“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

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“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC’s four-part television miniseries called “CAMBRIDGE SPIES”

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold “Kim” Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union’s KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two – Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction – mainly from the right – toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men’s lives. I had no problem with the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind – a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting – has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first – even if historical facts get in the way.

There are some aspects of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with “Kim” Philby’s defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess’ defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean’s criticisms of America – back then and today – were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now – including its citizens’ mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat’s way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby’s decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB’s orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie’s cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries’ production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists’ incursion into Britain’s diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period’s fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production’s sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men – Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean – were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision – namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins.

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain’s working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby’s aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess’ increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean’s insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess’ embarrassing outbursts and Maclean’s insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries’ historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized.

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light’s performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton’s intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions – gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt’s distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean’s witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby’s emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean’s insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors – Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean – were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

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“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” (1982) Review

I suspect that many fans of the DC Comics character “Batman” and the “Zorro” character would be nonplussed at the idea that a novel written by a Hungary-born aristocrat had served as an inspiration for their creations. Yet, many believe that Baroness Emmuska Orczy de Orczi’s 1905 novel, “The Scarlet Pimpernel” provided Western literature with its first “hero with a secret identity”, Sir Percy Blakeney aka the Scarlet Pimpernel. 

There have been at least nineteen stage, movie or television adaptations of Orczy’s novel. Some consider the 1934 movie adaptation with Leslie Howard, Merle Oberon and Raymond Massey as the most definitive adaptation. However, there are others who are more inclined to bestow that honor on the 1982 television adaptation with Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. I have seen both versions and if I must be honest, I am inclined to agree with those who prefer the 1982 television movie.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” – namely its 1982 re-incarnation – is based upon the 1905 novel and its 1913 sequel,“Eldorado”. Set during the early period of the French Revolution, a masked man and his band of followers rescues French aristocrats from becoming victims of the Reign of Terror under France’s new leader, Maximilien de Robespierre. The man behind the Scarlet Pimpernel’s mask – or disguises – is a foppish English baronet named Sir Percy Blakeney. For reasons never explained in the movie, Sir Percy has managed to gather a group of upper-class friends to assist him in smuggling French aristocrats out of France and sending them to the safety of England. During a visit to France, Sir Percy meets a young French government aide and the latter’s actress sister, Armand and Marguerite St. Just. He eventually befriends the brother and courts the sister.

Sir Percy also becomes aware of Armand’s superior and Marguerite’s friend, Robespierre’s agent Paul Chauvelin. Angered over Marguerite’s marriage to Sir Percy, Chauvelin has the Marquis de St. Cyr – an old enemy of Armand’s – executed in her name. After being sent to England to learn the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Chauvelin discovers that Armand has become part of the vigilante’s band. He blackmails Marguerite – now Lady Blakeney – into learning the identity the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Meanwhile, the Blakeney marriage has chilled, due to the news of the Marquis de St. Cyr’s execution and Marguerite’s alleged connection. But a chance for a marital reconciliation materializes for Marguerite, when she discovers the Scarlet Pimpernel’s true identity.

Thirty years have passed since CBS first aired “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. In many ways, it has not lost its bite. Thanks to Tony Curtis’ production designs, late 18th century England and France (England and Wales in reality) glowed with elegance and style. Not even the questionable transfer of the film to DVD could completely erode the movie’s beauty. The movie’s visual style was aided by Carolyn Scott’s set decorations, Dennis C. Lewiston’s sharp and colorful photography, and especially Phyllis Dalton’s gorgeous costume designs, as shown in the following photographs:

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I feel that screenwriter William Bast made the very wise choice of adapting Baroness Orczy’s two novels about the Scarlet Pimpernel. In doing so, he managed to create a very clear and concise tale filled with plenty of drama and action. He also did an excellent job in mapping out the development of the story’s main characters – especially Sir Percy Blakeney, Marguerite St. Just, Paul Chauvelin and Armand St. Just. I was especially impressed by his handling of Sir Percy and Marguerite’s relationship – before and after marriage. Sir Percy’s easy willingness to believe the worst about his bride provided a few chinks into Sir Percy’s character, which could have easily morphed into a too perfect personality. More importantly, Bast’s script gave Paul Chauvelin’s character more depth by revealing the latter’s feelings for Marguerite and jealousy over her marriage to Sir Percy. Bast’s re-creation of the early years of the French Revolution and Reign of Terror struck me as well done. However, I wish he had not faithfully adapted Orczy’s decision to allow the Scarlet Pimpernel and his men to rescue the Daupin of France (heir apparent to the French throne), Louis-Charles (who became Louis XVII, upon his father’s death). In reality, Louis-Charles died in prison from tuberculosis and ill treatment at the age of ten. Surely, Bast could have created someone else important for the Scarlet Pimpernel to rescue.

“THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” received a few Emmy nominations. But they were for technical awards – Costume Designs for Phyllis Dalton, Art Direction for Tony Curtis and even one for Outstanding Drama Special for producers David Conroy and Mark Shelmerdine. And yet . . . there were no nominations for Clive Donner and his lively direction, and no nominations for the cast. I am especially astounded by the lack of nominations for Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen. In fact, I find this criminal. All three gave superb performances as Sir Percy Blakeney; Marguerite, Lady Blakeney; and Paul Chauvelin respectively. Andrews was all over the map in his portrayal of the fop by day/hero by night Sir Percy. And yet, it was a very controlled and disciplined performance. Jane Seymour did a beautiful job of re-creating the intelligent, yet emotional Marguerite. At times, she seemed to be the heart and soul of the story. This was the first production in which I became aware of Ian McKellen as an actor and after his performance as Paul Chauvelin, I never forgot him. Not only was his portrayal of Chauvelin’s villainy subtle, but also filled with deep pathos over his feelings for Marguerite Blakeney. He also had the luck to utter one of my favorite lines in the movie in the face of his character’s defeat:

“Oh, the English, and their STU-U-U-UPID sense of fair play!”

The movie also featured some first-rate performances by the supporting cast. Malcolm Jamieson did an excellent job in portraying Marguerite’s older brother, Armand. I was also impressed by Ann Firbank, who was first-rate as the embittered Countess de Tournay; James Villiers as the opportunistic Baron de Batz; Tracey Childs as the lovesick Suzanne de Tournay; and Christopher Villiers as Sir Percy’s most stalwart assistant, Lord Anthony Dewhurst. Julian Fellowes made a very colorful and entertaining Prince of Wales. And Richard Morant proved to be even more subtle and sinister than McKellen’s Chauvelin as Maximilien de Robespierre.

After my latest viewing of “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”, I found myself surprisingly less supportive of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s efforts than I used to be. Perhaps I have not only become more older, but even less enthusiastic about the aristocratic elite. It was then I realized that despite the presence of Marguerite and Armand St. Just, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL” is based on two novels written by an aristocrat, with views that were probably as liberal as Barry Goldwater. Oh well. I still managed to garner a good deal of entertainment from a movie that has held up remarkable well after thirty years, thanks to some lively direction by Clive Donner, a first-rate script by William Bast and superb performances by the likes of Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Ian McKellen.

“THE KING’S SPEECH” (2010) Review

“THE KING’S SPEECH” (2010) Review

Inspirational movies have been the hallmark of Hollywood films over the decades. They especially became popular between the mid-1970s and the early 1990s. After the mid-90s, I never thought they would become popular again. But the recent release of the historical drama, ”THE KING’S SPEECH” proved me wrong. 

Directed by Tom Hooper and written by David Seidler, ”THE KING’S SPEECH” told the story of Great Britain’s King George VI’s difficulties with a speech impediment and his relationship with Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue, who helped him overcome his stutter. The movie opened with George VI (then Prince Albert, Duke of York) at the closing of the 1925 Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, with his wife Elizabeth by his side. There he gives a stammering speech that visibly unsettles the thousands of listeners in the audience. After nine years of unsuccessfully finding a speech therapist that can help him, Elizabeth recruits Australian-born Lionel Logue to meet him. The two men eventually bond and Logue helps the Duke of York overcome the latter’s stammer during a series of crises that include the death of George V; his brother, King Edward VIII’s romance with American divorcee, Wallis Simpson; the abdication of Edward; the Duke of York’s ascension to the throne as George VI; his coronation and the start of World War II. Also during this period, both king and speech therapist become close friends.

What can I say about ”THE KING’S SPEECH”? I cannot deny that it was a heartwarming tale about the growing friendship of two men from disparate backgrounds. Seidler’s script was filled with wit, charm, warmth and pathos that filled the heart. The cast, lead by Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, did great credit to the script. There have been complaints about the film’s historical accuracy from both the media and historians. And there is a good deal of the story that is historically inaccurate. George VI and Lionel Logue’s collaboration began as far back as 1926, not 1934. And the king was also pro-appeasement in the late 1930s. In fact, the majority of Britons during that period were pro-appeasement. What historians fail to realize is that appeasement was popular due to a lack of desire for another war against Germany. World War I had traumatized a generation that included George VI. One also has to remember that ”THE KING’S SPEECH” is a drama based upon historical fact, not a documentary. One would know by now that complete historical accuracy in a work of fiction is rare. It has been rare for as long as there have been fictional work based upon history. And to be honest, I do not believe that the movie’s fiddling with historical fact has not harmed the story.

One would think that I consider ”THE KING’S SPEECH” to be one of the best movies this year. Frankly, I find labeling what is ”the best” rather subjective. I did enjoy the movie and it made the list of my Top Ten Favorite Movies of 2010. However, I must admit that I do not consider it to be a particularly original film. One, it is one of those inspirational films that moviegoers tend to love – movies like ”SEABISCUIT””CINDERELLA MAN” and the 1976 Oscar winner, ”ROCKY”. And if I must be brutally honest, there was nothing original about ”THE KING’S SPEECH” – even for an inspirational film. I already have a nickname for it – ’ROCKY in the Palace’. Another problem I have with the movie is that I was not that impressed by its visual style. I found Danny Cohen’s photography rather pedestrian. And Eve Stewart’s production designs and Judy Farr’s set decorations were very disappointing. Only the movie’s exterior shots prevented ”THE KING’S SPEECH” from becoming another filmed stage play. And the actual sets struck me as very dull. My hopes of a rich look at London and the rest of Great Britain during the 1920s and 30s fell short. I suppose I should not have been surprised by the movie’s uninspiring visual style. It only had a budget of $15 million dollars. I suspect the producers had very little money to work with.

With a few exceptions, the cast turned out to be first-rate. Colin Firth gave a superb and complex performance as the insecure sovereign with the speech impediment. I am not that surprised that he managed to earn nominations and win a good number of acting awards. Geoffrey Rush, who portrayed Lionel Logue, gave a first-rate performance filled with a great deal of sly humor. Also, he and Firth generated a strong screen chemistry. Helena Bonham-Carter was a charming and witty Duchess of York/Queen Elizabeth. However, I would have never considered her performance worth of any acting award nomination. She was simply portraying the “loyal wife” schtick. I was surprised to find Guy Pierce portraying the love obsessed and selfish Edward VIII. And I must he was very subtle and effective in revealing the man’s less admirable traits. The movie also benefitted solid performances from the likes of Michael Gambon as King George V, Claire Bloom as Queen Mary, and Anthony Andrews, who was surprisingly effective as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.

However, there were some performances that I found unsatisfying. Being a fan of Jennifer Ehle, I was disappointed in the limitations of her role as Logue’s wife, Myrtle. She hardly had a chance to do anything, except murmur a few words of encouragement to Logue. Her only great moment occurred in a scene that featured Myrtle Logue’s realization that the King of England was one of her husband’s clients. Seeing Ehle and Firth in the same scene together brought back memories of the 1995 adaptation of ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. I also had a problem with Eve Best’s portrayal of American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. Her Wallis came off as more extroverted than the divorcee in real life. And I hate to say this, but Timothy Spall’s interpretation of Winston Churchill seemed more like a parody than a serious portrayal. Every time he was on the screen, I could not help but wince.

In conclusion, I enjoyed ”THE KING’S SPEECH” very much. Despite its lack of originality, I found it heartwarming, humorous, and dramatic; thanks to Tom Hooper’s direction and Seidler’s writing. And aside from a few performances, I was impressed by the cast, especially leading men Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. I would never consider it artistically worthy of an Oscar for Best Picture. But I cannot deny that it was entertaining.

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As an extra treat, below is a video clip featuring a speech given by King George VI at the an Empire Exhibition at Ibrox Park, Glasgow, Scotland; 1938.