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Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)

October 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010) is based on the sixth book by Henning Mankell published as Den Femte Kvinnan, which perhaps makes it appropriate that it’s the sixth adapted for this television series by Yellow Bird. What makes this a fascinating series is the way in which the adaptation messes with the original structure of the series. In the novel, Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is actually not quite as unhappy as usual. He’s just back from a holiday in Rome. In this version, his normally sunny disposition is blighted when Povel Wallander (David Warner), his father, insists on leaving the nursing home where he’s attempted to retreat from the world. With the unerring foresight of those who’ve read the whole script, Povel knows he’s not long for this series and, if he’s going to go, he prefers to die in his studio. So despite the muted protests from Gertrude (Polly Hemingway), Wallander loads them both in his car and drives them back to their home. Needless to say, all this achieves is to dump the nursing problem back into Gertrude’s hands. Never let it be said Wallander is anything other than a thoughtful and caring man. As soon as he has his father sitting in his favourite seat looking out at the sea, he gets a phone call and is off to view a body. Not for him the quiet weeks away from work looking after his father. That’s what second wives are for. Anyway, as a parting gesture, Povel advises his son to find someone to stand beside him. He offers the assessment his son is a weak drip who will dry up under the merciless Swedish sun unless there’s someone around to keep him moisturised. Actually, Wallander later talks about getting a dog. Never let it be said this man ever drops his mask.

Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston looking “Thor”tful

Of course, the next time we see Povel, the old guy has died peacefully while sleeping his favourite chair in the studio. He, at least, has the sense not to overstay his welcome with one of these long-drawn-out death scenes. We then have to go through the embarrassment of Wallander failing to come to terms with his father’s death. Not surprisingly, Gertrude has absolutely no patience with him and, when they show up for the burial, both daughter and ex-wife give him short shrift. In the midst of all this, a vigilante is killing off old men who’ve been guilty of abusing their wives and mistresses. As is required in the structure of these shows, all the victims deserved to die so the moment the grieving Wallander shows up, the victims all say they are profoundly glad to be rid of these men. This is supposed to make Wallander feel better because, no matter how hard he tried, he never really liked his father and is also not a little relieved the old guy can no longer bug him about being a lousy human being.

Saskia Reeves practising her long-suffering look

To ensure we all think Wallander is an abusive squad leader, we get to see him shouting at the loyal trio of Magnus Martinsson (Tom Hiddleston), Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) and Nyberg (Richard McCabe). The scriptwriters in this series never miss a chance for a little thematic conscious parallelism. All this would be dire were it not for the appearance of Vanja Andersson (Saskia Reeves). She was one of the abused women but she somehow kindles a vague sense of kinship with Wallander and, over the course of the episode, they slowly edge towards each other until, in the final shot, she goes with him to see his father’s grave. We therefore have the usual trajectory into despair as Wallander sleeps in his clothes night after night and must, by the time he gets close to catching the vigilante, be broadcasting his approach to everyone downwind of him. But, despite his BO problems, he may have found a woman who can put up with him. Alternatively, she’s been taking abuse from one man on and off for several years so Wallander must seem a big improvement.

At the end, there’s the now ritualised melodrama as Wallander ends up soaked in blood and in something of an existential crisis. As the latest set of three episodes winds up, we should be grateful he may now have a shoulder on which to lay his weary head. Perhaps even a dog to stand by him with moisturising cream coating its jaws to bite him back to health. Wallander: The Fifth Woman is not the worst of the series but I remain unconvinced this vigilante could have managed the deaths as described. Like how did she dig the pit without the first victim seeing her from his window? I suppose the kidnapping was possible but how did she get the victim from the house to the woods? Similarly, how did she get the chloroformed victim to the side of the lake? This is another of these episodes which requires you not to ask awkward questions.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)

October 6, 2012 2 comments

Wallander: One Step Behind (2008), produced by Yellow Bird, is the third episode I’ve seen. In the novel series by Henning Mankell, it’s called Steget efter and is the seventh. It now goes without saying that Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is falling to pieces emotionally and physically. This seems to define the man. The television version gives the emotional reason as his wife, Mona, who now has a confirmed relationship with another. In the novel, Wallander is deeply upset because his father has died which, frankly, is a lot more convincing given the man’s devastated state. He never goes home, changes his clothes, or acts as a functional human being. Indeed, he carries the art of not talking to people to previously unexplored heights. He can sit with a potential witness for interminable periods of time and not ask a meaningful question. It’s as if he’s somehow walled himself off from the world and has literally lost the basic art of conversation. For example, when he’s on a trawler going out to an island with a potentially valuable witness, they nod at each other at either end of the journey and are shown not talking. For a man in a police procedural, this is quite extraordinary. It seems he’s converted to telepathy without telling anyone around him. He goes through this investigation as if he’s about to pass out at any minute. When he does collapse, appropriately enough in a hospital, he’s diagnosed as having developed Type II diabetes. His eating habits are catching up with him. This leads us to a general set of conclusions. He has been a crap dad to his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). He was a crap husband to Mona. And he’s a crap human being because he fails to establish and fit into any kind of meaningful relationships with those around him. From this you will understand he wallows in self-pity. Driven by an increasingly obsessive desperation, he seems to embody a man determined to solve the crimes given to him even it it kills him.

Kenneth Branagh feeling on top of the world as Kurt Wallander

Anyway, in a prologue set on Midsummer’s Eve, we’re shown the murder of three teenagers. One of the mothers reports them missing, but three postcards turn up which appears to contradict her. The somewhat perfunctory investigation is being run by Svedberg (Tom Beard). He’s the quiet, retiring detective everyone works with but no-one knows. It’s as if he has no existence other than as a calm and efficient officer in the field. Naturally, Wallander has one of his nonconversations with the man and then, before we get too far into the story, someone shoots the officer in the head. This triggers a full investigation as a guilt-ridden Wallander tries to figure out who his colleague was and why anyone would want to kill him. It fairly quickly becomes apparent that Svedberg had been conducting an unusually thorough investigation for a missing person’s report. This suggests some information is missing from the files. When three more people are killed, I immediately knew who was responsible. I’ve read too many mysteries to miss this old idea. Of course it takes Wallander an age and even then, there’s a twist to throw him off the scent.

The ending is a travesty. I’m unable to understand how or why we must be subjected to idiocy of this level — although I concede the written version does have merit, this adaptation is horrendously clichéd. Through police work made far more difficult than it should have been because Wallander has been walking around like one of the living dead, they have identified the killer. I don’t think they sent the man a telegram, warning of their approach. As such plots require, they break in, guns being waved meaningfully as they’ve seen in American police shows on television. They then begin a search and Martinson (Tom Hiddleston) works through a veritable mountain of papers and, in no more than two shakes of a lamb’s tail, he’s holding a postcard that the killer has intercepted. It says Linda will be coming home that very day. Wallander lets out one of his grunts and sets off running like he wants a heart attack before he can go ten yards. Sweating like a pig, he staggers into his own home (fortunately not a great distance away as the man runs) and finds the psychopath waiting with a gun to Linda’s head. How did this psychopath know Wallander was coming? Has he tuned into the same broadband telepathy that Wallander has been using? I despair.

Tom Hiddleston recovering from dumpster diving

As to why the psychopath doesn’t kill Wallander when he has the chance. . . Well, to my mind, it’s just silly. Psychopaths kill people and, frankly, it would put us all out of our misery if he’d just pulled the trigger. That’s what psychopaths are supposed to do. There’s no rationality, no inhibitions and, in this case, every reason for him to want Wallander dead (if only to assert the sense that he rather than Wallander was the most important person around). As to why Wallander doesn’t just shoot the psychopath. . . Well, I think he was just past caring who lived or died by that point.

So although Wallander: One Step Behind (2008) is not quite as bad as last week’s episode, I’m rapidly losing interest in this excessively morose Swede. As television, it’s just one cliché after another framed in a story about a detective close to a complete breakdown. Although there are many fictional detectives given different forms of disability, this is the first time I can recall anyone so depressed all the time. I suppose Ian Rankin’s Rebus comes closest as an alcoholic depressive with Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks close behind. The more I see and read of these fictional detectives, the more I feel the need for something bright and cheerful. At least Sherlock Holmes could quietly retreat from the world when things were tough. Just a quick hit of cocaine and he was an bright as the energiser bunny for the rest of the episode. Our modern detectives all need to get out more and get a life.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

Wallander: Firewall (2009)

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

If you look into the world of statistics or the more philosophical assessment of cause and effect when studying coincidence, the first myth dispelled is any kind of causal connection between the two or more phenomena under study. That these events have occurred is mere synchronicity no matter what the observer may wish to believe to the contrary. When it comes to coincidence in fiction, it’s a lazy way of having different events occur at or about the same time and then have our hero find these are not random but actually interconnected. So, before you can say, Jumping Jiminy is an amusement park recreating the fun and excitement of Pinocchio and nothing to do with the game of cricket or Jesus, our detective has drawn venn diagrams showing how they all overlap and that explains whodunnit. Which, perforce, brings us to Wallander: Firewall (2009) (produced by Yellow Bird — originally the company was owned by Henning Mankell but it’s now a Danish company). The original title was Brandvägg and the eighth book in the series.

So Kurt Wallander (Kenneth Branagh) is looking even more hang-dog than usual, what with his marriage going down the tubes so, without telling him, his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark) puts his details up on a dating website. In due course, there’s a hit from Ella Lindfeldt (Orla Brady) and, despite him standing her up on their first “date”, they seem to be striking some sparks off each other. In another part of town, a man is found dead in the city square not far away from the cash machine. There’s no obvious cause of death and his widow is convinced it can’t be a heart attack. The man was supposed to be as fit as a flea (metaphorically speaking) and likely to live for at least one-hundred years. Meanwhile, on the coast road, a young girl called Sonja Hokberg (Susannah Fielding) has murdered a taxi driver while her sister, Susana Hokberg (Rebecca Egan) looked on. During the interview, she frankly admits stabbing him multiple times, asserting that nothing matters any more.

Susannah Fielding and Rebecca Egan after the murder

OK so now things heat up. There’s a power failure at the police station and the electronic locks on the cells all fail in the “open” position so our murderess is able to just walk out and disappear. Like wow, man! When the lights go out, how many people head for the door of their cells to see if they can walk out? Well, only this one girl, it seems. Presumably, it could not have been preplanned because no-one communicates with her while in police custody. So it’s just a miraculous coincidence she’s able to escape. Then the folk down at the morgue discover the body of the healthy dead man has disappeared. Wallander applies a little thought and deduces that this theft was possible because there was no power and the electric locks failed in the open position. Anyway, when Wallander decides to break into this dead man’s flat, he chooses exactly the same time as the killer. The only reason Wallander does not have his head blown off is that, just as the killer is about to fire, he trips on a loose mat. How are we doing in the coincidence stakes? Anyway, in due course, all the lights go off again all over town —three’s a charm, so they say. When they investigate the find the body of Sonja Hokberg has been used to short-circuit the main fuses. She’s fried to a crisp. In due, the body of her boyfriend shows up. He’s been fed through an ice grinder so there’s not much of him left apart from a few smears on the crushed ice — what a waste since no cocktails can be made with that mixture. It’s always refreshing to find a killer with a genuinely gory approach to his work.

Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hiddleston and Luke Allen-Gale watching the computers

As if it could not get any worse, it then gets worse as it turns out that, three years earlier, Sonja had been raped by the taxi driver’s son but the sprog had not been prosecuted because loyal dad gave him an alibi. So it was just an unfortunate coincidence dad should turn up to collect Sonja from the beach when she was past caring what happened to her. Oh, yes, and that death near the cash machine — well the place of the death becomes a clue. And there’s a big coincidence when Robert Modin (Luke Allen-Gale) interrupts one of Wallander’s dates with Ella. He’s supposed to be under the control of Magnus Martinsso (Tom Hiddleston), but our young detective was less than diligent. There are other coincidence but it’s getting a little boring to draw them to your attention and they would be spoilers and we can’t have your enjoyment spoiled by giving away key events), now can we.

In short, Wallander: Firewall is terrible, being hopelessly contrived from start to finish. The real world never works like this and, no matter how well acted this may be, the result is just annoying.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)
Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

Wallander: Sidetracked (2009)

September 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Lurking in the dense undergrowth of Swedish police procedurals are the outstanding books by Henning Mankell who’s best known for the novels featuring Inspector Kurt Wallander. This is the BBC television adaptation of the fifth book in the series called, Villospår (translated as Sidetracked). The novel was first filmed in 2001 with Wallander played by Rolf Lassgård. There has also been a Swedish television series of original stories featuring Krister Henriksson as Wallander. This somewhat inspiring but not uncomplicated history brings us to the British television series which is a combined effort between Swedish production company Yellow Bird (originally Mankell’s own company but now owned by a Danish company which produced the Millennium “The Girl Who” films — including the US version — and Headhunters) and British Left Bank Pictures starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. Uncharacteristically for a British adaptation which usually picks Scunthorpe or somewhere equally inspiring to stand in for Scandinavia, this was actually shot in Sweden, albeit largely with a British cast. This makes the adaptations much more authentic — it being the real Sweden that we see.

Kenneth Branagh and David Warner thinking about their relationship

Because we’re starting in the middle of things, Wallander has already separated from his wife, Mona, and so is even more depressed than usual. During the course of this episode, he makes progress in healing the relationship with his daughter Linda (Jeany Spark). What this adaptation fails to do is deal with the backstory. We start off in the rape seed fields with a girl committing suicide as Wallander looks on helplessly. Even under the best of circumstances this would be traumatic for a police officer. There he is, prepared to talk the hind legs off a donkey to persuade her to live yet, when he produces his police warrant card, she sets fire to herself. Later another girl involved in the case attempts suicide. In the novel series, Linda has also attempted suicide and this fact explains why Wallander is so distressed by the immediate events. He’s also forced to confront the first major signs of dementia in his father Povel (David Warner). He’s always been bad tempered, but this is prone to excess at home with his second wife, Gertrude (Polly Hemmingway) and leads him into a fight in his local supermarket. This slow disintegration of his father is a steady theme given his track record as an artist, obsessively painting highly similar landscapes for his entire career. Later, of course, Wallander becomes concerned about his own mental state.

Jeany Spark trying to keep the family together

From this, you’ll understand that the television adaptation is following the novel’s original structure by focussing on the characters who just happen to be family or whether directly or indirectly, caught up in the murder investigations. For this structure to succeed, the characters must be inherently interesting and the balance with a good puzzle must be properly struck. If the screenwriters get it wrong, we’ll grow bored by the characters because they don’t have enough room to develop, or we’ll find the crimes trivialised. In this case, the crimes are from the heavyweight division. The suicide proves to be one of the girls caught up in a white slaver prostitution ring. The problem for Wallander therefore, is to understand exactly who was involved in the systematic abuse of these women — not something the upstanding members of Swedish society are too keen on admitting even though they may be next on the killer’s list. We also have incest and child abuse involved. In many ways, this is throwing everything including the kitchen sink into the plot, but it actually does come together without seeming too excessive. In the end, it all comes down to a simple reality. The victims all deserved to die because their crimes were hideously excessive. In the midst of trying to keep himself in one piece, Wallander metaphorically leaves one of the surviving villains as the tethered goat to lure out the killer. It’s a terrible cliché but, in this instance, actually works quite well. In no small way, this is a credit to the actors involved who manage to carry off the potential silliness with great authority and calmness.

It’s interesting to see Tom Hiddleston in a relatively minor role as Magnus Martinsson, a youngish member of the police team while David Warner makes a stunningly good patriarch. Kenneth Branagh also seems in his element as Wallander making this adaptation of Sidetracked genuinely impressive.

For reviews of other films and television programs by Yellow Bird:
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Luftslottet som sprängdes (2009)
The Girl Who Played With Fire or Flickan som lekte med elden (2009)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Män som hatar kvinnor (2009)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Headhunters or Hodejegerne (2011)
Wallander: Before the Frost (2012)
Wallander: The Dogs of Riga (2012)
Wallander: An Event in Autumn (2012)
Wallander: Faceless Killers (2010)
Wallander: The Fifth Woman (2010)
Wallander: Firewall (2009)
Wallander: The Man Who Smiled (2010)
Wallander: One Step Behind (2008)

The Avengers (2012)

As those of you who read these reviews will know, I often pick a theme by way of introduction. This time, it’s the tried and tested idiom, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Some like to attribute this insight to Aristotle, others to some more recent philosophers. No matter. It represent a nice idea to chew on when you have a moment to ruminate. Essentially, you can take it at a metaphorical level and say that a watch is only a physical device but it has a higher purpose in telling you what time it is. Or you can use it to refer to a team. Individually, they may not be strong but, when you put them together in the right way, you get synergy. Well, starting off with the watch metaphor, this film is like someone strapping Big Ben to your wrist and then enthusing about how it not only tells the time but also has these great chimes. Having just sat through 142 minutes, the first word that comes to mind is ponderous. If you think this is a reference to the massive, if not lumbering, quality of the Hulk, you’d be mistaken. Almost everything about this film is laborious.

Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow

 

This is not to deny that parts of the film are actually very good. It’s just that, when it’s all put together and you have to sit through all the rubbish to get to the good bits, it all feels a bit tiresome. So let’s do a quick recap. Back in the land owned by Marvel Comics, Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) and Captain America are renegades from WWII. While the Captain is snoozing under the ice, Nick is setting up SHIELD, the ultimate Get Out of Jail Free card to be played when superhuman threats are about to overwhelm our defences. Jackson is actually credible even though asked to do obviously silly things. He brings an unexpected gravitas to the role even when responding to Loki emerging into one of SHIELD’s secret underground installations, capturing the McGuffin and kidnapping two key people who will guard and use the McGuffin to open a portal and let in the alien army. To give his newly acquired minions time to achieve their allotted tasks, Earth’s enemy allows himself to be captured and then sets about trying to undermine the morale of the Avengers. None of them like to work as part of a team so, at one time or another, they all have to fight each other. Instead of disagreeing and holding a debate, they tend to settle arguments with whatever weapons are to hand. Except for Dr Banner, of course. It’s better not to make him angry.

Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye

 

So after a few impressive opening scenes, the first hour or so is all rather tedious except for one or two pleasing moments. I confess to being completely taken by Scarlett Johansson as the Black Widow and, despite the fact the supply of arrows seems inexhaustible, Jeremy Renner makes an interesting Hawkeye. It’s a shame we’re not allowed to see much of him. I find the idea of mere humans outperforming all-comers intriguing and, just as Batman uses intelligence with technology in support, it’s the spirit that prevails. This would apply to Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark except he’s Tony Stark and an arrogant SOB. Chris Evans is very one-dimensional as Steve Rogers and, in the second half, that becomes the right dimension so he comes good by staying who he is. Chris Hemsworth is completely pigheaded as Thor and the most annoying of the heroes. Which leaves us with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. This is a big improvement on previous attempts at creating the Hulk on screen. As a walking-talking example of humility, he actually tones down Tony Stark in the scenes they share. Incidentally, the cameo argument with Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Pott is better than anything in the earlier Iron Man films. This almost makes the relationship credible. Which leaves us with Tom Hiddleston as a surprisingly pleasing Loki. He’s a good trickster but should not be seen dead in that horned hat.

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner

 

The special effects are, for once, special. SHIELD’s helicarrier actually looks as though it might work although the invisibility shield is the usual silly project-a-picture-of-the-sky on to the hull variety. It’s far better than the equivalent in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The jet fighters and transports are also beautifully rendered with VTOL and manoeuvring beating anything the Harrier jump jet has been able to achieve. The final battle is very well structured and beautifully paced. It could have become very repetitive, but manages to keep everything fresh as each hero is allowed a few moments to hold a position, fight a corner or try to disable the McGuffin. I was particularly impressed by the animatronic alien landing craft. They manage to look simultaneously impractical but, from the point of view of a mere human observer, completely intimidating. The Hulk’s leaping ability and smash-through-anything approach is hilariously over-the-top and through-the-bottom as well. The Iron Man suit yet again demonstrates a level of invincibility above and beyond the call of duty. Quite how Stark is supposed to emerge in one piece is beyond understanding. That made it good to get back to basics with the Black Widow beating those pesky aliens in hand-to-hand combat. As one woman said as she was about to be incinerated by aliens, Captain America can rescue me anytime he wants. He’s just dogged and, even though no-one asks him to take on the role, he makes a natural leader. Thor pitches in but, for someone supposed to have godlike powers, he’s rather cut down to size by the weight of numbers coming through the portal. Indeed, the heroes might have lost had Earth’s governments, in their wisdom, not decided to send a different kind of help.

Chris Hemsworth and Chris Evans looking for more to fight

 

So The Avengers has good patches that increase in frequency as the film develops leading to a superior fight at the end. This means you should pack sandwiches and a flask of hot tea to see you through the opening section. You can break out the popcorn and coke nearer the end and so finish on a high. I suppose this film will make several tons of money. The marketing hype has generated the interest and, if the intended market is anything like the people who surrounded me when I saw the film, teen boys will flock to this like bees to a honey pot. It has their demographic most skillfully written all over it by director Joss Whedon who has probably done as well with the plot as anyone could. Once you have to have this crowd of principals assemble and then give each a fair amount of screen time, it’s going to get ponderous until they are forced to drop their differences and start fighting the real enemies. So if there’s an inner teen lurking inside you or, like me, you enjoy science fiction and fantasy, you should probably see this. Otherwise wait for it to come on television and enjoy the battle at the end.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor

 

This film was short-listed for the 2012 Nebula Award and for the 2013 Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation.

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.

Thor (2011)

I suppose if you’re going to do an origin story for Thor, you have to start on Asgard just as Batman has to watch his father and mother get shot, and Spiderman has to get bitten by a spider. The problem with this in Thor‘s case is the switching between pure fantasy and the contemporary context for fantastic action. When you have everything in the same continuum, it’s easier to manage continuity of pace, style and tone. Whereas what we actually see are a bunch of actors being almost gods, Norse style, and generally acting like they’re on the greatest CGI set ever developed, followed by some local yokels.

 

At this point we need a few words of clarification. As to the CGI, I think some of the tracking shots on Asgard look faintly comic. That’s not as drawn in a Marvel Comic, you understand, but the main assembly hall/palace — possibly Valhalla — looks like it’s made out of the tubular bits that come as vacuum cleaner spares. Apart from this aberration, the interior scenes work well and create the right atmosphere. Jotunheim is dark, crumbling and forbidding, and the fighting is impressive. As to the acting in the Asgard scenes, it’s hammed up with Anthony Hopkins pretending to the twice the size of his own ego as Odin, while Chris Hemsworth works hard at being arrogant, i.e. he swaggers around and laughs like he’s just eaten several boars and downed ten casks of good Norse ale as a quick snack before lunch. The odd one out in all this acting godlike spree is Tom Hiddleston who plays Loki as if it’s pronounced low key. Although I get that he’s the trickster God who manipulates everyone, he’s remarkably self-effacing in all the early stages, and not much more of a presence when he’s revealed as the evil genius (which is not his fault because, as his private backstory tells us, he’s actually an Ice Giant who never grew to his full potential, being held hostage for Jotunheim’s good behaviour).

Anthony Hopkins showing good teeth but a dodgy eye patch

 

Anyway, forgetting the brief prologue to establish Natalie Portman as an astrophysicist dedicated to chasing phenomena around the desert like she’s just seen a tornado and wants to join in, we start off on Asgard in its full pomp and glory. Odin is about to hand over the throne to Thor. To spoil the day, Loki lets in a Ninja squad of Ice Giants to retake their energy source. When they are caught and killed, Thor, three of his trusty friends, and Loki go on a punishment raid to Jotunheim, prepared to kill all-comers until these Ice Dudes learn not to mess with Asgard (again). There’s a big fight and we get to see just how impressive a weapon Mjolnir is. I kept wanting to say, “That’s some bad hammer, Harry” but found the joke didn’t really work, being relieved from the embarrassing lack of humour when Odin arrived to rescue them all. In fact, Odin’s a bit miffed with Thor for provoking Jotunheim, so strips him of his powers and banishes him to Earth.

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman say tender farewells

 

At this point, the film shudders to a halt.

 

We’re with the mortals now and, boy, do they seen flat by comparison to those strutting Norse gods. Our function is to be second rate, but able to beat the bejesus out of Thor. Poor guy. All those rippling muscles and great pecs, and all someone has to do is use a taser or stab him in the butt with a tranquiliser, and he’s out like a light. It’s humiliating. Ah, so now comes the deep psychology. All the humans think he’s nuts, albeit sometimes in a hot, hunkish kinda way. Mjolnir rejects him and Loki puts on a business suit to fit into the Earth environment and brings the glad tidings that Odin has died and gone to wherever Norse gods go when they die. It’s apparently enough to wear down the spirits of anyone who’s spent a lifetime of privilege wielding a power hammer (or, this is too perfunctory to take seriously). When Loki sends a yellow lantern in a metal suit to kill Thor and his three friends, Thor offers his own life in return for keeping Earth safe. After this, there’s more fighting on Earth and Asgard, Thor volunteers to join SHIELD, and Odin is pleased his boy finally grew up and started taking his responsibilities as heir seriously.

Tom Hiddleston with the lighting to make him look villainous as Loki

 

Here on Earth we use the expression, to shoot your bolt, and this applies beautifully to the first section of the film. As directed by Kenneth Branagh, Thor creates interest and excitement until Odin banishes his son. Thereafter, Thor’s a mortal fish out of water. Natalie Portman manages to look at him adoringly, but has the thankless role of standing by as our monster ego hero stops smiling and learns to talk with a slight frown. The fight in the town is quite good but unimaginative. The suit can beat anything on Earth except the hammer. Once Thor has it, there’s no competition. Frankly, the last fight back on Asgard is also a bit feeble, although it’s good to see Loki actually deploying some trickery against Thor. Nothing matched the escalating first battle on Jotunheim. So the pacing of the narrative is all wrong. It’s a problem inherent in this origin story. Once you commit yourself to explaining why Thor was banished, you have to show something fairly spectacular. After that, the film never recovers its momentum.

 

I wouldn’t go quite as far as saying there are boring bits, but there are certainly passages where the pace drops alarmingly. While I accept this is about Thor’s rite of passage from arrogant child to responsible adult, so not every minute can be hammer time, there were narrative decisions that could have been improved on. In the end, I think it has the same problems as Ang Lee’s origin story for the Hulk, i.e. it’s a bit too cerebral and lacks heart. This is not to say that long-term fans of the Thor we know from Marvel Comics will not enjoy this. But I suspect the market for this film will be more limited than for some of the other superhero films.

 

For my reviews of allied films, see:
The Avengers
Captain America
Iron Man 2
Iron Man 3 (2013)

 

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