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As You Like It (2006)

Thanks very much to everyone for the suggestions about which Shakespeare productions to watch, which should keep me going for ages! This will just be a short posting to say that I’ve watched the Kenneth Branagh production of As You Like It on DVD, and enjoyed it very much. I have also recently seen a much earlier version, the 1936 production with Laurence Olivier as Orlando, which I wrote about over on my old movies blog – Olivier is great as always, but the film seems rather stilted and also cuts out great chunks of the play. This modern version keeps much more of Shakespeare’s text – watching it, I realised that several important characters had been completely cut out of the 30s movie.

The most immediately striking thing about Branagh’s version is the setting, moving the Forest of Arden to 19th-century Japan – where the characters are re-invented as members of a self-governing enclave of British merchants.  However, it was actually filmed in the UK with oriental touches like samurai warriors added in. This makes for beautiful costumes, but I’m not sure the Japanese element adds much apart from that – especially as so much of it takes place in the forest, which somehow looks very English. It does mean that the wrestlers become Sumo wrestlers, which is an intriguing idea.
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Shakespeare productions

David Tennant as Hamlet

Shakespeare is on my mind at the moment as next month I’ll be going on holiday to the Cotswolds and visiting Stratford upon Avon – and seeing an RSC production of  The Winter’s Tale while  I’m there. I was supposed to see an open-air forest production of the same play last year but we couldn’t go as my husband had (suspected) swine flu, so it will be good to see it this year instead.:)

Anyway, I was just thinking it would be nice to watch some Shakespeare productions on film to get me in the mood before going and I’ll probably write (hopefully short) pieces about anything I watch. Just wondering if anyone has any recommendations for productions they especially liked. I recently liked the TV version of  the RSC production of Hamlet starring David Tennant, which has come up in discussion on a previous posting here – ok, so this is partly an excuse to post a picture of Tennant, who is one of my favourite actors, but hasn’t done much period drama.  Thanks in advance for any suggestions.

John Adams (2008)

Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney

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. 

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Glorious 39 (2009)

This is just to say that I’ve now seen Glorious 39, Stephen Poliakoff’s latest movie, a period drama-cum-thriller  set among the English aristocracy as war is breaking out. However, I’m not going to write a full review as I really didn’t like it at all and was disappointed, and I prefer to spend my time writing about the productions which I admire. The story seems to me to start well in the first half hour or so, but then becomes increasingly ludicrous and starts to turn into a bad horror film. I won’t give away the various plot twists, as they are supposed to come as a shock, but will just say I didn’t find them or the characters at all believable. 

It’s a pity – I’d been looking forward to it as I’ve liked many of Poliakoff’s previous films, especially Close My Eyes (1991) and the mini-series Shooting The Past (1999). It also has a great cast, led by Romola Garai and Bill Nighy, with a good role for Julie Christie as an eccentric aunt. David Tennant and Hugh Bonneville both have fairly small parts – Tennant plays an MP who warns against appeasing Hitler, giving a powerful speech at a dinner party- and their scenes are probably the best in the movie. The costumes, Norfolk scenery, and music are all beautiful, and there are also some gorgeous cats in many of the scenes… but it’s all dragged down by the script.  I just kept thinking of The Remains of the Day (1993), which deals with similar material, looking at fascist sympathisers in high places before the war, but does it immeasurably better.

Coming up next!

For anyone wondering what I’ve got coming up next, I’ll be writing something about the mini-series John Adams, which I’m busy watching at the moment as it has just turned up on the “on ‘demand” section of my family’s Cable TV service – I’m only on episode two but it is excellent so far and I can see why it won so many awards. I’ll also be seeing Stephen Poliakoff’s latest film, Glorious 39,  later this week, at our local arts cinema (which has reopened after being shut!) and hope to write a review of that too. After that it will be back to classic adaptations, but there are so many that I want to see, I’m not sure which one to write about next – possibly a mini-series based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, as I’ve just finished reading it after four months!

I also wanted to mention that fellow blogger Maria Grazia, who shares my interest in period dramas and has given me a lot of help and support since setting up this blog, has kindly featured my blog in her weekly interview feature on her site Fly High, which features many costume drama reviews and a lot about classic literature too. We’re doing a giveaway there with the chance to win a copy of the audiobook Robin Hood: The Witchfinders, read by Richard Armitage. Thank you very much to Maria Grazia for featuring me.:)

I’ve now watched this Andrew Davies adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s last novel at least three times over the years (it might even be four), and my admiration grows each time. I think it must be one of his very greatest TV adaptations, up there with his takes on Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice and Vanity Fair – and it is yet another one from the late 1990s, a period which saw an extraordinary flowering of classic adaptations. All the cast are superb, with my very favourite performances coming from Francesca Annis and Michael Gambon. For me, Wives and Daughters is Gaskell’s masterpiece, and this is a version which does it justice. Sadly she didn’t live to write the last few pages of her novel, but I rather like the ending this mini-series supplies – though I’ll discuss that at the end!

This mini-series looks beautiful, set in the countryside throughout (apart from brief glimpses of Cynthia in London and Roger in Africa), with endless shots of sweeping green landscapes and country houses. Director Nicholas Renton also made the fine 1998 version of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, which has a similar feeling for country scenery. However, like his FFTMC, this isn’t just an idyllic picture of country life – it is made clear how characters are hemmed in and how difficult it is for anyone to escape the atmosphere of gossip and all the little rules governing village society. Wives and Daughters doesn’t deal with changing times as overtly as North and South, but the theme is still there, as is class conflict. The Squire in particular is clinging to the past while everything changes around him.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the mini-series, the story centres on a doctor’s daughter, Molly Gibson, who gains a new step-mother and step-sister, Hyacinth and Cynthia, when her father remarries – and on the tensions within this ill-assorted instant family. However, if you haven’t read/seen it, you’d be best not to read on until you have, as I’ll be discussing aspects of the whole plot – and also, as with North and South, you have a great double treat in store from the book and film.:)

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I see the BBC has announced several new films and dramas at Cannes (not sure if these are all feature films?) – some we already knew about but others are new. Here are a couple of links for more information, to the BBC press office and Screen Daily.

Several of these are period/costume dramas- one new announcement is an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s book The Invisible Woman about Charles Dickens’ secret relationship with actress Ellen Ternan. I thought Tomalin’s book was excellent and the screenwriter, Abi Morgan, did a great job in adapting Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, so this could be a fine production, but all the same, I’m a bit fed up that adaptations of Dicken’s actual works, such as the Dombey and Son Andrew Davies had been working on, get scrapped, but there is still money to fund a biopic focusing on a scandal. Maybe if it does really well it will persuade the BBC to get on with some new versions of some of his novels or short stories – there are loads of those which have never been adapted at all, and I haven’t heard anything for ages about the David Copperfield Davies is now supposed to be working on instead of Dombey.

Rebecca Hall, Dominic West and Imelda Staunton star in The Awakening, which is described as a classic ghost story in the tradition of MR James and set in 1921, but isn’t actually a classic adaptation – it’s a new original script by Stephen Volk and director Nick Murphy. My hopes are high for this one as the BBC has such a great tradition of ghost stories – I wonder if it will turn up on TV or in the cinema at Christmas?

Stephen Fry is writing and directing Hallelujah!, about the build-up to the first performance of Handel’s Messiah – this is at an early stage by the sounds of it but should be well worth seeing.

In post-production is Ralph Fiennes’ eagerly-awaited film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus – Fiennes will star as well as directing, and Vanessa Redgrave also stars, along with Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and James Nesbitt. The new BBC Films version of Jane Eyre is also currently being filmed, starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender and directed by Cary Fukunaga – I really have to wonder if a new version can possibly add anything to all the great adaptations which have already been made of this novel, but I know I will go and see it just the same.