TV Review: The Other Boleyn Girl (2003)

A BBC adaptation of The Other Boleyn Girl is unforgivably shonky, even with Natascha McElhone and Jodhi May leading the cast 

“I believe beauty in a woman comes in many different forms”

Five years before Hollywood got their hands on The Other Boleyn Girl, writer and director Philippa Lowthorpe adapted a version of the Philippa Gregory’s novel for the BBC but I’d have to say it is best forgotten. Lowthorpe’s approach is admirable because or maybe in spite of its low budget, using handheld camera at times and confessional videos at others, it is clearly attempting to do something different for a period drama.

But it fudges it quite badly. Despite the atmospheric surroundings of Berkeley Castle where it was shot, the filming tricks are distracting rather than illuminating and sadly feel amateurish, leaving the whole production with an air of student shonkiness, particularly as it completely fails to conjure any sense of the royal court. Some shifts and adaptations of the story as written also feel a bit peculiar, the straightening of George and the excision of much political and religious context (which was already sparse in the book). Best avoided.

Review: The Best Man, Playhouse

The Best Man, Playhouse Theatre, London

Martin Shaw returns to the West End in US political thriller The Best Man, its relevance to today’s White House painfully clear

“The important thing for any government is educating the people about the issues, not following the ups and downs of popular opinion”

With American politics being the shitshow that it currently is, the temptation to lampoon Trump at every and any opportunity is one that many theatre directors have been unable to resist. A wilier creative mind might regard this as too on the nose (and already overdone) and find an alternative way to critique our transatlantic cousins, at least an avalanche of Brexit plays puts the boot on the other foot.

And that is what Simon Evans’ revival of Gore Vidal’s 1960 play The Best Man has done. After touring the UK last year, it arrives at the Playhouse Theatre with a slight sense of stateliness about it but also alive to how just how much of what was written nearly 60 years ago has to say about today’s political establishment. With a cast that includes Martin Sheen and Maureen Lipman, plus a cracking performance from Philip Cumbus, there’s something interesting here that rises above some slightly dated writing and aspects of a political system long left behind. Continue reading “Review: The Best Man, Playhouse”

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.

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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. Continue reading “TV Review: Fearless Episode 1”

Review: Uncle Vanya, St James Theatre

“This is starting to get offensive”

Proving herself once, twice, three times a lady Chekhov adapter, Anya Reiss now finds herself in the slightly odd position where (I think) she’s had more of her adaptations produced than her original writing – it’s certainly one way of casting off the mantle of ‘saviour of new writing’ with which she has often been blessed/cursed. I didn’t catch her well-received take on Spring Awakening for Headlong earlier this year but it is reimagining the work of Chekhov that has really fired her mojo – recent versions of The Seagull and Three Sisters are now followed by an equally modern Uncle Vanya for the St James Theatre.

And whilst I’d love to say these adaptation are going from strength to strength, for me it is much more a case of diminishing returns. Moving The Seagull to a contemporary Isle of Man chimed well but Three Sisters suffered a little (well, a lot) in the shift to a modern British embassy and so too does Uncle Vanya here, relocated to a Lincolnshire farm in the modern day. The sense of crippling stagnation, of an entire way of life on the precipice is present but none of the deep emotion or eternal tragedy of the characters that should elevate its concerns to the universal. Continue reading “Review: Uncle Vanya, St James Theatre”

DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband

”Sometimes you have to do bad things to get into power, in order to do good things when you get there”

18 years may have passed since Paula Milne wrote The Politician’s Wife so it was something of a surprise to hear that a companion piece called The Politician’s Husband was in the works. Shown on BBC2 last year, it followed the same 3 episode miniseries format as its forefather and directed by Simon Cellan Jones, had a splashy cast in David Tennant and Emily Watson as a high-flying political couple forced to navigate tricky ground when her career starts to outshine his. But for all the expectation that may have surrounded this, it sadly didn’t feel like a worthy follow-up, satisfyingly excellent performance from Emily Watson aside. 

It’s not immediately clear why Milne decided to write this sequel of sorts. The surnames of her characters pay homage to the West Wing (Hoynes, Gardner, Babbish…) and the Machiavellian manipulations of those in power and those who would be speak of many a political thriller gone by. But it is a very British kind of politics that is being interrogated here, the expenses scandal looms large in the public disillusionment with the establishment. And though no affiliations are made with any particular political parties, it is hard not to see echoes of an imagined Balls/Cooper household here, though it is a universal truth that the power-hungry are not restricted to any one ideology. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Politician’s Husband”

DVD Review: The Nativity Story (2006)/The Nativity (2010)

“Joseph, please don’t hate me”

As one of those stories that so many of us learnt whilst very young, the tale of the Nativity occupies a near-unassailable position in the cultural consciousness and so it is unsurprising that it has received the odd televisual adaptation or two. But both versions that I watched this week suffered criminally from a po-faced seriousness, trying to create a literal interpretation of the Biblical story despite the ever-so-tiny possibility that it might not necessarily be based in deep realism…

The Nativity Story, the 2006 film version, written by Mike Rich and directed by Catherine Hardwicke, is particularly onerous, deadly serious in tone and mostly traditional in its storytelling, so that Keisha Castle-Hughes’ Mary unblinkingly accepts the arrival of the Angel Gabriel and the news that she’s gonna be expecting. Yet Hardwicke can’t resist a little of the Bella Swan stroppiness as Mary gets to complain (unrealistically) about her enforced betrothal to Joseph.

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Review: Home, Arcola Theatre

“One works. One looks around. One meets people. But very little communication takes place”

An unexpected delight, David Storey’s much-celebrated but rarely performed Home proved to be something rather lovely in its strange way, almost anti-dramatic in its structure and conventions, but beautifully moving in its deliberate poetry and pitch-perfect performances. Amelia Sears’ production for SEArED reconfigures the smaller Arcola studio into the round and Naomi Dawson’s design is just beautiful, hinting at where we might be but carrying much of the ambiguity that is contained within the play itself.

We start with a gorgeous sequence between old hands Jack and Harry, bantering and chatting about the old days in a most fragmented way, lamenting the Britain of the past and delivering their old patter routines to while away the hours as if two old friends had just met up. But their reverie is shattered by the arrival of Kathleen and Marjorie as we soon realise that we’re actually in the grounds of a mental asylum, something confirmed by the final addition, the genuinely disturbed, and much younger, Alfred. Continue reading “Review: Home, Arcola Theatre”

DVD Review: The Golden Compass

“There are worlds beyond our own”

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials are amongst my favourite novels ever, and the National Theatre’s adaptation of the stories into a two-part play was a stunning interpretation that also ranks amongst my all-time favourites (I also trekked to Bath to see a youth theatre production and to the Lowry for a touring version). So the news of a film version of the first story, The Golden Compass (as it was renamed for the North American market from its original title Northern Lights) left me quite excited, though a little trepidatious at how Pullman’s writing would survive the Hollywood machine.

As it turns out, it didn’t really. Studio politics, script issues and intense pressure from Catholic organisations meant that the project had a most difficult genesis and creative process, Chris Weitz ending up writing and directing despite leaving the project and several other people working on it. So the tale of Lyra Belacqua’s brave journeying to the frozen north in a parallel universe to rescue her friend Roger as the mysterious Lord Asriel sets about a discovery that will challenge the highest Authority in the land which is so incredibly rich and detailed in the novel loses depth and magic to become just another special effects-laden fantasy flick. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Golden Compass”

DVD Review: The Jury

Part of Helen McCrory weekend

“I know first hand the cruelty he’s capable of”

Though North Square was probably the first time I really took notice of Helen McCrory, it was in The Jury that she really stole my heart and for ages, it was this show that I fruitlessly referenced when trying to explain who she was. Written by Peter Morgan, The Jury played on ITV in 2002 over 6 episodes following a single court case as a Sikh teenager is accused of killing his 15 year old classmate. But rather than focusing on the case, as the title suggests the attention was the men and women that made up the jury and how the experience affected their lives in a multitude of ways.

McCrory played Rose, a rather nervous woman with an overbearing husband (boo, Mark Strong) who unexpectedly finds a sense of freedom in being allowed out into a new world and seizes the opportunity with both hands. Stuck in a room with people she doesn’t know, she almost reinvents herself from scratch and find herself increasingly drawn to Johnnie, who is played by a pre-Hollywood Gerard Butler (so who can blame her). He has his own challenges from a troubled recent past though and so whilst the sweet relationship that builds between the two is beautifully essayed as one senses the genuine spark between the pair, the small matter of his demons and her husband remain in the way. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Jury”