Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1930s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1930s: 

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1930s

1. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) – In this exciting second installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, the intrepid archaeologist is asked by desperate villagers in Northern India to find a mystical stolen stone and rescue their children from a Thuggee cult practicing child slavery. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie starred Harrison Ford as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones.

2. “The Sting” (1973) – Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in this excellent Oscar winning movie about a young drifter who teams up with a master of the big con to get revenge against the gangster who had his partner murdered. George Roy Hill directed.

3. “Death on the Nile” (1978) – Peter Ustinov made his first appearance as Hercule Poirot in this superb adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about the murder of an Anglo-American heiress during a cruise on the Nile. John Guillermin directed.

4. “Chinatown” (1974) – Roman Polanski directed this outstanding Oscar nominated film about a Los Angeles private detective hired to expose an adulterer, who finds himself caught up in a web of deceit, corruption and murder. Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway starred.

5. “Gosford Park” (2001) – Robert Altman directed this Oscar nominated film about a murder that occurs at shooting party in 1932 England. The all-star cast includes Helen Mirren, Kelly MacDonald, Clive Owen and Maggie Smith.

6. “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) – Once again, Peter Ustinov portrayed Hercule Poirot in this entertaining adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1941 novel about the murder of a stage actress at an exclusive island resort. Guy Hamilton directed.

7. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) – Ethan and Joel Coen directed this very entertaining tale about three escaped convicts who search for a hidden treasure, while evading the law in Depression era Mississippi. George Clooney, John Tuturro and Tim Blake Nelson starred.

8. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Albert Finney starred as Hercule Poirot in this stylish adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about the Belgian detective’s investigation into the death of a mysterious American aboard the famed Orient Express. Sidney Lumet directed.

9. “Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981) – Harrison Ford made his first appearance as Dr. “Indiana” Jones in this classic movie, as he races against time to find the iconic Ark of the Covenant that contains the Ten Commandments before the Nazis do in 1936 Egypt. Steven Spielberg directed.

“Seabiscuit” (2003) – Gary Ross directed this excellent adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2001 book about the famed race horse from the late 1930s. Tobey Maguire, Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Banks starred.

Honorable Mention: “Road to Perdition” (2002) – Tom Hanks, Tyler Hoechlin and Paul Newman starred in this first-rate adaptation of Max Collins’ 1998 graphic comic about a Depression era hitman who is forced to hit the road with his older son after the latter witnesses a murder. Sam Mendes directed.

“All Aboard the Orient Express”

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Below is a look at two major movies and a television movie that featured journeys aboard the famed Orient Express:

 

“ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS”

I will be the first to admit that I am not one of those who demand that a novel, a movie or a television production to be historically accurate. Not if history gets in the way of the story. But there is an anal streak within me that rears its ugly head, sometimes. And that streak would usually lead me to judge just how accurate a particular production or novel is.

Recently, I watched three movies that featured a journey aboard the legendary train, the Orient Express. Perhaps I should be a little more accurate. All three movies, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963) featured a famous route that came into existence nearly a year following World War I called the Simplon Orient Express. The original route for the Orient Express stretched from Paris to Istanbul via Strasbourg, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest. Then in 1919, Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits introduced a more southerly route, due to the opening of the Simplon Tunnel. This route stretched between Paris and Istanbul, via Lausanne, Milan, Venice, Belgrade and Sofia. Writers Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming made the Simplon Orient Express route famous thanks to their novels, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) and “From Russia With Love” (1957). And the movie adaptations of these novels increased the route’s fame.

Both Christie and Fleming’s novels featured the Simplon Orient Express’ route from Istanbul to Yugoslavia. There are reasons why their stories do not stretch further west to as far as at least France. In “Murder on the Orient Express”, the train became stuck in a snowdrift in Yugoslavia and detective Hercule Poirot spent the rest of the novel trying to solve the murder of an American passenger. And in “From Russia With Love”, British agent James Bond and his companion, Tatiana Romanova, made it as far as either Italy or France. The 1974 and 2010 adaptations of Christie’s novel, more or less remained faithful to the latter as far as setting is concerned. However, EON Production’s 1963 adaptation of Fleming’s novel allowed Bond and Tatiana to escape from the train before it could cross the Yugoslavia-Italy border.

While watching the three movies, I discovered that their portrayals of the Simplon Orient Express route were not completely accurate. I can imagine the thoughts running through the minds of many, declaring “Who cares?”. And I believe they would be right to feel this way. But I thought it would be fun to look into the matter. Before I do, I think I should cover a few basics about this famous train route from Istanbul to Paris-Calais.

During its heyday, the Orient Express usually departed from Istanbul around 11:00 p.m. Following the rise of the Iron Curtain after World War II, the Orient Express extended it route to stops in Greece in order to avoid the Soviet-controlled countries. The only Communist country it passed through was Yugoslavia. When the train became the slower Direct Orient Express in 1962, it usually departed Istanbul around 4:15 p.m. I do not know whether a restaurant car and/or a salon “Pullman” car was attached to the Direct Orient Express when it departed Istanbul between 1962 and 1977. One last matter. In the three adaptations of the two novels, the Orient Express usually made a significant stop at Belgrade. It took the Orient Express, during its heyday, at least 23 to 24 hours to travel from Istanbul to Belgrade.

Let us now see how accurately the two “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” movies and the 1963 “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” flick accurately portray traveling aboard the Simplon Orient Express (or Direct Orient Express) on film. I will begin with the “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the 1974 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel.

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974)

Following the conclusion of a successful case for the British Army somewhere in the Middle East, Belgian-born detective is on his way home to London, via a train journey aboard the famed Orient Express. When an American businessman named Samuel Rachett is murdered during the second night aboard the train, Poirot is asked by his friend and director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, Senor Bianchi, to investigate the crime.

In this adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet, the Simplon Orient Express that left Istanbul did so at 9:00 at night. The movie also included a dining car attached to the train. One scene featured a chef examining food being loaded onto the train. This scene is erroneous. According to the The Man in Seat 61 website, there was no dining car attached to the train when it left Istanbul. A dining car was usually attached at Kapikule on the Turkish/Bulgarian border, before it was time to serve breakfast. The movie also featured a salon car or a “Pullman”, where Hercule Poirot interrogated most of the passengers of the Istanbul-Calais car.

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According to the “Seat 61” site, there was no salon “Pullman” car attached to the train east of Trieste, Italy. Christie needed the presence of the car for dramatic purposes and added one into her novel. The producers of the 1974 movie did the same. At least the producers of the 1974 used the right dark blue and cream-colored car for the Pullman. More importantly, they used the right dark blue cars for the train’s sleeping coaches, as shown in the image below:

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In the movie, the Simplon Orient Express reached Belgrade 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. For once, the movie was accurate. Somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, the Orient Express ended up snowbound and remained there until the end of the story.

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“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010)

This adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel first aired on Britain’s ITV network in 2010. The television movie started with Hercule Poirot berating a British Army officer caught in a devastating lie. After the officer commits suicide, Poirot ends up in Istanbul, where he and a British couple witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. Eventually, the couple and Poirot board the Orient Express, where the latter finds himself investigating the murder of an American passenger.

I do not know what time the Simplon Orient Express departed Istanbul in this adaptation. The movie never indicated a particular time. This version also featured a brief scene with a chef examining food being loaded aboard a dining car. As I previously mentioned, a dining car was not attached until Kapikule. The movie did feature Poirot and some of the Istanbul-Calais car passengers eating breakfast the following morning. In this scene, I noticed a major blooper. Car attendant Pierre Michel was shown serving a dish to Poirot in the dining car. Note the images below:

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Pierre Michel greets Poirot and M. Bouc before they board the train

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Pierre serves breakfast to Poirot

Why on earth would a car attendant (or train conductor, as he was in the 1934 novel) act as a waiter in the dining car? Like the 1974 movie, the ITV adaptation also featured a salon “Pullman” attached to the train, east of Italy. In fact, they did more than use one salon “Pullman”. As I had stated earlier, the westbound Simplon Orient Express usually acquired a salon “Pullman” after its arrival in Trieste. But in this adaptation, the producers decided to use the dark blue and cream-colored “Pullman” cars for the entire train as shown in these images:

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This is completely in error. As I had stated earlier, the Orient Express usually featured a dark-blue and cream-colored salon “Pullman” between Italy and Paris. But it also featured the dark-blue and cream-colored seating “Pullmans” between Calais and Paris. There is no way that the Orient Express leaving Istanbul would entirely consist of the blue and cream “Pullman” cars.

However, the train did arrive at Belgarde at least 24 hours after its departure from Istanbul. Like the other movie, the train ended up snowbound between Vinkovci and Brod and remained there until the last scene. However, I am confused by the presence of the police standing outside of the train in the last scene. Poirot and the other passengers should have encountered the police, following the train’s arrival in Brod, not somewhere in the middle of the Yugoslavian countryside.

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“FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” (1963)

Ian Fleming’s tale begins with the terrorist organization, SPECTRE, plotting the theft of the KGB’s a cryptographic device from the Soviets called the Lektor, in order to sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on British agent James Bond for killing their agent, Dr. No. After Bond successfully steals the Lektor from the Soviet consulate in Istanbul, he, defector Tatiana Romanova and MI-6 agent Kerim Bey board the Orient Express for a journey to France and later, Great Britain.

While I found this adaptation of Ian Fleming’s 1957 novel extremely enjoyable, I found myself puzzled by the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s journey aboard the Orient Express. It seemed so . . . off. In the movie; the Orient Express conveying Bond, his traveling companions and SPECTRE assassin “Red” Grant; departed Istanbul somewhere between 3:00 and 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon. The train departed Istanbul around nine o’clock at night, in Fleming’s novel. Mind you, the novel was set in the 1950s and the movie, set in the early 1960s, which meant that its departure in the movie was pretty close to the 4:15 pm departure of the Direct Orient Express train that operated between 1962 and 1977. I do not recall seeing a dining car attached to the train, during its departure in the movie, so I cannot comment on that. But after the train’s departure, the movie’s portrayal of Bond’s Orient Express journey proved to be mind boggling.

The main problem with “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE” is that Bond’s journey proved to be the fastest I have ever witnessed, either on film or in a novel. It took the train at least three-to-four hours to reach Belgrade, following its departure from Istanbul. One, it usually took the Orient Express nearly 24 hours to reach Belgrade during its heyday. During the first ten-to-fifteen years of the Cold War, it took the Orient Express a little longer to reach Belgrade, due to it being re-routed through Northern Greece in an effort to avoid countries under Soviet rule. This was made clear in Fleming’s novel. But the 1963 movie followed the famous train’s original eastbound route . . . but at a faster speed. After killing Grant, Bond and Tatiana left the train before it reached the Yugoslavian-Italian border. Bond’s journey from Istanbul to that point took at least 15 hours. During the Orient Express’ heyday, it took at less than 48 hours. And during the 15 years of the Direct Orient Express, it took longer.

Unlike many recent film goers and television viewers, historical accuracy or lack of it in a movie/television production has never bothered me. I still remain a major fan of both “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (1974 version) and “FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE”. And although I have other major problems with the 2010 “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, there are still aspects of it that I continue to enjoy. Historical inaccuracy has never impeded my enjoyment of a film, unless I found it particularly offensive. But since I can be occasionally anal and was bored, I could not resist a brief exploration of the Hollywood and British film industries’ portrayals of the Orient Express.

“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

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“VANITY FAIR” (2004) Review

William Makepeace Thackery’s 1848 novel about the life and travails of an ambitious young woman in early 19th century has generated many film and television adaptations. One of them turned out to be the 2004 movie that was directed by Mira Nair.

“VANITY FAIR” covers the early adulthood of one Becky Sharp, the pretty and ambitious daughter of an English not-so-successful painter and a French dancer during the early years from 1802 to 1830. The movie covers Becky’s life during her impoverished childhood with her painter father, during her last day as a student at Miss Pinkerton’s Academy for Young Ladies, where she meets her only friend Amelia Sedley – the only daughter of a slightly wealthy gentleman and her years as a governess for the daughters of a crude, yet genial baronet named Sir Pitt Crawley. While working for the Crawleys, Becky meets and falls in love with Sir Pitt’s younger son, Captain Rawdon Crawley. When Sir Pitt proposes marriage to Becky, she shocks the family with news of her secret marriage to Rawdon. The couple is ostracized and ends up living in London on Rawdon’s military pay and gambling winnings. They also become reacquainted with Amelia Sedley, who has her own problems. When her father loses his fortune, the father of her beau, George Osborne, tries to arrange a marriage between him and a Jamaican heiress. Leery of the idea of marrying a woman of mixed blood, he marries Amelia behind Mr. Obsorne’s back, and the latter disinherits him. Not long after George and Amelia’s marriage, word reaches Britain of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and control of France. Becky and Amelia follow Rawdon, George, and Dobbin, who are suddenly deployed to Brussels as part of the Duke of Wellington’s army. And life for Becky and those close to her prove to be even more difficult.

The first thing I noticed about “VANITY FAIR” was that it was one of the most beautiful looking movies I have ever seen in recent years. Beautiful and colorful. A part of me wonders if director Mira Nair was responsible for the movie’s overall look. Some people might complain and describe the movie’s look as garish. I would be the first to disagree. Despite its color – dominated by a rich and deep red that has always appealed to me – “VANITY FAIR” has also struck me as rather elegant looking film, thanks to cinematographer Declan Quinn. But he was not the only one responsible for the film’s visual look. Maria Djurkovic’s production designs and the work from the art direction team – Nick Palmer, Sam Stokes and Lucinda Thomson. All did an excellent job of not only creating what I believe to be one of the most colorful and elegant films I have ever seen, but also in re-creating early 19th century Britain, Belgium, Germany and India. But I do have a special place in my heart for Beatrix Aruna Pasztor’s costume designs. I found them absolutely ravishing. Colorful . . . gorgeous. I am aware that many did not find them historically accurate. Pasztor put a bit more Hollywood into her designs than history. But I simply do not care. I love them. And to express this love, the following is a brief sample of her costumes worn by actress Reese Witherspoon:

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I understand that Witherspoon was pregnant at the time and Pasztor had to accommodate the actress’ pregnancy for her costumes. Judging from what I saw on the screen, I am beginning to believe that Witherspoon’s pregnancy served her role in the story just fine.

Now that I have raved over the movie’s visual look and style, I might as well talk about the movie’s adaptation. When I first heard about “VANITY FAIR”, the word-of-mouth on the Web seemed to be pretty negative. Thackery’s novel is a long one – written in twenty parts. Naturally, a movie with a running time of 141 minutes was not about to cover everything in the story. And I have never been one of those purists who believe that a movie or television adaptation had to be completely faithful to its source. Quite frankly, it is impossible for any movie or television miniseries to achieve. And so, it was not that surprising that the screenplay written by Julian Fellowes, Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet would not prove to be an accurate adaptation. I expected that. However, there were some changes I could have done without.

Becky Sharp has always been one of the most intriguing female characters in literary history. Among the traits that have made her fascinating were her ambitions, amorality, talent for manipulation and sharp tongue. As much as I enjoyed Reese Witherspoon’s performance in the movie – and I really did – I thought it was a mistake for Fellowes, Faulk and Skeet to make Becky a more “likeable” personality in the movie’s first half. One, it took a little bite not only out of the character, but from the story’s satirical style, as well. And two, I found this change unnecessary, considering that literary fans have always liked the darker Becky anyway. Thankfully, this vanilla-style Becky Sharp disappeared in the movie’s second half, as the three screenwriters returned to Thackery’s sharper and darker portrayal of the character. I was also a little disappointed with the movie’s sequence featuring Becky’s stay at the Sedley home and her seduction of Amelia’s older brother, Jos. I realize that as a movie adaptation, “VANITY FAIR” was not bound to be completely accurate as a story. But I was rather disappointed with the sequence featuring Becky’s visit to the Sedley home at Russell Square in London. Perhaps it was just me, but I found that particular sequence somewhat rushed. I was also disappointed by Nair and producer Jannette Day’s decision to delete the scene featuring Becky’s final meeting with her estranged son, Rawdy Crawley. This is not out of some desire to see Robert Pattinson on the screen. Considering that the movie’s second half did not hesitate to reveal Becky’s lack of warmth toward her son, I felt that this last scene could have remained before she departed Europe for India with Jos.

Despite my complaints and the negative view of the movie by moviegoers that demanded complete accuracy, I still enjoyed “VANITY FAIR” very much. Although I was a little disappointed in the movie’s lighter portrayal of the Becky Sharp, I did enjoy some of the other changes. I had no problem with the addition of a scene from Becky’s childhood in which she first meets Lord Steyne. I felt that this scene served as a strong and plausible omen of her future relationship with the aristocrat. Unlike others, I had no problems with Becky’s fate in the end of the movie. I have always liked the character, regardless of her amoral personality. And for once, it was nice to see her have some kind of happy ending – even with the likes of the lovesick Jos Sedley. Otherwise, I felt that “VANITY FAIR” covered a good deal of Thackery’s novel with a sense of humor and flair.

I have always found it odd that most people seemed taken aback by an American in a British role more so than a Briton in an American role. After all, it really depends upon the individual actor or actress on whether he or she can handle a different accent. In the case of Reese Witherspoon, she used a passable British accent, even if it was not completely authentic. More importantly, not only did she give an excellent performance, despite the writers’ changes in Becky’s character, she was also excellent in the movie’s second half, which revealed Becky’s darker nature.

Witherspoon was ably assisted with a first-rate cast. The movie featured fine performances from the likes of James Purefoy, Deborah Findley, Tony Maudsley, Geraldine McEwan, Eileen Atkins, Douglas Hodge, Natasha Little (who portrayed Becky Sharp in the 1998 television adaptation of the novel), and especially Romola Garai and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Amelia Sedley and George Osborne. But I was especially impressed by a handful of performances that belonged to Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans and Gabriel Byrne. Bob Hoskins was a delight as the slightly crude and lovesick Sir Pitt Crawley. Rhys Ifans gave one of his most subtle performances as the upright and slightly self-righteous William Dobbins, who harbored a unrequited love for Amelia. Jim Broadbent gave an intense performance as George’s ambitious and grasping father. And Gabriel Byrne was both subtle and cruel as the lustful and self-indulgent Marquis of Steyne.

In the end, I have to say that I cannot share the negative opinions of “VANITY FAIR”. I realize that it is not a “pure” adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery’s novel or that it is perfect. But honestly, I do not care. Despite its flaws, “VANITY FAIR” proved to be a very entertaining movie for me. And I would have no problem watching it as much as possible in the future.

“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

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“GOSFORD PARK” (2001) Review

In 1999, actor Bob Balaban had approached director Robert Altman with the idea of developing a film together. Altman suggested a whodunit set at an English country estate. The two approached actor/writer Julian Fellowes if he could take their concept and write a screenplay. Their collective efforts resulted in the 2001 comedy-drama, “GOSFORD PARK”.

In the movie, a group of wealthy Britons, a British actor/entertainer, an American movie producer and their servants gather at Gosford Park, the country estate of a wealthy industrialist named Sir William McCordle, for a shooting party over the weekend. Sir William is not a popular man. His wife and most of his in-laws despise him. And most of his servants (aside from one or two) dislike him. When Sir William is found murdered inside his study during the second night of the weekend, there seemed to be a list of suspects who have a very good reason to kill him:

*Lady Sylvia McCordle – Sir William’s bitchy wife, who despises him and had married Sir William for his money

*Commander Anthony Meredith – One of Sir William’s brothers-in-law, who is desperate for the industrialist’s financial backing in a venture regarding shoes for Sudanese soldiers

*Raymond, Lord Stockbridge – Sir William’s snobbish brother-in-law, whose wife might be having an affair with him

*Lady Lavinia Meredith – Sir William’s younger sister-in-law and devoted wife to Commander Meredith

*Mrs. Croft – Gosford Park’s head cook and former employee at one of Sir William’s factories, who despised him

*Mrs. Wilson – Gosford Park’s housekeeper, Mrs. Croft younger sister and another former employee of one of Sir William’s factories

*Lord Rupert Standish – a penniless aristocrat who wants to overcome Sir William’s opposition and marry his only child, Isobel McCordle

*Constance, Countess of Trentham – Sir William’s aunt-in-law, who is dependent upon a regular allowance from him

The weekend party include other guests and servants, such as:

*Mary Maceachran – Lady Trentham’s lady maid

*Elsie – Head housemaid whom Mary befriended, and who was definitely having an affair with Sir William

*Ivor Novello – Famous actor/singer and Sir William’s cousin

*Morris Weissman – Producer from Fox Studios

*Henry Denton – Weissman’s valet, who is actually a Hollywood minor actor studying for an upcoming role

*Robert Parks – Lord Stockbridge’s new valet

*Jennings – Major domo of Gosford Park, who has a secret to hide

*Honorable Freddie Nesbitt – A local impoverished aristocrat who had earlier seduced Isobel. At the shooting party, he tries to blackmail her into convincing Sir William to give him a job

*Mabel Nesbitt – The daughter of a self-made glove manufacturer whom Freddie married for her money, before spending the latter.

*Louisa, Lady Stockbridge – Sir William’s other sister-in-law, with whom he might have had an affair

*Probert – Sir William’s personal valet and one of the few who actually grieved him.

Needless to say, the list of characters is a long one. Following Sir William’s murder, the local police in the form of one Inspector Thompson and Constable Dexter arrive to solve the murder. Being incompetent and a complete snob, Inspector Thompson seemed to regard the higher class guests as worthy suspects for the murder of Sir William. Constable Dexter, on the other hand, seemed more interested in Jennings’ World War I past and the clues at hand. In fact, Dexter managed to ascertain that Sir William had been poisoned by one person, before another drove an ax into his back. But it was lady’s maid Mary Maceachran who managed to figure out the culprits in the end.

I cannot deny that after ten years or so, “GOSFORD PARK” remains a big favorite of mine. When the movie first reached the movie screens in December 2001, many admitted to enjoying the film, but predicted that it would age with time. There are perhaps some critics who believe this has actually happened. But I do not agree. Considering the increasingly bleak social landscape of today, I believe that the theme behind “GOSFORD PARK” has remained relevant as ever. Despite my love for the film, would I consider it perfect? Honestly? No. Other critics may be able to find more than two flaws in the film. On the other hand, I was able to find two that bothered me.

The pacing for most of “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be on spot . . . at least for me. It possessed a great set-up for introducing the characters, the setting’s atmosphere and the revelation of the suspects’ motives for wanting Sir William dead. However, the murder did not occur until two-thirds into the movie. Once Inspector Thompson appeared on the scene, the movie’s pacing began to drag. And it did not pick up again until the movie’s last twenty minutes. For me, the pacing during the last third of the film struck me as merely a minor flaw. There was another that proved to be a bigger one for me – namely the Henry Denton character.

I have nothing against Ryan Phillipe’s performance as Denton. Trust me, I thought he did a superb job. But Julian Fellowes’ portrayal of the character left me shaking my head in confusion. According to the script, Denton was an American actor for Fox Studios who accompanied Morris Weissman as his Scottish valet in order to study British servants for a role in a“CHARLIE CHAN” movie. This little deception strikes me as something actors did for a role during the past thirty or forty years . . . certainly not in 1932. The deception ended when Henry admitted his true identity to the police. But the one thing that really disturbed me about the character was his attempted rape of Mary Maceachran during the first night of the weekend. Why did Fellowes include that scenario in the first place? Henry had already made a date for some nocturnal activity with Lady Sylvia McCordle, several minutes earlier. If he had already scheduled a night for sex with the mistress of the house, why have him assault Mary a few mintues later? I suspect that Fellowes wanted to establish a character that most of the characters – aristocratic and lower-class – would dislike. Both aristocrats and servants alike reacted with glee when one of the servants, portrayed by Richard Grant, dumped a cup of hot tea (or coffee) on Henry’s lap. With Henry being an American, I can only assume he made an easier target for the derision of everyone. I can only wonder why Altman and Balaban did not question this heavy-handed characterization of Henry. Regardless of Fellowes’ reason for vilifying Henry, I found the rape attempt as an example of clumsy and unnecessary writing on his part.

Thankfully, most of “GOSFORD PARK” proved to be quite a cherished gem. Not even the flaws I had pointed out in the above paragraphs can overcome my appreciation of this movie. Altman, Balaban and Fellowes took a classic literary device – “country house mystery” – and used it to explore the British class system of the early 1930s. “GOSFORD PARK”revealed the changes that affected Britain’s social landscape by 1932. Aside from Lord Stockbridge, most of the aristocratic characters seemed to be struggling to make ends meet financially in order to maintain a lifestyle they had been born into. Those from a middle-class or working-class background like Sir William McCordle, his “cousin” Ivor Novello, Morris Weissman and Mabel Nesbitt have become successful, wealthy or in the case of Mabel, the offspring of a self-made man. Their success and wealth has allowed them to socialize amongt the aristocracy and upper-class. But their origins continue to attract scorn from the likes of Lady Sylvia, her sister Lady Lavinia and their aunt, the Countess of Trentham. The servants featured in “GOSFORD PARK” seemed to be divided into three categories – those who are blindly loyal to their employers; those like Elsie, Robert Parks and Mrs. Croft, who despise their employers; and those like Mary, Jennings and Mrs. Wilson who do not love or hate their employers, but simply take pride in their professionalism.

What I found interesting about “GOSFORD PARK” is that both servants and guests possessed both positive and negative traits. The exceptions to the rule proved to be Mary, who struck me as a bit too ideal for my tastes; and of course, Henry Denton, whose portrayal I had already complained about. Most people would add that Sir William had also been portrayed as a one-dimensional villain. But the humiliations he endured under the snobbish Lady Sylvia and Elsie’s warm recollections of him saved the character from such a fate.

Another aspect about “GOSFORD PARK” that I truly enjoyed was its overall production design. Stephen Altman did a superb job of re-creating the atmosphere of a country manor home in the early 1930s. He was ably supported by Anna Pinnock’s set decorations, along with John Frankis and Sarah Hauldren’s art direction. For me, it was Jenny Bevan’s costumes and the women’s hairstyles that made me realize that the production team really knew what they were doing. I have rarely come across a movie or television production set in the 1930s that was completely accurate – especially in regard to costumes and hairstyles.

There were plenty of first-rate performances in “GOSFORD PARK”. But there were a handful that stood out for me. Both Helen Mirren and Maggie Smith earned Academy Award nominations for their portrayals of Mrs. Wilson and the Countess of Trentham, respectively. Mirren was superb as the no-nonsense housekeeper, whose stoic personality hid a passionate nature that would eventually be revealed upon a discovery she made. In my review of Season One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”, I had complained that Maggie Smith’s portrayal of the Dowager Countess of Grantham bore a strong resemblance to her Lady Trentham in “GOSFORD PARK”. I stand by that observation. But there is something about Smith’s portrayal of Lady Trentham that struck me as a lot more subtle and a little more poisonous in her class bigotry. Clive Owen gave a charismatic performance as the mysterious valet, Robert Parks, whose past attracts the attention of both Mary Maceachran and Mrs. Wilson.

Michael Gambon gave one of his more interesting performances as the mystery’s main victim, Sir William McCordle. Superficially, he was as crude and cold-blooded as many regarded the character. Yet, Gambon injected a certain charm into his performance that made it easier for me to see why Sir William had a way with the ladies. Bob Balaban provided some fine comic moments as the droll Hollywood producer that harbored a slight contempt toward his aristocratic hosts behind a polite veneer. I have already pointed out Ryan Phillipe’s portrayal of Henry Denton. I must admit that he did a first-rate job in conveying the portrait of a smooth hustler. Many have commented on Maggie Smith’s wit in the movie. However, I thought that Emily Watson’s portrayal of head housemaid Elsie was equally sharp and sardonic. Alan Bates gave one of his last best performances as the stuffy, yet likable major domo of the McCordle household, who harbored a secret about his past as a conscientious objector during World War I. At the same time, Watson was wonderfully poignant as one of the few people who not only mourned Sir William, but appreciated his friendship and words of wisdom to her. I found it surprising that the movie’s moral center proved to the be the sweet and eventually wise Mary Maceachran, Lady Trentham’s new personal maid. Kelly MacDonald was in her mid-20s when she did this movie and her character was not particularly flashy in compare to many of the other roles. Yet, not only did she held her own against the likes of Maggie Smith and Emily Watson, she did a great job in becoming the movie’s emotional anchor . . . even if her character was a bit too ideal for my tastes.

“GOSFORD PARK” earned a good deal of accolades after its release. It was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won a Best Original Screenplay for Julian Fellowes. It also earned five Golden Globe awards and Robert Altman won for Best Director. Would I have voted “GOSFORD PARK” as the Best Picture of 2001? Not really. I was more impressed by Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the first “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. But thanks to a superb cast, Julian Fellowes’ screenplay and Robert Altman’s direction, it not proved to be one of the cinematic gems of 2001, but also of the entire decade.

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” (2010) – Series One Retrospective

Not long after ITV aired its premiere of Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame’s successful series, “DOWNTON ABBEY”, the BBC announced its plans to air an updated version of the old 1970s television classic, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. The news took me by surprise. I had naturally assumed that the series’ creators Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins decided to revive the series in response to the news about “DOWNTON ABBEY”. Had I been wrong? I do not know. Did it really matter? I do not think so. 

The new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” picked up six years following the old series’ finale. The London townhouse at 165 Eaton Place in the Belgravia neighborhood is no longer occupied by any member of the Bellamy family. A Foreign Office diplomat and his wife – Sir Hallam Holland and Lady Agnes Holland – have returned to Britain and inherited the Eaton Place townhouse. The couple hired former parlourmaid Rose Buck, now running her own agency for domestic servants, to find them staff as they renovate the house to its former glory. The Hollands are forced to deal with the arrivals of Sir Hallam’s mother, Maud, Dowager Lady Holland and her Sikh secretary Amanjt Singh; and Lady Agnes’ sister, Lady Persephone Towyn – all of whom cause major stirs within the new household. The three-episode series spanned the year 1936 – covering the death of King George V, the Battle of Cable Street and King Edward VIII’s abdication.

Because it came on the heels of the critical darling, “DOWNTON ABBEY”“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” received a good share of negative criticism from the media and television viewers. And if they were not comparing it to the series written by Julian Fellowes, they were comparing it to the old “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” from the 1970s. Among the negative press it received was a report of a brief clash between Marsh and Fellowes regarding the two series. If I must be honest, I was just as guilty as the others for I had believed the negative press without having seen the series. But my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch it.

I did have a few problems with “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. It had its moments of over-the-top maudlin, courtesy of screenwriter Heidi Thomas. I suppose I should not have been surprised. Thomas had served as screenwriter for 2007’s “CRANFORD” and its 2009 sequel. And she managed to inject plenty of wince-inducing sentiment into those productions, as well. I also found Rose Buck’s hunt for the Hollands’ new staff rather tiresome. It dominated the first half of Episode One, “The Fledgling” and I nearly gave up on the series. And I also found the cook Clarice Thackeray’s encounter with society photographer Cecil Beaton disgustingly sentimental. But . . . the encounter led to one of the best cat fights I have seen on television, so I was able to tolerate it. I have one last problem – namely the series’ three episode running time. Three episodes? Really? I would have given it at least five or six. Instead, the three episodes forced the first series to pace a lot faster than I would have liked.

For me, the virtues of “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” far outweighed the flaws. First of all, I was delighted that Marsh, Atkins and Thomas had decided to set the new series in the 1930s. I have been fascinated with that decade for a long time. It witnessed a great deal of potential change and conflict throughout Europe – including changes within Britain’s Royal Family that had a major impact upon the nation. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” did an excellent job in conveying how these changes affected ordinary Britons and the Holland household in particular. Many had complained about the strong, political overtones that permeated “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”. I, on the other hand, loved it. The political overtones not only suited the series’ 30s setting but also jibed with the fact that one of the major characters happened to be a diplomat from the Foreign Office, with friendly ties to a member of the Royal Family.

Production wise, “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” looked gorgeous. Designer Eve Stewart did a superb job in re-creating London in the mid-1930s for the series. Along with set decorator Julia Castle, she converted 165 Eaton Place into a wealth of Art Deco eye candy. Amy Roberts’ costumes – especially for Keeley Hawes and Claire Foy – were outstanding and contributed to the series’ 1930s look. My only complaint regarding the series’ production is the series’ theme and score. Quite frankly, the only memorable thing about Daniel Pemberton’s work was that I found it too light for my tastes. It suited Heidi Thomas’ occasional forays into sentimentality very well. Unfortunately.

Not being that familiar with the original “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” series from the 70s, I did not find myself comparing the old cast with the new one. First of all, I thought the new cast did just fine – including the recurring characters. Blake Ritson gave a subtle performance as Prince George, Duke of Kent and youngest living brother to King Edward VIII. I noticed that Thomas took great care to ensure that Ritson’s Duke of Kent would be critical of Wallis Simpson’s pro-Nazi sympathies. I found this interesting, considering of his past reputation as a Nazi sympathizer. Speaking of Mrs. Simpson, I was slightly disappointed by Emma Clifford’s portrayal of the future Duchess of Windsor. The actress portrayed Mrs. Simpson as some kind of negative archetype of American women found in many British productions – gauche and verbose. This portrayal seemed completely opposite of how Mrs. Simpson had been described in the past – cool and tart. Edward Baker-Duly was given a more ambiguous character to portray – namely German ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop – which allowed him to give a more subtle performance.

I found the casting for the Holland servants very satisfying. Many have complained that Jean Marsh’s role as Rose Buck seemed woefully reduced in compared to the old production. If her role had been reduced, I did not mind. After all, Rose was a familiar figure and I believe it was time for the lesser-known characters to shine. As much as I had enjoyed Adrian Scarborough’s solid yet nervous butler, Mr. Pritchard, and Anne Reid’s tart-tongued cook Clarice Thackeray; I found myself impressed by Neil Jackson’s cool portrayal of the ambiguous chauffeur Harry Spargo. I thought he did a great job in conveying the changing passions of Harry, without resorting to histronics. Ellie Kendrick did an excellent job in her portrayal of the young and very spirited housemaid, Ivy Morris. Although Art Malik seemed a bit noble as the Dowager Lady Holland’s Sikh secretary, Mr. Amanjit, I believe that he managed to come into his own when his character befriended the German-Jewish refugee Rachel Perlmutter in Episode Two, “The Ladybird”. Like Scarborough and Red, Helen Bradbury gave solid performance as Frau Perlmutter. However, there were a few moments when she managed to inject a great deal of pathos into her performance, making it a pity that she only appeared in one episode. Heidi Thomas’ portrayal of the Hollands’ servants really impressed me. She managed to portray them as multi-dimensional characters, instead of the one-dimensional portrayals that marred the characterizations of the servants featured in Series One of “DOWNTON ABBEY”.

Heidi Thomas certainly did a marvelous job with her characterizations of the members of the Holland family. I had noticed that most fans and critics were impressed by Eileen Atkins’ portrayal of the Maud, Dowager Lady Holland. I cannot deny that she did a superb job. Atkins was overbearing, intelligent, wise and impetuous. But . . . the Lady Holland character also struck me as a remake of the Dowager Countess of Grantham character from “DOWNTON ABBEY” . . . who struck me as a remake of the Countess of Trentham character from “GOSFORD PARK”. In other words, the Lady Holland character struck me as being a somewhat unoriginal character. One could almost say the same about the Sir Hallam Holland character, portrayed by Ed Stoppard. Many fans have complained about his “noble” personality and penchant for political correctness – especially in his handling of Lotte, the orphaned daughter of Holland maid, Rachel Perlmutter, and his distaste toward the British Fascist movement. However, Stoppard did an excellent job in making Sir Hallam a flesh-and-blood character. And this came about, due to Stoppard’s opportunity to reveal Sir Hallam’s reaction to the conflict between his mother and wife, making him seem like a bit of a pushover.

But for me, the two most interesting characters in the series proved to be Lady Agnes Holland and Lady Persephone Towyn, the two daughters of an impoverished Welsh peer. In their unique ways, the two sisters struck me as very complex and ambiguous. At first glance, Keeley Hawes’ portrayal of Lady Agnes Holland seemed like a cheerful, slightly shallow woman bubbling with excitement over establishing a new home in London. Hawes’ performance, along with Thomas’ script, even managed to inject some pathos into the character after the revelations about Lady Agnes’ past failures to maintain a successful pregnancy. But once her mother-in-law and rebellious sister became a permanent fixture in her house, the cracks in Lady Agnes’ personality began to show. Thanks to Hawes’ superb performance, audiences were allowed glimpses into the darker side of Lady Agnes’ personality. After watching Series One of“UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS”, many would view Lady Agnes’ younger sister – Lady Persephone – as the series’ villain. And she seemed so perfect for the role, thanks to Claire Foy’s brilliant performance. Her Lady Persephone was a vain, arrogant and temperamental bitch, who treated the Hollands’ staff like dirt – save for Harry Spago, with whom she conducted an affair. At first, it seemed that Harry managed to bring out Lady Persephone’s softer side, especially in her ability to emphasize with his woes regarding the country’s social system. Harry also introduced her to the British Fascist movement. But whereas he ended up finding it repellent, Lady Persephone became even more involved . . . to the point that she developed a relationship with the German ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, before following him back to Germany.

I am not going to pretend that the new “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” is an exceptional series. Because I do not think that it is. Basically, it is simply a continuation of the old series from the 1970s. I thought that its running time was ridiculously short – three episodes. It could have benefited from at least two or three more episodes. And screenwriter Heidi Thomas marred it even further with a good deal of over-the-top sentimentality, especially in the first and third episodes. However, Thomas managed to tone down that same sentimentality in the characters. Nor did she follow Julian Fellowes’ mistake in “DOWNTON ABBEY” by portraying the servants as one-dimensional characters. And the cast, led by Ed Stoppard and Keeley Hawes, were first rate. But what really worked for me was the 1930s setting that allowed Thomas to inject the political turmoil that made that era so memorable. I only hope that Thomas will continue that setting in the second series. “UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS” may not have been perfect, but I believe it was a lot better than a good number of critics and fans have deemed it.

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

“TOWARDS ZERO” (2007) Review

When it comes to the television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple novels, I tend to stick with those that featured the late Joan Hickson as the elderly sleuth. However, my curiosity got the best of me and I decided to watch a movie that starred Geraldine McEwan as Miss Jane Marple. And this movie is the 2007 adaptation of Christie’s 1944 novel called “Towards Zero”

The adaptation of Christie’s novel has drawn a good deal of criticism from purists. First of all, the novel is not a Jane Marple mystery. Instead, the main investigator in “Towards Zero” turned out to be Superintendant Battle, who had been featured in a few other Christie novels, including one Hercule Poirot tale – ”Cards on the Table”. However, Battle did not appear in the 2007 adaptation. Jane Marple replaced him as the story’s main detective, with the police represented by Alan Davies as one Superintendant Mallard. Since ”Towards Zero” has always been one of my favorite Christie novels, I decided to give the movie a chance.

In ”TOWARDS ZERO”, Jane Marple is invited to a house party hosted by an old school friend named Lady Camilla Tressilian. Also included in the party are the following:

*Neville Strange – Professional tennis star and Lady Tressilian’s ward

*Kay Strange – Neville’s younger second wife

*Audrey Strange – Neville’s reserved ex-wife

*Thomas Royce – Owner of a Malaysian plantation and Audrey’s distant cousin

*Mary Aldin – Lady Tressilian’s companion

*Ted Latimer – Kay’s childhood friend

*Mr. Treves- Lady Tressilian’s friend and solicitor

The house party turned out to be a tense affair, due to emotions running rampant between the characters. Neville discovered that he was still in love with his first wife, Audrey. She seemed to harbor emotions for him, despite her reserved behavior. Thomas seemed jealous of Neville, due to his love for Audrey. Mary seemed attracted to Thomas and a little envious of Audrey. Kay was obviously jealous of Audrey. And Ted was also jealous of Neville, due to his love for Kay.

During a supper party, Mr. Treves recalled an old murder case in which a child had made deliberate preparations to kill another and make it look like an accident. That child, according to Mr. Treves, had a peculiar physical trait. All of the suspects possessed a peculiar physical trait. And following the supper party, Mr. Treves died from a heart attack after climbing some stairs that lead to his hotel room. Someone had placed a NOT IN SERVICE sign in front of his hotel’s elevator. Another day or two later, this same person brutally murdered old Lady Tressilian with a blow to the head.

As I had earlier stated, the 1944 novel has always been a favorite of mine. Christie had crafted a complex and original mystery filled with characters of great psychological depth. By inserting another Christie creation – Jane Marple – as the story’s main investigator, I feared that this 2007 adaptation would prove to be a bust. Imagine my surprise when my fears proved to be groundless. Thanks to director David Grindley and screenwriter Kevin Elyot, I found myself surprisingly satisfied with this movie. Despite a few changes – namely the post-World War II setting, Jane Marple as the story’s main detective, the deletion of a character named Andrew MacWhirter, the addition of another character named Diana, the new police officer in charge of the case – Superintendant Mallard, and the budding romance in the story’s conclusion that did not happen in the novel. Perhaps that is why I had enjoyed it so much. Both Grindley and Elyot recognized the novel’s first-rate plot and tried to follow it as closely as possible.

The production values for ”TOWARDS ZERO” impressed me as well. Production designer Michael Pickwoad did an excellent job in re-creating Britain of the early-to-mid 1950s. And he was ably supported by Sue Gibson’s beautiful photography, which struck me as rich in color and sharp. Sheena Napier’s costumes not only captured the era perfectly, but also the personality of each character. I do have one quibble – namely Saffron Burrows’ hairstyle. I am aware that some women wore their hair slightly long past the shoulders. But I got the impression that the hairdresser could not decide whether to give Burrows a 1950s hairstyle or a modern one. Her hair struck me as a confusing mixture of the mid 20th century and the early 21st century.

The cast turned out better than I had expected. If I must be honest, I could not spot a bad performance amongst the entire cast . . . even from Julian Sands, whom I have never been that impressed by in the past. But there were a handful that really impressed me. One came from Saffron Burrows, who gave one of the most enigmatic and intense performances I have ever encountered in a Christie film. I could never tell whether her character was guilty of the two murders or not. And Burrows did a superb job in conveying this ambiguity of the Audrey Strange character with very little dialogue. I was also impressed by Zoe Tapper’s portrayal of the more extroverted Kay Strange. Tapper could have easily given an over-the-top performance, considering the type of character she had portrayed. But the actress conveyed Kay’s passionate nature without turning the character into a one-note scream fest. I also enjoyed Alan Davies as Superintendant Mallard, the new police investigator in this mystery. I not only enjoyed his wit, but also his transformation from his contempt toward Jane Marple’s investigative skills to a full partnership with the elderly amateur sleuth. And Eileen Atkins provided a great deal of comic relief as the second victim, Lady Camilla Tressilian. Not only did she provide much of the story’s sharp humor, Atkins also captured the character’s bombastic and arrogant nature. Her Lady Tressilian struck me as a modern day Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but with a stronger moral center.

But I believe the two best performances came from Greg Wise and Geraldine McEwan as Jane Marple. I found myself completely surprised by Wise’s impressive portrayal of the tennis pro with the two wives, Neville Strange. His performance perfectly portrayed Neville as the complex force of nature that had a major impact upon the other characters in”TOWARDS ZERO”, without indulging in any hammy acting. But I was more than impressed by Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Jane Marple. I had seen McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Marple in ”THE SITFORD MYSTERY”, and found her performance ridiculously mannered and annoying. No such exaggerated mannerisms marred McEwan’s performance in”TOWARDS ZERO”. The actress gave a subtle performance laced with subtle humor and her character’s intelligence. One of McEwan’s best moments featured very little dialogue on her part in a scene between Miss Marple and the verbose Lady Tressilian, inside the latter’s bedroom.

Most Agatha Christie purists might automatically dismiss this adaptation of ”TOWARDS ZERO”. Especially since the script changed the main investigator from the literary Superintendant Battle to a cinematic Jane Marple. But despite this major change, along with another that included a romance that emerged in the film’s final scene; David Grindley’s direction and Kevin Elyot’s script remained surprisingly faithful to Agatha Christie’s novel. Normally, I would care less about changes in an adaptation of a novel. But in the case of ”TOWARDS ZERO”, this close adherence ended up working in the movie’s favor.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

Below is my review of the recent 2010 adaptation of one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels – “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”:

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2010) Review

After being on the air for nearly two decades, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” decided to air its own version of the mystery writer’s 1934 novel, ”Murder on the Orient Express”. Although there have been two other well known adaptations of the novel – the famous 1974 movie that starred Albert Finney and the 2001 teleplay that starred Alfred Molina. But this latest version starred David Suchet (considered by many to be the ultimate Hercule Poirot) in the starring role.

Directed by Philip Martin and written by Stewart Harcourt, ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” opened with Hercule berating a British Army officer, who has been revealed to be a liar in regard to a case. Upon completion of said case, Poirto travels over to Istanbul, the first step of his journey back to England. There, Poirot witnesses the stoning of a Turkish woman for adultery with a Colonel Arbuthnot and a Miss Mary Debenham. Thanks to an old acquaintance named Monsieur Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (which owned the Orient Express lines), the detective manages to book passage aboard the famed continental train, the Orient Express. Among the passengers are Colonel Arbuthnot, Miss Debenham and a sinister American businessman named Samuel Rachett. The latter tries to hire Poirot’s services to protect him from unseen enemies; but the detective refuses due to a dislike toward the American. After the Orient Express becomes caught in a snowdrift in the middle of Yugoslavia, Rachett is found murdered in his compartment – stabbed to death twelve times. As it turned out, Poirot discovered that Rachett was a criminal named Casetti, who was guilty of kidnapping and murdering one Daisy Armstrong, the five year-old daughter of a wealthy Anglo-American couple. To protect the passengers from the Yugoslavia police, Monsieur Bouc hires Poirot to investigate the American’s murder.

Considering this film turned out to be the third, well-known adaptation of Christie’s novel, there were bound to be comparisons with the previous films – especially the famous 1974 version. All three movies featured changes from the novel. In this adaptation, screenwriter Stewart Harcourt decided to allow Poirot to witness the stoning of an adulterous Turkish woman. The characters of Doctor Constantine (a Greek doctor who volunteered to assist Poirot) and an American private detective named Cyrus Hardman were combined into a new character – an American obstetrician named . . . what else, Doctor Constantine. Rachett aka Casetti became a man who desired forgiveness for his kidnapping and murder of young Daisy. The brains behind Rachett’s murder turned out to be a different character. The Greta Ohlsson character was younger in this film. The movie featured a threat against Poirot’s life, after his resolution to the case. And the Orient Express remained snowbound a lot longer than in the novel and previous movies.

But the biggest change in ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” featured the addition of religion as a theme. In fact, the subject permeated throughout the entire movie. Television viewers saw scenes of both Poirot and surprisingly, Rachett, in the act of prayer. The movie also featured a discussion between Poirot and Miss Ohlsson on the differences between their dominations – Catholic and Protestant – and how they dealt with vengeance, justice, and forgiveness. Like many other Christie fans, I suspect that this addition of a religious theme was an attempt by Harcourt to allow Poirot to struggle with his conscience over his willingness to support Monsieur Bouc’s decision regarding the case’s solution.

There were some aspects of ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” that I found appealing. Due to the production’s budget, this adaptation spared the audience some of the over-the-top costume designs from the 1974 movie. The movie also featured first-rate performances from Denis Menochet (the best performance in the movie), who portrayed the car attendant, Pierre Michel; Brian J. Smith as Rachett’s private secretary, Hector McQueen; Barbara Hershey as the verbose tourist Mrs. Caroline Hubbard; Hugh Granville as Rachett’s valet, Edward Masterman; and Eileen Atkins as the imperious Princess Dragonmiroff. Despite portraying the only character not featured in the story, Samuel West gave an impressive, yet subtle performance as Dr. Constantine, whose occasional outrageous suggestions on the murderer’s identity seemed annoying to Poirot. I also have to give kudos to Harcourt for making an attempt to allow Poirot experience some kind of emotional conflict over the fate of Rachett’s killer(s). The novel never broached this topic. And in the 1974 film, Poirot twice expressed brief doubt and regret over the matter.

Despite some of the movie’s virtues, I found ”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” to be rather disappointing. One of the biggest disappointments proved to be David Suchet’s performance. I have admired his portrayal of the Belgian detective for over a decade. But this movie did not feature one of Suchet’s better performances. In this movie, his Poirot struck me as harsh, judgmental and one-dimensional in his thinking. The movie also featured Poirot in full rant – against a British Army office at the beginning of the story, and against the suspects, following the revelation scene. In fact, this last scene struck me as an exercise in hammy acting that made Albert Finney’s slightly mannered 1974 performance looked absolutely restrained.

Unfortunately, most of the cast did not fare any better. Joseph Mawle, who portrayed the Italian-American car salesman, Antonio Foscarelli, gave a poor attempt at an American accent. His British accent kept getting into the way. As for David Morrissey’s portrayal of Colonel Abuthnot, I could only shake my head in disbelief at such over-the-top acting – especially in the scene following Poirot’s revelation of the case. And I never understood the necessity of making the Mary Debenham character so anxious. Jessica Chastain’s performance did not exactly impress me and I found myself longing for the cool and sardonic woman from the novel and the 1974 version. I really did not care for Serge Hazanavicius’ portrayal of Monsieur Bouc, the train’s official. I found his performance to be ridiculously over-the-top and annoying. One could say the same about Toby Jones’ portrayal of Samuel Rachett aka Casetti. Poor Mr. Jones. I have been a big fan of his for the past five years or so, but he was the wrong man for this particular role. What made this movie truly unbearable was the last fifteen to twenty minutes, which became an exercise in overwrought acting by most of the cast. Including Suchet.

There were other aspects of this production that bothered me. I never understood the necessity to change the instigator of the murder plot against Rachett. It made more sense to me to adhere to Christie’s original plot in that regard. And I found the use of religion not only unnecessary, but also detrimental to the story. I have nothing against characters with religious beliefs. But I found the scenes featuring both Poirot and Rachett praying in their compartments excessive. The religious topic transformed Poirot into a grim and humorless man.  Even worse, I found myself wondering if Suchet’s Poirot was suffering from some form of Post Traumatic Shock during the first fifteen to twenty minutes of the film. He seemed to moving in a state of silent shock, while others – especially Monsieur Bouc – talked around him.  As for Rachett . . . I can only assume that the sight of him praying inside his compartment was supposed to be an indicator of his remorse over his crimes against Daisy Armstrong. Or did fear, instigated by a series of threatening letters, drove him to prayer? If so, the scene clumsily contradicted his other actions aboard the train – snarling at his employees and Pierre Michel, and propositioning Mary Debenham. The topic of religion also produced a tiresome scene filled with overwrought acting by Marie-Josée Croze, in which her character – Greta Ohlsson – lectured Poirot about the differences between Catholics and Protestants in regard to justice, revenge, forgiveness and remorse.

I found the stoning scene in Istanbul completely unnecessary and rather distasteful. I found it distasteful, because the scene changed Poirot’s character and allowed him to harbor a laissez faire attitude over the incident. Poirot also used the stoning scene to indulge in an excessive lecture to Mary Debenham about justice. He was right about the stoning being a part of a custom that no foreign visitor had a right to interfere. But his entire attitude about the matter did not seem like the Hercule Poirot I had become familiar with from Christie’s books, the movies and the ”POIROT”series. Worse, the incident provided a contradicting viewpoint on vigilantism and justice. Think about it. Poirot said nothing against the stoning, which was an act of vigilantism, because not only did he view it as a foreign custom, but also as an act of justice against someone who had sinned. Yet, at the same time, he expressed outrage and disgust over Rachett’s murder – also an act of vigilantism. The entire topic reeked of hypocrisy and bad writing.

”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” possessed some virtues that its filmmakers could boast about. Performances from Samuel West, Brian J. Smith, Eileen Atkins, Hugh Bonneville, Barbara Hershey and especially Denis Menochet were first-rate. There were no over-the-top costumes that left me shaking my head. And thankfully, the Hector McQueen character strongly resembled the literary version. On the other hand, the movie seemed riddled with unnecessary changes that either lacked common sense or damaged the story. Its additions of the religion topic and stoning incident simply made matters worse in regard to story and characterization. And a good deal of hammy acting abounded in the movie and made me wince with discomfort, especially from David Suchet. In conclusion, this”MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” turned out to be a disappointing affair for me.

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

“CRANFORD” (2007) Review

Nearly four years ago, the BBC aired a five-part miniseries adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s series of stories about a small town in North West England. After viewing the 2004 miniseries, ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, my curiosity regarding the 2007 miniseries became piqued and I turned my attention toward it. 

Created by Sue Birtwistle and Susie Conklin, directed by Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, and adapted by Heidi Thomas;”CRANFORD” is based upon three of Gaskell’s novellas published between 1849 and 1858 – ”Cranford””My Lady Ludlow”, and ”Mr Harrison’s Confessions”. Birtwistle, Conklin and Thomas took aspects of Gaskell’s stories, re-shuffled them and added some of their own plotlines to create the five-episode miniseries. ”CRANFORD” mainly focused upon the small English village between 1842-1843, during the early years of the Victorian Age. On the surface, Cranford seemed like an idyllic community in which time remained stuck in the late Georgian Age. However, progress – both technological and social – began its intrusion upon the community for better or worse. The arrival of a young doctor named Frank Harrison with modern new ideas about medical practices, and a railway construction crew on the town’s outskirts that meant the arrival of the railway, change and possibly unwelcomed citizens; seemed to be the prime symbols of the encroaching Industrial Age.

Many humorous and tragic incidents shown as minor plotlines are scattered throughout ”CRANFORD”. But the main stories seemed to focus upon the following characters:

*Miss Matilda “Matty” Jenkyns – the younger of two elderly sisters who had to endure a series of travails that included the death of a loved one, the reunion with an old love and the loss of her income.

*Dr. Frank Harrison – Cranford’s new young doctor who has to struggle to win the trust of Cranford’s citizens and the love of the vicar’s oldest daughter, Sophy Hutton.

*Lady Ludlow – the Lady of Hanbury Court who struggles to maintain funds for her spendthrift son and heir living in Italy.

*Mr. Edmund Carter – Lady Ludlow’s land agent, who views Lady Ludlow’s attempts to raise funds for her dissolute son with a leery eye and clashes with his employer over the fate of the young son of a poacher.

*Harry Gregson – the very son of the poacher, whom Mr. Carter views as promising and whom Lady Ludlow views as someone who should remain in his station.

*Octavia Pole – a spinster and Cranford’s town gossip who proves to be the subject of a series of hilarious events.

I realize that ”CRANFORD” is a highly acclaimed program. And I also understand why it became so popular. The production team for “CRANFORD” did an excellent job in conveying television viewers back in time to the early Victorian Age. The miniseries possessed some very whimsical moments that I found particularly funny. These moments included Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ assistance in helping Miss Jessie Brown and Major Gordon stay in beat during their rendition of ”Loch Lomond” with a spoon and a teacup; Miss Pole’s hysteria over a thief in Cranford; Caroline Tomkinson’ infatuation with Dr. Harrison; and especially the incident regarding the cat that swallowed Mrs. Forrester’s valuable lace.

Yet, ”CRANFORD” had its poignant moments. Dr. Harrison’s futile efforts to save young Walter Hutton from the croup, along with Miss Deborah Jenkyns’ death allowed Episode 2 to end on a sober note. And the doctor’s more successful efforts to save Sophy Hutton from typhoid gave the last episode a great deal of drama and angst. I found it almost difficult to watch Miss Matty endure one crisis after another – until she finally prevailed with the establishment of her own tea shop, with the help of the ladies of Cranford and her reunion with her long lost brother. My heartstrings also tugged when the conflict between Mr. Carter and Lady Ludlow over Harry Gregson ended on a tragic, yet poignant note. But the one scene that left me in tears turned out to be the series’ final shot of Cranford’s citizens bidding good-bye to the recently married Dr. Harrison and Sophy. The miniseries closed on what seemed to be a real sense of community.

And that is what the theme of ”CRANFORD” seemed to be about – at least to me. Community. However, this theme and the Gaskell novellas that the miniseries were based upon have led me to a conclusion. There seemed to be a lack of balance or blending between the series’ format and the material. If ”CRANFORD” had been based upon one novel or a series of novels that served as a continuing saga, I would never have any problems with its tight structure of a five-episode miniseries. But ”CRANFORD” was based upon three novellas written over a period of time that were certainly not part of a continuing saga. And if I must be frank, I personally feel that the miniseries could have served its source of material a lot better as a one or two-season television series.

I realize that producing a television series that was also a period drama would have been more expensive than a miniseries or a series set in the present. But Heidi Thomas’ script seemed vague for the miniseries format. With the exception one particular storyline, ”CRANFORD” seemed to be filled with minor stories that were usually resolved within one to three episodes. For example, the Valentine card storyline that left Dr. Harrison in trouble with the ladies of Cranford stretched across three episodes. Even the railway construction storyline only appeared in three episodes and not in any particular order. Miss Matty’s financial situation only stretched into two episodes. And plots featuring the lace-swallowing cat, Miss Matty’s relationship with Mr. Thomas Holbrook, and Jem Hearne’s broken arm only appeared in one episode. The only storyline that consistently appeared in all five episodes turned out to be the conflict between Lady Ludlow and Mr. Carter over Harry Gregson’s future.

But one cannot deny that ”CRANFORD” was blessed with a first-rate cast. The cream of this cast consisted of a sterling group of veteran British actresses, whose characters dominated the series. However, only a handful of performances really caught my attention. Two of them belonged to Judi Dench and Eileen Atkins as the Jenkyns sisters – the mild-mannered Matty and the domineering Deborah. Judging from their outstanding performances, I can easily understand how one of them earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress and the other won both an Emmy and a BAFTA for Outstanding Lead Actress. Another outstanding performance from a veteran actress came from Francesca Annis, who portrayed the intensely conservative Lady Ludlow. Annis did a wonderful job in conveying her character’s rigid opposition to education for the lower classes and struggle to overcome these feelings in the face of her kindness and compassion. Philip Glenister, who made a name for himself in the 1995 miniseries ”VANITY FAIR”and in the award winning series ”LIFE ON MARS” and its sequel, ”ASHES TO ASHES”; certainly proved his talents as an actor and strong screen presence in his portrayal of the intense, yet very practical Mr. Edmund Carter. I especially enjoyed Glenister’s scenes with Annis, while their characters clashed over the fate of young Harry Gregson. Providing the bulk of comic relief were actresses Imelda Staunton (from 1995’s ”SENSE AND SENSIBILITY” and ”HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX”) and Julia McKenzie (the new Miss Jane Marple for ITV). They portrayed two of Cranford’s biggest gossips, Miss Octavia Pole and Mrs. Forrester. Staunton seemed truly hilarious, while portraying Miss Pole’s terror and anxiety over becoming the victim of a thief. And not only was McKenzie funny as the finicky Mrs. Forrester, she gave a poignant soliloquy in which her character recalled a past act of kindness from Miss Matty.

In conclusion, I really enjoyed ”CRANFORD”. Thanks to directors Simon Curtis and Steve Hudson, along with production designer Donal Woods, screenwriter Heidi Thomas and costume designer Jenny Beavan; the miniseries gave television audiences a warm, humorous and poignant look into village life in early Victorian England. But despite the production team and the cast, I believe the miniseries has a major flaw. Its source material – three novellas written by Elizabeth Gaskell – did not mesh very well with the miniseries format. I believe that ”CRANFORD” would have been better off as a television series. Such a format could have served its stories a lot better.

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

”ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

When I had first learned that Ridley Scott planned to direct his own version of the Robin Hood legend, I merely responded with a shake of my head. The last thing I wanted to see was another take on the famous English outlaw. But since I was a fan of the director, I decided to give it a chance. 

For years, I had harbored the belief that the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, was the true story myth about the famous outlaw. Imagine my shook when I discovered I had been wrong. One of the featurettes from the movie’s DVD release revealed that there had been numerous versions of the Robin Hood folklore. With that in mind, I found it easy to prepare myself for any version that might appear in Scott’s new movie.

”ROBIN HOOD” opened in the year 1199. Robin Longstride is a common archer who had fought alongside King Richard the Lionheart of England during the Third Crusade. Following the death of Richard during a battle in which the English Army attempted to ransack a French castle; Robin and three other common soldiers – Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlett, and Little John – attempt to return to their homeland after ten years of fighting abroad. Along the way, they come across an ambush of the Royal guard by Sir Godfrey, an English knight with French lineage and allegiance. The King of France had ordered Sir Godfrey to assassinate Richard. Having discovered that the King was already dead, Sir Godfrey is chased off by the arrival of Robin and his companions. Aiming to return to England safely and richer in pocket than they left it, Robin and his men steal the armor of the slain Knights and head for the English ships on the coast under the guise of noblemen. Before leaving the scene of slaughter, Robin promises a dying Knight, Sir Robert Loxley, to return a sword to the man’s father in Nottingham.

Upon arriving in England, Robin (disguised as Loxley) informs the Royal family of the King’s death and witnesses the crowning of King John, Richard’s younger brother. Robin and his companions head to Nottingham, where Loxley’s father, Sir Walter, asks him to continue impersonating his son in order to prevent the family lands being taken by the Crown. Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion, is initially distrustful of Robin, but soon warms to him. But before long, Robin and his friends find themselves swept into England’s political intrigue between the English Northern barons and King John; along with a threat of invasion by the King of France.

I will not deny that ”ROBIN HOOD” has a few problems. If I must be honest, there were three aspects of the film that I either disliked or left me feeling puzzled. One, I did not care for the presence of Lady Marion’s presence on the battlefield between the French invaders and the English defenders. If this was an attempt to make Lady Marion’s character more action-oriented and politically correct, it did not work with me. She did not have any experience as a warrior. Nor did the movie ever made it clear that she had been trained to fight battles or handle weapons of war, like the Éowyn character in the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy. I had no problems with the scene of Marion killing the French officer who tried to rape her. But her presence on that battlefield beneath the White Cliffs of Dover struck me as utterly ridiculous.

I also found the sequence that led to Sir Walter’s revelation that Robin’s father, Thomas Longstride, had earlier led some civil rights movement against the Crown before his death rather irrelevant. Before this revelation, Sir Walter kept hinting that he knew something about Robin. I had suspected that he would reveal that Robin was his illegitimate son or something like that. Considering that Robin seemed determined to protect the Loxleys and take up their cause against King John, I found this revelation about Robin’s father somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. My last problem with”ROBIN HOOD” centered around the movie’s ending. Following the English army’s successful defense against the French, King John reneged on his promise to the English barons that he would sign the Charter of the Forest – a document for constitutional reforms. I had no problems with this turn of events, considering that John resisted signing the document until he added it as a supplement to the Magna Carta, some sixteen to seventeen years later. Unfortunately, in addition to refusing to sign the document, King John also declared Robin Longstride aka Sir Robert Loxley an outlaw. Why? How did the King know about Robin’s true identity in the first place? Who told him? Certainly not the main villain, Sir Godfrey, who died before he could inform John that the real Sir Robert was killed in France. Neither Sir Walter or Lady Marion would have told him. Who did? And why did the King name Robin as an outlaw? Did he decided to make this declaration upon learning that Robin was NOT Sir Robert Loxley? Even if someone could provide answers to my questions, the entire scenario regarding Robin’s status at the end of the film came off as rushed to me.

But despite these misgivings of ”ROBIN HOOD”, I ended up enjoying it very much. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland did a pretty damn good job in portraying the Robin Hood legend from a new and completely fresh point-of-view. Well, perhaps it was not completely fresh. After all, the movie is obviously an origins tale about how one Robin Longstride became “Robin Hood”. I have seen a similar origins tale in the 1991 Kevin Reynolds film, ”ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES”. However, Robin’s origin tale was merely rushed in that film’s first half hour. Scott and Helgeland decided to create a more in-depth story about the outlaw’s origin in this film. In fact, the movie only featured one scene in which Robin and his friends actually participated in an act of theft. It involved the return of grain confiscated by the Crown. I would not be surprised if many had complained about this, considering that it went against the traditional grain of what to expect in a movie about Robin Hood. However, I was too busy enjoying the movie to really care.

Another aspect of ”ROBIN HOOD” that I found very admirable was its complex portrayal of the English Royal Family. Most versions of the Robin Hood tale tend to have conflicting views of the two Royal brothers – Richard and John. John is usually portrayed as a sniveling and greedy prince who resented the reputation of his older brother. And Richard is usually portrayed as the older and noble brother – something of a “straight arrow” type. Scott and Helgeland somewhat skewered these portraits in the movie. Superficially, Richard is portrayed as noble, popular with his men and pure at heart. Yet, a closer look at the monarch revealed him to be avaricious, thin-skinned and somewhat petty. After all, the movie did start with him leading an attack against a French noble’s castle in an attempt to ransack it for riches to add to the Royal coffers. And when Robin Longstride revealed his true feelings about a vicious battle led by Richard in Jeruseleum upon the monarch’s urging, the archer and his friends found themselves locked in a wooden stock during Richard’s last battle. Prince (later King) John is portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man only concerned with his desires and ego. Yet, the second half of the movie also portrayed him as a man willing to fight alongside his men in the defense of England and willing to occasionally listen to good advice. Neither Richard nor John are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. Which I found very satisfying.

In fact, I would go as far to say that ”ROBIN HOOD” is a somewhat complex and tale about the effects of the Third Crusade upon the English Royal Family, its adversarial relationship with France, which ended up lasting for centuries, and the clash between the Crown and the country’s Northern citizens. Mind you, some of these plotlines have popped up in other Robin Hood movies. But Scott and Hegeland managed to weave all of these aspects into the movie’s story with surprising skill. Mind you, they did not achieve this with any perfection, but it turned out to be a lot better than most movies are capable of handling. And all of this culminated in a superbly directed sequence in which King John, Robin and many other Englishmen defended the country’s shores against the invading French. The only aspect that slightly spoiled this scene was the presence of Lady Marion in battle. Some critics have compared this movie unfavorable to the 1938, accusing it of being lifeless and grim. Hmm . . . perhaps they were thinking of another Ridley Scott film. Because ”ROBIN HOOD” struck me as the liveliest film that he has ever directed. It did have its dark moments. But I had no problem with that. Liveliness mixed with some darkness has always appealed to me. I have always had a problem with the lack of darkness in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. It prevented that movie from having an edge of darkness that I usually like to see in an adventure film.

The movie’s technical aspects were superb. I especially have to give kudos John Mathieson for his beautiful photography. I had feared that ”ROBIN HOOD” would end up with a slightly dark look, which could be found in the 1991 Robin Hood film and even in part of ”GLADIATOR”. Mind you, the France sequences did come off as slightly dark. But once Robin and his friends reached England . . . oh my God! The photography was just beautiful. I can think of three scenes that literally blew my mind – the journey up the Thames River to London, Lady Marion and the Loxley hands working in the fields with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing in the background, and the English Army’s journey to the South East coast near Dover. I also enjoyed Janty Yates’ costumes, as well. Were her costumes historically accurate? I have not the foggiest idea. That particular period in history has never been familiar to me.

The acting in ”ROBIN HOOD” was superb. I could say ”of course”, but I have come across movies with an exceptional cast that ended up featuring some pretty bad performances. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about this movie. Russell Crowe was superb as Robin Longstride. His performance was not as flashy as the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or even Patrick Bergin. But I am thankful that it was not, because such a performance would not suit him. His screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett sizzled. I found this surprising, considering that the two actors from Down Under never worked together. Or have they? Anyway, Blanchett was just as superb as Crowe and gave an interesting take on a Lady Marion who was older and more experienced in life than the previous takes on the character. Mark Strong portrayed the traitorous Sir Godfrey. He gave his usual competent performance, but I have to admit that I found nothing exceptional about his performance. One performance that did caught my attention belonged to Oscar Isaac, who gave a complex and interesting portrayal of the young King John.

I also enjoyed Eileen Atkins’ sardonic portrayal of John and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seemed a pity that her role was not that large. I am glad that Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle and especially Kevin Durand got a chance to strut their stuff. Their performances as Robin’s friends – Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle and Little John – really enlivened the film. It helped that Crowe had recruited Doyle for the film, due to the latter’s musical collaboration with the actor. And considering that Crowe, Doyle and Grimes are all musicians as well, I suspect they must have had a merry time with some of the film’s musical interludes. Another performance that enlivened the movie came from Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Lady Marion’s father in-law, Sir Walter Loxley. There seemed to be a constant twinkle in his eyes in most of his scenes that made his presence enjoyable. There was one performance that left me feeling unsatisfied and it belonged to Matthew McFayden’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I am not saying that McFayden gave a poor performance. I am merely saying that his presence was nothing more than a waste of time. McFayden appeared long enough to sneer and make a pass at Lady Marion, attempt to placate the invading French troops in a cowardly manner and express surprise and fear at the first note received from the new “Robin Hood” near the end of the film. Like I said . . . a waste of time.

Considering that ”ROBIN HOOD” did not utilize the usual myth found in other films about the English outlaw, I am not surprised that many would dismiss it as one of Ridley Scott’s lesser films. Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I had a few problems with the movie. But overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it very much . . . considering my initial assumptions about it. Once again, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe failed to disappoint me and delivered a very entertaining film.