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A Bittersweet Period Artifact With Resonances for Today
"20,000 Streets Under the Sky" is a television adaptation of Patrick Hamilton's London trilogy of the 1930's, providing Americans with exposure to an author, at his centenary, and period, classes and British characters we haven't seen on British exports before.
These are folks hanging on to not quite lower middle class, shopkeeper-level, respectability with their fingernails or elbows, one temptation or bad choice away from sliding into impoverishment or disgrace.
The period costumes, almost black and white production design, slang and non-posh accents to indicate a variety of backgrounds were marvelous. The casting was a terrific selection of talented character actors who were completely believable as mixed-motive people.
Part 1 is the story of Bob, the erstwhile writer and semi-autobiographical stand-in, based on "The Midnight Bell", also the name of the pub where the three naïve young people intersect. As played by Bryan Dick, Bob seems like a younger and handsomer version of the old professor obsessed with Marlene Dietrich in "The Blue Angel (Der Blaue Engel)" in the same period, as he is an unabashed, unrealistic romantic. Bob is unexpectedly, and not well-explained, well-educated, immersing himself in writing about the fall of the Roman Empire, while his fantasies run to popular cinema.
Part 2 is the story of Jenny the prostitute (a sprightly Jean Harlow-like Zoë Tapper), based on "The Siege of Pleasure." This is not quite raw Theodore Dreiser or Stephen Crane territory in presenting how a fallen woman in the big city got there but comes close. We see her what would seem like quite stupidly giving in to temptations if there weren't so many films now on young women from Eastern Europe getting trapped in identical snares today, but which are a bit overplayed here in terms of alcohol and the very frankly single-minded intentions of despicable and not particularly charismatic or sexy men who practically twirl their mustaches. It seemed odd that we didn't discover some hidden illegitimate child to explain her missed assignations, disappearances and manipulative need of cash. The stereotypes finally fell away as we saw her hard-earned cynicism when she faces the man who helped lead her astray, as she is now sadly beyond salvation.
Part 3 is the story of Ella, the bar maid, based on the novel "The Plains of Cement." This was the most effective, as well as the most touchingly bittersweet story, concluding in surprising directions and the characters seemed less types and more real people. Sally Hawkins well conveyed a young woman caught between an array of emotions and expectations at home, work and romance that confuse her.
Not having read the novels (let alone even heard of the author until seeing this adaptation) I presumed it was the source material that had a lot of stereotypes, if this was faithful, but this trilogy may have helped create the clichés in the first place. But I was finally taken by how each character did not go off into soap opera directions.
The time frame of when each character intersected at crucial points in their lives wasn't always 100% clear until the conclusion, as no specific points of reference are provided amidst the flashbacks.
I viewed this on BBC America over three hours with commercials, so I am not sure if there were any cuts from the original production.
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