Monday, September 29, 2014
The following is a list of minor notes and observations that came to me, during my recent viewing of “Episode VI: Return of the Jedi”. I hope that you enjoy them:
Notes and Observations of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI”
*I have always found the launching of shuttles rather different in the STAR WARS saga, in compare to other science-fiction sagas. The Imperial shuttles leave the starships like drops of water from a faucet.
*The commander of the Death Star II seemed to react with horror at the news of the Emperor’s impending arrival. Quite a contrast to his mild nervousness at Vader’s arrival.
*When I first saw ”Return of the Jedi”, I must admit that I found the numerous creatures inside Jabba’s palace a bit overwhelming. Okay, a lot overwhelming.
*I like the way the camera suddenly in on the image of a frozen Han Solo hanging on Jabba’s wall. Very dramatic.
*Why would anyone torture a droid with hot irons?
*Why was Jabba suspicious of Leia’s bounty hunter disguise? Why did he suspect that she would attempt to free Han?
*Why did Luke use the Force to briefly strangle Jabba’s guards? Was it necessary, considering that all they did was block his path?
*I hope that getting captured by Jabba was part of Luke’s plan. If not, he was being rather arrogant in his belief that his initial plan to rescue Han would work. He reminded me of Padme’s display of arrogance in ”Attack of the Clones”, when she believed that she would be able to rescue Obi-Wan from Count Dooku.
*”Vader’s March” seemed intensified in the scene featuring the Emperor Palpatine’s arrival on the Death Star II.
*It is interesting that Yoda had warned Luke about facing Sidious . . . and not Vader.
*Yoda is the only major Jedi character from the Old Republic that died peacefully. Even more odd is that although he has never been a favorite character of mine, I found myself crying over his death.
*”When your father left, he didn’t know your mother was pregnant. Your mother and I knew he would find out eventually, but we wanted to keep you both safe as possible, for as long as possible. So I took you to live with my brother Owen on Tatooine . . . and your mother took Leia to live as the daughter of Senator Organa on Alderaan.”
A lot is wrong with the above statement by Obi-Wan. Anakin knew that Padme was pregnant. He just did not know that she was carrying twins. Owen Lars turned out not to be Obi-Wan’s brothers. Which is a good thing, because Obi-Wan had seemed unnaturally cool over Owen and Beru Lars’ deaths in "A New Hope". He ended up reacting more strongly over the destruction of Alderaan and his encounter with Vader. And Padme did not survive giving birth to Luke and Leia – which also makes sense, considering that I cannot see her giving up one child to the Lars and taking the other one with her to Alderaan.
*I found it disturbing that even as a Force ghost, Obi-Wan tried to encourage Luke to commit patricide.
*I hate to say this, but Harrison Ford did some truly atrocious acting in the scenes that featured Han volunteering for the mission on Endor and saying good-bye to Lando before his departure.
*I wonder if Vader had any idea that Sidious had been planning to replace him with Luke.
*Every time I watch this movie, I have to be reminded that Han, Leia, Chewbacca and the droids were accompanied by Rebel troops.
*The speeder bike chase sequence through the Endor Forest is still a classic with me and the Redwood State and National Forests were never more beautiful.
*Oh God! Ewoks! Just what I need. DAMN YOU, George Lucas!
*It is interesting that the Ewoks did not take the threats of their . . . ”deity”, Threepio, very seriously. Until Luke used the Force.
*Threepio’s tale of the past two movies was rather emotional, but I think it would have been better if Bail Organa had not ordered his memories of the Republic wiped.
*The minute Luke and Leia began to talk about Padme, I started to cry.
*The quarrel between Leia and Han . . . featured some sloppy acting by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. Geez! What is with them in this movie?
*Great moment between Luke and Vader at the Imperial base on Endor. It is odd that Luke had advised Vader to let go of his hate. I never got the feeling that hate was Vader’s problem in this movie. He seemed too lethargic and resigned to his fate.
*EMPEROR: Ah, yes, a Jedi's weapon. Much like your father's. By now you must know your father
can never be turned from the dark side. So will it be with you.
LUKE: You're wrong. Soon I'll be dead...and you with me.
Both Luke and Palpatine seemed to be suffering from massive ego trips.
*Despite my dislike of the Ewoks, I must admit that I found their battle against the Imperial forces on Endor well shot. Many fans believe that Lucas was trying to convey the idea of the futility of technology against nature. I can see their point.
*That old bugaboo about attachments seemed to have reared its ugly head, as Palpatine goaded Luke into attacking first.
*Many fans have claimed that Luke had become more powerful than Vader in this movie. However, I have this odd feeling that Vader’s heart was not really into that last duel. When he discovered that he has a daughter, he used this knowledge to goad Luke into attacking him. Was he trying to turn Luke to the ”Dark Side”? Or trying to goad the latter into killing him? Suicide by duel?
*It is easy to see that Palpatine has become too arrogant and sloppy in his old age. He has developed a big mouth over the past two decades. If he had kept his mouth shut during Vader and Luke’s duel, the latter would have killed his old apprentice, and the Emperor would have acquired a new one.
*Ah yes! The ultimate moment when Anakin saved Luke and killed the Emperor. Still brings tears to my eyes.
*Great special effects used in the sequence featuring Admiral Needa’s death.
*I think that I like the destruction of the Death Star II a little better than the destruction of the first one in ”A New Hope”.
*After watching Anakin’s death scene, it occurred to me that all of the movie’s best scenes centered around Luke and Anakin.
*Why in the hell did Leia wait so long to tell Han that Luke was her brother? I knew that she was upset to learn that Anakin/Vader was her father, but . . . geez!
*What goes around, comes around. Anakin received a funeral pyre just like his first Jedi mentor – Qui-Gon Jinn, the very man who had discovered him.
*The celebration music at the end of the movie seemed like a slight improvement over the original version. I can also say the same about Hayden Christiansen’s appearance as the ghost Force Anakin Skywalker.
*Even though this is my least favorite STAR WARS movie, I must commend it for the strong emotional ties it seemed to have with the Prequel Trilogy.
Thursday, September 25, 2014
"THE GOOD SHEPHERD" (2006) Review
As far as I know, Academy Award winning actor Robert De Niro has directed at least two movies during his long career. One of them was the 1992 movie, "A BRONX'S TALE", which I have yet to see. The other was the 2006 espionage epic called "THE GOOD SHEPHERD".
Starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie, "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" told the fictionalized story about the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) and counter-intelligence through the eyes of one man named Edward Wilson. Edward, the product of an East Coast aristocratic family and a C.I.A. official, has received an anonymous package during the spring of 1961. The famous C.I.A operation, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba had just failed. Inside the package is a reel-to-reel tape that reveals two unidentifiable people engaged in sex. Suspecting that the tape might reveal leads to the failure behind the Cuban operation, Edward has the tape investigated. The results lead to a possibility that the operation's failure may have originated very close to home. During Edward's investigation of the reel tape and the failure behind the Bay of Pigs, the movie reveals the history of his personal life and his career in both the C.I.A. and the Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) during World War II.
Many film critics and historians believe that the Edward Wilson character in "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" is loosely based upon the lives and careers of American intelligence officers, James Jesus Angelton and Richard M. Bissell, Jr.. And there might be some truth in this observation. But if I must be frank, I was never really concerned if the movie was a loose biography of anyone associated with the C.I.A. My concerns mainly focused on whether "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" is a good movie. Mind you, I had a few quibbles with it, but in the end I thought it was an above-average movie that gave moviegoers a peek into the operations of the C.I.A. and this country's history between 1939 and 1961.
It is a pity that "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" was marred by a handful of prominent flaws. It really had the potential to be a well-made and memorable film. One of the problems I had were most of the characters' emotional repression. Are we really supposed to believe that nearly every member of the upper-class in the country's Northeast region are incapable of expressing overt emotion? I am not claiming that the performances were bad. Frankly, I was very impress by the performances featured in the movie. But the idea of nearly every major character - especially those born with a silver spoon - barely speaking above an audible whisper, due to his or her priviledged background, strikes me as more of a cliché than interesting and/or original characterization. I never understood what led Edward to finally realize that the man he believed was the genuine KGB defector Valentin Mironov, was actually a double agent. He should have realized this when the real Mironov had arrived several years earlier. The circumstances that led Edward to seek evidence inside one of the fake defector's struck me as rather vague and far-reaching on screenwriter Eric Roth's part. My main problem with "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" was its pacing. It was simply TOO DAMN SLOW. The movie has an interesting story, but De Niro's snail-like pacing made it difficult for me to maintain my interest in one sitting. Thank goodness for DVDs. I feel that the only way to truly appreciate "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" without falling asleep is to watch a DVD copy in installments.
However, thanks to Eric Roth's screenplay and Robert De Niro's direction, "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" offered plenty of scenes and moments to enjoy. The moment of seduction at a Skull and Bones gathering that led Edward into a loveless marriage with Margaret 'Clover' Russell struck me as fascinating. It was a moment filled with passion and sex. Yet, the circumstances - namely Margaret's pregnancy - forced Edward to give up a college love and marry a woman he did not truly love. I also enjoyed how De Niro and Roth used flashbacks to reveal the incidents in Edward's post-college life and C.I.A. career, while he persisted into his investigation of the mysterious tape in the movie's present day (1961). I was especially impressed by De Niro's smooth ability to handle the transition from the present, to the past and back without missing a beat.
There were two scenes really stood out for me. One involved the Agency's interrogation of the real Soviet defector, Valentin Mironov. I found it brutal, somewhat bloody and rather tragic in a perverse way. The other scene featured a loud and emotional quarrel between Edward and Margaret over the latter's demand that Edward should convince his son not to join the C.I.A. What made this quarrel interesting is that after twenty years of a quiet and repressive marriage, the two finally revealed their true feelings for each other. But the best aspect of "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" was its depiction of how a decent, yet flawed allowed his work in intelligence and his position of power within the intelligence community warp his character. The higher Edward rose within the ranks of the C.I.A., the more he distanced himself from his family with his lies and secrets, and the more he was willing to corrupt himself in the name of national security . . . even to the extent of disrupting his son's chance for happiness.
"THE GOOD SHEPHERD" must be one of the few large-scale movie productions, whose photography and production designs failed to give the impression of an epic. I found Robert Richardson's photography rather limited, despite the numerous settings featured in the plot. So much of the movie's scenes featured an interior setting. Yet, even most of the exterior scenes seemed to reflect a limited view. In the end, it was up to the movie's 167 minute running time and 22 years time span that gave "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" an epic feel to it.
Robert De Niro and the casting team did a pretty good job in their selection of the cast. The only one I had a problem with was actor Lee Pace, who portrayed a fictionalized version of C.I.A. director Richard Helms named . . . Richard Hayes. I have always viewed Pace as an outstanding actor, but he spent most of his scenes smirking on the sidelines or making slightly insidious comments to the Edward Wilson character. I believe Roth's screenplay had failed to give substance to his role. But there were plenty of other good supporting performances. I was especially impressed by Oleg Shtefanko's subtle, yet insidious portryal of Edward's KGB counterpart, Stas Siyanko aka Ulysses. Director Robert De Niro, John Sessions, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Joe Pesci and Tammy Blanchard all gave solid performances. Eddie Redmayne held his own with both Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie as the Wilsons' intimidated and resentful son, Edward Wilson, Jr. Michael Gambon was his usual competent self as an MI-6 spymaster named Dr. Fredricks. Gambon was also lucky to give one of the best lines in the movie.
At least three performances impressed me. John Tuturro was very memorable as Edward's tough and ruthless deputy, Ray Brocco. For once, De Niro's insistence upon minimilist acting worked very well in Tuturro's favor. The actor did an excellent job in portraying Brocco's aggression with a very subtle performance, producing an interesting contrast in the character's personality. I realize that Angelina Jolie had won her Oscar for "GIRL, INTERRUPTED", a movie that had been released at least seven years before "THE GOOD SHEPHERD". But I sincerely believe that her portryal of Edward's long suffering wife, Margaret, was the first role in which she truly impressed me. She tossed away her usual habits and little tricks in order to give a very mature and subtle performance as a woman slowly sinking under the weight of a loveless and repressive marriage. And I believe that Jolie has not looked back, since. The task of carrying the 167-minute film fell upon the shoulders of Matt Damon and as usual, he was more than up to the job. And while there were times when his performance seemed a bit too subtle, I cannot deny that he did a superb job of developing the Edward Wilson character from a priviledge, yet inexperienced college student to a mature and emotionally repressed man who was willing to live with the negative aspects of his profession.
I do not believe that "THE GOOD SHEPHERD" will ever be considered as a great film. It has a small number of flaws, but those flaws were not as minor as they should have been - especially the slow pacing that threatened to put me to sleep. But I cannot deny it is damn good movie, thanks to Robert De Niro's direction, Eric Roth's screenplay and a talented cast led by Matt Damon. Five years have passed since its release. It seems a pity that De Niro has not directed a movie since.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Below are photos from the 2010 Disney fantasy adventure, "PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME". Directed by Mike Newell, the movie starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina:
"PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME" (2010) Photo Gallery
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
"DOWNTON ABBEY" SERIES ONE (2010) Retrospective
Several years ago, the announcement of ITV’s series, "DOWNTON ABBEY", had attracted my interest the moment I had learned it would air on American television, during the winter of 2011. I happened to be a fan of Robert Altman’s 2001 movie,"GOSFORD PARK". And when I learned that the movie’s Oscar winning writer, Julian Fellowes, was one of the series’ creators, my interest soon transformed into anticipation.
Focused upon a vast estate during the last years of the Edwardian England, "DOWNTON ABBEY" was able to allow viewers to glimpse into the lives of the estate’s owner (or caretaker), Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham; his immediate family; and the family’s servants through seven episodes. This first series began with news of the R.M.S. Titanic disaster in April 1912, which sparked a crisis for the Crawley family. The series ended with the commencement of World War I, over two years later. During those two years, the family endured the loss of two heirs presumptive, a new heir from the wrong social class, a personal scandal for Lord Grantham’s oldest daughter, a series of minor problems and a mystery surrounding his new valet, a pregnancy, a hostile valet, and the youngest daughter’s embroilment in the women’s suffragette movement.
"DOWNTON ABBEY" did not strike me as an original series. After all, I have seen both another television series and a movie with a similar premise – namely the 1971-1975 BBC series, "UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS" and "GOSFORD PARK"(which had a murder mystery attached to it). "DOWNTON ABBEY" had a good number of plotlines. Two of them are continuing plotlines – Lady Sybil Crawley’s politics and friendship with the family’s Irish-born chauffeur, Bronson; and the fallout from Lady Grantham’s accident, caused by her personal maid, Sarah O’Brien. But the meat of the series centered around two major storylines – the Earl of Grantham’s new heir and his impact upon the family’s fortunes; and the mystery surrounding the new valet, John Bates.
Lord Grantham and John Bates first met, while serving together during the Second Anglo-Boer War, in which the latter was crippled for life. Years later, Lord Grantham helped Bates by hiring him as a new valet. The latter’s arrival (which occurred on the same day that the household learned about the Titanic sinking) sparked a feud between him and the venal first footman, Thomas, who had coveted Bates’ new position. Due to her friendship with Thomas, O’Brien became drawn into the feud. And the two spent the next two years attempting to get Bates fired. Bates acquired his own champion in the form of head housemaid, Anna Smith. By the seventh episode, Bates and Anna were in love. But Bates refused to pursue a romance, due to some mystery regarding his marriage to a questionable woman.
The other major story proved to be a lot more complicated. Lord Grantham’s marriage to an American heiress brought him money for the family estate, unexpected marital bliss, three daughters and no male heirs. Because he had no sons, Lord Grantham’s first cousin became his heir presumptive. And his oldest daughter, Lady Mary, became engaged to his cousin’s son. However, the Titanic disaster took the lives of the two heirs and a new heir was found – a Manchester attorney named Matthew Crawley, who happened to be Lord Grantham’s third cousin. Unfortunately, not only had Matthew been raised in a middle-class environment, he would end up inheriting the Grantham title, Downton Abbey and the money that came with Cora, Lady Grantham’s dowry – money that his three female cousins will never be able to touch following their father’s death. Although most of the Crawley women initially found the idea of Matthew as the next Earl of Grantham abhorrent, both Lady Grantham and the Dowager Lady Grantham decided to consider the idea of Lady Mary marrying him. They saw this as the only means for a member of the immediate family to have access to Lady Grantham’s dowry. This storyline played into Lady Mary’s efforts to find a husband as a way to avoid marriage to Matthew. Unfortunately, her reputation was compromised by a Turkish diplomat, who decided to visit her room during a weekend hunting party. The storyline also played a major role in the on-going rivalry between the much-favored Lady Mary and the ignored and less beautiful middle sister, Lady Edith. This rivalry ended in disaster for both by the seventh season.
I believe that "DOWNTON ABBEY" certainly lived up to its hype. The series turned out to be a sharp and well-written television drama that also proved to be a breath of fresh air. And that is an interesting conclusion for me to arrive, considering that "DOWNTON ABBEY" is not what I would call an original premise. I suspect that Julian Fellowes might have a talent for drama with a multi-class premise within a single setting, as his work with both the series and "GOSFORD PARK" seemed to prove.
Fellowes’ handling of the servants’ storylines and characterization proved to be adept and well-written, but not as complex of his handling of the immediate Crawley family. Mind you, I rather enjoyed the storyline surrounding the John Bates character and the mysteries of his past. Because of his handicap, Bates drew the ire of the other servants, who resented that they had to cover his mistakes caused by his disability. But this resentment transformed into a feud between Bates and the villainous Thomas that lasted throughout the entire first series. The problem I do have with Fellowes’ characterizations of the Crawley servants was that they seemed to lack a good deal of the same complexity that made the Crawley family very interesting. Most of the servants struck me as a bit too likeable – almost to the point of being noble. This was especially true with four of the characters – John Bates, the butler Charles Carson, the housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes and head housemaid Anna Smith. The worse most of these characters seemed to suffer from – especially Bates and Mr. Carson – was pride. The servants did show signs of some moral complexity, when they expressed both surprise and resentment at housemaid Gwen Dawson’s aspirations to leave service and become a secretary.
On the other side of the spectrum, there was Thomas and O’Brien, who turned out to be villains of the story. Well . . . at least Thomas did. I must admit that O’Brien’s hostility seemed to be stemmed from her resentment toward her position as a servant. And she proved to be horrified and remorseful that she had caused Lady Grantham to miscarry an unborn child. Thomas, on the other hand, proved to be a thorough villain. Not only did he make several attempts to remove Bates as Lord Grantham’s valet, he also expressed callous disregard toward the death of second footman William Mason’s mother and Lady Crawley’s miscarriage. By the seventh season, he was fast becoming a one-note villain. And I found it disturbing that the series’ one true villain was not only a servant, but also a homosexual. Thomas' sexual persuasion allowed Fellowes to provide him with one moment of sympathy, when he was rejected by a visiting aristocrat (Charlie Cox) that proved to be his former lover. It is possible that I am putting too much into this, but having the series’ one unrepentant villain also be a homosexual strikes me as slightly homophobic.
Fellowes handled the characterizations of the Crawley family with a complexity that I found a lot more satisfying. The series’ two most complex characters turned out to be the older Crawley sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith. Both proved to be decent women that had to deal with their own personal angst. Lady Mary had to deal with her damaged reputation and resentment toward her father’s interest in her cousin Matthew Crawley. And Lady Edith had to endure her parents and grandmother’s lack of attention. However, Lady Mary and Lady Edith’s sibling rivalry also proved how ugly they could become. Lady Mary seemed very unsympathetic toward her younger sister’s emotional plight. And Lady Edith’s resentment led her to expose her sister’s late night encounter with the Turkish attaché, Mr. Kemal Pamuk. After discovering Lady Edith’s treachery, Lady Mary sabotaged the younger sister’s developing romance with the widowed Sir Anthony Strallen.
The rest of the Crawley family seemed less complex than the two older sisters. But they had their share of flaws. Superficially, the Earl and Countess of Grantham seemed unusually tolerant toward their servants, for members of the aristocracy. Yet, Lord Grantham did reveal his willingness to make his chauffeur, Tom Branson, a scapegoat for his youngest daughter’s political interests. And both he and Lady Grantham’s cool dismissal of the plainer Lady Edith’s chances of matrimony struck me as rather callous. The Dowager Lady Grantham initially came off as a snobbish, blunt and a bit too reactionary. And yet, she also had a sharp wit that many found entertaining. She even managed to warm up to her son’s middle-class heir and the latter’s mother. Speaking of Matthew Crawley, he seemed like a sympathetic and strong-willed character. And yet, I got the distinct impression that he also had a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to make assumptions about others – especially Lady Mary, with whom he had fallen in love. And his mother, Mrs. Violet Crawley was a decent, forthright woman and former nurse, who also came off as what the British would describe as aswot. In other words, she sometimes came off as a know-it-all prig. The only member of the family, whose complexity seemed to be at the same level as most of the servants, was the youngest daughter, Lady Sybil. Fellowes nearly portrayed her as a lively, upbeat, compassionate and forward-thinking young woman, with a deep interest in politics. In other words, she came off as a bit too ideal in my taste.
For me, the best aspect of Series One was the storyline featuring the effects of no male heirs and the estate’s entails had upon the Crawley family. Fellowes must have put a great deal of effort into creating it. Looking back, I am surprised that so many plots had such a strong connection to this storyline regarding the new family heir and the entail. Who would have thought that the sinking of the Titanic would prove to have such a strong impact upon the Crawley family? Especially upon the lives of the two elder sisters – Lady Mary and Lady Edith – and their cousin Matthew? To avoid a future in matrimony with Matthew, Lady Mary set out to find a rich and socially acceptable husband. Unfortunately, a late night encounter with a Turkish diplomat during a family-hosted hunting party left a whiff of scandal in Lady Mary’s wake. And due to Lady Edith’s resentment toward her older sister, she quietly revealed the true details behind the death of Mr. Kemal Pamuk to the Turkish Ambassador, the whiff developed into a full grown scandal that tainted Lady Mary’s reputation.
As much as I admired the series’ writing, there were some aspects of it that left me scratching my head. I have already complained about Fellowes’ occasionally one-dimensional characterization of most of the servants and Lady Sybil. I also have a complaint about another character. Although his characterization of the Dowager Countess was basically ambiguous, the character strongly reminded me of another that Maggie Smith had portrayed in "GOSFORD PARK" - namely Constance, Countess of Trentham. Only her character in the 2001 movie seemed a lot more subtle. And there is also one aspect of the Lady Mary-Mr. Pamuk storyline that troubled me. All those who knew about Mr. Pamuk’s presence in Lady Mary’s bedroom never bothered to question how he discovered her bedroom in the first place. Well, both Anna and Lady Grantham had jumped to the conclusion that Lady Marry had invited the attaché into her bedroom. But not even Lady Mary bothered to question his presence in her room. She never expressed one question. If she had, she and her mother would have eventually discovered that the only person who had the best chance of revealing her bedroom’s location to Mr. Pamuk was Thomas. The footman had served as the attaché’s temporary valet during the hunting party.
"DOWNTON ABBEY" proved to be a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Despite some of its flaws, its first season was well made and well written. This first season allowed viewers a glimpse into the world of the British aristocracy and its servants during the last two years before the outbreak of World War I. Series Two went on to cover the years of World War I. I had expected the "DOWNTON ABBEY" series to end with a third season covering the post-war era. However, the series' third, four and fifth season seemed to covering the 1920s, as well. Pity. I had hoped that "DOWNTON ABBEY" would turn out to be a three-season look at a family and its servants before, during and after World War I. Apparently, it seemed to be going on forever, trying to rise above this excellent first season. And I fear it never will.
Saturday, September 13, 2014
"MANSFIELD PARK" (2007) Review
There have been three screen adaptations of Jane Austen's 1814 novel, "Mansfield Park". And I have just finished viewing the most recent one - a ninety (90) minute television movie that first aired on the ITV network in March 2007.
As many Austen fans know, "MANSFIELD PARK" told the story of an English girl sent at the age of 10 to live with her maternal aunt and the latter's wealthy family at a vast estate called Mansfield Park. Fanny Price is treated as a poor relation of the Bertram family, as a semi-servant for her aunt, Lady Bertram. Only second son, Edmund, treats her with any real kindness. As a result, Fanny finds herself romantically in love with her cousin after eight years at Mansfield Park. Her feelings come to naught when the Bertram family becomes acquainted with a pair of sophisticated siblings named Henry and Mary Crawford. While Henry amuses himself with Fanny's cousins, Maria and Julia Bertram; Edmund falls in love with Mary, who returns his affections. Jealous over Edmund's romance with Mary, Fanny is oblivious of Henry's sudden interest to her. And when he makes it obvious with a proposal of marriage, Fanny finds herself divided between her true feelings about both Edmund and Henry, and her uncle Sir Thomas' desire to see her married to an eligible man of wealth.
"MANSFIELD PARK" was one of three Jane Austen adaptations aired by the ITV during the spring of 2007. All three movies possessed a running time of at least 90 minutes. Yet, for some reason, the production for "MANSFIELD PARK" seemed like a cheap television production, in compare to "PERSUASION" and "NORTHANGER ABBEY". It had nothing to do with the changes to Austen story, made by screenwriter Maggie Wadey. However, I do suspect that some of the changes were a result of the movie's budget. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that the budget had a lot to do with my dissatisfaction with "MANSFIELD PARK".
Of the three movies aired for ITV's "The Jane Austen Season", "MANSFIELD PARK" was the only one that was limited to one setting. Although Austen's novel was mainly set on the Bertram estate, it also included the Rushworth family's estate, Sotherton, the Mansfield Park parsonage occupied by Dr. and Mrs. Grant, and heroine Fanny Price's hometown of Portsmouth. Thanks to Wadey's script, the production did not include the setting of the Mansfield Park parsonage and Portsmouth. Henry and Mary Crawford were never seen at the parsonage. And to prevent shifting the setting to Portsmouth, Wadey's script allowed Sir Thomas Bertram to isolate Fanny at the estate . . . alone, instead of shipping her back to her immediate family in Portsmouth. This robbed the television viewers of a chance to meet Fanny's immediate family, aside from brother William. Another change was made by Wadey that seemed to reflect the movie's limited budget. Instead of a ball, a picnic was held in Fanny's honor by the Bertrams, following Maria Bertram's marriage to Mr. Rushworth. A picnic, instead of a ball. How cheap could one get?
Another aspect of "MANSFIELD PARK" that rubbed me the wrong way turned out to be the fast pacing. The television production moved at such a fast pace that I could barely blink before the scene featuring the Rushworths' wedding appeared. In fact, the entire story from Fanny's arrival at Mansfield Park to Maria's marriage to Mr. Rushworth seemed to move at an extremely fast and somewhat unsatisfying pace. If there is one thing about Wadey's script that did not move me one way or the other was its approach to the topic of slavery. She turned out to be the only screenwriter who adhered to Austen's novel. The 1999 movie allowed the topic of the Bertram family's participation in slavery to become a major theme in the movie. The 1983 miniseries completely ignored the subject. However, this version followed Austen's novel by allowing Fanny to question Sir Thomas about his role as a slave owner, before dropping the subject altogether.
Remember the outrage over Fanny Price's characterization in Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation of the novel? Well, there were some changes made by Wadey in this movie. Maggie O'Neill's portrayal of Fanny's Aunt Norris seemed less comic and broad than any other version I have encountered. Normally, I would applaud such a change. But one of the more entertaining aspects of"MANSFIELD PARK" has always been the use of Aunt Norris as a comic figure. O'Neill's Aunt Norris struck me as slightly boring. Also, Wadey's characterization of Mary Crawford struck me as slightly cold . . . darker. Portrayed by the talented Hayley Atwell, this version of Mary seemed to lack a sense of humor or true wit. Atwell's Mary never really tried to form a friendship with Fanny or display any kindness toward the latter. I got the feeling that Wadey deliberately portrayed Mary in this cold fashion to discourage sympathy or any other kind of positive feelings toward her. Because of this, Atwell was almost forced to portray Mary as a one-note villainess. Almost. Thankfully, the actress manage to somewhat rise the character above such mediocrity. Michelle Ryan made a lovely Maria Bertram. Unfortunately, her character failed to make an impact on the television screen, thanks to Wadey's limited handling of her character.
But not all of Wadey's characterizations irritated me. I liked her handling of the Lady Bertram character, portrayed by Jemma Redgrave. Instead of the vague and selfish woman portrayed by both Angela Pleasence and Lindsay Duncan, Redgrave portrayed Lady Bertram as a concerned parent and a woman with a deep interest in her children's love lives, if not their moral compasses. Douglas Hodge made a first-rate Sir Thomas Bertram, in all of his intimidating glory. He had taken the role as an to his mentor, actor/director Harold Pinter, who portrayed the role in Patricia Rozema's 1999 adaptation. James D'Arcy made an entertaining Tom Bertram. His sharp bon mots kept me smiling through most of the movie's first half. Rory Kinnear's portrayal of Mr. Rushworth seemed spot on. It seemed a pity that Wadey's script did not allow him the chance for a deeper characterization.
Both Blake Ritson and Joseph Beattie portrayed the two men in Fanny's life - her cousin Edmund Bertram and other suitor Mary Crawford. Ritson failed to make me like Edmund as a character. But this was no reflection on his skills as an actor. I simply dislike Edmund. But Ritson is the third actor to give an excellent performance in the role. He perfectly conveyed all of Edmund's traits that I heartily despise. When I first saw "MANSFIELD PARK", I was a little reluctant to praise Beattie's performance. I now realize that my judgement of his portrayal had been rushed. At first, he seemed like a womanizing stalker. But once his character began to fall in love in Fanny, Beattie conveyed a great deal of warmth and subtlety into the role.
Even Billie Piper's performance as Fanny Price seemed a lot different than Sylvestra Le Touzel and Frances O'Connor's extreme takes on the character. Due to Wadey's script and Piper's portrayal was not Le Touzel's wooden Fanny or O'Connor's Jane Austen 2.0 characterization. Piper's Fanny was quiet, but without the passive aggression that I found so exasperating in Austen's novel. When I first saw "MANSFIELD PARK", I believed that Piper's Fanny also lacked the hypocrisy of the previous version. I realize that I had blinded myself from what was obvious on the screen. Although Fanny did not indulge in heavily criticizing Mary Crawford behind the latter's back, or hid her dislike and jealousy behind a facade of moral outrage; she did express hypocrisy. Like her predecessors, Piper's Fanny failed to be honest with Henry Crawford about the real reason behind her rejection of his marriage proposal.
Visually, "MANSFIELD PARK" is beautiful to behold. Nick Dance's photography was sharp and filled with beautifully lush colors. It is a pity that the movie's budget limited it to one setting. Tim Hutchinson's production designs contributed to Dance's lush photography of Newby Hall in Yorkshire, which served as the Bertram estate. And Mike O'Neill's costume designs were absolutely beautiful - especially those costumes for the Bertram women and Mary Crawford.
What is my final verdict of "MANSFIELD PARK"? Honestly? Of the three movies for ITV's "Jane Austen's Season", it seemed the least impressive. It could boast some first-rate performances, along with great costumes and photography. Unfortunately, the movie's fast pacing in the first half and its limited budget did not serve it well. In the end, I believe "MANSFIELD PARK" could have benefited from a longer running time and bigger budget.