13 March 2018

Winter Solstice (starring Sinéad Cusack)

It’s over eleven years since we watched the made-for-TV film ‘Winter Solstice’, based loosely on a book of the same name written by Rosamunde Pilcher. So it seemed like a good idea to re-watch it last night.

The story opens with Elfrida (Sinéad Cusack) scattering the ashes of her late husband. When I read the book ‘Winter Solstice’, about fourteen years ago, I thought Elfrida was quite elderly. She’s supposed to be sixty-three… and when I was in my early forties that age seemed a long way off. Watching the film last night, it struck me how young and lively she seemed… I would have guessed that she was in her mid-fifties.

Oscar (Jan Niklas) is supposed to be considerably younger than Elfrida, but I’d have put him at around fifty. Not that it mattered. Oscar and Elfrida have a good friendship, and Elfrida becomes very fond of his daughter Francesca. Then disaster strikes… an incident which comes early in the book, and which is dramatic and shocking in the film. I didn't remember Francesca having an older half-brother, the selfish and unpleasant Giles.

Most of the story takes place when several diverse and not entirely compatible people find themselves staying in a remote house in Scotland. There are some unlikely coincidences - two people, connected with the two co- owners of the house, both deciding to stay there at the same time, for instance. More unlikely still is that Sam, a young businessman, happens to arrive at the same time as Carrie, a young woman he sat next to on an aeroplane. I don’t remember if the latter coincidence was in the book; evidently I should re-read it soon.

There are some changed details which didn’t matter too much. Carrie is supposed to be aunt to the teenage Lucy, whose father has remarried in the book. In the film, Carrie is her older half-sister, with a very flaky mother. I don’t remember Lucy being caught up in computer games in the book, but perhaps she was. Nor do I recall anything about a business venture, Sam having to make people redundant, or a whisky distillery. But if those were in the book, I may well have skimmed over them as I prefer the relationship parts of the book.

While the scenery and photography were excellent, in places, I was a tad irritated, as I was the first time I saw the book, that there was so little snow. The book has these unlikely characters snowed up for a few days, not wanting to celebrate Christmas at all. The film has surprisingly balmy weather, where people don’t even need to wrap up particularly warmly, and only a sprinkling of snow after the Christmas Eve midnight communion service.

Overall, I thought it a very enjoyable film. I wasn’t expecting it to be the same as the book this time, so wasn’t disappointed. The characters were well-cast, and I thought the pace about right for a character-driven story of this kind. My husband is happy to watch this kind of film with me, and also enjoyed it although he commented that some of the sound was not quite correct. I hadn’t noticed.

The rating is PG, which I think is probably right. There’s the shocking scene I mentioned earlier, and quite a violent tussle later in the book. There are a couple of ‘morning after’ bedroom scenes, although no explicit nudity or intimacies. There’s not much bad language, although the word ‘God’ is used as an expletive several times, including (rather oddly) at least once by the Vicar.

The story is quite intense in places too, but since it mostly concerns adults and their relationships, the film is unlikely to appeal to anyone below the age of about fifteen.

I would recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of gentle character-driven story, with the proviso that you should not expect it to be closely connected with Rosamunde Pilcher’s novel ‘Winter Solstice’.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

27 February 2018

The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)

There are some stories that form part of national consciousness, it seems to me. I don’t think I have ever read or seen Romeo and Juliet, for instance, yet I know the story well. I don’t recall when I first knew about ‘The Importance of being Earnest’, Oscar Wilde’s classic play set in the late 19th century. But I feel as if I’ve always been aware it was about upper class foibles, deception, and of course a pun on the name ‘Earnest’.

I’m pretty sure I saw a film version years ago, probably the 1952 version, which is - apparently - fairly true to the original. My memory is of most of it taking place indoors, in formal drawing-rooms, but I also recall finding it quite confusing. I read the book on my Kindle a few years ago, and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. When my husband suggested watching our DVD of the play last night, I somehow thought it would be the version I had seen before. I don’t remember when we acquired it - perhaps it was part of a special offer, back in the days when I was trying to buy classic films on DVD to start a collection.

I turned out that we have the 2002 film adaptation of the book, with Dame Judi Dench playing Lady Bracknell, the overbearing matriarch. Colin Firth stars as the young man Jack Worthing who has invented a brother called Ernest. When he goes into town, ‘for pleasure’, as he puts it, he assumes the identity of Ernest. Jack’s friend Algie (Rupert Bracknell) is Lady Bracknell’s nephew, and very keen to meet Jack’s ward, 18-year-old Cecily. Jack, meanwhile, is in love with Lady Bracknell’s daughter Gwendolen (Frances O’Connor).

The film is produced on a larger scale than the earlier versions, with scenes in London clubs and streets, and a lot of the story taking place outside. A young Reese Witherspoon is excellent as the imaginative, beautiful Cecily, her upper class British accent so perfect that we forgot her American nationality. I was also very impressed with Anna Massey as her elderly governess Miss Prism. As with the play, there are only seven main characters, plus a couple of minor ones, although we see plenty of extras in the outdoor scenes.

Most of the text is straight from Oscar Wilde’s play, as far as I can tell, although it’s somewhat cut down. I don’t think anything new was added, but am not familiar enough with the text to say for certain, and have no plans to re-read the play to check. Whether or not it was all Wilde, it was in the right style and despite the somewhat caricatured nature of the people and ridiculous twists of the plot, it was very enjoyable to watch. I appreciated the low key humour and satire, and thought Judi Dench superb in a role which, apparently, she had previously played on stage. Lady Bracknell has some wonderful lines, and she delivers them perfectly.

There are a few extras on the DVD showing the ‘making of’ the film with a few deleted or edited scenes, but all quite short and without adding more than a few glimpses of the cast and crew working together.

The rating is U (PG in the US), probably because there’s no sensuality beyond some kissing and a few innuendoes, no violence other than a couple of mild humorous scenes, and only the mildest of bad language. There’s plenty of drinking and smoking which is appropriate in the historic context of the play, but it’s not the kind of storyline to interest anyone under the age of about thirteen (or older) anyway.

Overall we enjoyed this very much.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

20 February 2018

September (starring Jacqueline Bisset)

For last night’s weekly DVD, my husband decided on ‘September’, the made-for-TV film based on Rosamunde Pilcher’s novel of the same name. We first watched the film back in 2006 and I recalled that it was a reasonably faithful adaptation of the book. My husband did not remember it at all, until he saw the opening and rather morbid shots of a body being removed from a lake…

I’m glad I re-read the book fairly recently, as ‘September’ has quite a large cast of characters, and several interleaved subplots. The main focus of the book is a planned party - a huge one with marquees and Scottish country dancing and a disco. But the storylines involve people who are invited rather than the party-givers themselves.

Vi (Virginia McKenna) is, to my mind, the linchpin of the story. She is in her late seventies, but lively and active in the community. Her son Edmund (Michael York) is quite stubborn. He also works extremely hard and has made a lot of money in his business. He has a daughter, Alexa (Emily Hamilton), from his first marriage, who lives in London. Edmund also has a young son, Henry (Thomas Szekeres), by his second wife Virginia (Mariel Hemingway). Virginia is younger than Edmund, and from the United States, and they have very different ideas about raising children.

Then there are Archie (Edward Fox) and Isobel (Jenny Agutter), impoverished gentry who take in American visitors to supplement their income. Archie was injured in military service and lost a leg; he suffers from nightmares and terrible self-esteem. A recurring theme of the film is the way that Scots tend to button up their emotions and struggle on. There’s a mystery surrounding Archie’s sister Pandora, who ran away twenty years earlier, and this is gradually revealed during the film.

I thought Archie and Isobel very believable with excellent on-screen chemistry. I was less entranced with Edmund and Virginia. Both play their parts well, but it was hard to see any chemistry between them. And while … who played Henry did so extremely well, he isn’t the sensitive, highly intelligent Henry of the novels. I liked Alexa, but was a tad confused that her boyfriend’s name has been changed from Noel to Neil, and didn’t find him particularly realistic.

One of the most underrated but powerful people in the movie is Lottie (Angela Pleasence), sister of Edie (Anna Cropper) who works for Vi. Lottie has some kind of mental condition, but it’s not alzheimer’s; she is not at all forgetful. Instead she is the antithesis of the buttoned-up Scots. She watches everyone and everything, often stealing around gardens after dark, or listening at doors, and then reports on what she considers to be immoral or ‘wicked’ ways. She has a lot of strange mannerisms and Henry is, justifiably, rather scared of her. And it’s Lottie’s ‘chinwags’ with different people that brings some hidden truths to light.

Then there’s Pandora (Jacqueline Bisset), breezing into the movie in time for the party, shocking and/or delighting everyone. She is outspoken and generous, yet also unpredictable and self-centred. The novel is inevitably cut significantly, and in the film we don't meet Pandora until this point. Her back-story is somewhat changed as well, perhaps to keep it simpler and more dramatic.

There’s not a great deal of plot as such, despite so many subplots. This is a film (like the book) of relationships and character development. The ending is bittersweet, and I thought extremely well done. I was a little shocked to realise that the film was nearly three hours long; it was long past my bedtime when it finished, yet I had been gripped, caught up in the lives of the people in the story.

There’s some lovely scenery, though I gather the film was shot in Ireland rather than Scotland. The rating is PG which reflects the lack of any strong language, violence or scenes of intimacy. But the beginning and end scenes are somewhat traumatic. I don’t feel that this film would be appropriate for children under the age of about 12; in addition to the loch-dredging, there are several references to off-stage bedroom scenes, or images showing the morning after, and there’s a fair amount of mild bad language.

Overall I enjoyed this film very much, and would recommend it to anyone who likes Rosamunde Pilcher’s novels, or this kind of poignant character-based drama.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

13 February 2018

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (starring Daniel Radcliffe)

A week ago we finally watched part 1 of ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’. It was very well done, but I felt there was too much fast action filled with special effects, and too little of the storyline. However, having seen it, we decided to watch part 2 last night.

The action is less rapid in this film, and I only had to close my eyes a couple of times. Most of the story takes place in or near Hogwarts, where Harry is certain one of the final horcruxes must be hidden. He has little clue what it might be, what it is, or how he will destroy it.

Moreover, the school is now in the charge of Professor Snape, with new and harsh regimes. Dementors and death-eaters patrol outside, and the students must toe the line or be punished harshly. The students who support Harry are thrilled to see him Harry when he arrives with his friends Ron and Hermione. But he has no plan.

Events move towards the climax in dramatic ways, with a lot of magical violence, as well as some new revelations and discoveries. Other students play their part, some losing their lives as a result. But Harry alone has to face Voldemort in an encounter which has been inevitable since he started to discover his destiny in the first book.

This film was more thoughtful than the first, and I was almost mesmerised for much of it. There are some very moving scenes, and one or two surprises for those who have not read the book. The theme of good vs evil comes through very clearly, but this is no clichéd story. The series was meticulously plotted and written, with all the threads drawing together in this final part of the story.

I remembered much of the ending from the book - a magnificent ending, in my view - but had forgotten the details. I don’t know how true the film was to the novel, but I don’t recall any major omissions. The epilogue at the end gives the audience a chance to relax and see into the future, tying up some loose ends. It felt a tad out of place in the book, and similarly in the movie. Yet I’m glad it was there, providing closure as this incredible series comes to its end.

The acting is excellent, the pace exactly right, in my view. There are even one or two humorous moments, providing momentary relief in the tension of the story. This is a superb film to end the series, and while it doesn’t stand alone, I would recommend it highly to anyone who has seen the others, but has not yet seen this one.

The rating, as with part 1, is 12 (PG-13 in the US). I assume this is due to the magical and indeed physical violence, which is extreme. While the shots of violence are fairly brief and rapid, there are a lot of bodies, and a great deal of destruction and disaster. The point is made that this happens when evil holds sway, but it’s not appropriate for young children. There’s some minor bad language, too, but it’s almost unnoticeable alongside the wholesale destruction and violence.

(Note: While the links to Amazon are for part 2 only, it is often better value to buy both parts of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' together; some versions come with extras.)

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

06 February 2018

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 (starring Daniel Radcliffe)

Over the past few years we have watched the first six Harry Potter films, interspersed with many others. I only saw the first two at the cinema; they’re quite tense and I don’t like anything at all scary or fast-moving, so I much prefer seeing them at home. We’ve had the final two - the two-part Deathly Hallows - for nearly five years, since I was given them for my birthday in 2013. But until last night had not unwrapped them.

We were going to wait until we had seen all the others… but it’s nearly a year since we watched Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Then we were going to watch them with our younger son… but he said there was no need. And we kept delaying the moment. But at last, we sat down to watch part 1.

It’s over ten years since I read the book ‘Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’. I loved the book, but my memory of the plot is inevitably somewhat vague after over a decade. That’s not a bad thing when watching a film adaptation, as there are bound to be changes which can be annoying if favourite parts of a book are left out. However, I was glad that I had remembered at least the bare bones of the story. I find it difficult to follow the plots of films unless they’re fairly clear, and this one, intended for a teenage audience, is fast-paced and complex.

The basic story is that the evil ‘dark lord’ Voldemort is back, and the only way to defeat him is by finding all the horcruxes - pieces of his soul that have been hidden away. They were somewhat explained in the previous book, but I’m not sure it matters exactly. So, instead of returning to Hogwarts, Harry and his two close friends Ron and Hermione set out on their own, with little idea where they’re heading, to attempt to find and destroy horcruxes. Along the way they learn about ‘deathly hallows’, but those will probably be explored in greater depth in the second film, which we hope to watch next week.

The first film alternated scenes of the three on their own with fast-paced battles with enemies of various shapes and sizes. When alone, we see them discussing what to do, arguing about how to do it best, and recovering from battles. There’s quite a powerful scene where Ron hallucinates, convinced Hermione likes Harry better than she likes him. And there’s a very moving, poignant scene near the end.

However, there are also a lot of rapid-action scenes, not gunfights but the equivalent with wizarding wands. I am unable to watch this kind of thing; fast action on screen makes me dizzy, and I never have the faintest idea what’s going on. So I shut my eyes, and listen for any words. In the brief seconds I saw, there were dramatic special effects and high drama - but I can’t comment on any more, as it all happened too rapidly. I don’t think I missed anything much; it was always fairly clear what happened from the discussions afterwards.

This really isn’t a film that stands alone, as so much has gone before. Nor is it one I’d necessarily want to see again, although I am now quite keen to re-read the book. But I’m glad we’ve seen it at last. The book was absorbing and made a magnificent ending to the series. There were battles, but on paper they’re so much easier to deal with. The book was filled with Christian symbolism in a way that didn’t really come across in the film, but perhaps that’s not surprising.

The actors playing three main characters have grown with their roles, and I felt were as believable in this, at seventeen, as they were in the first book, aged just eleven.

All in all, I would recommend this, although the 12 rating is worth noting. There’s nothing too ‘adult’ - a little kissing and cuddling, and one implied sexual scene, but no total overt nudity and few innuendoes. There is little bad language, but nothing major. However there's a great deal of magical violence, evident even with my eyes closed, and also some sad losses which could upset a sensitive child.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews