“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015) Review

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015) Review

Ever since I gave up reading the “NANCY DREW” novels at the age of thirteen, I have been a fan of those written by Agatha Christie. And that is a hell of a long time. In fact, my fandom toward Christie’s novels have extended toward the film and television adaptations. Among those stories that have captured my imagination were the adaptations of the author’s 1939 novel, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”.

To be honest, I have seen at least three adaptations of the 1939 novel – the 1945, 1966 and 1974 adaptations – before I had read the novel. Although I found some of the novel’s aspects a bit troubling – namely its original title and minimal use of racial slurs, overall I regard it as one of Christie’s best works . . . if not my favorite. After viewing three cinematic adaptations, I saw the BBC’s recent adaptation that aired back in December 2015 as a three-part miniseries.

I noticed that “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was the first adaptation I have seen that more or less adhered to the novel’s original novel. But it was not the first one that actually did. One of the most famous versions that stuck to the original ending before the 2015 miniseries was the Soviet Union’s 1987 movie called “DESYAT NEGRITYAT”. However, I have never seen this version . . . yet. Anyone familiar with Christie’s novel should know the synopsis. Eight strangers are invited by a mysterious couple known as Mr. and Mrs. U.N. Owen for the weekend at Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon, England in early August 1939. Well . . . not all of them were invited as guests. Waiting for them is a couple who had been recently hired by the Owens to serve as butler and cook/maid. The weekend’s hosts fail to show up and both the guests and the servants notice the ten figurines that serve as a centerpiece for the dining room table. Following the weekend’s first dinner, the guests and the two servants listen to a gramophone record that accuses each of them with a crime for which they have not been punished. The island’s ten occupants are:

*Dr. Edward Armstrong – a Harley Street doctor who is accused of killing a patient on the operating table, while under the influence of alcohol

*William Blore – a former police detective hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of killing a homosexual in a police cell

*Emily Brent – a religious spinster who is accused of being responsible for the suicide of her maid by abandoning the latter when she became pregnant out of wedlock

*Vera Claythorne – a games mistress hired to serve as Mrs. Owen’s temporary secretary, who is accused of murdering the young boy for whom she had served as a governess

*Philip Lombard – a soldier-of-fortune also hired to serve as security for the weekend, who is accused of orchestrating the murder of 21 East Africans for diamonds

*General John MacArthur – a retired British Army officer accused of murdering a fellow officer, who was his wife’s lover during World War I

*Anthony Marston – a wealthy playboy accused of killing two children via reckless driving

*Ethel Rogers – the maid/cook hired by the Owens, who is accused with her husband of murdering their previous employer

*Thomas Rogers – the butler hired by the Owens, who is accused with his wife of murdering their previous employer

*Justice Lawrence Wargrave – a retired judge accused of murdering an innocent man by manipulating the jury and sentencing him to hang

Shortly after listening to the gramophone, one member of the party dies from poisoning. Following this first death, more people are murdered via methods in synonymous with a nursery rhyme from which the island is named. The murderer removes a figurine from the dining table each time someone is killed. The island’s remaining occupants decide to work together and discover the murderer’s identity before time runs out and no one remains.

From the numerous articles and reviews I have read about the miniseries, I came away with the impression that many viewers and critics approved of its adherence to Christie’s original ending. And yet . . . it still had plenty of changes from the story. The nature of the crimes committed by five or six of the suspects had changed. According to one flashback, Thomas Rogers had smothered (with his wife Ethel looking on) their elderly employer with a pillow, instead of withholding her medicine. General MacArthur literally shot his subordinate in the back of the head, instead of sending the latter to a doomed military action during World War I. Beatrice Taylor, the pregnant girl who had committed suicide, was an orphan in this production. Lombard and a handful of his companions had literally murdered those 21 East Africans for diamonds, instead of leaving them to die with no food or other supplies. And William Blore had literally beaten his victim to death in a jail cell, because the latter was a homosexual. In the novel, Blore had simply framed his victim for a crime, leading the latter to die in prison. I have mixed feelings about some of these changes.

By allowing General MacArthur to literally shoot his wife’s lover, instead of sending the latter to his death in a suicidal charge, I found myself wondering how he got away with this crime. How did MacArthur avoid suspicion, let alone criminal prosecution, considering that Arthur Richmond was shot in the back of the head in one of the trenches? How did the murderer find out? Why did Thomas Rogers kill his employer? For money? How did the couple avoid criminal prosecution, if their employer was smothered with a pillow? Even police forensics back then would have spotted death by smothering. I understand why Phelps had made Beatrice Taylor an orphan. In this scenario, Emily Brent would have been the only one with the authority to reject Beatrice. But what about the latter’s lover? Why did the murderer fail to go after him. And how did Blore evade charges of beating a prisoner to death inside a jail cell? None of his fellow officers had questioned his actions? And if they had kept silent, this made them accessories to his crime. Then why did the murderer fail to go after them, since he or she was willing to target Ethel Rogers for being an accessory to her husband’s crime?

One character that went through something of a major change was Philip Lombard. His aggressiveness and predatory nature remained intact. But for some reason, screenwriter Sarah Phelps had decided to transfer his bigotry to both Emily Brent and William Blore. The screenplay seemed to hint through Lombard’s comments that if those 21 men had been Europeans instead of Africans, he still would have murdered them to get his hand on those diamonds. In fact, he went even further with a tart comment to Miss Brent by accusing European religious fanatics of being more responsible for the deaths of Africans than the military or mercenaries like himself. It was Blore who used a racist slur to dismiss Lombard’s crime. And it was Miss Brent, instead of Lombard, who insulted the mysterious Mr. Owens’ intermediary, Isaac Morris, with an anti-Semetic slur. I can only wonder why Phelps deemed it necessary to transfer Lombard’s bigotry to two other characters.

There were some changes that did not bother me one bit. Certain fans complained about the presence of profanity in this production . . . especially the use of ‘fuck’ by at least two or three characters, who seemed like the types who would use these words. Mild profanity has appeared in previous Christie novels and adaptations. And the word ‘fuck’ has been around since the Sixteenth Century. I really had no problem with this. Phelps also included lesbian tendencies in Emily Brent’s character. There were some complaints about this change. Personally, I had no problem with it. This change added dimension to Miss Brent’s decision to cast out Beatrice Taylor, when the latter ended up pregnant. Episode Three featured a party scene with the four surviving guests in which they indulged in booze and Anthony Marston’s drugs to relieve their anxiety over their situation. It was not included in Christie’s novel, but I thought the scene did a great job in showing the psychological impact upon the remaining characters . . . especially for Dr. Armstrong, who went into a drunken rant over the horrors he had witnessed in World War I.

Watching “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” left me with the feeling of watching some kind of early 20th century Nordic thriller. I have to credit both the producers, director Craig Viveiros, production designer Sophie Becher and cinematographer John Pardue. What I found interesting about the miniseries’ visual style is the hint of early 20th century Art Deco featured in the house’s interior, mixed with this gloomy atmosphere that truly represented the production’s violent and pessimistic tale. Everything visual aspect of this production seemed to literally scream death and doom. Even the production’s sound department did an outstanding job in contributing the story’s atmosphere, especially in those episode that featured the storm that prevented the survivors from making an attempt to leave the island. I also enjoyed Lindsay Pugh, whose costumes did an excellent job in re-creating the fashions of the late 1930s. More importantly, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was not some opportunity for a Thirties’ fashion show, but a more realistic look at how British middle-class dressed on the eve of World War II. My only complaint is the hairstyle worn by actress Maeve Darmody, who portrayed Vera Claythorne. I am referring to the long bob worn by Vera in her 1935 flashbacks, which struck me as a bit too long for that particular year.

Many have complimented both Sarah Phelps and Craig Viveiros for closely adhering to the moral quagmire of Christie’s tale. Each or most of the characters are forced to consider the consequences of their actions and their guilt. If I have to be brutally honest, I have to compliment the pair as well. At first I was inclined to criticize the production’s three hour running time, which I originally believed to be a tad too long. But now I see that the running time gave Viveiros and Phelps the opportunity more in-depth explorations of the characters – especially Vera, Blore, Miss Brent and General MacArthur. This was done through a series of flashbacks for most of the characters. I said . . . most. There were some characters that hardly received any flashbacks – especially the Rogers, Anthony Marston, Edward Armstrong and Philip Lombard. I could understand the lack of many flashbacks for one or two characters, but I would have liked to see more for Rogers, Dr. Armstrong and Lombard. Especially Lombard. I never understood why he only had one flashback that vaguely hinted his murders without his victims being seen.

On the other hand, I was more than impressed with the production’s exploration of Vera, Blore, Miss Brent, Mrs. Rogers and General MacArthur’s crimes. Both Phelps and Viveiros seemed to have went through a great deal of trouble to explore their backgrounds and crimes. In the case of Mrs. Rogers, the production did not really explore the crime of which she and her husband were accused. But the miniseries did spend some time in Episode One focusing on the consequences she had suffered from her husband’s crime . . . and I found that more than satisfying. I enjoyed how General MacArthur, Miss Brent and Blore had initially refused to acknowledge their crimes . . . and how the growing death count and the possibility of their own deaths led them to finally face their guilt, whether out loud or internally. I found General MacArthur’s acknowledgement of guilt very satisfying, for it culminated in that famous line regarding the characters’ fate:

“No one’s coming for us. This is the end.”

From a dramatic point of view, the most satisfying character arc proved to be the one that belonged to Vera Claythorne. She is not my favorite character . . . at least not in this production. Nor did I regard her as the story’s most interesting character. But I thought Phelps and Viveiros did a hell of a job handling her character arc. Vera struck me as the type who went through a great deal of effort to hide her true nature via a respectable facade. Actually, the other characters share this same trait. Judging from what I have seen from this production, no one seemed to do it better than one Vera Claythorne. I suspect most people would be hard pressed to believe that this attractive and intelligent woman would deliberately lead a young boy to his death. Like I said, I did not particularly regard Vera as the story’s most interesting character. But I do believe that Phelps and Viveiros handled her story arc with more depth and mystery than any of the other characters . . . and with more flashbacks.

While reading several articles about “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”, I noticed that many had placed emphasis on the characters’ guilt and the possibility of them facing judgment for their actions. In a way, their opinions on this topic reminded me of why the murderer had set up the whole house party in the first place. Then I remembered that the murderer had also used the house party to indulge in his or her blood lust. And the killer used the guilt of the other inhabitants to excuse the murders . . . in his or her mind. This made me wonder about society’s desire for others to pay for their sins. Especially sins that involved death. Is society’s desire for killers to pay for their crimes a disguise . . . or excuse for its own blood lust? Like I said . . . I wonder.

What else can I discuss about “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”? Oh yes. The performances. The miniseries featured a collection of well known actors and actresses from several English speaking countries, especially Great Britain. I must admit that I may have vaguely heard of Douglas Booth, but I have never seen him in any particular role, until this production. But I must say that I found his portrayal of rich playboy Anthony Marston very impressive. Booth did a beautiful job in capturing the selfish and self-indulgent nature of the young elite. I wish Anna Maxwell-Martin had a bigger role in this production. However, I had to be satisfied with her performance as Ethel Rogers, who had been hired to serve as maid and cook for the Owens’ house party. I thought she was excellent as the bullied wife of Soldier Island’s butler, Thomas Rogers. I was also impressed by Noah Taylor, who gave a first-rate performance as Rogers, who hid his brutish nature with the facade of a servile man. I only wish that Phelps had not made the same mistake as Christie – namely failing to get into Rogers’ mind. I think Taylor could have rolled with such material. Miranda Richardson gave a masterful performance as the prim and hypocritical Emily Brent, who hid her own passions and sins with a stream of moral pronouncements. Her performance culminated in that wonderful moment when her character finally acknowledged her role in that young maid’s suicide. One of my favorite performances came from Sam Neill, who portrayed the very respectful retired Army officer, General John MacArthur. Neill had claimed that this particular performance was not a stretch for him, since MacArthur reminded him of his own father. But I thought the actor’s performance rose above that assessment, as his character not only faced his guilt for a crime of passion, but also faced the realization of his impending death.

On the surface, Charles Dance’s portrayal of retired judge Lawrence Wargrave seemed like many roles he had portrayed in recent years – cool, elegant and a little sharp. But I really enjoying watching him convey Wargrave’s subtle reactions to the temperamental outbursts from the other inhabitants. And I found his skillful expression of Wargrave’s emotional reactions to memories of the man the character was accused of killing via an execution sentence really impressive. “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” marked the third time I have seen Toby Stephens in an Agatha Christie adaptation. Of the three productions, I regard his work in this miniseries and the 2003 television movie, “FIVE LITTLE PIGS” as among his best work. Stephens did a superb job in developing . . . or perhaps regressing Dr. Edward Armstrong’s character from this pompous Harley Street physician to a nervy and frightened man by the third episode. Thanks to Stephens’ performance, I also became aware that the character’s alcoholism and tightly-wound personality was a result of the horrors he had faced during World War I.

Ever since I first saw 2012’s “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES”, I have become aware of Burn Gorman. He is one of the most unusual looking actors I have ever seen . . . and a first-rate actor. I really enjoyed his portrayal of former police detective William Blore as this slightly shifty man with a penchant for allowing his paranoia to get the best of him, as the body count rose. Although his Blore comes off as a rather unpleasant man, Gorman still managed to inject some sympathy into the character as the latter finally faces his guilt over the young homosexual man he had beaten to death. Most of the critics and fans seemed to be more interested in Aidan Turner’s physique than his performance as soldier-of-fortune, Philip Lombard. I feel this is a shame, because I thought he gave an excellent performance as the shady and pragmatic mercenary, willing to do anything to stay alive . . . or have sex with Vera Claythorne. What really impressed me about Turner’s performance is that he is the second actor to perfectly capture the animalistic and aggressive Lombard as described in Christie’s novel, and the first English-speaking actor to do so. The miniseries’ producers had some difficulty in finding the right actress to portray Vera Claythorne. In the end, they managed to find Australian actress Maeve Darmody six days before filming started. And guess what? They made a perfect choice. Darmody was superb as the cool and intelligent Vera, who is the first to connect the poem to what was going on.

I thought some of screenwriter Sarah Phelps’ changes to Agatha Christie’s tale did not exactly work for me. But despite a few flaws, I have to commend both her and director Craig Viveiros for doing an excellent job in translating Christie’s most celebrated and brutal tale to the television screen. And they were ably assisted by superb performances from a very talented all-star cast. “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” is one Christie production I can watch over and over again.

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“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015): Party on Soldier Island

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Below are some animated GIFs that I had found on Tumblr. They featured scenes from Episode 3 of the BBC’s 2015 miniseries, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE”, which was adapted from Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel:

 

“AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” (2015): PARTY ON SOLDIER ISLAND

In the scene below, the remaining four survivors of the ten strangers lured to U.N. Owen’s isolated island house party, decide to release stress through alcohol and drugs found in the possession of one of the guests who had been earlier killed . . .

“Adapting AGATHA CHRISTIE”

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“ADAPTING AGATHA CHRISTIE”

Ever since the release of the BBC recent adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel, “And Then There Were None”, television viewers and critics have been praising the production for being a faithful adaptation. In fact these critics and fans have been in such rapture over the production that some of them have failed to noticed that the three-part miniseries was not completely faithful. As long as the production followed Christie’s original ending, they were satisfied.

Mind you, I thought this new production, “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” was top notch, I have found myself growing somewhat annoyed over this attitude. Why do so many people insist that a movie/television production should be faithful to the novel it is adapting? I honestly believe that it should not matter. Not really. I believe that sometimes, it’s a good thing to make some changes from the original novel (or play). Sometimes, it’s good to remain faithful to the source novel. Sometimes, what is in a novel does not translate well to the television or movie screen.

A good example are the two adaptations of Christie’s 1941 novel, “Evil Under the Sun”. The 1982 adaptation, which starred Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, made some major changes in regard to characters and a minor subplot. The 2001 television adaptation, which starred David Suchet, was somewhat more faithful . . . but not completely. In my personal view, I believe that the Ustinov version was a lot better . . . more entertaining. Why? If I have to be brutally honest, I am not a big fan of Christie’s 1941 novel. No matter how many times I tried to like it (and I tried), it simply bored me.

In regard to the adaptations of “And Then There Were None”, there are only two adaptations that I really enjoyed – Rene Clair’s 1945 adaptation and this new version. The 1945 film is actually an adaptation of the 1943 stage play written by Christie. Because the play first opened in the middle of World War II, Christie had decided to change the ending in order to spare wartime theater goers the story’s nihilistic ending. Two years later, director Rene Clair and 20th Century Fox decided to adapt Christie’s stage play, instead of the novel. Several other movie adaptations – including the 1996 and the 1974 – did the same. As far as I know, only the Russian 1987 adaptation followed Christie’s original ending.

And how do I care about these numerous adaptations? I have seen both the 1966 and 1974 movies. I am not a fan of either. Personally, I found them rather cheap. I have never seen the 1987 Russian film. As for the 1945 and 2015 versions . . . I am a big fan of both. That’s right . . . both of them. I do not care that 2015 miniseries stuck to Christie’s original novel, despite some changes, and Clair’s 1945 movie did not. I simply happen to enjoy BOTH versions. Why? Both versions were made with skill and style. And I found both versions fascinating, despite the fact that they have different endings.

I do not believe it should matter that a movie or television ALWAYS adhere to the novel it is adapting. What should matter is whether the director, writer or both are wise enough to realize whether it is a good idea to be completely faithful or to make changes . . . for the sake of the production. If producer John Bradbourne and director Guy Hamilton can make a superior adaptation of “Evil Under the Sun” by utilizing major changes to Christie’s original story and if there can be two outstanding versions of “AND THEN THERE WERE NONE” . . . with different endings, I really do not see the need for any film or television production to blindly adhere to every aspect of a novel it is adapting.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1840s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1840s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1840s

1 - The Heiress

1. “The Heiress” (1949) – William Wyler directed this superb adaptation of Ruth and Augustus Goetz’s 1947 play, which was an adaptation of Henry James’ 1980 novel, “Washington Square”. The movie starred Oscar winner Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson and Miriam Hopkins.

2 - All This and Heaven Too

2. “All This and Heaven Too” (1940) – Anatole Litvak co-produced and directed this excellent adaptation of Rachel Fields’ 1938 novel. The movie starred Bette Davis and Charles Boyer.

3 - Half-Slave Half-Free Solomon Northup Odyssey

3. “Half-Slave, Half-Free: The Solomon Northup Odyssey” (1984) – Avery Brooks starred in this emotional television adaptation of Solomon Northups’ 1853 memoirs, “12 Years a Slave”. Directed by Gordon Parks, the movie co-starred Rhetta Greene, John Saxon, Lee Bryant, Art Evans and Mason Adams.

5 - The Mark of Zorro

4. “The Mark of Zorro” (1940) – Rouben Mamoulian directed this superb adaptation of Johnston McCulley’s 1919 story called “The Curse of Capistrano”. The movie starred Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell and Basil Rathbone.

4 - The Liberators

5. “The Liberators” (1987) – Robert Carradine and Larry B. Scott starred in this Disney adventure film about Underground Railroad conductor John Fairfield and his fugitive slave friend, Bill; who escort Kentucky slaves north of the Mason-Dixon Line to freedom. Kenneth Johnson starred.

6 - The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin

6. “The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin” (1967) – Roddy McDowall and Suzanne Pleshette starred in this Disney adaptation of Sid Fleischman’s 1963 children’s novel called “By the Great Horn Spoon!”. James Neilson directed.

7 - Camille

7. “Camille” (1936) – George Cukor directed this lavish adaptation of Alexandre Dumas fils’ 1848 novel and 1852 play called “La Dame aux Camélias”. The movie starred Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor.

8 - Cousin Bette

8. “Cousin Bette” (1998) – Jessica Lange starred in this loose adaptation of Honoré de Balzac’s 1846 novel. Although unpopular with critics and moviegoers, it is a favorite of mine. Directed by Des McAnuff, the movie co-starred Hugh Laurie, Elisabeth Shue and Kelly MacDonald.

9 - Jane Eyre

9. “Jane Eyre” (2011) – Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender starred in the 2011 movie adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel. The movie was directed by Cary Fukunaga.

10 - 12 Years a Slave

10. “12 Years a Slave” (2013) – British director Steve McQueen helmed this Oscar winning second adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoirs about the latter’s experiences as a slave in the Deep South. The movie starred Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review

 

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“THE GREAT GATSBY” (2000) Review

I am amazed at how long I have ignored F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 opus, “The Great Gatsby”. I saw the 1974 movie adaptation of the novel years ago, but I found it difficult to appreciate the story. It was not until I saw Baz Luhrmann’s recent adaptation that my full interest in the story was finally ignited. After watching that particular film, I came across this adaptation that aired on the A&E Channel in 2000. 

Directed by Robert Markowitz and adapted by John J. McLaughlin, “THE GREAT GATSBY” is a 90 minute teleplay set in the early years of the Jazz Age. The movie told the story of a mysterious young millionaire named Jay Gatsby, who settles in a large house on the West Egg side (for the newly rich) on prosperous Long Island. Narrated by Gatsby’s neighbor; the well-born, yet impoverished Nick Carraway; audiences become aware of the millionaire’s desire to woo and win back the heart of Daisy Fay Buchanan, an old love he had first met during World War I, who also happens to be Nick’s cousin. However, standing in Gatsby’s way is Daisy’s wealthy and boorish husband and Nick’s former Yale schoolmate, Tom Buchanan; Daisy’s own uncertainty about a serious relationship with the lovesick Gatsby and the latter’s questionable origin of his fortune. This clash between class and romantic aspirations leads to an emotional clash in a New York City hotel suite and later, tragedy and death.

There are some aspects of “THE GREAT GATSBY” that I found admirable. The best aspect of this television movie proved to be the showdown between Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan for the love of one Daisy Fay Buchanan. I thought it was well-acted – especially by Mira Sorvino and Martin Donovan as the Buchanans. And director Robert Markowitz injected with a good deal of intensity. I was also impressed by Markowitz’s handling of the tragic hit-and-run of Myrtle Wison, Tom’s working-class mistress, near her husband’s Valley of Ashes gas station. This is the only version in which a distraught Daisy is briefly distracted by the infamous “Eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg” billboard before she avoids an oncoming car and kills Myrtle, while driving Gatsby’s white convertible. I suspect this was an addition created for this movie, not featured in the novel. By allowing the billboard to indirectly lead to Myrtle’s death struck me as inspired writing on McLaughlin’s part, or inspired direction from Markowitz. Who knows? And it seemed a pity that no one else – Fitzgerald included – never considered it. The Nick Carraway-Jordan Baker romance had never seemed as sexy as it did in this movie. In fact, this is the only adaptation in which their relationship seemed to radiate with any real sexuality.

But despite these virtues, “THE GREAT GATSBY” seemed marred by a great deal of flaws. Perhaps too many flaws. There is so much about this movie that seemed off. One could tell at first glance that this production was lacking in serious cash. I realize that “THE GREAT GATSBY” is supposed to be a television production. But I find it odd that a production financed by both the A&E Cable Network in the United States, and Granada Productions in Great Britain; could look like a poor man’s version of Fitzgerald’s novel. The costumes designed by Nicoletta Massone left me shaking my head in disbelief. The clothes worn by wealthy characters such as Gatsby, the Buchanans and Jordan Baker seemed more appropriate for middle-class characters of the same era – the early 1920s. In one scene, Tom Buchanan made a snarky comment about Gatsby’s wardrobe. Mind you, the latter was not wearing the infamous pink suit (much to my disappointment). But the cream-colored suit with the dark tie, white socks and dark shoes even made wince. Since the Nick Carraway character wore a similar outfit in the same scene, I found myself wondering why Tom did not extend his contempt to his cousin-in-law’s wardrobe. Although elegant, the Buchanans’ home struck me as more quaint than opulent. The exteriors of Gatsby’s home seemed more opulent, but it had an elegant quality that seemed beyond Gatsby’s tastes. And the interiors struck me as somewhat drab and middle-class. So much for the ostentation – and somewhat tasteless – mansion owned by the mysterious millionaire. I really enjoyed Carl Davis’ score for this movie. But it seemed more appropriate for a neo-noir movie like “L.A. CONFIDENTIAL” or “MULHOLLAND FALLS”, instead of a period drama like “THE GREAT GATSBY”.

Although I had complimented Markowitz’s direction in two sequences, I found most of his direction rather flaccid and uninspiring. There were moments I felt that he was simply going through the motions. And both he and McLaughlin did not do the audience any favors by including flashbacks of Gatsby and Daisy’s World War I courtship. Those scenes were not only shot in soft focus, but also nearly put me to sleep. My God, they were boring! The parties held by Gatsby disappointed me, as well. Most of it – with the exception of the party attended by the Buchanans – struck me as mediocre and a ghost of those parties featured in Fitzgerald’s novel and the other movie adaptations. And why on earth did McLaughlin’s screenplay begin with Gatsby’s murder? Was he and Markowitz trying to be different? Unique? It is bad enough that Fitzgerald’s prose, in the form of Nick’s narration, hinted that Gatsby was no longer around. Why wipe away the mystery altogether by starting the movie with Gatsby’s murder? But if there is one thing that nearly tripped up“THE GREAT GATSBY”, it had to be its casting.

Due to Granada Productions being a co-producer of the film, it was inevitable that a British actor or actress would be cast. That person turned out to be Toby Stephens, who was given the leading role of Jay Gatsby. Before I continue, I want to say that I have been a fan of Stephens for years, thanks to his outstanding work. Unfortunately, I cannot view Jay Gatsby as one of his best performances. He simply seemed so wrong for the role. Not only did he portray Gatsby with a stiff and unconvincing American accent, but also with a grin that threatened to form a smirk. Aside from a few emotional . . . or semi-emotional moments, I found his portrayal of Gatsby rather cocky. Paul Rudd could have made a decent Nick Carraway, if it were not for the bored expression on his face that occasionally marred his performance. I realize that Nick harbored some contempt toward Gatsby when they first met. But that contempt had disappeared by the time he arranged Gatsby and Daisy’s afternoon reunion. Unfortunately, Rudd’s Nick maintained that same contempt even throughout the reunion and did not really disappear until the blow up at the Plaza Hotel. What the hell? I wish I could simply blame Rudd, but I cannot. As the director, Markowitz should have realized what was going on and put a stop to it. He failed to do so. Martin Donovan gave an excellent performance as the brutish Tom Buchanan. However, he still proved to be the wrong actor for the role. Donovan’s Tom never struck me as an egotistical ex-jock . . . merely an ill-tempered Moaning Minnie with too much money on his hands. Not only did I also have great difficulty in viewing him as a ladies’ man, but also Nick’s classmate at Yale. Martin Donovan and Paul Rudd are a good deal twelve years apart. And it shows. Jerry Grayson’s brief portrayal of gambler/gangster Meyer Wolfsheim did not strike me as memorable. On the other hand, I will never forget William Camp’s portrayal of Myrtle’s loser husband, George Wilson. I found it incredible bad.

The three actresses in “THE GREAT GATSBY” fared better. Somewhat. I enjoyed Mira Sorvino’s performance as the very feminine and flaky Daisy Buchanan. She did an excellent job of recapturing Daisy’s warm, flirtatious personality and shallowness. My only problem with Sorvino is that she utilized a Northeastern accent to portray Daisy. And the latter came from the Upper South – Louisville, Kentucky. Thankfully, Francie Swift, who hails from Texas, used a soft Southern accent in her portrayal of Daisy’s Louisville friend, golfer Jordan Baker. Mind you, Swift’s Jordan did not strike me as a female athlete. But she gave a sly and sexy performance that I found satisfying. In fact, she might be the best Jordan Baker I have seen on screen – despite the Dutch Boy haircut and dull wardrobe. Heather Goldenhersh did a pretty good job of portraying the vulgar and ambitious Myrtle Wilson. I said good . . . not great. The actress portrayed a high, light voice that I would not associate with a character like Myrtle. And I did not find her desperation to escape from a life with the dull George Wilson particularly convincing. But I was impressed by Goldenhersh’s one scene in which she conveyed Mrytle’s account of her first meeting with Tom.

“THE GREAT GATSBY” had a few virtues – including some well done performances from the movie’s three leading ladies and two exceptional sequences. But the flaws overwhelmed the virtues – including lackluster direction from Robert Markowitz and the producers’ miscasting of Toby Stephens in the leading role. I have seen at least three versions of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel. I hate to say it, but this 2000 television movie has to be the least impressive I have seen.

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

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“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC’s four-part television miniseries called “CAMBRIDGE SPIES”

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold “Kim” Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union’s KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two – Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction – mainly from the right – toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men’s lives. I had no problem with the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind – a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting – has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first – even if historical facts get in the way.

There are some aspects of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with “Kim” Philby’s defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess’ defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean’s criticisms of America – back then and today – were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now – including its citizens’ mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat’s way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby’s decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB’s orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie’s cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries’ production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists’ incursion into Britain’s diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period’s fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production’s sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men – Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean – were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision – namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins.

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain’s working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby’s aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess’ increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean’s insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess’ embarrassing outbursts and Maclean’s insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries’ historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized.

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light’s performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton’s intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions – gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt’s distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean’s witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby’s emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean’s insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors – Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean – were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.