“We’re living in extraordinary times Virginia”
I think Rachel Freck and I would be very good friends, given the exquisite job she did in casting BBC1 miniseries Life in Squares very much according to my preferences. Phoebe Fox and Eve Best, Lydia Leonard and Al Weaver, James Norton and Rupert Penry-Jones and Elliot Cowan, plus bonus Deborah Findlay and Emily Bruni amongst many more – the stuff of my dreams. So I was already very well-inclined towards this retelling of the travails of the Bloomsbury set, written by Amanda Coe and directed by Simon Kaisjer, before it had even started.
Fortunately it also delivered well over its three hour-long episodes, giving us costume drama with a bit of a difference (and a smattering of raunch as its publicity campaign unnecessarily blurted). Kaisjer’s vision was less opulent fantasy than lived-in reality, albeit through an artistic filter, and so handheld camerawork mixed with everyday costumes to achieve this more rooted ethos. And Coe’s script putting one of the lesser celebrated of the set – Vanessa Bell née Stephens – at the heart of the narrative gave the narrative the freedom to stretch out across multiple timeframe, remaining fresh all the while. Continue reading “TV Review: Life in Squares”
“We’ve been getting phone calls, text messages, emails…can’t trace where or who from”
Another drama about online shenanigans, as should be evident from the titular ‘U’, U Be Dead is an ITV television movie from 2009 and written by Gwyneth Hughes. Jan and Debra are in the midst of preparing for a lavish wedding but when they start to receive threatening messages and anonymous phone calls as part of a systematic campaign of harassment, their lives are thrown into complete turmoil.
It’s all a bit schlocky to be completely honest (but then it is ITV) though there are some strong performances that shine through. Tara Fitzgerald unravels spectacularly as Debra, the target of the most vitriolic aspects of the stalking and clearly far too good for David Morrissey’s rather taciturn psychiatrist/speedboat racer, whose head is easily turned by pert new arrival Bethan played by Lucy Griffith, even in the midst of the crisis. Continue reading “DVD Review: U Be Dead (2009)”
“Dear Emma bears everything so well”
Andrew Davies’ adaptation of Emma for the television may have suffered by being released in the same year as the Gwyneth Paltrow-starring film version but it is infinitely superior, a much better observed version blessed with an excellent cast, many of whom have gone on to bigger things indeed. Emma herself is played by Kate Beckinsale, Mr Knightley is the recently-returned-to-our-stages Mark Strong, Samantha Morton is the willing Miss Smith and the ever-superb Olivia Williams stars as the inscrutable Miss Fairfax.
Star-spotting aside, it really works as a piece of drama. There’s a real warmth behind the whole affair which keeps it entirely engaging, Beckinsale’s Miss Woodhouse is the personification of charm and her gaucheness feels genuinely couched in innocence as she leads Morton’s Harriet a merry dance with her misguided match-making and eventually learns more about the world than her Highbury blinkers ever allowed. And Mark Strong’s pragmatically strong (ba-dum-tish) Knightley is a perfect match for her, practical in every sense as a hands-on landlord. Continue reading “DVD Review: Emma (1996 TV)”
“Sometimes it’s not about knowing the right answer”
Starter for 10 may only have been filmed seven or eight years ago but for several of its leads, it feels like a lot longer. For it is a great opportunity to see James McAvoy, Rebecca Hall and Benedict Cumberbatch earlier in their careers and all exhibiting a youthful freshness which has now matured out of their performances. David Nicholls wrote the screenplay from his own novel, about a working class Essex lad to makes it to university in Bristol, the first in his family, and pursues his long-cherished dream of participating in TV quiz show University Challenge.
McAvoy plays Brian, the naïf at the heart of the story, looking almost impossibly young and appealingly handsome and there’s fun to be had in his awkwardness at settling into uni life, his pursuit of the brittle TV presenter wannabe blonde Alice, played by Alice Eve and his burgeoning friendship with Rebecca Hall’s politically active student Rebecca. Hall is wonderful here, full of quirky charm and wry humour and as the ‘right’ one for Brian, even though he can’t see it, there’s a great pull to their relationship. Continue reading “DVD Review: Starter for 10”
“You’re not a child any more”
As the first DVD I put on to start my Lucy Cohu marathon, my heart sank a little when her first appearance in Murderland was as the main subject in a photograph of a murder scene. But as her face was on the cover, I hoped that her role would be more than just a fleeting one in this 2009 ITV drama. Written by David Pirie, the three-parter examines the lasting impact of a violent crime and the mysteries surrounding it, viewed from the shifting perspectives of the murdered woman, her traumatised daughter and the investigating detective.
It’s not the most sophisticated of crime dramas, truth be told, but it is certainly competently done and intriguingly put together as events start off in the present day with a woman, the ever-wan Amanda Hale, running from her wedding day. Her distress comes from the unsolved murder of her mother some 15 years earlier which she is now determined to solve and visits Robbie Coltrane’s DI Hain to get his help as he was intimately involved in the case – and more so than she realises. The story then flips back to the time of the crime to give an account of what happened. As the show progresses and we, and Carol, find out more and more, the events around the murder are revisited and replayed getting us ever closer to the terrible truth. Continue reading “DVD Review: Murderland”
“Fools tell the truth”
Where success lies, so sequels inevitably follow and after the success of Peter Moffat’s Criminal Justice, a second series following a different case through the legal system was commissioned and broadcast in 2009. Maxine Peake starred as Juliet Miller, the central figure of the show, a housewife and mother thoroughly cowed by an intensely and secretly abusive relationship whose entry into the criminal justice system commences when she finally stabs her husband, a neatly counter-intuitive piece of casting in Matthew Macfadyen.
I enjoyed the first Ben Whishaw-starring series a huge amount and found it a fresh take on the crime genre so a re-run of something similar was never going to have quite the same impact. But although it is a different take on the model, it didn’t grip me in quite the same way, lacking that sense of relatability that came from having a young male protagonist. For this is a much more female-centric drama – domestic violence, mother-and-baby units, work/life balance are just some of the issues at hand as Peake’s Juliet reels from the impact of her actions, the suspicion with which she is treated, the stresses leading up to and during the trial. Continue reading “DVD Review: Criminal Justice 2”
“Reader, be glad that you have nothing to do with this world. Its glamour is a delusion, its speed a snare, its music a scream of fear.”
Whilst recently sitting through the 1930s-set play I Am A Camera at the Southwark Playhouse, I had that frustrating sensation of being reminded of a film that I couldn’t quite recall, mainly in the carefree attitudes of its lead characters. A post-show drink or three finally got me there, the film was Bright Young Things and so I popped it onto my Lovefilm list as it had been quite a while since I last saw it and I was keen for a rewatch.
Based on Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies which written in 1930, the film marked the screenwriting and directorial debut of a certain Stephen Fry. Positioned as a satire on this section of society, the plot circles around a fast-living decadent set of aristocrats and bohemians living the high life of cocaine and champagne-fuelled parties completely divorced from the realities and responsibilities of the real world around them. Would-be novelist Adam Fenwick-Symes and party girl fiancée Nina Blount are the central couple whose wedding is forever being put off as he keeps losing the money for it, but the Jack and Karen in their lives – the Hon Agatha Runcible and the fey Miles – are much more fun. Continue reading “DVD Review: Bright Young Things”
“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”
Following on from a sensational Ivanov with Kenneth Branagh, the Donmar Warehouse West End season continues with this prodution of Twelfth Night, featuring Derek Jacobi as the star name in a very strong cast.
After the snowfall that predictably brought London to a standstill, my journey to the Wyndham’s was extremely torturous and unfortunately put me in a foul mood which did not bode well for an evening at the theatre. And whilst this production had much to dispel the howling wind and cold outside, it didn’t quite achieve the dizzy heights the rave reviews had intimated.
One of those dark comedies full of gender-bending escapades, Twelfth Night requires a certain suspension of disbelief that was just lacking in me tonight. The comedy is there for sure, with some great laugh out loud moments, but there were too many moments where I just wanted to shout out ‘but WHY?’! I felt there wasn’t enough conviction in Viola’s decision to disguise herself, and I had no real sense of which of the men actually really wanted to meet up with ladies or just remain within their own manly (read homoerotic) company.
Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, Donmar at the Wyndham’s”
Marking Dame Judi Dench’s return to the RSC after many years away, this production of All’s Well That Ends Well, one of Shakespeare lesser performed plays, transferred to London from the Swan in Stratford. It is called a problem play as it is neither fully comedy nor tragedy but a curious mixture of fairytale-like wonder, cold realism and gritty humour. Helena loves the arrogant Bertram, son of the Countess of Rousillon, but the only way she can gain him as a husband is as a reward for curing the King of France of a terrible ailment. He reacts badly to being forced into marriage with someone of lowly birth and so runs away to Italy to join the wars but not before fixing two fiendishly difficult conditions to their marriage, things he believes Helena will never be able to achieve but he does not count on her tenacity.
Even in a relatively minor part, which the Countess is it has to be said, Dench is a mesmerising performer, she manages so much with such economy of performance, the simplest gesture or twitch of the face speaks volumes and as the matriarch of the piece, she oozes a compassion and wisdom that makes a firm bedrock for the production. Gary Waldhorn as the King of France does well though as the most senior male character, rising from his sickbed to become an inspirational leader. Continue reading “Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, Gielgud”