“LOST IN AUSTEN” (2008) Review

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“LOST IN AUSTEN” (2008) Review

I must admit that I am usually not a fan of novels or any other forms of storytelling that are based upon or continuations of published works of the origin author. This is certainly the case for the numerous works (sans two) based upon Jane Austen’s six published novels.

The 2008 miniseries, “LOST IN AUSTEN” is not based upon any particular Austen novel that was not written by the Georgian Era writer. Instead, it is the brainchild of screenwriter Guy Andrews. The latter created this fantasy-comedy, which is an adaptation of Austen’s novel, “Pride and Prejudice”. “LOST IN AUSTEN” told the story of one Amanda Price, a twenty-something career woman, who lives in Hammersmith, a suburb of London. Amanda works at a bank and shares a flat with another twenty-something named Pirhana. She dates an obtuse and slightly crude young man named Michael, with whom she has become disenchanted. Amanda is also a die-hard Jane Austen fan. And her favorite pastime is reading the author’s published works – especially her favorite novel, “Pride and Prejudice”.

One evening, Amanda finds the novel’s main character in her bathroom – namely one Elizabeth Bennet. Amanda decides to regard the latter as a vision and views the incident as a reminder that she can do better than Michael. But when Elizabeth re-appears the following evening, Amanda steps through a secret doorway shown by the former and finds herself inside Longbourn, the Bennet family home . . . and stuck in the novel, near the beginning. Amanda manages to become the Bennets’ houseguest by claiming that she and Elizabeth are pen pals who had become confused over the dates they were supposed to visit each other. During her stay in this fictional early 19th century world; Amanda not only discovers that Austen’s characters are not what she had always assumed they were, but that her interactions with them may have somewhat scrambled the author’s tale.

“LOST IN AUSTEN” struck me as this mixture of the 1991 Diana Gabaldon novel, “Outlander” and the television series, “ONCE UPON A TIME”. Guy Andrews’ tale is basically a mixture of time travel and the collision of the real and literary worlds. I am not one of those purists who believe that a film or television adaptation should strictly follow its literary source. However, Amanda Price’s adventures in “Austen Land” not only forced her to deal with the customs and mores of early 19th century Britain, but also changes in the novel that would have left the author spinning in her grave.

Some of those changes resulted from Amanda’s determination to maintain the story’s original narrative – namely Charles Bingley’s brief infatuation with her, Jane Bennet’s marriage to William Collins and Charlotte Lucas’ decision to become a missionary in Southern Africa. Other equally hilarious and mind boggling changes simply took Amanda . . . and the audience by surprise. Lydia Bennet proved to be a lot more likable than the Austen’s version. The three biggest characterization changes proved to be Caroline Bingley, Georgiana Darcy and George Wickham. One of the more interesting aspects of Andrews’ screenplay was the difference between Fitzwilliam Darcy’s romance with Elizabeth Bennet in Austen’s novel and his romance with Amanda Price in this production. The differences were probably the result of Amanda’s knowledge of the story, her blunt speaking personality and Mr. Darcy’s more ruthless approach toward propriety.

How do I feel about these changes? They injected a crazy spin on Austen’s tale that left me shaking with laughter. I also found these changes chaotic, funny and at times, simply insane. What can I say? I loved Andrews’ tale. I am usually a little wary of revisionist novels or cinematic adaptations of the former. But “LOST IN AUSTEN” proved to be so original and hilarious that I had completely dismissed my apprehensions about the production and fully embraced it.

Mind you, “LOST IN AUSTEN” was not perfect. I found it odd that other members of the Bennet family barely made a fuss over Amanda’s lack of wardrobe, or the fact that she seemed to be borrowing the missing Elizabeth’s clothes. I found the time-travel method to transport Amanda to Austen’s tale a bit lame, but this seemed to be the case in many time travel stories. My biggest gripe proved to be Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s socializing with Charles and Caroline Bingley. Apparently, Andrews (and many other Austen fans) seemed to harbor the misconception that the Bingleys were members of the upper-class and the Bennets were part of the middle-class. The opposite was true. The Bennets came from the landed gentry. And the Bingleys made their money in trade, which made them members of the middle-class. There is no way in hell that an ultra-snob like Lady Catherine de Bourgh would associate with the likes of Caroline Bingley or her brother Charles.

The main virtue of “LOST IN AUSTEN” proved to be its cast. Jemima Rooper turned out to be the woman of the hour in her superb portrayal of “the woman out of time”, Amanda Price. Considering the crazy shenanigans that permeated Andrews’ story, I have to give kudos to Rooper for not only carrying this production on her shoulders and making it all so effortless. One of the most amazing aspects of “LOST IN AUSTEN” was the electric chemistry between Rooper and her leading man, Elliot Cowan. I heard or read somewhere that Cowan was a last minute casting for the role of Fitzwilliam Darcy. I say . . . thank God!. I have to say it. Cowan gave, in my opinion, a brilliant performance and probably the most interesting interpretation of the Fitzwilliam Darcy character I have ever seen. Or should I say . . . the most ruthless? I have never come across a Mr. Darcy so ruthlessly determined to adhere to society’s rules. And when the character finally succumbed to feelings for Amanda, his Mr. Darcy struck me as the most romantic.

“LOST IN AUSTEN” also featured some first-rate performances from the supporting cast. Tom Riley did an outstanding job in his portrayal of a more ambiguous George Wickham, who seemed less of the fortune seeker and more of the decent and a surprisingly chivalrous friend for Amanda and the Bennet family. Morven Christie gave an excellent performance as the eldest Bennet sibling Jane, whose long-suffering in this story revealed the character’s true strength and backbone. Hugh Bonneville gave an entertaining and witty performance as Mr. Bennet, the family patriarch. I found Alex Kingston’s portrayal of Mrs. Bennet to be very interesting. Her take on the role seemed more ruthless and a lot less silly than other interpretations. Another interesting performance came from Tom Mison, whose portrayal of Charles Bingley struck me as more refreshingly complex than other portrayals.

Christina Cole, who co-starred with Rooper in the Sky One 2004-2005 series “HEX”, gave a wickedly subtle performance as Caroline Bingley, Amanda’s rival for Mr. Darcy’s attention. In many ways, her performance reminded me of her role in the 2009 miniseries, “EMMA”, but with more of a sophisticated touch. After seeing “LOST IN AUSTEN”, I feel that Guy Henry’s take on the William Collins character has to be the skeeviest and yet, funniest version I have ever seen. Lindsay Duncan, on the other hand, injected a good deal of sophistication into her portrayal of the autocratic Lady Catherine de Bourgh. And Gemma Arterton gave a very nuanced performance as the time traveling Elizabeth Bennet. However, I must admit that her take on the character seemed a bit more introspective than previous performances. The miniseries also featured solid performances from the likes of Perdita Weeks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michelle Duncan, Daniel Percival, Ruby Bentall and Florence Hoath.

Yes, Guy Andrews’ screenplay for “LOST IN AUSTEN” had a few hiccups. What movie or television production does not? But overall, Andrews created a wildly entertaining and imaginative look into the pages of Jane Austen through the eyes of a modern day, early 21st century woman. And Dan Zeff’s well-paced direction, along with a talented cast led by Jemima Rooper and Elliot Cowan, added a great deal of pleasure to his story.

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“JOHN ADAMS” (2008) Review

Nearly four years have passed since HBO aired the last episode of its seven-part miniseries, “JOHN ADAMS” . . . and I have yet to post any comment about it. I realized that I might as well post my views on the series, while my memories of it remains fresh. 

 

“JOHN ADAMS” (2008) Review

In a nutshell . . . “JOHN ADAMS” is an adaption of David McCullough’s bestselling, Pulitzer-Prize winning biography on the country’s second president, John Adams. Instead of beginning the story during Adams’ childhood or early adulthood, the miniseries began in the late winter/early spring of 1770, when he defended seven British soldiers and one officer accused of murder during the ‘Boston Massacre’ crisis. It ended with the episode that covered the last fifteen years of Adams’ life as a former President. And despite some historical discrepancies and a rather bland fourth episode, “JOHN ADAMS” ended as another glorious notch in HBO’s history.

The performances were superb, especially Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney as John and Abigail Adams. On screen, they were as well matched as the second President and First Lady were, over two hundred years ago. If either of them is passed over for either an Emmy or Golden Globe award, a great travesty will end up occurring. Especially Giamatti. He is the first actor I have seen make the role of John Adams his own, since William Daniels in “1776”. Another performance that left me dazzled was British actor Stephen Dillane’s subtle and brilliant performance as one of the most enigmatic Presidents in U.S. history – Thomas Jefferson. I had heard a rumor that he preferred acting on the stage above performing in front of a camera. If it is true, I think it is a damn shame. There is nothing wrong with the theater. But quite frankly, I feel that Dillane’s style of acting is more suited for the movies or television. These three fine actors are backed up with excellent performances from the likes of David Morse as George Washington, a brooding Sam Adams portrayed by Danny Huston and Tom Wilkinson portraying a roguish and very witty Benjamin Franklin.

I found most of the miniseries’ episodes very enjoyable to watch and very informative. Not only did “JOHN ADAMS” gave its viewers a detailed look into the United States and Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, rarely seen on the silver or television screen. One particular scene comes to mind occurred in Part 1 –“Join or Die”, when Adams witnessed the tar-and-feathering of a Boston Tory by members of the Sons of Liberty. The entire incident played out with grusome detail. Another scene that caught my attention occurred in Part 6 –“Unecessary War”, when the Adamses had their first view of the recently built White House, located in the still undeveloped Washington D.C. I am so used to Washington looking somewhat civilized that its early, ramshackle appearance came as quite a surprise. And instead of allowing the actors and scenery resemble something out of a painting or art museum, everything looked real. One might as well be stepping into the late eighteenth century, absorbing the sights, sounds and smells . . . if one could achieve the latter via a television set. Speaking of sounds, I have to comment on the opening scene score written by Rob Lane. It is very rare find a miniseries theme song this catchy and stirring. Especially in recent years.

If I could choose one particular episode that left me wanting, it had to be Part Four – “Reunion”. This episode covered John and Abigail Adams’ years in Paris during the Treaty of Paris negotiations and as the first U.S. Minister to the British Court of St. James in London. It also covered his return to Massachusetts and election as the first Vice President. I enjoyed the development of the Adams’ friendship with Jefferson in this episode. Unfortunately that is all I had enjoyed. I wish that the episode had expanded more on the troubles surrounding the Treaty of Paris and especially the Adams’ stay in London. The most that was shown in the latter situation was Adams’ meeting with King George III (Tom Hollander) and Abigail’s desire to return home. On the whole, I found this episode rushed and slightly wanting.

But there were three others that I found fascinating. One turned out to be Part 3 – “Don’t Tread on Me”. This episode featured his subsequent Embassy duties with Benjamin Franklin to the Court of Louis XVI, and his trip to the Dutch Republic to obtain monetary support for the Revolution. I would not exactly view this episode as one of the miniseries’ best, but it did feature an excellent performance by Paul Giamatti, who expressed Adams’ frustration with the opulent Court of Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, rakishly portrayed by Tom Wilkinson. Watching Adams attempt to win the friendship of the French aristocrats and fail was fascinating to watch.

One of the episodes that really stood out for me was Part 6 – “Unnecessary War”. This episode covered Adams’ term as the second President of the United States and the growing development of a two-party system in the form of the Federalists led by Alexander Hamilton (Rufus Sewell) and the Jefferson-led Democratic-Republicans. This episode featured standout performances from not only Giamatti, but from Linney, Dillane and Sewell as a rather manipulative and power hungry Hamilton. The episode also featured a detailed history lessons on the beginning of political partisanship in the U.S. and the country’s (or should I say Adams’) efforts to keep the U.S. neutral from the war between Great Britain and France. It also focused upon a personal matter for both John and Abigail, as they dealt with the decline of their alcoholic second son, Charles. An excellent episode all around.

My favorite episode – and I suspect that it might be the case with many fans – is Part 2 – “Independence”. This episode focused upon the early years of the Revolution in which Adams and his fellow congressmen of the Continental Congress consider the option of independence from Great Britain and the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. It also focused upon Abigail’s struggles with the Adams’ farm and a smallpox outbreak in the Massachusetts colony. Personally, I consider this the best episode of the entire series. I especially enjoyed the verbal conflict between pro-independence Adams and delegate John Dickinson of Pennsylvania (superbly portrayed by actor Željko Ivanek), who favored reconciliation with the Crown. But one scene I found particularly humorous featured Adams and especially Franklin “editing” Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence. All three actors – Giamatti, Wilkinson and Dillane were hilarious in a scene filled with subtle humor.

Despite being based upon a historical biography, “JOHN ADAMS” is not historically accurate. Which is not surprising. It is first and foremost a Hollywood production. Some of the best historical dramas ever shown on television or on the movie screen were never historically correct. Whether or not “JOHN ADAMS” is 100% historically correct, it is one of the best dramas I have seen on television in the past three years. Now that it has been released on DVD, I plan to buy and watch it all over again.

“EMMA” (1996 TV) Review

 

“EMMA” (1996 TV) Review

Several months after Miramax had released Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1815 novel, “Emma”, another version aired on the BBC and later, on the A&E Channel in the U.S. This version turned out to be a 107-minute teleplay, adapted by screenwriter Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmuid Lawrence. 

As many Jane Austen fans know, “EMMA” told the story of the younger daughter of an English Regency landowner, with a penchant for meddling in the lives of friends and neighbors. Her meddling in the love life of her new protégé – a young woman named Harriet Smith – ended up having a major impact on the latter’s search for a husband. Emma also becomes involved with Frank Churchill, her former governess’ stepson, and the highly educated granddaughter of her village’s former curate named Jane Fairfax.

This “EMMA” incorporated a heavy emphasis on class structure and conflict, due to Andrew Davies’ adaptation. This emphasis was hinted in scenes that included a conversation between Emma and Harriet regarding the role of the neighborhood’s wealthiest landowner, George Knightley. Greater emphasis was also placed on Jane Fairfax’s possible future as a governess. The movie included moments featuring tenant farmer Robert Martin’s barely concealed resentment toward Emma’s interference in his courtship of Harriet. And the movie concluded with a harvest ball sequence that allowed Mr. Knightley to display his role as Highbury’s wealthiest and most benevolent landowner.

I cannot deny that I enjoyed ”EMMA”. Davies’ script and Lawrence’s direction captured a good deal of the mood from Austen’s novel. The movie also featured scenes that I found particularly appealing – scenes that included Mrs. Cole’s party, where Mr. Knightley becomes aware of Emma’s friendship with Frank Churchill; the comic reaction to Emma’s drawing of Harriet; and the Box Hill incident. Yet, for some reason, my favorite sequence turned out to be Mr. and Mrs. Weston’s Christmas party. One, production designer Don Taylor created a strong holiday atmosphere that seemed distinctly of another era. And two, the sequence featured some of the movie’s funniest moments – John Knightley’s rants about attending a party in bad weather and Mr. Elton’s marriage proposal to Emma.

Of the actors and actresses featured in the cast, I must admit that at least five performances impressed me. Mr. Elton must be one of the novel’s more exceptional characters. I have yet to come across a screen portrayal of Mr. Elton that did not impress me. And Dominic Rowan’s deliciously smarmy take on the role certainly impressed me. I also enjoyed Bernard Hepton’s rather funny portrayal of Emma’s finicky father, Mr. Woodhouse. The man possessed timing that a comic would envy. Samantha Bond gave a warm and deliciously sly portrayal of Emma’s former governess, Mrs. Weston. But my two favorite performances came from Raymond Coulthard and Olivia Williams as Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. From my reading of Austen’s novel and viewing of other screen adaptations, I got the feeling that these two characters were not easy to portray. Frank Churchill never struck me as the typical Austen rogue/villain. Yes, he could be cruel, selfish and deceitful. And yet, he seemed to be the only Austen rogue who seemed to possess the slightest capability of genuine love. Actor Raymond Coulthard has struck me as the only actor who has managed to capture the strange and complex nature of Frank Churchill with more accuracy and less mannerisms than any other actor in the role, so far. And Olivia Williams struck me as the only actress that managed to portray Jane Fairfax’s travails without resorting to extreme mannerisms . . . or by simply being there.

Many have praised Samantha Morton’s performance as Emma’s young companion, Harriet Smith. And I believe that she deserved the praise. I found nothing defective about it. Unfortunately, Davies’ script left the actress with hardly anything to work with. Morton’s Harriet almost came off as self-assured and nearly flawless. Mind you, I do not blame Morton’s performance. I blame Davies’ script. His interpretation of Harriet almost seemed . . . uninteresting to me. Prunella Scales gave a solid performance as the garrulous spinster and aunt of Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates. But I must admit that I found nothing particularly memorable about her portrayal. And Lucy Robinson’s Mrs. Augusta Elton never really impressed me. In fact, I found her performance to be the least memorable one in the entire movie.

How do I describe Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong’s portrayals of the two lead characters – Emma Woodhouse and George Knightley? Superficially, their performances seemed solid. Both knew their lines. And neither gave any wooden performances. But if I must honest, Beckinsale and Strong turned out to be my least favorite screen versions of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Beckinsale’s Emma not only struck me as chilly at times, but downright bitchy. I suspect that her performance in ”COLD COMFORT FARM” may have attracted the attention of this film’s producers. What they failed to realize was that Beckinsale’s role in that particular film had acted as straight man to the rest of the comic characters. And back in the mid 1990s, the actress lacked the comic skills to portray Emma Woodhouse, a character that proved to be one of the funnier ones in this predominately humorous tale. I have been a fan of Mark Strong for several years. But after seeing ”EMMA”, I would never count George Knightley as one of his better roles. I have seen Strong utilize humor in other movies. But his sense of humor seemed to be missing in”EMMA”. Strong’s George Knightley struck me as a humorless and self-righteous prig, with an intensity that seemed scary at times. The best thing I could say about Beckinsale and Strong was that the pair had decent screen chemistry.

Andrew Davies did a solid job of adapting Austen’s novel. Was he completely faithful to it? Obviously not. But I am not particularly concerned about whether he was or not. But . . . I did have one major problem with the script. I believe that Davies’ treatment of class distinctions in Regency England struck me as very heavy-handed. This lack of subtlety seemed very obvious in scenes that included Robert Martin’s silent expressions of resentment toward Emma, her little speech to Harriet about Mr. Knightley’s role as a landowner, Emma’s overtly chilly attitude toward Robert Martin and in the movie’s last sequence, the harvest ball. Which literally made me cringe with discomfort during Mr. Knightley’s speech. No one felt more relieved than I, when it finally ended.

In the end, ”EMMA” seemed like a decent adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Some of its qualities included first-rate performances from the likes of Raymond Coulthard and Olivia Williams. And there were certain sequences that I enjoyed – like the Westons’ Christmas party and the Crown Inn ball. But I found Davies’ take on class distinctions in the movie about as subtle as a rampaging elephant. And I was not that impressed by Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong in the lead roles. In the end, this”EMMA” proved to be my least favorite adaptation of the 1815 novel.