Archives for posts with tag: miniseries

Herman Wouk’s novel about the last few years before the Second World War goes for coverage, both geographically and circumstantially. It smacks, rather, of a modern War & Peace, following several, sometimes overlapping threads. This works better in a book, but this series gives it the old college try.

MV5BMzY1NTEzODA4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzM0NzUyMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR50,0,182,268_AL_Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum) is a career naval officer. His life ambition is to command a battleship. A cursory knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent naval history will indicate that this is an ambition unlikely to be realized. Luckily, Pug has a host of other qualifications, like a working knowledge of German and Russian and an uncanny ability to predict geopolitical developments (he alone of everyone in the world predicts the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, e.g.). He starts out as military liaison in Berlin and ends up a military observer of Lend-Lease efficacy in Moscow.

He has a lot of relatives, and they get into various scrapes. His wife, Rhoda (Polly Bergen), is dumb and shallow but has kept her figure, so that’s going to go badly. His daughter, Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), is very young and goes into radio; she’s not interesting until later. His elder son, Warren (Ben Murphy), is a naval aviator in Hawai’i; his younger, Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent), is a Columbia grad and naval reservist who finds himself in Siena doing research for a famous author because he can’t settle to anything else.

This introduces the second thread, Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) and his niece Natalie (Ali MacGraw). Dr. Jastrow is a Jewish author, which will allow the series to follow in detail the declining status of Jews in Europe, because he is stubborn and flighty, which means he refuses to leave when it is simple and then lacks the paperwork and wherewithal when it becomes difficult. Natalie is…an asshole. I had forgotten. She spends all her time keeping men on a leash and then being unpleasant when they venture to be concerned for her welfare. With a better actress in the rôle, it is broadly possible that Natalie would be captivating and impulsive, but…she’s just awful. Also, people keep looking at her askance because she’s so very Jewish-looking, and that is just insultingly silly.

Through Natalie we meet her distant cousin Berel Jastrow (Topol!), a Polish Jew who documents the early activities of the SS Einsatzgruppen. No one believes him, except Leslie Slote (David Dukes), who is a minor functionary in the US State Department and also manages to be in interesting dangerous places at interesting dangerous times. He’s very in love with Natalie and she treats him like dirt. I like Leslie, possibly the best of everyone, because all he ever does is try his best for people and get no credit. Leslie knows Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), a young Englishwoman with a journalist father and an airman fiancé who globetrots around after her dad and incontinently falls in love with Pug. We come full circle!

Apparently no expense was spared in this production, and it was filmed on approximately nine thousand locations. This is a plus, but it doesn’t fix the problem: this was made in the early 80s, when subtlety was unknown and costumes only made a bare minimum of effort. In general, women’s dresses and hats are more or less in the style of the 40s, but in hideous fabrics, and no attempt for verisimilitude is made with respect to hairstyles. Men’s clothes, fortunately, escape disaster by retreating to uniform. The large cast, as usual, results in a quality of acting most generously described as uneven. This is not helped by Wouk’s limited talents as a screenwriter, which pale in comparison to his skills as a novelist.

At about twelve hours, it doesn’t save all that much time over reading the book, and is worse. But it is to be admired for its ambitions and its care.

Stray observations:

  • There is something inescapably 70s about Ali MacGraw, and she doesn’t even try to escape here. Also I think she might be a terrible actress. She’s definitely a terrible Natalie Jastrow.
  • The most affecting moment is FDR’s walk across the gangway to the Prince of Wales to accept Churchill’s invitation to church. Ralph Bellamy is generally excellent in the part.

Director: Dan Curtis
Rating: PGish
Length: 720 minutes
Score: 3/5

During the wars against Napoleon, the government, in the person of Sir Walter Pole (Samuel West, who has not aged especially well and who is wearing an awful wig), seeks assistance from a Yorkshireman magician, Mr Norrell (Eddie Marsan). Thus events are set in motion.

Mr Norrell is not especially keen on the practice of magic, but he does manage to terrify the French fleet and bring Lady Pole (Alice Englert) back from the dead. To do the latter he must enlist the help of the Gentleman (Marc Warren), who then proceeds to be generally ominous and specifically cruel. This appears to come as a surprise to everyone, which bugged the living crap out of me in the book and did not seem better in the miniseries: has it ever worked out to raise someone from the dead? does that not always come with trade-offs you eventually realize you really didn’t want to make? So she goes bananas and everyone is unhappy about it, particularly her husband and a servant in their house, Stephen Black (Ariyon Bakare). Stephen is also being chased around by the Gentleman, and he also hates it.

MV5BOTZkMDViYzQtMGNhNi00N2EyLWI2ZTQtM2FiOWNlNWYyYjEwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjExMjk0ODk@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Enter another magician, Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel), who is more engaging than Mr Norrell but less cautious. He becomes the Army’s magician and serves along Wellington (Ronan Vibert) in the Peninsula and at Waterloo. He has a lovely wife, Arabella (Charlotte Riley). His relationship with Mr Norrell is fraught.

A fringe of servants, hangers-on, and academics fill out the cast. Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) is particularly squirrelly and interesting; Mr Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Mr Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) are charmingly naïve and just trying to help. Plus there’s a vagabond street magician, Vinculus (Paul Kaye), who babbles about somebody called the Raven King early, and confuses you. Things become more and more involved and unpleasant, but it never quite loses the plot.

In general, the production is admirable, although blue filters are becoming an irritating crutch. The casting is careful and concerned more with fidelity to the book than good looks, which is unusual. The plot is simplified but manages not to lose essentials; unfortunately it does lose the charm of the dry, academic tone of the novel (your mileage may vary on how charming you find that, I guess).

If you like fantasy without dragons and gratuitous nudity and are not immediately annoyed by a man in a top hat, give it a shot.

Stray observations:

  • Strange encounters a young lady in Venice, a Miss Flora Greysteel (Lucinda Dryzek). Her face is very familiar but hard to place–she was young Elizabeth Swann in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie nearly a decade and a half ago.
  • They cheap out on Waterloo, and it’s incoherent and disappointing. Relatedly, Ronan Vibert is not good-looking enough to play the Iron Duke. But it’s fun to have Jamie Parker around as the honorable and slightly sardonic Major Grant!
  • Edward Petherbridge plays the mad king George! Haven’t seen him around in ages.

Director: Toby Haynes
Rating: TV-MA, probably, for creep factor rather than sex or violence
Length: 7 one-hour episodes
Score: 4/5

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The collocation of the words “London” and “spy” suggests a stylish thriller with a lot of umbrellas and conversations in St James’s Park. At the very least, some gritty leather jackets and terrorist-thwarting à la “Spooks.” Not, say, a self-pitying club kid and an irritating naïveté.

But that’s what we get. Danny (Ben Whishaw) stumbles out of a club at dawn looking like nine kinds of hell and encounters Alex (Edward Holcroft), who is a posh banker out for a run. Alex is closeted and slightly strange, but nonetheless Danny falls heavily for him, and they are together for some months. Then Alex disappears just when they’re supposed to be going away for the weekend, and when Danny manages to get into his flat, he discovers a secret bondage attic and Alex’s body in a trunk. To put it mildly, this does not jibe with Danny’s impression of Alex’s preferences, and he is therefore convinced that Alex has been murdered, and the sadomasochistic fripperies are part of an elaborate frame-up.

Danny enlists Scottie (Jim Broadbent), an older friend of his, to help him prove that his lover didn’t die in a sex game gone wrong. Things escalate quickly. Danny’s vague impression that Alex is “good with numbers” turns out to be accurate, insofar as Alex works for MI:6, and has been working on a world-changing algorithm of a truly absurd kind. The security services continue to concoct and backstop truly staggering conspiracies. Danny becomes increasingly insufferable, even to people who are trying to help him.

Atmospherically, it works. By which I mean that the blue filter suffusing everything more or less creates a plausible English misery. But the plot has holes like a Connect Four set, and only Jim Broadbent and sometimes Harriet Walter manage to invest their characters with any depth. Charlotte Rampling is mired in clichés of posh repression; both Holcroft and Adrian Lester are clumsy caricatures of men too brilliant to possess emotions. You never believe in Danny and Alex.

I would have forgiven it many of these things if it had managed to be tonally consistent. But its pretentious claims to authenticity take a nosedive into cheese fondue in the final episode, and it’s awful.

Stray observations:

  • A climactic plot moment depends on the supposedly secret algorithm being already implemented by the very security services that seek to destroy it. Okay.
  • Danny wears terrible jeans. I’m not sure anyone wears jeans like those, and I’m certain that adherents of warehouse parties don’t.
  • Scottie does have a very nice umbrella.

Director: Jakob Verbruggen
Rating: a robust TV-MA, I should say
Length: approximately 300 minutes
Score: 2/5

If you want to watch this for Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s great in it, but be warned: to play Christopher Tietjens properly, he abandons almost all of his vanity and makes his face as unattractive as he is able, and attempts to make his body appear hulking and clumsy.

Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy Parade’s End, as is usual with Ford Madox Ford, has an unbelievably acute sense of how humanity operates, and is not hopeful about it. People cheat, and then manage to be worse to each other when they are not cheating. Totally inaccurate gossip ruins lives because of malice and laziness, not necessarily in that order. And despite the monumental efforts of many, the Great War was unfairly, desperately, but also bureaucratically, horrible. Somehow, Tom Stoppard’s screenplay manages to capture almost all of the novels’ uncomfortable perspicacity without stumbling into clumsy exposition. But that is perhaps unsurprising, because Tom Stoppard is a genius.

Christopher Tietjens (Cumberbatch) holds a minor but important position in the Department of Imperial Statistics. He is a large blond man from Yorkshire, scrupulously, even maddeningly exact, and unwisely generous. His wife, Sylvia (Rebecca Hall), is a perfect portrait of the type of woman who can get away with everything from general obnoxiousness up because she is so exceedingly lovely. She runs away with a poor sap called Potty Perowne (Tom Mison, with a fussy mustache). Christopher always thinks ahead and is unfailingly decent to and about her; that, in combination with her beauty, means that everyone thinks that she is a saint. The same people immediately believe that Christopher has any number of mistresses, including a young suffragist called Valentine Wannop (Adelaide Clemens).

He of course does not. He would like to, but he is too much of the Tory, and nothing at all of the hypocrite. Instead, he does his job, lends money to his friend McMaster (Stephen Graham), helps everyone he can, and finally becomes a reluctant but capable officer. He sounds perfect, perhaps, but there is an excessive rigidity about him that is troubling–in Ford’s perfect description, he is the type of Tory who would never lift a finger except to say “I told you so.”

The production is near-perfect. Time passes in the shapes of skirts and hats; Morris wallpapers cede to muddy trenches; a glitzy party in what I believe is Lord Leighton’s house gives way to a sad billet near the Front. One might find the pacing slightly slow, but it is in the service of actual drama rather than the manufactured kind. As with Brideshead Revisited, a feature film of this would be heavy-handed and dreadful.

Cumberbatch gamely wears a uniform two sizes too large and screws up his face so that it is not ludicrous when Miss Wannop tells him he is not so terribly ugly after all. Hall’s glorious halo of hair makes her believable as the spiteful femme fatale who is never so recognized. Graham and Anne-Marie Duff (as his wife), are by turns arrogantly social-climbing and cringingly pusillanimous. Not grateful parts, but well-acted. The rest of the large cast also performs admirably; a few are in parts that, even in the novel, are slightly two-dimensional to throw the three main figures into sharper relief.

It’s terrific.

Stray observations:

  • Every single thing Rebecca Hall wears is beautiful.
  • Rufus Sewell is perfectly cast as the gorgeous but deranged and oversensual Fr. Duchemin.
  • Denis Lawson has a small part!

Director: Susanna White
Rating: equivalent to TV-MA, I’d definitely say
Length: 287 minutes
Score: 5/5

I really liked the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and Hilary Mantel (their author) was one of the writers for the show, so it is perhaps unsurprising that I enjoyed the show a great deal. It is told (as the book also) from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, whose meteoric rise from vomiting on a Putney street to the court of Henry is the backdrop against which all this happens. We manage to follow events with which we are familiar (Katherine of Aragon will be divorced, Anne Boleyn will be be beheaded) with a certain amount of suspense.

So I’ve also seen all of “The Tudors,” which was rollicking good fun, if also absurd and superfluous. As I have said a million times: Henry VIII was a man who married six women AND had a world-changing fight with the Pope. It’s not strictly necessary to add ludicrous extraneous shagging.

And maybe “Wolf Hall” errs in the other direction, a little bit. Everything is dark, things are only intermittently explained (usually using Thomas Brodie Sangster as Cromwell’s slightly backward ward Rafe), and nothing is overstated. Still, that was most of the charm of the novels, so it’s unfair to complain about it in the series.

It is beautifully produced. Costumes are gorgeous and careful, artificial light is limited, meals are archaically choreographed. Mark Rylance (Cromwell) is excellent, though perhaps slightly too calm. Damian Lewis (Henry) seems to revel in an uncharacteristically petulant and unattractive part, and Anton Lesser also seems to enjoy playing Thomas More as a snake. Claire Foy (Anne) is slightly weak–just hateful, with no touch of humanity, even just before her execution.

This series is a capable adaptation of a pair of excellent novels. It’ll be a little slow for some, and the pacing is unpredictable, but this is in aid of mimicking the chaotic, uncertain nature of Cromwell’s real life. He himself is implausibly humane, but it’s important to have a rooting interest, and it doesn’t really bother you. I actually kept rooting for him to get laid, and was very cross at Mary Boleyn (Charity Wakefield, apparently condemned to flighty parts forever) for toying with him.

Director: Peter Kosminsky
Rating: R-ish?  Only for the swearing.
Length: 360 minutes
Score: 4/5

Twitter blurb: Tudor moodiness, but with way less sex and violence than usual. Thomas More is your villain, Henry still isn’t fat. Anne Boleyn? The worst.

This miniseries is based on Alan Furst’s Spies of Warsaw (unsurprisingly), which is a book I have read (surprisingly), and in fact reminded me why I don’t read trashy historical or spy novels. It’s because they’re trashy. The book has no character development whatsoever, the dialogue is laughable, and it suffers from over-sharing the research. Also, the hero, though not exactly handsome (and necessarily 46 or over, having served in the Great War), is just one of those smooth, brilliant, daring chaps at whom women throw themselves and by whom no stratagem gets. He’s like Pug in The Winds of War, if The Winds of War was written by a hack, Pug was French, and I regretted having read it.

Anyway. It’s the late 30s in Warsaw. Jean-François Mercier (David Tennant), a minor nobleman, cavalry colonel and decorated, wounded veteran, widower, and military attaché to the French embassy, finds himself pulled into the fairly sordid world of international espionage. He gets to stick it to the Nazis, though, so it’s less sordid in his case, and I don’t know why he’s complaining. He also, naturally, has realized (as has no one else in Paris or elsewhere) that the Maginot Line is going to turn out to be a not very hilarious joke. He is self-righteous about this. On the way, though, he meets the lovely Anna Skarbek (Janet Montgomery), who is a lawyer for the League of Nations, or something else totally useless but extremely high-minded. She’s living with a Russian drunk. I wonder how that’ll turn out.

Nothing especially unexpected happens. I mean, spoiler alert: this ends in a Nazi invasion. Mr. Tennant gets to swan around in various uniforms, dinner dress, and totally unconvincing Polish peasant garb, foiling minor Nazi plots and being shot at by incompetent buffoons. He acts…like he always does, which is fine, I guess. Perhaps the most charming thing is the number of minor actors you recognize from other things: Linda Bassett as a Soviet diplomat/spy, Anton Lesser as a member of the Abwehr (guy can’t catch a break), Burn Gorman wonderfully uptight as Mercier’s superior at the embassy, Julian Glover gouty and crotchety as his uniformed superior in Paris, Fenella Woolgar as a disaffected aristocrat.

Oh, and Mercier’s best friend, a Polish officer called Antoni Something-or-other (Marcin Dorocinski), who plays the Brendanawicz character. You know, indulgent, caring, full of eye-rolling at your ridiculous antics. I think this may be the most important character in any drama. Mercutio was one, an early and stupendous get-a-grip friend. Antoni is great.

Stray notes:

  • All the changes that the series made from the book are good ones. Book Mercier does a lot of shagging in inappropriate places and is egged on by his daughter to do so. Series Mercier has merely an encouraging sister, and is not tempted by his cousin’s charms. There’s also a group of cartoonish SS officers who make no sense and do not appear in the screen version.
  • I am so tired of heroes who are posh and have to be around posh people but don’t enjoy it because they’re above it and they only go to parties because they have to for either espionage or merely social reasons. As a corollary, it is also irritating when they fall in love with the love interest because the love interest is the only person who understands their obviously tragic plight at formal dinners. Give me a protagonist who likes caviar, for pete’s sake.

Director: Coky Giedroyc et al.
Rating: NA
Length: about three hours?
Score: 3/5.

This is basically Anthony Trollope’s attempt at Little Dorrit, only it’s worse. By this I mean it has to deal with a swindler in the City, wastrel sons, young men who are honest but overseas, and virtuous daughters who are completely out of place in their surroundings. (And that it has neither Dickens’s flair for writing sympathetic characters nor his sense of humor.) In its favor it has what I assume was the vaguely fashionable pro-Jewish streak, like Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (their publication dates differ by a year).

Full disclosure: I find myself completely incapable of reading Trollope. I have tried multiple books on multiple occasions and I just can’t do it. So I cannot comment on fidelity to the original.

Like all other novels in the 1870s, this has multiple stories going on. Most importantly, Mr. Melmotte (David Suchet) is a financier of somewhat shadowy background; he has a marriageable daughter, Marie (Shirley Henderson). She is chased by a penniless and useless young baronet, Sir Felix Carbury (Matthew MacFadyen), whose sister Hetta (Paloma Baeza) is a thoroughly nice girl and has no patience for him, but whose mother (Cheryl Campbell) is at least as unscrupulous as he. Rounding out this little tail-chasing circle are two more men: a middle-aged squire, Roger Carbury (Douglas Hodge), cousin to and in love with Hetta, and Paul Montague (Cillian Murphy), an ambitious engineer whose project is funded by Mr. Melmotte, who is protégé to Roger Carbury…and in love with Hetta, too.

There are political intrigues, sexual intrigues (concerning the oft-jilted Miranda Otto), press intrigues (which get the always-welcome Rob Brydon involved), and prejudice is punished in the form of a rather unlucky and ill-supported young lady. So that’s all to the good.

All in all, it’s capable. It’s more or less clear what is going on at any given time. It’s absurdly nice to see Cillian Murphy in a rôle in which he does not begin or become visibly insane. Fenella Woolgar appears as a clueless, disaffectedly cruel aristocrat, at which she excels. The costumes are good, the houses are gorgeous, and you very much want to kick Sir Felix in the seat of the pants the whole time. And you’re supposed to.

Director: David Yates
Rating: NA
Length: 300 min.
Score: 3/5.

Again, BBC miniseries, and narrated by Tamsin Greig, so, hooray, Tamsin Greig! This one is a documentary, and as documentaries go it’s fine, although it has one glaring problem.

It purports to tell you about how the childhoods and childhood rivalries of the King, the Kaiser, and the Czar were largely responsible for the Great War. That’s how it opens. How it closes, however, is with a shrug. “This would almost certainly have happened anyway,” it seems to say, “and maybe it wouldn’t have if the Kaiser hadn’t been so unloved and so unlovable. But he was, and a bunch of other things were also going on, so Europe definitely blew up.”

If you’re looking to be enlightened, then, don’t bother. If, on the other hand, you are looking for royal home videos or photos of the Romanov children with the Kaiser on holiday and wearing mutinous expressions, you’re in luck.

Notes:

  • An extremely sad observation is made: if Czar Nicholas II had been king of England, he might have been all right. He was an admirable family man and disliked politics, and he looked good in naval uniform. His autocratic tendencies would have been irrelevant. Instead, of course, he was Czar of Russia, and ended up murdered in a basement by drunken Bolsheviks.
  • The Kaiser experimented endlessly with mustache curvature. Not one experiment was successful.

Director: Richard Sanders
Rating: NR?
Length: 122 min.
Score: 2/5. Some nice archival work; not much else.

Yeah, yeah, TV movie, whatever. Also, I didn’t think Going Postal was one of Terry Pratchett’s best, so I’m not going to evaluate the screen version on its fidelity to the original because a) I don’t remember, and b) I don’t care.

So…on the Discworld, which is an amazing universe that you should investigate at the earliest opportunity, there is a city called Ankh-Morpork, which is sort of modelled on Victorian London if there had been magic and wizards instead of TB and Chartists. It’s filthy, it’s bustling, it’s corrupt, it’s fascinating.

In this city, there is a man called Moist von Lipwig (Jeff from “Coupling”), and he is a con man. He is caught, and Lord Vetinari (played by Charles Dance and if you thought Tywin Lannister was devious and arachnid, you are a naïve fool) offers him the chance between death and re-opening the Post Office. Inexplicably he goes for the latter and gets entangled in various plots involving new technology (the clacks, a telegraph analogue), an attractive lady with a cigarette holder (Claire Foy), and golems.

As a movie it is eminently watchable. All of the actors are unexpectedly real (and don’t phone it in), the effects are almost all fine, and the world-building is surprisingly good. There’s a lot of ambient Discworld stuff that’s well executed even though it’s not strictly necessary. As an adaptation I also think it succeeds. It gets the Pratchett spirit to an extent I did not anticipate. The kookiness could easily have veered into irritating territory, but instead it was note-perfect.

Stray observations:

  • The banshee is terrible. Not sure why, since it was the only thing that really fell flat. The vampire was fine; the golems weren’t how I pictured them, but they weren’t bad.
  • Having seen Claire Foy first in eleven hours of Little Dorrit, it’s weird to see her as anything else. At least here she’s not shagging any Nazis.
  • Tamsin Greig! As usual amazing! Go watch “Green Wing” and “Black Books.” Immediately.
  • My biggest problem: Angua is too scary. You’re not supposed to be able to tell she’s a werewolf by looking. That would sort of defeat the purpose.

Director: Jon Jones
Rating: PG, maybe?
Length: 185 min.
Score: 3/5. I enjoyed it but I’m not exactly proud.

Properly, 37 Days is a mini-series, but it was shown as a film at my local cinema, so I will treat it as such. Made by the BBC to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, it shows the behind-the-scenes action in the days between the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife (28 June 1914) and the declaration of war by Britain (4 August 1914).

It is narrated by two civil servants, one British and one German, both of whom feel themselves outsiders in their spheres, the Briton because he is a scholarship boy and the German because he is a liberal. One might expect, because of this putatively disinterested pose, because it purports to show both sides, and because after all it is a full century since hostilities broke out, that this series would be largely even-handed.

It is not. The Kaiser is deformed, mustachioed, and deranged, an overgrown boy with tin soldiers and mad eyes. His chief of staff is fat, loud, and war-mongering. His chancellor, though not a cartoon, has no qualms about picking on Serbia, and only those of prudence about picking on France. Everyone in government already talks with the pride of the Teutonic race. The Austrians are effete, degenerate, and ridiculous; the poor old emperor practically has cobwebs growing on his muttonchops. I suppose the allies do not fare too much better: the Czar is but briefly seen, being unkind to his unfortunate small son; the French ambassador is actually described as much too Gallic, and lives up to this accusation; the Belgian king, unfairly, looks merely old. The Dominions are not consulted.

All the war-mongering in Britain is of course pushed on to Winston Churchill’s already sloping shoulders. The Cabinet otherwise is absolved of any guilt. Asquith, the Prime Minister, is weary, Sir Edward Grey is well-meaning but both misled (by the unscrupulous Kaiser and his minions) and overwhelmed, Lloyd-George is principled, and various others resign in protest.

To its credit, this series does portray what must have been a critical period as both progressing logically and spinning out of all control, as old men in frock coats struggle to maintain their grasp on their own careers and their world-views. Both sides of the argument for war are articulated well in Cabinet. Lord Morley (played ably if perhaps a bit Scottishly by Bill Paterson) gives his reasons for reluctance, the human cost to the nation chief among them. Sir Edward Grey (in an unusually sympathetic rôle for Ian McDiarmid) replies with a cogent repudiation of isolation and pacifism: no British deaths, perhaps, but is that not cowardice in the face of such a conflagration; moreover, how can Britain deal with Europe after the conflict?

Otherwise, it is an attractive, though characteristically BBC, production. The costumes are fine but unremarkable (except the Austrian ambassador’s absurd neck-something–I hesitate to give it any of the names I know for such garments); the backgrounds are real and carefully shot, to show only sky and the Brandenburg Gate, for instance. Pensive yet suspenseful violins are the order of the day. Every elderly British actor is shoved into a dark coat, every unknown young one is pushed into shirtsleeves and stuck behind stacks of paper. Sinéad Cusack does nobly as Mrs. Asquith, a knowing and perfectly-dressed figure. The Germans are less familiar but you will recognize their faces from various other thankless parts in American and British films about the twentieth century.

Stray observations:

  • “Britain is not protected by the Channel; she is protected by the Navy.”
  • The cricket match in the park, during which Sir Edward has a serious conversation with the staggeringly urbane German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky, was just beautiful. Certainly it was shot to show what was at stake, the soon-to-be-exploded peace, but it was also simply gorgeous.
  • There is much, slightly heavy-handed, dramatic and other irony. The Germans mock the French for retreating 10 kilometers from the border so as not to provoke conflict: just getting in their practice, a joke we have all told a hundred times. There is a crack made that perhaps the Belgians would fire one shot and then line the roads as the Germans marched through. They did not.

Director: Justin Hardy
Rating: NR
Length: something not too far under three hours
Score: 3/5. Competent but not exceptional.