Posts Tagged ‘Tom Mison’

Lost in Austen (2008)

May 28, 2012 3 comments

Lost in Austen (2008) is yet another television version of a fairly respectable literary idea, namely that a human being can transition into the pages of a book and become involved in the action. One of the most interesting and inventive versions of this trope are the Thursday Next novels by Jasper Fforde in which, through the use of a Prose Portal, characters can enter the fictional worlds of both existing great novels and new books still being written. The first is called The Eyre Affair and, not surprisingly involves Jane Eyre, some of Wordsworth’s poetry and Poe’s “The Raven”. If you enjoy literary fantasy, the six novels in this series are well worth reading (with another due in a couple of months). The thematic opposite is represented by books like the Inkheart trilogy by Cornelia Funke. In these books, fictional characters are released from their books into “our” world. Handled well, such books, films and television episodes are entertaining because they allow a completely different view of well-known texts. The problem comes with a phenomenon now called Mary Sue or Gary Stu stories.

Darcy (Elliot Cowan) and Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) finally get it together

Many writers of what’s pejoratively known as “fan-fiction” imagine what it would be like to meet and interact with the characters in their favorite movie, TV show, book, comic, or video game. The trap most fall into is to make their treasured character so perfect, he or she becomes a figure of fun. Hence all the other characters are in awe of Mary Sue, believing everything she says or does yet further examples of her brilliance. She’s brave and never outfaced in difficult situations. On occasion, this will make her appear stubborn, but she never pays a price for failing to live up to everyone’s expectations. She just wins the day (again) and goes on as if nothing untoward has happened. Fortunately, the heroine in this serial comes with warts.

Let’s meet Amanda Price (Jemima Rooper) a modern fan of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. She smokes, drinks, has a lover and generally acts like a contemporary woman. Her fairly mundane life is disrupted when a doorway opens in her bathroom. Much to her surprise Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) steps through. After some discussion, Amanda steps back through into the Bennet household, circa 1813. Even though she’s not been formally introduced, she’s accepted as Elizabeth’s friend just as Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) arrives next door. This gives her the chance to experience Jane Austen’s story from the ground up, as it were.

Mr Bingley (Tom Mison) as an almost complete nonentity

There are occasional moments when the humour works as our fish-out-of-water runs into mere incomprehension or actual hostility from the prevailing culture. But the jokes are repetitive. The first time our heroine blurts out some naff contemporary slang, we can smile at the incongruity. But the desperation with which jumbo jet jokes keep flying round the ballroom grows rapidly tiresome. The real problem is Guy Andrews, the scriptwriter, can’t decide what point is to be made. It could be a rewrite of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in which satire prevails on both sides of reality to amuse and divert us. Or it could be an entirely serious affair in which a character suddenly finds herself in an incongruous position and has to decide exactly how to survive. For, make no mistake about it, if the Bennets were real, they would throw Amanda out and watch her die without contemporary money or friends to rescue her. This approach most often comes in time-travel stories like “The Man Who Came Early” by Poul Anderson where a modern man is transported back to a 10th century Viking village and quickly killed in a blood feud because he has no idea how to behave. This serial offers us an entirely contrived situation in which our heroine is allowed to rewrite the book by her inappropriate behaviour.

Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful

That said, Mr Collins (Guy Henry) is wonderfully awful and Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) is delightfully knowing and rather likeable. Mr Bingham is even more craven than anyone could have imagined and Mr Darcy (Elliot Cowan) is nicely snooty. The tendency of our heroine to drown her sorrows in too much alcohol, grab a fag when things go badly and rescue Jane Bennet with a quick paracetamol are very much of our time.

Now let’s get to the meat of the problem. What’s happening to the book in the “real world”? As our heroine is inserted into the story and begins to distort events, does this change all the words on the pages of already published books? Logic must be carried through. If the printed pages are not changing, why is this a purely personal experience? This is not the same question of how the exchange takes place, but limited to its consequences. To add to this problem, we then get the ultimate metafictional event. Having carried a copy of the book with her into the book, she throws it out of a window and Mr Darcy reads a part of it. He makes no mention of the fact the binding and paper quality is radically different to what would be achieved at that time. He simply accuses our hero of being Jane Austen who has apparently written a book about people without their consent. This makes absolutely no sense. Is he assuming our heroine wrote this before they met, i.e. it is fiction using their names? If so, how does it come to contain details of events only after they have met and where did she get the information about everyone’s income and background history? If it was only written after their first meeting, how has the book been written, typeset using the old hot lead system, printed and distributed in mass market paperback format within the space of a few weeks? This kind of sloppy writing just annoys.

Mr Wickham (Tom Riley) repairs Mr Bennet’s (Hugh Bonneville) broken head

It then gets even worse as first our heroine and then Darcy cross into modern London, then pick up Elizabeth who seems to have adapted well, and all three drop back into the Bennet home. Frankly, this is growing progressively more bizarre. I was prepared to accept a random door opening between Amanda’s bathroom and the Bennet home. It’s just a case of the right pair of women being in the right place at the right time for it to work. But a second door opening from one of those blue portacabin loos you see on street corners into a fictional world is just too much to stomach. Just what are the rules for these portals to keep appearing? Who can use them? Does their use show up in the published book? Frankly, what little possible logic might be suggested is completely abandoned for effect. This is just treating the audience with contempt. In fact, the Bennet story had grown more interesting with Bingham spending the night with Lydia (Perdita Weeks) in the bedroom of an inn and Mr Bennet (Hugh Bonneville) injuring himself in a duel to defend his family’s besmirched honour. It was all lining up to be an interesting mayhem when it all dies down. Elizabeth goes back to her new life in London (although how she will survive without a documented identity is anyone’s guess), Jane (Morven Christie) will get her marriage with Mr Collins annulled and elope with Mr Bingley to America, our heroine gets Darcy but, presumably, is left to honour all the promises she made to rescue the Bennets from the entail trap, and Mr Wickham is left to pursue Caroline Bingley (Christina Cole).

So Lost in Austen ends up neither science fiction nor fantasy. Worse, it avoids any real attempt at satire. It’s a weak-kneed collection of jokes that don’t mesh together into a coherent narrative. Austen purists will be outraged their favourite book has been pillaged. I was deeply disappointed and not a little annoyed as the serial progressed because Guy Andrews refuses to show any logic or self-discipline in the screenplay. Frankly, I can’t see anyone getting much enjoyment out of this.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011)

For once, it’s nice to see a film where the title actually describes what it’s about. Too often, you see a title and have absolutely no idea what to expect. Is Rush Hour about traffic jams or too many people crushing on to a mass rapid transport system? Is Fast and Furious porn, describing someone’s technique in bed? Or does Gone in Sixty Seconds suggest how long it will take the film to sicken you and force you to leave the cinema? With Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) we’ve a title to describe in a single phrase what it takes 107 minutes on screen to show. It’s up alongside Snakes on a Plane and the inspirational holiday promotion film Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead.

Ewan McGregor and Amr Waked doing the important stuff


As to the plot, let’s take a moment to consider what happens when a relationship dies. Time has passed and the initial enthusiasm has drifted away. You have set and now boring routines. Words may be exchanged but, often, their meaning is missed. Even if sex occurs, it’s more a duty than anything even remotely romantic. Such is the marriage of Dr Alfred Jones (Ewan McGregor) and Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling). He goes off to work in the civil service where he’s a shy boffin and fly fisherman when he gets the chance. Think of him as similar to the unassuming inventor in The Man in the White Suit. Ewan McGregor and Alec Guinness meet again in Ealing Comedy style. They are both innocents in the world who get sucked into situations beyond their experience and ability to control. As to his wife, without asking him or discussing options, she goes off to work in Geneva — initially only for six weeks. For a man who only allows himself a drink on a Sunday — they married on a Friday but it was a public holiday in Northern Ireland so he treated it as an honorary Sunday — this disruption to his routine comes as a shock. The disturbance is continued because he’s now expected to work on a project he considers a complete nonstarter. He’s to transplant British salmon to the Yemen and make them swim upstream, assuming there’s actually some water there, of course. Watching Ewan McGregor vaguely stir into a state approximating “being alive” is a delight.

Emily Blunt sees past short-term physical to long-term partnership


This somewhat eccentric piscatory project is the brainchild of Sheikh Muhammed (Amr Waked) ably assisted by Harriet (Emily Blunt). Since the Government is looking for “good” PR to offset the decision to send troops into Afghanistan, Patricia Maxwell (Kirsten Scott Thomas) mobilises all Departments to make the project real. She want photo ops showing Arabs can be peace-loving fisherfolk rather than terrorists. This brings us neatly to Paul Torday, the author who first put virtual pen to paper and produced the eponymous novel which won the 2007 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction. It describes the battle between cynicism — British businesses want a cut of the sheikh’s money while the Government wants a PR coup — and faith — the sheikh and, in due course, Dr Alfred believe the project can be made to work. At first, it’s theoretical in the same way it’s possible to send men to Mars and, just may be, get them back again. But when Harriet is also convinced, they become a can-do force that beats the nay-sayers and doom-mongers at their own games.


Although we have operatives for al-Qaeda intent on killing the sheikh — for reasons not entirely clear, they think flooding this part of the Yemen breaches sharia law — this is more a gentle romantic comedy with faintly satirical overtones. In one sense, the film lacks the rather more comic edge of the book. It presents Patricia Maxwell as a completely unlovable force for publicity, prepared to stop at nothing in pursuit of the right media coverage for maximum spin effect. Since this is backed up by very little intelligence, her efforts are prone to skate on the edge of disaster. But the other civil service characters are cardboard stereotypes. They are introduced as examples of mere incompetence rather than with any serious intent to amuse. So where’s the romance?

Kirsten Scott Thomas as the spin master to die for


With Dr Alfred cast adrift by his wife’s departure to Switzerland, he’s free to look at Harriet. She’s had an intense relationship with Captain Robert Mayers (Tom Mison), an SAS officer who’s MIA, presumed dead. This leaves her vulnerable but, with surprising gentleness, Fred brings her back to work. The burgeoning relationship feels credible and we can accept Fred’s refusal to return to the boredom of suburban life. No matter what Harriet decides, he’s set off upstream like his salmon. The sheikh is also pleasingly inspirational while remaining quite humble. He may be worth millions but he’s not lost his common touch nor an open-minded approach to other cultures. The only thing that spoils the film is the ending. The deus ex machina discovery of the missing SAS officer and his secret flight to Yemen with the press corp in tow is capped by a more serious terrorist attack. This strikes a discordant note. Everything up to this point, including a more personal assassination attempt, has been very small-scale. This breaks out into the open for no good plot development reason other than to show Patricia Maxwell as even more manipulative than we might have thought. The resolution must come down to Harriet’s private choice and the swathe of destruction is unnecessary drama.


In the end, I suppose, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a film with an inspirational message. Life is unrewarding unless you believe in something. The more strongly you believe, the better the outcome. It’s all about personal investment. If you work on something, your labour gives you a stake in the result. If it’s a relationship, it only stays alive so long as you commit yourself to it. If it’s a major infrastructure project, local people will only accept it if they are involved and feel they are earning the rewards. So regardless whether you know or care about fishing, this is a low-key but rather delightful film. It’s pleasing the British Lottery should have allocated the funds. This time, the entire production team and cast hit the jackpot in a very British way for all the director, Lasse Hallström, hails from Sweden.


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