Monday, July 30, 2012

Stormy Weather

Soon to be seen in cinemas is Cheerful Weather for the Wedding. Based on the long-neglected 1932 novella by Julia Strachey, a lesser-known member of the celebrated Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, the film stars Felicity Jones as reluctant bride Dolly Thatcham who is forced to contend with many obstacles on the March morning of her marriage to the Honourable Owen Bingham. Waylaid by her sulking admirer Joseph Patten, who lost his chance with her the previous summer, her maddeningly oblivious mother and her own misgivings, the bride-to-be struggles to reach the altar but just about manages it with a little help from her trusty bottle of rum. A barbed critique of the English middle classes, Strachey's tale of quiet despair and repressed emotions was very much based on her own experiences on returning to England from India and being parcelled out among relations following her parents' divorce, including her uncle and fellow writer Lytton. Initially dismissed by the likes of Virginia Woolf for her limited talents, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding established her as a literary force to be reckoned with. Although she failed to follow it with any great success, this early effort is a testament to her considerable skills as a storyteller.

Having taken a look at the trailer for writer-director Donald Rice's forthcoming screen version, the approach seems to have been to downplay the melancholy and stark aspects of the source material and re-invent Cheerful Weather for the Wedding as a light-as-a-feather comedy of manners with lashings of romance. Trailers, however, can be misleading and the adaptation's merits remain to be seen. Completing the central love triangle are Harry Treadaway as Joseph and James Norton as Owen (pictured alongside Jones in the above still) and the promising supporting cast of respected British actors playing various servants, relations and wellwishers includes Barbara Flynn, Mackenzie Crook. Olly Alexander, Zoe Tapper, Julian Wadham, Kenneth Collard, Sophie Stanton, Ellie Kendrick, Fenella Woolgar and Paola Dionisotti. Also featuring is Elizabeth McGovern, adopting an English accent to play the infuriating Mrs Thatcham. Filmed way back in 2010, the promoters of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding were no doubt thrilled by the subsequent, global success of Downton Abbey, which has firmly re-established 1980s starlet McGovern in the public consciousness and, one presumes, made a small, independent British film in which she stars a much more palatable prospect for movie distributors the world over.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

New Kids on the Block

Many famous landmarks around the city of Dublin, including Trinity College, the Clancy Barracks and the Phoenix Park, have recently been transformed into dens of depravity steeped in paranoia and fear. Not the continued ill effects of the dreaded recession, dear reader, but the filming of the BBC's major new period drama series Ripper Street. The eight-parter will premiere in the autumn and, set in the East End of London in 1889 in the aftermath of the notorious Ripper murders, follows the indefatigable efforts of the unfortunate individuals charged with keeping order on the chaotic streets of Whitechapel. The cast is led by the trio pictured above, Jerome Flynn, Matthew MacFadyen and Adam Rothenberg as Detective Drake, Inspector Reid and Captain Jackson and features an array of distinguished young actors in supporting roles including Charlene McKenna, Joe Gilgun, David Dawson and MyAnna Buring as prostitutes and ne'er do-wells. The former two were recently seen in the cult hit Misfits whilst the latter two have been quite high on the period drama radar of late.

David Dawson first came to my attention in 2010 as the tenacious young Manchester writer who created Coronation Street, Tony Warren, in one of BBC Four's better based-on-true-events dramas, was very entertaining as Bazzard, the lowly clerk with theatrical aspirations, in February in the mixed bag that was Gwyneth Hughes's bicentenary stab at the unfinished Dickens, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and played Prince Hal's drinking buddy Poins for Richard Eyre in the Henry IV portion of the riveting Shakespeare season of consecutive history plays, The Hollow Crown. The highlight of my period drama year thus far, the series only became more engrossing, stirring and poignant as it went on and felt so contemporary without ever once feeling contrived that it served as a definite poke in the eye for those who believe that Shakespeare has little or no resonance for a twenty-first century audience. Although packed to the rafters with memorable performances from Ben Whishaw's pathetically deposed Richard II to Joe Armstrong rabble-rousing rebel from the North, Harry Hotspur, the standout for me was Tom Hiddleston's transformation from a feckless youth who lives for sport and pleasure in the Henry IV plays to the warrior king who bravely leads his men to victory against all the odds at Agincourt in Henry V. The Hollow Crown was unfortunately rather submerged in the schedules by a stellar summer for sport but "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" who saw all four adaptations are unlikely to forget them any time soon.

Meanwhile, whilst her Ripper Street co-star Mr Dawson was, amongst other things, hanging with Julie Walters (what a Mistress Quickly!), Maxine Peake (what a Doll Tearsheet!) and Simon Russell Beale (and what a Falstaff!) in an Eastcheap tavern, MyAnna Buring, no slouch either, has been making a name for herself. The Swedish beauty starred as Lily in the spring in BBC Two's White Heat which detailed the highs and lows of a group of friends in London over twenty-five years from 1965 onwards and was well worth the investment of time over six episodes. Ms Buring's portrait of a tough cookie with artistic tendencies whose early ambitions are marred by personal tragedy and the harsh realities of life was particularly affecting although she is perhaps better known as a lady vampire by the name of Tanya Denari from the last two Twilight films. Not being a Twi-hard myself, I cannot personally vouch for her performances in the aforementioned franchise but I'm sure she does the best with what she's given. And in conjuction with this blog's policy of revealing ever single piece of information regarding Downton Abbey that crosses its path (based on the principle of giving the public what it wants), I should mention that she will also feature as a feisty and forward-thinking servant called Edna in the 2012 Christmas special alongside Simone Lahbib as lady's maid Wilkins. The girl's going places for sure.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Shirley Comes to Downton

Despite many an eyebrow being raised - both my own included - at the disappointing quality of the often-shambolic, war torn second series of Downton Abbey last autumn, our friends across the pond cannot seem to be able to get enough of the Abbey. Last week, it was announced that the period drama de jour has been nominated for sixteen Emmy Awards - unprecedented for a British import. This is no mean feat given the extremely stiff competition to be encountered from the likes of Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Homeland, Game of Thrones and the darling of the Emmys, Mad Men.

The third series has been confirmed for September and I feel it my duty to mention that details have emerged about what us millions of devotees can expect - better pacing and characterisation, here's hoping! Beginning in the spring of 1920 and ending at Christmas in 1921, the latest run of eight episodes will feature a marriage, a birth and a death, plots involving the fight for Irish independence, Catholicism and potential financial ruin for the beleaguered Crawleys and the much-anticipated guest appearance of Shirley Mac Laine as Lord Grantham's mother-in-law Martha (pictured above).

The always-entertaining MacLaine recently attended a press conference in Los Angeles with some of her fellow cast members during which Hugh Bonneville revealed a T-shirt bearing the slogan FREE THE DOWNTON ONE much to the delight of his co-star and sometime Mr Bates, Brendan Coyle. Meanwhile, when asked if she had ever met Dame Maggie Smith before filming sparring scenes with her at the start of 2012 for Downton, reincarnation enthusiast MacLaine merely said "We were lovers in a previous life!" Maggie was not available for comment.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Legend of the Seas on Sky

There is, as I have reported on this very blog over the last few months, a festival of delights to look forward to on both the big and small screens in the autumn, period drama-wise. September will herald the return - and hopefully the return to form - of Downton Abbey. Martha Levinson will arrive in the first episode of the third series for her granddaughter Mary's wedding to Matthew, now that his spine has re-aligned, and is set to put the cat among the pigeons as only a brash and blunt American can in a drama by Julian Fellowes. Alongside Shirley MacLaine as Martha, new cast members will include Ed Speelers and Matt Milne as newbie footmen Jimmy and Alfred and Charles Edwards as a suitor to the unlucky-in-love Lady Edith. I predict good things for season three but, just in case Downton continues on its slippery slope, hopes must surely be high over on BBC2 for Tom Stoppard's take on women's suffrage, life in the trenches and the Roaring Twenties with his adaptation of Ford Maddox Ford's Parade's End tetralogy of novels starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. Meanwhile, at a cinema near you this fall will be many promising literary adaptations including Anna Karenina, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet, Les Miserables and Cheerful Weather for the Wedding (more of that anon).

Summer is, alas, never a great time for period drama enthusiasts although a new programme on Sky  pricked my interest last weekend. Their lavish new fantasy adventure Sinbad began last Sunday with a thoroughly entertaining season opener and is set to fit the bill as fun and undemanding escapism for the next twelve weeks. Very much influenced by the BBC's global success story Merlin, it goes back to the beginning with a famous mythological hero, is set in The Past and features veiled figures muttering in alleys about a return to the old ways. We first meet Sinbad the Sailor of Arabian Nights renown as a cheeky chap knocking around Basra sometime in The Past, making mischief and harbouring not a jot of desire to set sail when he unwittingly brings about the death of his sensible older brother, changing the course of his life forever. A gypsy curse is placed on him by his exasperated grandmother that sees him cast out from his carefree existence to drift the seven seas and atone for his misdeeds so he stows away on a ship manned by a motley crew of mysterious and madcap seafarers and his adventures begin.

Featuring more CGI sea monsters and cliches about the Middle East than you can shake a stick at, Sinbad is boosted by an abundance of energy, quirky characters and a charismatic central performance from newcomer Elliot Knight (pictured above) alongside an acclaimed supporting cast that includes Elliot Cowan, Dimitri Leonidas, Naveen Andrews, Orla Brady, Evanna Lynch, Sophie Okonedo and a rare screen performance from Dame Janet Suzman, having a good time as the curse-happy Granny and no doubt supplementing her income from her latest book of theatre criticism, Not Hamlet - Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama, which, although undoubtedly an absorbing read, is hardly, one suspects, troubling Fifty Shades of Grey on the bestseller lists.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

In A World of Fantasy

Romances, espionage thrillers, war epics and, increasingly, sitcoms are all genres that often find themselves intertwined with the business of this blog but perhaps the genre most closely related to the period drama is fantasy. Following swiftly on the designer heels of Charlize Theron playing Snow White's evil stepmother as a sort of demented trophy wife refusing to yield to the passage of time in Rupert Sanders's disappointingly haphazard yet moderately inventive version of the classic fairytale, a villainous Angelina Jolie will star in Maleficient. Telling the legend of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the sorceress who curses the young princess with a debilitating dose of narcolepsy, the live-action movie from Oscar-winning production designer Richard Stromberg and Walt Disney Pictures will feature Elle Fanning as Aurora alongside Miranda Richardson as Queen Ulla, Maleficient's aunt with a strong dislike for her niece. Will this version suggest that her hostile relations are the reason for Maleficient's fondness for malice? What about personal responsibility, Disney? Harry Potter's hateful aunt kept him in a cupboard for ten years and he didn't go to the bad!! Anywho, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple will play Sleeping Beauty's fairy guardians Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistletwit in the film which is due for release in spring 2014.

Miss Temple is a young lady from London whose name you may not recognise but who has starred in many movies since her debut as Cate Blanchett's daughter in 2006's Notes on a Scandal. Since then, she has been seen in an eclectic mix of British period dramas like Atonement and Glorious 39, small-scale American indie films Greenberg and Kaboom and major blockbusters The Three Musketeers and, this summer, The Dark Knight Rises. Her performance in the forthcoming Batman movie coupled with her much-publicised role as trailer-trash innocent Dottie in the controversy magnet Killer Joe will do wonders for her profile and be music to the ears of the producers of Girls' Night Out, in which Temple will appear as Princess Margaret. From a screenplay by Trevor de Silva, the period drama is set on VE Day in 1945 and will imagine that Margaret and her big sister left the palace to celebrate their country's victory with ordinary Londoners on that historic night and encountered danger and romance along the way. When one considers that that particular family's lives have decidedly not been short on exciting incident as they stand, it does seem somewhat pointless to present this embroidered fantasy to cinemagoers although the Period Drama King blog will reserve judgement.

Coincidentally, although probably not that coincidentally considering the phenomenal success of The King's Speech eighteen months ago, the current British monarch's parents will feature prominently in another imminent period drama release. Hyde Park on Hudson tells of a weekend that Bertie and Elizabeth spent in 1939 with the American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor at the country retreat in upstage New York which gives the film its title. The historically and politically significant visit is hampered by clashes of culture but FDR, given the looming threat of war, is determined to form an alliance between the two nations. The comedy drama, directed by Roger Michell of 1995's Persuasion, is told from the perspective of the president's devoted cousin Margaret Stuckley and stars Laura Linney as Margaret, Bill Murray and Olivia Williams as the Roosevelts and Samuel West and Olivia Colman as the Windsors. Also in the film are Blake Ritson, who interestingly played Bertie's brother the Dule of Kent in the ill-fated Upstairs Downstairs revival, and the one-and-only Eleanor Bron. Another 1960s icon who is rarely seen on screen nowadays is Dame Diana Rigg, although pictures emerged this week (one of which is above) of the Dame on the set of Doctor Who with series regulars Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. In another period drama-fantasy crossover. she is filming a guest role in an episode written by Mark Gatiss, set in Victorian times and also starring her daughter Rachael Stirling. BBC, how I love thee!