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Execution almost perfect, subject matter a question....
No, I haven't read the books, but I have read Proust, and you can bet Mr. Powell read him too. Powell's first volume appeared thirty years after Proust's death, and a greater valentine can't be imagined.
Both "Dance" and "In Search of Lost Time" are panoramic multi-generational quasi-autobiographical narratives of the gentry they knew. Lower class types pop in from time to time, but they never take center stage for long. Both genteel epics run more than 3000 pages. Major characters are rarely single portraits, but are usually drawn from composites of two or three prototypes. Both works chronicle the human cycles of birth, education, coupling, re-coupling, decay and death.
In addition to writing earlier, Proust had the structural advantage of writing the beginning and end of his novel first, spending the rest of his life filling in the middle. It was a meditation on the nature of memory, and underlying all the gossip and melodrama is an awareness that there is a coherent thesis and philosophy tying the whole journey together.
At least as presented here, no such unifying ideas are discernible in Powell. We meet characters of greater or lesser interest, they do the things that people do (and sometimes don't do, and occasionally never have done in the history of the world). They learn, age, crack-up and die, but the whole thing just kind of trails off and rumbles to a stop rather than ends. We may have a good time getting there, but I wind up wondering why we made the trip.
In response to criticisms of the abridgment, we should note that Powell, as a former screenwriter, was not upset at the reshaping of his work for TV. Nicholas Coleridge reports: "Powell, himself, says that 'Somewhat to my surprise' he is happy with the adaptation. 'It seems quite alright to me,' he told me with faltering voice, on the telephone. 'I think they've done it as well as this medium possibly can.'"
Across the board, the actors are almost uniformly pleasing. Simon Russell Beale has been rightly cheered for his remarkable and daring Widmerpool, but Michael Williams (Judi Dench's late husband) is outstanding as Ted Jeavons, and Edward Fox steals every scene he's in, no surprise there. James Purefoy as Nick has to do a lot of listening, and occasionally he does it wonderfully well.
I was not upset at the recasting of half a dozen characters in the fourth film. Some of the young actors looked quite silly in extreme age makeup as practiced 10 years ago. I'd have been happier if it had been more widespread. It took me about 8 seconds to register that Nick and Isabel and Jean were played by different actors, and then I plunged right back into the story. I'm sorry for the viewers that were derailed by the substitutions, but I wasn't.
I am perplexed by the character of Pamela Flitton as played here in her unique patented performance by Miranda Richardson. She is a vicious, irritable, impatient, destructive, sexually voracious, uncontrolled and uncontrollable woman, everything that panics an English writer from Charles Dickens to Bram Stoker and onward.
Pamela is a crimson-lipped vampire straight out of Hammer Horror, and not one thing she does or says has a motivation. I hope the books are more coherent in explaining why, why anything.
BTW, the film "A Business Affair," from novels by Barbara Skelton, gives Pamela's prototype's side of the story, and I look forward to seeing it by way of further illumination. There's precious little to comprehend on view here. She just is.
Anyway, this is all professionally done and makes for entertaining viewing. It may not be the absolute best of its genre, but it's a long way from the worst. It is highly recommended to people who like British miniseries based on long novels.
OTOH, no one has ever made a good movie out of Proust, they're all terrible. There's a wonderful published screenplay Harold Pinter wrote for Joseph Losey, but it was never produced. If you want to spend a year reading 3000 pages, please start first with Proust, then take on Powell for dessert.
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