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Miss Potter (2006)
Pretty but shallow
Prettily photographed but on the whole fairly shallow account of Potter's romance with the publisher of her children's books. Unfortunately for the film's makers, her love affair was conducted very demurely so there's not much to work on. Little is made even of this; no mention for instance is made of Potter's credible and serious scientific ambitions. Filmically, it descends into cinematic clichés; for instance, the lovers exchange letters, so we are treated to shots of Potter scribbling with a voice-over of what she writes. She hurries to London so shots of her jumping into cabs, trains etc. The last part of the film we are treated to pretty shots of the Lake District; pity, then, no mention is made of her very substantial contribution to the National Trust, and only passing reference to her important role in sustaining local community life.
The Da Vinci Code (2006)
A rather dull and lengthy adaptation
The film follows the plot of the novel if anything too closely, and in the process exposes the non-sequiturs and irrelevancies. As a film it has to tackle the problem of how to cover the lengthy explanations of the plot and fails the test. The characters are left to engage in wordy debates which is simply not cinematic. I found myself repeatedly looking at my watch and muttering 'get on with it, do!' Sir Ian McKellen gives good value, and is probably the main reason for sticking with it. The downside of that is that when he is not on screen the pace slackens considerably. About half an hour from the end I thought it had reached its climax and was reaching for my hat and heading for the exit when I realised with dismay it was lumbering off on another twist of the plot. Bonus points though for having the French characters speaking in French.
Mary Reilly (1996)
Well, it's prettily photographed ... but that's about all I can think of to say for it. It's based on one of those derivative novels - this time Stevenson's classic novella "Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde" as seen by his parlourmaid(!) the eponymous Mary Reilly. Possibly she is superwoman in disguise because she seems to run an enormous Edinburgh house more or less single-handed (the other household staff, all four of them, don't appear do anything very useful about the place). This includes cleaning, washing-up, gardening (converting the stone-flagged yard of an Edinburgh town house?!) while running all over Edinburgh on errands for Dr Jekyll for whom she nurses an ill-concealed passion. The dialogue is dreadful; banality separated by long meaningless pauses to spin this tosh out to what seems an interminable length. My sister and I watched it on DVD ... she said "can't you fast forward it?" I replied "I *am* fast forwarding it!" If you have the misfortune to come across this, do something more interesting like stare at the wallpaper.
Mansfield Park (1999)
Pretty but unmistakably dull
The location shooting at Kirby Hall is symptomatic of the film - an impressive looking shell, with nothing inside it.
Mansfield Park is Austen's sharpest and subtlest satire, leavened with some splendid comedy characters. This however seems to have passed completely over the makers, who have provided us instead with an admittedly prettily photographed film that conveys nothing of the book. It's difficult of course to compress it into the space of two hours, but at least they might have tried. As it is the plot is sadly garbled; I doubt that anyone who had not read the book (or at least a synopsis of it) would make head or tail of what was going on, and anyone who has read the book would be completely baffled by the cavalier discarding of key elements of the book. What is unmistakably a 20th century cast with 20th century manners dresses up and romps through it as a bodice ripper, completely missing the point that it's meant to be a study of social power structures breaking down in 18th century England. I found myself with a finger on the fast forward butting, wanting the cast to get out of the way of the scenery.
Talking to a Stranger (1966)
Brilliantly written, directed, and acted mini-series made by BBC TV about the difficult and complex relationships in a close-knit family who discover, after a traumatic family death, that they didn't know each other as well as they thought. A searing psychological study of how people relate to and understand (or not!) each other and the effect, intended and unintended they have each other. Michael Bryant and Judi Dench are especially noteworthy in an all-round excellent cast
Diamond Queen (1940)
Splendid hokum adventure
This is an amazing Indian comedu adventure film from the 1940s and terrific fun (you're not meant to take it seriously of course). The title role is played by an actress called "Fearless Nadia" who developed a great reputation in this sort of movie as the sort of girl you don't want to mess with. (Her real name was Mary Evans, she was Australian born who went to India and became a Bollywood star, learning Hindi in the process. She also did her own stunts.) In this movie Nadia is a thoroughly modern Hindu girl in a provincial Indian town that is in the grip of the local Mafia. The gangsters are opposed by a Robin Hood sort of figure who (of course) falls in love with Nadia. The gangsters try to frame the local good guys, but Nadia wades in sorts them out (wonderful to see her take on a gang of comical desperadoes), in between time conducting a demure romance with "Robin Hood". In the final reel, the local Maharajah (this is India remember) who has been visiting the place in disguise appears, has the bad guys thrown in jail, and "Robin Hood" pardoned, and they all live happily ever after.
An amiable souffle
Topsy-Turvy is an odd film. It's very pretty to look at, well crafted, and pleasant enough to watch, but I couldn't make out what the point of it was. It's a sort of dramatised documentary about how Gilbert and Sullivan came to write "The Mikado". There are coy little cameos of Gilbert and Sullivan themselves, D'Oyly Carte, and the actors who formed their stock company. We get some excerpts from "The Sorceror"; we get told that Sullivan didn't like writing comic operas very much and was unhappy with Gilbert's libretto offered him, so, by chance, Gilbert is taken off to a Japanese exhibition in London and is stirred to write "The Mikado" which saves the partnership and they all (more or less) live happily ever after. But at least half the film is taken up with showing how Gilbert set about staging the play. Which is all very jolly and quite interesting if (like me) you like G&S. But when the end-credits rolled up, I couldn't help thinking "so what"? As a film, it couldn't seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be. It looked like it would have made a good 1 hour Channel 4 docudrama, but someone had decided to turn it into a feature length film. But there wasn't enough there. It told us nothing about G&S that you couldn't find out from an entry on them in any encyclopaedia; and if you wanted a documentary about staging a G&S operetta, why go to all this bother? Alternatively, if you wanted a film of "The Mikado", let's have that. I thought it was rather a missed opportunity to explore something about the relationship between the three men (G&S and Carte) that created this remarkable series of operettas, but instead we got an amiable souffle of a film that tasted nice enough but did nothing to satisfy (dramatic) hunger.
Car of Dreams (1935)
A piece of social history
Intriguing mild (very mild!) British musical comedy. Noteworthy mainly for the eponymous car (a Rolls Royce Phantom III coupe - those were the days when you get a RR PIII and still get change out of £2,000...) and some Brirish film stalwarts. The hero is a youthful John Mills near the start of his cinematic career; Robertson Hare has a supporting role, both trying to inject some life into a leaden script. The rather clunky back projections give some fascinating glimpses of 1930s London and the Lake District.
(Purists might quibble why the heroine (Grete Mosheim)has a German accent while her "sister" has a "cut glass" English accent) RW
Streamline Express (1935)
High class rail travel 1930s style
An odd little curiousity of a film. An assortment of unlikely characters take an express train from New York to California, the main plot revolves around a stage director in pursuit of his leading lady (the same plot that was used much more successfully in Twentieth Century the year before) and a crook on the run from the police who engages in a little robbery and blackmail en route (he fails and is exposed by the stage director).
As a film its very stagey, the acting is too - they all make their entrances and exits as if they're treading the boards. Mainly of interest for the train itself, as a 1930s idea of what rail travel should be like. This is a double deck, 160mph monorail, luxuriously fitted out like an art deco ocean liner!
Sinks without trace
It starts off quite well, and has some amusing touches - like Dustin Hoffman's revelation of how he cam to write his 'expert' report, which sounds all too realistic - but about 20 minutes in it not only seems to lose the plot it also seems to lose its scriptwriter. It has a halfway decent cast who battle valiantly but vainly to give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it fades rapidly into vapid dialogue where the characters argue with each other and tell each other (a) that they don't know what's going on and (b) not to do things that they promptly go off and do. (What's the matter with these people? Don't they ever go to the movies? Haven't they ever seen 'Alien'?) Being brought up on Star Trek I can swallow the imbecilities of the plot, but when it gets to the point where the commercial breaks are better than the movie that's the cue to switch off. So I did.