“LOST IN AUSTEN” (2008) Review

austen460

 

“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.

Advertisements

List of Favorite Movies and Television Miniseries About Slavery

0cover

With the recent releases of Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “LINCOLN” and Quentin Tarrantino’s latest film, “DJANGO UNCHAINED”, I found myself thinking about movies I have seen about slavery – especially slavery practiced in the United States. Below is a list of my favorite movies on the subject in chronological order: 

 

LIST OF FAVORITE MOVIES AND TELEVISION MINISERIES ABOUT SLAVERY

13-Skin Game

“Skin Game” (1971) – James Garner and Lou Gossett Jr. co-starred in this unusual comedy about two antebellum drifter who pull the “skin game” – a con that involves one of them selling the other as a slave for money before the pair can escape and pull the same con in another town. Paul Bogart directed.

 

9-Mandingo

“Mandingo” (1975) – Reviled by many critics as melodramatic sleaze, this 1975 adaptation of Kyle Onstott’s 1957 novel revealed one of the most uncompromising peeks into slave breeding in the American South, two decades before the Civil War. Directed by Richard Fleischer, the movie starred James Mason, Perry King, Brenda Sykes, Susan George and Ken Norton.

 

2-Roots

“Roots” (1977) – David Wolper produced this television miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s 1976 about his mother’s family history as American slaves during a century long period between the mid-18th century and the end of the Civil War. LeVar Burton, Leslie Uggams, Ben Vereen, Georg Sanford Brown and Lou Gossett Jr. starred.

 

tubman1

“A Woman Called Moses” (1978) – Cicely Tyson starred in this two-part miniseries about the life and career of Harriet Tubman, the former slave and abolitionist, who was the most successful conductor of the Underground Railroad during the last decade before the Civil War. Based on Marcy Heidish’s book, the miniseries was directed by Paul Wendkos.

 

3-Half Slave Half Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

“Half-Slave, Half-Free: Solomon Northup’s Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this television adaptation of free born Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography about his twelve years as a slave in antebellum Louisiana. Gordon Parks directed.

 

4-North and South

“North and South” (1985) – David Wolper produced this television adaptation of John Jakes’ 1982 novel about the experiences of two American families and the growing discord over slavery during the twenty years before the American Civil War. Patrick Swayze and James Read starred.

 

6-Race to Freedom - The Underground Railroad

“Race to Freedom: The Story of the Underground Railroad” (1994) – Actor Tim Reid produced this television movie about four North Carolina slaves’ escape to Canada, following the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance starred.

 

10-The Journey of August King

“The Journey of August King” (1996) – Jason Patric and Thandie Newton starred in this adaptation of John Ehle’s 1971 novel about an early 19th century North Carolina farmer who finds himself helping a female slave escape from her master and slave catchers. John Duigan directed.

 

8-A Respectable Trade

“A Respectable Trade” (1998) – Emma Fielding, Ariyon Bakare and Warren Clarke starred in this television adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s 1992 novel about the forbidden love affair between an African born slave and the wife of his English master in 18th century Bristol. Suri Krishnamma directed.

 

11-Mansfield Park 1999

“Mansfield Park” (1999) – Slavery is heavily emphasized in Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel about a young English woman’s stay with her rich relatives during the first decade of the 19th century. Frances O’Connor and Jonny Lee Miller starred.

 

7-Human Trafficking

“Human Trafficking” (2005) – Mira Sorvino starred in this miniseries about the experiences of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent investigating the modern day sex slave trafficking business. Donald Sutherland and Robert Caryle co-starred.

 

5-Amazing Grace

“Amazing Grace” (2007) – Michael Apted directed this account of William Wilberforce’s campaign against the slave trade throughout the British Empire in Parliament. Ioan Gruffudd, Benedict Cumberbatch, Romola Garai Rufus Sewell and Albert Finney starred.

 

12-Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (2012) – History and the supernatural merged in this interesting adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2010 novel about the 16th president’s activities as a vampire hunter. Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie and Mary Elizabeth Winstead starred.

 

1-Lincoln

“Lincoln” (2012) – Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s fascinating account of Lincoln’s efforts to end U.S. slavery, by having Congress pass the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Sally Field, David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones co-starred.

 

kinopoisk.ru-Django-Unchained-2008617

“Django Unchained” (2012) – Quentin Tarantino directed this take on Spaghetti Westerns about a slave-turned-bounty hunter and his mentor, who sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner. Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo Di Caprio, Kerry Washington and Samuel L. Jackson starred.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” (1997) Review

The year 1963 saw the release of Tony Richardson’s Academy Award winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel,“The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling”. Another thirty-four years passed before another adaptation of the novel appeared on the scene. It turned out to be the BBC’s five-episode miniseries that aired in 1997. 

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a comic tale about the life and adventures of an English foundling, who is discovered in the household of a warm-hearted landowner in Somerset named Squire Allworthy. The latter adopts the child and Tom Jones grows up to be a lusty, yet kindly youth; who falls in love with one Sophia Western, the only child of Allworthy’s neighbor, Squire Western. Tom is raised with the squire’s nephew, a falsely pious and manipulative young man named Mr. Blifil. Because the latter is Allworthy’s heir, Sophia’s father wishes her to marry Mr. Blifil, so that the Allworthy and Western estates can be joined as one. Unfortunately for Squire Western and Mr. Blifil, Sophia is in love with Tom. And unfortunately for the two young lovers, Tom is discredited by Mr. Blifil and his allies before being cast away by Squire Allworthy. In defiance of Squire Western’s wishes for her to marry Mr. Blifil, Sophia (accompanied by her maid, Honour) runs away from Somerset. Both Tom and Sophia encounter many adventures on the road to and in London, before they are finally reconciled.

Actually, there is a lot more to “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”. But a detailed account of the plot would require a long essay and I am not in the mood. I have noticed that the 1997 miniseries has acquired a reputation for not only being a first-rate television production, but also being superior to the 1963 Oscar winning film. As a five-part miniseries, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” was able to adhere more closely to Fielding’s novel than the movie. But does this mean I believe that the miniseries is better than the movie? Hmmmm . . . I do not know if I can agree with that opinion.

I cannot deny that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” is a well made television production. Director Metin Hüseyin did an excellent job of utilizing a first-rate production crew for the miniseries. Cinders Forshaw’s photography was well done – especially in Somerset sequences featured in the miniseries’ first half. Roger Cann’s production designs captured mid-18th century England in great detail. And Rosalind Ebbutt’s costumes designs were not only exquisite, but nearly looked like exact replicas of the fashions of the 1740s. The look and style of “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” seemed to recapture the chaos and color of mid-18th century England.

“THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could also boast some first-rate performances. The miniseries featured solid performances from the likes of Christopher Fulford and Richard Ridings as Mr. Blifil’s allies, Mr. Square and Reverend Thwackum; Kathy Burke, who was very funny as Sophia’s maid, Honour; Celia Imrie as Tom’s London landlady, Mrs. Miller; Peter Capaldi as the lecherous Lord Fellamar; Tessa Peake-Jones as Squire Allworthy’s sister Bridget and Benjamin Whitrow as the squire. The episode also featured solid turns from the likes of Kelly Reilly, Camille Coduri, Matt Bardock, Roger Lloyd-Pack, and Sylvester McCoy. Max Beesley was solid as Tom Jones. He also had good chemistry with his leading lady, Samantha Morton, and did a good job in carrying the miniseries on his shoulders. However, I do feel that he lacked the charisma and magic of Albert Finney. And there were times in the miniseries’ last two episodes, when he seemed in danger of losing steam.

But there were some performances that I found outstanding. Brian Blessed was deliciously lusty and coarse as Squire Western, Allworthy’s neighbor and Sophia’s father. I really enjoyed his scenes with Frances de la Tour, who was marvelous as Sophia’s snobbish and controlling Aunt Western. Lindsay Duncan gave a subtle performance as the seductive Lady Bellaston. James D’Arcy was outstanding as Squire Allworthy’s nephew, the sniveling and manipulative Mr. Blifil. Ron Cook gave the funniest performance in the miniseries, as Tom’s loyal sidekick, Benjamin Partridge, who had earlier suffered a series of misfortunes over the young man’s birth. Samantha Morton gave a superb performance as Tom’s true love, Sophia Western. Morton seemed every inch the graceful and passionate Sophia, and at the same time, conveyed the strong similarities between the young woman and her volatile father. But the one performance I truly enjoyed was John Sessions’ portrayal of author Henry Fielding. I thought it was very clever to use Sessions in that manner as the miniseries’ narrator. And he was very entertaining.

The producers of the miniseries hired Simon Burke to adapt the novel for television. And I believe he did an excellent job. I cannot deny that the miniseries’ running time allowed him to include scenes from the novel. Thanks to Burke’s script and Hüseyin’s direction, audiences were given more details on the accusations against Jenny Jones and Benjamin Partridge for conceiving Tom. Audiences also experienced Bridget Jones’ relationship with her cold husband and the circumstances that led to the conception of Mr. Blifil. Judging from the style and pacing of the miniseries, it seems that Hüseyin was inspired by Tony Richardson’s direction of the 1963 film. There were plenty of raunchy humor and nudity to keep a viewer occupied. More importantly, “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” proved to be a fascinating comic epic and commentary on class distinctions, gender inequality and social issues.

However, I still cannot agree with the prevailing view that the miniseries is better than the 1963 movie. Mind you, the latter is not perfect. But the miniseries lacked a cinematic style that gave the movie a certain kind of magic for me. And due to Hüseyin and Burke’s insistence on being as faithful to the novel as possible, the miniseries’ pacing threatened to drag in certain scenes. The scenes featuring Tom and Partridge’s encounter with an ineffectual highwayman, their viewing of a puppet show, and a good deal from the London sequences were examples of the miniseries’ slow pacing. I could not help feeling that “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING” could have easily been reduced to four episodes and still remain effective.

I also had a few problems with other matters. One, I never understood why Lady Bellaston continued her campaign to get Sophia married to Lord Fellamar, after Squire Western prevented the peer from raping his daughter. Why did she continued to make life miserable for Tom after receiving his marriage proposal . . . the same proposal that she rejected with contempt? And what led Sophia to finally forgive Tom for the incident with Mrs. Waters at Upton and his marriage proposal to Lady Bellaston? After he was declared as Squire Allworthy’s new heir, Sophia refused to forgive Tom for his affair with Lady Bellaston. But the next shot featured Tom and Squire Allworthy returning to Somerset . . . and being greeted by Sophia, along with hers and Tom’s children. WHAT HAPPENED? What led Sophia to finally forgive Tom and marry him? Instead of explaining or hinting what happened, Burke’s script ended on that vague and rather disappointing note.

But despite my problems with “THE HISTORY OF TOM JONES, A FOUNDLING”, I cannot deny that I found it very enjoyable. Director Metin Hüseyin and screenwriter Simon Burke did a first-rate job in bringing Henry Fielding’s comic opus to life. They were ably assisted by an excellent production staff and fine performances from a cast led by Max Beesley and Samantha Morton.

Favorite Train Journey Movies (REVISED)

A few years ago, I had posted a list of my favorite movies featuring train journeys. Below is a new list. To be honest, the revisions are few, but . . . hey, I felt bored. So I made another list. Without further ado, here it is: 

FAVORITE TRAIN JOURNEY MOVIES (REVISED)

1. “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974) – Sidney Lumet directed this all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel about Hercule Poirot’s investigation of an American passenger aboard the famed Orient express. Albert Finney starred as Poirot.

2. “Silver Streak” (1976) – Gene Wilder, Richard Pryor and Jill Clayburgh starred in this comedy thriller about a man who stumbles across a murder and criminal conspiracy during a train journey from Los Angeles to Chicago. Arthur Hiller directed.

3. “North West Frontier” (1959) – Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall starred in this adventure about a British Army officer assigned to escort a young Indian prince across rebel-held territory in British India. J. Lee Thompson directed.

4. “From Russia With Love” (1963) – Sean Connery stars as James Bond in this action thriller about the British agent’s efforts to steal the Soviets’ encryption device, unaware that he is being used as a patsy by SPECTRE. Directed by Terence Young, Daniela Bianchi, Lotte Lenya, Pedro Armendáriz and Robert Shaw co-starred.

5. “The First Great Train Robbery” (1979) – Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland and Lesley Anne Down starred in this comedy thriller about Victorian thieves who make plans to rob a moving train filled with gold for troops during the Crimean War. The movie was written and directed by Michael Crichton.

6. “The Lady Vanishes” (1938) – Alfred Hitchcock directed Margaret Lindsay and Michael Redgrave in this thriller about a young Englishwoman, who realizes that an elderly female passenger has disappeared.

7. “The Tall Target” (1951) – Dick Powell starred in this thriller about a New York cop, who tries to prevent President-elect Abraham Lincoln from Confederate sympathizers out to assassinate him during his rail journey from New York to Washington D.C. for his inauguration. Paula Raymond, Adolphe Menjou and Ruby Dee co-starred.

8. “Narrow Margin” (1990) – Gene Hackman and Anne Archer starred in this crime thriller about an assistant districtattorney from Los Angeles, who escorts a witness to the murder of a Mafia boss’ accountant. James B. Sikking co-starred.

9. “Shanghai Express” (1932) – Josef von Starnberg directed Marlene Dietrich in this tale about about a dangerous rail journey through China during a civil war. Anna May Wong and Clive Brook co-starred.

10. “The Mystery of the Blue Train” (2005) – In this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1928 novel, Hercule Poirot investigates the brutal murder of an American heiress aboard the Blue Train. David Suchet and Elliot Gould starred.

“MANSFIELD PARK” (1999) Review

“MANSFIELD PARK” (1999) Review

From the numerous articles and essays I have read on-line, Jane Austen’s 1814 novel, “Mansfield Park” did not seemed to be a big favorite amongst the author’s modern fans. In fact, opinions of the novel and its heroine, Fanny Price, seemed just as divided today, as they had been by Austen’s own family back in the early 19th century.

When director-writer Patricia Rozema was offered the assignment to direct a film adaptation of “Mansfield Park”, she had originally rejected it. She claimed that she found both the novel and the Fanny Price character unappealing. In the end, she changed her mind on the grounds that she wrote her own screen adaptation. The result turned out to be an adaptation filled with a good deal of changes from Austen’s original text. Changes that have proven to be controversial to this day.

One obvious change that Rozema had made centered on the heroine’s personality. Rozema’s script allowed actress Frances O’Connor to portray Fanny as a talented writer with a lively wit and quick temper. Mind you, Rozema’s Fanny continued to be the story’s bastion of morality – only with what many would view as sass. Rozema also allowed the Edmund Bertram character to become romantically aware of Fanny a lot sooner than the character did in the novel. Because of this revision, actor Jonny Lee Miller portrayed an Edmund who seemed a bit livelier and less priggish than his literary counterpart. Characters like the Crawfords’ half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, failed to make an appearance. Fanny’s older brother, William Price, ceased to exist. And in this adaptation, Fanny eventually accepted Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal during her stay in Portsmouth, before rejecting it the following day.

But the biggest change made by Rozema had involved the topic of slavery. The writer-director allowed the topic to permeate the movie. Austen’s novel described Fanny’s uncle by marriage, Sir Thomas Bertram, as the owner of a plantation on the island of Antigua. Due to a financial crisis, Sir Thomas was forced to depart for Antigua for a certain period of time with his oldest son as a companion. Upon his return to England and Mansfield Park, Fanny asked him a question regarding his slaves. Sir Thomas and the rest of the family responded with uncomfortable silence. Rozema utilized the Bertrams’ connection to African slavery to emphasize their questionable morality and possible corruption. She also used this connection to emphasize Fanny’s position as a woman, a poor relation, and her semi-servile position within the Mansfield Park household. Rozema used the slavery connection with a heavier hand in scenes that included Fanny hearing the cries of slaves approaching the English coast during her journey to Mansfield Park; a discussion initiated by Sir Thomas on breeding mulattoes; Edmund’s comments about the family and Fanny’s dependence upon the Antigua plantation; oldest son Tom Bertram’s revulsion toward this dependence and graphic drawings of brutalized slaves. These overt allusions to British slavery ended up leaving many critics and Austen fans up in arms.

One aspect of  “MANSFIELD PARK” that impressed me turned out to be the movie’s production values. I found the production crew’s use of an abandoned manor house called Kirby Hall to be very interesting. Rozema, along with cinematographer Michael Coulter and production designer Christopher Hobbs, used the house’s abandoned state and cream-colored walls to convey a corrupt atmosphere as an allusion to the Bertrams’ financial connection to slavery. Hobbes further established that slightly corrupted air by sparsely furnishing the house. I also found Coulter’s use the Cornish town of Charlestown as a stand-in for the early 19th century Portmouth as very picturesque. And I especially enjoyed his photography, along with Martin Walsh’s editing in the lively sequence featuring the Bertrams’ ball held in Fanny’s honor. On the whole, Coulter’s photography struck me as colorful and imaginative. The only bleak spot in the movie’s production values seemed to be Andrea Galer’s costume designs. There was nothing wrong with them, but I must admit that they failed to capture my imagination.

I cannot deny that I found “MANSFIELD PARK” to be enjoyable and interesting. Nor can I deny that Rozema had injected a great deal of energy into Austen’s plot, something that the 1983 miniseries failed to do. Rozema removed several scenes from Austen’s novel. This allowed the movie to convey Austen’s story with a running time of 112 minutes. These deleted scenes included the Bertrams and Crawfords’ visit to Mr. Rushworth’s estate, Sotherton; and Fanny’s criticism of Mary Crawford’s caustic remarks about her uncle. This did not bother me, for I feel that such editing may have tightened the movie’s pacing. Other improvements that Rozema made – at least in my eyes – were changes in some of the characters. Fanny became a livelier personality and at the same time, managed to remain slightly oppressed by her position at Mansfield Park. Both Edmund and Henry were portrayed in a more complex and attractive light. And Tom Bertram’s portrayal as the family’s voice of moral outrage against their connection to black slavery struck me as very effective. In fact, I had no problem with Rozema’s use of slavery in the story. I am not one of those who believed that she should have toned it down to the same level as Austen had – merely using the topic as an allusion to Fanny’s situation with the Bertrams. Austen opened Pandora’s Box by briefly touching upon the topic in her novel in the first place. As far as I am concerned, there was no law that Rozema or any other filmmaker had to allude to the topic in the same manner.

However, not all of Rozema’s changes impressed me. Why was it necessary to have Henry Crawford request that he rent the nearby parsonage, when his half-sister and brother-in-law, the Grants, resided there in the novel? If Rozema had kept the Grants in her adaptation, this would not have happened. Nor did I understand Sir Thomas’ invitation to allow the Crawfords to reside at Mansfield Park, when Henry had his own estate in Norfolk. I suspect that Sir Thomas’ invitation was nothing more than a set up for Fanny to witness Henry making love to Maria Bertram Rushworth in her bedroom. Now, I realize that Henry is supposed to be some hot-to-trot Regency rake with an eye for women. But I simply found it implausible that he would be stupid enough to have illicit sex with his host’s married daughter. And why did Maria spend the night at Mansfield Park, when her husband’s own home, Sotherton, was located in the same neighborhood? And why was Fanny in tears over her little “discovery”? She did not love Henry. Did the sight of two people having sex disturb her? If so, why did she fail to react in a similar manner upon discovering Tom’s drawings of female slaves being raped?

Many fans had complained about Fanny’s acceptance of Henry’s marriage proposal during the visit to Portmouth. I did not, for it allowed an opportunity for Fanny’s own hypocrisy to be revealed. After all, she claimed that Henry’s moral compass made her distrustful of him. Yet, upon her rejection of him; Henry exposed her as a liar and hypocrite, claiming the real reason behind her rejection had more to do with her love for Edumund. Unfortunately . . . Rozema seemed determined not to examine Fanny’s exposed hypocrisy and dismissed it with an intimate scene between her and Edmund; the revelation of Henry’s affair with Maria; and Edmund’s rejection of Henry’s sister, Mary Crawford.

This last scene regarding Edmund’s rejection of Mary revealed how truly heavy-handed Rozema could be as a filmmaker. In Austen’s novel, Edmund had rejected Mary, due to her refusal to condemn Henry for his affair with Maria and her plans to save the Bertrams and Crawfords’ social positions with a marriage between Henry and the still married Maria. Mary’s plans bore a strong resemblance to Fitzwilliam Darcy’s successful efforts to save the Bennet family’s reputation following Lydia Bennet’s elopement with George Wickham in “Pride and Prejudice”. In “MANSFIELD PARK”, Edmund rejected Mary after she revealed her plans to save the Bertrams from any scandal caused by the Henry/Maria affair – plans that included the eventual demise of a seriously ill Tom. The moment those words anticipating Tom’s death poured from Mary’s mouth, I stared at the screen in disbelief. No person with any intelligence would discuss the possible demise of a loved one in front of his family, as if it was a topic in a business meeting. I never got the impression that both the literary and cinematic Mary Crawford would be that stupid. In this scene, I believe that Rozema simply went too far. The director’s last scene featured a montage on the characters’ fates. And what fate awaited the Crawfords? Both ended up with spouses that seemed more interested in each other than with the Crawford siblings. I suppose this was an allusion to some fate that the Crawfords deserved for . . . what? Okay, Henry probably deserved such a fate, due to his affair with Maria. But Mary? I would disagree.

Ironically, both Rozema and Austen shared one major problem with their respective versions of the story. Neither the Canadian writer-director nor the British author bothered to develop Fanny and Edmund’s characters that much. In fact, I would say . . . hardly at all.  “MANSFIELD PARK” revealed Edmund’s penchant for priggish and hypocritical behavior in scenes that featured his initial protest against his brother’s plans to perform the “Lover’s Vow” play and his final capitulation; his argument against Sir Thomas’ comments about breeding mulattoes (which Fanny expressed approval with a slightly smug smile) and his willingness to accept his family’s dependence on slave labor; and his support of Sir Thomas’ attempts to coerce Fanny into marrying Henry Crawford. The above incidents were also featured in the novel (except for the mulatto breeding discussion). Not once did Fanny criticize Edmund for his hypocritical behavior – not in the movie or in the novel. Instead, both Rozema and Austen allowed Fanny to indulge in her own hypocrisy by turning a blind eye to Edmund’s faults. Worse, she used Henry Crawford’s flaws as an excuse to avoid his courtship of her and later reject him. Henry’s angry reaction to her rejection was the only time (at least in Rozema’s movie) in which Fanny’s hypocrisy was revealed. Yet, not only did Fanny fail to acknowledge Edmund’s flaws, but also her own.

For me, the best aspect of  “MANSFIELD PARK” proved to be its cast. How Rozema managed to gather such a formidable cast amazes me. Unfortunately, she did not use the entire cast. Two members – Justine Waddell (Julia Bertram) and Hugh Doneville (Mr. Rushworth) certainly seemed wasted. Rozema’s script failed to allow the two actors to express their talent. Waddell’s presence barely made any impact upon the movie. And Doneville seemed nothing more than poorly constructed comic relief. I almost found myself expressing the same belief for actress Lindsay Duncan, despite her portrayal of two of the Ward sisters – Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price. Her Lady Bertram seemed to spend most of the movie sitting around in a drug-induced state from the use of too much laudanum. However, Duncan had one memorable moment as Fanny’s mother, Mrs. Price. In that one scene, she gave emphatic advise to Fanny about Henry Crawford by pointing out the consequences of her decision to marry for love.

Victoria Hamilton fared better in her nuanced performance as the spoiled, yet frustrated Maria Bertram. She effectively conveyed how her character was torn between her pragmatic marriage to Mr. Rushworth and her desire for Henry Crawford. Frankly, I believe that Austen gave her an unnecessarily harsh ending. James Purefoy gave an interesting performance as the Bertrams’ elder son and heir, Tom. He expertly walked a fine line in his portrayal of Tom’s disgust toward the family’s involvement in slavery and penchant for a wastrel’s lifestyle. The late actress Sheila Gish gave a slightly humorous, yet sharp performance as Fanny’s other aunt – the tyrannical and venomous Mrs. Norris.

I believe that the movie’s best performances came not from the leads, but from three supporting actors – Alessandro Nivola, Embeth Davidtz, and the late playwright-actor Sir Harold Pinter. The literary Henry Crawford had been described as a seductive man that quite enjoyed flirting with or manipulating women. Nivola certainly portrayed that aspect of Henry’s character with great aplomb. But he prevented Henry from becoming a one-note rake by projecting his character’s growing attraction to Fanny and the hurt he felt from her unexpected rejection. Embeth Davidtz gave an equally compelling performance as Henry’s vivacious sister, Mary. She skillfully portrayed Mary’s more endearing traits – humor and sparkling personality – along with her cynical views on authority and talent for cold-blooded practicality. However, not even Davidtz could overcome that ludicrous rip-off from 1988’s “DANGEROUS LIAISONS”, in which her Mary briefly stumbled out of the Bertrams’ drawing-room, mimicking Glenn Close, following Edmund’s rejection. It seemed like a flawed ending to a brilliant performance. For me, the film’s best performance came from Sir Harold Pinter. His Sir Thomas Bertram struck me as one of the most complex and multi-layered film portrayals I have ever come across. I find it astounding that this intimidating patriarch, who considered himself to be the family’s bastion of morality, was also responsible for the corruption that reeked at Mansfield Park and within the Bertram family. And Pinter made these conflicting aspects of the character’s personality mesh well together. Rozema added an ironic twist to Sir Thomas’ story. After being shamed by Fanny’s discovery of Tom’s drawings of abused slaves, Sir Thomas sold his Antigua estate and invested his money in tobacco. However, since U.S. states like Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky were the world’s top producers of tobacco at the time, chances are that the Bertrams’ benefit from slavery continued.

I suspect that if actress Frances O’Connor had portrayed the Fanny Price character as originally written by Jane Austen, she would have still given a superb performance. O’Connor certainly gave one in this movie. Despite Rozema’s refusal to openly acknowledge Fanny’s flaws in the script (except by Henry Crawford), the actress still managed to expose them through her performance. Not only did O’Connor did a great job in portraying Fanny’s wit and vivacity, she also revealed the social and emotional minefield that Fanny found at Mansfield Park with some really superb acting. I first became aware of Jonny Lee Miller in the 1996 miniseries“DEAD MAN’S WALK”. I found myself so impressed by his performance that I wondered if he would ever become a star. Sadly, Miller never did in the fourteen years that followed the prequel to 1988’s “LONESOME DOVE”. But he has become well-known, due to his performances in movies like “MANSFIELD PARK”“TRAINSPOTTING” and the recent miniseries, “EMMA”. In “MANSFIELD PARK”, Miller portrayed the younger Bertram son, who also happened to be the object of Fanny Price’s desire. And he did a top-notch job in balancing Edmund’s virtues, his romantic sensibility and his personality flaws that include hypocrisy. I realize that Edmund was not an easy character to portray, but Miller made it all seem seamless.

Considering that Austen’s “Mansfield Park” is not a real favorite of mine, I am surprised that I managed to enjoy this adaptation of the novel. I will be frank. It is far from perfect. Patricia Rozema made some changes to Austen’s tale that failed to serve the story. Worse, she failed to change other aspects of the novel – changes that could have improved her movie. But there were changes to the story that served the movie well in my eyes. And the movie “MANSFIELD PARK” possessed a first-rate production and a superb cast. More importantly, I cannot deny that flawed or not, Rozema wrote and directed a very energetic movie. For me, it made Austen’s 1814 tale a lot more interesting.

“THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” (2005) Review

 

“THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” (2005) Review

Although considered one of her most famous novels, 1934’s ”Murder on the Orient Express” was not the first of Christie’s novels that featured a famous luxury train as a setting. The year 1928 saw the publication of another novel called ”The Mystery of the Blue Train”, which told the story of a brutal murder aboard the famous Blue Train. 

This story had its origins in Christie’s 1922 novella, ”The Plymouth Express”, which told the story of the murder of an Australian heiress. Christie took that story and expanded it into a full-length novel, ”The Mystery of the Blue Train”. The television series, ”Agatha Christie’s POIROT” aired ”THE PLYMOUTH EXPRESS”, an adaptation of the novella, in 1991. And fourteen years later, the series aired its own version of ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE”. Actor David Suchet portrayed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in both productions.

The Blue Train referred to in this story was not the luxury train that traveled through Southern Africa. Known as Le Train Bleu or the Calais-Mediterranée Expres, this Blue Train was a luxury French night train that conveyed, wealthy and famous passengers between Calais and the French Riviera from 1922 until 1938, usually during the winter seasons. Unlike Christie’s novella, ”THE PLYMOUTH EXPRESS”, the case featured in ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” centered on the murder of an American heiress named Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, aboard the Blue Train. One of Ruth’s possessions ended up missing, namely a famous ruby called the Heart of Fire that was recently purchased by her father, American millionaire Rufus Van Aldin. The suspects accused of killing her and stealing the Heart of Fire were:

*Katherine Grey – a young Englishwoman who became wealthy through a recent inheritance; and whose father had been financially ruined by Van Aldin

*Derek Kettering – Ruth’s estranged and financially strapped husband, who came from an aristocratic family

*the Comte de la Roche – Ruth’s lover and a fake aristocrat who happened to be a con man and thief

*Ada Mason – Ruth’s maid, who disappeared during the Blue Train’s stop in Paris

* Mirelle Milesi – an exotic French courtesan, who was seen entering Ruth’s compartment aboard the train

*Major Richard Knighton –Van Aldin’s private secretary, who happens to be in love with Katherine

*Lady Tamplin – a financially strapped British aristocrat living on the Riviera with her daughter and young husband; and who is Katherine Grey’s distant cousin

*Lennox Tamplin – Lady Tamplin’s daughter

*’Corky’ Evans – Lady Tamplin’s young husband

*the Maquis – a famous jewel thief

Belgian-born detective, Hercule Poirot, found himself aboard the same train heading toward Nice for a winter vacation. The one passenger he managed to befriend was Katherine Grey, who had switched compartments with Ruth Kettering after meeting the latter. Overwrought by his daughter’s death, Van Aldin hired Poirot to find her killer.

I became a major fan of ”The Mystery of the Blue Train” not long after I first read the 1928 novel, years ago. The mystery struck me as slightly intriguing, the characters colorful and the atmosphere reeking with the glamour of the early 20th century rich in Europe. Imagine my delight when I first learned that a television adaptation of the novel had been made, starring David Suchet as Poirot. When I finally saw the movie, I found myself both disappointed . . . satisfied with it.

”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” could have truly been a first-class production. But some of the changes in the story stood in the way. One, Guy Andrews’ script got rid of the love triangle between Katherine Grey, Richard Knighton and Derek Kettering. Pity. I rather enjoyed it. Instead, Katherine only enjoyed a romance with Knighton. She barely shared any scenes with Derek, except for one in which she snapped at him for his childish behavior. And speaking of Derek Kettering, he became a petulant and hard drinking man who remained in love with the spoiled and estranged Ruth. He seemed quite different from the sardonic man in the novel, who had already fallen out of love with his wife long before the story began. Another change that proved to be a major one, involved the character of Mirelle. She remained a Frenchwoman, but one of African descent. And instead of being Derek’s soon-to-be former mistress and a dancer, this cinematic Mirelle turned out to be Rufus Van Aldin’s mistress. As for Lady Tamplin, she and her family also made the journey aboard the Blue Train – which did not happen in the novel. Any other changes? In this version, Katherine Grey revealed to Poirot that Van Aldin had financially ruined her father. Also, someone tried to kill her one hour into the movie.

What did I think of ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”? I did not mind some of the changes from the novel. For example, Lady Tamplin became a more likeable and sexy personality, thanks to Lindsay Duncan’s spirited performance. I found her young husband, Corky (Cubby Evans in the novel) less vacuous and self-absorbed. Mirelle’s personality acquired a welcome change from the character in the novel. Actress Josette Simon portrayed her as a world-weary, yet passionate woman with a great deal of complexities, instead of Christie’s one-dimensional portrait of sex and greed, wrapped in a French accent. I also enjoyed Nicholas Farrell’s quiet, yet charming portrayal of Rufus Van Aldin’s private secretary, Richard Knighton. Jaime Murray did a solid job in portraying Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, the murder victim, whose body was discovered aboard the Blue Train. I must admit that she managed to capture her character’s extroverted, ruthless and somewhat self-absorbed personality, even if her American accent seemed a bit questionable. And thank goodness for the presence of Elliot Gould, whose portrayal of Van Aldin transcended the cliché of the American businessman featured in the novel. Finally, David Suchet continued to give another fine performance as Hercule Poirot, everyone’s favorite Belgian detective – subtle, yet intense as always.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie featured the Blue Train’s departure from Calais during a heavy rainfall. Thanks to director Hettie Macdonald, production designers Jeff Tessler and an uncredited Paul Spriggs, along with cinematographer Alan Almond; this particular scene reeked with atmosphere and mystery. They also did an excellent job in capturing the sunny and exotic glamour of the French Riviera – especially in one scene that featured a house party given by Lady Tamplin at her home, Villa Marguerite. I also liked the fact that the story began in London, paused in Calais and France, and ended in Nice. It did not shift to different locations throughout England and France, as in the novel. More importantly, Poirot revealed the murderer’s identity in front of all the suspects and the police; instead of limiting his audience to two characters.

What did I NOT like about ”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN”? Unfortunately, a good deal. One, I did not care for the change in Katherine Grey’s personality. I have no complaints about Georgina Rylance’s performance. She did a solid job in the role. But screenwriter Guy Andrews transformed the Katherine Grey character from a cool and smart woman that kept her emotions in check to a naïve woman that wore her emotions on her sleeve. It almost seemed to me that Katherine’s character had been somewhat diminished. One change I did not care for was Andrews’ decision to make Mirelle the mistress of Van Aldin, instead of Derek Kettering’s paramour. Nor did I care for his decision to reveal that Van Aldin’s wife was still alive, slightly mad and living in a convent in Nice. I found this plot twist to be very unnecessary. Speaking of Mr. Kettering, his personality went through a major change. In this adaptation, Derek became a drunken, gambling addict with a habit of sniveling over a wife who no longer loved him. Only James D’Arcy’s complex performance made it possible for me to tolerate the character. The movie’s portrayal of Lennox Tamplin seemed like a letdown from Christie’s novel. Instead of the sardonic young woman who had learned to tolerate her mother’s talent for exploitation and exhibition, this version of Lennox became a bubbly and extroverted personality with an atrocious hairstyle for a story set in the 1930s.

The biggest change occurred in the movie’s revelation scene. Although I had expressed approval of Andrews and director Hettie Macdonald’s decision to allow Poirot to reveal the murderer in Nice, I still had some problems with the scene. One, it began with the detective indulging in a ridiculous tirade about how each suspect could have been the murderer. But after Poirot identified the killer, viewers were treated to a ridiculous and theatrical scene in which the latter attempted to use a hostage to evade the police. I did not know whether to laugh or shake my head in disgust. I believe I ended up doing the latter.

”THE MYSTERY OF THE BLUE TRAIN” will never be a favorite Christie adaptation of mine. There were too many changes that I did not care for – especially with some of the characters and the revelation scene. On the other hand, I found other changes – including the revelation scene – to be an improvement from the novel and a welcome relief. I also enjoyed the movie’s atmosphere, setting, photography and David Suchet’s performance as Poirot. It was not the best Christie adaptation, but I found it tolerable.