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.

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

 

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“MIDDLEMARCH” (1994) Review

Many years have passed since I first saw “MIDDLEMARCH”, the 1994 BBC adaptation of George Eliot’s 1871 novel. Many years. I recalled enjoying it . . . somewhat. But it had failed to leave any kind of impression upon me. Let me revise that. At least two performances left an impression upon me. But after watching the miniseries for the second time, after so many years, I now realize I should have paid closer attention to the production. 

Directed by Anthony Page and adapted for television by Andrew Davies, “MIDDLEMARCH” told the story about a fictitious Midlands town during the years 1830–32. Its multiple plots explored themes that included the status of women and class status, the nature of marriage, idealism and self-interest, religion and hypocrisy, political reform, and education. There seemed to be at least four major story arcs in the saga. Actually, I would say there are two major story arcs and two minor ones. The first of the minor story arcs focused on Fred Vincy, the only son of Middlemarch’s mayor, who has a tendency to be spendthrift and irresponsible. Fred is encouraged by his ambitious parents to find a secure life and advance his class standing by becoming a clergyman. But Fred knows that Mary Garth, the woman he loves, will not marry him if he does become one. And there is Mr. Nicholas Bulstrode, Middlemarch’s prosperous banker, who is married to Fred’s aunt. Mr. Bulstrode is a pious Methodist who is unpopular with Middlemarch’s citizens, due to his attempts to impose his beliefs in society. However, he also has a sordid past which he is desperate to hide.

However, two story arcs dominated “MIDDLEMARCH”. One of them centered around Dorothea Brooke, the older niece of a wealthy landowner with ambitions to run for political office, and her determination to find some kind of ideal meaning in her life. She becomes somewhat romantically involved with a scholarly clergyman and fellow landowner named the Reverend Edward Casaubon in the hopes of assisting him in his current research. Dorothea eventually finds disappointment in her marriage, as Reverend Casaubon proves to be a selfish and pedantic man who is more interested in his research than anyone else – including his wife. The second arc told the story about a proud, ambitious and talented medical doctor of high birth and a small income named Tertius Lydgate. He arrives at Middlemarch at the beginning of the story in the hopes of making great advancements in medicine through his research and the charity hospital in Middlemarch. Like Dorothea, he ends up in an unhappy marriage with a beautiful, young social climber named Rosamond Vincy, who is more concerned about their social position and the advantages of marrying a man from a higher class than her own. Dr. Lydgage’s proud nature and professional connections to Mr. Bulstrode, makes him very unpopular with the locals.

After watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, it occurred to me it is one of the best miniseries that came from British television in the past twenty to thirty years. I also believe that it might be one of Andrew Davies’ best works. Mind you,“MIDDLEMARCH” is not perfect. It has its flaws . . . perhaps one or two of them . . . but flaws, nonetheless. While watching “MIDDLEMARCH”, I got the feeling that screenwriter Andrew Davies could not balance the story arcs featuring Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate with any real equilibrium. It seemed that most of his interest was focused upon Lydgate as the saga’s main character, instead of dividing that honor between Lydgate and Dorothea. While the miniseries revealed Dorothea’s unhappy marriage to Casaubon, Davies’ screenplay in the first three episodes, Davies did a first rate job in balancing both hers and Lydgate’s stories. But Lydgate seemed to dominate the second half of the miniseries – the last three episodes – as his story shoved Dorothea’s to the status of a minor plot arc. Mind you, I found the Lydgates’ marriage fascinating. But Davies failed to deliver any real . . . punch to Dorothea’s story arc and especially her relationship with her cousin-in-law, Will Ladislaw. If I have to be honest, Dorothea and Will’s relationship following Casaubon’s death struck me as rushed and a bit disappointing.

Thankfully, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Because “MIDDLEMARCH” still managed to be an outstanding miniseries. Davies did a more or less excellent job in weaving the production’s many storylines without any confusion whatsoever. In fact, I have to congratulate Davies for accomplishing this feat. And I have to congratulate director Anthony Page for keeping the production and its story in order with allowing the latter to unravel into a complete mess. More importantly, both Page and Davies adhered to George Eliot’s ambiguous portrayal of her cast of characters. Even her two most ideal characters – Dorothea and Lydgate – are plagued by their own personal flaws. Some of the characters were able to overcome their flaws for a “happily ever after” and some were not. The period between the Regency Era and the Victorian Age has rarely been explored in television or in motion pictures. But thanks to “MIDDLEMARCH”, I have learned about the political movements that led to the Great Reform Act of 1832. A good number of people might find Eliot’s saga somewhat depressing and wish she had ended her story with a more romantic vein in the style of Jane Austen . . . or allow Dorothea and Lydgate to happily achieve their altruistic goals. However . . . “MIDDLEMARCH” is not an Austen novel.

I am trying to think of a performance that seemed less than impressive. But I cannot think of one. I was very impressed by everyone’s performances. And the ones that really impressed me came from Juliet Aubrey’s spot-on performance as the ideal and naive Dorothea Brooke; Jonathan Firth, whose portrayal of the spendthrift Fred Vincy turned out to be one of his best career performances; Rufus Sewell, who first made a name for himself in his passionate portrayal of Casaubon’s poor cousin, Will Ladislaw; Peter Jeffrey’s complex performance as the ambiguous Nicholas Bulstrode; Julian Wadham as the decent Sir James Chattam, whose unrequited love for Dorothea led him to marry her sister Cecila and develop a deep dislike toward Will; and Rachel Power, who gave a strong, yet solid performance as Fred Vincy’s love, the no-nonsense Mary Garth.

However, four performances really impressed me. Both Douglas Hodge and Trevyn McDowell really dominated the miniseries as the ideal, yet slightly arrogant Tertius Lydgate and his shallow and social-climbing wife, Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. The pair superbly brought the Lydgates’ passionate, yet disastrous marriage to life . . . even more so than Davies’ writing or Page’s direction. And I have to give kudos to Patrick Malahide for portraying someone as complex and difficult Reverend Edward Casaubon. The latter could have easily been a one-note character lacking of any sympathy. But thanks to Malahide, audiences were allowed glimpses into an insecure personality filled with surprising sympathy. And Robert Hardy was a hilarious blast as Dorothea’s self-involved uncle, the politically ambitious Arthur Brooke. What I enjoyed about Hardy’s performance is that his Uncle Brooke seemed like such a friendly and sympathetic character. Yet, Hardy made it clear that this cheerful soul has a selfish streak a mile wide. And despite his willingness to use the current reform movement to seek political office, he is incapable of treating the tenants on his estate with any decency.

“MIDDLEMARCH” could not only boast a first-rate screenplay written by Andrew Davies, first rate direction by Anthony Page and a superb cast; it could also boast excellent production values. One of the crew members responsible for the miniseries’ production was Anushia Nieradzik, who created some beautiful costumes that clearly reflected the story’s period of the early 1830s. I was also impressed by Gerry Scott’s use of a Lincolnshire town called Stamford as a stand-in for 1830-32 Middlemarch. And Brian Tufano’s photography beautifully captured Scott’s work and the town itself.

Yes, “MIDDLEMARCH” has a few flaws. And the photography featured in the latest copy seems a bit faded. But I believe that it is, without a doubt, one of the finest British television productions from the last twenty to twenty-five years. After all of these years, I have a much higher regard for it than when I first saw it.

“THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” (1999) Review

“THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” (1999) Review

I must admit that when I first saw “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” in the theaters a little over seven years ago, I was not impressed. Well, to be honest, I did not like the movie at all. But after my recent viewing, I could not help but wonder if I had allowed my mild dislike of the previous Bond entry, “TOMORROW NEVER DIES” to spill over in my view of the Bond franchise’s 19th entry. 

Although the movie’s title comes from the Bond family’s motto, first revealed in the 1969 movie, “ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE”, its story started with the murder of a British oil tycoon and old friend of M’s named Sir Robert King, inside MI-6’s London headquarters. Bond traced the assassination to an anarchist terrorist named Renard, who had once kidnapped Sir Robert’s daughter, Elektra King. Fearing that Renard wants revenge for his failure at profiting from Elektra’s kidnapping, M assigned Bond to act as her new bodyguard in Uzbekistan. To make a long story short, Bond and Elektra formed a romantic relationship . . . before he learned that she had been behind her father’s murder and MI-6’s humiliation. Elektra was also behind Renard’s theft of a quantity of weapons-grade plutonium from a former Russian ICBM base in Kazakhstan. After using some of the plutonium to blow up part of the King pipeline in order to avoid suspicion, Elektra and Renard planned to introduce the remaining plutonium to a stolen Russian submarine’s nuclear reactor in order that it will overload and cause a nuclear meltdown in the Bosporus at Istanbul. Not only will this kill countless thousands of people, but also contaminate the Bosporus for decades. The effect would prevent shipment of Caspian Sea petroleum through any existing route, because all Caspian region pipelines terminate at the Black Sea, requiring that tankers go through the Bosporus; the only alternative would be the King pipeline. Disguising himself as a nuclear physicist, Bond sneaked his way onto the base to stop Renard and ended up escaping from near death, along with an American nuclear physicist named Christmas Jones, played by Denise Richards. Even worse, Elektra lured M to Uzbekistan and kidnapped the latter to be destroyed with the rest of Istanbul’s citizens. With the help of Dr. Jones and former KGB-turned-entrepreneur Valentin Zukovsky, Bond managed to save the Bosporus region and M and kill both Elektra and Renard in the process.

In 1998, Pierce Brosnan won a Saturn Award for his performance as Bond in “TOMORROW NEVER DIES”. But after seeing his performance in “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH”, I have come to the conclusion that he had won his award for the wrong movie. Unlike “TOMORROW NEVER DIES”, in which Brosnan’s performance seemed mixed, “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH”’s script allowed the Irish-born actor to portray a more human Bond, who finds his façade almost stripped away and his emotions exposed by his interactions with the manipulative Elektra King – a process that seemed to have began with the death of Elektra’s father at MI-6 Headquarters. One of Brosnan’s best acting moments occurred during a scene at Zukovsky’s casino, where Elektra “unnecessarily” loses a million dollars to the former KGB operative. Brosnan managed to convey Bond’s concern, confusion and sparking suspicion about the late oil magnate’s daughter, all in one swoop. Great acting on his part.

Fortunately for Brosnan, he was supported by a strong cast – especially by Sophie Marceau, who portrayed the enigmatic Elekra and Robert Caryle as the ruthless yet passionate terrorist, Renard. Marceau was especially impressive as the former kidnap victim-turned-villainess, whose complex and manipulative personality seemed to have kept everyone – Bond included – in a state of flux. Carlyle came off as surprisingly sympathetic as the love-struck Renard. Most Bond fans would flinch at the idea of a Bond villain like Renard, but after the stream of cold-blooded opportunists and megalomaniacs, Renard almost came as a relief. Unfortunately, all not were wine and roses in Marceau and Carlyle’s performances. Carlyle’s repeated line about how Bond or anyone else ”cannot kill him because he was already dead” threatened to turn his role into a cliché. Personally, I never could care less about his injury. If he could still die from a bullet in the heart, he was not impregnable, as far as I was concerned. As for Marceau, it saddened me that her exemplary performance ended on such a bad note for me. If Connery’s Bond in “GOLDFINGER” had struck me as the ”dark side of masculinity”, then Elektra King’s insistence that Bond or no other man can resist her struck me as the ”dark side of femininity”. To be frank, the villainous Elektra in her last moments got . . . on . . . my . . . last . . . nerve. So much so that I found myself sighing with relief when Bond finally killed her.

And then there was Denise Richards as the American nuclear physicist, Dr. Christmas Jones. I realize that I might be castigated for saying this, but I honestly found nothing to criticize about Richards’ performance. I will not insult anyone’s intelligence by stating that she was just as good as Marceau and Caryle. Of course she was not as good. At best, Richards is a competent, though uninspiring actress. But she did portrayed Dr. Jones (no Indy jokes, please) as an intelligent and observant woman. She handled the techno babble quite well. Nor did she seem slightly wooden like Lois Chiles in “MOONRAKER” or Barbara Bach in “THE SPY WHO LOVED ME”. I think that many fans and critics had simply took a look at Richard’s face, age (she was 26 or 27 when she shot the movie) and boobs and decided that she was unfit to portray a young nuclear physicist. It was nice to see Robbie Coltrane as the former KGB agent, Valentin Zukovsky, again. Although he was just as funny as he was in “GOLDENEYE”, I must admit that he seemed a bit more imposing in the 1995 film. In “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH”, there were times he seemed to be in danger of being viewed as a bit of a joke . . . until his final scene.

Judi Dench gave her second best performance as M (her first would be seven years later in “CASINO ROYALE”) in “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH”. In this particular outing, she becomes emotionally handicapped by the death of her friend, Sir Robert. This allows Elektra to take advantage of the MI-6 chief – who had advised Sir Robert not to pay the ransom for Elektra’s kidnapping – and seek revenge. One of the highlights of Dench’s performance was watching her express . . . and suppress M’s guilt, when Bond exposes the debacle over Elektra’s kidnapping. Other cast members such as Michael Kitchen, Colin Salmon and Samantha Bond do their usual routine. “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” marked Desmond Llewellyn’s last appearance as MI-6’s armourer – Q and John Cleese’s first appearance as his future replacement. Although the sight of Llewellyn in the movie tugged the heartstrings a bit (considering his death in a traffic accident about a month following the movie’s original release), I cannot say there was anything memorable about his performance. Cleese, on the other hand, was his usual biting self, although I could have done without his clumsy antics.

“THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” not only boasted pretty good acting by the cast, it also possessed an interesting script that maintained its quality . . . until the finale. The story started out fine with Sir Robert King’s mysterious murder, followed by the increasingly complex triangle established between Bond, Elektra and Renard. But once Renard had sabotaged one of the King pipelines and Elektra kidnapped M, the movie sank into a typical Bond movie that ended with a wet and tiresome showdown between Bond and Renard inside the stolen Russian sub. Aside from its cast, one of “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH”’s strengths were the movie’s dramatic scenes – including Bond’s accusations regarding M’s participation in Elektra’s kidnapping, Elektra’s loss at the gaming table, Christmas’ exposure of Bond at the ICMG base, Bond accusing Elektra of being Renard’s ally and Renard’s jealousy over Elektra’s relationship with Bond. Ironically, I cannot say the same about the movie’s action sequences. One or two were pretty good – the opening sequence (which I admit seemed a bit too long), and Bond and Christmas’ escape from the ICMG base, and their escape from one of the King pipelines. But the ski chase, the confrontation at Zukovsky’s caviar facility and Bond’s showdowns with both Elektra and Renard simply did not move me. And the finale inside the Russian sub simply struck me as tedious.

If there is one major weakness that “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” did suffer, it was the movie’s locations. Quite simply, they were uninspiring. It seemed sad that the movie’s most exotic looking location happened to be London, along the Thames River. It seemed even sadder that this took place in the movie’s pre-title sequence. As for the movie’s theme song by Garbage . . . well, it was not the best Bond song I have ever heard. In fact, I did not even like it when the movie was first released. But for some odd reason, the song has grown on me, and now it is a personal favorite of mine.

But despite uninspiring locations and action sequences, “THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH” can still boast enough strengths that allowed director Michael Apted to provide a pretty good Bond movie . . . good enough to be considered Brosnan’s second-best. And a recent viewing has allowed me to realize that it was better than I had originally surmised.

Memorable Lines

“One tires of being executed.” – Renard

Zukovsky: I’m looking for a submarine. It’s big and black, and the driver is a very good friend of mine. [sees captain hat] Bring it to me!
Elektra: [takes hat] What a shame, he’s just gone. [Shoots Zukovsky]

Lachaise: So good of you to come see me, Mr Bond, particularly on such short notice.
Bond: If you can’t trust a Swiss banker, then what’s the world come to?

[Bull is shocked to see Zukovsky survived the explosion at the safehouse]
Bull: Boss? You’re alive! I’m so glad to see you!
Zukovsky: Me to! [Shoots Bull]

Christmas: The world’s greatest terrorist running around with six kilos of weapons-grade plutonium can’t be good. I gotta get it back, or someone’s gonna have my ass.
Bond: First things first.

Bond: What’s your business with Elektra King?
Zukovsky: I though you were the one giving her the business.

Elektra: I could have given you the world.
Bond: The world is not enough.
Elektra: Foolish sentiment.
Bond: Family motto.

[after Q introduces Bond to his successor]
Bond: If you’re Q, does that make him R?
R: Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.

Christmas: Wait a minute. Are you going to do what I think you’re going to do?
Bond: What do I need to defuse a nuclear bomb?
Christmas: Me.

Bond: Construction isn’t exactly my speciality.
M: Quite the opposite, in fact.

“You wanna put that in English for those of us who don’t speak Spy?” – Christmas Jones

“Oh, look. We have no roof, but at least we have four good walls.”
[the factory falls apart] “The insurance company is NEVER going to believe this.” – Zukovsky

Bond: I’ve always wanted to have Christmas in Turkey.
Christmas: Was that a Christmas joke?
Bond: From me? Never.

“Can’t you just say “hello” like a normal person?” – Zukovsky

Zukovsky: [to Bull] You! Where have you been, you gold encrusted buffoon?
Bull: Sorry, boss, I must have bumped my head.
Zukovsky: Oh, really? Get me out of here. I’ll show you what a bumped head feels like.

Q: I’ve always tried to teach you two things. First, never let them see you bleed.
Bond: And the second?
Q: Always have an escape plan.

“Revenge is not hard to fathom for a man who believes in nothing.” – Bond

Bond: What business do you have with Elektra King?
Zukovsky: I thought it was *you* who was giving her the business.

Moneypenny: James! Have you brought me a souvenir from your trip? Chocolates? An engagement ring?
Bond: I thought you might enjoy one of these. [gives Ms. Moneypenny a cigar tube]
Moneypenny: How romantic. I know exactly where to put that. [throws the cigar tube in the garbage]
Bond: Oh Moneypenny, the story of our relationship: close, but no cigar.

[Zukovsky enters his office, sees Christmas Jones] “How did you get in here? I’m going to call Security… and congratulate them.” – Zukovsky

Bond: …A shadow operation?
M: …Remember 007, shadows always remain in front or behind… never on top.

Bond: Where’s M?
Elektra: Soon she’ll be everywhere.