06 January 2017

Ho-hum Period Pieces

Ho-Hum Period Pieces
by Kristin Battestella

This trio of early, middle, and late 19th century literary sourced serials are tedious split decisions at best and sleep inducing examples of the genre at worse. Ho-hum, ho-hum.

Death Comes to Pemberley – I admit I am not a Jane Austen fan, but I was willing to give this 2013 three episode murder mystery based on the P.D. James sequel to Pride and Prejudice a go. While slow to start with twenty minutes that could have been dropped, the ethereal forest, idyllic greens, bustling manor, and Regency carriages turn to screams, ghost talk, gunshots, and hysterical guests crying murder on the night before a ball. Thunder, foggy roads, and torches add to local legends, spooky flashbacks, and a mysterious, hissing woman in red. Candlelight schemes provide atmosphere, however some scenes are too dark, contributing to the struggling conversations. Dry recountings of the past and numerous unnecessary people discussing which families don't approve of each other waste far too much time when there are wounded men, dead friends, and killer suspicions afoot. On with the murder mystery! Fluttering ladies with smelling salts and trying to be humorous wives just become obnoxious, further stalling the sputtering, so-called ominous ambience. Bludgeons to the head and pieces to the puzzle get lost in the dowdy protocol, and it's increasingly apparent that this going nowhere mystery is really just a drama about how a local murder and somebody else's pregnancy scandal causes a rift between The Darcys. Granted, I wonder if my lack of Austen love is clouding my viewing judgments, but is this supposedly sordid trial really saying this murder was set in motion by somebody not getting invited to the ball? Though the familiar cast is in proper period piece form as any quality British thespian would be, the devoid script leaves them going through the motions as clich├ęd saintly women or jerky husbands – and my word, why is everybody's hair such a mess? Courtship choices repeating Pride and Prejudice drag on at the expense of current actions, and the tale might have been better on its own if it weren't a thin Jane Austen wannabe gone eerie over relying on famed connections. Not only did this one all but put me to sleep, but it never delivers on the promised what happens next or its mystery thriller tag line.

Doctor Thorne – Billed as a 2016 Amazon Original, Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes presents these four episodes based upon the novel by Anthony Trollope starring Tom Hollander (The Night Manager) as the calling it like it is doctor caring for his shunned niece and Ian McShane (Deadwood) as the drunkard lording over everyone's debts and loans. The series opens with a bleak 1836 fatality before the colorful greenery of 1850s Britain complete with snotty picnics debating for love or money marital choices. Pretty costumes, grand manors, and garden estates add atmosphere alongside cobblestones and period medical instruments while overhead shots build austere scale for the comings and goings up grand staircases. By contrast, Thorne's home is darker with low ceilings and fireside sit down conversations – cinematography mirroring the high and low attitude and privileged protocols blocking Mary Thorne and her shady parentage from marrying above her rank. Stuck up Rebecca Front (The Thick of It) arranges a wealthy American union for her son instead, but even those betrothed to the uppity appreciate love as more important than wealth. Frumpy but narcissistic parents complain about repugnant duties in marrying money, women's meddling rules the roost because they can't stop men from squandering their inheritance, and sacrificing loved ones to bitterness just to keep up a lavish legacy is the norm. Everyone above takes from below, those below still snob it to those beneath them, and such greedy people aren't very likable! Beyond the elder cast's confrontations, the ensemble is basic – four, forty plus minute parts is too little time to stray into village folk or town square speeches yet overlong when a two hour romance movie would do. Too many who is who, superfluous sisters, portly suitors, and other relations crowd the in media res plot – viewers are told of long lost love but we don't see it. Wills, injuries, and revelations move fast, but the apparent passage of time makes the disapproved lovers spend more time apart while others much ado about nothing over them. This slightly pompous, gloves on approach is ironically too Victorian in its closed off comeuppances, leaving the not so unexpected twists and potential drama undelivered for any audience who has already read or seen better. Eight episodes with the no nonsense Thorne anchoring more tales from the Barsetshire Chronicles books series would have been more interesting, and Fellowes also appears before and after each episode, taking precious minutes away from the story for a windblown, talking down to for American viewers that almost proves the case for Trollope being Dickens lite rather than showing his contemporaneous best. This fussy women trying to marry a bachelor to the highest bidder reverse on the usual lady's coming out party should appeal to Downton audiences as well as fans of Hollander and Trollope and budding period piece teens may find this wet behind the ears lark an easy way to spend an afternoon.

The Paradise – Whimsical Victoriana credits set a gilded mood for this 2012-13 British/Masterpiece co-production inspired by Emile Zola. The titular 1875 department store anchors sixteen hour long episodes across two seasons with a city versus country, small shops versus big business rivalry, and uppity aristocrats can't get used to this all inclusive, off the rack shopping model. Despite decorum, sales formalities, and billing troubles, sassy northern accents and green manor houses add a pleasant, lighthearted glow. And The Paradise has room and board for its employees, too! Retail backstabbing and suave, self-made salesmanship behind the scenes are more interesting than uneven secrets, upper class meddling, and contrived spoiled rich girl, stage five clinger marriage proposals. Though the ownership ambition is earnest, one day shopping sales speeches are too preachy, and shop girl crushes on their widower boss are too awkward. Why are they all so smitten by his fatherly entrepreneur wisdom and unromantic raspy voice? While customer contests, a baby found in the store, ill employees, and surprise parties are somewhat trite, episodic themes peppered with conflicts, thefts, using and abusing, or humble integrity do well alongside talk of Paris fashions and Paradise puns or slogans. Women choosing to work rather than marry – gasp! Unfortunately, the local shopkeepers versus The Paradise plots are downplayed in favor of weaker romantic fluff, leaving pieces of episodes good and other scenes too tame while the focus meanders between a wholesome family series or shoehorned melodrama. New players in Series Two are not as likable, the most interesting characters are not the series leads, and episodic focus on other characters or mysterious deaths at the store go nowhere. Late traitors, closing threats, and conspiracies are compromised by the underwhelming sappy and tiresome, not so stolen glances, and nonsensical turns can't be disguised by the odd costumes and camera trickery hiding a pregnant actress. Rather than embracing the potential for promotion rivalries, French flair, and women unaccepted as business equals, nothing major happens and the same old love flutter remains, well, boring. This was very tough to continue, as it turns out there just isn't enough intrigue at a Victorian department store. Who knew?

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