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.

“LOST IN AUSTEN” (2008) Review

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“LOST IN AUSTEN” (2008) Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 18th Century in Television

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Recently, I noticed there were a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 18th century. In fact, I managed to count at least six productions. Astounded by this recent interest in that particular century, I decided to list them below in alphabetical order:

 

THE 18TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

banished

1. “Banished” (BBC TWO) – I do not whether this was a miniseries or regular series, but it was basically about a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia; where British convicts and their Royal Navy marine guards and officers live. Russell Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and MyAnna Buring star in this recently cancelled series.

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2. “Black Sails” (STARZ) – Toby Stephens stars in this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”, about the adventures of Captain Flint.

book of negroes

3. “Book of Negroes” (CBC/BET) – This six-part miniseries is an adaptation of Lawrence Hill historical novel about a West African girl who is sold into slavery around the time of the American Revolution and her life experiences in the United States and Canada. Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent and Cuba Gooding, Jr. star.

outlander

4. “Outlander” (STARZ) – This series is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” book series about a 1940s woman who ends up traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland. Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies star.

poldark

5. “Poldark” (BBC ONE) – Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson star in this new television adaptation of Winston Graham’s book series about a former British Army officer who returns home to Cornwall after three years fighting in the American Revolution.

sons of liberty

6. “Sons of Liberty” (HISTORY Channel) – Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall and Henry Thomas starred in this three-part miniseries about the Sons of Liberty political group and the beginning of the American Revolution.

turn - washington spies

7. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC) – Jamie Bell stars in this series about a pro-American spy ring operating on behalf of General George Washington during the American Revolution.

 

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

”ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

When I had first learned that Ridley Scott planned to direct his own version of the Robin Hood legend, I merely responded with a shake of my head. The last thing I wanted to see was another take on the famous English outlaw. But since I was a fan of the director, I decided to give it a chance. 

For years, I had harbored the belief that the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, was the true story myth about the famous outlaw. Imagine my shook when I discovered I had been wrong. One of the featurettes from the movie’s DVD release revealed that there had been numerous versions of the Robin Hood folklore. With that in mind, I found it easy to prepare myself for any version that might appear in Scott’s new movie.

”ROBIN HOOD” opened in the year 1199. Robin Longstride is a common archer who had fought alongside King Richard the Lionheart of England during the Third Crusade. Following the death of Richard during a battle in which the English Army attempted to ransack a French castle; Robin and three other common soldiers – Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlett, and Little John – attempt to return to their homeland after ten years of fighting abroad. Along the way, they come across an ambush of the Royal guard by Sir Godfrey, an English knight with French lineage and allegiance. The King of France had ordered Sir Godfrey to assassinate Richard. Having discovered that the King was already dead, Sir Godfrey is chased off by the arrival of Robin and his companions. Aiming to return to England safely and richer in pocket than they left it, Robin and his men steal the armor of the slain Knights and head for the English ships on the coast under the guise of noblemen. Before leaving the scene of slaughter, Robin promises a dying Knight, Sir Robert Loxley, to return a sword to the man’s father in Nottingham.

Upon arriving in England, Robin (disguised as Loxley) informs the Royal family of the King’s death and witnesses the crowning of King John, Richard’s younger brother. Robin and his companions head to Nottingham, where Loxley’s father, Sir Walter, asks him to continue impersonating his son in order to prevent the family lands being taken by the Crown. Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion, is initially distrustful of Robin, but soon warms to him. But before long, Robin and his friends find themselves swept into England’s political intrigue between the English Northern barons and King John; along with a threat of invasion by the King of France.

I will not deny that ”ROBIN HOOD” has a few problems. If I must be honest, there were three aspects of the film that I either disliked or left me feeling puzzled. One, I did not care for the presence of Lady Marion’s presence on the battlefield between the French invaders and the English defenders. If this was an attempt to make Lady Marion’s character more action-oriented and politically correct, it did not work with me. She did not have any experience as a warrior. Nor did the movie ever made it clear that she had been trained to fight battles or handle weapons of war, like the Éowyn character in the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy. I had no problems with the scene of Marion killing the French officer who tried to rape her. But her presence on that battlefield beneath the White Cliffs of Dover struck me as utterly ridiculous.

I also found the sequence that led to Sir Walter’s revelation that Robin’s father, Thomas Longstride, had earlier led some civil rights movement against the Crown before his death rather irrelevant. Before this revelation, Sir Walter kept hinting that he knew something about Robin. I had suspected that he would reveal that Robin was his illegitimate son or something like that. Considering that Robin seemed determined to protect the Loxleys and take up their cause against King John, I found this revelation about Robin’s father somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. My last problem with”ROBIN HOOD” centered around the movie’s ending. Following the English army’s successful defense against the French, King John reneged on his promise to the English barons that he would sign the Charter of the Forest – a document for constitutional reforms. I had no problems with this turn of events, considering that John resisted signing the document until he added it as a supplement to the Magna Carta, some sixteen to seventeen years later. Unfortunately, in addition to refusing to sign the document, King John also declared Robin Longstride aka Sir Robert Loxley an outlaw. Why? How did the King know about Robin’s true identity in the first place? Who told him? Certainly not the main villain, Sir Godfrey, who died before he could inform John that the real Sir Robert was killed in France. Neither Sir Walter or Lady Marion would have told him. Who did? And why did the King name Robin as an outlaw? Did he decided to make this declaration upon learning that Robin was NOT Sir Robert Loxley? Even if someone could provide answers to my questions, the entire scenario regarding Robin’s status at the end of the film came off as rushed to me.

But despite these misgivings of ”ROBIN HOOD”, I ended up enjoying it very much. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland did a pretty damn good job in portraying the Robin Hood legend from a new and completely fresh point-of-view. Well, perhaps it was not completely fresh. After all, the movie is obviously an origins tale about how one Robin Longstride became “Robin Hood”. I have seen a similar origins tale in the 1991 Kevin Reynolds film, ”ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES”. However, Robin’s origin tale was merely rushed in that film’s first half hour. Scott and Helgeland decided to create a more in-depth story about the outlaw’s origin in this film. In fact, the movie only featured one scene in which Robin and his friends actually participated in an act of theft. It involved the return of grain confiscated by the Crown. I would not be surprised if many had complained about this, considering that it went against the traditional grain of what to expect in a movie about Robin Hood. However, I was too busy enjoying the movie to really care.

Another aspect of ”ROBIN HOOD” that I found very admirable was its complex portrayal of the English Royal Family. Most versions of the Robin Hood tale tend to have conflicting views of the two Royal brothers – Richard and John. John is usually portrayed as a sniveling and greedy prince who resented the reputation of his older brother. And Richard is usually portrayed as the older and noble brother – something of a “straight arrow” type. Scott and Helgeland somewhat skewered these portraits in the movie. Superficially, Richard is portrayed as noble, popular with his men and pure at heart. Yet, a closer look at the monarch revealed him to be avaricious, thin-skinned and somewhat petty. After all, the movie did start with him leading an attack against a French noble’s castle in an attempt to ransack it for riches to add to the Royal coffers. And when Robin Longstride revealed his true feelings about a vicious battle led by Richard in Jeruseleum upon the monarch’s urging, the archer and his friends found themselves locked in a wooden stock during Richard’s last battle. Prince (later King) John is portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man only concerned with his desires and ego. Yet, the second half of the movie also portrayed him as a man willing to fight alongside his men in the defense of England and willing to occasionally listen to good advice. Neither Richard nor John are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. Which I found very satisfying.

In fact, I would go as far to say that ”ROBIN HOOD” is a somewhat complex and tale about the effects of the Third Crusade upon the English Royal Family, its adversarial relationship with France, which ended up lasting for centuries, and the clash between the Crown and the country’s Northern citizens. Mind you, some of these plotlines have popped up in other Robin Hood movies. But Scott and Hegeland managed to weave all of these aspects into the movie’s story with surprising skill. Mind you, they did not achieve this with any perfection, but it turned out to be a lot better than most movies are capable of handling. And all of this culminated in a superbly directed sequence in which King John, Robin and many other Englishmen defended the country’s shores against the invading French. The only aspect that slightly spoiled this scene was the presence of Lady Marion in battle. Some critics have compared this movie unfavorable to the 1938, accusing it of being lifeless and grim. Hmm . . . perhaps they were thinking of another Ridley Scott film. Because ”ROBIN HOOD” struck me as the liveliest film that he has ever directed. It did have its dark moments. But I had no problem with that. Liveliness mixed with some darkness has always appealed to me. I have always had a problem with the lack of darkness in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. It prevented that movie from having an edge of darkness that I usually like to see in an adventure film.

The movie’s technical aspects were superb. I especially have to give kudos John Mathieson for his beautiful photography. I had feared that ”ROBIN HOOD” would end up with a slightly dark look, which could be found in the 1991 Robin Hood film and even in part of ”GLADIATOR”. Mind you, the France sequences did come off as slightly dark. But once Robin and his friends reached England . . . oh my God! The photography was just beautiful. I can think of three scenes that literally blew my mind – the journey up the Thames River to London, Lady Marion and the Loxley hands working in the fields with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing in the background, and the English Army’s journey to the South East coast near Dover. I also enjoyed Janty Yates’ costumes, as well. Were her costumes historically accurate? I have not the foggiest idea. That particular period in history has never been familiar to me.

The acting in ”ROBIN HOOD” was superb. I could say ”of course”, but I have come across movies with an exceptional cast that ended up featuring some pretty bad performances. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about this movie. Russell Crowe was superb as Robin Longstride. His performance was not as flashy as the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or even Patrick Bergin. But I am thankful that it was not, because such a performance would not suit him. His screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett sizzled. I found this surprising, considering that the two actors from Down Under never worked together. Or have they? Anyway, Blanchett was just as superb as Crowe and gave an interesting take on a Lady Marion who was older and more experienced in life than the previous takes on the character. Mark Strong portrayed the traitorous Sir Godfrey. He gave his usual competent performance, but I have to admit that I found nothing exceptional about his performance. One performance that did caught my attention belonged to Oscar Isaac, who gave a complex and interesting portrayal of the young King John.

I also enjoyed Eileen Atkins’ sardonic portrayal of John and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seemed a pity that her role was not that large. I am glad that Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle and especially Kevin Durand got a chance to strut their stuff. Their performances as Robin’s friends – Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle and Little John – really enlivened the film. It helped that Crowe had recruited Doyle for the film, due to the latter’s musical collaboration with the actor. And considering that Crowe, Doyle and Grimes are all musicians as well, I suspect they must have had a merry time with some of the film’s musical interludes. Another performance that enlivened the movie came from Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Lady Marion’s father in-law, Sir Walter Loxley. There seemed to be a constant twinkle in his eyes in most of his scenes that made his presence enjoyable. There was one performance that left me feeling unsatisfied and it belonged to Matthew McFayden’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I am not saying that McFayden gave a poor performance. I am merely saying that his presence was nothing more than a waste of time. McFayden appeared long enough to sneer and make a pass at Lady Marion, attempt to placate the invading French troops in a cowardly manner and express surprise and fear at the first note received from the new “Robin Hood” near the end of the film. Like I said . . . a waste of time.

Considering that ”ROBIN HOOD” did not utilize the usual myth found in other films about the English outlaw, I am not surprised that many would dismiss it as one of Ridley Scott’s lesser films. Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I had a few problems with the movie. But overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it very much . . . considering my initial assumptions about it. Once again, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe failed to disappoint me and delivered a very entertaining film.