Sorry to have neglected blogging again, but I’ve been busy at work. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about the mini-series John Adams, as there are so many in-depth reviews of it already on the net and I don’t know enough about American history to do it any kind of justice – but just wanted to say that I liked it very much and found it compelling to watch. Despite winning loads of awards in the US, it was hidden away in a slot at teatime when originally shown in the UK, and I missed it, but have now belatedly caught up with it on cable TV.
Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney are wonderful as John and Abigail Adams (I now want to read some of the couple’s famous letters), and, as with other HBO series I’ve seen, the production values are high throughout. There is a great cast including Rufus Sewell, Stephen Dillane, David Morse as George Washington, and many more. Director Tom Hooper also directed the Andrew Davies/BBC Daniel Deronda and the BBC Elizabeth I starring Helen Mirren, so he has a fine track record.
I was especially impressed by the way that each of the seven episodes is really constructed as a drama in its own right and allowed to run as long as needed to tell the story, with the running lengths varying from just over an hour to 92 minutes for the second episode, which ends with the representatives of the various states standing up to declare independence.
As a Brit, I only ever studied the American War of Independence fairly briefly at school and mainly in terms of its impact over here, so it was very interesting to see this and learn a lot more about this period. I don’t know how accurate it all is, and would really need to go on to read some background material to get a clearer picture. However, watching the series I was impressed that it makes all the relationships and power struggles seem as complicated as they must have been in real life, and never turns into hagiography – the portrayal shows Adams’ strengths and weaknesses as both a politician and a husband and father. There are not many war scenes, but those which are shown don’t idealise the conflict or skate over the violence. There’s no direct mention of the Boston Tea Party, but there is a disturbing shot of an earlier incident at Boston witnessed by Adams, where a man bringing in the hated tea supplies to the harbour is tarred and feathered.
I especially felt for Adams in the third and fourth episodes, which follow his time as an ambassador in France and show him ill, lonely and out of his depth in the glamour and decadence of the pre-revolutionary court – whereas Benjamin Franklin, wittily portrayed by Tom Wilkinson, is in his element. There’s a great moment where Adams charges into Franklin’s room to tell him a development from America, and finds him sitting naked playing chess with a woman.
Some of the most powerful scenes are those showing the Adams’ home life and focusing on how precarious health was at this time – as well as Adams’ own illness in France, with bleeding and cupping, there is a harrowing scene of Abigail and her children being vaccinated with live smallpox virus taken from a woman on her deathbed, and a later scene where the Adams’ daughter, “Nabby” (Sarah Polley) has to undergo a mastectomy without anaesthetic.
The whole drama reminded me of Amazing Grace (2006) and Darwin biopic Creation (2009) in bringing history alive by focusing on individuals – and also because, as in both of these, the people at the centre often had to wrestle with ill-health as they carried out their work. However, because of its much greater length, this series could really bring out the contradictions and changes within characters, and also trace the Adams’ marriage over many years, building up a fascinating portrait.
If anyone visiting my blog has the DVD set of this series, I’d be interested to hear what you think of the extra features, historical background etc which are included.