones resonant throughout, as the Ministry of Magic exerts quasi-fascistic controls over the wizarding world, most especially at Hogwarts, the school of magic attended by Harry Potter and his cohorts.

The primary focal point for this statist repression is Dolores Umbridge – to my mind Rowling’s most fearsome villain barring none. She is the classic everyday baddie who dogs everyone’s day to day lives, using the rulebook as an excuse for exercising excessive power. Indeed, she revels in wielding power for its own sake.

In Phoenix, Umbridge is portrayed with supreme nastiness by Imelda Staunton – one of Britain’s finest actresses. She sports cuddly pink cardigans and her office wall is festooned with meowing decorative plates featuring cuddly little kittens. But she is a vile, inhumane creature, prepared to torture Harry – who is notably still a minor – with a punishing quill, which etches whatever is written into the writer’s skin. Harry is subjected to an eye-watering detention where he must write one hundred lines using this same pen. It is a chilling scene, well portrayed in this movie, representing what is in fact a more prolonged period of torture in Rowling’s novel.

However, in Phoenix it is Voldemort, played here by Ralph Fiennes, who emerges as the scariest villain of all. This was an interesting reversal on the novel. Indeed, Voldemort, in my opinion, is one of the weakest links in Rowling’s series. But in Yates’s film he takes on a new and frightening dimension, most especially in one invented scene, where Harry is convinced he sees him, in ‘Muggle’ clothing, watching him at Kings Cross Station.

Credit must surely go to Fiennes too. He often plays smooth gentlemanly types, and it is all too easy to forget his star turn as the psychopathic Nazi Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, where he emanated real, stomach-churning evil. He carries this same sinister sense into Voldemort – although notably not in the Mike Newell-directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which was a real mess of a film.

Similarly impressive in the baddie department was Jason Isaacs, playing the wondrously unctuous and pernicious Lucius Malfoy. Sadly we only get a brief outing of Isaacs’s considerable talents during a climactic Ministry of Magic sequence, when Harry and his loyal troupe of teenie friends (known here as Dumbledore’s Army) are forced into a terrifying confrontation with Voldemort’s ‘Deatheaters’ – masked enforcers of his dark magic and strong proponents of his racist drive for ‘pureblood’ supremacy in the wizarding world.

Meanwhile Helena Bonham-Carter makes for a delightfully insane Bellatrix Lestrange. Her wild Gothicism is such a far cry from the demure English miss of 1980s heritage cinema. She truly has become one of Britain’s cinematic treasures.

As for the remaining cast. Much has been made of Daniel Radcliffe’s improved acting skills in the role of Harry Potter (most particularly since his famous debut on the London stage in Peter Schaffer’s Equus), and there is much to be said here for how Radcliffe carries Potter’s intense psychological journey in Phoenix with considerable aplomb.

His supporting star and best mate in the narrative, Ron Weasley, is played again by Rupert Grint. I have harboured doubts over Grint’s acting abilities. I positively loathed his constant mugging and jaw-dropped gawps in the earlier films, but he has matured splendidly.

The same cannot be said, however, for Emma Watson, who plays Hermione Granger, who seems to closely adhere to the Keira Knightley ‘Wooden’ school of acting; forced, shrill, over-emotional, ridiculously posh, emitting this strange little panting sob whenever she is required to emote, or indeed, act – it was most disturbing. This is such a pity, because to my mind, in Cuaron’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Watson was the finest of the trio, by some distance. I genuinely thought she had the acting chops to outshine her co-stars. But both here, and in the immediately preceeding Potter film, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Newell, 2005), she has faltered badly.

The remaining cast turn in solid performances, however fleeting, which is so often the case with these action-packed films, seemingly over-stuffed with characters. However, mention must be made of Evanna Lynch, the young Irish actress who has taken on the role of loopy Luna Lovegood. Her scenes with Harry are intensely touching, the emotional highlights of the film, excepting a moving collage of flashbacks experienced by Harry, when he fights off Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic, and all seems lost.

The film itself boasts strong cinematography, retaining the darker palette now commonly associated with the Potter franchise. The opening sequences are particularly impressive, depicting a Dementor attack on Harry and his obnoxious cousin Dudley. I always relish the times in Potter movies when the magic world intrudes upon the ‘muggle’ world, and this is no exception. Yates excels at this spot of grim social realism – in this case a gloomy, graffitied underpass – and this, as a consequence, is the strongest section of the entire film.

I also enjoyed the scenes set in the Ministry of Magic, although the final duel between Voldemort and Dumbledore was a little too focused on close-ups, and could have fared well with wider visual exposition. Also, the emphatic moment when Sirius falls through the ‘veil’ was a little underwhelming.

Similarly, the CGi inclusion of Hagrid’s giant brother Grawp in the Forbidden Forest, adds little to proceedings.

We also see 12, Grimmaud Place, Sirius’s home and the headquarters for the Order of the Phoenix. It is a grimy, miserable old house, and the inclusion of Sirius’s mean-spirited house elf Kreacher, adds a little bit of black humour to proceedings. However, the film omits the shrieking, abusive portrait of Mrs Black, Sirius’s long-dead mother, which was something of a loss I felt in terms of her potential comic value.

Despite these failings, this is the second best film in the Potter franchise to date, offering a strong, coherent plot and Yates notably deploys some neat little cinematic touches: a flashback montage and the use of the Daily Prophet as a transition device.

Even so, it lacks the soul and magic, the cinematic artistry, of Cuaron’s earlier film, but it is a strong calling card for Yates’s obvious directorial talents.

Having said that, I am a little disappointed that Yates is taking on the sixth novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. This is partly because I rather like the idea of each film being directed by someone different, bringing their own ideas and personality to the mix. However, I am also unconvinced that the plot material will suit Yates’s more politicised sensibilities.

To my mind, the sixth novel is the weakest in the series, (I also dislike Book Four). Sure, it has a dark underpinning – Dumbledore’s death and Voldemort/Riddle’s back-story – but it is the frothiest, most hormonal of all the novels, and this, I think, will not fare well in Yates’s hands. The romantic histrionics will also lead to even more egregious acting from Emma Watson I fear. And I am also concerned that the strong focus on Draco Malfoy, will mean an abundance of Tom Felton, who is not the strongest actor in the series, in my opinion.

Perhaps Yates will coax career-best performances from his bright, young stars – I certainly hope so, especially in Felton’s case, as Draco’s subplot was to my mind the most gripping and emotional aspect of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Draco was rendered a truly intriguing character, with plentiful room for further development, and I was hugely disappointed that Draco’s role was not substantially enhanced in the final book in the series.

In sum, Yates’s directorial handling here is slick and competent, ensuring an enjoyable if slightly uninspiring film. For certain Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has not lodged in my mind as particularly memorable, unlike the glorious third movie in the franchise from Alfonso Cuaron. But this was definitely one of the highlights of the Summer blockbuster season, although bested with effortless ease by Paul Greengrass’s high octane thriller The Bourne Ultimatum.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Preview available for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix soundrack has released its preview of Nicholas Hooper's score for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, due for release July 13th, although the score will be for sale from July 10th.

Listening to the mini-clips at, this sounds like a highly accomplished score, which seems to mesh well with the mood of the original novel I feel. I especially liked the clips for the tracks: Professor Umbridge, Possession and The Ministry of Magic.

There's the usual reference to Hedwig's Theme by John Williams, without which no Harry Potter score would be complete of course.

Hooper is well-known for collaborating with director David Yates.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Davies set to adapt erotic thriller for ITV

Andrew Davies must be the busiest writer in Britain. ITV has commissioned him to pen an adaptation of the modern, erotic thriller Sleep with Me by Joanna Briscoe, according to MediaGuardian. The two-part mini-series will be produced by Independent Clerkenwell Films. Davies is also working on a tele-film adaptation of EM Forster's A Room with a View for ITV, due to air in 2008.

Davies has also been busy scripting productions for the BBC. These include Sense and Sensibility, yet another Austen adaptation, set to air this Autumn, plus Fanny Hill, John Cleland's racy 18th century novel, which is to be broadcast on BBC4. Davies is also reported to be working on a new BBC series of Dicken's Little Dorrit, emulating the soap opera style of the highly successful Bleak House, and is also to pen a single 90-minute drama of James Hawes's Speak for England, to air on BBC2.

Coppola's Marie Antoinette proves to be a feast for the senses

Here's a little something I've been meaning to write for some time now. I wanted to record my huge appreciation of Sofia Coppola's mesmerising Marie Antoinette.

I simply adored this film. Most unexpectedly.

I fervently wish I'd caught it at the cinema - such a lustrous, richly visual spectacle probably deserved nothing less. But I had to make do with a DVD and my widescreen television, fed through speakers to do some justice at least to the wonderful soundtrack.

I also loved Coppola's Lost in Translation and her earlier work, The Virgin Suicides. Which must mean, I guess, that Coppola's aesthetic style appeals to me. There is a stillness, a silence almost, at the heart of her films - even when your screen is a riot of colour and activity - which I find intensely moving. I also love her focus on strong female protagonists, and by strong, that doesn't mean kickass 'Xena' warrior princess-types - but complex, multi-layered women, whose feelings you can't help but engage with.

Scarlet Johansson was a splendid Coppola heroine in Lost in Translation, capturing that slightly aloof yet densely textured Coppolaesque 'essence' for want of a better phrase. I harboured doubts about Kirsten Dunst in the title role as Marie Antoinette. I'm not a great fan of Dunst, even though I enjoyed her in Coppola's The Virgin Suicides.

In fact, for much of Marie Antoinette, I even wondered if Dunst had bitten off more than she could chew. She seemed so ill at ease, so lost in it all, overwhelmed ... and then it struck me that she was absolutely perfect for the role, capturing Marie Antoinette's own lost, lonely sense of alienation, her necessity to seal herself away in a lush, consumerist dreamworld - a fantasia which was to cost her dearly.

Indeed, Marie Antoinette's excessive purchasing habits, her debauched lifestyle, were splendidly portrayed here. As was the opulent grandeur and sumptuous ritual of life at Versailles.

Other performances worth mentioning include Jason Schwartzman as Marie's sexually awkward husband Louis XVI, Steve Coogan as Marie's Austrian compatriot Ambassador Mercy (their final parting was particularly poignant), Shirley Henderson as Aunt Sophie and Rose Byrne as the scandalous, vivacious Duchesse de Polignac.

I had no qualms with the plethora of American accents, with the liberties taken with historical veracity, with the tumbling juxtaposition of historicities with brash 80s pop music. Indeed, the music was a highlight. I especially loved the usage of Siouxsie and the Banshee's Hong Kong Gardens, complete with violin intro, and I loved how the disconsolate melancholy of The Cure was used in the closing credits, capturing the sense of tragedy which pervades the closing stages of the film - indeed, there is a haunting melancholic undertow throughout. We all know how it ends, even though Coppola chooses to close the action with the King and Queen quitting Versailles for the very last time.

Music is such a powerful sensory weapon in the director's arsenal and Sofia Coppola proves she has an expert ear.

All in all, this was one of my favourite filmic experiences for some time. I am disappointed that Marie Antoinette didn't receive particularly positive critical feedback. Nor was it a box office sensation. Far from it. But this is an assured and moving piece of work from a hugely talented director.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Becoming a Fan of Fan Fiction: Exploring Red Eye fandom

Apologies for not updating in a while. Life has been a hectic whirl.

I have also been exploring the wonderful world of 'fan fiction', with a view to writing a research paper on the subject, which is proving to be more fascinating than I could possibly have imagined! I'll jot down a few ideas on the subject for this blog in the next few days.

I'll also admit I have been inspired to write a 'fanfic' myself! It started out as an 'exercise' - almost as research - but I have become increasingly embroiled in my 'work', which is likely to take on novel-size dimensions if I'm not too careful. If you fancy a laugh, my 'fanfic' is called The Real Deal and can be found at, under the Movies category, sub-category 'Red Eye.'

Oh yes. I did say 'Red Eye'!! Not the most taxing, subversive piece of cinema to emerge in the last decade, granted. But a fabulous little genre-flick in my opinion - sheer unadulterated (guilty?) entertainment. What I have found fascinating about the Red Eye fandom is the overwhelming number of female fans. Of course fan fiction does seem to be dominated by women - this is quite noticeable actually, and is a topic worth exploring further in its own right - but what makes these fans so interesting, is their adherence to the idea of a passionate romantic pairing between the two leads in Red Eye, Lisa Reisert and the cold-blooded assassin Jackson Rippner, who tries to kill Lisa but winds up almost dead himself by the end of the film. This is NOT a romantic film. But it has spawned a plethora of romantic, and often pretty darn sexy fan fiction! There is, of course, undeniable sexual chemistry between the two leads, which is obviously unexplored by the film's core narrative, which focuses on its key generic functions as a thriller.

And it is because there is a 'gap' in the narrative, based on this unresolved chemistry - despite, and almost because of the dark S&M overtones that are expressed in the movie itself - we now have a small but fervent fan culture, which is devoted to further exploring the dynamics of this relationship. It is the stuff of fantasy of course - a guilty pleasure too in some respects, as the nature of the pairing is based to some extent on power, control and violence.

Of course the sexual tension between the two stars is ramped up considerably by the fact that both actors are no small beer in the looks department. Rachel McAdams is edibly luscious, while Cillian Murphy is blessed with unique good looks and chilling blue eyes. If Lisa and Jackson had been lumpy and drab, there would be no Red Eye fan fiction, I can guarantee it. (And likely no movie in the first place, all considered).

What makes Red Eye interesting too is the characterisation of Lisa, the heroine, who proves to be tenacious, kickass and indomitable - and completely underestimated by the smooth-talking psycho Jackson. Many fanfics have further evolved Lisa's hardball attitude, while others have reveled more in portraying her as passive to Jackson's tough guy dominance. Jackson himself is almost always 'redeemed' in some form or other, because, yup, you guessed it, because of the power of love and his idolising of Lisa, his perfect match.

My ongoing fanfic is focusing on Lisa's POV. Yes there will be romance (there IS that chemistry thing going on, it can't be denied), but rather than Jackson taking the initiative throughout, I have decided to cast Lisa as a 'detective', determined to uncover the truth about Jackson, his past, his persona, his work, his true identity &c. And I'll admit I'm enjoying every minute of it, although I've got a lot of plot still to get through (I've mapped out a large and convoluted story!). I'm a little scared actually how easy and enjoyable it is to write brute violence, and have been forced to edit my own work before publishing it online! I'm sure (or at least I'm hoping) that it must be a cathartic experience!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Gatiss to play Edwardian dandy spy in adaptation of own thriller

Mediaguardian reports that Mark Gatiss's The Vesuvius Club, published 2004, is set to be adapted by Gatiss for the BBC, and will star comedy actor Gatiss in the lead role as Lucifer Box, an Edwardian portrait painter with a taste for espionage. If successful, a followup would be likely, adapting The Devil in Amber, and subsequently the third novel in the Lucifer Box trilogy, which Gatiss is currently writing.

Dickens fest at the BBC in 2008

Apparently the BBC is set to bring yet ANOTHER adaptation of Oliver Twist to our TV screens, according to The Stage. The new Oliver Twist is due to start filming this Summer and air next year. Coky Giedroyc (The Virgin Queen) will direct. It seems likely the adaptors will take a traditional approach to this ever-popular tale, according to comments from costume designer Amy Roberts, who told The Stage that the producer has warned 'that we have to be aware of the fact people love the story and will want an old friend.'

I can't say I'm jumping for joy at this news. How many Oliver Twists do we actually need? We had the Roman Polanski film in 2005, and two TV versions in 1997 and 1999. Plus, plenty more before then!

More exciting I feel is the upcoming Andrew Davies's adaptation of Little Dorrit (also Dickens of course) which is set to air next Autumn, and is due to be televised as a soap opera, in the same manner as the BBC's hugely successful Bleak House.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What went wrong with Austen adaptations?

Briefly reflecting on the debacle that was the ITV Jane Austen season - excusing to a slight extent their version of Northanger Abbey - I am bewildered at what seems to be a dramatic decline in quality text-to-screen adaptations of works by Jane Austen. For sure, the ITV adaptations were very much a step backwards, after what can only be described as an illustrious era for Austen adaptation in the 1990s.

I recently re-watched the 1995 Sense and Sensibility and was shocked at the difference in class between this twelve year old film and the recent ITV adaptations. OK, I realise that Sense and Sensibility was a cinematic film with a much larger production budget, and a a more impressive slate of acting talent on board to boot, but the differences went deeper. There was a genuine attempt to 'interpret' Austen's text, to offer a fresh reading of her work. This was apparent in both Emma Thompson's script, which utilised, for example, an embellished characterisation of young Margaret Dashwood to express rebellious feminine sentiment, and also in Ang Lee's extraordinarily beautiful and strongly-crafted direction, as throughout the production he strives to recreate scenes from 'Vermeer'. Everything about this film is pitch-perfect - something I have only come to realise in recent years, most noticeably in contrast to other Austen adaptations.

In that same year of course, we also had the BBC's famous Pride and Prejudice, which rejuvenated the period drama genre and is still a top-selling BBC product worldwide. And we also had, from BBC Films, a filmic version of Persuasion, which is superior in every department to ITV's latest, and lesser, offering. Again, this film actually had something to say. Nick Deare and Roger Michel (an enormously talented director) offered us a grittier, rain-sodden Persuasion, suffused with wistful emotion, never shying from the mental cruelties inflicted on poor Anne. The dialogue, the direction, all were handled deftly, smartly, and the acting performances were top-notch throughout.

The following two years witnessed an Emma-fest: two versions directly transposed from Austen's novel, and another, Clueless from Amy Heckerling, offering us a modern-day translation of the action to 'chichi' Beverley Hills. Clueless was especially impressive, but the two 'Emmas' were both 100% superior to the recent ITV fare - and notably the 1997 Kate Beckinsale version of Emma, with a script from Andrew Davies, was itself an ITV production. Again though, it had something to say. There was a genuine attempt to instill a sense of context to the narrative action, with scenes inserted which showed us the rustic poor of Highbury. Servants too were highlighted, ensuring we could never avoid an awareness of how the gentry of Regency England were able to live their lives of elegant ease. The Hollywood Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow, was a little more pastiched than parodic, but was an exercise in delightful, aesthetically pleasing filmmaking, all the same.

Unlike many Austen fans, I also enjoyed Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park in 1999. This adaptation really did have an awful lot to say - too much for some, who felt Rozema's wild deviations from the original text were an 'adaptation' too far. I disagree with this approach (although I can understand the sentiments expressed), because I like to see texts re-interpreted, re-created, in new and exciting ways. This was also a visually pleasing film, well thought-out, nicely acted.

There has been little to cheer in the field of Austen adaptation since then. Working Title's Pride and Prejudice (2005) was easy on the eye and pleasing in many departments, but it lacked substance. As for ITV's lacklustre offerings, these were frankly depressing. These were lazy adaptations, with little to nothing to say. They were adaptation for adaptation's sake - a crude attempt to accrue cultural capital for the ITV channel, better noted for its populist fare. I have higher hopes for the BBC's Sense and Sensibility, airing this Autumn, partly because Andrew Davies is at the helm (screenwriting), and unlike many, I strongly approve of his adaptation skills. Of course there have been some duds along the way (to be expected in a career as long and productive as Davies's), but he has also brought us some of TV's best adaptations, including Bleak House (2005), The Way We Live Now (2001) and Pride and Prejudice (1995).

So what has changed in the field of Austen adaptation? Why is mediocrity the order of the day? Is this a problem with text-to-screen adaptation in general (a more involved and contentious debate of course)? Or is there something awry with TV and Filmmaking? (Even more contentious!).

Certainly there appears to be less attempt, with recent Austen adaptations, to re-interpret the source text, to say something new and different. Is this because we are Austen-ed out? I can't quite see this - there are multiple schools of critical thought alive to her literary texts, why can't this be replicated in the world of TV and Cinema drama? Or, is it the fault of over-commodification of the Austen 'brand'? There is thus no need to 'challenge' audiences who are seeking simple entertainment and easily digestible cultural capital, rather than seeking out fresh and illuminating narrative experiences (or so the TV/Film-makers would presume). Worryingly, the standards of 'aesthetic' filmaking appear to have dropped dramatically (excusing Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice, which is a literal visual feast of a film). Arguably, of course, ITV simply cannot 'do' period drama - it lacks an eye for the genre, although not all BBC adaptations have been as adventurous and slick in their production values as, for example, the corporation's triumphant Bleak House in 2005 - which to my mind remains the benchmark in quality adaptation.

Sense and Sensibility casting update

IMDB now has details of the full cast list for the BBC's upcoming Sense and Sensibility, due to air this Autumn.

Elinor Dashwood - Hattie Morahan
Marianne Dashwood - Charity Wakefield
Mrs Dashwood - Janet McTeer
Margaret Dashwood - Lucy Boynton
John Dashwood - Mark Gatiss
Fanny Dashwood - Claire Skinner
Mrs Ferrars - Jean Marsh
Edward Ferrars - Dan Stevens
Willoughby - Dominic Cooper
Colonel Brandon - David Morrissey
Sir John Middleton - Mark Williams
Mrs Jennings - Linda Bassett
Miss Steele - Daisy Haggard
Mr Harris (the doctor) - Damien Thomas

I am presuming that 'Miss Steele' is Lucy, and not her sister, and notably there is no casting mentioned yet for the Palmers, Lady Middleton or Robert Ferrars.

Overall this looks a relatively strong cast. I don't know of either actress taking on Elinor and Marianne. I am most interested in seeing Dan Stevens as Edward Ferrars - excellent casting there I think - and although David Morrissey does not stand out for me as an ideal Colonel Brandon, he is an actor I have huge respect for, and can imagine him making any role his own. I also enjoy Mark Williams, and think he'll bring a pleasantly comedic edge to John Middleton.

In other details, we learn this series will be a three-parter (180 mins) and is being directed by John Alexander whose trade has been plied almost exclusively in TV, including two Series One episodes of the BBC's hit series Life on Mars. Andrew Davies is penning the screenplay, amidst claims that this will be the 'sexed-up' version of Sense and Sensibility. Of course we always get this familiar little dance before any Davies adaptation, which almost always ends up being very chaste and sweet, a far cry from the frenzied sex-fest we are always being promised (unfortunately).

Monday, April 02, 2007

Cranford casting news

According to, Eileen Atkins, Michael Gambon, Lesley Manville, Alex Etel and Andrew Buchan (a big favourite on this blog!) have been cast in the BBC's forthcoming adaptation of Gaskell's Cranford Chronicles. (Thanks for the anonymous tip on this one, BTW).

Only half-persuaded by ITV's Persuasion

Sorry for the late posting of this review - I have been plagued by technical gremlins all day!

What a shame …. ITV’s Persuasion started out so promisingly, but in its ‘bold’ attempt to differentiate itself from its (superior) 1995 BBC predecessor, this version was rendered something of a hodge-podge.

What I find most concerning in Adaptation, is where a production is clearly ‘unmotivated’- in the sense that the over-arching directorial vision, is not pertaining to some key new reading of the source text, which might perhaps offer us a fresh, even challenging new perspective. But huge changes are wrought nevertheless – and for no clear, apparent purpose.

This was most definitely the case with ITV’s Persuasion, which did not seem to have any specific interpretative steer in the hands of screenwriter Simon Burke or director Adrian Shergold.

Indeed, the primary focus of this production – and the same can be said perhaps of the ITV’s Billie Piper-starring Mansfield Park which opened the ITV Jane Austen season – appeared to be the casting of the main female protagonist. Producer David Snodin has commented that recruiting Sally Hawkins to play Anne Elliot was the most important first step in this adaptation, and that everything else was then built around her. Securing Hawkins, who is one of our greatest up and coming actresses, was undeniably a coup. As was signing up Spooks star Rupert Penry-Jones as her love interest Captain Frederick Wentworth, the man Anne refused eight years previous, based on faulty advice, but she has loved him ever since, and regrets that fateful decision.

Certainly both actors have rewarded the Persuasion production team with fine, nuanced performances - although Hawkins's Anne, while capturing her maturity and sensitivity, is a little more passive than I expected. However, from an utterly shallow perspective, Penry-Jones makes for a very fetching Austen hero.

But other acting performances were far less assured. Amanda Hale as Anne’s irritating sister Mary Musgrove, was particularly strange, seeming to combine a very third-rate impression of Sophie Thompson, who made for a much better Mary in the BBC’s 1995 Persuasion, mixed with the odd physical quirks and mannerisms of Julie Walters’s Mrs Overall from Acorn Antiques. Meanwhile, Sam Hazeldine who played Mary’s long-suffering husband Charles, tried to play this for laughs, and failed abominably. (It’s wrong of course to keep comparing this adaptation with its BBC predecessor, but Simon Russell Beale, who is one of Britain’s most brilliant actors, made for such a wonderful Charles). The remaining Musgroves were passable. Certainly Louisa and Henrietta, Charles’s giggly, flighty sisters, (Jennifer Higham and Rosamund Stephen) were as giggly and flighty as could possibly be – but I did feel the actresses were each cast as the wrong sister.

The Elliot family were quite splendid in this production. Anthony Head was a perfectly pompous and vain Sir Walter Elliot, obsessed with appearances – especially his own. He was the standout scene-stealer in this Persuasion’s supporting cast. Julia Davis made for a delightfully snidey and arrogant Elizabeth Elliot, whose nose was pushed firmly out of joint by the attentions of her cousin, William Elliot, to ‘plain’ Anne. William Elliot was played here by Tobias Menzies, who is an actor I enjoy immensely. But I had a mixed response to his performance here. He was suitably smug and creepy, but also charismatic – very much so in fact. But at times I found his delivery a little one-paced and flat – although his proposal to Anne was one of the high points of the drama. Unfortunately, the adaptors fail to make much of the first time he encounters Anne, on the wind-swept Cobb at Lyme. This is a turning point in the novel, as Wentworth observes Elliot's admiration of Anne, and perceives for himself, her 'bloom', thus re-igniting his passionate love for her.

As for the remaining cast, performances which warrant mention are Peter Wight as a hearty Admiral Croft, Joseph Mawle as a pleasant Captain Harville and Alice Krige, (the Borg Queen no less), who put in a strong performance as Anne’s kindly but snobbish godmother Lady Russell.

Adrian Shergold’s direction was both one of the production’s strong points, and yet at times, a genuine weakness. I rather liked the fly-on-the-wall intensity of much of the hand-held camera-work. This contemporary ‘docu-drama’ style can be horribly over-used in some productions, but Shergold maintained just the right balance here, ensuring the audience had close proximity to the heroine, charting her feelings, her moods, her observations as someone flung to the margins for most of the action. At one point, we are even aware of Anne’s breathing, as she wanders forlornly through the shadowy corridors of Kellynch in the opening sequence.

However, Shergold also over-played this closeness. At times, the camera was positioned too close to Anne’s face for comfort. The romantic denouement is a classic example, when we wait an age for the lovers to finally kiss, and for a single tear to roll sadly down Anne’s cheek – indeed, we waited so long, that I unthinkingly began inspecting Sally Hawkins’s dentistry, as the camera continued to linger on her face, mouth a-gape.

Another of Shergold’s initially promising directorial tricks sours a little as the production progresses. To ensure the audience is better acquainted with Anne’s thoughts and feelings, Anne is seen to write her journal throughout, accompanied by voice-over, and as a parting shot, she then stares full-faced, straight into the camera. This Brechtian device, aiming to engage the audience, soon began to grate, expanding beyond her journal-writing to little sidelong glances, shared with us throughout the action. Notably, Anne’s voice-over whilst writing her journal suddenly ceased, however, once she was reconciled with Wentworth, signifying perhaps her own sense of closure, her recovery from the grief and confusion at her loss in love, which had dogged her throughout the narrative.

Shergold also includes a slightly cheesy moment. During a visit by the Musgroves and herself to the Crofts at Kellynch Hall, Anne Elliot is playing the piano, illuminated by myriad candles. Captain Wentworth is then shown to be staring at her, alone, in stern, reflective silence – and for some time too. She looks again and he has disappeared. Was this a vision or reality?

Even though Shergold appears to favour close, even claustrophobic camera-work, at other appropriate points in the narrative, Shergold occasionally deploys wider, establishment shots, and enjoys using the camera to peer over banisters, to hover above its characters, and even to encircle them, as when the finally reunited lovers dance together on the lawns of Kellynch Hall – which in this version has been awarded to Anne as a wedding present by Captain Wentworth – although it is quite remarkable that a naval captain had won THAT much ‘Spanish Gold’ in the course of his naval adventures. And what about the estate having been entailed? How come it was ever sold at all? Oh well …

Shergold often utilised a suitably chill, stony-grey palette of colours throughout the production, aided and abetted by the dank British weather which appears to have pervaded Persuasion, but fortunately to good effect. There is an Autumnal feel to Austen’s final novel, and the ambience of this production certainly highlighted this. Some interior shots, however, were a little too well lit, most especially at the Kellynch dinner party, hosted by the Crofts, which eschews the soft-toned candlelit effect most often utilised more faithfully in period dramas.

Locations were very well chosen in this production. It was nice to see Bath in all its splendours – most especially an early Bath scene when Anne speaks with her cousin William at the Pump Room. There is perhaps a little over-reliance on the camera panning the grand, sweeping curve of the Royal Crescent, as a convenient synecdoche for quintessential Bath. But overall, Bath is nicely rendered, and again, is washed through with drizzly British weather to suitably melancholic effect. Kellynch Hall (Neston Hall)and Uppercross (Sheldon Manor) are also nicely represented, but the crowning achievement in terms of location is actually the usage of Lyme and the Cobb, amidst thrashing sea-storms, which must have made for a hair-raising filming experience for the actors and crew, amidst high winds and dramatic crashing waves.

The real problems with this adaptation, as stated earlier, reside in the overall narrative structure, which deviates a little too sharply, but with no true purpose, away from Austen’s original text.

For example, having built up Anne as our primary standpoint character throughout, there is an unexpected and not entirely welcome switch just past the midway point, to a vague attempt at a ‘two-hander’ as we are suddenly made privy to Captain Wentworth’s thoughts and opinions. This is achieved with two scenes set in Lyme, once Anne is in Bath, where Wentworth converses with his friend Captain Harville about how he has inadvertently become ‘attached’ to Louisa Musgrove, in the eyes of others, due to his amicable attentions towards her. Indeed, a marriage is expected by all. A later scene, on the sea-drenched Cobb, has Wentworth bemoan to Harville, how he might have missed his chance with the woman he truly loves, who is ‘perfection’ itself. Harville, recognising his feelings for Anne, assures him that Louisa has now found love elsewhere – with Captain Benwick. He then suggests Wentworth head to Bath, and Anne.

In such a way, Captain Wentworth’s feelings for Anne are made abundantly clear at a much earlier stage than the novel, which only follows Anne’s consciousness, as we only learn of Wentworth’s story once he tells Anne his version of events. Arguably, such certainty reduces the suspense, and slightly cheapens our ‘closeness’ to Anne, which has been meticulously built up throughout, as we are suddenly in the vantage position of holding more information than our heroine. It is a puzzling and surprising position to be in at this juncture, and seemingly at odds with the overall trend of this adaptation, which is to offer us such close communion with our heroine.

Of course, by introducing Wentworth’s feelings about Anne with these invented scenes, the writer is ensuring we are not faced with excess exposition at the close of the film – but part of the ‘joy’ of Persuasion is our journeying throughout this love story with Anne, uncertain, questioning, sometimes hopeful, other times cast down. We are firmly on board her emotional rollercoaster. Like many of Austen’s love stories, there is also an element of ‘detective work’ involved too, as we try to ‘read’ the hero, second-guess his feelings, his intentions towards the heroine.

In 1995, Andrew Davies orchestrated in Pride and Prejudice a classic two-hander, ensuring abundant ‘extra’ Darcy, to ensure the audience warmed towards this seemingly cold, buttoned-up man – but he had the space and the time to integrate these fresh aspects of the narrative. A 90-minute tele-film does not have that luxury, and is more sharply-focused if, as in Austen’s novel, the narrative sticks closely to a single protagonist.

A further major change implemented in this production, is the utilisation of Austen’s original but discarded ending. Here, Captain Wentworth is assigned the onerous task by Admiral Croft, of asking Anne whether she is likely to marry William Elliot, as suggested by popular speculation, as if the newly-weds are to take possession of Kellynch Hall, then the Crofts need to seek out new lodgings. Anne’s answer, negating any attachment to Mr Elliot, leads to Wentworth’s proposal. In Austen’s original, this takes place at the Croft’s rented residence in Bath. Here, to ensure added suspense, the conversation takes place amidst the furore of the Musgroves arriving at the Elliot house on Camden Place. The lovers are thus interrupted before Wentworth can fully react to the news that Anne is free. He hastens off.

We then have a ludicrous, even farcical chain of events. Anne chases after him, but is first stopped by her supposedly invalid school-friend Mrs Smith with a rambling explanation of Mr William Elliot’s evil designs against her family. This revelation is swiftly cast aside, and never revisited, serving only the singular purpose of ‘obstructing’ Anne’s path to Wentworth. She then runs to Harville’s lodgings, has a conversation with Captain Harville, and is given a letter from Wentworth, in which he proposes. It is hard to see when he had the time to write this letter. Was it pre-written? Because surely he could not have belted home, written the letter and shot out again, in just the time it takes for Anne to run after him, even with a glancing distraction from Mrs Smith.

Anne then runs to the Pump Rooms, (by now her chasing about like a wild hare has become quite exhausting for the viewer, if only through mocking laughter), where she encounters the Crofts, then runs back home, where apparently Wentworth has since headed, begging the question why he ever left in the first place. This renders Anne’s exertions completely unnecessary, merely a spurious addition to the plot, and a desperate attempt to inject a level of uncertainty, of delayed gratification, to their romance. Of course Anne and Wentworth are united, as we always knew they would be, particularly since we are aware of his deep feelings for her, as much as we know the heartbreak she has suffered over her love for him.

Austen’s favoured ending was so much better, and it is unfathomable why this set of adaptors chose to ignore it. Perhaps the adaptors wanted a more direct personal confrontation between the lovers? Hence he is cold and suspicious but melted by her revelation that she does not love Mr Elliot. In the original, of course, the romantic climax is ushered in by Anne famously conversing with Captain Harville, about the ‘constancy’ of love, as experienced by men and women. It is a wonderful, intense passage, and plotwise, hugely important too, as Captain Wentworth overhears it all whilst writing a letter, and is deeply moved. He then writes a letter to Anne, which he ensures she reads, while he leaves the room, waiting for her response in the street.

In the ITV Persuasion, Captain Wentworth never gets to hear Anne’s speech, as it is moved backwards through time to a conversation she has instead, at Lyme, with Captain Benwick, whose fiancée had died the year before. It is awkwardly inserted, clearly because the speech itself is so iconic, so suggestive of Persuasion, and omitting it would be akin to cutting ‘To Be or Not To Be’ in Hamlet. Meanwhile Wentworth laughs merrily, completely oblivious to Anne’s heart-felt comments.

A further unproductive change between text and screen includes, (as in the BBC 1995 production), a scene set in Bath, when Anne Elliot is seen to literally chase Captain Wentworth when he quits a concert they are both attending, in disgust, once he has heard the rumour of Anne’s ‘closeness’ to her cousin William. I certainly don’t object to Anne’s pursuit of Wentworth on grounds of propriety – although no well brought-up woman would behave in this manner in Austen’s day – but adaptors miss a trick here, as the concert scene, as written by Austen, is packed full of nuance, suspense and misunderstanding.

And oddly, here is yet another ITV Austen adaptation which closes with the leading pair waltzing together. It’s a slightly silly and trite ending, for what should be one of literature’s greatest love stories. Indeed, to my mind, and I’m probably in a minority here, this is Austen’s most resonant and lovely romance of all.

I am not one for close textual fidelity in adaptation, but I do strongly believe that any wholesale changes or plot distortions must be in service to a wider interpretative concept, while preserving narrative cohesion, dynamism and momentum. This is why I can accept the huge changes wrought in Patricia Rozema’s much-reviled 1999 Mansfield Park, for example, as I can see that there is a directorial vision guiding this production, ensuring a rationale for these drastic alterations, even if, as has been subsequently shown, they have proved unpopular with much of the core Austen fanbase. This is brave direction, in my opinion, and successful or otherwise, is an important ingredient in text-to-screen adaptation, ensuring the genre maintains vitality and verve.

ITV’s Persuasion failed dramatically in this regard. This was an attractive film, but it lacked heart and lacked interpretative direction.

For certain, Hawkins and Penry-Jones cannot be faulted for their rendition of this love story. I enjoyed the subtle chemistry between them. I particularly liked the moment when Louisa suffers her ‘fall’ at the Cobb. Anne and Wentworth both work together in this instance; there is a moment of unspoken, lucid communication between them. Even better was their first unexpected meeting in Bath when they discuss Louisa’s impending marriage to Benwick, and he reveals his inferior opinion of Louisa. There is a delightful and touching closeness of minds between Anne and Wentworth in this scene, a natural intimacy, masked as it is by insecurity, uncertainty. It is acted beautifully and meaningfully.

The key problems with this production are most definitely not then due to the leading actors, but are instead inherent in the unnecessary alterations to the narrative structure, which weaken the adaptation’s dramatic effect. The William Elliot/Mrs Clay conspiracy is underplayed and under-explained, but this is partly because Austen herself seemed a little uncertain in this regard too. Even so, Mrs Smith’s sudden recuperation is mind-boggling, (or perhaps is meant as an astonishing proof of the efficacy of Bath’s waters). The 'villainous' subplot was thus used only as a temporary roadblock – and an extremely ineffective one at that – to Anne’s romantic resolution.

The ITV Jane Austen season has been a decidedly mixed bag. I had hoped that Persuasion would be my pick of the three (Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), and even had high hopes of just this, during the first forty minutes or so of transmission. But the narrative felt rushed and uneven, and some of the acting amongst the supporting cast, was decidedly below par. It was stacks better, of course, than ITV’s dreadful Mansfield Park, but I would have to say that Davies’s Northanger Abbey, for all its many faults, was probably the best of a pretty mediocre bunch. ITV’s reputation for period drama has always been seen as middling, in comparison to the BBC’s super-confident, slick output, which has ensured the BBC brand is synonymous with quality in this genre. The BBC’s position as the foremost producer of heritage drama certainly remains undinted, if not heightened, as a result of ITV’s foray into this territory.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

First impression of ITV's Persuasion

I will write a full review later, but will say very briefly: there were some things to admire in this production - most particularly Rupert Penry-Jones as Captain Wentworth, (indeed, two hours simply watching him sit alone in an empty room would have sufficed) - and the first 45 minutes were very nicely-done. But there were some glaring and important changes from Austen's original, which altered the dynamics of the narrative considerably, and some of the acting performances here were highly disappointing, particularly Charles and Mary Musgrove (Sam Hazeldine and Amanda Hale), and I wasn't over-impressed either by the giddy Miss Musgroves, Louisa and Henrietta (Jennifer Higham and Rosamund Stephen). Much better was Sir Walter Elliot (Anthony Head) and Elizabeth Elliot (Julia Davis). As for Anne - my favourite of all Austen heroines - she is played nicely here by Sally Hawkins, who is a very fine actress.

I don't think this was anywhere near as good as the BBC production 1995 - although Rupert Penry-Jones more than compensated here in lieu of Ciaran Hinds. Indeed, there was no comparison.

Anyway, much, much more to come
- am now watching the Behind the Scenes documentary, about how these Austen films on ITV were made.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Charming Northanger Abbey enlivens ITV Jane Austen Season

Northanger Abbey is one of Austen's lesser-read novels, which is a shame, because it really is boundless fun. Perhaps, some could claim, this is because from a romantic point of view, there is less popular excitement engendered by its subsequently less famous central love-match, in comparison say to Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, whose intellectual sparring has rendered them almost iconic in Romantic Fiction. Arguably too, Northanger Abbey is treated (perhaps unfairly) as a 'light-weight' compared to Austen's more mature works, such as Emma, Mansfield Park and the touching emotional resonance of 'mature' love between Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.

Northanger Abbey can be read as a light-hearted parody of the Gothic Romance literary genre, which was hugely popular in Austen's day, and is lampooned mercilessly and wittily through the muddled adventures of the novel's sweet, naieve young heroine, Catherine Morland's over-attachment to these sensationalist narratives. Catherine's voracious consumption of these overblown adventures, horrors and seductions of her day, leads to unexpected complications and confusions in her own personal life, as fiction merges with reality in her mind, and she almost loses the man she loves, Henry Tilney, as a consequence.

This is foremost a story about a teenager on the cusp of womanhood, and is consequently alive with the foibles and fancies of the young generation of this period. Yet true to Austen there are always serious material concerns pervading the narrative. Marriage prospects, fortune (and lack of it), marital contentment and family dysfunction are key themes. The comedic elements keep this novel from straying too far into the harsh realities of these dark underpinnings; the tone is light and airy. We move through the sometimes seedy world of Bath - full of scoundrels and adventurers - to the austere regime of Northanger Abbey, always in the charming and endearing company of Catherine, who fails to see ill in others, because she herself is so pure-hearted: indeed, this is the quality that the more world-weary and experienced Henry Tilney falls for.

Prior to the new ITV version, there has only been one adaptation of Northanger Abbey - a tele-film aired in 1986 (see Screen Stories review: Firth makes for a 'super-creepy' Austenian hero in Northanger Abbey; the 2nd review), starring Peter Firth as Henry, with a script from Maggie Wadey. This production truly is a horror-show, a failure on every front.

Suffice it to say, ITV's new Northanger Abbey is much, much better - indeed, it is a vast improvement on the dire Mansfield Park (also scripted by Maggie Wadey) we had to suffer last week.

The scriptwriter for this new Northanger Abbey is the hugely capable and experienced 'adaptor laureate' himself, Andrew Davies, and his contribution proves, yet again, that the screenplay in any given TV drama or film is its bedrock, its life-force. With Davies's well-constructed script and surefooted re-casting of Austenian dialogue at its foundations, Northanger Abbey is a production at ease with itself, confident of its pacing, its plotting, its ability to portray credible characterisation.

As one would expect, there are some changes between the source text and adaptation, but in this instance, we never lose a sense of narrative cohesion or find the pace faltering. For example, in the novel, whilst at Northanger Abbey, Catherine visits Henry's parsonage at Woodston, where General Tilney is constantly and pointedly recommending the house as a future marital home. In Davies's screenplay, Woodston is now viewed from afar, whilst Henry and Catherine are riding - it is significant enough that he shows her his home, as by this point the viewer is in no doubt about his feelings for Catherine. Hence it is a convenient edit.

In general, any changes, omissions or deviations are in service here to the plot, ensuring a seamless yet succinct flow. And indeed, Northanger Abbey, of all Austen's novels, does not seem to suffer from being a tele-film, rather than a more drawn-out mini-series, as the plot is never too convoluted - which begs the question why this novel is not a favourite of adaptors.

Davies, of course, has added a fair few of his own distinctive trademark touches too of course, enlivening Catherine's inner life with visual dream-sequences, often of a sexual nature. Catherine's imaginary world is enhanced by her reading works such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, a best-seller of her day, by Ann Radcliffe. But Davies also emphasises The Monk, a Gothic tale of terror, seduction and incest, by Matthew Lewis, which is more strongly sexualised than Radcliffe's more ladylike works.

In this production, Catherine's flighty, flirty friend Isabella Thorpe recommends The Monk to Catherine, recalling the Magic Branch which melts walls presaging erotic experiences, and Catherine is soon seen devouring The Monk by candlelight, gripped by its racy contents. Her dreams become more intense than ever: herself as a Gothic heroine in flight from terrifying forces, and the strongly sexual element of The Monk ensures that there is an erotic charge to her dreams and fantasies. In particular, Catherine is seen to indulge in a fantasy while bathing. The walls, adorned with floral wallpaper, writhe and melt into a sylvan woodland scene where Henry Tilney, notably in full parson's uniform, steps forth, beckoning her from the bath, naked. He admires her naked form, calling her 'God's creation'- but somehow his pious words only serve to highlight the very unholiness of her thoughts.

Of course a nice young girl like Catherine Morland, or even the capricious Isabella Thorpe, would not have been reading The Monk - it was far too saucy. But it is an interesting and fitting addition in this modern adaptation, as it allows Davies to indulge playfully in Catherine's imaginary world, to enliven her erotic awakening, within the spirit of the novel's focus on the perils of the Romantic Gothic genre and its deleterious effects on impressionable young women.

In true Davies' style too, we have an unseen 'romantic' encounter, now brought to life - much as he did with Lydia and Wickham in his 1995 Pride and Prejudice -- as we are allowed to witness Isabella Thorpe, in lonely post-coital discontent in bed, asking Captain Frederick Tilney if they are now engaged. His brusque response is callous, cold. Despite her follies, which are numerous and grating, an iota of sympathy is even elicited here for foolish young Isabella.

A narratorial voice-over is used as a framing-device in this production, swiftly introducing viewers to Catherine from her baptism through to her growing into a rollicking, pretty teenager, ripe for her adventures as a 'heroine'. After all, as the dry, witty voice (in all likelihood supposed to be Austen herself) tells us: 'When a young lady is to be a heroine, something must and will happen to throw adventure in her way.' Catherine is thus launched into the adult world of Bath with her neighbours, Mr and Mrs Allen, as chaperones. The tele-film closes too with this narratorial voice, offering a neat summation of events - Catherine's happy marriage and entrance into motherhood, and the boost in good fortune for Eleanor Tilney and her newly titled and wealthy husband. Normally I dislike a voice-over framing-device, but it works well here.

Aesthetically this production is serviceable if not sparkling. There is something a little muddied and yellow in the cinematography - it lacks pristine sharpness. Certainly these two ITV Austen events have not shared the high quality production values, innovative cinematography and clarity of aesthetic vision enjoyed by recent BBC period dramas such as Bleak House and even Jane Eyre. Perhaps Persuasion will be an improvement on this front next week. Is it a question of budget, of experience and expertise, of the willingness to take risks without compromising the period 'feel' of a production? Similarly, musical scoring in this production is fairly predictable and uninspiring but never actually jarring. In terms of direction too, Jon Jones is competent here, but never exciting. (I felt much the same about his BBC adaptation of Robert Harris's Archangel too).

There has been mild controversy about the locations chosen for this Northanger Abbey. Although much of the action takes place in fashionable Bath, here it is Dublin, with its Georgian architecture, which acts as a stand-in - reportedly because Ireland was a cheaper shooting location. Does Northanger Abbey need Bath to truly bring it to life? Probably not, but it might have been nice. The production notably steers clear of tell-tale wide-lens establishment shots, for those who might recognise the many references to real world locations in the script (and obviously to a greater extent in the novel itself).

As for General Tilney's Northanger Abbey itself, this is not an abbey but a hulking Gothic castle (Dublin Castle no less) complete with Disneyland turrets. It's all a little overblown. And of course, the tele-film - as the novel - indulges in its moments of pathetic phallacy. Timely thunder-storms, flashes of lightening, rain storms all contribute to the brooding, threatening atmosphere of Northanger Abbey. It's all delightfully silly. More fitting are the gentle, sunny scenes at Fullerton, the Morland home, with an ivy-clad parsonage (of very grand proportions it must be said) while Henry's parsonage is a fine, grey-stone house, with a thoroughly respectable air of modest solidity.

Acting performances throughout are steady, if not scintillating. Felicity Jones, who plays Catherine Morland, will be a big star I'm certain. Not because of her immense acting talents, although she is fine in this department, but because she is something of a ‘hottie’ in a sort of nubile, Leslie Carron-as-Gigi kind of way with large, soulful eyes and bee-sting lips pouting prettily in the manner of a perpetually surprised bunny rabbit. At first I felt she was a little too knowing to be a naieve young heroine, unexperienced in the wicked ways of the world. But here, a little strangely, she seems to become increasingly artless and insecure as the action progresses, to the point where our sympathies are truly engaged with her by the time she is evicted cruelly from Northanger Abbey. She firmly believes she is being punished for her own silly fancies, and even deserves such harsh treatment. She never suspects the awful truth, that General Tilney learns she is not a wealthy heiress (as he had been falsely told by Thorpe) and therefore sees her as a fortune-hunting adventuress. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

As for Henry Tilney, the man Catherine loves and eventually marries. He is played here by JJ Feild with charm, wit and warm tenderness towards young Catherine, whose innocence he cherishes. I actually like JJ Feild's Henry Tilney more than Austen's - although I do like Austen's hero a great deal too.

In truth I have mixed feelings towards Henry Tilney as a Romantic hero. On the one hand he is witty, urbane, the kind of guy who could be tremendous fun. You could imagine a modern-day Henry as great company, engaging in sexy, stimulating banter, laced with a healthy dose of bitchiness. To my mind, he would make a great match for a 'mature' and witty woman. But in Northanger Abbey he has been paired with an adorable, innocent child-woman, who I occasionally feel has strayed into the wrong love story. For me, the whole affair has a slight whiff of ‘cradle-snatching’ – which doesn’t reflect particularly well on our dear Henry. I fear poor Catherine will become hectored and lectured into sullen silence, rather than mentored into maturity, which is what Austen would rather have us believe here I feel. This does not feel like a union of equals, and in a postfeminist age, equality of mind is surely a pre-requisite for ideal love. (Again, is this why Pride and Prejudice is so popular?)

I can't help but slightly resent Henry's paternalistic upbraiding of Catherine for her (granted) very foolish notions about his father's murdering his mother. He is justified, of course. But it is the momentuous importance given to the incident in the heroine's life which riles me a little. For Catherine, Henry's anger is a turning point when she sees that the realities of experience - as explained to her by Henry earlier - are more frightening and more serious than any novel, and not to be treated as trifles. It is the crux of her maturation plot - much as poor Emma Woodhouse is later reduced to tears by her moral mentor Mr Knightley, after her rudeness to Miss Bates on Box Hill. In both cases the romantic hero is accorded a hugely vital role in shaping the heroine's character (and suitability for marriage). But there is something a little patronising and self-satisfied in these examples of male moral superiority, reining in the feminine excesses of the women they hope to wed. I guess then my quibble here is actually less with Henry Tilney (or even Mr Knightley), but with Austen's deployment of these characters as subtle Pygmalions.

JJ Feild's Henry is always saved by an impish, boyish charm. He is perceptive, intelligent, and of course, as Mrs Allen (Sylvestra Le Touzel in her best ever performance) constantly tells us, he 'understands muslins.' Certainly he has a 'feminine' side, but JJ Feild's Tilney is tough too, judging by his instant dismissal of two young men from their seats at the Assembly dance, to enable Catherine and Mrs Allen to sit down. There is also something very self-aware throughout his performance, perhaps something hurt and vulnerable too. He envies Catherine's happy childhood, her resultant purity of thought and motive. There is a lonely little boy behind his glib, witty persona, although we have sadly lost some of his sparkling wit and cleverness in the transition from text to screen. But not so much as to lose the 'essence' of Henry Tilney, which JJ Feild has captured strongly here.

Here, Henry and Catherine's romance is sweet, endearing. He describes the bovine, pushy John Thorpe, (William Beck), who is chasing Catherine's affections with brazen gusto, as his 'rival' and warns Catherine he is not best-equipped to offer his opinion on Thorpe, thus ensuring his admiration for her is always clear cut. Indeed, their mutual appreciation is always obvious, which made me wonder why he did not propose to her at Northanger Abbey, most especially considering his father is so keen to forge a match between them (whilst he still believes her to be filthy rich). Certainly there is also some sexual attraction between Catherine and Henry, particularly displayed when he wipes her cheek clean after riding. And once he has ditched his irksome father and finally proposed to Catherine at Fullerton, the couple's obligatory kiss (for the satisfaction of a modern TV audience) is definitely ardent, almost raunchy, compared to most period dramas. Perhaps it is the corollary of sweet little Catherine's pent-up fantasy world finally bubbling to the fore, as she literally pushes Henry backwards into a hedge with the force of her passion. It is little surprise that our next shot of the happy couple is post-marriage, of course, and holding a baby ...

Aside from the central couple, there are some strong supporting performances. Carey Mulligan is very good as the flirtatious Isabella. She not only flirts with all the men in Bath, but even, it seems, with the male viewers, as at one point, she is alone with Catherine, both in their under-garments, cleavages busting out of their corsets and long hair wild, undone. 'What would men think if they saw us now?' she giggles knowingly. (Another Davies 'touch'). Mulligan captures beautifully Isabella's shallow, vapid nature, her reliance on her sexuality above all - although we cannot forget this is a girl without fortune, possibly raised to silliness, as perhaps shown by her mother's downcast face, accompanying her daughter's arch, brittle manner, when news comes that James Morland (Catherine's brother) is not the wealthy marriage prospect the Thorpes had hoped for. And yet Isabella is a victim too, as shown by Captain Tilney's caddish 'use' of her. Eleanor Tilney, (Catherine Walker), assures Catherine, in her slow, sage manner, that Isabella is the type to recover from such disappointments - but one wonders about the real vulnerability of Isabella's situation, most particularly as she does not have the wit and intelligence to truly play the game, and survive intact.

Out of the remaining minor characters, the Allens (Desmond Barrit and Sylvestra Le Touzel) make for a fine comedic pairing, and the Morland family are pleasantly characterised. Mark Dymond makes for a suitably sly Captain Frederick Tilney, and his father, the sinister General, is played, a little less successfully perhaps, with sombre froideur by Liam Cunningham.

Overall this was an enjoyable piece, far superior to ITV's Jane Austen Season opener Mansfield Park. This is not a vintage Austen adaptation, in being a little stale aesthetically and slightly unimaginative in terms of direction. Locations, musical scoring, costumes are serviceable, if not astounding. Acting is pretty strong throughout, while never super standout, aided by a fluent, flowing and neatly plotted script. But the tele-film has a quiet, winning charm, and of course, it is hugely refreshing to see a new version of Austen's delightful, yet least-read and least-adapted work.