Thursday, January 18, 2007

The BBC gets it right with Trollope's He Knew He Was Right

In 2004, the BBC aired a six-part mini-series adaptation of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He was Right, directed by Tom Vaughan with a screenplay from Britain's favourite adaptor, Andrew Davies.

This adaptation garnered modest critical praise and generated medium-key spectator interest. Certainly it was not the recipient of grand plaudits and praise, in the mould of other BBC triumphs such as Bleak House (2005) and Pride and Prejudice (1995). Indeed, an earlier Trollope adaptation, The Way We Live Now, aired in 2001 with a Davies screenplay and superb direction from David Yates, had secured greater media interest. This was in large part due to strong acting performances from David Suchet, Matthew Macfayden and Shirley Henderson, and because the core themes of the production - a stocks bubble focusing on the 19th century obsession with building railroads - could be topically compared to the Internet boom at the time.

He Knew He Was Right cannot boast similar selling points. This is much more a tale of small-scale domesticana, mild chicanery, and a study of the highs and lows of romantic love and courtship. For all that, there is an unmistakeable toughness at the heart of this narrative. Few adaptations, few stories, have offered such a blistering critique of the condition of womanhood in the nineteenth century with such deceptive softness and finesse, with such gentle humour and warmth.

The BBC’s He Knew He Was Right offers three key plotlines which interweave and inter-relate throughout. The primary plot focuses on the failing marriage of Louis and Emily Trevelyan. Louis suspects his naieve young wife Emily to be having an affair with her godfather, Colonel Osborne, played with cheeky aplomb by the inimitable Bill Nighy. Louis refuses to believe his wife when she (rightly) protests her innocence. Conscious of the possibility of social disapproval – again unwarranted – Louis chooses to ostracise his wife, sending her away, with her beautiful, younger sister Nora in tow, thereby tarnishing both sisters, while potentially damaging Nora's marriage prospects to boot.

Matters worsen for poor Emily when Louis also decides to take control of their young son, taking him abroad to Italy, where Emily cannot gain access to him – although legally, during this period, Emily has no rights at all, with regard to custody of her son. Indeed, she is shown throughout to be little more than a chattel, her husband’s property. The fact that her husband is clearly losing his mind, sinking into depravity as his lucidity fast wanes, has little bearing on her case.

Emily is played sympathetically here by Laura Fraser, best known perhaps for her role as Kate in A Knight’s Tale, starring alongside Heath Ledger. Fraser naturally has a wide-eyed, innocent gaze which serves her well in this role. She is hugely appealing, cruelly victimised, but unflinchingly strong in spirit, despite her ordeal. Oliver Dimsdale takes on the difficult role of Louis – difficult because he has to somehow manage to combine a sense of weariness, mental vulnerability and confusion (incredibly, he never stops loving his wife, despite his harsh behaviour), with an arrogant refusal to believe in his wife’s virtue, resulting in cruelty and shame. Indeed, Louis’s own actions further exacerbate what was merely an unregarded hint of scandal, blowing it out of all proportion, needlessly destroying his wife’s reputation in the meanwhile - crushing his own hopes for happiness with the family he loves.

Louis’s actions also affect Emily’s sister Nora, played with luminous beauty by Christina Cole (recently seen as Blanche in the BBC’s 2006 version of Jane Eyre), as she is in love with Louis’s close friend Hugh Stanbury (Stephen Campbell Moore). Their romance is thwarted, first by Emily’s shocking change in circumstances, and then by Nora and Emily’s parents, who are displeased that Nora has formerly rejected the suit of a landed lord in favour of Hugh, who is a mere journalist.

The third major plotline involves Hugh’s family – most particularly his sister Dorothy, played with engaging grace and charm by Caroline Martin. Dorothy is dispatched to the pretty cathedral town of Wells, to stay with her elderly Aunt Jemima. Anna Massie is marvellous as the crabby but kind Aunt, who takes a real shine to her niece, hoping to marry her off to Mr Gibson, a local curate.

David Tennant as Gibson is a real standout show-stealer here. Indeed, the ‘Wells’ plotline and cast proves to be one of the most successful elements of this production, in no small part due to the fine acting of Gibson, Massie, Martin and Claudie Blakley, who warrants particular mention as the psychotic Camilla French, to whom Gibson is forcibly engaged, instantly regretting it, and desperate to wriggle out of the arrangement. Gibson's dilemma is prompted by Dorothy's refusal of his hand in marriage (he was keen to secure £2000 promised her by her Aunt), but all the while he is furiously courted by two sisters vying for his affection - the Misses French, Camilla and Arabella. Their bitchy antics provide much of the comic relief here, although there is a strong sense too that Gibson deserves the angst he suffers at their hands – that he has not behaved honourably.

Dorothy is soon embroiled in her own romantic troubles. An unassuming girl, she never expects romantic fulfilment, but is soon proposed to by Brooke Burgess, played by Matthew Goode, who is almost unhealthily smooth and handsome. But Aunt Jemima, at first, is reluctant to let them wed – but we all know, there will be a happy outcome … and are genuinely pleased for Dorothy.

Other notable acting credits should go to Ron Cook, who is excellent as the slimy detective Bosul, John Alderton as the dour parson Mr Outhouse, Amy Marston as prissy Priscilla Stanbury, Raymond Coulthard as Nora’s kindly, rich admirer Mr Glascock, and Geraldine James and Geoffrey Palmer – the latter, especially splendid – as the Rowleys, parents to poor Emily and Nora.

Production values are uniformly solid throughout, although I sense this was not as high budget a production as others the BBC have produced in recent years. But locations are aptly chosen, and a foreign foray into splendid Tuscan countryside, is also thrown in for good measure. Costumes and sets are spot-on. Direction is serviceable and entertaining, conveying us simply and easily through the plot, while highlighting the very real political issues pertaining to women’s rights (or rather the lack of them) in nineteenth century Britain. Davies’s script is especially commendable in his adept handling of the Louis/Emily marriage. Davies is one of our finest writers when it comes to ensuring a sharp critical focus on historical proto-feminist commentary. He is particularly strong at virtuous heroines who are both strong and vulnerable.

This is a fine, albeit underrated adaptation. There is a gentle cadence to the production. It is amusing and even a little twee at times, but still it remains a strongly argued piece of work. It is not in the same class as the marvellous Bleak House or as unrelentingly enjoyable as Pride and Prejudice. But it is a well-produced, well-acted contribution to the BBC’s bulging portfolio of period dramas, and further proof too that Trollope makes for good TV drama. I sincerely hope we get a version of the Palliser novels some time in the future, or indeed, a re-run of the Barsetshire chronicles. Trollope says very serious things in a deceptively sweet and sincere manner, and this adaptation is no exception.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

BBC's Archangel is a drab affair

I recently watched the BBC's adaptation of Archangel, based on the Robert Harris novel. This mini-series, directed by Jon Jones and adapted to the screen by Dick Clement, was originally aired in 2005, but I decided to give it a go on DVD.

This is a lacklustre adaptation, despite a promising start. Daniel Craig is fine here as academic Fluke Kelso, an expert in Stalin and modern Russian history. He almost comes a cropper, tracking down a long-lost son of Stalin, now harboured by a band of conniving, ruthless Communists (in the 1990s) as a secret weapon - a means to ignite nostalgic fervour amongst Russia's poverty-stricken masses, hankering for the securities of a former communist regime. Craig has some OK support in the form of Gabriel Macht, as an adventuring American journalist who hopes for the story of a lifetime, and in the pretty personage of Yekaterina Rednikova, who plays Zinaida, the call girl daughter of Papu (Valery Chernak), who as a young man bore witness to the suppression of Stalin's 'secret' when the dictator died.

Russia is portrayed as cold, frostbitten, bleak and uncompromising. This is a chilly production. Atmospheric as this may be, the overall tenor of the production is too dour, too grainy, and simply too dull. By the time Craig and Macht have encountered the clearly loopy Stalin Jr, Josef, played here with surly aplomb by Konstantin Lavronenko, I found my attention wandering.

This is a shame. Some of the acting, from a mainly Russian cast, is top-notch. The scenery is convincing. Production values are strong, if not exciting. Perhaps it is the story itself? I had hoped to be gripped much, much more. All the right ingredients were in place. I love a conspiracy theory, and Russian politics is a pet topic. But this thriller failed to grip.

BBC 4 Sci-fi season - hit and miss

A long overdue comment on BBC 4's Sci-Fi season, late 2006 .... two adaptations were featured: The Haunted Airman, a teleplay version of Dennis Wheatley's The Haunting of Toby Jugg, and an adaptation of John Wyndham's Random Quest.

The Haunted Airman was an odd little piece, written and directed by Chris Durlacher; an over-wrought, blue-tinged gloomfest starring sweet-faced Robert Pattison (most famous as the doomed Cedric in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as the wheelchair-bound Toby Jugg, an airman haunted by his role in fire-bombing Dresden in WWII. Poor Jugg is marooned in a large, shadowy mansion, somewhere in Wales, to convalesce with other similarly disturbed patients, overseen by Dr Hal Burns. Jugg instantly takes a paranoid dislike to Burns, and suspects him (correctly as it turns out) of reading his mail - letters mainly directed to his youthful Aunt Julia (Racheal Stirling), with whom Jugg is in love. Jugg's obsessional nightmares focus, rather creepily, on spiders, but before long, his hatred of Dr Burns gathers pace and he attempts to escape. This is far from surprising, given the excrutiatingly wooden acting performance given here by Julian Sands as Burns. Stirling is fine as Aunt Julia, who moves into the nursing home and soon embarks on an affair with the wooden-toned Burns - with fatal consequences.

Much better was the hour-long teleplay Random Quest, starring Samuel West as Colin, a young nerdish physicist who winds up in a parallel universe after a failed scientific experiment. In this alternative world, Colin is a top-selling, wealthy author of trashy fiction, married to a beautiful woman, with whom he (the 'real' Colin) soon falls in love, although the alternative Colin has been a womaniser. New Colin 'reforms' the Old Colin and is then pinged back to his own world - our world - where he sets about seeking his soulmate wife. This adaptation was nicely paced with some slick directing from Luke Watson. The script was penned by Richard Fell.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Ruby in the Smoke - disjointed, disappointing

A brief review of the BBC's adaptation of Phillip Pullman's The Ruby in the Smoke, which aired on the 27th September. This was hugely disappointing. The narrative was horribly rushed, ensuring a disjointed production. If I had not read the novel before watching this, I would have given up halfway through in exasperation.

Billie Piper was passable in the lead role as Sally Lockhart. But, there is something all too modern in her air, which in many respects should lend itself well to Sally's forthright, proto-feminist character - but instead Piper always felt like she was trying too hard. She was also overshadowed by Hayley Atwell, in her few brief scenes as Rosa Garland, which does not bode well for Piper's prospects as Fanny Price in the ITV version of Mansfield Park, where she stars alongside Atwell, playing Mary Crawford. Even better was JJ Feild, taking on the role of Frederick Garland, Rosa's brother and Sally's friend (and clearly the subject of a mutual crush). Piper has a buoyant, pleasing presence, but although this was not her finest hour, nevertheless. she was far from dismal.

Sadly the same cannot be said of one of Britain's best-loved actresses Julie Walters, who played the pernicious Mrs Holland - Sally's arch-nemesis and a murderer to boot. Walters was excrutiatingly poor here, seemingly regurgitating her once famous role as the hilarious, crook-backed Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, re-spun with a sneering, sinister twist. To be frank I had harboured doubts at Walters's casting in this role. There is something too spare, spry and light in her demeanour, her bearing, which to my mind, never quite suited the thuggish solidity of Mrs Holland.

Other notable castings included David Harewood, playing the Bedwell twins Nicholas and Matthew, Miles Anderson briefly as Major Marchbanks, and newcomer Matt Smith (who woefully underperformed) as the cockney cheeky chappy Jim Taylor. Chloe Walker made for an appealing Adelaide.

Brian Percival, the director, did precious little innovative with what was a fairly pedestrian adapted script from Adrian Hodges, who has fared better in the past with the mini-series Charles II: The Power & the Passion and an adaptation of Dickens's David Copperfield in 1999. He has now been hired to adapt the sequel, The Shadow in the North - which is perhaps a better novel, with a stronger plotline - and I sincerely hope he produces a stronger, more coherent and more 'cinematic' screenplay. In truth, this adaptation strived to keep close to the source text, but Pullman's original is a bit of a jumble - albeit enjoyable. Hodges would maybe have been better advised to re-draft wholesale, sections of this text.

Sets, scenery and location were fine if uninspiring. This period drama is not set to win awards, that's for sure. But it made for a pleasant enough evening's viewing, even though it was far from outstanding, and never better than average.