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Skyfall (2012)

November 6, 2012 Leave a comment

Since the world has been cajoled into celebrating fifty years of exposure to James Bond which, at times, was rather like contracting a contagious disease, I offer the following memory of standing in the rain outside the Odeon in Newcastle, queueing to see Dr No. We Geordies were a hardy lot. Not for us the covered pavements you see in some parts of the world. Our sense of enthusiasm to be infected by all things Bond drove us to risk pneumonia as the wind blew down from the North Pole bringing pre-sleet inundation from the sky. Ah, yes, what better way to introduce Skyfall (2012), the latest outing. At least, for this one, I didn’t need to queue (going at the crack of dawn on a Monday morning solves that problem, and my pensioner discount made it affordable).

Daniel Craig looking suitably battered

 

So what does this film add to the franchise? The answer is slightly surprising. It’s an exercise in nostalgia where the past comes back to bite us in unmentionable places. In a reasonably positive way, it’s celebrating Bond by shaking the kaleidoscope to create a brand new pattern out of the same pieces of coloured glass. We start with the mandatory prologue as Bond and young woman are in pursuit of a missing hard drive. A foreign adventurer has shot various British agents guarding it in Istanbul (more exciting than leaving it on a bus in Tooting High Street, I suppose, but without any explanation of what MI6 was doing with it in Turkey) and now makes his getaway across the roof of the Grand Bazaar (particularly picturesque at this time of year and surprisingly robust as motorbikes charge all over it) and out of the capital on a train. Thanks to the instruction, “Take the damn shot!”, our tyro markswoman shoots Bond and not the adventurer which, for the second time, leads to Bond reading his own obituary (sadly, the scorpion didn’t sting him even though, thanks to the immunisation therapy he received in Die Another Day, he would have survived that as well with nothing more than a small rash).

Judi Dench looking comfortable in her action heroine role

 

Filled with nationalistic fervor, our hero does his Lazarus act when he sees a news flash of the MI6 headquarters in London blowing up. Even though he’s obviously not completely recovered, he’s sent back out into the field in pursuit of the man who should have taken the tyro markswoman’s bullet. This leads to the mandatory fight with the ultimate villain’s henchmen (look out behind you, it’s a monitor lizard — what better way for bad guys to get shaken but not stirred by jaws full of venom) and the sight of the only woman he will sleep with (off camera — proper decorum is shown after the tasteful naked shower scene). So before you can say, “End of Act One”, Bond is being introduced to the ultimate villain. Fortunately, Bond has been equipped with a radio tracking device so MI6 is able to send helicopters to rescue him and arrest the villain. This is, of course, all too easy. Even the poor quality help available from Freelancers.com would search Bond and find the device in his pocket (not his shoe, you note — Q explains they’ve decided not to do silly gadgets any more). So here we have the villain in the same plastic cell that failed to hold Magneto and with the key he bought from Jim Moriarty in Sherlock: Season 2, Episode 3. The Reichenbach Fall (2012) which opens any door, anywhere in the world. Ah ha, it’s all a cunning plot to be caught with Bond the only agent on the planet that could have followed that particular trail of breadcrumbs to catch him. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for the villain — the idea he could escape retribution for his naughtiness is inconceivable. In the World of Bond, no bad deed goes unpunished. So that’s it, really. There are an amazing number of bullets fired and explosions both big and small. Many die, as you would expect. And Skyfall is burned to the ground (which is just as well because it was full of unhappy memories).

Javier Bardem is full of creepy menace

 

So there you have it. As frequently happens in any film straying over the two-hour mark in length (143 minutes in total), it flags a little in the middle but, for the most part, it maintains interest and has satisfyingly arty moments. The lighting effects during the fight in Shanghai are rather beautiful and it’s always good to see the mist rising in a Scottish glen. Daniel Craig continues to impress. There’s a wonderful physicality about him that plays out well in these big screen adventure stories. Judi Dench is given a pleasingly robust part and does well under fire, particularly when she has a gillie to lean on. Javier Bardem does enough to be ranked among the better Bond villains. There’s a creepy menace about him which convinces. Ralph Fiennes is introduced as the next M. Now that he’s finished being Voldemort, he can get back to protecting the Muggles. Naomie Harris recovers from the shock of shooting Bond and makes life safer for agents in the field by taking up the role of Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw does a surprisingly good job as Q. Rory Kinnear as the stock character Bill Tanner rounds out the cast.

 

So this is all good news with the shaking of the kaleidoscope done with great professionalism by Sam Mendes. When there’s nothing you can really do but move the mandatory set-pieces around and make them as pleasing as possible, the themes of personal revenge and the need to take responsibility for past actions without flinching, play out well in these modern times. Everyone on show here has something in their pasts to affect their present behaviour and such a character dynamic makes a welcome change to the Bond catalogue of stock elements. In the next film we may learn how Bond lost his parents and why being an orphan made him into the efficient killing machine we see today. When you put all this together, Skyfall is one of the best Bond films for a while and one of the best thriller, action films of the year.

 

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)

Somewhere in England, many moons ago, the powers-that-be decided the best way to make films was to borrow the concept of the repertory company from the theatre. So, as we work our way through the Ealing comedies to the Carry On films and beyond, a template for success emerged. Essentially this involves taking a small group of well-known actors, dropping them into a “situation” and watching what happens. These victims of circumstance are usually friends, often living together in the same village or part of a city. The catalyst can be anything from a cargo of whisky washing up on shore to the need for the WI to raise money for a worthy local cause. Once the characters are established and the stimulus applied, the cast twists and turns in the wind until all the loose ends have been chased down and resolved. The film ends when as much of the inherent tragedy has been dispelled and there’s enough hope to inspire the paying customers when they leave the cinema. Never let it be said that any British film carrying the label of a comedy is anything other than a pottage of misery that ends with half a smile.

Judi Dench and Celia Imrie arrive

 

So it is with The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) in which director John Madden works from a screenplay by Ol Parker based on a novel by Deborah Moggach. We start off by meeting our indomitable character actors. We find Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) two months after the death of her husband. She was married forty years, was never troubled with any decision-making and, consequently, has no way of dealing with all the debts he left behind other than by selling the flat and going somewhere cheap to live. Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) is a recently retired civil servant who lost his lump sum when he invested in his daughter’s IT business. The initial scenes as he and Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) look around a flat in sheltered accommodation nicely captures their despair. Murial Donnelly (Maggie Smith) was in service. She was highly competent, but when she grew old and had trained her successor, she was discarded in much the same way her employers might throw out an old washing machine. Now she needs a hip replacement and the waiting times in the UK are a minimum of six months. Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a retiring High Court judge who wants to return to his old home in India where he left a friend forty years ago. Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) and Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) are getting old and desperately lonely. They hope to remedy their situation by joining the others in retirement in Jaipur as the first residents of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (for the Old and Beautiful).

Maggie Smith not feeling comfortable in her surroundings

 

From the outset, we have to suspend disbelief. The hotel is run by Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel). He’s the stereotypical Wilkins Micawber, always convinced something will turn up. Unfortunately, his head is so far up into the clouds of optimism, he forgets to actually do anything to make any of his plans a success. The idea he could have advertised his hotel in England and organised the arrival of these seven guests is laughable. Equally absurd is the reaction of the magnificent seven when they discover the hotel is slightly less well-appointed than they might have thought from the Photoshopped pictures. However, we’re not to dwell on such matters. Our heroes arrive, they move in. That gets us started.

Tom Wilkinson playing a straight bat

 

The city of Jaipur is beautifully filmed and the hotel is wonderfully dilapidated. So, with one exception, they all use it as a base. Tom Wilkinson immediately sets off in pursuit of his old friend, Bill Nighy takes to wandering round and soaking up the atmosphere. Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie join the local social club and start searching for singles. Maggie Smith goes into hospital to have her operation, Judi Dench gets a job in a local call centre, advising on how to make telephone sales pitches to elderly people in England, and Penelope Wilton sits around the hotel in dark despair. As a local subplot, Dev Patel is in love with a girl who works at the call centre but her face does not fit into his mother’s plans for an arranged marriage. Continuing in the same order, Tom Wilkinson’s search is a mixture of fear and longing. The resolution of this thread is unexpected and affecting. Bill Nighy is a civil servant who has never managed to change a lightbulb. He’s defeated by practicality yet desperately loyal to his wife. In a way, both men are somewhat unworldly but do their best to fit in, no matter where they may find themselves (even if it means partaking of a little apple smoke). Ronald Pickup and Celia Imrie are driven by desperation. They fear dying alone but have been trying too hard to meet people and make friends. They end with varying degrees of success.

Bill Nighy scouting the town

 

The most interesting thread is given to Maggie Smith and I find myself undecided on whether she could make the transformation we see. In England and immediately on her arrival in India, she appears to be irredeemably racist. Putting the best possible interpretation on what happens, we’re supposed to think this was born out of ignorance. Because she had never met “different” people, she instinctively feared and so refused contact with them. However, when she finally does allow herself to interact with some of the local people, she embarrasses herself into rethinking her prejudice. In a way, the result is a somewhat ironic return to her life of service. Judi Dench gives a wonderful performance as a woman relearning what it’s like to have a life. It’s a warm and, at times, amusing journey as she remembers the time she met her husband-to-be on a carousel and he put his arm around her waist to steady her on a rising and falling horse. Watching her give up the past and embrace the future is a delight. Penelope Wilton gets her way and goes back to England (and not a moment too soon). Dev Patel is also rescued from himself, so it all works out well in the end. Ah yes. Here comes the catchphrase. It does all come out well in the end. If things are not well at this moment, it can’t be the end.

 

So on balance, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is worth seeing. I smiled and shed a tear or two. It’s a classic ensemble British comedy so the tears won out, albeit there had to be a little finagling in the plot to get everything to end as it should. Without a little contrivance, life would be too dull.

 

Return to Cranford (2009)

One year has passed for Return to Cranford, and Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) has given up trade in tea to appease her brother, Peter (Nicholas Le Prevost), but she cannot accept the tiger rug nor the free-flying parrot that leaves little memorials of its journeys around the home. Sadly, Martha (Claudie Blakley) dies attempting to give birth to their second child. Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan) is heartbroken and under economic pressure because the railroad cannot come into Cranford. Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) refuses to sell the land and the rails cannot conveniently go around it. With his work drying up, the one big sale proves to be a casket to bury Lady Ludlow. She might have survived longer but insisted on standing to await the arrival of the long-lost Septimus (Rory Kinnear). He was, at least, in time for the funeral. He then apparently buys off Harry Gregson (Alex Etel) with five thousand out of the twenty thousand owing. The boy seems relieved not to have to return to Shrewsbury School. The romantic stakes are set to run again with two new families. Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) is the local salt baron and, having been living at the seaside for the health of his wife, returns when she dies bringing his son, William (Tom Hiddleston) and his ward Erminia (Michelle Dockery). The Bell family has a grieving widow (Lesley Sharp) and, conveniently, Edward (Matthew McNulty) a ponderous son and Peggy (Jodie Whittaker), a repressed daughter. Needless to say, William and Peggy are eyeing each other with interest.

Peggy Bell (Jodie Whittaker) is feisty when given the chance

Matters now move apace. Septimus sells the estate’s lands to the railway company and runs off back to Italy. Harry reluctantly returns to Shrewsbury with his financial matters unresolved. Mr Buxton sells the final piece of land and now the railway can come to Cranford. Unfortunately, this is not in time to prevent Jem from moving up north to stay with his sister. He has no work and so Miss Matty loses the chance to love the child. To make things worse, Miss Smith also leaves to become a full-time writer. Mrs Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) has a sister, Lady Glenmire (Celia Imrie), who comes to visit and eventually is accepted into Cranford society. Mr Buxton disapproves the proposed marriage between his son and Peggy. In frustration, William joins Captain Brown (Jim Carter) to train as an engineer.

Miss Matty (Judi Dench) getting to play mother to Martha's child

We now have what you might call an action-packed final episode. As we might have anticipated, Harry has been tortured by the prefects at Shrewsbury School. He’s a jumped-up little oik and, as such, fair game. When Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) learns of this, she’s outraged but understands little of life in an upper class boarding school. She insists he’s to return. Harry therefore runs away. When he borrows a little milk from the cow owned by Mrs Forester (Julia McKenzie), he accidentally breaks the frayed rope holding her in place. She wanders off. Meanwhile, Edward is found to have stolen sixty pounds from Mr Buxton. When the police are called, he and Peggy are on the train to Liverpool to escape arrest. Miss Mattie tells William what has happened and he sets off in pursuit. When Harry jumps on to the train from the bridge, that sets everything up for the train being derailed when it hits the cow. A short while later, the engine explodes and kills Edward. Everyone else survives with varying degrees of injury. Mr Buxton nurses William back to health and agrees to allow the marriage to Peggy. Miss Galindo nurses Harry back to life and they agree he will go to Manchester Grammar to complete his education. Lady Glenmire marries Captain Brown and, in an emotional moment, Jem moves back to Cranford with his daughter, thus restoring love to Miss Mattie’s life. There’s a completely over-the-top cameo by Tim Curry as Signor Brunoni who brings a little magic into Octavia Pole’s (Imelda Staunton) life. In a way, everything ends as it should.

Mr Buxton (Jonathan Pryce) as Victorian patriarch

Frankly, although I’m never surprised by a company like the non-profit BBC giving its customers more of what they want, I think this second three episode reprise is neither fish nor fowl. Although we return, it’s frustrating to have a major new storyline introduced in the Buxtons and Bells but then have such an inadequate time for the various romantic issues to play out. It all feels rushed with Edward suddenly revealed a villain and, of all things, a railway accident caused by the inadvertent release of the cow. How much better it would have been to focus on Miss Matty’s household. Peter settles into the village, but insists the sale of tea shop. Without this additional income, how does the household manage? Then we move on to Martha’s tragic death and Jem’s financial troubles shown against the railroad’s final triumphant entry into Cranford. As it is, we get to see far too little of everyone. There are a few slightly jokey scenes for the ladies, Septimus gets to be suitably dishonest, and Mrs Jamieson is humiliated until the final redemption through a possible relationship with Peter Jenkyns. There’s absolutely no attempt to unravel the complicated financial status of Harry and the Hall. With Septimus gone, are we to assume the Hall would just fall into disrepair with no-one paid to maintain it? Although we learn Mary Smith has published her first story, we never see Erminia again. She’s just abandoned in the Buxton household. However, through all this fog of unresolved issues, the ladies shine. Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie and Deborah Findlay make a wonderful quartet as they slowly inch into the steam age of Cranford. Celia Imrie is given just enough to do, but more or less everyone else gets the short end of the stick. Yes, Return to Cranford is enjoyable. With a little more thought, we could have either excluded the new families or allocated four or five episodes to see it all play out at a proper speed. Now those would have been genuinely worth seeing!

For the rest of the series, see Cranford (2007): the first three episodes and Cranford (2007): the final two episodes.

Cranford (2007): the final two episodes

In the remaining two episodes of Cranford, the women tie themselves in knots as we approach May Day. Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) is trying to adjust to life without her dominating sister and is supportive of Martha (Claudie Blakley), her servant, who desires romance with Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan). Later, Jem receives news that he has an inheritance, the letter containing a five pound note drawn on a Manchester bank. Believing himself in funds, he rushes to the local store to buy Martha a shawl. Unfortunately, the milliner refuses the note, asserting that the Manchester bank is in trouble. Overhearing this, Miss Matty gives him cash. Then her world collapses. The milliner was correct and the bank in which she had invested all her money is declared insolvent. Martha and Jem are distressed because they have benefitted from Miss Matty’s desire to help them and begin devising ways in which they can repay her generosity. The kindly manner Dr Frank Harrison (Simon Woods) shows to everyone is misinterpreted as courtship in the wrong quarters. This torpedoes his love for Sophy Hutton (Kimberley Nixon) when Caroline Tomkinson and Mrs Rose publicly claim they are engaged to him. And Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) finds herself obliged to mortgage her land to pay for her son’s extravagance in Italy, while blighting Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister), first by sending Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), the poacher’s son, to work in the cow sheds and allocating Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) to act as his secretary — he may be modern, but not yet modern enough to accept an intelligent woman working with him although, one one occasion, he’s observed smiling at her. Having had an episode focusing on death and the fundamental unfairness of the class-based way of life, we now have a shift to problems of romance when spinsters have nothing better to do with their time than speculate on who should pair off. The only one who comes out of all this with any credit is Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) who’s a paragon of common sense (although Miss Octavia Poole (Imelda Staunton) does rise to the occasion and buys a silhouette of Mr Holbrook when his effects are auctioned off — this she immediately passes over to Miss Matty, rejecting the offer of reimbursement).

Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) and Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister) in sympathy despite class differences

Miss Matty and Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha) compare notes. They both hope for news from India but agree it’s more painful to keep the hope alive. Meanwhile, Mary Smith is conspiring with the ladies of Cranford to save Miss Matty who may be forced to sell her home and move away. They club together to give her fifty pounds a year on top of her remaining thirteen. Captain Brown (Jim Carter) is introduced to sell this increase in income as an accounting error by the administrators handling the bank’s insolvency. At his urging, she agrees to turn her front room into a shop selling tea. All this, together with a small sum of rent from Martha and Jem as her tenants, should give her enough to live on.

Mary Smith is also busy on the doctor’s case. She has identified his friend as the one who sent the valentine to Caroline Tomkinson. He returns to Cranford to clear up the mess and is just in time to help deal with two crises. Having argued with Lady Ludlow over her decision to mortgage the Hall, Edmund Carter is talking with Captain Brown where the railway line is being driven through the hills when they are both injured in an explosion. Captain Brown may lose the sight in one eye but, despite the best efforts of both doctors, Edmund Carter dies. However, he does have time to dictate a will to Miss Galindo and roughly sign his name. This leaves all his estate to Harry Gregson subject to two conditions. First, he’s to go to Shrewsbury School. Second, he’s to lend the bulk of the money to Lady Ludlow for her to pay off the mortgage. The full amount of capital and interest will be repayable on her death by her son. This produces a moving reconciliation between Lady Ludlow and Harry who’s released from the cow sheds to study with the Reverend Hutton. This will bring his knowledge to a better level and reduce bullying at school. The second crisis comes when Sophy contracts typhoid. Fortunately, the Reverend Hutton relents and Dr Frank Harrison saves her life.

Octavia Poole (Imelda Staunton) and Mrs Forester (Julia McKenzie) bring news of the railway

Mary Smith continues her work as the Fairy Godmother of Cranford by bringing Major Gordon (Alistair Petrie) back from India. He surprises Jessie and they confirm a marriage. Major Gordon also brings Peter Jenkyns (Nicholas Le Prevost) Miss Matty’s long-long brother back for a tearful reunion. Peter finally delivers the muslim promised for Miss Matty’s proposed wedding with Mr Holbrook. Miss Matty gives it to Sophy — as one old rectory girl to another. Caroline Tomkinson marries the butcher (at least she will eat well) and Mrs Rose takes up with Dr Morgan (John Bowe). The marriages represent the end of the original series and produce the requisite quality of “happiness” given the essentially romantic nature of the story.

Dr Harrison (Simon Woods) ties the knot with Sophie Hutton (Kimberley Nixon)

This captures the major problem with the series. I confess my ignorance of the source novels so I don’t know how much could have been added to resolve all the other problems, but leaving this as essentially a romantic drama seems such a waste. This is supposed to be about Cranford, a fledgling town struggling to emerge from its early Victorian straitjacket and embrace the new age. That means dealing with the railway issue as deciding the economic future of the town, and looking more widely at the class issues at they affect the servants and workers on the land. It may be wonderfully “middle class” to neatly tie up all the romantic loose ends in such a pretty way, but this is not the reality for most who lived in the town. The story element featuring Harry Gregson has been a perfect opportunity wasted for we only ever see the rest of the family for a few seconds at a time. Similarly, Martha’s position could have been matched against one or one people working for Lady Ludlow. So despite finding the performances of all the ladies completely entrancing, I’m left feeling a little underwhelmed by the lack of social content.

For the rest of the series, see Cranford (2007): the first three episodes and Return to Cranford (2009).

Cranford (2007): the first three episodes

Cranford (2007) is a rather elegant study in manners and etiquette based on three short novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford, My Lady Ludlow and Mr Harrison’s Confessions. Set in a small town or large village near Manchester, Cranford’s society depends on its women to keep the wheels spinning smoothly. Series such as this are important for two rather different reasons. Obviously, we watch them as entertainment. The fact the culture may be different does not mean the story lacks relevance to our modern lives. Second, these dramas represent windows into the past. They remind us what life was like only a century or so ago. Cranford is particularly useful because, unlike the novels by Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and others more often selected for adaptation, it gives us a complete spectrum of society from top to bottom. This makes it rather better than, say, Lark Rise to Candleford which focuses on village life for those still working on the land or providing services to the farming community at the end of the 19th Century. The Cranford trilogy is set in 1842 at a time of major change just as the industrial revolution is genuinely working to undermine traditional social structures. The world stands at a tipping point. This village knows it cannot remain in a kind of stasis, regulated like a clockwork machine by one or two key citizens. There’s to be democratisation through access to education and new opportunities for all to earn enough for financial independence. Large estates such as that owned by Lady Ludlow (Francesca Annis) are about to lose more of their labour to factories in Manchester and the nearby cities. Farm workers will be drawn from a smaller pool of people — those who do not take advantage of the railway’s arrival to travel to work elsewhere.

Judi Dench, Lisa Dillon and Eileen Atkins trying to outface the future

When we start, we see two sisters, Miss Matty Jenkyns (Judi Dench) and Deborah Jenkyns (Eileen Atkins) at the heart of the social community. Even though they are only genteel and middle class, the latter has appointed herself as the arbiter of good taste in the township. She dictates the pace of social intercourse and determines the propriety of behaviour. In her self-righteousness, it never occurs to her that she’s a terrible bully, terrorising all around her with her judgmental ways. As the daughter of a local clergyman, now deceased, she assumed the role as if by divine right and has never wavered. The sisters do, however, break routine and accept Miss Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon) as a paying guest.

Although she’s an indispensable part of the community, Miss Octavia Poole (Imelda Staunton) somewhat spurns the normal rules of society. As the town’s gossip, she’s an unstoppable force for getting the message out. It may not always be the right message but, for better or worse, it always goes out on her network. Mrs Jamieson (Barbara Flynn) is included for comic relief. Full of aristocratic pretension, she’s always being walked around the town in her sedan chair, carrying her dog. There’s no better way to show how important you think you are. Socially more important, Lady Ludlow lurks out in Hanbury Court, convinced women should remain in the Dark Ages and never learn to read and write. This offends her land agent, Edmund Carter (Philip Glenister) who has seen the future and prefers the idea of equality and liberty for all. Except, on the quiet, he’s slightly less in favour of education for women. The relationship between these two is fascinating. As one of the nobility with set ideas about rank and status, Lady Ludlow is remarkably open with Edmund Carter. She trusts his judgement on many issues and, although they fundamentally disagree on politics, particularly when it comes to education, he’s a force for good in her life even if she does ignore his advice and continue to indulge her wastrel son.

Philip Glenister and Alex Etel as the son he never had

Dr Morgan (John Bowe) is the stalwart doctor, but his position as the trusted physician is threatened when the young and dashing Dr Frank Harrison (Simon Woods) arrives and immediately saves the arm of the local carpenter Jem Hearne (Andrew Buchan). In his first survey of the town, the young doctor takes a shine to Sophy Hutton (Kimberley Nixon). Captain Brown (Jim Carter) arrives with his two daughters, one of whom dies almost immediately, leaving Jessie Brown (Julia Sawalha) in sole occupation of the house most of the time. There’s also a nice piece of business when a cat eats some lace and has to be relieved of it — that adds more humour to the pot.

Major Gordon (Alistair Petrie) arrives to visit Captain Brown and Jessie, and must then mount a search for missing cow. Such are the vicissitudes of life in this small town. Hanbury Court is getting ready for the annual garden party. Dr Frank Harrison is turning heads among the unmarried women while Edmund Carter is taking more of an interest in Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), the local poacher’s son, teaching him to read and write, and offering him work as a clerk. Mr Holbrook (Michael Gambon) emerges from the past to remind Miss Matty of lost happiness. At the garden party, news comes that the railway may be approaching Cranford with Captain Brown in charge of the building works. This offends the ladies who think change should stay away. It offends his daughter who has turned down Major Gordon’s invitation to marry and accompany him to India. Then overnight death strikes, taking away Deborah Jenkyns and Sophy’s brother. With Deborah’s departure, Miss Matty now has the chance to pick up her lost love for Mr Holbrook. They rekindle the spark but, on his way back from a trip to Paris, Mr Holbrook catches a chill that turns into pneumonia. Miss Matty now behaves as if she’s a widow. However, feeling everyone should have a chance for romance, she frees their maid, Martha (Claudie Blakley), from Deborah’s bar on relationships. Martha promptly confirms her “love” for Jem Hearne and they begin walking out together. Things are also going slightly better for Dr Harrison as Sophy may be forgiving herself and him for the death of her young brother. There’s then signs of hope for Lady Ludlow who, at the instigation of her land agent, intervenes to save Harry Gregson’s father who’s been wrongly accused of a violent robbery.

Simon Woods taking Kimberley Nixon for a ride

As to the cast, Judi Dench is magnificent as she slowly emerges from the years of oppression by Deborah. It’s as though she’s been reborn and is struggling to find her feet. No longer having someone to tell what to do and think, she must finally decide what kind of person she wants to be. Lisa Dillon as Mary Smith is calmly understated, surreptitiously supporting Judi Dench when necessary. The brief resumption of a relationship with Michael Gambon is touching and affecting. His tragic death before he can make good on thirty years of patient waiting is a moment of great sadness. Francesca Annis is doing rather better than playing Lady Ludlow as a dinosaur. We can see her bending in the wind even though she would rather not. Philip Glenister is worldly and knows just how far he can push Lady Ludlow. He will never be wholly liked, but will always do better than being merely tolerated. Finally Simon Woods is wonderfully naive and full of good intentions. If he can navigate through the choppy social waters, he will do well with the chaste Kimberley Nixon. Overall, this is a superior BBC drama and I wait with anticipation for the remaining episodes.

Jane Eyre (2011)

The other day, I was browsing Craigslist, as you do when it’s slow news day, and I came across an interesting ad. “Looking for governess prepared to live with an older man and cranky housekeeper on a desolate moor. Must be quiet yet obviously have repressed emotions of a sexual kind. Preference will be given a candidate who has suffered abuse as a child.” It reminded me how difficult it has been for our culture to get past Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It must be one of the most influential Gothic Romances ever written with an alarming number of big screen and television versions, and a whole shelf full of prequels, retellings and general literary inventions. What makes this all the more impressive is the way the story has crossed over cultural boundaries with screen versions from Mexico to Hong Kong to two different Indian language versions from Bollywood. Few other books can claim to have been the source of such a river of work.

Mia Wasikowska well met by candlelight

 

So here comes a new cinema version, this time with a new and relatively untested director at the helm. For such a “traditional” piece, it’s modestly daring to pick Cary Joji Fukunaga, an American of mixed Japanese and Swedish ancestry. The cross cultural influences grow even more marked with the casting of an Australian in the title role. Mia Wasikowska has been transplanted from Canberra via Wonderland to Yorkshire. Joining her is Michael Fassbender who manages to combine Germany and Ireland. The only principal character that’s been typecast is Judi Dench as Mrs. Fairfax. At least she could do the Yorkshire accent as if she’d been born to it.

Michael Fassbender looking soulful

 

As an aside, it was a delight to see Judi Dench in a full length role. Given her age at a sprightly 76, we’ve been limited to a few film cameos as she nuzzles Johnny Depp or sends out random actors to play the part of James Bond. Allowing for her continuing reputation as a great actress, it’s good to see her allowed to prove the point by occupying a pivotal role in another film destined to be “important”.

 

There’s little point in talking about the plot. If you haven’t got it by now, you’re unlikely to be queueing up to see this version. So let me make two mild observations. I’m not a fan of the framing device to come in two-thirds of the way through the action and then show the audience how we got there, before proceeding on to the end. In this case, it’s particularly inappropriate. It would have been better to show her arriving at Thornfield and then have flashbacks to show relevant parts of her childhood at Gateshead and Lowood School. Having a flashback to her arriving at Thornfield and then further flashbacks overworks the conceit. Second, it’s always a struggle to know how to edit the story down to a reasonable running length. Moira Buffini has produced a script that shoots at 120 minutes which is probably about right. But it emphasises the Gothic. In particular the portrayal of Lowood School is positively Dickensian and anyone not familiar with the original would wonder how Jane could emerge from such a place with anything other than physical and emotional scars. Yet she has the knowledge to work as a governess, speaking French and being well-versed in geography and other areas of human knowledge. There’s also no explanation of where she is staying with her cousin St. John Rivers and his two sisters. We might assume all Jane did was run a few miles across the moor. And talking about the running, the print of the film I saw had a very shaky hand-held capture of Jane running out of Thornfield. Hopefully, that will be remedied by the time the film gets to the UK.

Judi Dench showing us some nifty headgear

 

So where does all this leave us. Well the answer comes in two words, “deeply impressed”. I confess to going not expecting anything special and emerged feeling I had just seen something quite special. Mia Wasikowska gives a riveting performance as the conflicted Jane — she of the high moral standards but burdened with a heart that would melt for Rochester. The highlighting of Mr Brocklehurst as the chronically hypocritical headmaster of Lowood School gives a nicely balanced counterpoint to Rochester’s failure to be honest with Jane about his marital status. This is a very intelligent piece of acting as Mia Wasikowska contrives to make her silences eloquent, the camera always lingering long enough to catch every nuance. The relationship with Mrs Fairfax is also wonderfully filled out. Judi Dench was very generous when partnering Mia Wasikowska on screen. If there is a weakness, it’s in the time given to showing Rochester unwind. Physically, Michael Fassbender is exactly right and in so many ways, he picks up what he’s given and does it very well. But the development of the relationship with Jane is rushed. We know she’s supposed to fall for him and that’s what she does.

 

The house is wonderful as candlelight flickers and wooden planking creaks. Distant laughing and screams also disturb the nights. It’s nicely atmospheric with Rochester falling off his horse with great style. It honours the tradition of Jane Eyre as a Gothic Romance. More importantly, there’s at least an effort to deal with the Rivers situation, although the placement of Jane’s schoolroom on a blasted heath is a curious decision.

 

Overall, this is a terrific version of a classic piece of English literature. It’s properly respectful, but triumphs by allowing us a clear sight of Jane’s journey from repressed creature to warm human being. With more time, we could have seen more of Rochester and understand his motivation for courting Blanche Ingram. With modern attention spans being somewhat limited, we can understand why this version of Jane Eyre was cut down. Perhaps the Director’s Cut will have more when the DVD appears. Definitely recommended if only to watch Mia Wasikowska and Judi Dench fill the screen with quiet warmth!

 

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