DVD Review: The 39 Steps

“Life never seems grim after a couple of fried eggs”

I haven’t quite made it to see The 39 Steps on the stage yet, it’s one of those shows that seems set to go nowhere and so I am waiting for a cast to arrive that will really excite me and finally get me into the Criterion Theatre to see it. In the meantime, I borrowed this 2008 BBC adaptation on DVD off a friend to fit into my weekend of spy thrillers. For anyone who hasn’t seen it before (like me), the story revolves around Richard Hannay who, finding himself wrongfully accused of murder in mid-1914, is forced on the run as he uncovers a dastardly plot to cause a major war led by a German spy ring somewhere in Scotland and finds himself being chased by the Germans, the British police and a mysterious bi-plane, even as he tries to save the nation from invasion.

This adaptation was written by Lizzie Mickery from John Buchan’s novel and directed by James Hawes so its pedigree was relatively high, but I have to admit to finding the whole thing a bit creaky. Part of the problem was the central casting of Rupert Penry-Jones as Hannay, an actor whom I’ve previously much enjoyed but who lacks much presence at all here as events just spiral on all around him. Hawes could have done with injecting much more pace into the production all-around too but Mickery’s writing doesn’t help as it lacks any real menace to convince us of the peril in which our hero finds himself in.

The introduction of a romantic sub-plot through Lydia Leonard’s sparky suffragette Victoria Sinclair is a serious misjudgement as there’s already too much happening in the twisty plot before adding in an unconvincing burgeoning relationship which is at times excruciatingly bad and utterly unnecessary – more would have been achieved by keeping the relationship just flirtatious or even platonic. As befits a BBC Christmas production (for this is when it was originally broadcast), the supporting cast is full of faces, Patrick Malahide is a dastardly professor, David Haig and Alex Jennings as Establishment who all know more than they are letting on, and Eddie Marsan makes a great impact in his short but impactful opening scene.

At just under 90 minutes, The 39 Steps passes by quickly but belongs in the realm of unchallenging Sunday afternoon television in all honesty. Now, maybe I’ll look at booking the theatrical version…  

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