The 19th Century in Television

Recently, I noticed there have been a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 19th century. Below is a list of those productions I have seen during this past decade in chronological:

THE 19TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

1. “Copper” (BBC America) – Tom Fontana and Will Rokos created this series about an Irish immigrant policeman who patrols Manhattan’s Five Points neighborhood during the last year of the U.S. Civil War. Tom Weston-Jones, Kyle Schmid and Ato Essandoh starred in this 2012-2013 series.

2. “The Crimson Petal and the White” (BBC) – Romola Garai starred in this 2011 miniseries, which was an adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2002 novel about a Victorian prostitute, who becomes the mistress of a powerful businessman.

3. “Death Comes to Pemberley” (BBC) – Matthew Rhys and Anna Maxwell-Martin starred in this adaptation of P.D. James’ 2011 novel, which is a murder mystery and continuation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

4. “Hell on Wheels” (AMC) – This 2012-2016 series is about a former Confederate Army officer who becomes involved with the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad during the years after the Civil War. Anson Mount, Colm Meaney, Common, and Dominique McElligott starred.

5. “Mercy Street” (PBS) – This series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia during the Civil War. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Josh Radnor and Hannah James.

6. “The Paradise” (BBC-PBS) – This 2012-2013 series is an adaptation of Émile Zola’s 1883 novel, “Au Bonheur des Dames”, about the innovative creation of the department story – only with the story relocated to North East England. The series starred Joanna Vanderham and Peter Wight.

7. “Penny Dreadful” (Showtime/Sky) – Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Josh Harnett star in this horror-drama series about a group of people who battle the forces of supernatural evil in Victorian England.

8. “Ripper Street” (BBC) – Matthew Macfadyen stars in this crime drama about a team of police officers that patrol London’s Whitechapel neighborhood in the aftermath of Jack the Ripper’s serial murders.

9. “Underground” (WGN) – Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created this series about runaway slaves who endure a long journey from Georgia to the Northern states in a bid for freedom in the late Antebellum period. Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Aldis Hodge star.

10. “War and Peace” (BBC) – Andrew Davies adapted this six-part miniseries, which is an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1865–1867 novel about the impact of the Napoleonic Era during Tsarist Russia. Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred.

“BREACH” (2007) Review

“BREACH” (2007) Review

I have noticed over the years that some of the most interesting spy thrillers tend to be based upon historic fact. And many of these fact-based movie usually centered on an individual’s betrayal of his or her country on a massive scale. Movie and television productions such as “5 FINGERS”, “FAMILY OF SPIES” and “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” are good examples. Another is the 2007 political thriller, which told the story of how FBI Special Agent Robert Hanssen ended up being convicted of selling intelligence secrets to the Soviet Union and later, Russia.

Set between December 2000 and February 2001, “BREACH” began with young FBI employee, Eric O’Neill and two co-workers, engaged in the surveillance of a Muslim couple in Washington D.C. Eric is recalled from his post and assigned by Special Agent Kate Burroughs to work undercover as an assistant to Hanssen, who is allegedly suspected of being a sexual deviant. Despite Hanssen’s abrasive personality and rants against the Bureau for its lack of appreciation toward his computer skills, Eric begins to regard him as a friend and mentor. Hanssen and his wife has taken an interest in Eric and his marriage to a German immigrant named Juliana . . . who dislikes them. However, Burroughs eventually tells Eric the truth that Hanssen is suspected of spying for the Soviet Union and later, Russia for years. The Bureau needs hard evidence – from Eric – to put Hanssen away for good.

When I said that “BREACH” was an interesting spy film, I was not kidding. Frankly, I consider it to be one of my favorite in the genre outside the usual “JAMES BOND”, “MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” or “JASON BOURNE” movie franchises. I have nothing against these franchises. But . . . there are times when I do enjoy watching the occasional spy thriller that does not feature excessive violence, car chases and explosives. And “BREACH” happens to be one of those films. Instead of the occasional action sequences; the movie featured good acting, first-rate suspense and more importantly well-written drama. “BREACH” knocks it out of the ballpark with all three.

There are those who will probably dismiss the suspense aspect of the movie’s plot, considering that audiences know the outcome and Hanssen’s fate. But there is suspense. The story’s mystery centered on how Eric managed to help the F.B.I. find evidence to arrest and convict Hanssen. It also centered on Eric’s struggles to maintain his cover and deal with a perpetually arrogant and paranoid man. But what really made “BREACH” fascinating to me were the emotional consequences that Eric faced, while he played a cat-and-mouse game with Hanssen. The best example of this cat-and-mouse game was featured in a scene in which Eric was forced to delay Hanssen with a trip to a government photo session and obtain data from the latter’s Palm Pilot, while F.B.I. agents searched the latter’s car for evidence and plant listening devices. And even more interesting scene occurred later in the film, in which Hanssen becomes aware of the listening devices in his car and allows his paranoia to confront Eric . . . while wielding a pistol.

I found it even more interesting to watch how the case nearly played havoc with O’Neill’s marriage to Juliana, who became increasingly resentful over the Hanssens’ encroachment upon the younger couple’s marriage. More importantly, she becomes resentful toward the Hanssen’s intrusions into her and Eric’s religious beliefs. This tension is especially played out in a scene involving Robert and Bonnie Hanssen making a surprise visit to the O’Neills’ apartment and Juliana’s discovery of a video tape in Eric’s possession . . . one that features a sexual encounter between the Hanssens that was taped by them. Overall, the drama did an excellent job in conveying the tensions and emotional price that Eric faced, while helping his fellow agents take down Hanssen.

Where there any aspects of “BREACH” I did not like? Well . . . there are two, if I must be honest. One, I did not care for how the screenwriters handled the Rich Garces character, portrayed by Gary Cole. Honestly? It seemed as if the actor’s time was wasted in this film. And for a first-rate actor like Cole, I found that rather sad. One other aspect of “BREACH”that failed to impress me was Tak Fujimoto’s photography. I realize that the cinematographer is highly regarded in the Hollywood community. And I have admired his work in past movies. I did not care for his photography in this movie. I found it a bit too dark and metallic for my taste. Yes, “BREACH” set mainly set during the winter months of December, January and February. But guess what? I have encountered other movies set during the winter. And honestly, I found the photography for those movies a lot more attractive.

My feelings for the performances featured in this film is a completely different matter. Yes, I was a little disappointed that Gary Cole was underused. And the movie featured some solid performances that did not exactly dazzled me. But . . . despite being underused, I must admit that I found Cole rather entertaining as Special Agent Rich Garces, whose amused and laid back attitude toward Hanssen seemed to ruffle the latter’s feathers. Bruce Davison had a nice appearance as Eric’s father who gives the latter some wise advice. Dennis Haysbert’s portrayal of Special Agent Dean Plesac also struck me as pretty solid. But in one particular scene that featured Hanssen’s arrest, I was impressed by how Haysbert expressed his character’s mild disgust and disbelief over the other man’s refusal to face the reality of what was going on. Kathleen Quinlan gave a very interesting performance as Hanssen’s wife, Bonnie. Regardless of whether or not Mrs. Hanssen knew about her husband’s espionage work, I must admit that Quinlan did an exceptional work in conveying a subtle perversity in her character’s personality that I found rather disturbing. It must have been somewhat difficult for Caroline Dhavernas to portray Juliana O’Neill. In the hands of a less skilled or less experienced actress, Juliana could have come off as a shrewish wife who seems incapable of understanding her husband’s profession. But Dhavernas managed to avoid that one-dimensional portrayal and expertly convey how much the Hanssens’ intrusions and Eric’s continuing privacy had put a strain on her psyche.

I cannot deny that I found Laura Linney’s portrayal of Kate Burrough, Eric’s F.B.I. handler, very interesting. And very complex. Linney’s Agent Burrough bridled with righteous anger at Hanssen’s betrayal of his country. Yet, she skillfully balanced that anger with a world-weary cynicism toward Eric’s initial naivety that I found fascinating to watch. There are times when I find myself wondering if Ryan Phillippe is underrated as an actor. Personally, I never have. And his performance as Eric O’Neill has only confirmed (at least in my mind) that he is a superb actor. Eric O’Neill might be one of the nicest characters he has ever portrayed. But thanks to Phillippe’s complex and intense performance, the character also proved to be interesting . . . especially in how he dealt with the stress of serving as Hanssen’s aide, while investing the latter; and how that stress put a strain on his marriage. Also, Phillippe is such a strong actor that it is obvious he had no problem whatsoever in keeping up with the more highly regarded Laura Linney and his main co-star, Chris Cooper. Speaking of the latter, I am still disappointed that he was never recognized for his portrayal of Robert Hanssen with a major acting award. He really deserved it. More importantly, I regard Robert Hanssen as one of his best roles. I thought Cooper was outstanding as the paranoid Hanssen, who seemed to be a curious mixture of the dedicated and morally pure Federal agent; and the perverse and paranoid man, whose ego led him to commit a major betrayal against his country. Cooper really knocked it out of the ballpark.

Overall, I would highly recommend “BREACH”. Is it historically accurate? Of course not. I have yet to see a historical drama that was. But “BREACH” is such a fascinating tale, thanks to Billy Ray’s direction; a tight screenplay written by him, Adam Mazer and William Rotko; and superb performances by a cast led by Chris Cooper and Ryan Phillippe that it was inspired me to visit my local library and read more on Robert Hanssen and what led to his capture.