Thursday, September 22, 2011

Trouble and Strife

Not since Janet Leigh misguidedly checked into the isolated motel in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho has a Mrs Bates struck such a sinister screen presence. Arriving unexpectedly at Downton Abbey in last Sunday's second series premiere, it soon became apparent that the devious Vera Bates does not share the sentiment of wishing nothing but the best for her ex. She'd barely finished her cup of tea in Mrs Hughes's sitting-room before blackmailing her way back into the life her estranged husband, the honourable valet Bates. They promptly went back to London leaving head housemaid Anna utterly devastated but one suspects that we have by no means seen the last of Bates or, indeed, his manipulative missus.

Taking on the role of greedy silverware enthusiast Vera is the distinguished actress and singer Maria Doyle Kennedy, whose eclectic screen appearances since starring in The Commitments twenty years ago include everything from an adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie to the classic Eoin McLove episode of Father Ted. Recognized the world over for her award-winning role of Katherine of Aragon in The Tudors, she is not just acting up a storm in the period drama of the moment but has also taken roles in two other highly anticipated period projects, ITV's Titanic miniseries written by Julian Fellowes and Rodrigo Garcia's Albert Nobbs starring Glenn Close. I recently caught up with Maria, a friend to this blog from a previous life, in advance of her Downton debut and I asked her all about her recent period drama experiences:

Downton Abbey was a huge hit when it premiered last autumn. How aware were you of the Downton phenomenon before being approached to appear in the series? I had no idea whatsoever of Downton's popularity before being asked to read for it. My agent filled me in after I had been offered the part. I was given the box set of Season 1 to catch up and it all made perfect sense once I'd seen it! Compelling isn't it?!

Your character Vera Bates was described by her mother-in-law as “a nasty piece of work” in the first series. Do you think that this is a fair assessment?
Oh dear, I think it's more than Vera's mother-in-law who will think she's a nasty bit of work after episode 1 of the new series airs. Vera has a lot of venom, that's for sure, but perhaps not totally unjustified.........

It seems that the character of Bates has really struck a chord with audiences because he is very much an Everyman figure, an essentially decent person with a past of which he is not altogether proud doing his best to move on and lead a good life. Does Vera’s arrival in Downton signify his past coming back to haunt him?
That is definitely what Vera means for Bates, his past coming back at him, previously unhappy situations he thought he had left behind that he has to acknowledge once more.

There is a sense from Brendan Coyle’s performance as Bates that he feels very guilty about his past treatment of his wife and that she is very much his Achilles’ heel. How much is this in evidence in your scenes together?
It felt immediately that there was a very strong connection between Bates and his ex-wife. She, more than anyone, knows how to push his buttons. It's painfully clear that they share a long history and it seemed to Brendan and I as we did the scenes that what was destructive about them at this point had probably once been expressed through passion.

Many viewers are keen to see the progression of the blossoming romance between Bates and head housemaid Anna. Given that Vera’s arrival is very much a spanner in the works, do you expect that Vera will come to occupy a villainous status to rival that of lady’s maid O’ Brien or will the viewers sympathise with Vera?
Everybody wants to see Bates and Anna make it and I think I have just become a notorious villain........always the most fun to play those parts though!

Was it at all intimidating to join the cast of such a well-established and popular show and to be working alongside British acting royalty like Penelope Wilton and Dame Maggie Smith?
It was absolutely thrilling to be part of a read-through with such a distinguished cast. I was close to fainting when I got to shake hands with both Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith, both of whom I have watched with huge admiration from afar. They couldn't have been more gracious or welcoming.

You went straight from your stint on Downton Abbey to the Titanic miniseries that has also been written by Julian Fellowes. Can you tell me a little bit about the part you play and what it was like filming on a purpose-built set in Hungary?
Titanic is due for release next year to mark the 100th Anniversary of the tragedy. I was, once again - lucky me - surrounded by a stellar cast including Toby Jones (who plays my husband), Linus Roache, Geraldine Somerville, Celia Imrie.......what a joy to work with these folks. The irony of filming in a landlocked country was not lost on me but the sets were amazing. I'm looking forward to seeing it.

You also recently filmed a role in another period drama, Rodrigo Garcia’s film of Albert Nobbs alongside Glenn Close. Did you enjoy that experience?
I agreed to that part just to be near to Glenn Close and watch her work. I think she's fantastic and I learned from my observation - she is all about the detail!

PERIOD DRAMA TOP FIVE - Not-So-Villainous-After-All Villains

This month's Period Drama Top Five concerns those characters whom we regard in a very different light by the time the particular drama in which they feature has worked its way to a conclusion. Some we are extremely suspicious of, some are shrouded in mystery and some we utterly despise but by the time the credits roll, they have either redeemed themselves or else misunderstandings have been explained and the said characters absolved of all sin. Below are my much-deliberated-over choices in no particular order. SPOILER ALERT:

1. Grace Poole in Jane Eyre
Surely the fall guy to end all fall guys, Grace Poole is suspected of all sorts of nefarious deeds including violent outbursts, committing arson and having an annoying laugh before it is revealed that all she's been doing is her best to earn a crust under strange and unusual circumstances. She perhaps over-indulges in the demon drink on occasion but taking charge of the highly-strung first Mrs Rochester whilst simultaneously keeping her presence at Thornfield Hall a secret for the sake of her master is no walk in the park.

2. Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice
Darcy's callous treatment of poor, unfortunate Mr Wickham and his active role in perhaps ruining forever the happiness of her most-beloved sister both play a significant role in Elizabeth Bennett reaching the conclusion that Fitzwilliam Darcy is the last man in the world that she could ever be prevailed upon to marry, despite all those thousands a year. Once it is revealed that he has been misrepresented by the cad Wickham and acted misguidedly but with the best of intentions in respect of Lizzie's sister, Mr Darcy's greatest flaw seems ultimately to be social awkwardness and that is something that us period drama fanatics are hardly in a position to criticise too harshly.

3. Charlotte Bartlett in A Room with A View
The archetypal frustrated spinster and poster girl for English repression, joyless Cousin Charlotte stalks the streets of Florence as if she'd rather be anywhere but there and is openly disdainful of the working-class Emersons. Mortified when she spots a growing attraction between her charge Lucy Honeychurch and young George Emerson, Charlotte strongly advises Lucy not to pursue such an undesirable connection. Ultimately, however, she realises that they love each other passionately and does not stand in the way of them experiencing a sort of happiness that she has never had. Indeed, she orchestrates their reunion in her own little Charlotte-esque way.

4. Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations
You know how it is. You can't take five minutes away from your slap-happy sister to visit your parents' grave on Christmas Eve without a convict turning you upside down, threatening to cut your liver out and demanding you bring him some vittles. Well, young Pip's tolerance of such an imposition is richly rewarded when years later the said convict Abel Magwitch selflessly orchestrates the boy's rise from his humble circumstances to great expectations. It is also revealed that the kindly Abel wasn't all that bad to begin with but fell in with a bad crowd behind the bike sheds or, at least, the Victorian equivalent.

5. Lady Macbeth in Macbeth
This is potentially the most controversial entry on the list. Lady Macbeth is a reprehensible individual in many ways who appears to have not a modicum of guilt or shame about using every trick in the book to convince the hen-pecked Thane of Cawdor to commit a bit of regicide, as in the above still from Roman Polanski's 1971 adaptation starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. The iconic sleepwalking scene in Act Five, however, tells a different tale and although she undoubtedly behaves badly, it is hard not to sympathise with the wretched queen as she torments herself with washing her hands over and over again and laments that they will ne'er be clean. We've all had a "What have I done, sweet Jesus what have I done?" moment or two surely!

Shaken, Stirred and In Need of Therapy

Originally published in 1974 and originally adapted in 1979 as a seven-hour BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness, John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy has been hailed as a classic of the spy genre and its references and themes have entered the realms of popular culture. The complex novel about retired operative George Smiley being called upon to flush out a Soviet mole that has inveigled his way to the upper echelons of the British secret service is not without its flaws, however. At certain points in le Carré's work, the convoluted plot becomes almost indecipherable and the storytelling repetitive and ponderous. Swedish director Tomas Alfredson of Let The Right One In fame and writers Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O Connor skilfully avoid these pitfalls in their enthralling and absorbing new big-screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which achieves an admirably coherent narrative structure without ever over-simplifying matters of international espionage.

Gary Oldman gives a stunning central performance as Smiley, a man whose calm and unassuming exterior belies his formidable intellect. He goes about discovering the one who is threatening to destabilise the Circus, the organisation that has been his life's work and for which he has sacrificed a great deal, quietly and patiently but with an unmistakable steel and determination. Oldman subtly captures the contradictions in Smiley's personality. Although an old-fashioned gentleman, he has moments of ruthlessness and rage as the truth about the Soviet mole slowly but surely unfolds before our eyes. The journey to discovery takes the audience not just to early 1970s London but to Istanbul, Budapest, Paris, Oxford and a public school in the English countryside. This, however, is most definitely not the world of James Bond with dry martinis and a girl in every port. Perhaps the film's greatest achievement is its deconstruction of the myth of the glamorous spy, which is one of the main themes in many of le Carré's books.

Shot in muted grey colours and with a creeping sense of unease from the very start, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is populated by disillusioned and alienated people living broken half-lives. This is particularly evident in Mark Strong's heartbreaking turn as Jim Prideaux who is forced to leave the Circus after a top-secret assignment in Budapest, that lies at the heart of the mystery of the Soviet mole, goes disastrously wrong. Prideaux is a life-long outsider for whom becoming a spy meant a sense of belonging and community and yet he ultimately discovers that it is unwise to trust in those for whom betrayal, deceit and duplicity are all in a day's work. The excellent supporting cast of Kathy Burke, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Stephen Graham and John Hurt play Circus employees at various levels who, having dedicated their lives to ensuring the safety of millions, ultimately reveal themselves to be sad and lonely figures who find coping with real life quite a burden. And the Circus ultimately reveals itself to be much like any other workplace where the workers constantly complain about not getting paid enough for the work they do and have embarrassing drunken encounters at the Christmas do.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Boyfriend Material

For all its supposed innovation, the most successful moment of the new big-screen treatment of Jane Eyre, directed by Cary Fukunaga from a screenplay by Moira Buffini, is strikingly reminiscent of a moment in David Lean's 1948 Oliver Twist. Taking place at the very start of this re-structured version of the classic story, the arresting sequence in which Jane Eyre frantically flees her home of Thornfield Hall and wanders despairingly on the moors culminates in our defeated heroine being taken in by kindly clergyman St John Rivers and his dutiful sisters. As she rests and recuperates, she begins thinking back on the events that led her to be wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. Although this is a clever and novel way to present this much-told tale, the film's insistence on jumping back and forth from Jane's memories of her unhappy childhood to her time living at the Rivers cottage soon becomes irritating. Things only settle down when Jane, now eighteen, travels to take up the position of governess at the aforementioned Thornfield Hall. That is rather a sign of things to come as this handsome yet patchy adaptation over-emphasises Jane's relationship with the brooding owner of Thornfield Mr Rochester at the expense of Charlotte Bronte's proto-feminist theme of a young woman striving to assert her independence in a restrictive society. Jane's relationship with Rochester is of course a very important part of her journey but it should not be the be all and the end all.

The story of Jane Eyre has aged so well largely because of its attractive central character whose determination, self-possession and resilience in the face of extraordinary adversity are as appealing now as they were in 1847 if not more so. Unfortunately, as romance blossoms between servant and master during a series of fireside conversations, this Jane Eyre behaves passively and obediently. She does not impress Rochester with her depth of understanding and compassion during their discussion of how her young French pupil Adele came to be his ward because this discussion does not take place. She does not take it upon herself to investigate the mysterious goings-on at Thornfield and draw her own conclusions because that Gothic element is sidelined and the character of Grace Poole, who lays at the heart of the mystery, appears only fleetingly. The scene in which Jane temporarily leaves Thornfield and comes face to face with her cruel aunt Mrs Reed years after she abandoned the girl to her fate at a sinister charitable school is a very significant moment for our heroine. Here, it is treated in a frustratingly perfunctory manner as though it is of little importance besides setting up a later plot revelation. Consequently, this Jane Eyre is difficult to sympathise with.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the promising young Australian actress Mia Wasikowska struggles in the role of Jane. Although she looks right, she comes across as petulant and whiny particularly in the scenes in which Jane is asserting herself. Michael Fassbender fares much better as Rochester but both portrayals suffer from an unfortunate tendency to drift from Received Pronunciation to a broad Yorkshire accent often in the same scene. The best performances come from the supporting cast of Jamie Bell as St John Rivers, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Reed and particularly Judi Dench as jittery Thornfield housekeeper Mrs Fairfax, who is by turns funny and touching and also somewhat compensates for the film's complete lack of atmosphere by conveying a distinct sense of unease. There is great chemistry between Wasikowska and Fassbender, vital for a film that increasingly treats the sequences in which Jane and Rochester are not on screen together as a waste of time. This treatment of Jane Eyre is undoubtedly passionate but falls short in many others areas. Reader, she marries him but she doesn't do all that much else!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

For Whom The Bell Tolls

The muted reception that greeted the BBC's The Hour, a period drama based in the production office of a pioneering current affairs television programme in late 1950s London, is in some ways the fault of the broadcaster itself. The promotional material for the show, such as the above still featuring the main cast, emphasised the office politics and stylishness of The Hour in an apparent effort to nurture the misconception, cultivated by the media ever since the series was announced, that The Hour was the "British Mad Men." It is, in fact, a very different animal with a dark and complex conspiracy at the heart of the story. Reaction was not helped by the fact that the uncovering of a conspiracy involving international espionage and Soviet moles at the BBC, although very absorbing and well-sustained throughout the series, at times strayed into the realms of the ridiculous and undermined what was otherwise a painstakingly believable re-creation of a fascinating period in recent history.

Now that the first series has finished, the question remains why the writer and creator of the series Abi Morgan felt the need to include the conspiracy element when there are so many other interesting aspects to the story including government censorship at the BBC, the responsibility of the media in reporting on world crises, the role of women in the late 1950s workplace and the absorbing love triangle between the three main characters, bright-spark young journalists Bel Rowley and Freddie Lyon and privileged anchorman Hector Madden. Bel and and her working-class best friend Freddie, engagingly played by Romola Garai and Ben Whishaw, are both outsiders desperately trying to prove themselves to the stiflingly conservative top brass as they set about making their programme The Hour a hit. Both reveal spades of vulnerability behind their brittle and arrogant exteriors while Hector, in a nuanced performance by Dominic West, constantly struggles with maintaining his integrity as a journalist and simultaneously creating the right impression after he is drafted in to front The Hour as a favour to his well-connected

The Hour's main strength is its seamless incorporation of period details and cultural and historical references into the characterisation and narrative. For example, the playful dynamic between Bel and Freddie is established from the very start as they refer to each other as James and Miss Monnypenny. Debutante balls, wartime evacuation, sham society marriages and the rampant discrimination of immigrants are all touched on while the Suez Crisis takes centre stage and proves challenging material for the fledgling news programmes and its staff. Abi Morgan must also be praised for subverting many cliches in her script. The M16 operative Mr Kish (Burn Gorman) seems to be a sinister loner but is later revealed to have a wife and two young children in the suburbs while Hector's wife Marnie, although undeniably a spoilt Daddy's girl (Oona Chaplin), displays reserves of steeliness and determination to rival those of career girl Bel. Elsewhere, it is a testament to Anna Chancellor's skill as an actress that she manages to keep her hardened, whisky-soaked, middle-aged foreign correspondent Lix Storm on the right side of caricature. There was a great deal to enjoy about The Hour and, as a second series has been commissioned, I do hope that it will in future focus on the business of reporting the news and leave the spying to the other James and Miss Monnypenny.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Drood Conclusion

Matthew Rhys, the Welsh actor who plays a brother in American TV series Brothers and Sisters, will return to Britain to star in the second Dickens adaptation announced as part of the BBC's celebrations of the great man's birth. Rhys will appear in the central role of pronvincial choirmaster John Jasper in the dark tale of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, to be directed by Diarmuid Lawrence, who knows exactly what he's doing having recently worked on the excellent Emma, South Riding and Little Dorrit adaptations. John Jasper is a troubled man who has spent his life in the stifling and claustrophobic cathedral town of Cloisterham in a state of frustrated ambition and has become addicted to opium in an attempt to still his ennui and expand his horizons. The opium is fracturing his mind, however, so that even as his soul reaches for the sublime in his music, his darker self has conceived a murderous hatred of his nephew Edwin Drood who, he believes, stands between him and the lovely Rosa. When Edwin disappears under mysterious circumstances, the audience will discover exactly how far Jasper is willing to go to attain the object of his desire.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood was Dickens's final novel and left half-finished at the time of his death. Therefore, Gwyneth Hughes, who imagined Jane Austen's later years to critical acclaim in Miss Austen Regrets, was challenged with writing a suitable conclusion to this intriguing psychological thriller. It was an offer too good to refuse, according to Hughes: "The tragedy of the erotically obsessed cathedral choirmaster, John Jasper, throbs with sexual menace, murder and opium addiction. But alongside his story runs a brilliant small-town social comedy which is often laugh-out-loud funny. After all, this is Dickens, the great emotional extremist, and master of the rollercoaster ride. It's just the most enormous fun." Edwin will be played by Freddie Fox, soon to be seen in The Three Musketeers on the big screen, with Tamzin Merchant, soon to be seen in Jane Eyre on the big screen, as Rosa. The various resident of Cloisterham will be brought to life by Rory Kinnear, Ian McNeice, Ellie Haddington, Sacha Dhawan, David Dawson, Julia McKenzie, Ron Cook, Janet Dale and Dickens regular Alun Armstrong.

The Ruskins Are Coming

All has been rather quiet on Emma Thompson front of late. The second Nanny McPhee movie was released over a year and a half ago and surely her ten seconds in the final Harry Potter didn't take up too much of her time! It seems that Miss Thompson and Greg Wise, her husband and one-time Willoughby, have been hard at work on a screenplay based on the life of Euphemia Gray, pictured above. Effie, which is due to start filming in October under the direction of Richard Laxton, will tell the fascinating story of renowned art critic John Ruskin's disastrous relationship with a young girl he marries, who eventually leaves him when she falls in love with his protege, the pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Milais. Something of a cause celebre in 1850s London, Effie was granted an annulment from Ruskin for his alleged inability to consummate their marriage.

The love triangle was recently chronicled in the 2009 BBC dramatisation of the lives of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Desperate Romantics. Tom Hollander, usually unlucky-in-love in period pieces, starred as Ruskin with the roles of Effie and Milais touchingly played by Zoe Tapper and Samuel Barnett. In this new film version, Wise himself will play Ruskin with Tom Sturridge as his love rival Milais. The illustrious supporting cast includes Julie Walters and Derek Jacobi as Ruskin's parents, Edward Fox as patron of the Royal Academy and Ruskin's detractor, Sir Charles Eastlake and Thompson as Effie's confidante and caretaker, Lady Eastlake. The coveted role of Effie, once considered a toss-up between Carey Mulligan and Saoirse Ronan, will be played by American teenager Dakota Fanning. Now seventeen and hoping make the tricky transition from child star to grown-up actress, Fanning will first finish shooting another British movie, Now is Good, before getting her Victorian groove on. Meanwhile, Mulligan and Ronan are going back in time themselves for Baz Luhrmann's new film of The Great Gatsby and Joe Wright's new film of Anna Karenina respectively.

Bright Lights, Big City

Lark Rise to Candleford ran for four hugely popular series from 2008 to 2011 but am I the only one that could never bring himself to fully embrace Bill Gallagher's adaptation of Flora Thompson's late-nineteenth century memoir? More Heartbeat than Cranford, it soon became apparent when it first appeared on our screens that this was period drama at its least innovative and most nostalgic. So it proved as the worst thing to befall the residents of Lark Rise and Candleford on any given episode was that the postman's bicycle would sometimes suffer a puncture before he finished his rounds. Someone usually found a pump and order was restored. The still above was typical of the Lark Rise philosophy that was touched on most weeks: well, we are poor lass but at least we've got each other! The truth is that the production values were so lavish that nobody ever looked all that poor. Still, Lark Rise seemed to tick many people's boxes when it came to Sunday-evening, comfort-food television.

Gallagher has moved on to pastures new and is currently adapting the Emile Zola novel Au Bonheur des Dames as The Ladies' Paradise for television. It tells the story of Denise, a girl from the sticks who, made homeless by the death of her father and with nothing to live on but her wits, moves to a bustling northern city and finds herself a job working in the city's glittering new department store. Denise is excited by her glamorous new life as society is waking up to the joys and temptations of shopping. Behind the dazzling facade of the store, however, she finds a world of intrigues, affairs and shopfloor power struggles. Although set during the same period as Lark Rise and following the same multi-character structure, the BBC announced the series, filming next summer for transmission in early 2013, as being "sexy" and "post-watershed." This seems to be somewhat of a departure for Gallagher but what would Miss Lane say?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Countdown to Downton

The second series of Downton Abbey is nearly upon us! Although the good people at Downton are keeping fairly schtum about what's to come, I have managed to gleam fourteen facts about the return of the Crawleys and company so as to whet the insatiable appetites of my fellow Downton die-hards. The war can't come soon enough, frankly! The wait will be over when the period drama de jour returns to British television on the 18th of August:

1. The second series begins in 1916, two years after the end of the first. The Great War is in full swing and Matthew Crawley and Thomas are away fighting for king and country.

2. Secretarial wannabe Gwen has left her position at Downton Abbey for pastures and typewriters new.

3. Having parted ways at the end of the first series, Lady Mary and Matthew are now stepping out with powerful newspaper proprietor Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) and middle-class daughter of a London solicitor Miss Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle) respectively.

4. At the request of Mrs Crawley, the abbey is being used as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. This development leads to friction between Mrs Crawley and Lady Crawley.

5. One of the convalescing soldiers becomes romantically involved with one of the Crawley sisters.

6. Robert's sister Lady Rosamund returns to Downton and is as determined as ever to interfere in the lives of her nieces.

7. Lady Sybil's inevitable decision to train as a nurse is met with surprising support by her grandmother, the Dowager Countess.

8. The troublesome Ethel Parks arrives at the start of the second series as a new housemaid. She is played by Amy Nuttall.

9. Cal McAninch joins the cast as a valet named Lang. It has yet to be revealed whether he replaces Bates or Moseley or attends to a new character, possibly Sir Richard.

10. Silverware enthusiast Mrs Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) arrives in Downton determined to ruin her husband's blossoming relationship with Anna.

11. Consumed with guilt after orchestrating her mistress's miscarriage in series one, O' Brien is still no ray of sunshine but has become fiercely protective of Lady Cora.

12. Mrs Hughes must come to the aid of one of the younger female members of staff when she finds herself in "a very modern kind of trouble."

13. The eight-part second series will conclude with armistice being declared in 1918.

14. The series will be followed by a Christmas special featuring period drama regulars Nigel Havers and Sharon Small.