“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

Below is my review of the 2004 BBC miniseries, “NORTH AND SOUTH”, which is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel: 

“NORTH AND SOUTH” (2004) Review

If someone had told me years ago that I would find myself watching the 2004 BBC television adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1855 novel, let alone purchase a DVD copy of the miniseries, I would have dismissed that person’s notion as inconceivable. I have never shown any previous interest in ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. And I am still baffled at how I suddenly became interested in it. 

Mind you, I have been aware of the 2004 miniseries for the past several years. This was due to my interest in the three miniseries based upon John Jakes’ literary trilogy about two families during the years before, during and after the American Civil War. Every time I tried to find photographs or websites about Jakes’ trilogy, I would end up encountering material on the BBC miniseries. It took me at least three to four years to express any real interest in ”NORTH AND SOUTH”. But in the end, I found it difficult to ignore the mid-Victorian setting (a period I have always been interested in) and decided to include the miniseries on my Netflix rental list.

But when Netflix decided to offer the opportunity to view ”NORTH AND SOUTH” via the computer, I watched the first fifteen minutes of Episode One . . . and became intrigued. Then I accessed at least two scenes from the miniseries on YOU TUBE – namely John Thornton’s marriage proposal to Margaret Hale and Nicholas Higgins’ castigation of Boucher for ruining the strike via violence and became hooked. I had to see the entire miniseries as soon as possible. So what did I do? Instead of moving”NORTH AND SOUTH” to the top of my Netflix list, I purchased a DVD copy of the miniseries. Just like that. Yes, I know I could have easily done the former. But for some reason, I found myself longing to own the DVD. And you know what? I am very glad that I made the purchase.

The miniseries is an adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel about the cultural clash between England’s pastoral South and the industrial North in the 1850s. It told the story of Margaret, a well-to-do young woman from southern England who is forced to move to the North after her clergyman father became a church dissenter and decided to leave the clergy. With the help of a family friend named Mr. Bell, the Hales managed to find a home in the city of Milton (a stand-in for Manchester). However, they end up struggling to adjust itself to the industrial town’s customs, especially after meeting the Thorntons, a proud family that owns a cotton mill called Marlborough Mills. The story explored the issues of class and gender, as Margaret’s sympathy for the town mill workers conflicts with her growing attraction to John Thornton.

Many have compared ”NORTH AND SOUTH” to the 1995 miniseries ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel. Personally, I only saw scant resemblance between the two stories. Both featured a romance between a plucky, yet genteel heroine and a brooding hero. But the personalities of Margaret Hale and John Thornton seemed a far cry from those of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Also, ”NORTH AND SOUTH” seemed more than just a costumed romantic story filled with misunderstandings. As I had mentioned in the previous paragraph, it is a social drama about class and gender differences. It is also an exploration of the rise of the Industrial Age and its effects upon people, Great Britain’s economy and the environment. Most importantly, the story is a cultural clash between the pastoral South represented by Margaret Hale and John Thornton’s industrial North.

The miniseries’ exploration of the cotton textile industry led me to ponder a few things about the story’s background. A conversation between Thornton and some of his fellow mill owners led to a mention of the cotton they have purchased from cotton planters in the American South. Although their conversation only touched upon the different locations where cotton is grown, the subject would end up having an impact upon England’s cotton textile industry following the outbreak of the American Civil War. I also noticed that mill workers like Nicholas Higgins and his daughters Bessie and Mary refer to their bosses as ”Master” – the same term African-American slaves use for their owners. I can only speculate on that astounding coincidence.

I have never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. Perhaps I will, one day. But I understand there had been a few changes in this adaptation. One, the miniseries depicted Margaret’s initial meeting with Thornton at a time when he was beating one of his employees for smoking on the Marlborough Mills premises. Naturally, Margaret viewed Thornton’s actions as cruel and barbaric – typical of men in that region. Screenwriter Sandy Welch had created the scene for the miniseries, believing it would better serve as an opening salvo for Margaret’s dislike of Thornton and her prejudices against the North in a more dramatic manner. Although some fans have complained against this artistic license, I have not. Especially since Welch’s screenplay explained that the worker’s smoking could have endangered the employees with a devastating fire. I also feel that this scene visually worked better than Gaskell’s literary introduction of the two main characters.

Another major change in the miniseries featured Margaret and Thornton’s final reconciliation at a railway station between London and Milton. The scene featured Margaret offering financial aid to Thornton for the defunct Marlborough Mills and a romantic kiss between the two. Many have pointed out the lack of discretion of such a kiss in Victorian Britain and they are probably right. But I must admit that I found it damn romantic – probably more so than Elizabeth and Darcy’s reconciliation in most of the ”PRIDE AND PREJUDICE” adaptations I have seen.

Production designer Simon Elliot did a first-rate job in recapturing Great Britain in the early 1850s. I especially applaud his decision to use parts of Edinburgh as a stand-in for Milton. This was a wise decision, considering that the Scottish metropolis managed to retain many of its buildings from the Victorian industrial era. Elliot ended up receiving a much deserved British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. Not only did Peter Greenhalgh’s photography also captured the period’s mood, but also used different tints of color to distinguish the three main settings in the story – Helstone in Southern England, the Northern industrial town of Milton and London. Mike O’Neill’s costumes suited the period, the personalities of each major character and their circumstances throughout the story. In fact, the miniseries even touched upon the differences between Fanny Thornton’s wide crinoline skirts and the Hale women’s more subdued ones – pinpointing the financial differences between the three female characters and their families. And what can I say about Martin Phipps’ score? Not only was it beautiful, but also haunting enough to be memorable.

The only problems I had with ”NORTH AND SOUTH” centered on its pacing in late Episode 3 and in Episode 4. I think the miniseries could have benefitted from a fifth episode. There seemed to be too many deaths and other incidents during this period of the story for two episodes. I suppose one could blame Gaskell or also her editor – author Charles Dickens – for rushing her toward the end. Too much occurred during these last two episodes – the deaths, Thornton’s friendship with Higgins, Frederick Hale’s reunion with his family, Margaret’s legal problems, Fanny Thornton’s marriage, Thornton’s financial crisis and Margaret’s reunion with her family members in the South and Henry Lennox. I do believe that a fifth episode could have suffice. Also, Welch introduced two characters to the story – a banker named Latimer and his daughter Ann. I believe Ann was used or to be used as Margaret’s rival for Thornton’s romantic interest. Only the so-called rivalry never really went anywhere.

”NORTH AND SOUTH” was really blessed with a first-rate cast – both leading and supporting. Try as I might, I could not find a performance I would consider to be out-of-step. Neither Tim Piggot-Smith or Lesley Manville had received much notice for their portrayal of Margaret’s parents – Richard and Maria Hale. It seemed a shame, considering I found myself very impressed by their performances. Both did an excellent job in conveying how dysfunctional and emotionally repressed the Hale household tended to be. This was especially made apparent in an emotionally charged scene in which Maria Hale expressed her dislike of Milton and lack of understanding toward her husband’s decision to give up the clergy. Brian Protheroe portrayed Mr. Hale’s closest friend and Margaret’s godfather, Mr. Bell. I have not seen Protheroe since he portrayed Maryam D’Abo’s love interest in the 1990 adaptation of Jeffrey Archer’s novel, ”NOT A PENNY MORE, NOT A PENNY LESS”. As Mr. Bell, he was just as charming and ambiguous as he had been back in 1990. Jo Joyner gave a funny and interesting performance as Fanny Thornton, John’s shallow and capricious younger sister. There were times I wondered if Fanny’s character had a one-dimensional note about it, despite Joyner’s hilarious performance. However, the actress did manage to convey the character’s jealousy of not only Margaret, but also her older brother. I also got the feeling, thanks to some subtle moments in Joyner’s performance that Fanny did not like her mother very much. And resented the older woman.

One could never harbor doubts that Sinéad Cusack’s portrayal of Hannah Thornton might be one-dimensional. Aside from the two leads, she gave one of the best performances in the miniseries. Thanks to Cusack’s complex performance, there were times when I could not decide whether to dislike Mrs. Thornton for her hostile attitude toward Margaret, or like her for her warm and devoted relationship with John. In the end, I guess I liked her. She seemed too interesting, too well-written and well-acted by Cusack for me to dismiss her. Besides, I suspect that her attitude toward Margaret had a great deal to do with concern for her son. I found Brendan Coyle and Anna Maxwell Martin’s performances as the mill workers, Nicholas and Bessie Higgins just as impressive. Costume dramas rarely focused upon working-class characters. Yet, both Coyle and Martin ably breathed life into their roles, they did an excellent of conveying the strong impact that both father and daughter had upon the lives of other main characters – especially through their friendships with Margaret and Thornton.

Before I actually saw ”NORTH AND SOUTH”, I had read a great deal about the John Thornton character and actor Richard Armitage, who had portrayed him. Granted, the man possessed unusual looks, but I never gave him much thought . . . until I saw a clip of his performance in the miniseries’ marriage proposal scene. But once I saw the miniseries in its entirety, I could see why Armitage’s performance had generated a slew of fans. His John Thornton blew me away. Literally. The actor gave an outstanding performance as the hard-nosed, yet emotion cotton mill owner who found himself falling in love with this stranger from the South. As a rule, I am not particularly inclined toward overtly masculine types and I am still not. Armitage’s Thornton might have been described in that manner . . . superficially. Yet, the actor managed to transcend this cliché by infusing Thornton with a passionate, yet insecure nature. His Thornton was a man who literally wore his heart on his sleeve. Armitage’s performance is truly remarkable.

I could probably say the same about Daniela Denby-Ashe’s portrayal of the story’s central character, Margaret Hale. I had read an article that Denby-Ashe had auditioned for the role of Fanny Thornton. All I can say is thank goodness that producer Kate Baylett had the good sense to realize that the actress would be the right person to portray Margaret. And Denby-Ashe was magnificent. Not only did she perfectly capture the genteel and internalized aspects of Margaret’s personality, she also conveyed the character’s strong-willed and opinionated nature. And Denby-Ashe’s Margaret proved to be just as intimidating as Armitage’s Thornton. This was especially apparent in two scenes – Margaret’s demand that Thornton do something to protect his new Irish workers from the strikers and her hostile outburst toward Helstone’s new vicar after he had criticized her father’s dissention. She was magnificent in the role.

I really must applaud how producer Kate Barlett, screenwriter Sandy Welch and especially director Brian Percival did a superb job in adapting Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel. In fact, I firmly believe it is one of the best programs that aired on television in the past decade. And yet . . . the only real accolade it managed to receive was a British Academy Television Award nomination for Best Production Design. And nothing else. No nominations for acting, writing or direction. Frankly, I consider this to be a travesty. Am I to believe that the bigwigs at BBC and the British media had this little respect for ”NORTH AND SOUTH” or Elizabeth Gaskell? I am even beginning to suspect that the American media has little respect for it. The only airing of the miniseries was a chopped up version that aired on BBC America, instead of PBS or the A&E Channel. How sad that certain people do not know a really good thing when they see it.

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“QUANTUM OF SOLACE” (2008) Review

“QUANTUM OF SOLACE” (2008) Review

I am going to be perfectly frank. When I first saw the 2008 James Bond movie, “QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, I  had hesitated to write a review.  Why? Because it had left me in a daze. Four days after I saw the movie I continued to experience slight feelings of confusion about it.  It was not until my second viewing of the film that I finally developed solid opinions of the film.

”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” was a direct sequel of the 21st film in the Bond franchise, ”CASINO ROYALE”. The previous movie ended with James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) discovery that the woman he loved – an accountant for the British government named Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) – had betrayed him during his dealings with a banker for terrorist named Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen). Before she committed suicide during his fight against some thugs hired by the organization behind Le Chiffre in Venice, Vesper left Bond a name and telephone number that linked to a Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), a business middleman with connections to an organization that finances terrorism. By the end of”CASINO ROYALE”, Bond managed to capture Mr. White with a well placed shot to the latter’s kneecap. ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” picked up with Bond being chased by Mr. White’s associates on a road to Sienna, Italy. After eluding the thugs in a deadly road chase, Bond delivered a wounded Mr. White to a MI-6 safe house in the Italian city.

Due to Mr. White’s capture and unsuccessful interrogation, Bond and ‘M’ (Judi Dench) learned that the organization behind the prisoner – Quantum – has many spies planted throughout top-level government agencies around the world. One of those spies turned out to be ‘M’’s bodyguard, who allowed Mr. White to escape via an attack on ‘M’. Bond managed to track down and kill the traitorous Mitchell before he could question the man. However, a few banknotes found in the latter’s pockets allowed MI-6 to track down one of Mitchell’s contacts – a man named Slate in Haiti. This encounter with Slate led Bond to a revenge-bent Bolivian Secret Service agent named Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko) and her connections to Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric) and Quantum. The rest of the movie focused upon Bond resorting to almost any means possible to learn more about Quantum, foil their plans to control the water supply in Bolivia, and help Camille deal with her desire for revenge against General Medrano (Joaquin Cosío), a Bolivian general responsible for her family’s death and who has a business/political arrangement with Greene and Quantum.

I have to admit that I found ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”to be a well written film. I believe the screenwriters did a first-rate job in creating a sequel to ”CASINO ROYALE”. Not only did they bring back characters like Mr. White, Rene Mathis and Felix Leiter from the last film, the script even continued the issue of Bond’s relationship with Vesper Lynd and his reaction to her death. Several scenes touched upon this continuation:

*Mr. White’s mention of Vesper’s death in Venice
*’M’ and Bond’s discussion at MI-6 Headquarters of Vesper’s French-Algerian boyfriend
*Rene Mathis and Bond’s discussion of Vesper during their flight to Bolivia
*Mathis’ insistence that Bond forgive Vesper for her betrayal and himself for being fooled before the former’s death
*Bond’s reaction to Camille’s revelation about her own desire for vengeance against General Medrano
*Bond’s encounter with Yusef, Vesper’s French-Algerian boyfriend and member of Quantum, who was hired to compromise her, at the end of the film
*Shots of Vesper and Yusef in a photograph
*A shot of Le Chiffre on a computer screen.

When I had first learned of rumors that Quantum, the organization behind Le Chiffre, Mr. White and Dominic Greene, would be on the same level as S.P.E.C.T.R.E. from the 1960s films, I nearly had a negative reaction to the idea. The last thing I wanted was for EON Productions to attempt to turn back the clock and rehash old storylines. Fortunately, Quantum seemed more representative of the present-day practice of socio-economy by multinational corporations than a criminal organization that S.P.E.C.T.R.E. represented. Yet, like many of these corporations, Quantum does not seem above using violence to achieve some of their means. One of my favorite scenes about Quantum featured Bond’s discovery of certain members of the organization holding a clandestine meeting during an opera in Bregenz, Austria. Another favorite featured a meeting about Bond’s actions between ‘M’ and the Foreign Minister (Tim Pigott-Smith), in which the Minister reminded ‘M’ that they live in times in which governments for countries like the U.S. and Great Britain have a need to cooperate with organizations like Quantum for declining natural resources.

Like ”CASINO ROYALE”, this latest Bond film is blessed with a first-rate cast. Cast members like Judi Dench, Jesper Christiansen, Jeffrey Wright and Giancarlo Giannini repeated their excellent performances. Not only did Dench get a chance to repeat her electrifying chemistry with leading man Daniel Craig, she and Pigott-Smith gave excellent performances in the scene featuring the tense meeting between ‘M’ and the Foreign Secretary. Jesper Christiansen returned in his role as the mysterious Mr. White. Only in this film, he is not as reserved as he had been in “CASINO ROYALE”. Still, I could tell that Christiansen seemed to be enjoying himself. The character of Mr. White managed to escape MI-6’s clutches after Mitchell’s attack upon ‘M’ and a few other agents. How he managed to achieve this with a busted kneecap is beyond my comprehension.

Not only was I pleased to see Jeffrey Wright reprise his role as Felix Leiter, I was especially pleased that Wright was given a chance to expand on his work from the previous movie. In ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”, Leiter and a fellow CIA agent named Gregg Beam (David Harbour) are offering U.S. support to Quantum’s plans to help General Medrano stage a coup in Bolivia for oil leases. This situation allowed Wright to masterfully display Felix’s torn loyalties to what he seemed to consider as a distasteful duty and his newly established friendship with Bond. And it was great to see Giannini return as the wise and always witty Rene Mathis. After his arrest in ”CASINO ROYALE”, MI-6 realized they had been wrong and compensated him with a villa on a small island near Italy. Bond and Mathis make their peace before the former convinces the latter to help him deal with Greene and General Medrano. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Giannini and Craig gave beautiful performances in a scene featuring a heart-to-heart discussion between Mathis and Bond about Vesper aboard a Virgin Airline flight to Bolivia. Giannini had never been better.

Most of the supporting characters in ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” turned out to be a mixed bag for me. I was impressed by Joaquin Cosio’s portrayal of the greedy and ruthless General Medrano, the Bolivian strongman who had murdered Camille’s family and wants Quantum and the CIA’s help to regain power in the country. Instead of indulging in the usual clichés of the archtypical Latin American dictator, Cosio portrayed Medrano with more restraint and some intelligence. David Harbour was effective as the smug CIA agent, Gregg Beam, who viewed Bond’s activities as nothing more than a threat to his agency’s plans to acquire Bolivian oil leases. On the other hand, I was not impressed by Anatole Taubman’s role as Elvis, Dominic Greene’s cousin and henchman. I had no problem with Taubman’s performance. The problem seemed to be that . . . his presence in the movie was useless. It added nothing to the story. I could almost say the same about Gemma Arterton’s role as MI-6 agent, Strawberry Fields. In fact, I could honestly say that I wish she had never been included in the story in the first place. Her presence in the film was a waste of time. One, she was an unpleasant reminder – at least to me – of those past Bond girls with the ridiculous names and who did nothing more than serve as Bond’s bed warmers. This is exactly how Arterton’s character served the movie. Even worse, the discovery of her body covered in oil brought about an unpleasant reminder of the 1964 movie, ”GOLDFINGER”. It was bad enough that the movie’s screenwriters felt they had to pay homage to a past Bond film. But that the movie in question turned out to be one that I more or less despise was a bit too much for me.

Fortunately, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” also featured an impressive Olga Kurychenko as the Bond leading lady, Camille Montes. The Ukrainian-born actress had to adopt a South American accent for the role as the feisty Russian-Bolivian woman who joined her country’s secret service to avenge the deaths of her family by killing General Medrano. I had first saw Kurychenko in ”HITMAN” with Timothy Olyphant. Although I found the movie rather mediocre, I was more than impressed by her acting skills and her energy, which she effectively infused in her portrayal of Camille. Camille must be the only Bond leading female who has not shared a love scene with the MI-6 agent. Mind you, Camille is not exactly the most impressive Bond girl I have come across. Her personality struck me as a little too impatient and not very skilled as a killer. But Kurychenko did an effective job of conveying this part of Camille’s nature. Ironically, this served the movie rather well considering that both characters were too obsessed in their goals to even consider romance with each other.

The prevailing view of Mathieu Amalric’s role as Dominic Greene, the film’s main villain, seemed to be divided amongst Bond fans. Some view the character as weak and others seemed very impressed. Count me amongst the latter. I had first been impressed by Amalric’s performance in the Steven Spielberg film, ”MUNICH” (in which Daniel Craig also co-starred). My positive view on the actor’s talent continued in ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE”. I realize that many Bond fans seemed to be more impressed by over-the-top villains. My tastes in villainy seemed to swerve in the opposite direction and I felt more than pleased that Amalric’s Greene strongly reminded me of more subtle villains like Georgi Koskov, Le Chiffre and Ari Kristatos. Amalric gave a skillful performance of a complex man whose witty persona hid a ruthless and cold-blooded nature.

Finally, we come to the man of the hour – namely Daniel Craig in his second outing as MI-6 agent James Bond. His performance in ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” was just as superb and breathtaking as his debut performance. I have spent several days trying to find something wrong with Craig’s acting skills in this film. Honestly. So far, I have yet to find fault with his work. Craig effectively managed to continue Bond’s story by conveying the agent’s reactions to the events of ”CASINO ROYALE”. Burned by Vesper’s betrayal, Bond has become an angry man who is also grieving over the death of a woman he had loved very much. Although he tries to keep his anger in check and simply do his job in investigating and exposing Quantum, there are times when his emotions threatened to spiral out of control. And Craig did a superb job in projecting this stage in Bond’s emotional state. Once again, the actor gave a performance that certainly deserved recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And I am quite certain that for the second time, he will be ignored by them.

As I had stated earlier, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” had a good, solid story that could have effectively served as a follow-up to ”CASINO ROYALE” thanks to screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Paul Haggis and uncredited writer Joshua Zetumer (uncredited). Remember when I had stated that the movie had left me in a daze? The following is the reason why. Despite the solid screenplay scripted by the four writers, director Marc Forster nearly ruined the story’s effectiveness with what I can only describe as a rush job with the help of editors Matt Chesse and Rick Pearson. There seemed to be a lot going in the movie’s plot. But Forster failed to unfold that story with a slower pace that would have served the movie in a more effective manner. Instead, the director filled the movie’s first half with a countless array of action sequences that almost left me as dizzy as the last two movies from the ”BOURNE”franchise. It almost seemed as if Forster had channeled Paul Greengrass’ worst directorial traits. This was especially true in the movie’s first two sequences – a mind altering car chase from Mr. White’s villa to Sienna and Bond’s pursuit of the traitorous MI-6 agent Mitchell through the streets of Sienna, Italy. By the time the movie shifted to Bond’s appearance at Mathis’ Italian villa, I was finally able to catch a breath and enjoy the movie without any accompanying dizzy spells. Another victim of Forster’s fast pacing was the story itself. The plot had nearly fallen victim to Forster’s attempt to be stylish and unique with his fast pace and editing.

Thankfully, not all seemed lost for the film’s action sequences. There were three of them that I found impressive. I enjoyed Bond’s deadly fight with Slate inside the latter’s hotel room in Haiti. I also enjoyed the finale sequence in which Bond dueled against Dominic Greene, while Camille struggled in her attempt to kill General Medrano. But the most effective action sequence – at least for me – turned out to be the aerial dogfight between Bond in a Douglas DC-3 propeller plane and Quantum pilots in both an Aermacchi SF-260 fighter and a Bell UH-1 helicopter. As far as I am concerned, Chesse and Pearson did their best work in this scene. And they were ably assisted by Roberto Schaefer’s excellent photography.

James Bond traveled to many locations in this film – Sienna, Italy; Haiti; Bregenz, Austria; back to Italy and Bolivia. Despite this dizzying array of locations, I must admit that I found most of them rather uninspiring aside from Haiti (filmed in Panama) and the Italian location that served as the backdrop for Mathis’ villa. ”CASINO ROYALE” had surprised the world with a very memorable gun barrel sequence, following its pre-title sequence. ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” did the same with a gun barrel sequence near the end of the film. Unfortunately, the latter sequence was not only very ineffective, but rushed . . . just like the movie’s pacing. One major controversy had arisen from the film. Producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson had decided to bypass Amy Winehouse as the performer for the film’s theme song and selected Jack White and Alicia Keys. White provided the song, ”Another Way to Die”, and Keys the vocals. Granted, the song is not that memorable to me. It was tolerable, but not memorable. And it is certainly not the worst Bond song I have ever heard. The song, ”Goldeneye”, still holds that honor in my eyes. And quite frankly, I preferred listening to ”Another Way to Die” over watching the horrendous main title designs created by a company called MK12. From what I understand, Marc Forster had been the one who wanted the company hired for the job, instead of Daniel Kleinman. That man has a lot to answer for.

In the end, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” was a memorable follow up to Daniel Craig’s first outing as James Bond, ”CASINO ROYALE” Was it just as good or better than the 2006 film? No. If EON Productions had hired a director more suited for action, remove characters like Strawberry Fields and Elvis from the cast and slowed down the movie’s pace, it could have been just as good. Instead, ”QUANTUM OF SOLACE” turned out to be a movie that I would rank as ”Very Good”, instead of ”Excellent”.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

Below is my review of “THE FOUR FEATHERS”, Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel:

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (2002) Review

To my knowledge, there have been seven cinematic versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 adventure story, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS”. The first version was released in 1915 as a black-and-white silent film. The most famous and highly revered version was produced by legendary producer Alexander Korda in 1939. And the latest version – the focus of this review – was released in 2002. Heath Ledger, Kate Hudson and Wes Bentley starred in the film. And it was directed by Shekhar Kapur.

”THE FOUR FEATHERS” began with Harry Faversham (Heath Ledger), a young British officer of the Royal Cumbrians infantry regiment and the son of a stern British general, celebrating his recent engagement to the beautiful young Ethne (Kate Hudson) in a lavish ball with his fellow officers and his father in attendance. When the regimental colonel announced that the regiment is being dispatched to Egyptian-ruled Sudan to rescue the British general Charles “Chinese” Gordon (who was being besieged in Khartoum by Islamic rebels of The Mahdi), young Faversham became nervous and resigned his commission. After resigning his commission, Harry’s charmed life began to fall apart. Despite his claims that his decision to in order to stay in England with new fiancée because he would never “go to war for anyone or anything”, three of his fellow officers – Tom Willoughby (Rupert Penry-Jones), Edward Castleton (Kris Marshall) and William Trench (Michael Sheen) censured Harry by delivery three white feathers (signs of cowardice). Ethne ended their engagement and presented him with a fourth feather. And both Harry’s best friend, Jack Durrance (Wes Bentley) and his father, General Faversham (Tim Piggott-Smith) disavowed him. With his former comrades already en route to the conflict, the young Faversham questioned his own true motives, and resolved to redeem himself through combat in Sudan. Disguised as an Arab laborer, he accompanied a French slave trader to take him deep into the Sudanese desert. Faversham is left alone in the vast sands when the slave trader is killed by his own Sudanese slaves. Eventually a lone black Sudanese warrior named Abou Fatma (Djimon Hounsou), who is against the Mahdists’ rebellion, came to Harry’s aid and helped the latter redeem himself through combat against the Mahdists.

In the beginning, ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” bore a strong resemblance to the 1902 novel it is based upon and the 1939 movie. Granted, in this version, General Faversham is a living and somewhat stern parent, and not some dead military hero in whose shadow Harry is forced to live. And Ethne’s father is dead. The most important aspect of this version of the story is the fact that the British presence in the Sudan is not portrayed in a sympathetic light. Following Colonel Hamilton’s (Alex Jennings) announcement of the Royal Cumbrians being deployed to the Sudan, Harry made this comment to Jack:

“What does a godforsaken desert, in the middle of nowhere, have to do with Her Majesty the Queen?”

Mind you, I did not take Harry’s question as a commentary against British Imperialism. I suspect that Harry’s question had more to do with him dreading the idea of going to war than any anti-Imperialist sympathies. But once the story shifted toward the Sudan, the anti-British Imperialism messages came across in the following scenes:

*The Royal Cumbrians’ encounter with a Sudanese sniper
*Harry’s travels with the French slave trader and the latter’s “merchandise”
*Abou Fatma’s attempt to warn the Royal Cumbrians of an impending attack and his treatment at their hands
*Ethne’s regret over her rejection of Harry
*Harry and Abou’s conversations about the differences between Eastern and Western culture

Surprisingly, the European characters are not the only ones shown to be capable of bigotry. Abou Fatma has to deal with the Sudanese Arab soldiers who seemed offended by his presence, due to his kinship with the tribe that had served as slaves for the soldiers’ families and ancestors. Also, both Harry and Trench, along with other British and anti-Mahdist prisoners have to deal with the malevolent commander of the prison camp at Omdurman, Idris-Es-Saier, whose hatred toward them stemmed from the death of his family by British artillery.

As I had stated earlier, the 1939 version (which starred John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson) is considered to be the best version of Mason’s novel. I have seen the 1939 version and I must admit that I found it pretty damn enjoyable. As much as I found the 1939 version entertaining, I must admit that this latest version – directed by Shekhar Kapur – happens to be my favorite. Like the other versions of this tale, it is filled with exciting action and does an excellent job of recapturing both British and the Sudanese societies in the late nineteenth century, thanks to Allan Cameron’s production design, Ahmed Abounouom and Zack Grobler’s art direction and Robert Richardson’s photography. But for me, the movie proved to be more than simply a costumed adventure film. Thanks to the ”political correctness”slant provided by screenwriters Michael Schiffer and Hossein Amini and especially Shekhar Kapur’s direction; this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” seemed to have more emotional depth and ambiguity than other versions. Not only did Kapur and the two writers challenge the positive view on the British Empire, but also Western views on masculinity and Islamic cultures.

One of the biggest criticisms directed at this version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” centered around the movie’s major action sequence – namely the Battle of Abu Klea. During the actual historical battle, which had been fought between January 16-18, 1885, the famous British square had been briefly broken by the Mahdists before it closed, forcing the latter to retreat. In the movie, the square formed by the Royal Cumbrians was permanently broken, resulting in the regiment’s retreat, Castleton’s death and Trench’s capture by Mahdists. In other words, the movie received criticism for not being historically accurate. The charge of historical inaccuracy does have validity. But I do find the critics’ accusations rather hypocritical, considering that hardly no one paid attention to the historical inaccuracy of another Kapur movie, namely the 1998 Academy Award nominated film, ”ELIZABETH”. I can only assume that it is easier to criticize a film that challenged Western culture for historical inaccuracy and ignore the same flaw in a film that celebrated a famous Western monarch.

Before I end this review, I want to say something about the performances.”THE FOUR FEATHERS” possessed an excellent supporting cast that featured an entertaining Michael Sheen as the witty and extroverted William Trench, a competent Rupert Penry-Jones as the regiment’s finicky and slightly narrow-minded Tom Willoughby, and an excellent Deobia Oparei who portrayed the intimidating Idris-Es-Saier. Kris Marshall’s performance as the religious Edward “Vicar” Willoughby seemed pretty solid, but there were moments when I found it slightly overwrought. Wes Bentley portrayed Jack Durrance, Harry’s reserved best friend who was also in love with Ethne. I must admit that I found myself very impressed by Bentley’s performance. He did an excellent job of portraying a very intense character whose emotions were conveyed through his eyes and expressions. And as far as I am concerned, Djimon Hounsou could do no wrong in this movie. His portrayal of the enigmatic Abou Fatma was spot on. His performance could have easily become another example of one of those ”Magical Negro” roles in which a non-white character dispensed wisdom and comfort to the main white character. Yes, Fatma offered some advice and assistance to Harry Faversham. But thanks to Schiffer and Amini’s script and Hounson’s performance, Fatma became a more complicated character that ended up undergoing his own journey in becoming acquainted with someone from another culture.

Kate Hudson did an excellent job in portraying the spirited Ethne, Harry’s fiancée and the object of Jack’s desire. Hudson’s portrayal of Ethne was interesting and a little unexpected. I had expected her to react with anger over Harry’s lies about his resignation from the Army and fear over the opinions of society. I had expected her to form a closer friendship with Jack – a friendship that eventually led to their engagement. What I had not expected was for Ethne to express regret over her rejection of Harry. In this movie, Harry did not have to earn back her love through heroic acts in the Sudan. Interestingly, Ethne felt both guilt and self-disgust for worrying about how the rest of society would view Harry’s resignation and her association with him. I realize this is another example of the ”political correctness” found in the movie’s script. Frankly, I welcomed it. This slant made Ethne’s character a lot more interesting to me. And Hudson did a hell of a job with what was given to her.

We finally come to Heath Ledger’s performance as Harry Faversham, the disgraced Army officer who tried to find redemption in the Sudanese desert. The interesting thing about Harry’s character was that he truly was guilty of cowardice. Some of his cowardice centered on his lie to Ethne about his reason for leaving the Army. But for me, Harry’s worst act of cowardice occurred before the movie began. He buckled under pressure from society and especially his father, General Faversham, and joined the Royal Cumbrians as an officer. He allowed society, Ethne and his father to pressure him into assuming a life filled with lies. I suspect that Harry believed that as long as his regiment remained in England, he would have no problems maintaining the lie. But he could no longer maintain the lie when Colonel Hamilton announced the regiment’s deployment to the Sudan. The most interesting aspect about Harry’s journey was that he did not reach the nadir of his emotional journey until late into the film. The nadir did not happen when he received the white feathers from his friends and Ethne. Nor did it happened when he found himself stranded in the desert with nothing but a camel, when he discovered via Jack’s letters that the latter and Ethne had formed a deeper bond, or when he found himself in the Omdurman prison camp with Trench. No, Harry’s nadir finally arrived when he stripped away any civil façade of himself and he killed Idris-Es-Saier. At that moment, Harry’s true animal self – something that all human beings possessed – was finally revealed.

I must admit that I am curious over Ledger’s reputation as an actor before he did ”BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” (2005). I would be very surprised if it took his role as Ennis de Mar for critics to take his skills as an actor seriously. Quite frankly, I was very impressed by his performance as Harry Faversham. Both the script and Kapur’s direction gave Ledger the opportunity to reveal the full length of his character’s journey – from the self-satisfied, yet cowardly Army officer to the private gentleman who is not only more sure of himself, but more honest as well.

I wish I could say that Kapur’s version of ”THE FOUR FEATHERS” is for everyone. I suspect that it is not. If I must be brutally honest, I suspect that a good number of fans of the Mason’s story would be put off by the so-called”revisionist” take on the story. They would probably prefer a version in which Harry Faversham learns to find his capacity for physical or military courage. Or a version in which the British victory over the Mahdist rebels are celebrated and the Empire appreciated. But as much as I like this version of Mason’s story – especially embodied in the 1939 film – I must admit that I much prefer this latest version directed by Shekhar Kapur. Not only did I find myself impressed by the cast’s performances, I found the movie more emotionally deep and complex. More importantly, it questioned the ideals and beliefs that had been the bulwark of 19th century and still harbor some influence upon many societies today.

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” (2010) Review

I never understood director Tim Burton’s decision to name his latest film, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. I mean . . . why did he do it? His new movie was not another adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. It was a sequel set thirteen years after the original story. So why use the shortened version of the title from Carroll’s original title? 

Many of you might be wondering why I had just made a big deal about this new movie’s title. For me, it represented an example of what I consider to be the numerous missteps that prevented me from embracing Burton’s new movie. Before I continue, I should confess that I have never been a Tim Burton fan. Never. I can only recall two of his movie that knocked my socks off – 1994’s ”ED WOOD” and the 2007 Golden Globe nominee, ”SWEENY TODD”. I wish I could include ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” in that category, but I cannot. The movie simply failed to impress me.

As I had stated earlier, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” was a sequel to Carroll’s original story. Thirteen years after her original adventures in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh has become a nineteen year-old young woman on the verge of accepting a wedding proposal from one Hamish Ascot, the son of her late father’s partner, Lord Ascot. Unfortunately, Hamish is a shallow and self-absorbed young man with very little character. Salvation arrived during Hamish’s very public marriage proposal, when Alice spotted a familiar figure – the same White Rabbit who had previously lured her to Wonderland – scampering across Lord Ascot’s estate.

History repeated itself when Alice fell down into the rabbit hole. However, she soon discovered that Wonderland (orUnderland) had changed during her thirteen years absence. The Red Queen had managed to wreck havoc and assume control over most of Underland, thanks to her new ”champion” – a dragon known as the Jabberwocky. Only the realm of the Red Queen’s sister, the White Queen, has remained beyond the red-haired monarch’s reach. However, that situation threatened to change if the White Queen fails to acquire her own champion. A scroll called “the Oraculum” predicted that Alice will not only be the White Queen’s champion, but she will also defeat the Jabberwocky and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror. But due to her stubborn belief that Underland was and still is nothing but a dream, Alice was reluctant to take up the mantle of the White Queen’s champion.

Judging by the plot I had just described, ”ALICE OF WONDERLAND” should have been an enjoyable movie for me. Granted, Linda Woolverton’s script seemed like a typical ”slay the dragon” storyline that has been used in numerous fantasies. But it still had enough adventure, intrigue and personal angst for me to find it appealing. So, why did it fail to light my fire? Production designer Robert Stromberg created an interesting mixture of Gothic and animated styles for the film’s visuals in both the England and Wonderland sequences. Anthony Almaraz and his team of costume designers created lush and colorful costumes for the cast. And Dariusz Wolski’s photography brought out the best in the movie’s visual styles.

”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” could also boast some first-rate performances from the cast. Johnny Depp gave a wonderfully complicated performance as the Mad Hatter. His Mad Hatter was an interesting mixture of an extroverted personality and pathos, punctuated by bouts of borderline insanity. The Red Queen might possibly be one of Helena Bonham-Carter’s best roles. She struck me as the epitome of childishness, selfishness and cruelty. Crispin was slick, menacing and subtly funny as the Red Queen’s personal henchman, the Knave of Hearts. Anne Hathaway’s delicious portrayal of the White Queen reminded me of a Disney princess on crack. I really enjoyed it. Both Tim Piggott-Smith and Geraldine James (who were both in the 1985 miniseries, ”JEWEL IN THE CROWN”) gave solid performances as Alice’s potential in-laws – the kindly Lord Ascot and his shrewish and bullying wife, Lady Ascot. And Alan Rickman gave voice to the Blue Caterpillar in a deliciously sardonic performance. Despite my positive opinion of most of the film’s technical aspects and performances, it still failed to impress me. Why?

First of all, the movie rested upon the shoulders of Australian actress, Mia Wasikowska as the lead character, Alice Kingsleigh. I understand that Ms. Wasikowska has recently received critical acclaim for her portrayal of a suicidal teen in HBO’s ”IN TREATMENT”. It seemed a pity that she failed to be just as impressive as Alice in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Some people have labeled her performance as ”subtle”. I would call it ”insipid”. Or perhaps just plain boring. I swear I have never come across such a bland and boring performance in my life. No only did Wasikowska managed to make Alice’s battle against the Jabberwocky seem dull, she still came close to putting me to sleep in her character’s moments of triumph in the movie’s finale.

Tim Burton’s direction of ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” proved to be just as uninspiring to me, as Wasikowska’s performance. Actually, I found myself thinking of the 1992 movie, ”DEATH BECOMES HER”. I was not comparing the visual effects between the two movies. Meryl Streep had uttered a word in the 1992 movie that perfectly described my opinion of Burton’s direction. Flaccid. ”FLA-A-A-A-CI-I-ID!” How did a director with Burton’s reputation managed to take a solid fantasy adventure and make it one of the most boring films in recent Hollywood history is beyond me. His direction lacked any pep. Or spark. I had felt as if I was watching a piece of limp lettuce in action. I even began to wonder if Burton’s dull direction had affected Wasikowska’s performance. Then I remembered that actors like Depp and Bonham-Carter managed to rise above his direction. I might as well dump the blame of Wasikowska’s performance on her shoulders. As for Tim Burton . . . what is there to say? His direction simply disappointed me.

I might as well say something about the movie’s 3-D effects. They were not only disappointing to me, but also a waste of time and the extra cash I had to pay for the movie tickets. I did not care for the 3-D effects in ”AVATARS”, but it was an example of technical wizardry in compare to the 3-D photography shown in ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”. Speaking of ”AVATAR”, I have one last thing to say in regard to 3-D . . . ’Damn you, James Cameron!”. Seriously. I would like to take the man’s head and bash it through a wall for introducing 3-D to the movie going experience. In the two movies I have seen it in, I found it unimpressive. Worse, I had to pay extra movie because movie theaters are more willing to show the 3-D versions of movies like ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND”, instead of the 2-D versions.

In short, ”ALICE IN WONDERLAND” had all of the hallmarks of a solid and entertaining movie experience for me. It was the continuation of a classic fantasy adventure. Talented actors like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Crispin Glover and Anne Hathaway gave first-rate performances. And I must admit that the movie’s production designs and photography gave it a unique visual style. But all of that could not save a movie hindered by pedestrian 3-D effects, a dull and insipid performance by Mia Wasikowska and an even more insipid direction by Tim Burton. Frankly, I think it is a miracle that this movie managed to become a box-office hit.