“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

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“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” (1998) Review

As a rule, I have never been an ardent fan of Charles Dickens’ novels. I suppose my aversion to his writing stemmed from being forced to read his 1838 tale, “Oliver Twist”, while in my early teens. That was the last time I had read a Dickens novel, but several film and television adaptations of his work awaited me for many years down the road. And I did not warm up to them. 

After years of avoiding Dickens’ novels or adaptations of his work, I finally decided to put my aversion of his writing aside and set my mind on watching “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, Sandy Welch’s 1998 adaptation of his last completed novel, published in 1864-65. Needless to say, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” proved to be a complicated tale. It featured at least three subplots – major and minor – and they all stemmed from the alleged death of the heir to a fortune created by his father, a former collector from London’s rubbish.

“OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” began with a solicitor named Mortimer Lightwood, who narrates the circumstances on the death of his late client and the details of the latter’s will to his aunt and a group of listeners at a London society party. According to Lightwood, Mr. Harmon made his fortune from London’s rubbish. The terms of his will stipulated that his fortune should go to his estranged son John, who is returning to Britain after years spent abroad. John can inherit his father’s money on the condition that he marry a woman he has never met, Miss Bella Wilfer. However, Lightwood receives news that John Harmon’s body has been found in the Thames River. He and his close friend Eugene Wrayburn head toward the river to identify the body. And it was this sequence that led to the following subplots:

*Mr. Harmon’s employees, Nicodemus and Henrietta Boffin inherit the Harmon fortune and take Bella Wilfer as a ward to compensate for her loss, following John Harmon’s “death”.

*John Harmon fakes his death and assumes the identity of John Rokesmith, the Boffins’ social secretary, in order to ascertain Bella Wilfer’s character.

*The man who found Harmon’s “body” is a waterman and scavenger named Gaffer Hexam. He is later accused of murdering “Harmon”.

*While accompanying his friend, Mortimer Lightwood, to identify Harmon’s body, Eugene Wrayburn meets and falls in love with Hexam’s daughter, Lizzie.

*Charley Hexam, Lizzie’s younger brother, has a headmaster named Bradley Headstone, who becomes romantically and violently obsessed with Lizzie.

*A ballad-seller with a wooden leg named Silas Wegg is hired by the Boffins to read for them. When he finds Harmon’s will in the dust, he schemes with a taxidermist named Mr. Venus to blackmail the newly rich couple.

*Mr. and Mrs. Lammle are a society couple who married each other for money and discovered that neither had any. They eventually set their sights on the Boffins to swindle.

I have seen many movies and read many novels in which disparate subplots eventually form into one main narrative. A major example of this is the 2002 novel and its 2008 adaptation, “MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA”. But I cannot recall any form of fiction in which a particular narrative divides into a series of subplots in which one barely have anything in common with another. And I must say that I found this narrative device not only original, but rather disconcerting.

The problem I mainly have with “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” is that I only enjoyed one major subplot – which dealt with Eugene Wrayburn, Lizzie Hexam and Bradley Headstone. I cannot deny that I found it very interesting and very tense, despite David Morrissey’s occasional moments of histronics, when expressing Headstone’s feelings for both Wrayburn and Lizzie; and actress Keeley Hawes’ inability to express Lizzie’s true feelings for Wrayburn until the last episode. And I suspect that director Julian Farino may have been at fault, instead of Hawes. Paul McGann’s portrayal of the ambiguous Wrayburn struck me as the best performance not only in this particular subplot, but also in the entire miniseries.

Inheriting John Harmon’s fortune attracted a good deal of greedy fortune hunters to the Boffins. Unfortunately, Silas Wegg’s attempts to blackmail them ended on a whimper. It did not help that he spent at least two to three episodes (out of four) complaining about his lot in life and plotting with Mr. Venus. I was even less impressed with the poor and newly married Mr. and Mrs. Lammle’s attempts to swindle money from the Boffins. In fact, I am still in the dark over how their attempt failed.

The subplot featuring John Harmon/Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer could have amounted to something. I found Harmon’s gradual love for Bella very interesting to watch, thanks to Steven Mackintosh’s subtle performance. And Anna Friel did a great job in developing Bella Wilfur from a materialistic and ambitious young woman, to one for whom love and morality meant more to her than material wealth. But the problem I have with this subplot? Bella did not learn the truth about John until some time after their wedding. Even worse, he had to resort to deception to find out whether Bella was worthy of his hand. I realize that when they first met, she was not exactly a pleasant woman. But he conducted their courtship, while deceiving her. Even worse, Bella forgave John a bit too easily, once she learned the truth.

Aside from the excellent performances; including those from Peter Vaughn and Pam Ferris as the Boffins, Kenneth Cranham as Silas Wegg, Margaret Tyzack as the imperious Tippins, and Dominic Mafham as Mortimer Lightwood; “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has two other virtues that I found impressive. The four-part miniseries’ visual style struck me as colorful and at the same time, epic. And I believe one has to thank David Odd for his excellent. And Mike O’Neil’s Victorian costumes truly blew me away. Not only did I find them beautiful, but a near accurate reflection of Britain in the 1860s.

One might believe that I dislike “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”. Trust me, I liked it. But I did not love it. I suspect that Sandy Welch and director Julian Farino did the best they could in translating Dickens’ tale to the screen. Perhaps they more than did their best and that was the trouble. The 1864-65 novel is not considered among the novelist’ best. “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” has yet to improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a novelist. Perhaps a second viewing might do the job.

“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1993) Review

“THE THREE MUSKETEERS” (1993) Review

Alexandre Dumas’ classic 1844 novel, “The Three Musketeers” must have been one of the most adapted stories in film and television history. I do not know exactly how many adaptations have been filmed. But I have seen at least four of them – including Disney Studios’ version, released in 1993. 

Directed by Stephen Herek, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” is not a faithful adaptation of Dumas’ novel. David Loughery’s script utilized some elements of the novel, including most of the characters and d’Artagnan’s first meeting with his three friends and fellow musketeers. But in the end, he created his own story. In “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, a young Gascon named d’Artagnan hopes to follow in the footsteps of his late father and join the King of France’s Musketeers in 1625 France. Unfortunately for d’Artagnan, several factors stand in his way. One, he makes an enemy out of a local aristocrat named Gerard and his brothers, who believe he has defiled the honor of their sister, and is pursued by them all the way to Paris. Two, upon his arrival in Paris, he discovers that the Musketeers have been disbanded by King Louis XIII’s chief minister, the power-hungry Cardinal Richelieu. And three, his encounters with Musketeers Athos, Aramis and Porthos results in him accepting a duel from each man.

Fortunately, d’Artagnan’s hostility toward the trio is short-lived and he ends up helping them battle Richelieu’s guards, who arrive to arrest Athos, Aramis and Porthos. But after they leave him, d’Artagnan is arrested by more guards and Richelieu’s lackey, Captain Rochefort. While in prison, he meets the Cardinal and overhears a conversation between the latter and spy Milady de Winter. She is ordered to deliver a signed treaty to France’s primary enemy, the Duke of Buckingham of England. Cardinal Richelieu plans to undermine the King’s authority, before assassinating him, taking the throne and Queen Anne as consort. When Athos, Aramis and Porthos rescue d’Artagnan from execution, the four men set out to expose Richelieu as a traitor of France and save King Louis XIII from death.

Fans of Dumas’ novel will probably be unhappy with this adaptation, considering that it failed to be a faithful one. I must admit that when I first saw “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”, I was surprised and a little disappointed myself. And there were a few aspects of the movie that I disliked. The addition of Gerard and his brothers into the story really annoyed me in the end. Mind you, I found the aristocrat’s determination to confront d’Artagnan at the beginning of the movie tolerable. But once d’Artagnan reached Paris, with Gerard still in hot pursuit, the subplot became an annoying running joke that refused to die. And it did not. I like Paul McGann as an actor . . . but not that much.

Even worse, McGann’s Gerard seemed to have more screen time than any of the major female characters. Although I never viewed Queen Anne as a “major character”, I felt otherwise about Milady de Winter and d’Artagnan’s lady love, Constance Bonacieux. I did not mind when Loughery’s script transformed Julie Delpy’s Constance from the Queen’s dressmaker to maid/companion. But I did mind that her role was reduced to a few cameo appearances. The same almost happened to Rebecca De Mornay’s portrayal of Milady de Winter. I personally found the reduction of the latter role rather criminal. Milady has always been one of the best villains in literary history. And nearly every actress who has portrayed her, did justice to the role. I can say the same about De Mornay, who was excellent as Milady. Unfortunately, Loughery’s script gave her very few opportunities to strut her stuff.

Despite the change in Dumas’ story and the reduction in the females’ roles, I cannot deny that “THE THREE MUSKETEERS”proved to be a first-rate and entertaining movie. It had romance – well, a little of it. The best romance in the film proved to be the long simmering one between Athos and Milady, whose marriage had earlier ended in failure. And I found the one between d’Artagnan and Constance rather charming, if brief. The movie featured some great action, including a marvelous chase scene in which the Musketeers are being pursued by Rochefort and the Cardinal’s men; d’Artagnan’s first sword fight, in which he allied himself with the Musketeers; Milady de Winter’s capture at Calais; and especially the final fight sequence in which the Musketeers prevent Richelieu’s plans for the King’s assassination.

Tim Curry made an entertaining, yet splashy Cardinal Richelieu. He came close to being all over the map, yet he still managed to keep his performance controlled. And Michael Wincott’s sinister portrayal of Captain Rochefort was superb. Rebecca De Mornay was superb as Milady de Winter, despite the role being reduced. And her Milady has always struck me as the most complex in all of the adaptations. Julie Delpy and Gabrielle Anwar were charming as Constance and Queen Anne. I wish I could say the same about Hugh O’Connor as King Louis XIII, but I must admit that I was not that impressed. He was eighteen years old at the time and probably a little too young and stiff to be portraying the 24 year-old monarch.

But the highlight of “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” proved to be the four actors who portrayed d’Artagnan and his three friends – Athos, Aramis, and Porthos. They were perfect. Chris O’Donnell captured every aspect of d’Artagnan’s youthful personality – the earnestness, cockiness, and immaturity. Watching the movie made me realize that he has come a long way in the past nineteen years. And he had great chemistry with the three actors who portrayed the Musketeers. Kiefer Sutherland was perfect as the commanding, yet cynical and disillusioned Athos, who regretted ending his marriage to Milady. The producers of this film certainly picked the right man to portray the smooth-talking ladies’ man, Aramis. And whatever one might say about Charlie Sheen, he did a superb job in the role. Oliver Platt was a delight as the brash and extroverted Porthos. Quite frankly, he made a better figure for comic relief than McGann’s Gerard. However, the best thing about the four actors’ performances was that they all perfectly clicked as a screen team. All for one and one for all.

Yes, “THE THREE MUSKETEERS” was not perfect. What movie is? And it is certainly not the best adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel. But I cannot deny that it was entertaining. And I have no regrets in purchasing a DVD copy of this film. If one can keep an open mind over the fact that it was not a close adaptation of the 1844 novel, I think it is possible to find it very enjoyable.

“SAD CYPRESS” (2003) Review

“SAD CYPRESS” (2003) Review

Adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1940 novel, ”SAD CYPRESS” is a story about Hercule Poirot’s efforts to discover the truth behind the case of a young woman facing conviction for the murder of her ailing wealthy aunt and a lodge keeper’s daughter who has become her aunt’s companion. Directed by David Moore, this 90-minute movie starred David Suchet as the Belgian detective. 

The story began with a doctor from a small town named Peter Lord who hires Hercule Poirot to clear the name of a young woman Elinor Carlisle. Elinor is facing trial for the murder of a young woman named Mary Gerard, the beautiful companion of her late aunt, Mrs. Laura Welman. Through interviews and flashbacks, Poirot learns that Elinor was engaged to Mrs. Welman’s nephew by marriage, Roddy Welman. Unfortunately for Elinor, Roderick (or Roddy) falls in love with Mary. Realizing that marriage to Roddy would be useless, Elinor ends the engagement, freeing him to pursue Mary. But her resentment toward her aunt’s companion fails to fade. And when Mary dies from poisoning during an afternoon tea, suspicion falls upon Elinor and she is arrested for murder. When Poirot and the authorities discover that Mrs. Welman had died of poisoning and was the real mother of Mary Gerard, Elinor is charged with the murder of her aunt.

I have one complaint about ”SAD CYPRESS”. The revelation of the murderer produced a contrived ending to an otherwise first-rate murder mystery. I am not joking. The method in which the two crimes were committed and how Poirot came to the truth seemed rather unbelievable.

With that out of the way, I did find the rest of ”SAD CYPRESS” to be very satisfying. Hell, it was more than satisfying. One, Poirot found himself with a case that seemed nearly hopeless for Elinor Carlisle. Two, it was a case that featured two murders committed in the distant past. I have a soft spot for murder stories that come close to resembling historical mysteries. Three, not only did Poirot play a major role in this story – much stronger than he did in ”THE HOLLOW”, but so did the Elinor Carlisle character. One would think that the Mary Gerard character had a major impact upon the story. And she . . . plot wise. But for me, Elinor Carlisle had a stronger impact. On the surface, she seemed like a pleasant and well-bred young woman who kept her emotion in check. But that was simply a façade. Despite her reserved nature, Elinor’s raging emotions seemed to be felt or sensed by those around her. The impact of her personality gave the story an emotional punch that I found rewarding.

The producers of ”SAD CYPRESS” certainly selected the right actress to portray Elinor Carlisle. Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh was the right woman to project an air of English gentility that masked the personality of a passionate woman who loved just a little too heavily. Especially in scenes that required little or no dialogue, Dermot-Walsh did a superb job in displaying great pathos. Also superb was David Suchet as Poirot. I must admit that ”SAD CYPRESS” featured what I believe to be one of Suchet’s better performances in the role. In this particular movie, his Poirot projected a large array of emotions – frustration, patience, perplexity and cunning – that I have rarely seen in many other Poirot movies.

The rest of the cast struck me as pretty solid. Rupert Penry-Jones proved once again what a chameleon he could be in his dead-on portrayal of Elinor’s fiancé, the supercilious, yet proud and shallow Roderick Welman. Phyllis Logan gave a complex performance as one of the nurses, Nurse Hopkins. Paul McGann was vibrant as the passionate Dr. Peter Lord, the local doctor who was in love with Elinor Carlisle. Kelly Reilly portrayed the story’s catalyst, Mary Gerard. But the character struck me as so bland that I felt Reilly could hardly do anything with the role.

Production designer Michael Pickwoad did a solid job of supporting the movie’s setting of 1937-38 rural England. And Sheena Napier’s costume designs seemed historically accurate and colorful without being too theatrical. Thanks to a first-rate cast led by David Suchet and Elisabeth Dermot-Walsh , along with Dave Moore’s adaptation of Christie’s emotional tale of jealousy and greed, ”SAD CYPRESS” turned out to be one of the better versions of a Christie murder mystery I have seen in the past decade.