DVD Review: The Canterbury Tales (1)

“If I’d known we were being invited to an orgy, I’d’ve stopped in Burnley”

This set of adaptations of six of The Canterbury Tales from 2003 make an interesting if baffling set of TV films. Taking inspiration from Chaucer’s writings and setting them in modern-day contexts, six different writers were chosen to try and find a happy medium between remaining true to the spirit of the originals and also making them accessible for a modern day audience not necessarily familiar with them. As I fall into that latter category (I’ve seen a theatrical adaptation but have never read them), my observations can only really thus reflect the tales as pieces of television in and of themselves rather than as the adaptations that they also are. That said, it doesn’t change the fact that disc 1 is significantly superior to disc 2.

First up was Peter Bowker’s take on The Miller’s Tale where Dennis Waterman’s publican runs his establishment with his attractive and much younger wife Alison. Played by Billie Piper, she lives for the weekly karaoke nights that she dominates and when a mysterious and charming stranger played by James Nesbitt arrives claiming to be a talent scout, her head is filled with promises of what could be. Nesbitt’s charisma serves him well as the silver-tongued Nick who schemes his way into the affections and purses of many around him, but this is a Piper still growing into her acting style and against Waterman’s dour husband, it never really grabbed me as a story.  

More successful for me was Sally Wainwright’s version of The Wife of Bath. Julie Walters’ Beth Craddock is a much-married ageing small screen star who finds herself alone once again when her husband of 16 years leaves her for another woman. Ricocheting on the rebound, she falls happily into the embrace of her much younger co-star, Paul Nicholls’ handsomely hirsute Jerome. Their relationship unexpectedly blossoms into something more but in the face of the age difference, professional difficulties when he gets fired from the show and Bill Nighy’s untimely death as the errant husband, trouble is never too far away. It felt a much more effective story, certainly more engagingly acted and with a clever piece of misdirection at the end, one of the strongest in this collection.

Taking on The Knight’s Tale was Tony Marchant and a rather excellent cast including John Simm and Chiwetel Ejiofor. As two best friends from boyhood, Simm and Ejiofor’s characters both end up in prison for various misdeeds but their strong bond is tested with the arrival of Keeley Hawes’ Emily as an English teacher in the prison. As both tumble for her charms, their friendship is torn asunder as they compete for her love right to the death. With actors of such a calibre, this proved to be an enjoyable watch, if somewhat unlikely in its contrivances, and in its drive to a tragic conclusion, was really quite 

Disc 2 reviewed here.

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