27 March 2018

Twelfth Night (starring Imogen Stubbs)

We’re trying to work our way through the DVDs we have acquired over the years but have never watched, as well as re-watching some we haven’t seen for ten years or so. Last night my husband decided on the 1996 production of the Shakespeare play ‘Twelfth Night’. I have no idea where we got hold of this; I suspect a charity shop or similar.

We saw an excellent production of this play nearly twenty years ago, and it had not occurred to me that this would be made as a normal film rather than being a stage adaptation. So I was a little startled when it opened with the inside of a ship, in stormy weather. We saw the twins Viola (Imogen Stubbs) and Sebastian (Steven Mackintosh) singing a a double act, shortly followed by the shipwreck which separated them, before any dialogue begins.

This is followed by what I later realised is scene two of the original script. Viola is devastated at (she assumes) the loss of her brother, and decides that it’s safest to dress up as a man. She plans to seek employment at the court of Orsino (Toby Stephens), the Duke who is in love with a lady called Olivia (Helena Bonham Carter) - but Olivia’s father and brother have both died recently, and she has renounced the company of men.

The famous opening line, ‘If music be the food of love, play on…’ then shows Viola, already disguised as the man Cesario, playing for Orsino. After that, the story moves forward (if I recall correctly) in the order of the original play, but with the addition of relevant scenery, interspersed with some songs.

I had assumed at first that the setting was in the 16th century, contemporary with Shakespeare. I was then startled by the use of a bicycle in one of the early scenes, something that was not invented until much later. So I adjusted my time-frame, and realised it was set as if in the late 19th or even early 20th century.

It always takes me a few minutes for me to get into Shakespearean dialogue, but it wasn’t too difficult, and I was soon absorbed in the story. The overall plot is well-known: Orsino loves Olivia, but she falls in love with the supposed Cesario who is really Viola, and Viola herself falls in love with Orsino. There’s a fair bit of comedy inherent in this, but extra comic relief is provided by the drunken Sir Toby (Mel Smith), and the fool Feste (quite unlike any Feste I have previously seen or imagined, brilliantly played by Ben Kingsley). There’s also the pompous Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne) who has both a comic and a poignant part to play.

I was amazed at how alike Viola and Sebastian looked, and thought they must be close relatives, only to discover later that the two actors are unconnected. Imogen Stubbs is a credible Cesario, with quite a bit of low-key humour in the way she moves, and facial expressions. Helena Bonham Carter is excellent as Olivia, and Nigel Hawthorne as Malvolio was inspired casting, in my view.

It’s not laugh-aloud comedy for the most part, and is quite bawdy in places, but I’ve always liked ‘Twelfth Night’, and thought this an extremely good adaptation. It’s rated U in the UK, PG in the US. Shakespeare’s plays have quite a bit of innuendo and this play has its share, but younger children wouldn’t get them. I doubt if anyone below the age of about eleven or twelve would be particularly interested anyway.

However this would be an excellent version for secondary/high school or university students studying this play, to see realistic backgrounds and scenery, and to see far better the context (albeit a few centuries too late).

Recommended to anyone who would like to see something a bit different.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

20 March 2018

A Taste of Honey (starring Rita Tushingham)

Years ago we acquired some DVDs which a relative had collected free with weekend newspapers. ‘A Taste of Honey’ came with a Sunday Telegraph, and has sat in our to-be-watched DVD drawer for five years or more. We knew it was black-and-white, which isn’t necessarily appealing, but last night we finally decided to watch it.

The film, made in 1961, is set in a northern coastal town of the UK, and stars Rita Tushingham as Jo, a young girl of perhaps 15 or 16. She lives with her mother Helen (Dora Bryan) but the two have an acrimonious relationship. Helen likes drinking and dancing, and men… Jo is full of anger at life in general, and her mother in particular.

We see them doing a ‘moonlight flit’ from a rented apartment where they have fallen behind on payments, ending up somewhere worse, though presumably without either means to pay or references. It’s impossible to tell time-frames, as the action moves forward in random jerks; Jo is at school when we first meet her, then employed at a shoe shop, looking after herself.

We thought at first that it might be somewhat amusing, but it’s really all rather depressing. Rita Tushingham’s acting debut is impressive, and apparently she won an award for the role, going on to a lengthy career as an actress. Dora Bryan is also a expressive, if caricatured and rather inconsistent. At one point she seems to care for her daughter, at other points she ignores her or treats her badly. She’s shallow and increasingly dislikeable as the film progresses.

Jo herself is rather blatant; she appears quite shy at first, but makes male friends as easily as her mother clearly has done through the years. There are a lot of issues in this film which were probably very shocking back in 1961. Jo first makes friends with a black sailor, and then with a young man who is gay. Promiscuity is rife, along with casual sex, although it all takes place off set. Indeed, I see that the film was initially rated as X, although there’s no real violence, no bedroom scenes, and no bad language. Our edition is rated 15, but I see that the general UK rating is now 12. That seems about right to me, although I can’t imagine it being of interest to anyone below the age of at least fifteen.

I understand that the genre is that of the ‘kitchen sink drama’ which was popular in the 1950s and early 1960s in contrast to the lavish earlier films that were produced. So we see a slice of what life probably was like for poorer, working class folk of the era. But the conversation is quite stilted in places, the action slow and plodding, the background music irritating. Worst of all, there’s no resolution to any of the storylines.

I was startled to read that the play on which the film was based had quite a run both in the West End and Broadway. I should perhaps have guessed that it began as a play, since there are only five named characters in the play, as far as I recall, although there are a lot of children around as extras. I was even more surprised to learn that this film is highly rated and won several awards.

Perhaps it’s a particularly good example of the kitchen sink genre; maybe caricatured and depressed looking characters are to be expected. But neither of us enjoyed it. It’s only 96 minutes long, but I found myself regularly glancing at the clock. It certainly isn’t the pleasant escapism I look for in watching DVDs.

I really wouldn’t recommend ‘A Taste of Honey’, but don’t necessarily take my word for it. It’s clearly very popular in some circles.

Review by copyright 2018 Sue's DVD Reviews

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