“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

 

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” (1998) Review

For years, I had made an effort to avoid any novel written by Thomas Hardy and any movie or television production based upon his works. This has nothing to do with how I felt about the quality of his work. My attitude sprang from my reading of his 1886 novel, “The Mayor of Casterbridge”, when I was in my late teens. I found the latter rather depressing and suspected that most of his other works possessed the same downbeat tone. As I grew older, I discovered a tolerance for stories with a downbeat or bittersweet ending. This led me to try Hardy again and so, I focused my attention on the 1998 miniseries, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD”.

Based upon Hardy’s 1874 novel, “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” told the story about a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene, who had recently inherited her late uncle’s prosperous estate. Possessing a vain, yet independent and naïve personality, Bathsheba finds herself torn between three men who wish to marry her:

*Gabriel Oak – a failed sheep farmer who is hired by Bathsheba as a shepherd for her farm

*William Boldwood – a prosperous farmer and Bathsheba’s neighbor, who develops a romantic obsession toward her

*Sergeant Francis “Frank” Troy – a dashing Army sergeant, who turns to Bathsheba not long after his planned wedding to a local girl named Fanny Robin fails to take place.

The story begins with Bathsheba living on a farm with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst. She meets Gabriel Oak, a former shepherd who has leased and stocked a sheep farm. Although the pair develops a close friendship, Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba and eventually proposes marriage. Valuing her independence too much, Bathsheba refuses and their relationship cools down. Gabriel’s fortunes take a worse for turn, when his inexperienced sheep dog drives his flock of sheep over a cliff, bankrupting him. Bathsheba, on the other hand, inherits her uncle’s prosperous estate in Westbury. Their paths crosses again, and she ends up hiring Gabriel as her new shepherd.

However, Bathsheba has also become acquainted with her new neighbor, the wealthy farmer, John Boldwood, who becomes romantically obsessed with her after she sends him a Valentine’s Day card as a joke. He sets about wooing her in a persistent manner that she finds difficult to ignore. But just as Bathsheba is about to consider Mr. Boldwood as a potential husband, Sergeant Frank Troy enters her life and she becomes infatuated with him. Unbeknownst to anyone, Frank was set to marry one of Bathsheba’s former servants, a young woman named Fanny Robin. Unfortunately, the latter showed up at the wrong church for the wedding. Humiliated and angry, Frank called off the wedding. While Bathsheba finds herself in the middle of a rather unpleasant love triangle between Boldwood and Frank, Gabriel can only watch helplessly as this situation develops into tragedy.

I might as well be honest. “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” did not strike me as completely tragic. It did not prove to be tragic at the same level as stories like “The Mayor of Casterbridge” or “Tess of the d’Urbervilles”. In fact, the story did not even have a tragic ending (for which I am grateful). But there was something . . . I cannot put my finger on it . . . there was an undertone to the story that I found both fascinating and disturbing. And it all revolved around the character of Bathsheba Everdene. Personally, I feel that she was one of Hardy’s best creations. Bathsheba proved to be a curious mixture of virtues and flaws that I fear is becoming increasingly rare among fictional female characters.

One one hand, Bathsheba was an intelligent woman who quickly learned to manage an estate and lead a group of workers who harbored doubts about her, due to her gender. She also had the good sense to realize she lacked the experience or talent to deal with some aspect of estate managing and turn to someone who could help her – usually Gabriel Oak. On the other hand, Bathsheba also proved to be a vain young woman, who seemed a bit too concerned about how others thought about her. This vanity led her to hide her previous friendship with Gabriel . . . to the point that she insisted they maintain an employer-employee distance from each other. Bathsheba also possessed a slightly cruel streak that led her to thoughtlessly play an unkind joke on John Boldwood by sending him a Valentine Day’s card with the words “Marry me” scribbled on it. Ironically, Bathsheba also proved she could be just as obsessive as Boldwood, when she fell for Frank Troy and realizes after their wedding that he had continued to love his former fiancée, Fanny Robin. It was this combination of positive and negative traits that made Bathsheba such an interesting and ambiguous character. And Bathsheba’s ambiguous nature seemed to have a strong impact on Hardy’s tale.

Through Bathsheba’s relationship with Gabriel Oak, audiences received glimpses of the day-to-day realities of business and life on a 19th century farm. Audiences also got a chance to view Bathsheba through Gabriel’s eyes – despite his love for her, he seemed to harbor a realistic view of her. Through her relationships with neighbor John Boldwood and husband Frank Troy, audiences got the chance to see Bathsheba deal with obsession from both sides of the fence – whether she was the object of Boldwood’s obsession or Frank was the object of hers. Now that I think about it, I find it odd that a major character would experience obsession from different perspectives in that manner. How strange . . . and yet, satisfying in a way.

Although the plot for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” focused strongly on the romantic dynamics between Bathsheba, the three men in her life and the Fanny Robin character; I was pleased to discover that Philomena McDonagh’s screenplay also gave audiences many glimpses into the lives of the farmhands that worked for Bathsheba. The miniseries delved into her relationship with her workers and their own perspectives and hangups over whether she could handle being the owner of prosperous farm. As with her relationship with Gabriel, Bathsheba’s relationship with her workers allowed the audiences to appreciate the realities of life on a 19th century farm.

The production values for “FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” seemed pretty top-notch. Well . . . most of them. I had no problems with Adrian Smith’s production designs. I thought he did an excellent job in re-creating mid 19th century Wessex. Rosie Hardwick and Paul Kirby’s art direction contributed to the movie’s overall look, along with Nic Ede’s costume designs. I find it interesting that this version is set between the late 1850s and 1860, especially since the other two adaptation are set in the 1870s . . . the same decade as the novel’s publication. Although I admire John Daly’s use of the locations in Derbyshire, Cheshire and Wiltshire as substitutes for Wessex, I did not care for the cinematography very much. I found it slightly too dark and the color did not hold up well in the following seventeen to eighteen years.

The cast, on the other hand, struck me as first-rate. It is a pity that very few ever comment on Paloma Baeza’s portrayal of Bathsheba Everdeen. Frankly, I thought she did an excellent job in conveying both the character’s ambiguities, charm and intelligence. More importantly, she did a first-rate job in carrying such a large production on her shoulders, at such a young age. Nathaniel Parker’s portrayal of Gabriel Oak proved to be the production’s emotional backbone. But the actor also did an excellent job in conveying his character’s quiet passion, along with his jealousy and growing despair over Bathsheba’s relationships with both John Boldwood and Frank Troy.

John Terry was at least a decade older than the John Boldwood character at the time this miniseries was filmed. However, I do not believe that this decade old age difference hampered his character one whit. He gave an outstanding performance as the love-sick, middle-aged farmer who developed a growing obsession over the young and pretty Bathsheba. At first, I had some difficulty is viewing Jonathan Firth as the dashing, yet egotistical Frank Troy. I fear this had to do with my inability to view the actor as the roguish type. And I was not that impressed by the sword demonstration scene between his his character and Baeza’s Bathsheba. But the more I watched Firth on the television screen, the more I found myself impressed by his performance . . . especially by the time his character had married Bathsheba and began to reveal his less than pleasant traits to his new wife. Natasha Little gave a very charming, yet sympathetic performance as the hard-luck Fanny Robin, whose mistake in showing up at the wrong church for her wedding to Frank, proved to be so disastrous. Fortunately for Little, the screenplay allowed her to portray Fanny as an individual with her own set of emotions, instead of the mere plot device that Hardy had portrayed in the novel. The production also benefited from solid performances by Tracy Keating, Gabrielle Lloyd, Linda Bassett, Phillip Joseph, Rhys Morgan, Reginald Callcott and Sean Gilder.

“FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD” may have suffered from questionable photography, but I certainly had no problems with other aspects of the productions. Its 216 minutes running time allowed screenwriter Philomena McDonagh and director Nicholas Renton to create a superb and detailed adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel. Also, top-notch production values (aside from the photography) and excellent performances from a cast led by Paloma Baeza and Nathaniel Parker added a great deal to already well done miniseries.

2.1104482

R.I.P. Nigel Terry (1945-2015)

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“POLDARK” (1996) Review

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“POLDARK” (1996) Review

Over seventy years ago marked the publication of author Winston Graham’s first entry in his novel series about a former British Army officer who had served in the American Revolution and his life experiences following his return to home in Cornwall. The BBC aired a successful television series that was based upon Graham’s first seven novels in 1975 and 1977.

Four years after the publication of his seventh novel, Graham concluded his literary series with five more between 1981 and 2002. In 1996, the HTV channel produced a pilot episode, which proved to be an adaptation of Graham’s eighth novel, “The Stranger from the Sea”. HTV had hoped this television movie would prove to be the first of a continuing adaptation of the 1981 novel and the remaining four. Unfortunately, fans protested against the casting of new performers in the lead roles of Ross Poldark and Demelza Carne Poldark. Fifty members of the Poldark Appreciation Society marched in full 18th-century costumes to picket HTV’s headquarters in Bristol, England. When Graham admitted that he preferred the new film to the original television series from the 1970s, he found himself cold-shouldered by the Society of which he was president. Needless to say, the television film, also titled“POLDARK”, proved to be a ratings flop and the network dropped all plans for an adaptation of Graham’s later novels.

I first learned about “POLDARK” and its literary source, “The Stranger from the Sea” from the ELLEN AND JIM HAVE A BLOG, TWO website. Already familiar with the 1970s series, I decided to check out this movie via Netflix. Set between 1810 and 1811 (eleven to twelve years after the 70s series’ conclusion), the plot revolved around the Poldark family’s initial encounter with a young smuggler named Stephen Carrington, while they awaited the return of patriarch Ross Poldark from his Parliamentary duties in London. I realize that this summary seems rather simple, but it was for a good reason. Like all narratives, “POLDARK” featured a good number of subplots. But for the likes of me, I found it difficult to pinpoint a main narrative for this particular plot after watching thirty minutes of the film. I was able to detect various subplots in this production:

*Ross Poldark’s political mission regarding the possible end of the Peninsular War
*Demelza Carne Poldark’s frustration over her husband’s absence from home
*The arrival of smuggler Stephen Carrington in Cornwall, whose presence will have an impact upon others
*Clowance Polark’s romantic involvement both Carrington and Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, whom she met in London
*Jeremy Poldark, Carrington and Ben Carter’s smuggling operation
*Jeremy’s attraction to the well-born Cuby Trevanion
*Widower George Warleggan’s courtship of Lady Harriet
*Clash between the Poldarks and Warleggan over Wheal Leisure (mine)

This is a lot for a 102 minute television movie. If the HTV network really wanted to continue the “POLDARK” series with episodes that are adaptations of Graham’s last five novels, it should NOT have adapted all of “The Stranger from the Sea” in the space of 102 minutes. Another problem I had with the movie’s narrative is that it resumed the “Poldark” saga without any recollections or flashbacks on what previously happened during the 1975-1977 series. I would have dismissed this if the 1996 movie had aired less than a year after the last episode of the original series. But it aired nineteen (19) years after the original series’ last episode. Nineteen years. I think some narrative or recollection of what happened in the 1970s series should have been given before the story could continue.

On the other hand, I feel that the production had more or less found its footing some twenty or thirty minutes into the production. I actually found myself investing in the movie’s subplot – especially those that involved Jeremy and Clowance’s romantic lives. And I thought Richard Laxton did a pretty solid job in maintaining the movie’s pacing and conveying Graham’s story to the screen. The author had seemed satisfied with movie. Mind you, his attitude got him into trouble with his saga’s many fans. But I could see why he enjoyed the movie overall. It really is not that bad. Aside from the first twenty or thirty minutes, I found it easy to follow and rather enjoyable.

Some people blame the casting of John Bowe and Mel Martin as Ross and Demelza Polark for the ratings failure of “POLDARK”. This is probably the truth. Many viewers simply refused to accept the two performers as the leads . . . especially since the producers had originally considered Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees from the 1975-1977 series to reprise their roles. They also seemed displeased with Michael Atwell as George Warleggan, even though Ralph Bates, who had originated the role, had passed away five years before this movie aired on television.

I have to be honest. I did not have a problem with Bowe, Martin and Atwell. Both Bowe and Martin gave solid performances as Ross and Demelza Poldark. But to be honest, the screenplay did not allow their characters to be showcased that much during the first two-thirds of the movie. By the time the pair’s characters were finally reunited for the movie’s last half hour, both Bowe and Martin were allowed to strut their stuff . . . so to speak. This was especially true for Bowe in one scene with Michael Atwell. I certainly had no problems with Atwell’s portrayal of Ross Poldark’s long-time rival, George Warleggan. I found it very intense and complex. Atwell did not portray his character was a one-dimensional villain – especially in scenes that featured Warleggan’s continuing grief over his late wife Elizabth Chynoweth Poldark Warleggan, who had died eleven years ago; or his rather odd courtship of the slightly intimidating Lady Harriet.

The production also featured first-rate performances from Nicholas Gleaves as Stephen Carrington, Hans Matheson as Ben Carter, Amanda Ryan as Cuby Trevanion and Gabrielle Lloyd as Jane Gimlet. But aside from Atwell, I felt the other two best performances in the production came from Kelly Reilly, who gave a very complex performance as Ross and Demelza’s daughter Clowance; and Ioan Gruffudd as the couple’s son, Jeremy. It was interesting to see both Reilly and Gruffudd when they were both near the beginning of their careers. Even then, the pair displayed the talent and screen presence that eventually made them well known.

In the end, I realized that I could not share the antagonism toward the 1996 televised movie “POLDARK”. Yes, I had a problem with the vague storytelling in the movie’s first half hour. And this adaptation of Winston Graham’s 1981 novel should have stretched out beyond a 102 minute television movie. But I still enjoyed it in the end, thanks to some exceptional and solid performances from the cast and the energy that seemed to infuse the subplots after that first thirty minutes. I would consider it a worthy addition to my collection of televised adaptations of Graham’s novels.

“DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” (1992) Review

“DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” (1992) Review

There are two things one should know about Agatha Christie’s 1935 novel, “Death in the Clouds”. One, it happened to be one of those “murder in a locked room” type of mysteries that she rarely wrote about. And two, I have not read the novel since high school. 

I would not exactly rate “Death in the Clouds” as one of my favorite Christie novels. But I must admit that screenwriter William Humble wrote a solid adaptation for the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S ‘POIROT’” television series. Starring David Suchet as Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, “DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” focused upon the murder of a French woman named Madame Gisele aboard a Paris-to-London flight across the English Channel. Madame Gisele’s profession as a moneylender (and occasional blackmailer) to the British and French members of high society has made her wealthy, feared and hated. Her murder occurred during a flight that included Poirot as one of the passengers. Other passengers and suspects included:

*Lady Horbury – the wife of a British aristocrat and former actress

*Jean Dupont – a French archeologist in need of funds for an African expedition

*Jane Grey – stewardess for Empire Airways (in the novel, she was a hairdresser’s assistant on holiday)

*Norman Gale – a British dentist on holiday, who falls in love with Miss Grey

*Venetia Kerr – British aristocrat and close friend of Lord Horbury

*Daniel Clancy – a British mystery author

*Anne Gisele – Madame Gisele’s illegitimate daughter, who was impersonating as Lady Horbury’s maid

Money, class and relationships figured prominently in ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS”. With Arthur Hastings making a no-show in this tale, Poirot enlisted the help of fellow passenger Norman Gale and stewardess Jane Grey to assist him. And thanks to solid performances from Sarah Woodward and Shaun Scott, the pair proved to be mildly entertaining and made a romantic pair. Cathyrn Harrison gave a complex and interesting performance as Lady Horbury, a former actress who married into the British aristocracy and found herself in debt to Madame Gisele. Harrison’s performance conveyed a conflicted woman that hid her insecurities regarding her marriage behind a haughty and rude mask, and a gambling habit. Actor Roger Heathcott’s portrayal of mystery writer Daniel Clancy struck me as slightly bizarre and interesting. Philip Jackson’s Chief Inspector Japp was just as annoying and entertaining as ever. It was easy to for me to see why the Parisian police considered him an annoyance. However, I found his character’s control of the case on French soil very implausible. And David Suchet gave his usual, competent performance as Hercule Poirot. No . . . I take that back. In”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS”, his Poirot seemed warmer than usual. Perhaps his friendship with the lovebirds – especially Jane Grey – brought out more of his warmth.

I would not view ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” as one of Agatha Christie’s more unusual novels. Well, she did use the”murder in a locked room” plot device for this particular story. But I found nothing that remarkable about it. I could say the same about this production. However, Humble did a solid job in adapting Christie’s novel. I found his decision to convert the Anne Gisele character into a possible suspect as unnecessary. Her role as a suspect did not go anywhere, once the movie featured her brief wedding and revelation to the police as Madame Gisele’s daughter. The humor of Japp’s presence in Paris tired quickly, once I realized that his appropriation of the case on French soil was very implausible. But Humble, with Stephen Whittaker’s direction, did a solid job in maintaining the movie’s mystery and most of the main plot. And I have to give kudos to both men for using the novel’s original publication year as an excuse to add the Fred Perry/Gottfriend Von Cramm 1935 match at the French Open as a historical backdrop.

One only has to look at ”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” for a few minutes and correctly assume that it had been filmed during the 1990s. The movie has that sleek, Art Deco style that dominated the production of ”AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”during that period. But since a good deal of this particular story was set in Paris, production designer Mike Oxley’s intent upon maintaining the Art Deco style did not serve that particular setting very well. The Parisian atmosphere seemed to be dominated by stark images of tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur Basilica (which Poirot insultingly referred to as an enormous birthday cake). But I must admit that costume designer Barbara Kronig did an excellent job in recapturing the styles of the mid-1930s, especially for the Lady Horbury character. However, I cannot say the same about the women’s hairstyles. I understand that some women wore chignons during the 1930s. Unfortunately, most of the female characters in this movie wore one, which I found rather ridiculous. Only the Venetia Kerr character sported a 1930s soft bob.

”DEATH IN THE CLOUDS” had a few problems that included Japp’s implausible presence of Chief Inspector Japp investigating the case in Paris. But it still turned out to be a believable and intelligent movie. For me, it was one of the better feature-length movies that aired on ”AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT”.