Tag Archives: TV

DEADWOOD (2019) – HBO FILM REVIEW

DEADWOOD (2019) – HBO FILM REVIEW

Created and written by: David Milch

Directed by: Daniel Minahan

Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Ian McShane, Molly Parker, Dayton Callie, Kim Dickens, Brad Dourif, John Hawkes, Paula Malcolmson, and Robin Weigert, Keone Young, William Sanderson, Gerald McCraney etc.

Cinematography: David Klein

Original Network: HBO

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

David Milch’s formidable Western TV classic was a show I’d never ever seen. So, I took great pleasure drinking in its’ flavours and palette at the end of 2017.  I was so glad I did because Deadwood is one of the most brilliantly written shows I’ve seen; and while the dialogue is clearly anachronistic it feels paradoxically authentic. Throughout the thirty-six episodes the monologues sing from the screen as a litany of character actors drawl and deliver words of filth, comedy and great tragedy. At times the dialogue is so dense it reaches sonorous Shakespearean heights.

After three brilliant seasons of Wild West slice-of-life the show was cancelled and the various narrative strands were left loose. But Deadwood (2019) returns one final time with a movie that further elucidates desperate times brimming with whores, bandits, con-artists, killers and a twisted and violent rendition of the American dream. With most of the original cast returning and the action set some ten years after the final season ended in 1889, here we find scores to be settled, relationships to be consolidated and revenging to be done.

The main thrust of the film shows nefarious Senator George Hearst at constant loggerheads with the townsfolk, especially the noble but angry Marshall Bullock; Trixie the prostitute who tried to kill Hearst; and Ian McShane’s gutter-mouthed bar owner, Al Swearengen. Al’s body and health are crumbling due to his heavy drinking and he becomes more a liver-failed spectator amidst the dirty narrative twists and turns.

Given it was more about the characters, performance and dialogue I actually didn’t mind the open-ending provided by the cancellation of the show. I liked that their lives just went on off-screen until they became the proverbial quintessence of dust. However, there is much to enjoy in getting a belly full of these hard-bitten, drunken characters again. As send-offs go the film is a filthy joy. I especially enjoyed seeing Timothy Olyphant as Bullock, Paula Malcolmson as Trixie, Ian McShane as Al; and the marvellous Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane. They all enrich the proceedings with incredible acting performances.

Deadwood may represent a series of distant Wild West memories but its’ grizzled and bloody vision of humanity is just as valid today. The streets of society now may have pavement and tarmac and skyscrapers but they are still besmirched with blood and greed and revenge of the Wild West. While arguably unnecessary this final film is an ebullient and entertaining drift back to the past with enough spittle, blood, anger, justice, love, profanity and mud to please the die-hard Deadwood  fans.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

GAME OF THRONES – SEASON 8 – HBO TV REVIEW – AN EMOTIONAL FAREWELL FULL OF HIGHS AND LOWS!

GAME OF THRONES – SEASON 8 – HBO TV REVIEW

Lord of Light! Come to us in our darkness. We offer you these false gods. Take them and cast your light upon us. For the night is dark and full of terrors.“― Melisandre prays to R’hllor

Created by: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss

Based on: A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin

Executive Producers: George R.R. Martin, David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Carolyn Strauss, Bernadette Caulfield, Bryan Cogman, Miguel Sapochnik, David Nutter

Producers: Mark Huffam, Frank Doelger, Chris Newman, Greg Spence, Lisa McAtackney, Bryan Cogman, Duncan Moggach

Writers – Season 8: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Dave Hill, Brian Cogman

Directors – Season 8: David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, Miguel Sapochnik, David Nutter

Main cast: Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lena Headey, Emilia Clarke, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Liam Cunningham, Nathalie Emmanuel, Alfie Allen, John Bradley, Isaac Hempstead Wright, Gwendoline Christie, Conleth Hill, Rory McCann, Jerome Flynn, Iain Glen, Carice Van Houten etc.

**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**

THE BELLS!

Those damned bells. The first chime sent a chill in the air. Everything stopped for what seemed like an eternity. The second chime clanged. The third and then the fourth and suddenly the fate of a television show went from glorious triumph to a just about earned pyrrhic victory by the final episode credits. Thus, in the space of a minute or so, and the carnage that followed, Game of Thrones virtually threw seven seasons and 5 episodes under a narrative bus.

I’m of course talking about a key character and plot wrench in Season 8, episode 5, called The Bells. While what followed after Queen Daenerys’ decision to carry out her actions, was as spectacular a television set-piece as you could ever see, unfortunately it led to a badly judged final episode called The Iron Throne. In this final episode the writers gave us a series of baffling creative decisions which flew in the face of character arcs and also many rules of the Westeros world. Don’t get me wrong, strong shocks and massive twists have always been part of the books and show. However, some of the decisions made were just mystifying.

“NOT TODAY!”

This is a spoiler-free and more emotional outburst so I won’t go into specifics. In my review of Season 7 — found here — I defended the writers, who I believe could be forgiven some sleight-of-hand contrivances and geographical inconsistencies, because the show was still one of the most entertaining programmes around. Conversely, the first seven seasons gave me some of the greatest televisual enjoyment I have ever experienced. Moreover, the novels are an incredible testament to the brilliant imagination, scope and mind of author George R.R. Martin.

In terms of character, plotting, dialogue, action, reversals, twists, shocks, romance, performance, political intrigue, editing, direction and jaw-dropping-heart-pounding-tension Game of Thrones is ONE OF THE GREATEST TV SHOWS EVER! Moreover, as aforementioned, George R. R. Martin’s books are just something else too. Indeed, the third book, A Storm of Swords, is one of the best works of fiction I have had the pleasure to read. But yet, Season 8 had some more amazing action and events too. It’s just THAT ending; THAT final episode.

Highlights of Season 8 were the build up to the attack by the dead. Winter had finally arrived i.e. death. It comes for us all and our heroes were witnessing a manifestation of death via the White Walkers and Others; all led by the ghoulish Night King. Then when battle commenced the third episode called The Long Night, was an incredible action feast, containing moments of high drama, horror and heroism from many characters we have come to love and even some we hate.

I didn’t even mind that the black night meant it was difficult to see some action. Moonlight, fire, the Red Women and dragons lit up the sky enough to see what was occurring. The blackness was in context and added to the doom facing our characters. My issue was that the fight with the Night King was an end-of-the-world event. Surely, this battle should have closed the show. But no, there was more to follow; the final battle for the Iron Throne itself. In my view, anything following The Last Night could be open to anti-climax. So, it proved.

HEROES AND VILLAINS

Let me reiterate: I still loved Season 8 and I DID NOT SIGN A PETITION for the writers to take the black! These so-called fans signing on-line petitions need to get a life and if they want to take a stand need to take a good LOOK AT THE REAL WORLD! But there was no smoke without fire for the online pitchfork hordes. I too did not agree with how rushed the final season was and many of the character choices that were made. During The Long Night and The Bells episodes I witnessed two of the finest television episodes ever seen from a production perspective. They were jaw-dropping. But from a structural stand-point they were as broken as Bran.

It would appear the showrunners were working from George RR Martin’s template as to how it may end. However, we definitely got a bullet-point conclusion; leaving it hitting certain emotional plot events without earning them. Basically, the complexity of characterisation was lost in favour of wrapping up the storylines too quickly. However, I still cannot praise the massive crew and cast who made this TV show. It genuinely made my life worth living from a cultural perspective.

WINTER HAS GONE!

The main reason for watching and loving the show was for the heroism in the face of death and darkness. Life can be shitty and tough and Game of Thrones was about escape for me. Personally, I felt characters such as Jon Snow, Daenerys and Jamie deserved more heroic endings, but instead got disappointing ones. Similarly, Cersei’s visceral flame just fizzled out. I know they aren’t real people but I wanted their conclusions to be more rousing. The likes of Arya, Sansa, Brienne of Tarth, Samwell Tarly; and even Sandor Clegane got somewhat satisfying endings. I guess you can’t have everything, though.

Don’t get me wrong, Game of Thrones has a propensity to surprise and shock and amaze and it definitely did that in Season 8; right up until THAT vanilla ending. Because as the troubadour once sung, “It’s better to burn out than fade away;” so it’s a shame the lord of light diminished somewhat at the end. Still, it’s all about the journey and the quest rather the final destination. Winter and come and winter has gone and it’s a one I will never forget!

Game of Thrones – Season 8 – Mark: 9 out of 11

Game of Thrones – Overall – Mark: 11 out of 11

THE ROMANOFFS (2018) – AMAZON TV REVIEW

THE ROMANOFFS (2018) – AMAZON TV REVIEW

Created and directed by: Matthew Weiner

Writer(s): Matthew Weiner, Michael Goldbach, Mary Sweeney, Semi Challas, Andre Jacquemetton, Maria Jacquemetton, Donald Joh, Kris Turner Towner etc.

Composers: Anton Sanko, David Carbonara, Giona Ostinelli, Sonya Belousova, Marcelo Zarvos etc.

Cinematography: Christopher Manley

Original Network: Amazon Studios

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

Matthew Weiner and his production team were behind one of the most brilliant television series of recent years in Mad Men. The quality of writing, directing, acting, art direction and attention to period detail on that show was incredibly rich. Overall, Mad Men wasn’t about big surprises and massive plot twists, but rather strong characterisation, evocation of an era and dense analysis of existential moments within romantic, family and industrial relationships.

Weiner’s next project The Romanoffs, finds him in a similar character driven mode. It’s a contemporary anthology series about people who are descendants of the Russian Royal family. The eight stories loosely connect but mainly stand alone, dealing with the lives, loves, turmoil and deaths of privileged people. As such mostly first world and high class problems abide. Altogether, the productions are expertly presented with Amazon clearly throwing a lot of money at them.

As they are self-contained narratives I have decided to order them in personal preference, rather than Amazon’s air order. Thus, here are said mini-reviews with usual marks out of eleven.

THE ONE THAT HOLDS EVERYTHING (EPISODE 8)

Main cast: Hugh Skinner, Hera Hilmar, Ben Miles, JJ Feild

This is the final story in the series and they saved the best until last. It is an incredibly dark exploration of family conflict that traverses the life of Hugh Skinner’s tragic Simon Romanov. Flash-backs entwine with flash-backs as his story unfolds from various perspectives. The script is incredible and certainly one of the best stories I have seen all year.

Mark: 10 out of 11

HOUSE OF SPECIAL PURPOSE (EPISODE 3)

Main cast: Christina Hendricks, Isabelle Huppert, Jack Huston, Paul Reiser

This is an absolutely brilliant satire about the filmmaking process. It finds Hendricks’ movie star on the crazy set of Isabelle Huppert’s eccentric director. The narrative channels horror, surrealist, comedy, drama and romance genres with a complex screenplay. Huppert and Hendricks are superb; as is the jaw-dropping ending!

Mark: 9 out of 11

BRIGHT AND HIGH CIRCLE (EPISODE 5)

Main cast: Diane Lane, Ron Livingston, David Patton

Thematically very strong, the story finds Diane Lane and Ron Livingston as wealthy parents whose children may or may not have been abused by their piano teacher. It’s a subtle exploration of middle class paranoia and universal fear glued together by a superlative performance from Lane.

Mark: 8 out of 11

END OF THE LINE (EPISODE 7)

Main Cast: Kathryn Hahn, Jay R. Ferguson, Annet Mahendru

Like the very watchable Netflix film Private LIves (2018), this story finds Kathryn Hahn portraying another parent desperate for a child. Hahn and her husband, Ferguson, travel to Vladivostock to adopt a Russian child and face all manner of cultural, geographical, health and language barriers. It’s an absorbing piece which really drags you in but ultimately the drama felt protracted by the end.

Mark: 7.5 out of 11

PANORAMA (EPISODE 6)

Main cast: Radha Mitchell, Juan Pable Castaneda, Griffin Dunne

More travelogue and history lesson with a mild romantic drama added, this story promises much but peters out by the end. Castaneda’s journalist investigates medical malpractice but it’s left to Radha Mitchell and the wonderful setting of Mexico City to provide the emotional depth.

Mark: 7 out of 11

THE VIOLET HOUR (EPISODE 1)

Main cast: Aaron Eckhart, Marthe Keller, Louise Bourgoin, Ines Melab

What starts off as a fascinating culture clash dramedy between an elderly racist and her Muslim carer, strangely left-turns into an tacked-on romance story. The cast are excellent and there’s some fine dialogue but it felt unbelievable toward the end for me.

Mark: 6.5 out of 11

THE ROYAL WE (EPISODE 2)

Main cast: Kerry Bishe, Corey Stoll, Janet Montgomery

Mid-life crises and male “seven-year itches” drive the narrative as a bunch of selfish and adulterous actions made me hate Stoll’s character. The Jury Service scenes are interesting but aside from Kerry Bishe’s decent character, I found this a painful way to spend eighty-or-so minutes.

Mark: 6 out of 11

EXPECTATION (EPISODE 4)

Main cast: Amanda Peet, Emily Rudd, John Slattery

Amanda Peet’s character has a bad day – THE END! Even the appearance of the mercurial John Slattery cannot save this disappointingly empty story.

Mark: 4 out of 11

SIX OF THE BEST #16 – TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED EPISODES (1979 – 1988)

SIX OF THE BEST #16 – TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED EPISODES

Created by:     Roald Dahl

No. of series: 9 – No. of episodes: 112

Producer(s)    Anglia Television / ITV

Original release: 24 March 1979 – 13 May 1988

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

With its eerie opening theme tune and iconic dancing silhouette title sequence, Tales of the Unexpected, holds much nostalgia for me. In fact, it was one of my favourite shows I watched as a kid. Every Sunday evening I couldn’t wait for these short, sharp and sometimes shocking tales of: murder, revenge, adultery, gambling, addiction, blackmail, liars, con-artists; and generally twisted visions of humanity. Of course, the amusing consideration remains that the twist in the tales were generally always expected, making them paradoxically, not unexpected at all. However, trying to guess the twist was also part of the fun in watching.

The series was inspired by similar anthology narrative shows such as: Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and Way Out; with initial stories adapted from the work of genius writer, Roald Dahl. The early seasons were also introduced by Dahl and while produced mainly in the UK, latter seasons had U.S. produced episodes too.

Other writers’ work would be adapted and the series became a staple haven for many famous actors too. These included: Susan George, Sian Philips, Jose Ferrer, Joseph Cotten, Peter Cushing, Janet Leigh, John Gielgud, Brian Blessed, Ian Holm, Joan Collins, Denholm Elliott, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Anna Neagle, Joan Greenwood, Harry H. Corbett, Timothy West and many more.

Over most of 2018, I re-watched pretty much every episode on SKY ARTS and so for this article I would like to choose six of my favourite ones. I’d say the latter seasons were probably not as strong as the earlier classics. Yet, I still loved most of them; even some of the more comedic and goofy ones. Finally, picking a favourite six was an impossible job, and I have limited the Dahl classics to just one. Here they are!

LAMB TO THE SLAUGHTER (1979) – SEASON 1

A murdered husband, baffled police, distraught wife and a leg of lamb are the ingredients of one of the finest short stories I have ever experienced. Originally adapted for Hitchcock Presents, Susan George is excellent as the pregnant wife cooking up a special meal and murderous alibi twist.

THE FLYPAPER (1980) – SEASON 3

I was always told as a kid don’t talk to strangers for fear of abduction or harm and this episode deals with that theme expertly. The chilling tale from the pen of Elizabeth Taylor (not that one), finds an young girl drawn into danger from a seemingly unlikely source. The slow build-up of suspense, creepy performances and frightening end make it genuinely unforgettable piece of television drama.

THE BEST OF EVERYTHING (1981) – SEASON 4

Michael Kitchen is brilliant in this sharp, twisted drama as put-upon clerk, Arthur. His lowly beta male seeks the love of the boss’ daughter but is too broke to get her attention. Enter society-playboy Charlie Prince and Arthur finds confidence from his tutelage and connections. As the plot turns one way then another morality and fate catch out Arthur’s lofty aspirations and his dreams soon turn to dust.

HIJACK (1981) – SEASON 4

This brilliant story deals with a genre staple of an airline hijack. Very economical and full of suspense, it’s mostly shot in the interior of the cockpit as Simon Cadell’s Captain and crew are subject to a fear-inducing robbery. Cleverly plotted, this one even had me fooled with an audacious twist which really flies high at the end.

WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO LATELY (1982) – SEASON 5

I loved this episode because of the performance from Benjamin Whitrow. He is a bitter, unlikable, alchol-driven, misanthropic actor who verbally abuses his wife. When he bumps into an old acting friend the two share past memories and it’s soon revealed both are unhappy with their lives. Whitrow imbues, in a short time, a life of disappointment and human weakness, and his startling comeuppance is certainly deserving by the end.

SCRIMSHAW (1985) – SEASON 8

The U.S. produced episodes did not stand the test of the time very well, mainly due to the aged and fading 16mm film. Anyway, many of them could be classed as average but there was the odd gem. Scrimshaw was one such diamond in the rough, containing a haunting performance from Joan Hackett as an alcoholic barfly. One day she thinks her luck has changed when meeting an old wealthy artist friend, but that is far from the case.

Hackett’s performance stayed with me, especially the incredible shot at the end. When I researched Hackett’s name online wondering what she was up to now, I discovered she died in 1983 from cancer, aged only forty-nine. Released in 1985, Scrimshaw finds the audience literally watching a ghost, something I found completely unexpected.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2018) – HBO / SKY TV REVIEW

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (2018) REVIEW

Based on: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Directed by: Saverio Costanzo

Written by: Elena Ferrante, Francesco Piccolo, Laura Paolucci, Saverio Costanzo

Starring: Elisa Del Genio, Ludovica Nasti, Gaia Girace, Margherita Mazzucco, Anna Rita Vitolo, Luca Gallone, Imma Villa, Antonio Milo, Alessio Gallo etc.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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The quality of Italian produced TV dramas in recent years has been spectacularly high. I devoured three bloody seasons of the macho-gangster brutality of Gomorrah (2014 – 2017) with both shock and enthusiasm. I subsequently imbibed avidly the magisterial and philosophical depth of Paulo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (2016). Thus, expectations were equally raised by HBO’s production of My Brilliant Friend; my confidence eventually rewarded with a moving, fiery, sensual, violent and intelligent drama about friendship and family rivalries.

Based on the first of four Neapolitan novels written by Elena Ferrante, the drama charts the lives of various families who inhabit a 1950s Naples neighbourhood. It’s a traditionally working class environment, set amongst run down blocks with cars travelling along dusty roads which lead to the city, country or sea. While encompassing a large ensembel cast, the story focusses on two specific characters: “Lenu” Greco and “Lilu” Cerullo. Forging a powerful friendship in their primary school years, the narrative unfolds over a ten-year period until they are sixteen. Their lives become entwined in family dramas, fights, romances and death, as both characters rival and connect with each other and those in the neighbourhood.

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Class differences underpin the various plots and sub-plots with Lilu displaying incredible academic acumen but held back as her family are too poor to send her to school. Galvanised by competition Lenu pushes herself to get ahead of her friend and despite such division the two are drawn together when facing seemingly insurmountable emotional odds. As such, their friendship and loyalty toward each other drives the story powerfully. Lilu, while contrary and irritating at times, is passionate and principled, while Lenu is more passive and demure. Yet, together they form a resilient whole.

The performances from the cast are brilliant, while the production overall is a thing of beauty. Max Richter’s score is sumptuous and haunting, with the era, setting and locations all wonderfully evoked. But it’s not nostalgia for happier times, rather an honest examination of humanity and rites of passage struggle through puberty and into adulthood. While the sun shines brightly in Naples, these are ultimately hard times. The many stories unfold in sand-hit tenement blocks where men, women and children struggle to make ends meet. Moreover, the show prefaces sisterhood as a means to overcome the misogyny and sexual exploitation of the era.

Toxic masculinity dominates throughout, with men represented as either: sexual predators, gangsters, wife-beaters and Catholic Priests. There are some positive male role models and there is a whiff of solidarity in the air as Communist doctrine is presented; however, there is no escape for the working classes other than to die or struggle onwards. Lastly, the only way out for Lenu and Lilu is sticking and fighting together; educating themselves academically and emotionally to grow and gain the experience necessary to cope with the slings and arrows of Neapolitan life.

Mark: 9 out of 11

THE CINEMA FIX: 12 FAVOURITE TV SHOWS OF 2018

12 FAVOURITE TV SHOWS OF 2018

I love television and watched a lot of it last year on most terrestrial and streaming services; especially the BBC, ITV, SKY and NETFLIX channels.  I must admit I am way behind on many AMAZON and ALL 4/CHANNEL 4 programmes so will be rectifying that this year. Indeed, there are probably some glaring omissions because of this.

For comparison I include last year’s favourite TV shows. This year I have not included South Park (Season 22) as it was not as good as prior years, despite clearly being one of the funniest shows around. Also, Doctor Who does not make my list as there were too many average episodes. Lastly, a special mention to The Walking Dead (Season 9), which at the mid-season break had somehow pulled itself out of the torpid decline that occurred around Season 6. It may make my 2019 list once the latest season has finished screening this year.

FAVOURITE 12 TV SHOWS OF 2017

BIG LITTLE LIES (2017) – HBO
CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM – SEASON 9 (2017) – HBO
FARGO (2017) – SEASON 3 – FOX / CHANNEL 4
GAME OF THRONES
(2017) – SEASON 7 – HBO
THE HANDMAID’S TALE (2017) – HULU/CHANNEL 4
IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA (2017) – SEASON 12 – NETFLIX
LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN – 20TH YEAR ANNIVERSARY (2017) – BBC
LEGION (2017) – FOX
MINDHUNTER (2017) – NETFLIX
SOUTH PARK – SEASON 21 – SOUTH PARK STUDIOS
STRANGER THINGS 2 (2017) – NETFLIX
THE YOUNG POPE (2016) – HBO

FAVOURITE 12 TV SHOWS OF 2018

ATLANTA (2018) – SEASON 2 – FOX

BILLIONS (2018) – S3 – SKY

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BLACK MIRROR (2017)NETFLIX

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BODYGUARD (2018) – BBC1

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THE DEUCE (2018) – S2 – HBO / SKY

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HANDMAID’S TALE (2018) – S2 –C4

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HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE (2018) – NETFLIX

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INSIDE NO. 9 (2018) – S4 – BBC

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KILLING EVE (2018) – S1 – BBC

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PATRICK MELROSE (2018) – SKY

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VANITY FAIR (2018) – ITV

A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL (2018) – BBC

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VANITY FAIR (2018) – ITV DRAMA REVIEW

VANITY FAIR (2018) – ITV DRAMA REVIEW

Created and written by: Gwyneth Hughes

Based on: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

Executive producer(s): Damien Timmer, Tom Mullens, Gwyneth Hughes, James Strong

Directed by: James Strong

Starring: Olivia Cooke, Claudia Jessie, Tom Bateman, Johnny Flynn, Charlie Rowe, Simon Russell Beale, Anthony Head, Martin Clunes, Frances de la Tour, Michael Palin

Composer(s): Isobel Waller-Bridge

Distributor: ITV, Amazon Studios

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

It’s an interesting anomaly in my later years that having previously boycotted period dramas which illustrate the lives of the wealthy and privileged, I now find myself being less partisan and actually watching more. This change doesn’t derive from a mellowing of my socialist working class roots but more an intelligent inquisitiveness as ignorant dismissal of the genre, be they on television or film, means one is possibly missing out on some fine drama or comedy. Indeed, many historical periods’ works of literature or theatre are in fact satirising or damning the upper classes.

Dickens for example dealt with the lower, middle and upper classes, shining a critical light at the many degradations of the era. Likewise, William Makepeace Thackeray also critiqued the folly of war, greed and narcissistic pursuits of the privileged. Stanley Kubrick demonstrated this brilliantly in his classic adaptation of Barry Lyndon (1975); while in ITV’s most recent adaptation Vanity Fair (2018), Thackeray’s adroit study of ambition and upward mobility shows the strengths, weaknesses and foibles of the women and men at the time of the Napoleonic wars.

Vanity Fair is widely considered a classic and considered the founder of the Victorian domestic drama. Originally serialised between 1847 and 1848 it was at the time a massive hit and one could argue the equivalent of what we would call a soap opera today. There have been, since the novel’s release, a plethora of screen, radio and television adaptations. Did we need another one? Probably not; but over seven compelling episodes Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay does great justice to bring to life an army of: well-to-dos, country lords and ladies, soldiers, clergy, businessmen, plus the sparkling scheming of anti-heroine Rebecca or Becky Sharp.

Indeed, the effervescent, nuanced and outstanding performance of Olivia Cooke as Becky drives the narrative forward with absolute purpose. Cooke owns every scene as Becky attempts, from lowly beginnings, to rise through the ranks of society. It is both her strength of character and confidence which is her biggest asset and greatest enemy, because, always pushing for more, she doesn’t quit when she’s ahead. In stark reflection to Becky, Claudia Jessie as Amelia, is characterised as a romantic and desirous not of wealth or position, but rather love and romance. She is a pure spirit and her personality contrasts perfectly with Becky’s. While we admire Becky’s ambitious drive we remain suspicious of her motives, yet Amelia we warm to due to her big and gracious heart.

The men in the piece are a mixture of romantics, noble soldiers, treacherous or haphazard patriarchs, foppish fools, gamblers or all of the above. Tom Bateman gives a solid performance as Rawdon Crawley, Becky’s gambling military husband, as does Charlie Rowe as the more conflicted romantic, George Osborne. Furthermore, the adaptation contains sterling support from the cream of English character acting royalty including: Martin Clunes, Frances De La Tour, Claire Skinner, Anthony Head and Simon Russell Beale to name a few. However, the standout performance for me was Johnny Flynn as William Dobbin. This is such an empathetic and selfless character that, while holding a torch for Amelia, was prepared to sacrifice his love to make everyone happy. Potentially seen as a weakness, this for me was a real strength in a story which was full of selfish narcissists out for what they could get.

Aside from slightly dodgy green-screen CGI for the later scenes in India this was beautifully shot and lit, with the vistas of the English and French countryside wonderfully rendered. The interiors were eloquently designed as the stately and city homes of the characters, likewise the colourful costumes, were expertly brought to life.  James Strong is a prolific television director and he gets brilliant performances and marshals the pace and machinations of the narrative precisely. With Olivia Cooke and Johnny Flynn delivering star turns in their roles I was consistently surprised by this adaptation of Thackeray’s masterpiece. Ultimately, I’ve learned that whether something is a period drama or not one must give it a chance as it could have qualities which continue to stand the test of time.

Mark: 8.5 out of 11