Smallville: Series review

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A word, first, about potential bias in this review.  There are some TV shows you only discover, or which indeed are only created, once you’re well into adulthood.  Then there are some that have the good fortune to air during a viewer’s formative years, establishing themselves permanently in the memory as nostalgia.  The exquisite ‘Batman: The Animated Series’ did this during my childhood.  Anime titans ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Digimon’ during my early teens.  ‘Smallville’ landed (pardon the pun) during my mid-late teens, quite possibly the perfect viewing age for its often soapy romantic drama, and this, coming alongside my developing obsession with DC Comics, and Superman and Batman in particular, at that age, enabled the show to take on a sort of mythological status in my mind- a privilege it retains to this day.  So with that in mind, this review is more likely to be coloured by positive bias than many of the other pieces I’ve written, or will write in future.  On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I think the show is perfect- far from it, and I hope that will come across in the review.

Kansas teenager Clark Kent has grown up on his family’s farm while hiding an array of extraordinary abilities from the world.  Learning from his adopted parents, the Kents, that he was found by them in a field close to a crashed spaceship in the aftermath of a deadly meteor shower, Clark deals with the startling realisation that he is from another planet while attempting to grapple with the complications of high school.  His longtime crush, Lana Lang, is dating school jock and bully Whitney Fordman, while wearing a necklace formed from a piece of the green meteor rock that accompanied the shower, a substance deadly to Clark.  Although taking solace from best friends Pete Ross and Chloe Sullivan, Clark is unnerved by budding reporter Chloe’s investigations into the strange happenings around Smallville, primarily the meteor rock’s ability to infect local people and give them powers, almost always coupled with a descent into evil, obsessive behaviour.  Naturally, he worries what would occur if she ever got too close to his own secret.  Meanwhile, billionaire’s son Lex Luthor sets up home in Smallville, essentially banished there by his father in order to grow as his own man, and after being saved by Clark when his car plunges off a bridge after hitting him, the two become firm friends.  Their closeness, however, is gradually threatened by Lex’s secret determination to solve the mystery of how Clark managed to rescue him without being hurt.

The brainchild of Tollin/Robbins productions and executive producers Al Gough and Miles Millar, ‘Smallville’ was originally intended to be a series about a young Bruce Wayne, until Warner Bros decided to focus on developing an origin story for the big screen instead that would eventually see life as 2005’s ‘Batman Begins’ (although a Batman origin series has subsequently made its way to television in the shape of Fox’s ‘Gotham’).  Shades of this can be seen in the series’ premise.  The doomed Clark/Lex friendship could easily have been Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent.  Keen reporter Chloe could be a young Vicki Vale.  The ultimately tragic Clark/Lana romance could have been Bruce and Selina Kyle.  In any event, the show quickly establishes its own identity as an origin fable of the boy who will become Superman, and the opening scenes of meteors striking a midwestern small town promise much about the overall tone of the series.

The show’s embracing of the Superman mythology is both its greatest strength and weakness.  In the early seasons, there’s a delight in seeing the then-rare arrival of key staples of the comics into this generally high-school-set romantic drama, from the activation of Clark’s spaceship and his gradual developing of brand new powers, to the discovery of his Kryptonian origins courtesy of both the ethereal presence (technically an AI system, but coming across more as a spiritual entity) of his biological father Jor-El and (in one of the show’s best episodes, ‘Rosetta’), the imparting of information from brilliant scientist Virgil Swann, played by the late Christopher Reeve.  The closing scenes of ‘Rosetta’, set to the strains of John Williams’ ‘Superman’ theme, lend a sense of the epic to a series that has previously followed a fairly formulaic ‘villain of the week’ pattern in the shape of the local ‘meteor freaks’.  And make no mistake: it is the ‘Superman: The Movie’ mythology that ‘Smallville’ specifically follows, from the occasional use of the music, to design elements, to plot points- in many ways, the series is an expanded retelling of that original movie in its structure.  Across the first few seasons, this gradual integration of the mythos into the show raises the hairs in excitement.

Alas, this later becomes too much of a good thing.  By season 6, and certainly by season 8/9, the show begins to feel less like an origin story, and more like an actual Superman show- which would be fine, if it wasn’t trying to be both things simultaneously.  The tone suffers, and begins, at times, to feel all over the place.  Some episodes hark back to that early midwestern innocence.  Others feel like a remake of ‘Lois and Clark’- again, no bad thing, if that were what the show was purposefully going for.  The setting of many of the later episodes primarily in Metropolis contradicts, if nothing else, the very title of the show, and the reliance of many later episodes on SFX and limited sets over the gorgeous locations and exteriors of the Kent farm creates a certain ‘stilted’ quality.

The introduction of various characters from the mythology, meanwhile, becomes the very definition of hit and miss as the series goes on.  There are many triumphs.  The ‘Smallville’ version of Lois Lane, introduced in season 4, is one of the best incarnations of the character ever put to screen.  Early appearances from other DC heroes are well-handled; and great fun; The Flash, Aquaman.  The villains are, on the whole, excellently done; James Marsters’ Brainiac, Callum Blue’s Zod, Sam Witwer’s (though very different from the comics character) Doomsday.  But other nods to the source material backfire.  Justin Hartley’s Green Arrow, though a good character in and of himself, is not the Oliver Queen of the comics, clearly designed, instead, to be the show’s version of Bruce Wayne, except that the producers presumably couldn’t get the rights to him.  The arrival of some DC characters begins to feel like overkill by the last few seasons (anyone who can tell me what business Booster Gold, Blue Beetle, or the Suicide Squad have being in a Superman series, please do write).  And the less said about season 4’s ‘Mikhail Mxyzptlk’, the better.  The series’ interpretation of Jor-El, meanwhile, voiced by Terence Stamp, has to be one of the most continually maddening features of the series.  Written inconsistently and designed more as a plot device than a character, he ranges from stern, oppressive and borderline evil in the early seasons, to seemingly proud and loving by the finale, flip-flopping between the two multiple times in the interim.  Marlon Brando’s take on the character, this is not.

Back to the positives, however, and ‘Smallville’ is blessed with a fantastic cast.  Leading man Tom Welling remains my favourite interpretation of Superman to date, extraordinarily handsome (which lends credibility to virtually every young female character in the show falling over themselves for him), the right physique (to put it mildly) for the character, and with a ‘purity’ to his portrayal, simultaneously innocent and wise, that makes us believe he will grow into a superhero who is an inspiration for millions.  Not that he can’t play darker, of course.  One of the best aspects of such a sci-fi show is that it allows all of the cast the opportunity to play different characters across the series, and Welling really gets to show his stuff when these storylines come into play.  Whether an amoral Clark hooked on red Kryptonite, evil doppelgangers Bizarro and Ultraman, or, best of all, Clark’s bodyswitch with Lionel Luthor (his best performance in the entire series), Welling does evil so well you sometimes wish these were the primary characters he was playing.  He’s at his best in the first half of the series, peaking in season 5, but remains a strong, steadfast presence right to the end, and the moral core of the show.

Kristin Kreuk’s Lana is…complicated.  The actress herself (especially in the later seasons) is terrific, going from wide-eyed innocent to proxy Luthor by season 6, and looking and sounding almost like a completely different character by then.  We’re enchanted by her star-crossed romance with Clark early on, her parents having been killed by the very phenomenon that brought him to Earth, yet the arguable source of that pain becoming the love of her life, while her borderline descent into villainy later allows her to spar brilliantly with the likes of Lionel and Lex.  But the character, as written, dangerously undermines this.  Passive-aggressive to the point of infuriating by season 3, Lana becomes so self-righteous and hypocritical over Clark’s keeping of secrets from her as to be anathema to many scenes, with our hero only getting to stand up to her a small handful of times across the whole series.  At least in seasons 5-7, when the character is flirting with outright evil, this feels appropriate.  When we are later expected to buy her as the hometown first love again, it’s problematic, to say the least.

Michael Rosenbaum’s Lex is one of the show’s triumphs.  Empathetic (indeed almost to the point of making us root more for him than Clark), he lends a tragic pathos to the story as circumstance after circumstance grinds him down deeper towards villainy, despite his longing for genuine friendship and acceptance.  Rosenbaum brings a quiet honour to many of his early appearances, in some respects the most noble character in the show next to Clark and the Kents, before later allowing himself to be genuinely menacing as the Luthor of the comics comes to the fore.  His final regular involvement in the show, season 7, suffers from a sense of things being rushed to manoeuvre the character into position as the arch-foe of the mythology, but the journey towards that point remains compelling, even if the denouement is hurried.

Allison Mack’s Chloe is the breakout hit of the series.  Originally seeming destined for a tragic fate, given her absence from the comics, she takes on a whole new lease of life after discovering Clark’s powers in season 4, becoming his ‘superhero BFF’ in one of the best, most genuine character evolutions in the series.  We trust her implicitly as a custodian of Clark’s secret, as she settles into one of the warmest presences in the show, all the more remarkable for her flirtation with betrayal in the early seasons over her jealousy of the Clark/Lana romance, and Lionel’s manipulation of this angst.  She’s the antithesis to Lana’s defensive, confrontational attitude as the series goes on, and a particular highlight for this reviewer is her calm, subtle, faux-polite warning to her to stop dragging Clark down in Season 7’s ‘Wrath’.

Erica Durance’s Lois Lane is the best thing about the later seasons, when the show is threatening to drift completely away from its roots.  Her early rivalry with Clark is enjoyable enough, the mutual (surface-level) dislike between them all the more rewarding once it gives way to romance, but it’s once the pair are established in Metropolis at the Daily Planet that the character really comes into her own as one of the show’s best assets.  Consistent, moral, determined, strong yet with believable hints of vulnerability, and just downright fun, she’s everything Clark’s relationship with Lana isn’t.  Healthy, organic, mutually-respectful and loving, and relatively angst-free.  Welling and Kreuk may have the more intense romantic chemistry, but Welling and Durance have the warmer one.  Both wholly believable in different ways, but with the latter free of the angst that poisons the former, and when Clark declares to Lois in season 9’s ‘Salvation’ that she was the person he always needed in his life, it’s a line that feels well and truly earned.

Sam Jones III’s Pete Ross is perhaps the mythology character poorest-served by the series.  Not because of the actor, who brings a likeability and, for want of a better word in a show about superheroes, ‘normality’ to the show, but because of the writing, and the general arc.  Early on, Pete’s discovery of the secret at the start of season 3 provides one of the most novel changes to the series status quo, coming not in a premiere or finale, but tucked a few episodes in, therefore coming as more of a genuine surprise to the audience (although the relative ease with which Clark comes clean to him makes one wonder why he agonises for so long over being honest with other characters).  It brings a refreshing new dynamic to things, the prototype, in a sense, to how Chloe’s discovery alters the show later on.  It’s a shame Jones leaves after season 3, not because of the timing of the departure (it feels like the right time to shake up the cast a little), but because his only return, in season 7’s ‘Hero’, sees him become more of an antagonist.  This works fine for Jonathan Kent in season 10, given that we see plenty of the ‘real’ Jonathan both before and after, but here, for Pete, it leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth- one of the key moments the show falls short for this reviewer.

It would be no controversy to call John Glover the best actor on the show.  His Lionel Luthor is the most compelling character in the series, stealing virtually every scene he’s in, and bringing out the best in all the other actors.  It’s no coincidence that Welling and Kreuk shine brightest in their interactions with him (witness Clark’s spine-tingling confrontation with Lionel in season 5’s ‘Mercy’, a scene that arguably sees Welling at his most dangerous, despite playing Clark’s regular self), while the interplay between Glover and Rosenbaum is probably the best villainous double act in television, the power-play between the two characters genuinely gripping.  In one of the series’ best elements, Lionel shifts gears completely in season 4, evolving into a wholly different character, to the point where one of the key moments of Lex’s evolution that the audience longs for after his father’s cruelty in the early seasons becomes a tragic moment by the time it finally occurs in season 7- no mean feat.

Laura Vandervoort’s Kara, like Pete Ross, is another character whose development suffers due to her general arc.  A laudable shakeup to the cast when introduced in season 7, she unfortunately never quite gets the chance to come into her own in a season packed with so many other storylines that favour the existing, longterm characters.  Ideally, her introduction to the story, and Lex’s pursuit of her secret, a novel echo of his obsession with Clark in season one, would have been the predominant arc of that season, but instead it becomes lost among the others.  Vandervoort herself, however, comes perhaps second only to Welling in her portrayal of a noble, moral, still somewhat innocent heroine, fitting given the characters’ blood tie (although, like Welling, when given the opportunity to play dark, namely channelling James Marsters’ Brainiac when the latter impersonates her in the season finale, she seizes it with relish).

John Schenider and Annette O’Toole, meanwhile, are the beating heart of the show, a believable guiding light for Clark, and the sort of parents the audience would feel blessed to have in real life (with some occasional exceptions- Martha’s chastisement of Clark in season 4’s ‘Unsafe’ for getting married while under the influence of red Kryptonite is a misstep).  They’re the most grounded characters in a show teeming with the paranormal, and lend a sense of authenticity to its world.  We feel these extraordinary things are happening in a very real place when Jonathan and Martha are on screen, and the two are sorely missed in the series’ later seasons (although their return is one of the very best things about the finale).

Lastly, Cassidy Freeman as Tess Mercer.  Brought in only in season 8, she could so easily have been Lex-lite, a cipher designed solely to take his place as the show’s villain.  But thankfully, the writers take a less predictable route, and, especially in Freeman’s hands, she becomes one of the most poignant, nuanced characters of the whole series, genuinely longing to escape a dark destiny and step into the light of Clark, Lois, Chloe et al.  If this reviewer has one major criticism of the finale, it’s that Tess’s only final interactions in that story are with villains, wholly removed from the joy of the wedding being attended by the other characters, before meeting her final fate.  It feels unfair (though her final scene with Lex is certainly powerful, however dark).

Elsewhere, among a vast array of guest stars, some notable performances stand out.  Sarah Carter’s Alicia gives the show one of its most poignant arcs, that of a troubled woman trying to reintegrate into society after a crime and convince those around her she’s changed for the better.  Jane Seymour’s Genevieve Teague is one of the series’ more enjoyable guest villains, sparking nicely off the Luthors, bettered only by the obscenely good James Marsters as Milton Fine/Brainiac, a cunning and manipulative character if ever there was one.  Callum Blue’s Zod is not the one-dimensional stereotype the character has traditionally been in popular culture, managing to engage us for an entire season when it would have been so easy to write the character as one-note (watch his instant regret after murdering Faora in season 9’s ‘Sacrifice’- breathtaking).  Meanwhile, Alisen Down as Lex’s mother Lillian, appearing to him primarily in dreams, is superbly, creepily ambiguous as to whether she’s trying to pull him back from a dark path, or subtly push him towards it.

The overall story structure of the series, minus a few missteps, is highly enjoyable.  Season 1’s slice of midwestern Americana is a beautiful fable of a seemingly ordinary boy discovering he’s someone extraordinary.  Season 2 introduces the Superman mythology as it would be seen through Clark’s eyes- familiar to us, yet strange, alien and scary from his perspective.  Season 3 descends into darkness, shattering the innocence of Clark and Lana’s early romance and showing us Lionel at his most evil.  Season 4 brings a fantasy feel to the show, with mysterious stones and evil witches, something some viewers who prefer Superman to be more sci-fi took issue with, but something this reviewer felt wonderfully complemented and deepened the existing mythology.  Season 5 takes the characters to college and the city, breathing new life into the series in a way no other season quite matches- it’s early episodes are among the most exciting and unpredictable in tone.  Season 6 establishes the characters as part of a wider DC mythology.  Season 7 sees, in a sense, the end of the show as originally envisaged, with Kreuk and Rosenbaum’s departure as regular characters.  Season 8 finally leaves behind the last vestiges of the early show (Lana) and starts manoeuvring the pieces into place to match the comics. Season 9 takes an unexpected last turn into darker territory, before Season 10 proves to be a season-long final celebration of the series’ 10 years, bringing back practically every significant character across the episodes as Clark finally approaches his destiny.

An extra mention, meanwhile, must go to the series’ soundtrack.  Aside from its excellent use of songs, often for end-of-episode reflections or montages, Mark Snow and Louis Febre provide a gorgeous score across the show’s ten seasons, Snow’s more gentle and introspective across the early seasons, Febre’s more bombastic and heroic as Clark heads towards finally putting on the suit.

Many have criticised ‘Smallville’ for lasting well after its time, the idea of a character taking ten years to come of age not ringing true.  To an extent, I can agree with them.  The show does begin to feel padded out by the later seasons, and suffers several times from a sense of not knowing quite where to go.  On the other hand, in today’s world more than ever, it doesn’t feel inherently unrealistic to suggest that it can take a decade for a person to find their feet as an adult, and in this respect, this reviewer as much as anyone can relate to Clark Kent’s journey.  Even if it feels overdue by the time it arrives, his moment of destiny is still a rewarding, uplifting moment that goes out of its way to thank longterm fans of the character (the last few moments of the finale play like the opening of a Superman movie, complete with background score).  Much like Clark’s journey within the story, there are moments of the show’s ten years where the viewer undoubtedly wonders, ‘is this worth it?  Are things ever going to get to where I want them to be?’  But they do.  In the end, they do.  And that, flawed and meandering though the journey may have been, resonates with me.

****

‘Smallville’ is not a masterpiece.  No objective critic could argue it is.  But it is made up of many moments that are, and that, for this reviewer, lends a sheen to the overall show that makes it feel like one.  It contributed hugely to my love of comics, and for that reason as much as anything else, will always be a show I look back on with love.

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

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The Living and the Dead review

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Much has been made recently of how far the BBC is, or should try to be ‘distinctive’ in this current era of endless commercial channels and online platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.  Along with Anthony Horowitz’s current cop show ‘New Blood’, ‘The Living and the Dead’ represents a new and interesting experiment by the corporation to try the Netflix model for itself, releasing content as a complete boxset weeks prior to it airing in the traditional weekly format on TV, to allow for so-called ‘binge viewing’.  As far as this reviewer is concerned, they couldn’t have chosen a better series for the project.  Because ‘The Living and the Dead’ is pure class from start to finish, wholly deserving of being devoured all at once (or in this reviewer’s case, 2 episodes a night over 3 days).

In the late 1800s, psychologist Nathan Appleby is drawn home to the family farm after the death of his mother.  Together with his devoted wife Charlotte, he sets about making the farm a truly successful enterprise, planning to have a railway built over the land to enable the village’s access to greater markets.  But there is something at work in the local area, something dark and unknowable, and soon Nathan, already haunted by the drowning of his young son Gabriel, finds himself confronted by eerie visions and apparitions, most troublingly of all a mysterious woman carrying a ‘book of light’.

‘The Living and the Dead’ is a fine English ghost story, evoking the best classic horror fiction, and having been marketed very much as one in all of the trailers and promotional material beforehand.  But coming from the mind of ‘Life on Mars’ co-creator Ashley Pharoah, who also pens the first two episodes, the series pleasingly subverts expectations beyond this already-compelling premise, and a fantastic twist at the conclusion of episode 1 sets the story off in a whole other direction, allowing the modern audience to be simultaneously more aware than, and yet just as confused as the 1890s characters.  The series is beautifully constructed, falling neatly into neither an episodic or serial category.  Although carrying a definite ‘story of the week’ component, events, even from these standalone stories, carry through into subsequent episodes, with the guest protagonists of episode 1 in particular happily remaining significant through the rest of the series, the village and local residents far too connected for a ‘Midsomer Murders’-style disappearance once their stories are concluded.  All of the guest tales are engaging fables in their own right, while also tying together and forming part of a greater whole as the underlying mystery of the series unfolds over six hours.

The writing team complement each other excellently, Pharoah launching the series with an opener that manages to capture the perfect balance between action and contemplation, setting the show up as a thinking man’s ghost story.  But it’s eclipsed by his magnificent episode 2, which proves to be arguably the most emotional of the series, and, in this reviewer’s opinion, boasts the best of the standalone stories.  Its denouement in particular is both brave and heart-wrenching.

Simon Tyrrell picks up the baton admirably with episode 3, another well-constructed standalone, but it’s his work on the finale that truly stands out, a low-key, sparse hour of television, especially coming hot on the heels of the dynamic episode 5, but one that works a treat in its noticeable change of pace, bringing to mind the similarly low-key finale of the BBC’s ‘Merlin’ in its concentration on the central characters and their relationship, to the exclusion of almost all else.

Robert Murphy’s episode 4 is perhaps the nearest the series has to a weak link, though in a series this high-quality, that’s hardly damning.  If the pace and structure sometimes feels a little off or repetitive here, it’s more than made up for by the premise, which culminates in possibly the best (and again, brave) standalone denouement of the 6 episodes.  Peter McKenna, meanwhile, contributes something truly raw and exciting in episode 5, in many ways the most blood-curdling of the six, and one which provides some of the very best individual moments of the series.

The direction, too, is top-class, Alice Troughton crafting a rich, philosophical, believable world with the first three episodes, full of beautiful, atmospheric shots of the village and farmland, and genuinely spine-tingling moments with the various apparitions that haunt Nathan (episode 2 especially raises some definite goosebumps).  The directorial switchover to Sam Donovan from episode 4 onwards, however, is noticeable.  This is both a good and bad thing.  On one hand, it injects a fresh energy and momentum into the series as it builds towards its climax, paying off most spectacularly in the brilliant episode 5.  On the other hand, there’s a subtle but definite sense of continuity loss for this reviewer, as the world of the village, the farm, even the house, feels visually just that bit different from what was previously established.  For many viewers, it’s doubtful this would prove a problem.  For me, though, bothered as I was by the sense of a lost visual continuity in, for example, the ‘Harry Potter’ films, it grated a little.  But only a little.

What a cast.  Again, the word ‘class’ immediately springs to mind, as the actors here have to be among the finest working in British television, rivalling even the terrific ensemble put together for the BBC’s ‘Dickensian’.  This reviewer cannot praise highly enough fellow Northern Irishman Colin Morgan.  Long overdue a leading role following the conclusion of ‘Merlin’, he is extraordinary here, by turns a loving husband and benevolent employer, while barely restraining deep-rooted grief for his dead son, and grappling with a genuine struggle over what to believe about the phenomena haunting his village.  There is an edge to Morgan’s performance here, something this reviewer hasn’t quite seen in any of his previous roles, and by episode 6, this culminates in a superb character study of a man driven to the very brink.  Morgan has expressed in promotional interviews his pleasure at getting to take the character almost to the point of villainy by the end, and his relish is clear to see throughout the final episode.  His confrontation with Charlotte in the kitchen towards the end, as she contemplates joining him forever in his desolation, is the Armagh-born actor at his very best.

Charlotte Spencer, as loyal wife Charlotte, is a true discovery.  Managing to portray both an utterly devoted spouse and an independent spirit, she imbues the part with sheer charm, making her namesake a thoroughly engaging personality full of fun and a zest for life, while also keeping a practical head and knowing what needs to be done for the farm and her relationship’s health and survival.  Right from the opening moments of episode 1 post-credits, we are given a snapshot of a vibrant, devoted, fully-in-love couple, ensuring the viewer roots for them and their happiness as the series unfolds, and making her devastation in the finale as Nathan drifts into madness keenly felt by the audience.  One gets the sense throughout that Spencer hugely enjoyed the part, and this reviewer hopes to see her on screen again sooner rather than later.

Morgan and Spencer are leant wonderful support by a rich array of minor characters and guest stars.  Kerrie Hayes is a warm, likeable, often witty presence as housemaid Gwen, afforded some punch-the-air moments in her support of her employees, particularly in episode 4 (and, very refreshingly, the character gets to be a sexual being without any sense of judgment or punishment all too common in period drama).  Nicholas Woodeson as Denning is the local priest we would all like to have, the moral centre of the show, while also exhibiting compassion and understanding, and, in the end, an open mind to the phenomena plaguing the village.  Next to Morgan’s Nathan, he’s the second most compelling study of a character changed and altered by extraordinary events occurring around him, and Woodeson’s primal scream at the sight of one particular horror in episode 5 may very well be the best, rawest moment of the entire series.  Tallulah Haddon, as Denning’s daughter Harriet, gets to show the best of her talent as the victim of possession in episode 1, creating a sinister, gravelly-voiced villain not unlike Linda Blair in The Exorcist- no bad comparison.  David Oakes, meanwhile, as local landowner William Payne, pours on the charm as Charlotte’s admirer, portraying a convincing rival love interest as Nathan slips into insanity- though not without fascinating glimpses of a less honourable side in the finale.

Robert Emms, as Peter, brilliant earlier in the year in series 2 of ‘Happy Valley’, creates another engrossing portrait of a loner driven into darkness in episode 3, while the excellent Elizabeth Berrington (so chilling in her recent stint in ‘Doctors’), gets to shine as his mother Maud in both that story, and the terrifying episode 5 (even if, in a significant grievance for this reviewer that feels like a continuity error, Peter remains frustratingly absent in the wake of her final, startling fate).  Elsewhere, Malcolm Storry is another fine presence as farmhand Gideon, initially distrusting of Charlotte’s managerial position over the farm, but building up a touching, subtle respect for her as the series progresses.

To say too much about Chloe Pirrie’s character would be to spoil a major component of the series, but suffice to say Pirrie does fantastic work in episode 6 as a woman haunted by demons of her own, and driven to find a way to escape them, while Fiona O’Shaughnessy, as episode 4’s Martha, gives a quietly fascinating performance as a repressed schoolteacher, her final speech during the episode’s denouement making sense of what seemed like a somewhat off-kilter portrayal previously, and moving the audience as her particular burden becomes clear.

Rounding out the cast are some excellent younger actors too, not least Isaac Andrews as episode 2’s Charlie, and Arthur Bateman as Gabriel, responsible for some heart-in-mouth moments in the finale as he menaces Pirrie’s Lara and her young child.

‘The Living and the Dead’ would have worked as a one-off series, unfolding with all the beauty and patience of a classic ghost novel, particularly when viewed in short succession as its release on iPlayer allowed, but the final scene of episode 6 all but guarantees it will return, provided the BBC don’t make an unforgiveable decision to cancel it.  Morgan is the beating heart of the show, a worthy, fantastically-crafted drama for him to finally become a leading man in again, but the talents of Spencer, Troughton, Donovan and Pharoah, along with the supporting cast, would also be greatly missed by this reviewer if it doesn’t return.  It simply has to.  In the vein of all the best ghost stories, it’s a show that stays with you.

More please.

 

*****

 

Atmospheric and scary, but with a huge heart, ‘The Living and the Dead’ displays the best of its leading man’s talent, while nurturing a rich supporting cast, and fantastic writing and directing talent.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Dickensian review

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‘Dickensian’ deserved a lot more than one series.

Admittedly, this reviewer wasn’t entirely convinced by the concept of the show prior to airing.  Although certainly an intriguing premise, the idea of putting together the characters of Dickens’ myriad novels into one singular setting had, it seemed to me, the potential to be very, very silly.  Possibly even cartoonish.  Happily, this vision was executed so brilliantly that the Red Planet Pictures series became one of the most absorbing and engaging TV drams of recent times, a programme that, above anything else, was sheer fun.

‘Dickensian’ is essentially a Victorian ‘EastEnders’.  Not surprising, given it was the brainchild of former scriptwriter for that show Tony Jordan, who also wrote the majority of episodes.  With the characters almost all concentrated on the same wintry street, complete with Queen Vic stand-in The Three Cripples on the corner, and with cliffhanger endings and a meticulously plotted whodunit driving the overarching story, it’s unashamedly soap by way of Charles Dickens.  And it works wonderfully.

Brought in to investigate the murder of ruthless moneylender Jacob Marley, Inspector Bucket, on whose success will be judged the merits and benefits of the new ‘Detective’, keeps a sharp eye on the various residents of Marley’s neighbourhood, from the loveable but struggling Cratchits, to the well-to-do but under-pressure Barbarys, to Marley’s business partner Ebenezer Scrooge and Bucket’s long-time nemesis Fagin.  Woven amongst this mystery is the financial plight of the Barbarys, and daughter Honoria’s dilemma between the interested, rich Sir Leicester Dedlock and true love Captain Hawdon, as well as the social-climbing aspirations of the Bumbles, and local heiress Amelia Havisham’s manipulation by jealous brother Arthur and his ruthlessly deceitful partner Meriwether Compeyson.

Jordan’s series structure is excellent (if rather abused by BBC scheduling decisions during its run), its 20 half-hour episodes allowing a wealth of time to get to know and care about the huge cast of characters, regardless of whether the viewer has ever read a page of Dickens (this reviewer was more familiar with some books than others), and building rewardingly to the revelation of the killer in episode 17, before concentrating on the climax of Compeyson’s more insidious plot for its finale.  Along the way, the show, understandably enough for a first (and sadly, as it turned out, only) run, focuses almost exclusively on the Dickens’ best-known work, namely ‘Great Expectations’, ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’, with the success of the BBC’s ‘Bleak House’ adaptation in 2005 almost certainly a factor in the heavy concentration on that story too.  It’s regrettable that, as a consequence of the series’ cancellation, we don’t get to see what Jordan might have done with some of Dickens’ more obscure works, the promising inclusion of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ in episode 1, only to disappointingly disappear from the narrative afterwards proving to be one of the few jarring elements of the show’s storytelling.  It makes that initial episode feel, in retrospect, almost like an American pilot in its experimentalism, and not entirely for the better.

But if Little Nell and Grandfather prove to be, pardon the pun, curious inclusions this early on, the storytelling of the show from the second instalment onwards is next to flawless.  The Marley investigation is genuinely one of the better whodunits ever committed to screen, the ten hours of television allowing it proper room to breathe as a mystery, more than a little indebted to the one-murder-per-series structure of long-form imports like ‘The Killing’.  The Havisham deception also benefits enormously from the length of time dedicated to it, allowing us to become so utterly invested in that story that, by the time the finale come around, we are all but screaming at the television for Amelia to see through Compeyson, and for the charlatan to receive his comeuppance.  The Bumbles, meanwhile, provide a rich thread of comic relief throughout, their own story culminating in a goosebumps-inspiring moments in episode 19 as the show interprets a major, classic moment from Dickens’ source work, while secondary scribe Sarah Phelps contributes one of the best half hours of television this reviewer has ever watched in episode 16, as Honoria Barbary’s plight comes to a head, bringing to mind, with its one-off focus on a single storyline, the best ‘EastEnders’ night-time two-handers.

The cast of Dickensian are, to a man, magnificent.  Peter Firth manages to create such an odious Jacob Marley, well-deserving of the classic punishment we see him enduring in ‘A Christmas Carol’, in the course of a single episode that we fully believe any number of characters would want him dead.  Ned Dennehy’s Scrooge, while not the sleaze his late business partner was, is still almost as fierce in his own quieter way, exhibiting the same menace towards Bob Cratchit that we know from the original tale, and displaying no mercy to Edward Barbary when he pleads for leniency.  It’s a strange experience to see a version of Scrooge who remains pitiless and cruel throughout, the series not taking us anywhere near as far as the point of his redemption.  It feels almost wrong somehow, and in a way makes this version of the character all the more chilling for the sense of something missing- the uplifting core and message of Dickens’ story still very far away for the character here.

Anton Lesser is superb as Fagin, a masterclass in acting amongst a universally great cast.  Compassionate and fatherly towards Nancy, understatedly sinister in his threats to would-be-usurper Bill Sikes, sardonic and almost bored in his old rivalry with Bucket, Lesser clearly relishes the part, creating, in the process, perhaps the definitive version of the character.  If there’s another small grievance this reviewer has with the series, it’s the lack of any follow-up to one intriguing, but sadly single scene between Fagin and Scrooge, Dennehy and Lesser both so dangerous in the parts in their respective ways that the absence of any further sparks flying between them feels like a criminally missed opportunity.  Bethany Muir as Nancy, meanwhile, is a refreshingly earnest, kind-hearted presence in the drama, her hope and optimism, in spite of her circumstances, endearing us to her (culminating in an enchanting musical number at the conclusion of episode 20), and lending a tragic poignancy to our knowledge of her future fate, while Mark Stanley manages the feat of making Sikes, in this particular incarnation, a guiltily likeable romantic lead, sweeping Nancy off her feet in a way that makes us believe she could fall for the character before realising what a brute he’ll eventually reveal himself to be.

At the driving heart of the story is the magnificent Stephen Rea as Inspector Bucket.  Kind but firm in his dealings with the residents, his rivalry with Fagin and double act with Omid Djalili’s Mr Venus amuses, his genuine dilemma throughout the course of episode 18 after discovering the identity of the killer touches, and his at-times obsessive determination to solve the case at all costs slightly unnerves.  With his trademark top hat and cane, the first silhouette glimpsed amidst the shadows of the characters in the excellently-designed opening credits, he’s this reviewer’s favourite fictional detective since Poirot, and, with more series and better scheduling in which to stamp his mark, would surely have become just as iconic.

Lending more light to the drama is the likeable Robert Wilfort as Bob Cratchit, and Jennifer Hennessy as wife Emily, their portrayal of a genuinely in-love couple who care deeply about each other and their children proving a heartening sight, lending the show real moments of happiness amidst some of the gloom.  Wilfort allows us to see just enough of his character’s hurt at Scrooge’s oppression to seem realistically human, while still allowing us to believe that he could stoically suffer his employer’s ill-treatment without open complaint.  And late in the series, Hennessy gets the best part of a whole episode in which to shine as a mother and wife who would do anything to protect her family, leaving us rooting for her entirely as she faces a huge question mark over her fate.  Also providing warmth is Imogen Faires in her few appearances as Nell, the talented young actress managing to leave an impression despite very limited screen time- it really is a shame she doesn’t get more to do.  Particularly frustrating is the lack of resolution to a teenage romance subplot with Brenock O’Connor’s Peter Cratchit.

These points of light are needed, for the villains of ‘Dickensian’, though brilliantly fleshed out and well-rounded, are truly despicable.  Tom Weston-Jones, in Meriwether Compeyson, manages to craft a character so infuriatingly wicked, for all his outward attractiveness, that we are ready to hurl something at the screen by episode 20, desperate for Amelia to wake up to her situation.  His silver-tongued charm and seeming ability to get away with each and every misdeed, thwarting the efforts of those who try to oppose him at every turn, are frighteningly believable, his single-minded purpose to con Amelia and break her heart for little more than sport proving, in its own way, to be the greater villainy of the series, rather than the open bitterness of Scrooge or the mischief of Fagin.  The fact that the viewer comes to despise Compeyson’s character so thoroughly is testament to Weston-Jones’ performance- a truly nasty piece of work from beginning to end.

Alexandra Moen, meanwhile, portrays possibly the most nuanced character of the series.  Although, in some respects, every bit as evil as Compeyson, Moen manages to make us empathise with envious Barbary sister Frances, despite an icy exterior that proves next to impossible for her family to melt.  This climaxes most spectacularly in the Phelps-scripted episode 16, which sees Moen’s performance shift the viewer’s feelings from hatred to sympathy and then back again in a roller-coaster of a half hour.  It’s wonderful to be made to feel so many different emotions about a character in such a short space of time, and one can only assume Moen found the part to be among the most stimulating of her career- it’s arguably the best in the whole series, in an extremely competitive field.

 

On the side of the angels, meanwhile (at least for now), Tuppence Middleton puts in a magnificently nuanced performance of her own as Amelia Havisham, her earnest, kind-hearted heiress a striking contrast to the amoral seductress she portrays in the BBC’s recent ‘War and Peace’, managing to convey a strong, capable, independently-minded woman while successfully convincing us (just about) that even someone as intelligent as her could be taken in by Compeyson.  It helps that she actually does get the measure of him at one point before the finale, and almost sees him off, before he manages to reel her back in by pulling out all the stops to bring the wool back down over her eyes.  It’s, as suggested before, deeply frustrating, but undoubtedly engages the viewer all the more with the drama, and we can understand her weakest link lying with her brother.  Because Joseph Quinn’s portrayal of Arthur is a beautifully heartbreaking one, a tortured soul throughout the whole series, ever-torn over his own plot to cheat his sister of her wealth, and enabling us to maintain some sympathy with the character even as we loathe his partner in crime.  Compeyson’s shameless manipulation of his fears over the exposure of his sexuality, ruthlessly bringing him back into the fold every time he wavers, keeps Arthur feeling more like a tragic figure than an outright crook.  Despite the original source of the series subject matter, his arc feels almost Shakespearean.

One of Dickens’ more fascinating, ambiguous characters, both in the original novel and in the various television adaptations, has always been shrewd lawyer Jaggers, and here John Heffernan makes the character almost as scary as the villains, albeit always towards those who deserve his ire, conveying, on the other hand, an almost paternal set of feelings towards Amelia.  Fierce in her own way, though tempered by a wealth of comical scenes, is Caroline Quentin’s brilliantly fun Mrs Bumble, ever keen to move up in the world, but more often than not undone by her own folly.  Richard Ridings is possibly the best hen-pecked husband ever put on screen, eternally sexually frustrated, always kept on just enough of a leash in order to do his wife’s bidding.  A rare moment of fury towards her late in the series (‘I meant on the napery, madam!’) is all the more rewarding for its unexpectedness, although he’s soon back in line.

Rounding off the main cast, meanwhile, are Sophie Rundle and Ben Starr as star-crossed lovers Honoria Barbary and Captain James Hawdon, their passion and love for one another excitingly believable yet risky in this buttoned-up era.  Again, in episode 16, Rundle gives her performance of the series opposite Moen’s Frances, leaving us aching for her by the end of the half hour.  Elsewhere, however, it would have been nice to have Hawdon involved once Compeyson is exposed, given his deception of the captain too in order to win over the ladies- it would have been an interesting extra dynamic to see.  And on the third side of the Hawdon/Honoria/Sir Leicester love triangle, Richard Cordery brings a quality somewhere between amiable and creepy, clearly genuinely besotted by Honoria, and yet pushing that interest just a little too strongly, almost to the point of lecherous.  It’s a somewhat disquieting portrayal at times, something in it just that little bit distasteful, that little bit closer to inappropriate lust than love.

Finally, Pauline Collins enjoys herself thoroughly as gin-loving Mrs Gamp, ever on the periphery of the other characters’ stories, but always finding herself at the heart of the gossip, securing a drink at other’s expense on the flimsiest of pretexts.  She’s a true soap character for the Victorian world, and one of the highlights of the whole show.

With a cast this talented, and with such extraordinary writers and storytellers as Jordan and Phelps working on it, the cancellation of ‘Dickensian’ really is, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the more regrettable decisions in television drama in recent times.  Although, by series’ end, the show lines up well enough with the traditional Dickens novels, with ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘A Christmas Carol’ in particular  nicely ready to kick off, it would have been great to see the series tackle the familiar events of those novels with its own interpretation, as well as explore some of the author’s other works and characters in the same rich detail as his most famous ones receive here.  But it will certainly remain as a fantastic standalone series, with a well-plotted and executed series of story threads binding it together, simultaneously wrapping up neatly by the final episode, and yet leaving the viewer wanting much more, by virtue of its sheer quality and class.

 

*****

 

A refreshingly structured series with a superb cast and some award-worthy writing (episode 16), regrettably ill-treated in the end by scheduling and the powers that be.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Wicca Series review

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‘Wicca’ is what the ‘Twilight’ phenomenon should have been about.

This reviewer isn’t as vehement a critic of Stephanie Meyer’s vampire saga as some, having read the series and found some things to enjoy about it, but, having read ‘Wicca’ several years before in my early teens, it’s hard not to feel that this beautiful, fifteen-book epic by Cate Tiernan was far more deserving of the YA craze that later took off.

Seemingly ordinary high school girl Morgan Rowlands finds her life altered when handsome newcomer Cal Blaire arrives in her hometown of Widow’s Vale, and quickly becomes the object of desire for every girl in school, not least Morgan herself.  When Cal reveals his Wiccan beliefs and decides to form a local coven, Morgan finds herself drawn deeper into his world as she starts displaying a talent for witchcraft herself, leading to conflict not just with her best friend Bree, who also has her eye on Cal, but with rival coven leader Sky Eventide and her cousin Hunter Niall, a Seeker for the International Council of Witches, who is determined to investigate Cal and his mother Selene for possible misuse of magic.

‘Wicca’ (or ‘Sweep’ in the US), although sharing the same Young Adult paranormal DNA as ‘Twilight’, is a richly-crafted world full of well-written and developed characters and in-story atmosphere and logic that most detractors of Meyer’s saga complain that her series lacks.  The world-building and establishment of rules within the story, meshing together elements of real-life Wiccan practice and obviously invented supernatural phenomena is understated, yet hugely impressive, seeping the books in a sense of authenticity, despite the paranormal setting.  The juxtaposition of this hidden world with everyday issues of high school and family life, while hardly uncommon to YA fiction, is a wise move, making the story and characters relatable to their intended readership, and grounding them in a reality the reader can almost see themselves in.  While some real-life practitioners of Wicca have criticised the books for their apparent sensationalising of much of the religion’s rituals, from an objective point of view this reviewer can appreciate the need for dramatic licence for a story that is, at the end of the day, about the supernatural, and it’s abundantly clear throughout that Tiernan intends no offence to real-life Wiccans.  Her aim is to tell a compelling story, and in this, she more than succeeds.

The characters that populate her world are a rich cast, every one of them believable, well-rounded, and undergoing change and growth as the series progresses.  Central heroine Morgan, while just as subject to the natural vulnerabilities and worries of high school life as any real-life teenager, has the sort of backbone critics craved in Bella Swan, especially in the later books, and is the ideal window for the reader into the new, exciting world of witches and magick that she enters.  Besotted with handsome new arrival Cal, but evidently subconsciously aware that something’s not quite right about their relationship, she makes the sort of correct decisions that all too many fictional teenage girls fail to, and there’s a real sense of triumph when she finally gets the measure of him, and makes her choice about how who to trust.  Her horror at uncovering the secrets of her true parentage, and her struggles with her adopted parents over conflicting ideas of faith give us plenty to root for over the course of the series, and her slowburn romance with initial enemy Hunter is one of the true joys of the saga, to the point where her devastation over his apparent fate in final book ‘Night’s Child’ is keenly and heartbreakingly felt by the reader.

Hunter himself is the sort of love interest that typically makes a YA readership swoon, while being at the same time much more understated in his heroism than the likes of Edward Cullen, bringing a quiet strength and reserved quality that pays off all the greater when his guard finally lowers.  The decision to devote some of the later books, or parts of them, to his point of view is a great one, ensuring that by the time he strikes out on his own in Book 10, ‘Seeker’, we’re still fully engaged and ready to accompany him on his journey, despite Morgan’s absence for most of the book.  His conflicting sense of duty and guilt over having to take action against shop owner David Redstone in Book 5, ‘Awakening’, risking alienating Morgan just as they’re starting to grow close, is one of the highlights of the whole series.

One of the series’ best rug pulls is the unmasking of initial love interest Cal as an antagonist, and ultimately reversing his and Hunter’s original positions in the mind of the reader, and it’s to Tiernan’s credit that even after his exposure in Book 4, ‘Dark Magick’, he remains an interesting, three dimensional character, not as wholly bad as it would have been all too easy to write him from then on.  The surprisingly early exit of the ‘Edward’ of the series, less than halfway through, remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the better trajectories of a YA hero due to its unexpectedness, though penultimate book ‘Full Circle’, as the title would suggest, does return to his story.

The series enjoys an impressive collection of villains generally, the decision not to rely on just one antagonist, a la Harry Potter’s Voldemort, proving to be one of this reviewer’s favourite decisions by the author.  From her first boyfriend and his mother, to the very Luke Skywalker/Darth Vader conflict with her biological father (one of the most interesting, well-rounded characters of the whole saga) to her utterly odious half-sister, all of her enemies are intimately connected to Morgan herself and to each other, making her conflicts with them all feel like a natural evolution of her journey and story as they occur, rather than bringing in some external ‘big bad’ purely for the sake of it.

Not that there aren’t some arguable missteps on Tiernan’s part.  For the most part, her choice to tell the story from points of view besides Morgan’s pays off well, from the excellent use of diary entries by characters like Hunter building to whole sections of, or entire books told from his perspective, to the majority of Book 11, ‘Origins’, being told from the POV of Morgan’s ancestor Rose via the device of an ancient journal, to the split-perspective of the finale, ‘Night’s Child’ between Morgan and her daughter Moira.  The decision, however, to devote some of Book 12, ‘Eclipse’, and all of Book 13, ‘Reckoning’, to secondary character Alisa, as interesting as she is, feels just a little too random, a little too much like a whole other story, given that the following two books bring the entire saga to a close.  Placed so late in the series, it can’t help but feel a bit like filler before the buildup to the series finale, Tiernan perhaps temporarily unsure where to go with the series before the misfortune of declining sales made her decide to start wrapping the saga up.  And it’s slightly frustrating to have some later entries like Book 9, ‘Strife’, devote so much time to high school melodrama and parental/child conflict over rather mundane issues like homework, after successfully avoiding this earlier in the series.  The decision to follow the journey of Moira in ‘Night’s Child’, meanwhile, while a more than interesting character in her own right, is initially very jarring stylistically, the book shifting to third person after sticking reliably to first in every preceding one.

These are minor grievances, however, in the overall scheme of things.  This is a saga full of lively, likeable characters and immersive romance, engaging intrigues and mysteries, and sporadic, but always well-earned and exciting action.  It covers impressively mature ground at times, such as conflict over differing faiths, with Morgan’s Catholic parents displaying real difficulty in accepting her practice of witchcraft, as well as the idea that handsome or beautiful people are not always virtuous or trustworthy, the character trajectory of initial dreamboat Cal a refreshing antidote to the outwardly gorgeous = inwardly beautiful take on love interests in ‘Twilight’.  Wicca is the sort of YA phenomenon that teenagers deserved to have, and this reviewer still craves the day that a film or TV adaptation finally sees Morgan Rowlands, Hunter Niall and their supporting cast come to life in the flesh.  It would be, to pardon the pun, magic.

 

*****

 

A well-written, richly crafted supernatural world, full of relatable characters, sweeping romance, impressive twists, and all seeped, appropriately, in magic and atmosphere.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Merlin: Complete Series review

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‘Merlin’ is a contender for my favourite television series of all time.

Part of that may be down to my interest in mythology and magic, dating back to when I was a child.  Part of it may be my liking for Arthurian legend and the excitement of comparing numerous interpretations of it over the years, from Disney’s ‘The Sword in the Stone’, to the excellent 1998 Sam Neill ‘Merlin’ miniseries.  Part of it may be my love of genre and cult TV in general (no doubt I’ll wax lyrical about that other great contender for my favourite ever TV show, ‘Smallville’, in a future post).

But the main reason, hands down, is the chemistry between Colin Morgan and Bradley James.

Some might call it queer-baiting.  Some might call it an accident of casting.  Some might call it wishful thinking.  No doubt there are elements of all of these things there, but, for this reviewer, it doesn’t matter.  Because the tension, both written and acted, between Merlin Emrys and Arthur Pendragon in this BBC interpretation of the mythos from Johnny Capps and Julian Murphy is off the scale, unashamed, and glorious.  It isn’t so much subtext as text that leaps off the screen during any given episode and strikes the viewer around the face.  One can’t move on the internet for legions of ‘Merthur’ appreciation pages, fanart and edited YouTube videos, the level of fervour for the pairing matched only by a select few fandoms (Dean/Castiel in ‘Supernatural’, perhaps), but even the most ardent deniers, the viewers most uncomfortable with any sort of chemistry between two male leads, would have to admit that there’s something going on.  Even if just intensely platonic, the level of tension from episode to episode is palpable.  Utterly so.

The fact that nothing ever overtly happens between the characters, makes it all the more perfect.  With the producers having admitted in retrospect that they were approaching the relationship as a canon love story in all but name, the thoughtful viewer gets the satisfaction of watching a growing dynamic that builds and builds under the surface without ever getting the chance to spill over and, pardon the pun, break the spell.  At the time, it was frustrating.  In hindsight, it’s fantastic.  Like the best tragic or unfulfilled romances, the lack of admission, the lack of any sort of embrace, means that the ‘What if?’ question gets to hang over the series forever.  Like Merlin himself, the pairing becomes, in a sense, immortal.

But there are other, plentiful reasons to like this wonderful series.  Armagh-born Morgan is a magnificent actor, having only improved in everything he’s been in since (most notably ‘The Fall’ and ‘Humans’), his flawless English accent the least of his skills here, embodying the slow-burn, tragic pathos of his character beautifully.  He can do comic timing effortlessly, and several episodes make great use of this, but more often than not, he’s called upon to convey an ever-present conflict between quiet optimism and lurking dread, the world and future he wants to create always that little bit out of reach, tantalisingly dangled but never quite obtained.  Factor in the unrequited love for Arthur that this reviewer and 90% of the fandom read into the series, and you have a compelling, haunting, sometimes heartbreaking performance (his despairing scream during imprisonment as he faces the prospect of all his hopes completely slipping away in the penultimate episode ‘The Diamond of the Day Part 1’ must be among the most piercing couple of seconds of acting I’ve ever watched).

Bradley James may seem, at first, to portray an unfairly harsh, frankly brattish Arthur for the first couple of seasons, all too quick to belittle or mistreat his servant from episode to episode.  But eventually, a performance of quiet honour and nobility starts to emerge, fitting for a future king.  The fate of his father, Uther, his ascension to the throne, and his apparent betrayal by Gwen, all in series 4, bring the character firmly into his own, and the genuine bond and warmth that grows between them, even if it goes almost entirely unacknowledged, is a joy to watch.  James’ highlight of the series may very well be the loss of Uther in ‘The Wicked Day’, the death scene itself and Arthur’s reaction to now having lost both parents sending shivers down the spine.  For this reviewer, James more than deserves the leading role he’s now currently enjoying in A & E’s ‘Damien’.

Katie McGrath, as Morgana, is sublime.  Her transformation from vulnerable and fearful young woman to wicked aggressor is breathtaking to watch, her sense of fear over her powers being discovered in the early seasons such that we can’t help but root for her when she finally embraces them, even if it’s too late, and too much psychological damage has been done, for her to ever use them for good.  Her seasonal arc from banished outcast to successful conqueror of Camelot during the course of series 4 is guiltily satisfying, her inevitably temporary victory over the heroes feeling just that little bit deserved.  And the sense of danger and portentousness as she finally learns Merlin’s true identity at the conclusion of ‘The Drawing of the Dark’ leaves goosebumps on the skin.  McGrath also earns some further brownie points from this reviewer for being such a gleeful and mischievous supporter of the Merthur pairing in behind-the-scenes interviews.

In theory, Angel Coulby, as Gwen, should have a tough job in not being automatically disliked by the Merthur-supporting fanbase of the show.  The fact that she not only avoids this, but makes the character thoroughly likeable to this reviewer is a testament to the likeability of Coulby herself, imbuing the part with a grace and empathy that makes the character seem more than worthy of being Arthur’s queen.  The showdown between Gwen and Arthur in ‘Lancelot du Lac’ is one of the best-written pieces of drama in the whole series, while her unexpected brainwashing arc, allowing her to compete with Morgana in the evil-and-loving-it stakes, is one of the best things about the show’s final season.  It’s been a treat to see Coulby back in a major drama role recently as journalist Julia in BBC One’s ‘Undercover’.

Anthony Head, as Uther, could not be further away from his role of Giles in ‘Buffy’.  By turns menacing and tyrannical, yet sympathetic and relatable when allowed to be, Head brings true gravitas to the series, far from essential given the talent of the younger cast, but making the show all the richer for his presence in it.  Morgana’s planned assassination of him in penultimate season one episode ‘To Kill the King’, only to pull back from her plot at the last minute when he displays some regret and human remorse for his past sins, remains, for this reviewer, one of the best-constructed episodes of the whole series.

Also bringing gravitas to the show, this time on the side of the angels, is Richard Wilson as Merlin’s mentor and guardian Gaius, the antidote to Uther’s stern, domineering king, yet radiating a quiet authority of his own.  In one of the series’ subtler, more understated, and consequently most interesting beats, Gaius and Uther are presented as a what-might-have-been earlier generation take on Merlin and Arthur, with the king tolerating the unspoken secret that Gaius has magic, seemingly the one exception to his blanket ban on sorcery in his kingdom.  It’s refreshing as well to see Gaius survive to the end of the series, when it would surely have been all too tempting for the writers to kill him off to further Merlin’s character development.

An impressive addition to the show in its final series is Alexander Vlahos as the adult Mordred, offering a take on the legendary villain far removed from the outright antagonist that might be expected.  Renouncing the path of darkness for much of his time on the show, this Mordred is a fascinating study of a man trying valiantly against the pull of destiny and fate to take the better path, while constantly suffering the suspicion of the central hero- it’s one of the few times in the series where Merlin skirts close to becoming unlikeable, so reluctant is he to give Mordred the benefit of the doubt.  It lends his eventual trajectory, and the show’s alignment with traditional Arthurian myth, all the more pathos when it happens.

No summary of the key players across the show’s five series would be complete without a nod to John Hurt’s Great Dragon.  Beginning as an imprisoned mentor to Merlin, full of prophecies and riddles, and offerings of wisdom, Hurt gradually lends the beast just enough of a creeping, sinister side, so that by the time he tricks the young warlock into releasing him and wreaks revenge on Camelot, it’s a well-earned, subtly dreaded turn of events.  In Hurt, Wilson and Head, the show is lucky indeed to enjoy a trinity of elder actors lending the series their respective weight, and surely inspiring the younger cast to the heights they so successfully reach.

Not to be forgotten, of course, is the series’ rich array of supporting and guest stars, all of them lending the show more colour and depth by their presence.  Among the highlights are Eoin Macken’s playful Gwaine, easily the most interesting of the Knights of the Round Table (Macken having since gone on to break into novel-writing with Dublin-set debut ‘Kingdom of Scars’), and Santiago Cabrera’s noble but doomed Lancelot, his quiet strength and sweet early romance with Gwen ensuring we genuinely care once darker aspects of the mythos finally come into play.  John Lynch brings yet more gravitas, albeit only in a couple of appearances, as Merlin’s father and last dragonlord Balinor, while Sarah Parish has a whale of a time as Uther’s would-be queen, Lady Catrina, in series 2’s two-part ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

In the out-and-out villainy stakes, Katie McGrath is leant terrific support not just by Vlahos, but by both Emilia Fox as wicked sister Morgause, the Emperor Palpatine to Morgana’s Darth Vader, and Asa Butterfield as the quietly sinister younger Mordred.  Early on, Michelle Ryan impresses as series 1 archvillain Nimueh (a far cry indeed from the haunting romance between the character and Merlin in the Sam Neill version), while there are also enjoyable guest turns from the always-excellent Charles Dance as series 2’s Witchfinder, and Maureen Carr as the truly creepy Dochraid in the show’s later seasons.

If the acting in ‘Merlin’ can scarcely be faulted, its narrative shape, on the other hand, does sometimes give pause.  The tone of the later show is very different from the first couple of seasons, the shift owing more than a little to the then-rising popularity of ‘Game of Thrones’, if not quite in bleak brutality, then certainly in terms of more sombre mood, atmosphere, and a somewhat ‘slicker’ feel.  The move from the more episodic early seasons to darker, more serious ‘arcs’ is largely a welcome one, though some of the sheer fun of those earlier episodes is, for this reviewer, sadly lost in the process.

And then there’s the ending.  Given the extent to which the show radically reinterprets elements of Arthurian mythology early on (not least a rather genius way around the huge age discrepancy between this iteration of Merlin and more traditional takes), it seemed reasonable to assume that the series would find ways to avoid the ultimately downbeat direction of the mythos, and that the battle of Camlann wouldn’t necessarily end in predictable tragedy.  Alas, GOT’s influence is keenly felt in this regard in the show’s final season.  Originally airing on Christmas Eve 2012, the finale is, for this reviewer, a deeply problematic one, true enough to Arthurian legend, but in many ways so strikingly different from the tone and optimism of series 1 as to be alienating.  Character and plot development are all well and good, but ‘Merlin’ simply feels like a wholly different show by the end, and not altogether for the better.  For me, it was a less than satisfying conclusion to the five-year journey I’d embarked on as a viewer, and to the five years of a better world worked towards by Merlin himself.

Disappointing endings, however, can’t be the only consideration when judging a series’ overall quality, and ‘Merlin’ is most definitely greater than the sum of its parts in this respect.  The talent of the cast, the impressive roster of guest stars, Rob Lane’s stirring music (check out series 4’s ‘The Bond of Sacrifice’ for my personal favourite piece) and the sheer novelty of having a genre programme besides ‘Doctor Who’ airing on primetime BBC One all eclipse any misgivings about the story’s ultimate direction, and more than make up for any minor grievances as well (for example, Morgana’s all-too-sudden descent into hatred for Uther in series 2 after being so touchingly reconciled to him at the end of series 1).

And then of course, there’s that all-important chemistry between the two leads.  For all that the series technically follows the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot triangle of traditional Arthurian myth, the real love story, essentially admitted by the producers and speculated about by everyone from James, McGrath, Vlahos and the media (see the ‘Independent’s’ review of the complete box set), is between Arthur and Merlin.  And it’s beautiful.

 

*****

 

An initially fun, though gradually darker, and always compelling update of Arthurian mythology, ‘Merlin’ is ultimately all about one thing: the fantastic chemistry between its two leads.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

The Traveller’s Guide to Love review

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Before commencing this entry, I should first declare an interest: this reviewer is a good friend of author Helen Nicholl, having worked with her for several years during her time co-managing War on Want charity bookshop in south Belfast.  But such was the fun to be had in reading her warm, witty, often quite poignant debut novel ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’, that I couldn’t resist writing a review of it for this blog.  If it opens me up to a slightly higher degree of bias than usual, then that seems a worthwhile exception to make on this occasion.

It’s more or less love at first sight for Johanna van Heerden when she meets Albert Morrow while perusing the shelves of the Good Intentions bookshop.  Striking up a fast connection, the couple quickly discover a shared love of travel and appreciation of ancient archaeological sites, and happily start journeying together to various places of interest throughout County Down.  But complications loom on the horizon, not least the misgivings of Johanna’s friend Rita, Albert’s troublesome ex Carmel, and the ambiguous reliability of Albert himself.

A huge part of the enjoyment of this novel is its evocation of place.  It’s immensely refreshing to read a work of fiction set in Northern Ireland that has little to do with the Troubles or any of the other less-than-flattering associations the region enjoys/endures.  Instead, here, in the form of ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’, it’s the setting of a rich, funny, modern romantic comedy, one that fulfils all the expectations and tropes of the genre, and yet isn’t without teeth.  Pleasingly, it focuses on an older, worldly-wise couple (particularly Johanna), who have lived long enough to appreciate the absurdities of life and what to avoid, and yet are still subject to its passions.  The pair’s romance is well-written, taking off early on, and remaining believable throughout, the reader invited so intimately into Johanna’s head and her love for Albert that, when crises between them finally arise, we feel for her acutely.  Johanna is a sharp, pithy, well-sketched character, her humour and personality not a little borrowed from Nicholl herself, and the book is packed full of fun little allusions to the author’s own acquaintances and time spent volunteering (this reviewer even gets a nod to his home town).

As suggested already, the story makes rich use of its Northern Irish backdrop, from the student bustle of Botanic Avenue, to the idyllic suburbs of Holywood, to the slopes of the Mourne Mountains and expanse of Strangford Lough.  Johanna and Albert’s travels to all the recommended dolmens and cairns in in-story guidebook ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Ancient County Down’ makes the reader feel like hopping in a car with a companion and setting off on expeditions of one’s own, and their gentle quests provide a lovely, quiet structure to the novel that soothes and reassures- at least until the problems of real life begin to intrude.  The supporting characters earn their stripes too, with glamorous best friend Rita and amorous landlord Sticky Wicket among the most memorable (the latter providing a brilliantly funny twist/punchline at the end of one chapter), while smarmy ex-husband Socrates and eccentric sister Frederika round out the cast nicely.  The fictional pubs and shops of Johanna’s Belfast, meanwhile, provide a fun exercise in trying to match their real-life counterparts, for anyone who knows the city well.

Highly readable and laced through with wit, the book flies past, so that it really is almost a shame to have to come to the end- this reviewer predicts many re-reads to come over the years.  If there is perhaps one, minor structural issue to give pause, it’s the surprising absence of Albert from a very considerable chunk of the story late on, something that, for me, does ultimately work, but perhaps only just.  For some readers, enjoying the novel primarily for the journeys and adventures of the central couple up until this point, the issue could potentially jar.

At the launch of the novel, Nicholl expressed her wish to produce a local piece of fiction that went beyond the tired, disheartening associations of the Troubles, the Titanic and the province’s ‘horrible politicians’.  This book is indeed the perfect antidote to the grim-and-gritty crime fiction one might have associated with Belfast and Northern Ireland in decades gone by.  Enjoyable, humorous and uplifting, this romcom for the no-nonsense, middle-aged, but still-full-of-zest-for-life crowd is an example of the sort of diversity Northern Irish literature and fiction is hopefully on the cusp of embracing.  While there undoubtedly still remains a place for the likes of Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville or Brian McGilloway in local bookshops, this reviewer, for one, hopes to see more work like ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’ joining them on the shelves.  A lot more.

 

*****

 

Gentle, humorous, but often with fangs, ‘The Traveller’s Guide to Love’ is an uplifting and rewarding read, shot through with the engaging personality and voice of its author.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice review

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I have one quibble with ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’.  And it’s a very minor one.  Given the movie is a direct sequel to ‘Man of Steel’, a Superman film, and introduces a new version of Batman that audiences aren’t familiar with yet, I did feel slightly miffed by Ben Affleck’s name appearing first in the opening cast list.  Affleck’s Dark Knight will get his solo day in the sun (and on the basis of this film, deserves to).  But for now, it feels just a little bit cynical that the actor playing Batman gets top billing, presumably from a studio viewpoint that the Caped Crusader is the more popular hero among the general public.  As I say, it’s a minor quibble.

Because ‘Batman v Superman’ is otherwise excellent.  I’ll confess a certain interest upfront, in that I’m a longtime fan of both characters and of DC Comics in general, and so obviously would want a film about either of them to do well.  But even taking that into account, I am genuinely baffled by the negative reviews this film has received.  It is epic, in every sense of the word, with more gravitas than any of the Marvel movies put together (and I say that as someone who is a big admirer of Marvel’s output too, particularly its Netflix offerings).

Picking up 18 months after the ending to ‘Man of Steel’, B v S finds an aging, jaded Bruce Wayne still bitter about the destruction caused during Superman’s final battle with General Zod, including the deaths of many Wayne Enterprises employees.  Discovering billionaire Lex Luthor’s plot to weaponise a substance harmful to Kryptonians found lying in the Indian Ocean, he plots to steal the element for himself and use it to bring down the Man of Tomorrow before he becomes a threat to mankind.  But others are out to investigate Luthor for their own reasons, including a mysterious woman who quickly catches Bruce’s attention.

I haven’t always been a fan of director Zack Snyder’s work.  The video-game aesthetic of ‘Sucker Punch’, in particular, led to one of the few times I’ve ever genuinely wanted to walk out of a cinema.  But in Man of Steel, he found a happy middle ground that incorporated his undoubtedly talented visual skill with proper storytelling and plot, and this trend has carried through to B v S.  ‘Dawn of Justice’ feels operatic, important (something reviewers have levelled at it as a criticism, seemingly from some misguided notion that comic book movies shouldn’t ever try to feel like they have weight).  Although interpreted many times before on screen, the death of the Waynes is a truly impressive opening scene, putting to use the best of Snyder’s ability in a way that really serves story.  And the choreography of the titular battle itself is excellent, with a raw feel that suggests brutality and hurt, a world away from some of the more glamourised takes on the recurring Batman/Superman conflict in the comics.  Other key highlights for this reviewer include Batman’s pursuit of Luthor’s goons for possession of the Kryptonite, and Wonder Woman’s first glimpse of the other Justice League heroes in computer files sent to her by Bruce: a moment that truly sends shivers down the spine for any fan of the existing mythos.

Writers David S Goyer and Chris Terrio have crafted a movie that actually contains a plot, perhaps to the confusion of some reviewers who may have been expecting a more video game-esque Alien v Predator affair.  In one of the best aspects of the movie, Lois Lane gets more to do than in any Superman film previously, driving much of the plot with her investigations.  A more grizzled, cynical Alfred than we’ve seen on screen before provides moments of nicely subtle comic relief, while the movie’s much anticipated take on Wonder Woman keeps the character appropriately enigmatic for now, while at the same time throwing her into the thick of the action in the film’s final act.  Perry White manages the not-insignificant feat of still making us like him while acting like a believably  commerce-driven newspaper editor in the modern age (‘it’s not 1938 anymore’, indeed), while ‘Dawn of Justice’s’ take on Lex Luthor provides a truly interesting and different take on the longtime villain.  Certain moments, such as the outcome of the senate committee hearing, genuinely shock, and on a minor note, it’s nice to see the return of such familiar faces from Man of Steel as the Daily Planet’s Jenny (so perilously close to death in the original), and General, now Secretary, Swanwick.  If I have one reservation about a character being underused, it’s perhaps Martha Kent, although she does get a nice moment with the Dark Knight late on in the movie.

The cast here are on top form.  Henry Cavill, as before, has a tough job portraying a character often seen as boring or stilted in our more cynical age, but his earnestness shines through, making us root for a being who seems to all the world to be perfect and problem-free.  He isn’t, of course, and Cavill and Amy Adams do a great job of humanising the Man of Steel with believable scenes as a couple, earned by this interpretation’s genuinely refreshing decision to let Lois in on the secret identity from the start.  Adams must be glad, meanwhile, that this is the version of Lois she finally got to play (having wanted the role for years, and through various earlier incarnations), as the Lois in ‘Dawn of Justice’, as mentioned before, actually gets to be a plot-driving reporter, rather than a mere damsel in distress.  ‘Superman Returns’’ Kate Bosworth, this ain’t.

Ben Affleck need never have worried.  He is superb, easily one of the best incarnations of the Dark Knight put to screen, arguably eclipsing even Christian Bale’s take (gone is the manically growling voice, replaced by a far more menacing robotic effect achieved by microphone), and providing possibly the most compelling version of Bruce Wayne in his civilian guise that we’ve yet seen.  Taking on Superman isn’t the easy, instant, morally certain decision for him that the trailers would have us believe, and his slowburning sense of powerlessness, culminating in horror when his failure to act earlier arguably contributes to a terrible atrocity, is keenly felt.  Jeremy Irons lends the gravitas one would expect to his interpretation of Alfred, while Gal Gadot is clearly enjoying herself playing Wonder Woman, sparring off Affleck nicely- it all bodes well for her solo adventure next year.

Jesse Eisenberg isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea as Lex Luthor, and I can understand why.  It’s VERY different to what’s come before.  But that, in this reviewer’s opinion, is no bad thing, and Eisenberg invests the part with a maniacal, sometimes childlike, sometimes scary energy that never fails to compel, regardless of whether one ‘likes’ it or not.  I, personally, did.  A lot.

‘Man of Steel’, for this reviewer, was something of a transitional film.  It had the feeling of something quite different than what had come before from Superman film adaptations, but also stuck very closely to them in its own way- recycled villains, however well done, and a sense of detachment from the wider DC Universe, for example.  This is now well and truly gone.  Storylines from the comics are covered here in an organic, yet epic way, including a resolution that, without anyone having known it was coming, feels like the best take on one particularly famous (or infamous?) Superman storyline that fans could have hoped for; faithful, and yet different.  The scene, in any case, is now very much set for a wider interconnected DC Universe on screen, and, even if the critics have seen fit to totally miss the point of the movie, audience response and approval ratings have been substantially higher enough that the train seems destined to ride on, regardless of their opinion.  Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman, at least, are already well on the way from Warner Brothers, and based on ‘Dawn of Justice’, this reviewer will be first in the queue to welcome them.

 

*****

Epic, operatic, and plot driven, Batman v Superman is both a crowd-pleaser and a genuinely interesting film.  Superman IV and Batman and Robin are very distant memories.

 

Christopher Moore

@Moore_27Chris