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.