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In 1939, young Oliver, Calypso, Polly and Walter visit friends and family in Cornwall. Spanish Civil War is over and WW2 has begun, so they enjoy their love life while they can. Decades later, they gather again, this time for a funereal.
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I should preface my remarks by saying that I've not read the source material (Anthony Powell's twelve semi-autobiographical novels) so I can't comment on that aspect of the story. My frustration with the protagonist Nick Jenkins passivity no doubt reflects Powell's original creation. I thought that James Purefoy did a credible job portraying Jenkins and it was a relief to see him take a break from the usual scenery chewing, sneering and smirking he so often exhibits in his period film performances. To the contrary -- he's understated and passive to the point of bewilderment which, I presume, was Powell's intention.
Much of the rest of the cast is excellent (and any frequent viewer of British period films will recognize many fine character actors), although the characters themselves are often inexplicably unappealing. Throughout it all, Jenkins stays collegial, if not congenial, with every one of them, no matter how despicable they might be. That struck me as unbelievable, but again -- I suspect that Powell was using Jenkins as a personification of the British trait of "getting on with people". Fair enough.
What, then, is my objection to "A Dance to the Music of Time"? They are three, two of which have to do with the structure of the story. First, the adaptation feels forced and is hugely uneven. You always know things are going badly in a film when characters employ declamation to introduce themselves. "Why hello, young Winston Churchill! You may not remember me, but I'm the Prince of Wales." (I just made that up for effect, but it reflects the tin-eared dialogue often employed in the miniseries when it needs to Tell Us Something.) Yes, it's madness to try to abridge 12 novels down to seven hours on film, but that decision largely doomed the miniseries' credibility.
Second, the further along the film goes, the less focus it has. It wanders off into one utterly pointless subplot after another, trying to express the passage of time and zeitgeists along the way. No sale. It feels forced and perfunctory.
Finally, due to the timeframe of the film (1920s through '60s), characters must age. And yet, for some inexplicable reason, James Purefoy is one of the very few who is replaced with a different (and older) actor, and one who looks nothing like him. This requires more awkward exposition ("Hello, Bill. You may not remember me, but I'm Nicholas Jenkins, even though I look nothing like the Nick Jenkins you knew in Episode Three.") Why was this done? Widmerpool and most of the other actors progressively age (to varying degrees of believability), but just swapping out the protagonist for a different actor torpedoes the film's credibility all the more. Inexplicably, Miranda Richardson not only portrays the same character throughout, she does not age one year. Absurd.
Ultimately, this film left me scratching and shaking my head. Perhaps the books bring something more to the story, but the film felt like a contrived string of events both banal and pseudo-historic, with a hollow man at the center. We never care about any of the characters, nor do we see anything of substance inside of the protagonist. He's a cypher, an "everyman" and ultimately a bore to follow for seven hours.
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