Film Review: Crooked House (2017)

“The murderer is never the one you initially suspect”

 

A real treat here for fans of Agatha Christie as Crooked House is one of the few novels of hers that has yet to be adapted for the screen. With a screenplay by Julian Fellowes, Tim Rose Price and Gilles Paquet-Brenner, the latter of whom also directs, a curious release strategy sees it materialise on Channel 5 in the UK despite it being blessed with the kind of castings and high production values that you’d’ve thought would be destined for the cinema.

The story begins as so many of them do, with a murder. This time it is wealthy 80-some tycoon Aristide Leonides who kicks the bucket and the finger of suspicion doesn’t know where to point as it could any one of the disillusioned family members who also lived in the sumptuous family pile. His grand-daughter secures the services of a private investigator to look into the case discreetly and thus the mystery begins.

Is it Glenn Close’s mole-murdering Lady Edith, the sister of Leonides first wife? Christina Hendricks’ much younger second wife Brenda who stands to inherit everything? His hapless elder son or his hapless younger son or maybe one of their wives, a pair of crackingly vibrant performances from Gillian Anderson and Amanda Abbington respectively. And what secrets do Jenny Galloway’s nanny or Honor Kneafley’s 12 year old Josephine have up their sleeve?

Pleasingly, Max Irons’ investigator isn’t a Poirot or Marple-like savant and so the focus is allowed to rest on the unfurling of characters with murky motivations and a real sense of unease that percolates through the whole story. Sebastian Winterø’s cinematography plays into this with constantly interesting angles and Simon Bowles’ luscious production design is extraordinarily detailed in the way different rooms reflect their inhabitants.

Last but by no means least, there’s no denying the thrill that comes from a genuine shock of an ending that is brilliantly brutal, both in its reveal and its finality. Its darkness is possibly one of the reasons Crooked House hasn’t been filmed before but I love the fact that it is also one of Christie’s two favourites of her novels (the other being Ordeal By Innocence which was scheduled to be this year’s BBC/Sarah Phelps adaptation but which remains in limbo due to allegations made against one of its cast members).

 

 

 

TV Review: Doctor Foster Series 2

“How does this end Simon?”

In some ways, you can’t blame ’em for trying to replicate the extraordinary success of the first series of Doctor Foster, quality drama that fast became a rare appointment-to-view fixture  with a rare return to weekly instalments.  And given that writer Mike Bartlett is known for his prolific nature, that a second series quickly came into the offing was no great surprise.

But it can be hard to recapture the magic and though all of the key players have returned – most notably warring ex-couple Suranne Jones’ Gemma and Bertie Carvel’s Simon – this set of five episodes has really suffered from a lack of raison d’être. Waves of vicious revenge percolate throughout but with no discernible driving narrative beyond that, it proved far less engaging.

Not even the presence of a veritable treasure trove of theatrical luminaries – Victoria Hamilton, Adam James, Thusitha Jayasundera, Prasanna Puwanarajah, Siân Brooke to name but a few – could rescue the show from the dullness of retreading old ground and a wearying sense of not giving a shit about anyone here, particularly in the interminable longueurs of the final episode.

 

Cast of Mike Bartlett’s new TV show Press announced

An ensemble cast of some of Britain’s hottest talent will portray the determined and passionate characters behind the daily news at two fictional, competing newspapers in Mike Bartlett’s (Doctor Foster, King Charles III) drama series, Press, on BBC One.
Charlotte Riley (King Charles III, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) will play the News Editor of fictional broadsheet, The Herald and Ben Chaplin (Apple Tree Yard, The Thin Red Line) will play the Editor of fictional tabloid newspaper, The Post, while Priyanga Burford (London Spy, King Charles III) will play The Herald’s Editor. Paapa Essiedu (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, RSC’s Hamlet) will play The Post’s newest reporter and Shane Zaza (Happy Valley, The Da Vinci Code) its News Editor; while Ellie Kendrick (Game Of Thrones, The Diary Of Anne Frank) will be a junior reporter; Al Weaver (Grantchester, The Hollow Crown) an investigative journalist and Brendan Cowell (Young Vic’s Yerma, Game Of Thrones) the Deputy Editor at The Herald.
They will be joined by David Suchet (Poirot) who will play the Chairman & CEO of Worldwide News, owner of The Post.
Press will be directed by Tom Vaughan (Victoria, Doctor Foster) and produced by Paul Gilbert (Humans).
Set in the fast-paced and challenging environment of the British newspaper industry, Press immerse viewers in the personal lives and the constant professional dilemmas facing its characters. The series follow their lives as they attempt to balance work and play, ambition and integrity, amid the never-ending pressure of the 24-hour global news cycle and an industry in turmoil.
Press is a Lookout Point, BBC Studios, Deep Indigo production, co-produced with Masterpiece, for BBC One. Executive Producers are Faith Penhale and Mike Bartlett for Lookout Point, Bethan Jones for BBC Studios, Nigel Stafford-Clark for Deep Indigo, Mona Qureshi for BBC One and Rebecca Eaton for Masterpiece. International Distribution will be handled by BBC Worldwide.
Press begins filming in London in October and will broadcast on BBC One in 2018.

Album Review: The Halcyon (Original Music From The 2017 Television Series)

“We knew the excitement was bound to begin

When Laura got blind on Dubonnet and gin
And scratched her veneer with a Cartier pin
And I couldn’t have liked it more”


The main reason for getting your hands on the soundtrack to the ITV series The Halcyon is for Beverley Knight’s highly spirited and hugely seductive take on Noël Coward’s ‘Marvellous Party’. I start with this, lest you think that I’m recommending Jamie Cullum to you (he has two tracks on here, specially recorded for the show) – his appeal having long eluded me. 


The rest of the album is filled with Kara Tointon’s rather lovely voice sliding over classics from the first half of the twentieth century and Samuel Sims’ original compositions for the 1940s drama. You might not think it’s particularly worth searching out if you didn’t see the show but in all honesty, even if you’re just a bit a fan of the era then it is worth a listen and a download or three.


There’s a slight oddity too with the track used as the theme song being included here – the moody, almost Massive Attack-like ‘Hourglass’ is a slinkily effective tune, with a great vocal from Tracy Kashi and a gorgeous orchestral swell, but it’s an incongruous selection nonetheless, especially considering the rest of the material here. 

TV Review: The Halcyon Series 1

“Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. I’m sure it’s just another false alarm “

Oh The Halcyon – shafted by the overwhelming desire for it to be the new Downton, or maybe the unfriendly Monday evening slot, or maybe the fact that Charlott Jones’ serial never quite honed in on what it wanted to be. Following the fortunes of a luxury London hotel during the first couple of years of the Second World War, it took all possible opportunities to explore a society on the cusp of major change. But between the aristocrats who owned it, the aristocrats who stayed there, the lower classes who work there, and the multitudes of people affiliated to all these lives, the canvas was far too wide.
The hints were there right from the off in episode 1 which struggled to introduce even just its leading players in its running time, whilst still proving most tantalising, due to its cracking cast and its sumptuous design (those costumes!). At the heart of The Halycon lay the antagonistic relationship between Olivia Williams’ Lady Hamilton and Steven Mackintosh’s Mr Garland, owner versus manager as they butted heads over practicalities in the face of an ensuing Blitz but though their scenes were electric, they were given too little too late together to exploit this to its fullest. 
Across the eight episodes, subjects covered included international espionage, the difficulties of securing a goose during rationing, the consequences of appeasement, homosexuality, inter-racial relationships, inter-class relationships, the ethics of war reporting, US reluctance to get involved in WWII, women’s rise in the workplace, just to name a few. And naturally, it dealt with the vast majority of them briefly, on the surface, an issue to be wrapped up neatly rather than investigated thoroughly which would have been fine if The Halcyon had leaned into its soapy side as much as its dramatic tendencies.
Similarly, the series suffered from the insistence on infusing more modern attitudes than would be strictly historically accurate into its scenes. So scenes dealing with the intolerance directed towards Nico Rogner’s Austrian Jewish refugee working in the kitchen were improbably wide-eyed; the build up to Edward Bluemel’s Hon. Toby Hamilton and Akshay Kumar’s barman’s illicit liaisons was sweetly done but once they started boning, they were ridiculously indiscreet (purely in service of the plot); Garland’s daughter Emma’s rise from receptionist to assistant manager to active WVS member was simplified and unproblematic and less interesting for it.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Halcyon, it was occasionally extremely good fun. The music always set the scene well, led by Kara Tointon’s cheery singer Betsey, Liz White’s telephonist eventually got a satisfying amount to do, and Charles Edwards’ Lucian D’Abberville had a most entertaining plot which unfolded as well as anything did in the show. Throw in cameos from the likes of Fenella Woolgar, Matthew Marsh, Beverley Knight, Danny Webb, Charity Wakefield et al, and no matter how nonsensical it got, things were always watchable.

TV Review: Fortitude Series 2

“People died.

And now people are dying again and what the fuck are they doing about it”
Series 1 of Fortitude was one of those genuinely unexpected dramas which unveiled its genre-spanning ways with some proper jaw-dropping moments, so Sky Atlantic’s decision to commission a second series wasn’t entirely unexpected (though you do wonder what viewing figures are like over there). Though having revealed itself as a sci-fi/horror/psychological thriller/serial killer murder mystery with political and environmental themes thrown in for a good measure, creator Simon Donald was faced with a decision about which way to go to continue the story.
Or, as it turned out, he didn’t make the decision but rather decided to pursue them all once again. And as is proving a recurring theme with shows I’ve been catching up on (Fearless, The Halcyon), the desire to develop multi-stranded complex dramas falls short once again with the writing ending up serving a jack of all trades and master of none. There’s just so much going on in so many of the episodes that it becomes increasingly hard to keep track of exactly what is what, who knows what, who is doing what to whom, and where we are in any of the stories.
My brief thoughts on episode 1 can be found here, the series did actually turn out to be more of a continuation of the events of the first season than I first thought, the big cast turnover meaning that the number of fresh faces was a bit of misdirection. And actually, the strongest story threads actually came with the survivors of those momentous events dealing with the aftermath – Luke Treadaway and Sienna Guillory playing out Vincent and Natalie’s contrasting experiences, Sofie Gråbøl’s governor’s grip on power slipping slowly but surely along with her relationship to the delectable Björn Hlynur Haraldsson.
Of the newcomers, Parminder Nagra’s Dr Khatri was superbly chilling as someone who always knew more than the average resident, and Dennis Quaid’s thoroughly decent Michael was a strong lynchpin (although I wish Michelle Fairley as his wife Freya had a more active role to complement the action). But the increasing reliance on blood and gore had seriously diminishing returns, you know you’re in trouble when people are being killed every episode and you can’t remember who they are. Death loses its power with such frequency and unfortunately, so too does Fortitude. 

TV Review: Will, Episodes 1 + 2

“You are a curiosity”

American versions of Shakespeare (whether his plays or the man himself) are always worth looking up, even if only for a chuckle and new TNT TV series Will is certainly no exception. There’s some weight behind it – it was created by Craig Pearce, the longtime writing partner of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and has Shekhar Kapur, who directed the award-winning Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, directing and executive producing and in the role of the Bard himself, there’s a potentially star-making role for British newcomer Laurie Davidson.
I watched the first two episodes and they sure make an arresting introduction. You feel Luhrmann’s influence almost immediately as this is no antiquated version of a sedate Elizabethan London, but rather it is one shot through with bright colours and a punk-filled attitude. Literally so, as they have conceived the burgeoning theatre scene of the time as being akin to the contemporary(ish) world of punk rock – theatres filled with patrons in leather and mohicans, the soundtrack filled with the Clash and drunken singalongs to Lou Reed. 
As a concept, it kinda works in making this an entirely atypical historical drama and I have to say I think I might continue tuning in, not least because it features the fantastic Nancy Carroll in a recurring role as Ellen Burbage and because I can rarely resist daftness. The writers can’t resist loading up every scene with one Shakespearean allusion or another, or even just direct lines of dialogue, and it is done so blatantly, with so little subtlety, that it’s almost fun trying to guess which play is going to get referenced next.
This lack of subtlety extends to the performances too – Ewen Bremner is having the time of his life as investigator Richard Topcliffe and William Houston is no less fruity as star of the stage Will Kemp. Jamie Campbell Bower looks set to be a manipulative Kit Marlowe, Clive Rowe is in there doing work beneath him, and if Davidson and Olivia DeJonge as putative illicit love interest Alice are taking their time to make a similar impression, they’re making a solid enough start. You even get Amanda Lawrence onscreen for a heartbeat!

TV Review: Fearless, ITV

“I learned a long time ago not to trust what people tell me”
I did want to love Fearless, I really did. Any series with Helen McCrory in its leading role has to be worthy of consideration and ITV have been upping their drama game (qv Unforgotten) recently. But despite an intriguing opener, the six episodes of Fearless increasingly tested the patience as Patrick Harbinson’s script failed to deliver on its twistily complex promise, instead giving us a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller that ultimately proved less than thrilling.
With a playbook that threw out major themes with regularity – miscarriages of justice, the Syrian refugee crisis, institutional corruption, the war in Iraq, the ethics of the surveillance state, just to name a few – it was inevitable that some would fall by the wayside. But with the amount of personal backstory for McCrory’s Emma also shoehorned in there, the narrative was both painfully overstuffed and sadly inconsequential – it was increasingly hard to know what we were meant to care about.
The adoption storyline with a sorely miscast John Bishop as her lover was tough work, the stuff from her past poorly integrated given its importance, the grand conspiracy surprisingly small in focus in the end (and more than a little far-fetched). Even something as relatively (you’d’ve thought) simple as concentrating on the thrust of the main plot (of assuring client Kevin’s innocence) got hopelessly tangled up in the competition for airtime.
Which all meant, as I said, that it was sadly rather hard to care about it all. McCrory delivered her usual sterling level of performance, but to little avail (an electrifying scene with Michael Gambon’s grizzled old sort aside). Wunmi Mosaku’s dedicated cop Olivia was a highlight, balancing notions of duty with justice in an engaging way but Robin Weigert’s US spook Heather was saddled with a ridiculous part that rarely felt dramatically convincing as her meddling made life difficult for everyone concerned, the audience included.

TV Review: Doctor Who Series 10

Episodes, in order of preference
World Enough and Time
Extremis
The Doctor Falls
Thin Ice
Knock Knock
Oxygen
The Eaters of Light
Smile
The Pilot
Empress of Mars
The Pyramid at the End of the World
The Lie of the Land

Top 5 guest spots
1 David Suchet’s Landlord was as perfectly written a character as befits one of our more superior actors
2 Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of Kieran Bew and his astronaut in Oxygen was no exception
3 Nicholas Burns‘ malevolent Sutcliffe was a delightfully Dickensian villain 
4 Another theatrical delight of mine is Anthony Calf, impressive as the pseudo-Victorian Godsacre
5 Rebecca Benson’s young Pict impressively led The Eaters of Light from the front, a perfect vessel for Rona Munro’s vision

Saddest death
Michelle Gomez’s Missy has been a brilliant breath of fresh air and whilst her decision to follow Moffat and Capaldi out the door is understandable, it isn’t any less disappointing. And perhaps the timey-wimeyness of the circumstances around her passing mean that maybe this isn’t the last we see of her…

Most wasted guest actor
I don’t what I expected from the reliably excellent Samantha Spiro in Doctor Who but I didn’t get it from her part in The Doctor Falls.

Gay agenda rating
With Bill onboard, A+!

TV Review: Fearless Episode 1

“You let a terrorist’s wife live in your home and you set a murderer free”

Fearless is a new six-part drama on ITV and whilst some people might be excited by the fact that it is written by one of the writers of Homeland (Patrick Harbinson), all right-thinking people will of course be psyched that it is giving Helen McCrory a stonking leading role. She plays human rights lawyer Emma Banville who is utterly unafraid to butt heads with the world as she investigates miscarriages of justice.
Her latest case draws her into the orbit of Kevin Russell (definite fave Sam Swainsbury) whose conviction for murder looks to be a little iffy. With perhaps a little too much ease, she finds it unsafe and secures a retrial but looks set to have opened up quite the can of national security-flavoured worms as a serious-looking transatlantic phone call on a secure line seems to suggest that there is much more to this than meets the eye.
And since we’re in brilliantly densely-plotted territory, Emma is also:
  • haunted by her past
  • adopting a child
  • sheltering a Syrian mother and child in her house
  • being surveilled by counter-terrorism forces
so there’s a lot to keep up with and a hundred ways in which it could all play out and it all feels marvellously unlike ITV (which is, granted, unfair as they also aired the brilliant Unforgotten). And boasting the likes of Michael Gambon, Wunmi Mosaku and Jemima Rooper in the supporting cast, it looks set to be a must-see bit of television, although I wouldn’t put it past them to have made it just a little frustrating in the vastness of its scope too.