Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Prince, The Showgirl and Twee

Methinks that The Prince and the Showgirl is second only to Apocalypse Now for being as well-known for its on-set troubles as for the finished movie itself. While the world waits for somebody to write My Week with Marlon, here is a new movie about Marilyn Monroe's one and only visit to England in 1956 to make The Prince and the Showgirl during which the newlywed and most famous woman in the world did nothing but bad things for director and co-star Sir Laurence Olivier's blood pressure, went skinny-dipping in a lake and became romantically involved with the fresh-faced, young third assistant director, on his first job straight out of Oxford, named Colin Clark. Or did she.........The story is certainly a fascinating one and My Week with Marilyn presents it as an old-fashioned entertainment that is engaging and very pleasant but largely forgettable.

The film is bolstered by the stunning central performance of Michelle Williams. Faced with the ridiculously daunting task of doing justice to a star who remains as alluring now as she was in 1956, Williams's understated performance captures Norma Jean's many contradictions: her steeliness and her fragility, her pragmatism and her whimsy, her kindness and her ruthlessness. My Week with Marilyn presents a woman loved by millions for being a persona but who just wanted to be loved for the person she was, far from the dumb blonde she often portrayed. Unfortunately, the darker aspects of Monroe's life such as her increasing dependence on prescription drugs and the sycophancy of those she surrounded herself with are dealt with perfunctorily by director Simon Curtis, who seems determined for everybody and everything to be ultimately quite nice. He presents a romanticised view of not just life on a 1950s film set in Britain but also of life in 1950s Britain. Colin Clark himself is as too good to be true as the nostalgia-laden world he here inhabits.

Charismatically played by Eddie Redmayne (pictured above), Colin is agreeably sweet and gauche but a deal too wide-eyed and innocent to be believable and never once displayed the slightest hint of arrogance even when singled out to spend the eponymous week with his celebrity crush. He remained a perfect gentleman throughout the movie and the character's implausible lack of any shade of grey casts further doubt on the much-disputed veracity of his books The Prince, The Showgirl and Me and My Week with Marilyn, on which Adrian Shergold based his screenplay. The movie does feature a variety of enjoyable supporting performances particularly from Kenneth Branagh as an egotistical, authoritative Olivier. Although he never quite manages to fully embody his character in the same way Williams does, the tension and tetchiness between them is palpable. Monroe's insecurities as a celebrated movie star desperately trying to prove herself as an actress are tellingly contrasted with those of Olivier as a celebrated actor trying desperately to prove himself as a movie star. But then they are both quite nice really, aren't they? I had hoped that My Week with Marilyn would be an insightful piece of cinema but it is content to be sheer escapism.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Eaton Mess

The path continues to run anything but smoothly for Heidi Thomas's BBC revival of 1970s period drama classic Upstairs Downstairs. The second, longer series is currently filming on location in Cardiff but will not feature Dame Eileen Atkins as interfering but well-intentioned mother-in-law Lady Maude Holland or, initially, Jean Marsh as faithful housekeeper Rose Buck. Amidst rumours that she was unhappy with the direction that Thomas's scripts were taking, Dame Eileen has stepped down from her role whilst Ms Marsh is recovering from a minor stroke she suffered earlier this year and will miss the first episodes of the second series. The absence of the actresses, who were both nominated for Emmy Awards for their performances in the three-part starter that aired last Christmas, will be a major blow for UD when it returns to our screens in 2012. Hasty re-writes have been required and one hopes that the behind-the-scenes difficulties will not be evident in the up-and-coming goings-on at 165 Eaton Place.

Whilst Jean Marsh is due to return as the Holland household's right-hand woman at some stage, series two will begin with Lady Maude's funeral and the arrival of Alex Kingston as her much-younger sister and straight-talking spinster, Dr Blanche Mottershead. Other new additions to the cast include Laura Haddock as nursery maid and dark-secret harbourer Beryl Ballard, Michael Landes as American multi-millionaire Caspar Landry who takes a shine to the lady of the house and Kenneth Cranham as Sergeant Allworth who answers an emergency call at the famous London address. Ed Stoppard as Sir Hallam, Keeley Hawes as Lady Agnes, Little Dorrit herself Claire Foy as the troublesome Lady Persie, Anne Reid as cook Mrs Thackeray, Adrian Scarborough as butler Mr Pritchard, Nico Mirallegro as footman Johnny Proude and Neil Jackson as chauffeur Harry Spargo (pictured above on the job) will all feature once again as the dark days of World War Two are fast approaching. One hopes that the return of the return of Upstairs Downstairs can step out of a certain shadow and make a bigger impact than it did last year. It is strange to see such a cultural phenomenon being referred to as "a bit like Downton Abbey!"

A Mystery No Longer

2010 was a worrying year for the millions of fans the world over who delight at the announcement of a new Agatha Christie adaptation. One would be inclined to suppose that the enduringly popular Mrs Christie and the continued success of her Miss Marple and Poirot stories on television would unquestionably manage to secure her and them continued prominence despite current economic difficulties at ITV. It was, however, decidedly touch and go for the last eighteen months as to whether the fastidious Belgian played by David Suchet and the unassuming spinster played by Julia McKenzie would return for further sleuthing any time soon.

The period settings of both Poirot and Marple make them a great deal more expensive to produce than other popular murder mysteries on the network such as Lewis, A Touch of Frost and Midsomer Murders and period drama is often the first casualty when recession starts to bite. In early 2009, a miniseries based on EM Forster's A Passage to India starring Gemma Jones, Sally Hawkins, Matthew Macfadyen and Laurence Fox was abandoned at the eleventh hour due to its unavoidable costliness. And although people complain bitterly about their enjoyment of Downton Abbey being hampered more than ever this year by an unprecedented number of advertisements, the truth is that the future of the Abbey does not depend on Lady Cora's millions as we have been led to believe but on the money paid to ITV for advertising space during its broadcast. One hopes that a line will be drawn before the Dowager Countess begins extolling the virtues of a good life assurance policy to her granddaughters at dinner!

Happily, ITV announced last week that new episodes of Marple and Poirot will be filmed and will begin to broadcast in 2012. The excellent Julia McKenzie will star in an adaptation of the last remaining Miss Marple novel yet to be filmed for the series, A Caribbean Mystery, and she will also find herself shoehorned into two other Christie novels, Endless Night and The Seven Dials Mystery. This shoehorning policy allows audiences to enjoy stories that may otherwise not be adapted at all but Miss Marple's appearance can sometimes seem forced and unconvincing and undermine the original tale. The Seven Dials Mystery is a sequel to The Secret of Chimneys which was filmed for the last series of Marple so expect more from Dervla Kirwan's Bundle and company.

The very exciting news is that, with the commissioning of this latest series of Poirot, David Suchet's ambition to film all seventy of Agatha Christie's Poirot short stories and novels will soon be realised and deservedly so, in my humble opinion. It is a feat never before achieved and unlikely to be achieved again. The swansong season will feature adaptations of The Big Four, The Labours of Hercules, Dead Man's Folly, Elephants Can Remember and Curtain, the very final case in which the ailing Hercule returns with a dear companion to the scene of his first investigation. Suchet, who first starred in the role twenty-two years ago, will be joined by various veterans of the series playing des amis de Poirot including Philip Jackson as Inspector Japp, Hugh Fraser as Captain Hastings and Zoe Wanamaker as Ariadne Oliver (pictured with Suchet above). One suspects that, as the jaunty theme tune fades away for the final time, there will not be a dry eye in millions of houses around the world.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Young Hearts Run Free

Much has been made in the media of arthouse aficionado Andrea Arnold's decision to depict Heathcliff as a black man in her intensely original adaptation of Emily Bronte's durable classic Wuthering Heights. In truth, this latest version achieves levels of innovation that usually allude adaptations of such well-known novels, not through going back to black with "the dark-skinned gypsy in aspect" but through some other, less-publicised decisions made by Arnold and her co-screenwriter Olivia Hetreed. This film is as preoccupied with Heathcliff and his adoptive sister Cathy Earnshaw in their adolescence as in their adulthood and investigates with wit, insight and vital energy the formative period of their indestructible and ultimately destructive attachment to each other. As Cathy and Heathcliff wander about on the wild and windy Yorkshire moors, they seek solace in each other, they amuse each other, they excite each other, they delight each other and they awaken in each other feelings of sexual desire, beautifully captured in their youthful intensity.

Arnold employs any number of arthouse flourishes to tell this tale afresh and period drama enthusiasts may find much of 2011's Wuthering Heights objectionable. Bronte's eloquent characters speak little here and when they do, it is with a decidedly contemporary turn of phrase, more "Are you OK?" than "I am Heathcliff!" The film is also unrelenting bleak as it bamboozles the viewer with images of death, decay and destruction although Bronte's Yorkshire was hardly as singing, all dancing to be fair. The characterisation of the grown-up Heathcliff is radical, opting for a psychologically astute meditation on cruelty and personal responsibility. How else will a man, who was savagely branded on his back as a slave during childhood and mercilessly beaten for the colour of his skin, react when confronted with thwarted ambitions but savagely and mercilessly?

For all its merits, Wuthering Heights tries too much to feel contemporary and ultimately undermines certain key aspects of Cathy and Heathcliff's story as a result. Cathy's decision, for example, to abandon Heathcliff in favour of another man with better prospects is completely unbelievable in the context of this film and the entire second half featuring the grown-up lovers, who are no longer free-spirited and uninhibited but self-conscious and contained as they take tea in drawing-rooms, sits very uncomfortably with Arnold's hand-held, naturalistic style. The wildness of the first half is so wonderfully served by Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave's earthy performances as the young Cathy and Heathcliff that, despite their best efforts, Kaya Scodelario and James Howson struggle in the drab second half to escape the indelible impression made by their younger counterparts.

Andrea Arnold must be commended for crafting a beautiful film (kudos also to cinematographer Robbie Ryan) with some truly haunting moments (my favourite being a fireside rendition by Young Cathy of the tragic folk ballad of doomed love Barbara Allen eerily foreshadowing the heartbreak and loss to come) and for managing to defamiliarise a classic. However, this new Wuthering Heights is, even on its own terms, often unconvincing.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Before The Parade Passes By

Hot on the heels of the announcement that Sir Tom Stoppard is working on a stage adaptation of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love is news that the same Sir's passion project of a five-part television miniseries based on Ford Madox Ford's celebrated Parade's End tetralogy is currently filming in London. A co-production between HBO and BBC Two and adapted from Ford's novels Some Do Not, No More Parades, A Man Could Stand Up and Last Post, Parade's End follows the fortunes of English aristocrat and government statistician Christopher Tietjens, his beautiful but wilful socialite wife Sylvia and Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette with whom he falls in love, from the twilight years of the Edwardian era to the end of the First World War. Downton Abbey goes to town, perhaps?

Stiff upper lip maestros Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall are playing Christopher and Sylvia and are joined by young Australian actress Adelaide Clemens as Valentine and a stellar supporting cast including Geoffrey Palmer, Jack Huston, Claire Higgins, Freddie Fox, Miranda Richardson, Stephen Graham, Roger Allam, Rupert Everett, Jamie Parker, Steven Robertson, Janet McTeer and Anne-Marie Duff, I do hope Miss Duff is having as much fun on set with fellow Terence Rattigan enthusiast Benedict Cumberbatch as she is having in the above still on stage in London in Rattigan's Cause Celebre earlier this year. Parade's End is being directed by by period drama stalwart Susanna White (2005's Bleak House and 2006's Jane Eyre are amongst her credits), returning to television after last year's Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang. One suspects that Parade's End will feature more scenes of muddy trenches and less scenes of pigs synchronised swimming. We'll see!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Seeing Double

The old saying about waiting a lifetime for a bus to come along only for two to come along at once does not just apply to public transport, it seems, but increasingly to period dramas also. Above is a newly-released picture of Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham in Mike Newell's Great Expectations movie which is currently filming in London from a script by One Day's David Nicholls. The film looks set to be a lavish affair and will also feature Bonham Carter's Harry Potter co-stars Ralph Fiennes as Abel Magwitch, Robbie Coltrane as Mr Jaggers and Jessie Cave (the late Lavender Brown) as Biddy alongside War Horse's Jeremy Irvine as Pip and The Borgias's Holliday Grainger as Estella. The supporting cast also includes Jason Flemying as Joe Gargery, Sally Hawkins as Mrs Joe, Olly Alexander as Herbert Pocket, Ewen Bremner as Wemmick and Tamzin Outhwaite as Molly. As previously reported on this blog, Gillian Anderson will appear as the jilted lady of Satis House alongside another all-star cast in the BBC's latest three-part adaptation of the Dickens favourite this Christmas and will become the youngest actress to have played the role, narrowly beating the Bonham Carter by two years.

The latest Great Expectations adaptations will bookend a year of celebrations marking two hundred years since Charles Dickens first shuffled onto this mortal coil. 2012 also marks the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic in April 1912 and two television series will chronicle the life and times of the doomed luxury liner. As Maria Doyle Kennedy told me back in September, ITV's Titanic is written by Julian Fellowes will feature his characteristic multi-character storytelling and span the social spectrum with a mixture of fictional and real-life passengers. Titanic: Blood and Steel, an Italian/Irish co-production currently filming in Dublin, takes an altogether different approach spanning the socially tumultuous fifteen-year period from 1897 to 1912 in which the ship was conceived, designed and built and Belfast. The international cast features Neve Campbell, Martin McCann, Kate O Toole, Kevin Zegers, Sir Derek Jacobi, Gray O Brien, Charlotte Bradley and Sex and the City's Mr Big, Chris Noth alongside Liam Cunningham and Joely Richardson as legendary politicians and trade-union activists Jim Larkin and Countess Markievicz. Given that Titanic: Blood and Steel leaves off where Titanic begins, perhaps the series will compliment each other nicely when they surface in the spring.

Monday, November 7, 2011

There Is A War On, You Know!

The second series of the hugely successful period drama Downton Abbey, which finished last night on ITV, strove earnestly to depict the horrors and hardship of life in Britain and on the battlefields during the Great War of 1914 to 1918. The most conspicuous wartime struggle was, however, that of series creator and writer Julian Fellowes and the creative team behind Downton who never quite managed to achieve the balance between being informative about a fascinating period of history and being hugely entertaining, a balance which greatly contributed to the resounding success of series one.

This year's episodes were so cluttered with white feathers, court marshals, shell shock, food rationing, conscription, convalescence, disfigurements, bereavements, widows' pensions and ladies working the land that few stories had sufficient time to develop satisfactorily and many remained unengaging. And although the trenches were impressively re-created, the scenes on the Somme ultimately seemed rather redundant as the most effective moments were those back at the Abbey with the various much-loved characters coming to terms with what the war had done to them.

All in all, the second series of Downton Abbey was afflicted with such a bad case of Difficult Second Season Syndrome that not even the collective powers of Major Clarkson, Nurse Crawley Mrs Crawley and Corporal Barrow could have seen it right. Much like poor traumatised Mr Lang, it tried to do too much too soon and unable to cope with the weight of responsibility, bungled about rather hopelessly allowing only occasional glimpses of its vast capabilities. Some many have sniggered in the corner, as above. Thanks heavens for the millions of Lavinia Swires the world over who were willing to patiently and lovingly see it through its worst bouts of incompetent pacing, jarring characterisation and tedious predictability to something resembling its past glory.

Promisingly, last night's series finale was rather excellent and satisfying viewing for those who have been kept waiting a great deal too long for the resolution of will-they-won't-they romances between Bates and Anna, Sybil and Branson and Cousin Matthew and Lady Mary. Much was left to be settled and here's hoping it will be settled not with more plot developments that lack conviction (did anyone buy into the supposed estrangement between Lord and Lady Grantham?) but with more beautifully judged moments of heartbreak and loss (deathbeds become Downton, they really do!) and many more moments with the Dowager Countess grappling to come to terms with modern technology.