A poor adaptation and barely adequate on its own terms
1989's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was one of British cinema's occasional failed attempts to replicate the success of The Railway Children with a family friendly adaptation of a much-loved children's book. It's a classic Dickensian mock-Gothic tale of resourceful children, evil governesses, forged wills, cruel orphanages and goodness triumphant set against an isolated country house and the dark Satanic mills of the industrial revolution that should make a fine film in the right hands. Unfortunately, the filmmakers were not those hands and little of what made Joan Aiken's book so impressive and enjoyable survives William Akers' perfunctory screenplay or Stuart Orme's ineffectual direction. The alternate 19th century history of the novel (set during the reign of the fictional James III) is never even alluded to, while the packs of ravenous continental wolves that roam the snowbound British countryside (having made their way through a Channel Tunnel completed some 160 years early) are all too obviously dogs in black fur coats.
It's a film that flirts with adequacy without ever quite going all the way: never bad enough to be terrible, never effective enough to be good. While budget considerations are a factor in its failure it was filmed on the cheap in Czechoslovakia there's an overriding lack of vision to the film and a consistent inability to bring out the best in its cast and crew giving it a constant feeling of settling for less about it all. There's nothing particularly wrong with any of the shots, it's just that put together they don't really work. Even the chase scenes seem pedestrian while the deaths carry no real weight because none of the characters ever really matter. Indeed, few of them get much of an introduction or a chance to show much character: too many are reduced to ciphers there simply to move the story along and then promptly disappear. As such it's no great surprise that no-one in the cast truly shines. Of the children, Emily Hudson's Bonnie is a bit too bratishly Bonnie Langford to care about, though Aleks Darowska is good enough to make you wonder why she never worked again. Stephanie Beacham's bald-and-bewigged villainess shows willing but isn't used to best effect, Mel Smith's semi-comic sidekick does his best with what little he's given while Richard O'Brien and Jane Horrocks are just painfully bad as loyal servants. With no-one to really hold the interest, the film just plods from scene to scene so that by the time the film should be reaching its climax it just loses momentum and interest, as if everyone just wanted to get it all over and done with and go home. No surprise that the other 11 novels in the series never made it in front of the cameras
3 of 5 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?