“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.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

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“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” (2006) Review

I have never read Agatha Christie’s 1931 novel, “The Sittaford Mystery”. And I have read a lot of her novels. But since the novel did not feature Hercule Poirot, Miss Jane Marple, or Tommy and Tuppence Beresford; I never took the trouble to read it. Well, that is not fair. I can think of at least two or three Christie novels that did not feature any of these sleuths that I have read. But I have never read “The Sittaford Mystery”.

So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that the ITV channel had aired an adaptation of the novel in which Geraldine McEwan appeared as Jane Marple. Okay. This is not the first time this has happened, considering that Christie did not write that many Miss Marple novels. “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” revolved around the murder of a politician who is viewed as a potential Prime Minister in the 1950s. The story begins in the 1920s Egypt, where Clive Trevelyan and a few companions stumble across an important archaeological discovery. Then the story jumps nearly thirty years later when Trevelyan, now a politician, returns to his home Sittaford House in Dartmoor with his aide John Enderby, while Parliament decides on whether he will become Britain’s new Prime Minister, following the retirement of Sir Winston Churchill. Due to his friendship with the novelist Raymond West, Trevelyan finds himself forced to accept the latter’s elderly aunt, Miss Jane Marple, as a house guest.

Much to Miss Marple and Enderby’s surprise, Treveylan decides to chance the snowy weather outside and stay at a local hotel six miles away. The hotel include guests who seemed to be very familiar with Treveylan or familiar with an escapee from the local Dartmoore prison. One of the guests conduct a séance using a Ouiji board, which predicts Treveylan’s death. Hours later, the politician is found stabbed to death in his room. With Miss Marple stuck at Sittaford House (temporarily); Enderby; a young journalist named Charles Burnaby; and Emily Trefusis, the fiancee of Treveylan’s wastrel ward James Pearson; set out to find the murderer. However, it is not long before the trio find themselves seeking Miss Marple’s help.

“THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” strikes me as a rather confusing tale. I have a deep suspicion that in his effort to somewhat change the plot from Christie’s original novel, screenwriter Stephen Churchett ended up creating a very convoluted story . . . right up to the last reel. I have seen this movie twice and for the likes of me, I still have no real idea of what was going on . . . aside from the first fifteen minutes and the movie’s denouement. I was aware that the hotel featured guests that had connections with or knew Treveylan, including a former lover, her wallflower daughter, a middle-aged woman who seemed to be a fan of Treveylan, and an American businessman and his aide.

Churchett created a script filled with so many red herrings – unnecessary, as far as I am concerned – that I simply gave up in trying to guess the murderer’s identity and waited for Miss Marple to expose him or her. Upon my first viewing. Upon my second viewing, I tried to examine the plot for any hints or clues that would lead to the killer’s identity. Unfortunately, that did not happen until at least fifteen minutes before Miss Marple revealed the killer. I was also disappointed with how the movie resolved the romantic entanglements of Emily Trefusis, Charles Burnaby, James Pearson and a fourth character. I found it so contrived, for it came out of left field with no set up or hint whatsoever. What I found even more unconvincing was the last shot of the murderer staring at the camera with an evil grin. This struck me as an idiotic attempt by director Paul Unwin to channel or copy Alfred Hitchcock’s last shot of Anthony Perkins in the 1960 movie, “PYSCHO”. I found that moment so ridiculous.

I will give kudos to Rob Harris, the movie’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in creating the movie’s setting – a snowbound English community in the early-to-mid 1950s. But do to the majority of the film being limited to either Treveylan’s home and the hotel, Harris really did not have much to work with. Frances Tempest certainly did with her costume designs. I found nothing outstanding about them. But I must admit that I found them rather attractive, especially the costumes that actress Zoe Telford wore. On the other hand, I found Nicholas D. Knowland’s cinematography rather odd . . . and not in a positive way. I did not like his photography, if I must be brutally honest. His unnecessary close-ups and odd angles struck me as an amateurish attempt by him and Unwin to transform “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” into an independent film or Hammer-style horror flick.

The performances in “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY” proved to be a mixed bag. I have usually been a fan of Geraldine McEwan’s portrayal of Miss Jane Marple. But I feel that she took the whole “verbose elderly lady” act a bit too far . . . especially in her scenes with Timothy Dalton during the first fifteen to twenty minutes. If I must be honest, most of the performances in the film seemed to be either over-the-top or close to being over-the-top. This was especially the case for Michael Brandon, Zoe Telford, Laurence Fox and Patricia Hodge. James Murray managed to refrain himself during most of the film. But even he managed to get into the act during the movie’s last fifteen minutes or so. Carey Mulligan’s performance seemed competent. She did not blow my mind, but at least she did not annoy me. Robert Hardy made a cameo appearance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This marked the eighth or ninth time the actor portrayed the politician and honestly, I could see this appearance was nothing more than a walk in the park for him. There were only four performances I truly enjoyed. One came from Mel Smith, who gave a very competent performance as Treveylan’s right-hand man, John Enderby. I could say the same about Rita Tushingham, who gave a nuanced performance as a mysterious woman with knowledge of an ugly part in Treveylan’s past. The role proved to be his last, for he passed away not long after the film’s production. James Wilby was satisfyingly subtle as the town’s local hotel owner, who had a secret to maintain. For me, the best performance came from Timothy Dalton, who was dazzling at the story’s main victim, Clive Trevelyan. Considering that he was portraying a somewhat theatrical character, it is amazing that he managed to keep his performance under control, and struck a tight balance between theatricality and subtlety.

It is obvious to anyone reading this review that I did not like “THE SITTAFORD MYSTERY”. I could complain about the changes made to Agatha Christie’s novel. But I have never read it, so I saw no point in making any comparisons. But I still cared very little for the movie. I found the direction and photography rather amateurish. And aside from a few first-rate performances, I was not that impressed by the majority of the cast’s acting – including, unfortunately, Geraldine McEwan’s.