Monday, 21 April 2014

Jamaica Inn

Windswept moors, smugglers and mangled west country accents, yes, we're in Du Maurier territory again for another remake of 'Jamaica Inn', starring Jessica Brown Findlay (dead Sybil Crawley from 'Downton') as Mary Yellan, the ingenue who 'bain't be from 'ereabouts' who must face cruelty, madness and Matthew McNulty on the Bodmin Road.

Ms Brown Findlay plays Mary less as naive waif than sulky teenager with a deprived childhood, while Sean Harris and Matthew McNulty reprise roles they seem to specialise in - laconic meanie and handsome rough diamond respectively - as Joss and Jem Merlyn.  For a rollicking, sinister tale, it takes a long time to get going.  Half an hour in and Mary's realised that the titular inn is barely upright in the evil wind blowing across the moor, and that it isn't a place to stay clean in any sense, but little else has happened.  Joanne Whalley, as jittery, broken Aunt Patience, gives an understated performance in what could (and often is) either an overplayed or deeply unsympathetic role, but at a third of the way through, a stay in the modern, standardised and deeply unexciting Jamaica Inn would be preferable to a stay with the Merlyns, and as du Maurier fans that's saying something.

And while we're on the subject, nor is the adaptation particularly faithful to the book, with Mary helping her uncle's criminal gang, albeit reluctantly, in receiving wrecked goods on the beach.  Women did lead hard lives, but Mary's active, physical participation in men's work of the day feels like a sop to a 21st Century audience.  She ends the episode morally compromised, having protected Jem and by implication her uncle, echoed by a tide line of mud risen from the hem of her skirt to her thigh.  It would have been better scheduled over the Easter break, which has been largely devoid of new drama, and would have been improved by better sound.  We aren't in our dotage, but half of the lines were muttered and thrown away, while the music blasted out loud and clear. 

Monday, 14 April 2014


Another long-ago crime comes back to haunt Claire Goose, whom we've hardly seen since she pitched off a balcony and through a windscreen in 'Waking the Dead'.  This is one of those short psychological crime thrillers that ITV does so unevenly.  Jane (Claire Goose) was a very young child when her mother was murdered in front of her by a man who was never caught.  Now grown up, and a mother herself, she sees the man she thinks was responsible, but he is a respected doctor (Peter Firth + beard).  However, she has a history of mental health issues and has abruptly stopped taking her anti-depressants.  When Dr Rawlins, aided by his solicitor daughter Emma (Christine Bottomley), has a DNA blood test which doesn't match blood from the victim's clothes, Jane's husband and even her supportive DI Alison Hall (Pippa Haywood) begin to doubt her convictions....

Any veteran viewer of these thrillers will know whether Rawlins is guilty, and needless to say the killer is given no specific motive for the murder, other than being generally violent and unpleasant.  Great cast, but a script that doesn't reward 100 minutes of viewing.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Crimson Field

2014, as the centenary of the outbreak of WWI, was obviously going to mean our screens were full of men in khaki and puttees, with women dressed as nurses amid a backdrop of mud, blood and stumpy trees.  The documentaries have always been compelling, the dramas less so.  This one has female leads - a sort of 'Call the Midwife' but without the babies or the NHS, and added bi-planes.

We follow a small group of new volunteers arriving at a field hospital in France, where we meet an escapee from 'Downton Abbey'.  It's quite apt, since this could well be 'Downton Abbey - the Missing Years' depicting Matthew and the other Downton menfolk at the front.  We feel qualified to say this, having read an account of a nurse's life at a field hospital in recent weeks.  Presumably the writers have read many similar accounts, and have taken the unvarnished truth and varnished it up with a coat of 'Tenko' (all women together in a "perfectly ghastly" war), another coat of the aforementioned 'Downton' and for good measure a finishing wax of just about any WWI depiction to date ('Upstairs Downstairs', 'Aces High', 'When the Boat Comes In', 'Wings'....).  This opener dealt with suspected cowardice, nascent understanding of shell shock, professional rivalries, class distinctions and the extreme youth of those involved - though the doctors' youth is unlikely to be an accurate portrayal: romantic potential in the absence of able-bodied soldiers perhaps?  Each of the characters comes replete with a backstory, of-course, so the tensions are all about whether Nurse Kitty (Oona Chaplin) is a suffragette or some other freakish sort of female; whether ridiculously naive, perfume-wearing Flora is under-age; and whether Rosalie really is an old maid who only joined the war effort to escape a dull life.  Oh and not forgetting whether Sister Livesey (Suranne Jones) is in fact a time-travelling flapper from the 1920s, with bobbed hair and a motorbike.

Confusingly, the original title for this was 'The Ark', which other than having a rather laboured relationship to a tale of a field hospital, presumably led viewers to think this was a televisual version of 'Noah', currently in cinemas.  The episode ended with patients returning to war, rebel Kitty accepted into the fold and one patient dead in anything but a peaceful manner.  Accounts of real nurses in the First World War tend to be understated, but have all the more impact for it.  This is a drama, so we expect a certain amount of conflation, but would volunteer nurses really arrive at a field hospital in France without even knowing how to make a bed?  We're not sure something so earnestly soapy does justice to their experiences.

Friday, 4 April 2014

New Worlds

This is the sequel to 2008's 'The Devil's Whore' which had a starry cast (Andrea Riseborough, Dominic West, John Simm, Michael Fassbender, Maxine Peake and Peter Capaldi, to name a few) and some well-phrased moments but was essentially a missed opportunity for original historical drama.  Freed from the constraints of a source text or a biopic, it featured a fictional character living through the turbulent years of the English Civil War, but the heroine, Angelica Fanshawe (then Andrea Riseborough, now Eve Best) took an improbably romantic journey through every major issue and player of the day.  The original drama left her back in her ancestral home, with a new baby daughter and an enlightened view of the world.

So, this wasn't exactly eagerly anticipated by us, and the synopsis of two parallel (and inevitable) romances taking place in England and America seemed to be aimed squarely at fans of Philippa Gregory.  Those fans won't have been disappointed.  Everyone looks impossibly lovely and clean (Dornan is a model, and with 'The Fall' is the only recognisable actor here, although Hope is played by Jane Campion's daughter Alice Englert and Freya Mavor (Beth) was previously in the adaptation of Gregory's 'The White Queen').  Both 'worlds', England and Massachussetts, are depicted as lands of fierce struggle, against which backdrop our two pairs of lovers experience the sort of 'their eyes met...' epiphanies that have them changing the course of their lives in mere minutes.  There is clumsy exposition, to explain the back story, and equally clumsy visual symbolism with white nighties, fresh and copious blood, dark woods and bedraggled heroines.  The American chapter is basically a 'first of the Mohicans', complete with the spectacular, deliberate fall from a cliff and a scalping.

Most disappointing of all is the childlike black and white depiction of the English Civil Wars as simple struggles by the liberal and the poor against a wicked tyrant King who wants to rule without Parliament.  Charles II may have been other than a Merry Monarch to many of his subjects, but he's portrayed here as a virtual Caligula.  This seemed to have more in common with 'The Musketeers' than any serious adult drama, not least the very 21st Century women who take up arms and pursue their men with the zest of post-sexual revolution feminists.  Hard to believe that Flannery was responsible for 'Our Friends in the North'.

Friday, 28 March 2014

True Detective

True Detective is the latest HBO hit to have mass critical acclaim.  It started on Sky Atlantic about a month ago, and we're now five episodes in, out of eight.

To a great degree it deserves the praise. It's unusual in its scope, following two detectives over many years as they investigate a serial killer in Louisiana.  The two main performances from  Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are excellent, and the ageing has been done really well.

This is what we would have written if I'd reviewed it at the third episode, but then the fourth, the 'Hells Angel' one suddenly seemed to go completely off piste, as McConaughey infiltrates a biker gang to try to chase up a lead.  It's as if they suddenly wanted an action episode - and the final ten minutes were brilliant - but in doing so they threw out some of the style of the earlier episodes to get it.  However we're in the minority on this one, because IMDB reviewers gave that episode an amazing 9.8 rating, the highest of the whole series...

We wait to see how it progresses.  One very promising point through:  It's been pitched as an anthology format, so the second series will have a different cast of characters and story, and not tie themselves in knots of TWNHs like Homeland has done.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Turks and Caicos

So you didn't know that 'Page Eight' was the first in 'The Worricker Trilogy'?  Neither did we.  So here we are breaking our own rules and reviewing a 'returner'.  Sort of.  It has been a couple of years since the first part and the third follows next week, so all that we remembered was that Bill Nighy was a mild-mannered, reluctant spy of the old school, let's say one of Le Carre's more decent creations, and got himself into hot water investigating the government's involvement in illegal torture during the war on terror.

Strangely enough, that's what this one's about too.  Ewan Bremner as his unlikely friend Rollo Maverley and Ralph Fiennes as slimy PM Alex Beesley must have enjoyed the first one so much they've returned for cameos, while Winona Ryder, Helena Bonham Carter and Christopher Walken join in the fun.  Because this is a lot of fun, even while it purports to be about Very Serious Things.  The theatre is Hare's natural home, and while this lifts the dialogue beyond the usual bland televisual standard, it also requires that little extra suspension of disbelief which a stage and the dimming of the house lights usually aids.  Do jaded security operatives really spy on big-time crooks on glamorous, if rather sleazy islands?  We can't help thinking that the reality is more 'death in a plastic bag' than 'death in paradise'.

On its own theatrical terms, though, it's rather like a Greek tragedy: the hero asks what has happened to (a sense of) shame; the heroine (Helena Bonham-Carter playing beautifully straight, for a change, as Margot Tyrell) risks everything for her lost love and his moral scruples which were once also her ideals; there is a woman so damaged by men that her only escape is to bury her own morals (inspired casting of Winona Ryder as Melanie Fall).  Christopher Walken, as shady CIA operative Curtis Pelissier, is even a sort of chorus, dogging Johnny, making him question his motives.  Suffice to say that, as with the Greeks, the rot is deeply embedded in the state, and the state these days is a global one.

Great ending-that-isn't-an-ending, leading us nicely to the final part.  No doubting that Hare crafts a good drama that is almost a eulogy to lost values, but we can't help thinking this is, more than anything else, a rather elegant way for Hare to declare his extreme dislike of modern politics.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Widower

ITV brings us another dose of prime time true crime, courtesy of Jeff Pope, who penned the West dramatization 'Appropriate Adult'.  Here it's Reece Shearsmith (who must have had a busy few months with this and 'Inside No 9') who sends the shudders south as Malcolm Webster, whose rather bland and gormless manner belies a propensity to spend more than he earns and a rather more alarming one to incapacitate and then murder his wives.  Poor Claire (Sheridan Smith) is the first to fall foul of him in Aberdeenshire in 1994, when he stages a car accident and makes off with the £200k life insurance.

While not having the notoriety of the Wests or similarly outlandish serial killers, Webster must have had some considerable skill at hiding his immoral tendencies, since he wed twice and was attempting to do away with another woman at the time of his arrest.  He didn't target particularly vulnerable women either.  Yet by beginning each woman's story at the point of marriage, when he has already won them over, and then focusing on his short temper, need for control and subsequent abuse of them, his appeal doesn't come across at all.  And where, once he stopped nursing, did he get hold of all that Temazepam?