Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 3

“You 
Are 
Not 
Alone”

 
There’s something perhaps a bit perverse in some of the strongest episodes of new Who emerging from the series which (arguably) had the weakest companion. Freema Agyeman was ill-served by writing that couldn’t let her be a companion in her own right, as opposed to the-one-in-Rose’s-shadow, and consequently never felt entirely comfortable in the TARDIS.
 
Series 3 has real highs and certain lows – the introduction of Doctor-lite episodes (to ease the production schedules) produced the inventive wonder that was Blink (and further proved Steven Moffat’s genius), the unashamed grab for the heartstrings was perfectly realised in the Human Nature / The Family of Blood double-header, and the re-introduction of one of the Doctor’s most enduring foes was well-judged. That said, we also had the inevitable return of the Daleks who already feel like they’re in danger of over-exposure.

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Film Review: Jupiter Ascending / Seventh Son, or ‘What you had to do to win an Oscar in 2014’

“What in the hell is going on?” 

It could just be a matter of coincidence but it does rather seem that the deal with the devil in order to get the Best Actor and Best Actress Academy Award was to also play a camp villain in a middling sci-fi/fantasy film. Eddie Redmayne’s cape-swirling alien aristocrat Balem Abrasax threatens the earth’s very safety in Jupiter Ascending and in Seventh Son, Julianne Moore plays cape-swirling uber-witch Mother Malkin who probably also threatens the earth although I have to admit I’m not entirely sure what her endgame was. There’s something rather hilarious about watching these performances in light of the Oscar bait that was The Theory of Everything and Still Alice, which is kind of necessary as neither is particularly great shakes.

 

Jupiter Ascending sees the Wachowski siblings eschew the profundity of much of their oeuvre delve into the realm of the straight-up blockbuster or space opera, but without sacrificing any of the complexity of the cinematic universes they love to create. Problem is though, it’s all rather dense and dull despite the visual grandeur of the special effects – the Wachowskis’ screenplay is complex and unwieldy and frankly just not that interesting. The only thing that kept me going was the bizarrely theatre-friendly supporting cast and cameos – blink and miss Vanessa Kirby here, wonder if that is Tim Pigott-Smith there, ponder if Bryony Hannah’s presence is a nod to Call the Midwife and marvel too at the randomness of Samuel Barnett’s arresting turn(s).

And then there’s Redmayne, oh Eddie Redmaybe with your lovely Oscar. His villainous Balem is a bizarre confection and marked by a vocal delivery that sounds like he’s receiving a blowjob, all the time (or so I would imagine) it is hypnotically so-good-it’s-bad. But it’s not enough to save the film, which relishes its laborious set pieces far too much with over-extended chase sequences put in to show off the VFX rather than serve the story. For my money, Seventh Son was a more effective piece of fantasy storytelling, based as it is on the first book in Joseph Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles (retitled The Last Apprentice in the US) although Matt Greenberg, Charles Leavitt and Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay similarly turns its potential into tedium.

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DVD Review: Emma (2009)

“He would know me but there’s no reason I would know a farmer”

Of all the versions of Jane Austen’s Emma, I can’t really believe that I will ever see one as well done as this 2009 BBC adaptation by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O’Hanlon. Everything about it works for me, from the clever casting choices to the subtle redefinition of some characters, the (now) luxurious running time to the production values which mark it as something of a dying breed in terms of BBC period dramas.

I love its inventive prologue contrasting the early lives of Emma, Frank and Jane, how tragedy touched them all but their positions in life meant their journeys took wildly different paths. Romola Garai makes an immensely appealing heroine, her beautiful wide eyes so open and honest yet quickly able to take on a harder glint as her more self-obsessed side takes over, and she works so brilliantly with her cast-mates to give us full-fleshed, believable relationships.

There’s genuine affection with Michael Gambon’s fretful father, a tangible sisterly bond with Jodhi May’s former governess, a vivid friendship with Louise Dylan’s hapless Harriet and that real sense of antipathy that comes from two beautiful girls not quite able to make each other out with the arrival of Laura Pyper’s mysterious Jane Fairfax. And there’s Jonny Lee Miller’s excellent Mr Knightley, a hugely handsomely dashing figure who shares immense chemistry with Garai. Continue reading “DVD Review: Emma (2009)”

DVD Review: Jane Eyre (2006)

“We’re not the platonic sort Jane”

The 2006 BBC take on Jane Eyre marked Ruth Wilson’s major television debut and in quite some style too. Charlotte Brontë’s eponymous heroine is surely one of literature’s most loved but it is a challenge that Wilson rises to excellently, with the kind of nuanced sensitive portrayal that will ensure that this version will remain near the top of the ever-growing pile of adaptations of this story. Alongside Toby Stephens as Rochester, she drives this clear-sighted, uncomplicated retelling over four hour-long episodes as Jane negotiates the many travails of her life.

From being abandoned as a poor relation with a dour aunt to the unfriendly walls of Lowood School and then on to her first job as governess to a young girl in a household where the promise of love and genuine affection offer a first chance at happiness, but also where secrets abound and threaten to snatch it away before it has even started. Wilson makes Jane a straightforward girl, always pragmatic in the face of adversity and even as she melts in the face of kindness, whether from Lorraine Ashbourne’s kindly Mrs Fairfax or the one that eventually comes from Rochester, she has enough nous to be able to retain her poise. Stephens really is good here too, balancing the macho arrogance of the man with a more romantic sensibility that comes through but always keeping each element in play so we never forget the complexity of the man, yet remaining entirely drawn by his charisma.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Jane Eyre (2006)”

DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right

What could be more innocent than visiting the vicar of Cockchaffington?”

So having completely tumbled for the charms of The Way We Live Now, I turned to the following BBC Anthony Trollope adaptation He Knew He Was Right which was also reworked by Andrew Davies and broadcast in 2004. Trollope’s main concern here was the corrosive effect of jealousy and particularly on his lead character of Louis Trevelyan whose marriage and family are broken up as he struggles to deal with the independent mind of his wife Emily as he suspects her of having an affair, and suffers the consequences of a gossipy Victorian society.

And thus the problems started for me – I never once found myself believing or really caring for Louis or Emily or their relationship. Oliver Dimsdale and Laura Fraser both struggled with the likeability factor for me and so as a central plot point, the story lost me from the beginning. More engaging was Emily’s younger sister Nora’s romantic travails as she falls for a penniless writer – Christina Cole and Stephen Campbell Moore just lovely together, and another love story as a kind but poor young companion falls for her mistress’s great-nephew against society’s rules. Continue reading “DVD Review: He Knew He Was Right”

Review: The Magistrate, National Theatre

“It’s the little lies that get you into trouble”

Aged 36, the widowed Agatha Posket feared for her re-marriage prospects so when the genial Aeneas Posket, the magistrate for the Mulberry Street Police Court, arrived on the scene, she lopped 5 years off her age and promptly became Mrs Posket. The only trouble is her 19 year old son Cis whom she tells the world is actually 14 in order to make her fib fly. The farcical trials that follow as he continues to act as a 19 year old and the arrival of his godfather threatens to undo the whole deception make up the plot of Arthur Wing Pinero’s rather delightful play The Magistrate, which takes up residence at the Olivier as the National’s Christmas offering in place of The Count of Monte Cristo.

Nancy Carroll is simply sensational as Agatha, an actress in full control of her considerable gift and razor-sharp throughout. Whether layering in real pathos in lamenting the lot of a middle-aged widow, working in genuine comedy whilst extemporising wildly as chaos surrounds her or managing to make the spitting out of some bread into a moment of sheer genius, she is never less than unmissable. And she supported excellent by Joshua McGuire as her son Cis, who has a wonderful physicality and gleeful sense of timing in his teenage rampaging and Jonathan Coy’s family friend Colonel Lukyn who is pretty much scene-stealingly fantastic, a true master of comic acting which fully deserves the mid-show round of applause he received. Continue reading “Review: The Magistrate, National Theatre”

DVD Review: Lost in Austen

“Is that agreeable?
‘Oh yes, ooh yes’”

To the few regular readers of this blog, it will be no surprise that I am missing Elliot Cowan’s presence on the stage. He’s currently filming a TV series of Sinbad and so in order to get my fix (plus while away a train journey or two), I decided to revisit the TV show in which he made his first major impact on me, Lost in Austen. Man-crush aside, this show also fed my girl-crush on Jemima Rooper – someone I’ve liked for ages – and started a new girl-crush on Gemma Arterton – I’m pretty sure this was the first time I saw her in anything and so has to rank as one of my favourite pieces of TV entertainment in recent years. It was a four-part drama on ITV in 2008 written by Guy Andrew and is basically a fantasy version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Amanda Price – Rooper – is a modern-day city girl who is obsessed with the book and through a portal that mysteriously appears in her bathroom, finds herself swapping places with Elizabeth Bennett and living the story that she knows far too well. But as any Doctor Who fan will tell you, you can’t go round meddling in alternative timestreams and though the set-up is entirely familiar to Amanda, the very fact of her presence in Lizzie’s stead kicks off a chain of events that knocks all the dominoes off-kilter, her manipulations never quite going right with nothing playing out like she thought it would: not least with her own tumbling head-over-heels for this version of Mr Darcy, which considering it is Elliot Cowan, that is no surprise at all. Continue reading “DVD Review: Lost in Austen”