Some recent views

Witness for the Prosecution

This 1957 courtroom-drama, based on an Agatha Christie story, starts out slow, but really packs a punch!  The stars are Tyrone Power (playing against type), Marlene Dietrich (very compelling), and Charles Laughton (providing most of the humor).  There is a lot of dialogue, but it’s very well-crafted.  Famed London lawyer Sir Wilfrid (Laughton) takes on the case of Leonard Vole (Power) mainly because he’s intrigued by Vole’s German wife, Christine (Dietrich).  Leonard, charming yet jobless, is the prime suspect in the murder of a wealthy widow he befriended.  Christine, who is cold and clever, doesn’t act like the typical worried wife.  Sir Wilfrid tells Christine that a woman w/ her personality won’t be seen sympathetically by the jury.  I don’t want to give too much away, so check out this film for yourself.          

 

The Fifteen Streets

Some dreams do come true in Catherine Cookson (1906-1998) novels, but not w/o hardship and loss.  This TV movie, based on her most popular novel, was filmed on location and looks very authentic.  If you want to read the book, it’s suitable for both young adults (junior high age) and grown-ups.  Since Cookson herself grew up in a working-class/Catholic/Northern community, she truly knows her characters.  Despite being born illegitimate and poor, Cookson pulled herself up into middle-class respectability- becoming a teacher, novelist, and eventually- dame of the British Empire.    

At the turn of the 20th century, hard-working dockworker John O’Brien (Owen Teale) meets independent-minded Mary Llewellyn (Clare Holman), the teacher of his little sister Katie.  John and Mary are both concerned about young Katie’s future; she’s a bright/curious child who dreams of being a teacher.  John fears the family will not have enough money to pay for such training.  

John’s younger brother Dominic (Sean Bean) causes a lot of trouble in the family and community.  While John is sober and fair-minded, Dominic loves drinking and fighting.  Mr. O’Brien also likes to drink; he’s angered by the fact that he’s getting old and not being chosen for work as much.  Mrs. O’Brien is pregnant at the start of the story w/ her sixth child. 

Love doesn’t come smoothly for John and Mary.  The Llewellyns live in a middle-class house with fine furnishings; the O’Brien’s live in a small rowhouse near the docks.  However, they both share a love of words and a deep physical attraction.  They meet secretly, knowling that their courtship is out of the norm in their community.     

 Clarissa

 

Sean Bean plays the villain Sir Robert Lovelace in this 1991 TV miniseries based on a Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) novel.  The daughter of an 18th century (recently) wealthy family, Clarissa Harlowe (Saskia Wickham), is known for her piety, obedience, and beauty.  But unlike most young women, she wants to remain single, quite satisfied w/ her books and female friends for company.  In time, her family plans to marry her off to Mr. Soames, a man she finds repellant b/c of his looks and manners.  Clarissa, feeling desperate and friendless, runs off with Lovelace, the handsome/ill-reputed nobleman who’d been sending her secret letters.     

 

Lovelace, a known womanizer, pretends to seek redemption by reading the Bible and spending time w/ Clarissa.  His real goal is to wear down her virtue.  He comments to his best friend that he’s “never known a virtuous maid to hold out more than a month.”  But Clarissa won’t be had so easily!  Lovelace also wants to take revenge on James, Clarissa’s cold-hearted older brother.  

Though  James, as well as his sister Arabella, are rather one-dimensional villains, Clarissa’s best friend Anne is a n interesting character.  She’s a smart and sarcastic woman w/ a steady beau, but she doesn’t respect or love him.  She keeps him waiting, wondering if marriage is the right choice.   

 

 

“Wuthering Heights” (PBS – 1998)

Robert Cavanah said: …It occurred to me that he was simply a man made of the simplest drives and needs and wants, and they were all summed up in three words – love of Cathy.  I never played him as a villain, just a man of enormous capacity for love, who had it all slapped back in his face.

This version of Wuthering Heights was made for British TV, then shown on Masterpiece Theatre (PBS) in the USThe Northern accent used by the actors suits the story.  Unfortunately, the Earnshaw home is a humble cottage, not a gothic house.  This was no doubt due to budget limitations.  As several others mentioned, this film gives us chunks of dialogue straight from the novel.  Very cool!

The anti-hero protagonist, Heathcliff, is played by Scottish character actor Robert Cavanagh.  He’s not handsome, but has a great voice and strong screen  presence.   There are a couple of scenes where he gets very rough with wife Isabella Linton, but overall, this Heathcliff is not a complete monster.  He’s very much a product of his difficult past.

The actor who does justice to Heathcliff’s vulnerable/confused side is Ralph Fiennes.  Great acting is in the eyes, as Barbara Stanwyck said, and it’s all there w/ Fiennes!  He’s accessible in some ways, but still mysterious.  Olivier was very strong in the 1939 version, but a bit too much of a gentleman in some scenes.

My 20s were torture. I found men terrifying. I didn’t know how to relate to them and, because of that, there was no way I could have stood on a stage and asked people to look at me. I just wasn’t comfortable in my skin.  -Orla Brady

I really liked this Cathy, who is played by Irish actress Orla Brady.  Her unusually beautiful face doesn’t detract from her fine acting.  I was especially impressed when she showed Cathy’s strong/willful side.  Of course, no one can top La Binoche in the 1992 version!

The love between the doomed pair is portrayed in a more earthy (perhaps lustful) manner, not all pie in the sky.  Some viewers seemed to like it; others wanted more innocence/romance.  Speaking of innocence…  The younger generation are portrayed very well by Sarah Smart and Matthew Macfadyen.  (Yes, that’s a youthful Matthew as Hareton Earnshaw.  And he’s holding a puppy.  Awww…)

I think it would be awesome to have another version of this story w/ age-appropriate actors.  (This was done successfully by Franco Zeffirelli in the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet.)  The younger Heathcliff and Cathy would have to be around 6-8 y.o. and the older ones 16-18 y.o.  If the lovers are teens, things will make more sense to viewers.  After all, it’s a odd to see 25-35 y.o. actors running through the moors, crying all night, and becoming furious at the slightest matter.

The latest BBC version was quite good, thanks mostly to Tom Hardy, who is a very intriguing actor.  He has a mystery about him, like Fiennes.  Heathcliff should be dangerous w/o alienating the audience completely.

Click below to see a cute vid w/ Macfadyen:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3HNt7S2A0Q

Two films starring Jane Wyman

So Big (1953)

This film is based on Edna Farber’s novel of the same name.  It was directed by Robert Wise, who later directed The Sound of Music.  Farber also wrote Giant, which was made into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean.   Like Giant, So Big is a story of family and values.

Selina Peak (Wyman) is a teenager at a girls’ boarding school in 1890s Chicago when her father suddenly dies.  His huge fortune has dwindled down to nothing, and even household furnishings must go to auction, including a fine portrait of Mr. Peak painted by John Singer Sargeant.  Because of her close friend Julie’s father, Mr. Hempel, Selina gets a position as schoolteacher in the small farming town of New Holland, a community of Dutch immigrants several hours away from Chicago.  Mr. Hempel made his fortune by selling hogs to the town, and he’s grateful.

Selina approaches her new, no-frills type of life with cheerfulness, remembering a lesson her father taught her- there are two kinds of people in this world, wheat and emerald.  The people who take care of the land, grow food, and provide for the survival of others are wheat.  Those who see the beauty of the world and work in creative ways are emerald.  The world needs both kids of people.

Selina boards with the warm-hearted, yet traditional, Pool family and begins teaching in a one-room schoolhouse.  Roelf, the adolescent son of the Pools, already works in the fields with his father.  Though he’s “too old for school” unlike his two sisters, Roelf still has a desire to read and improve his piano playing.  Selina recognizes Roelf’s potential, and encourages him by giving lessons at home and allowing him to use the school’s piano.  Roelf (emerald) wants to get out of New Holland and see the world.

At the church box supper auction, Selina meets Purvis DeJong (wheat), a tall and rugged widower who’s courting a wealthy older widow.  Purvis’ head turns toward Selina, and he goes quickly to her side, much to the amusement of the locals.  They make fun of Purvis because his farm is in the lowlands and doing badly.  He admits to Selina that he doesn’t have “a head for figures.”  Buyers at Hay Market swindle him when he goes to sell his meager crops.  Selina decides to give him math lessons.  Purvis calls her “Little Lina” and seems more interested in romance than studying.  This upsets Roelf, who has a huge crush on his teacher.

Eventually, Lina marries Purvis and settles into the role of a farmer’s wife.  She has a son named Dirk, who is nicknamed So Big, because she has big plans for his future.  Dirk sees beauty in everyday things, like his mother.  “A modest amount of success” comes to Lina as the farm specializes and modernizes.  Lina is able to send her son to college to become an architect.  Though he seems to be a kind young man, Dirk wants success to come quickly, envying the comfortable lives of his wealthier peers and social-climbing girlfriend.  Lina, who values hard work, worries that Dirk is embracing the wrong values of the modern age.

Lina embodies the pioneering spirit of American women of the late 20th century.  These were the women who left established cities, worked beside their husbands and children on humble farms, and valued an honest day’s labor.  They didn’t have much time to cry or complain.  They had to work to survive, so their children wouldn’t have as much to struggle against.  These were the mothers who raised “the greatest generation.”

 

Miracle in the Rain (1956)

This is a film about love, romance, and forgiveness.  Ruth (Wyman) is a hardworking secretary for a shoe company in NYC who’s scarred by the fact that her musician father abandoned the family when she was a girl.  Her mother, who’s depressed and in frail health, tells her never to trust men because “they’re all nice, until they find someone else.”  Ruth rarely has time to go out or meet eligible men, as she must care for her mother.

One rainy day after work, Ruth meets Art (Van Johnson), a talkative and cheerful soldier from Tennessee.  He’s stationed nearby and doesn’t have much to do, so he invites himself to her apartment.  Art makes himself at home, even singing and playing the (long-silent) piano.  Ruth hands Art an unfinished composition of her father’s to show to his songwriter friend.

Like that song, the main issue in Ruth’s life, is unresolved.  We learn that her father is playing at a fine restaurant in the city,  but he can’t face his family yet.  And falling in love with Art is not the end of Ruth’s story; he’s a catalyst for positive change in her life.

“Rome” (HBO, 2005-2007)

If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to watch better TV shows, check out the HBO series Rome ASAP!  This is a very adult show w/ grown-up situations, so it’s not for the whole family.  It’s very addictive and keeps you guessing.  (Don’t go on You Tube or you’ll see spoilers!)  The setting is a pre-Christian world, so modern-day morals don’t apply.

At first, I was just awed by the sheer scale and beauty of the production.  Everything looks gorgeous (including James Purefoy, above)- music, costumes, scenery.  The show was shot on location on a high budget, even for HBO.

You’ll see all levels of ancient Roman society, from plebians barely eeking out a living in gritty tenements to patricians partying in brightly painted halls.  Adding to the realism are many extras- Italians of all ages, shapes, and complexions.  The acting is top-notch- w/ familiar faces and exciting newcomers from the UK.

When Season 1 begins, a middle-aged Julius Caesar (Ciaran Hinds from The Mayor of Casterbridge and Persuasion), is in Gaul (now France) expanding the Roman empire and vanquishing the “wild natives.”  Pompey, Caesar’s old friend and son-in-law, is in charge of the city of Rome.  Caesar and Pompey rule as co-counsels w/ a powerful Senate (which includes Cato and Cicero).  Brutus (Tobias Menzies) looks on Caesar as a mentor, though he keeps insisting he won’t go into politics.  (He was one of my favorite characters.)

Then Pompey’s wife, Caesar’s daughter, dies tragically during giving birth.  Some senators feel that Pompey should split from Caesar and become leader of Rome.

There are many legions fighting for Caesar in Gaul; the 13th is reputed as one of his most loyal.  Mark Antony (Purefoy from Vanity Fair) is at Caesar’s side, though some patrician Romans look down on him for being an egotistical commoner w/rough speech and brutish manners.  But the soldiers love him.

Caesar’s best asset may be Posca (Nicholas Woodeson), an observant Greek slave no less clever than his master.  He helps Caesar plan battles, draft speeches, and negotiate deals.  The don’t have the typical master-slave relationship; Posca protects Caesar’s secret (he’s an epileptic).  In the Season 1 finale, when Caesar lies dead on the senate floor, Posca is the only character who sheds tears by his side.  (There are several other slaves who play significant roles in Rome.)

One particularly fine soldier from the 13th is Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, a Scotsman currently on Grey’s Anatomy) who hails from the Subura (the largest slum of ancient Rome).  He hasn’t seen his beautiful wife Niobe (Indira Varma) and two young daughters in 8 years, but fights for the Republic w/o complain.  (The Republic was akin to religion to many Romans.)

The soldier who bonds w/ Vorenus is Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson).  Unlike the sober Vorenus, the tall/imposing Pullo loves cursing, wine, and women of the night.  He can get into a fight over the smallest matter, but Vorenus can count on him when things get tough.  Their friendship ties the entire show together.  (Vorenus and Pullo are the only soldiers mentioned by name in the journals of the real Mark Antony.)

Another reason to watch Rome are its fascinating female characters: patricians, plebians, and slaves included.  Vorenus’ wife Niobe must learn to love and understand her husband after many years.  She has a secret that could cost her her life if it ever came out.  (Why does Varma fit so well in this setting?  Her mother was half-Genovese.)

Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan from Mansfield Park and Lost in Austen) is Brutus’ mother and Caesar’s favorite female companion.  On the outside, she keeps cool and composed, like a fine lady.  But Servilia, widow of two great Romans, has a keen mind and great ambition for her son.

Caesar’s niece, Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker from BBC’s Emma), is the nemesis of Servilia.  She’s also a widow, unapolegetically ambitious and manipulative.  Atia conducts a fiery on-again, off-again relationship w/ Antony and doesn’t care what others think about it.  But is there any love there?

Octavia (Irish newcomer Kerry Condon) is Atia’s sensitive/vulnerable daughter.  She’s often pulled into Atia’s power plays.  Her mother often tells her to not slouch, dress better, and toughen up.  It’s all about survival, Atia tells her kids.  But Octavia deeply yearns for true love and some control of her life.

Of course Cleopatra (newcomer/theater actress Lyndsay Marshal) makes several appearances.  In Season 1, she’s a pixie-like teenager who plays vulnerable to seduce Caesar and get back the throne of Egypt from her little bro.  In Season 2, she’s the bold empress who seduces Antony, then falls deeply in love w/ him.  Antony falls hard too, but it’s not meant to last.

In my opinion, the breakout star of Rome is Max Pirkis (who made his film debut in Master and Commander)-  he plays the young nephew of Julius Caesar, Gaius Octavian.  He learns a lot from reading- words and people.  Octavian is a brilliant, cold-hearted, and calculating boy who’s not afraid to use violence.  The adult Octavian Caesar is played by newcomer Simon Woods (below).

Who is “a true Roman?”  (In one scene, a resident of his slum questions Vorenus’ heritage b/c of his red hair and Gallic features.)  What is best for a nation- some type  of representative democracy or one all-powerful leader?  How does a city deal w/jobless soldiers unskilled at everything except fighting?  What are the limits of friendship?  The depiction of timeless themes and personal relationships make this show a must-see.