Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Miss Marple: The Secret of Chimneys

As I mentioned last week, Masterpiece took the weekend off in honor of the Memorial Day holiday, but made an encore presentation of last year's Miss Marple episode, The Secret of Chimneys, available for online viewing. Since I didn't officially review any of the Marple Series V episodes on the blog last year, I thought this would be a great time to revisit my DVD copy of this show, which is in my opinion one of Julia McKenzie's strongest outings as Miss Marple. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

History has been written within the walls of the stately Chimneys estate. But Chimneys's luster was tarnished after a grand party that ended in the theft of a revered Indian diamond. Now, more than 20 years later, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, Cranford) is accompanying Virginia Revel to Chimneys, her family home, for a weekend with Virginia's father Lord Caterham (Edward Fox, Oliver Twist), Austrian count Ludwig van Stainach and an odd array of other guests. But when Count Ludwig is found shot, it seems scandal has come again to Chimneys. Is there a coded message in the dead man's pocket? An esteemed chief inspector (Stephen Dillane, God on Trial) arrives from Scotland Yard, and with the clear thinking of Miss Marple, the two will uncover decades old secrets, and navigate through the smokescreen of perplexing clues to the truth of what happened at Chimneys. The Secret of Chimneys is based on the novel by Agatha Christie. (One episode; 90 minutes)
I haven't yet read the Christie novel on which this film is based, but a cursory glance at the summary of the book makes it obvious that this is another mystery that's been well re-written for the screen. The most obvious change is that once again this series of films has taken a non-Marple novel and inserted the beloved sleuth into the storyline. Since I have nothing with which to compare this adaptation (yet, at any rate! haha!), I can only review it on whether or not I feel as though the story works on-screen. I have an admitted bias to the Marple films from the last few years - while I still prefer Geraldine McEwan's Miss Marple, Julia McKenzie's portrayal is growing on me. And these films, no matter the accuracy of the adaptation, are a great excuse to gather a slew of British acting talent in once place, and drop them in a period setting - the recipe for a cozy mystery lover's dream.

At the opening of the film, we catch a glimpse of Chimneys in its glory days, a place where fabulous parties were held and sensitive diplomatic negotiations were brought to a successful resolution. But at one fateful party, a romantic assignation is interrupted, and a priceless diamond is stolen. The subsequent scandal sidlelined the career of prominent politician Lord Caterham (Edward Fox), until twenty years later an opportunity for redemption appears. Caterham is approached by the smarmy politician George Lomax (Adam Godley), who presents Caterham with a proposal - Ludwig von Stainach (Anthony Higgins), an Austrian count, is being courted for iron ore concessions, and he requested talks take place at the once-famed Chimneys. Lomax has a secondary motive for pushing the Chimneys gathering - he's attempting to coerce Caterham's daughter, Virginia (Charlotte Salt), into marrying him in exchange for the financial security of her now cash-strapped family. Virginia is sorely tempted to agree to the marriage of convenience, except for her attraction to the highly unsuitable (i.e. poor) but adventurous Anthony Cade (Jonas Armstrong).

As the principle players gather, Miss Marple becomes one of the party since she is apparently a beloved distant cousin. (Seriously, it is hilarious how easy it is for Miss Marple to be related in some distant way to any random person, or connected through her all-seeing and knowing nephew Raymond. *wink*) Joining Miss Marple as part of the Chimneys party is Lomax's easy-going assistant Bill (Mathew Horne) and the nosey Miss Blenkinsopp (Ruth Jones) who wants to see Chimneys purchased by the National Heritage Foundation and opened for tours, the latter of whom quickly becomes the nemesis of Bundle (Dervla Kirwan), Virginia's unfortunately named older sister, who is passionate to see Chimneys remain in the family. Silently watching them all is Treadwell (Michelle Collins), the observant and loyal housekeeper guarding secrets of her own. When the count turns up murdered and Anthony is suspected, much to Virginia's horror, the dashing Inspector Finch (Stephen Dillane) descends on the house and with the aide of Miss Marple, sets to work uncovering the culprit. But someone at Chimneys wants the home's secrets to stay buried, and will do anything to keep the truth from being discovered, no matter the cost.

Now, if you look too closely at this story it will fall apart. I suspect that when I read the novel (hopefully later this year), the differences between the text and the script will prove somewhat shocking. I have more faith in Christie's ability to pen a cracking good yarn than I do in the hope of any screenwriter substantially improving on her storytelling gifts. *wink* That said, I love these films. They're my equivalent of cinematic comfort food, I guess. Despite the jumps in logic, Chimneys is an entertaining hour and a half spent in the company of great acting talent decked out in delicious 1950s costumes. The look and feel of the film is just fun, in my view. :)

McKenzie hasn't quite captured my imagination as Miss Marple the way McEwan did in her twelve films as the sleuth (she lacks a certain spark that I feel is necessary), but she's an undeniably accomplished actress and brings a nice charm and warmth to the role. McKenzie is a Masterpiece veteran, having played the role of Mrs. Forrester in Cranford. Based on Miss Marple's interactions with Inspector Finch, it's obvious that she was conveniently inserted into the storyline, and not necessary except for "brand" value when it comes to films. That said, I love watching Miss Marple's interactions with Finch. Dillane is just fabulous as the sauve, poised, intelligent inspector who is determined not to be shown up by a spinster from St. Mary Mead. Dillane appeared in the Masterpiece Contemporary production God on Trial a couple of years ago, and I'd venture to guess he's perhaps best known (at least in the last few years) for his turn as Thomas Jefferson in the HBO miniseries John Adams. McKenzie seems quite taken with Dillane, and really who can blame her? :) They make a pretty adorable on-screen investigative pair.

Isn't Dillane's fedora AWESOME? I love it.

Initially I was most interested in this film because it would mark the first post-Robin Hood appearance of Jonas Armstrong. And Anthony Cade is quite the departure from Armstrong's years as a forest-dwelling outlaw. Armstrong is absolutely adorable in his fifties-era clothes (especially the jeans - *wink*). Now that I think about it, the role of Anthony isn't that much of a stretch from Armstrong's angst-ridden turn as Robin. Cade has a flair for the dramatic (his "rescue" of Virginia from a mugger on a bicycle is too cute for words!) and a propensity for melodrama. Admittedly I have a soft spot for Armstrong since his Robin Hood days, and I dearly hope some good projects come his way in the future. He and Charlotte Salt (Virginia) make a lovely on-screen pair. I'm not familiar with Salt's previous film work, but she fits the time period extraordinarily well and epitomizes a classy 1950s woman. I loved her independent spunk and determination to see Anthony exonerated.

While the role of Lord Caterham isn't perhaps Edward Fox's most memorable Masterpiece turn, I love the man and am always interested to see him appear in a new project. He is, of course, the uncle of one of my alternate-universe husbands, Laurence Fox (a.k.a. Hathaway in the Inspector Lewis series). Fox is a Masterpiece veteran, having appeared in Foyle's War, Poirot, and Daniel Deronda (to name a few productions), as well as films like The Importance of Being Earnest. He manages to endow the role of Caterham with a sort of tragic nobility, the like of which only an actor of his stature could achieve.

Rounding out the rest of the cast, we can look forward to seeing the dashing Anthony Higgins later this year in the Zen mystery series. Higgins has such poise and presence, it's not hard to imagine how as the Count he managed to hold all of the Chimneys residents enthralled. Fans of Little Dorrit might recognize Miss Blenkinsopp actress Ruth Jones as Flora Finching in that production (oh for an entire day to spare re-watching that classic!). Adam Godley as Lomax makes a delightfully oily politician - I really enjoyed his turn in the Merlin season two two-parter, "Beauty and the Beast."

This production of The Secret of Chimneys is melodramatic and over-the-top, but nevertheless I enjoy it. I think it's an excellent example of refined, historical British soap opera. *wink* I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this film for review purposes. Stretches in logic notwithstanding, the characters stay grounded in their world, and really at the end of the day any excuse for Stephen Dillane to charm Julia McKenzie is fine by me. I'd love to hear your thoughts (especially if you've read the novel)!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Review: Jane and the Genius of Place by Stephanie Barron

Jane and the Genius of the Place (Jane Austen Mysteries #4)
By: Stephanie Barron
Publisher: Bantam
ISBN: 0-553-57839-1

About the book:

In the waning days of summer, Jane Austen is off to the Canterbury Races, where the rich and fashionable gamble away their fortunes. It is an atmosphere ripe for scandal - but even Jane is unprepared for the shocking drama that unfolds. A flamboyant French beauty, known for her brazen behavior, is found gruesomely strangled in a shabby chaise. While many urge the arrest of a known scoundrel with eyes for the victim, Jane looks further afield and finds a number of acquaintances behaving oddly. As rumors spread like wildfire that Napoleon's fleet is bound for Kent, Jane suspects that the murder was an act of war rather than a crime of passion. Suddenly the peaceful fields of Kent are a very dangerous place...and Jane's thirst for justice may exact the steepest price of all - her life.


In the summer of 1805, Jane Austen finds herself enjoying the comforts of a visit to Godmersham Park, her wealthy brother Edward's estate in Kent. Following the passing of her beloved father some eight months prior, Jane, along with her mother and sister Cassandra, found themselves set adrift in the world, dependent on the generosity of more well-heeled family members to provide them with shelter and sustenance. Jane determines to enjoy all the benefits that come with her brother's place in society, and is thrilled with a family outing to the Canterbury Races, where her brother Harry hopes to see a horse of his own meet with success. But a thrill of a different kind awaits Jane's keenly observant eye, when the universally disliked Francoise Grey, a flamboyant Frenchwoman, creates a scene and then is later discovered in a shocking state of dishabille, brutally strangled. With Edward serving as the local Justice of the Peace, Jane is privvy to all attempts to bring Mrs. Grey's murderer to justice - but events fail to lend themselves to a straightforward resolution. Was Mrs. Grey the victim of a simple lover's quarrel, or was she playing for deeper stakes - with an eye to Bonaparte invading England's shores? With the nation at stake, Jane's investigations threaten to uncover secrets that the powerful would pay dearly to keep hidden... 

For her fourth Jane Austen mystery, Barron continues her tradition of deftly incorporating a clever mystery story into actual known events that occurred in Jane's life. While Jane didn't broach political matters in her writing, it's clear from her letters that she was a well-informed woman, and with two brothers serving in the Navy it is no stretch to imagine that she was highly concerned with the course of England's war with Bonaparte. As Barron states in her Editor's Note introducing Genius of the Place, Kent was "ground zero" for Napoleon's invasion plans - and with the indomitable Jane there in the middle of it all, the possibilities for encountering some good old-fashioned espionage are endless. Barron couples her exploration of the political threat to England at the time with a focus on the pasttimes of a Regency gentleman that would have been of interest to a man occupying Edward's social position. From horse racing to the desire to "improve the landscape" with a re-routed stream or a well-placed ruin, Barron deftly incorporates rich period detail that brings Jane's world to vibrant life.

Along with her brother Edward, we are introduced to a new coterie of Jane's family and acquaintance. While I desperately missed old favorites like the enigmatic Lord Harold Trowbridge and Henry's vivacious wife Eliza, I loved the introduction of Edward's wife Elizabeth - Lizzy - who serves as Jane's primary companion, and I can't imagine a classier, more intelligent foil and sounding board for Jane and her investigations. Barron also introduces us to Anne Sharp, the Austens' governess, with whom Jane would form a life-long friendship and later present her with a presentation copy of her novel Emma. I loved how Barron imagines Anne's storyline to parallel that of Jane Fairfax's relationship with Frank Churchill in Emma. She has a gift for subtly echoing characters or themes found within Jane's published works that make this series an Austen fan's dream come true. The storyline would, I think, benefit from tighter plotting and an earlier, and more in-depth, focus on the espionage element so integral to the storyline. But nevertheless, Genius of the Place is another thoroughly enjoyable entry in the series, replete with Barron's delightful interpretation of Jane's style, wit, and insight.


This review marks the second time I've enjoyed Jane's visit to Kent. Read Laurel Ann's review of Genius of the Place at Austenprose, or author Stephanie Barron's post on the research behind the novel.

This marks my fourth entry in the Being a Jane Austen Mystery Challenge.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Project update #1

About a month ago, I shared my current cross-stich project with you - the Kinkade/Disney Cinderella. I thought it was high time for an update since I've been working on it like mad in my free time this week. :)

Sorry about the crappy lighting. I'm actually pretty amazed - this is the most I've ever completed on this type of project, so I have high hopes for the finished product. :)

Masterpiece presents a Miss Marple encore

According to the e-mail I received this week from Masterpiece, instead of broadcasting an encore presentation of Marple: The Secret of Chimneys on 5/29/11, they are showing a Memorial Day concert and making the Marple episode available for online viewing 5/30-6/12. You might want to check your local listings, just in case some markets are re-airing the episode at an alternate time, especially since it features a post-Robin Hood appearance by Jonas Armstrong! :) Here's some info about the episode:
History has been written within the walls of the stately Chimneys estate. But Chimneys's luster was tarnished after a grand party that ended in the theft of a revered Indian diamond. Now, more than 20 years later, Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, Cranford) is accompanying Virginia Revel to Chimneys, her family home, for a weekend with Virginia's father Lord Caterham (Edward Fox, Oliver Twist), Austrian count Ludwig van Stainach and an odd array of other guests. But when Count Ludwig is found shot, it seems scandal has come again to Chimneys. Is there a coded message in the dead man's pocket? An esteemed chief inspector (Stephen Dillane, God on Trial) arrives from Scotland Yard, and with the clear thinking of Miss Marple, the two will uncover decades old secrets, and navigate through the smokescreen of perplexing clues to the truth of what happened at Chimneys. The Secret of Chimneys is based on the novel by Agatha Christie. (One episode; 90 minutes)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Traxy's Quick Newbie Guide to Jane Eyre

People, I am absolutely thrilled to welcome my friend Traxy, from The Squeee (see, now that is just fun to type), to the blog today with a guest post for the All Things Jane series. The tagline for Traxy's blog is "May contain ramblings of an easily overexcited fangirl. And cravats." - so, I think you can see why I consider her a friend. :) I consider Traxy something of a Jane Eyre expert - back in November 2010, she set herself the task of seeing how many versions of Jane Eyre she could read, which has spawned reviews of prequels, sequels, and reimaginings. I've also loved reading her reviews of Jane Eyre radio adaptations, since I'm a huge fan of old time radio shows (you can find links to the radio reviews here). She's also a huge fan of Richard Armitage (clearly the woman has excellent taste). Need I say more? :)

Without further ado, here's Traxy's Quick Newbie Guide to Jane Eyre:

A while back, I got the following question:
I feel like looking up some adaptation of Jane Eyre, because I’m starting to become quite curious, but which one would you recommend? :)
An offer I couldn’t refuse! Here is a collection of the Jane Eyre adaptations that have been made so far (okay, technically, there are a few more, but they’re either in foreign and/or really difficult to get a hold of), and that I have ogled with badly hidden enthusiasm:

The Quick Newbie Guide to Jane Eyre Adaptations

1934 (film)

So bad and so far from the movie that it’s funny. Fortunately, it’s only an hour long, so the suffering’s cut short.

1944 (film: Fontaine/Welles)

Very gothic and surprisingly good, even if it’s a bit too short and changes things around in very strange ways. Orson Welles, yay.

1970 (film: York/Scott)

No. Scrooge as Rochester is just plain wrong. As are the clothes and the setting.

1973 (miniseries, 5 one-hour parts: Cusack/Jayston)

Has strange voiceovers to distract (and Jane looks constantly surprised), but is very close to the book in a lot of ways – including the way characters make gestures!

1983 (miniseries, 11 half-hour parts: Clarke/Dalton)

Also very close to the book and has possibly slightly higher production value than ’73. Dalton actually looks a lot like the Rochester of the book as well. One of the adaptations favoured by book enthusiasts.

1996 (film: Gainsbourg/Hurt)

Dwells on Jane’s time at Lowood more than other adaptations do, and does it well. It’s the only adaptation that’s actually brought tears to my eyes! It’s actually a really good film, but it’s very emotionally restrained, which can be really frustrating to watch. Hurt doesn’t fit Rochester by any stretch of the imagination, and Elle MacPherson as Blanche is so wooden that you could use her for firewood.

1997 (film: Morton/Hinds)

If you overlook the moustache and the bulky trousers and that Rochester is way too angry/shouty, it’s good and has some funny lines. You never quite forget that you’re watching actors at work, though, but it does contain a scene which had me properly squeeing.

2006 (miniseries, 4 one-hour parts: Wilson/Stevens)

Follows the book in a good way, even if it’s perhaps more true to the spirit of it rather than the actual details. The stars understand the characters and it doesn’t feel as if they’re acting them as much as they ARE the characters - especially Rochester. It might be adapted for a modern audience, but not in a bad way (aside from a few scenes that just feel wrong), and it’s a clear favourite with many fans - myself included.

2011 (film: Wasikowska/Fassbender)

We’ll have to wait and see! Depending on where you are in the world, you might have seen it already. Us Europeans have to wait until September (or even later) before it comes out here. Boo! Meanwhile, I think you should read Ruth’s review. (Ruth here: Thanks for the shout-out!)


As a good first introduction to Jane Eyre, I would probably recommend the miniseries from 2006, starring Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens. It has the more important parts without feeling tedious or dull, which at times sadly both ‘73 and ‘83 do.

It has a beautiful soundtrack and feels nicely atmospheric. All in all, it made me feel that wow, this is a book I’d like to read! I had started to read the book before I first saw this adaptation in 2008, but I had put it aside and left Jane at Lowood because I found it a bit dull. Then I saw the ‘06 adaptation and all of a sudden, the book was a lot more interesting! (Dear Charlotte has a few issues getting to the point.)

The filming locations - I’ve been to some of them, squee! - are well chosen, costumes are nice and feel right, and even if Rochester’s hair doesn’t seem to adhere to any laws of gravity familiar the rest of us, you can’t deny the fact that men look great in cravats, coats and tight breeches!


Traxy, thanks again for joining in the All Things Jane celebration! I haven't seen the 1934 film or either of the 1970s versions - I have to confess I'm intrigued! :)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express

Masterpiece Mystery kicked off its 2011 season with an encore presentation of last year's Murder on the Orient Express, based on the novel by Agatha Christie. Orient Express is perhaps one of Christie's best-known novels, and with good reason. It's a terrific introduction to one of her most famous sleuths, the inimitable Hercule Poirot, and thanks to a sprawling cast it lends itself to colorful adaptations (it's been filmed two times prior to this). Since I did a terrible job keeping up with Mystery reviews last year, I'm hoping that PBS's decision to air encore presentations of Poirot and Marple episodes will afford me the chance (and the incentive) to bring my Masterpiece Mystery page up-to-date. Here's the story summary from the PBS website:

Hercule Poirot is visiting Istanbul, but is called back to London to work on a case. Poirot's old acquaintance Xavier Bouc, who is director of the Orient Express, secures him a last-minute ticket on the impressive train. The train is completely booked, carrying an eclectic group of passengers such as Princess Dragomiroff and her nervous maid, Hildegarde Schmidt, English governess Mary Debenham and Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson.

During the journey, ruthless American businessman Samuel Ratchett approaches Poirot. Ratchett cryptically explains to Poirot that he needs to give something back before he can be forgiven, but fears he'll be murdered in the meantime. He asks Poirot for protection, offering a large sum of money, but Poirot refuses. The next morning, Poirot awakens to find the train stuck in a snowdrift and Ratchett dead.

Aided by Dr. Constantine, Poirot examines the murder scene and finds a variety of confusing clues. He interviews those who last saw Ratchett alive: his manservant Edward Masterman, personal assistant Hector MacQueen, and conductor Pierre Michel before making a striking realization about Ratchett. The evidence points towards a particular explanation for the murder, but Poirot also considers a darker, alternative theory. Isolated by the snow and potentially on the train with a killer, Poirot is embroiled in one of the most vexing cases of career, and will soon be forced to make one of the hardest decisions of his life.
Now, I've been a fan of David Suchet's portrayal of Poirot almost from the time he started bringing Christie's Belgian sleuth to life (in 1989, can you believe it?). I've also read the novel Murder on the Orient Express two or three times at least. So I feel like I have a fairly good handle on Poirot's character and the source material (although admittedly it's been a couple of years since I've re-read the book). That's why the tonal shift, established with the opening scenes of this film, is somewhat inexplicable to me. The script (penned by Stewart Harcourt, a veteran of the Marple series) adds two scenes not found in the novel that set a darker tone for the story and Poirot's character than is warranted, in my opinion. The first scene sees Poirot drive an army officer in Palestine to suicide when he is caught lying after Poirot's investigation. This tragedy is followed by another, when Poirot witnesses mob mentality take over the streets of Istanbul when a woman is stoned to death for committing adultery. The senselessness of both situations - and perhaps a niggling sense of guilt for failing to stop the tragedies - puts Poirot in an extremely foul, introspective mood and leads him to ruminate on the nature of justice. It is perhaps not as black and white as he would like to think.

Most of the time I really don't mind when scripts add scenes or rework Christie's novels if the essence of the main characters I love (i.e. Poirot or Miss Marple) remain essentially true to themselves (notable exceptions being the completely unnecessary incest subplot in Marple's Murder is Easy). The opening scenes of Orient Express are, in my estimation, completely unnecessary additions to the story and set a darker tone than I'd prefer for one of my favorite Christie mysteries, finally starring my favorite incarnation of Poirot. Poirot comes across as so depressed, moody, and angry by turns at various times throughout this adaptation that I felt as though my beloved sleuth had aged at least twenty years, completely unnecessarily to boot. That said, I didn't hate this adaptation - anything starring Suchet as Poirot is worth watching at least once in my opinion, and a stellar cast and glorious period detail make this production a feast for the eyes. However, when "ranking" film adaptations of Orient Express, this one sadly has to fall a tick below the 1974 Albert Finney-as-Poirot film version (believe it or not...).

Christie created one of her most memorable, colorful casts of characters when she penned Orient Express, and any film version is a prime opportunity to gather a slew of famous faces to take part in the famous whodunit. As the director of the line Xavier Bouc (Serge Hazanavicius), an old Poirot acquaintance, tells the detective, the Orient Express is one of the few places on Earth that serves as a "great equalizer," where commoners can mingle with royalty, all taking advantage of the line's cross-country transportation abilities. Where else would such unlikely companions find themselves sharing the same dining car - except, perhaps, in an open republic of  a society like America.

The linchpin of the piece is the abrasive American businessman Samuel Rachett (Toby Jones), who attempts to hire Poirot for protection since he's convinced he's the target of a murderous plot. Poirot takes an instant dislike to Rachett and refuses the man's proffered offer of an exorbitantly high fee. I'm hard-pressed to imagine a better choice than Jones to portray the slimy Ratchett. I'm sure he's a perfectly lovely individual in person, but to be blunt he looks so...odd, I guess you could say...that when he's playing the villain it's completely believable. The only positive role of Jones's that comes to mind is his turn as the voice of Dobby the elf in the Harry Potter films. The day after Poirot's refusal, the occupants of the coach wake up to find the train stuck in a snowdrift, and Ratchett brutally murdered in his cabin.

Ratchett's murder forces Poirot to take a closer look at his fellow passengers, since as the only remotely qualified investigator on board he's recruited to apply "his little grey cells" to the problem of who killed the businessman. The clues don't seem to add up - twelve knife wounds were inflicted, all at varying angles and with different degrees of force, a burnt paper fragment with the letters "AISY ARMS," a monogrammed woman's handkerchief, a button from a conductor's uniform, Ratchett's missing cash, and the confusing accounts of the night's activities from the passengers combine to make a puzzling snarl for Poirot to unravel. Poirot being Poirot, he quickly draws the conclusion that Ratchett was in fact none other than Cassetti, a notorious gangster responsible for the kidnap and murder of the American Daisy Armstrong. The shocking crime - and Cassetti's subsequent, and sickening, acquittal - destroyed the Armstrong family. And if you went into this film unfamiliar with the story, that mess of unlikely suspects and confusing clues is the genius of Christie's novel. In an enclosed, defined space, how can Poirot divine the killer when nothing adds up and everything seems unrelated?

Several beloved, familiar faces make up the cast of suspects, and I just want to spotlight some favorites. David Morrissey, most recently seen in South Riding, plays Colonel Arbuthnot, Daisy's father's best friend in the service. In a huge ensemble cast like this, Morrissey doesn't get a great deal of screentime, but it's refreshing to see him play a more noble, driven character - as opposed to the mess he plays in South Riding. I do adore his voice, and he looks quite dashing in the late 1930s-era suits. It was also a treat to see another Masterpiece vet, Hugh Bonneville, make an appearance as Edward Masterman, Ratchett's butler and previously Daisy's father's orderly in the army. Bonneville, of course, made a big splash on Masterpiece earlier this year anchoring Downton Abbey as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.

I was thrilled to see this production cast an old favorite of mine, actor Samuel West, as Dr. Constantine, the Armstrong family doctor and the conspirators' first line of defense in attempting to divert Poirot's line of investigation. I developed a huge crush on West when he played the young Caspian in the old made-for-TV production of Prince Caspian and the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Following that turn, he played the ill-fated Leonard Best in Howard's End, Mr. Elliot in some people's favorite version of Persuasion, St. John Rivers in the 1996 version of Jane Eyre, as well as appearances in Hornblower and Foyle's War. Sadly, the man has never achieved the kind of on-screen success and exposure that I think he deserves, so it's always a treat to spot him in a new role.

Eileen Atkins is another cast standout, playing Princess Dragomiroff, godmother to the ill-fated Daisy's mother. Atkins is one of a handful of grand British actresses who own the screen just by showing up. As Princess Dragomiroff, Atkins is mesmerizing - regal, cold, and calculating, she knows she's taken a calculated risk by traveling on the Orient Express and is prepared to accept the consequences of her actions. If anyone is going to carry off the whole Russian princess thing, it's Atkins. She most recently appeared on Masterpiece as Lady Maud in the highly enjoyable "re-boot" of Upstairs Downstairs, and is a veteran of Cranford and the Marple series, to name just a few of the credits in her illustrious career.

This may not be a favorite Poirot episode, but it is certainly one of the most visually stunning. Everything about this production is top-notch, from the clothing to the detail in the train compartments. This film truly brings a glittering, lost era to vibrant life, and makes me desperately wish I'd been around to travel the Orient Express in its heyday. While Christie's story, and Poirot's ultimate decision regarding the fate of the train passengers, raises some interesting questions about the nature of justice, I do feel like the ultimate tone of this film is "off" when compared to the book and Suchet's previous performances as Poirot. However, the concluding scene, with its stark, snowy-white backdrop, is stunningly well-filmed.

Whether you're an old-time Christie fan or a newbie, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this film if you caught its rebroadcast last night!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Doctor Who: "He's a Pirate"

This, my friends, is BRILLIANT. I don't know why I never made the Doctor (especially the Matt Smith version)/Jack Sparrow comparison before. :) Thanks to Bookish Ruth for the link!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Masterpiece Mystery starts tomorrow!

Masterpiece Mystery begins tomorrow night with an encore presentation of Agatha Christie's Murder On the Orient Express, starring the inimitable David Suchet as Poirot and a slew of other familiar faces in the all-star cast. Here's a bit about the story:
Hercule Poirot solves the greatest case of his career aboard the world's most glamorous train in an encore presentation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, Sunday, May 22, 2011 on MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! Star David Suchet is joined by a first-class rail car full of great actors, including Eileen Atkins (Upstairs Downstairs), Barbara Hershey and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey). Watch the full episode online starting Monday, May 23.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Masterpiece Mystery 2011 Schedule

Masterpiece Mystery has finally announced its summer schedule! Here's a look at what's in store for us in the coming weeks:


Agatha Christie’s beloved characters return to this season’s MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! lineup, featuring the suave Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) and the charming spinster sleuth Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie). (All episodes 90 minutes unless otherwise noted. National broadcast dates in bold; online viewing dates in parentheses.)
  • May 22 (May 23 – Jun 5) Poirot: “Murder on the Orient Express” (Encore)*
  • (May 23 – Jun 21) “David Suchet on the Orient Express: A Masterpiece Special” 60 min. (Encore)*
  • May 29 (May 30 – Jun 12) Marple: “The Secret of Chimneys” (Encore)*
  • Jun 5 (Jun 6 – Jun 19) Poirot: “Appointment with Death” (Encore)*
  • Jun 12 (Jun 13 – Jun 26) Poirot: “The Third Girl” (Encore)*
  • Jun 19 (Jun 20 – Jul 19) Poirot: “Three Act Tragedy”
  • Jun 26 (Jun 27 – Jul 26) Poirot: “The Clocks”
  • Jul 3 (Jul 4 – Aug 2) Poirot: “The Hallowe’en Party”
  • Jul 10 (Jul 11 – Aug 9) Marple: “The Pale Horse”

What does an honest cop do when his bosses are on the side of the lawbreakers? Detective Aurelio Zen brings justice to modern-day Italy—whether the authorities want it or not. This trio of spellbinding cases, based on the bestselling novels by Michael Dibdin, stars Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch). (All episodes 90 minutes. National broadcast dates in bold; online viewing dates in parentheses.)
  • Jul 17 (Jul 18 – Aug 30) “Vendetta”
  • Jul 24 (Jul 25 – Aug 30) “Cabal”
  • Jul 31 (Aug 1 – Aug 30) “Ratking” 
*Limited local airings; please check local listings.

All episodes can be viewed online for a limited time at pbs.org/masterpiece

More titles to be announced.

I am not thrilled about four Christie encores, and only one new Marple episode, but I'll take it. And I am SUPER excited about the Zen mysteries with my darling Rufus Sewell!

You can download a printable copy of the Mystery schedule here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

White Collar Season 3 Poster

Do you have any idea - ANY IDEA - how badly I want this poster hanging on my wall? Neal/Matt B., you rock my world. :)

White Collar returns June 7th with Season 3.

South Riding, Part Three

South Riding concluded on Masterpiece Sunday night, and with it the somewhat hit-or-miss Classic portion of PBS's 40th Anniversary season has come to a close. I'm somewhat conflicted about this production - on the one hand, I had some issues with the program trying to cram too much info into too little time, giving character and relationship development the short shrift, while on the other hand, I have to give the program credit for ending on a much better note than I was anticipating after last week's installment. So let's discuss for a bit, shall we? :) Here's the Part Three episode summary from the PBS website:
Sarah returns from Manchester disappointed and anxious, as her efforts to find Robert are dashed, and Lydia greets her with nothing but bitterness. A bottle of Scotch and the companionship of Joe Astell ease her loneliness, but the new year brings her back to business. Sarah firmly pleads with the complacent Mr. Holly to try to find a solution for Lydia, but he continues to think only of himself. Meanwhile, in the face of relentless worries, Robert turns to Mrs. Beddows for reassurance about Midge, who finally begins to show acceptance of her situation. But when Huggins asks Robert to drop his opposition to the land deal, suggesting it could be to his own financial benefit, the enraged Robert loses control and makes an accusation with devastating consequences. What follows are hard choices for the residents of South Riding, who face a future of uncertainty and heartbreak, but also of hope.
After the hookup that wasn't to be, Robert (David Morrissey) leaves Manchester without a word to Sarah (Anna Maxwell Martin), who's disappointed and understandably concerned. Though I have to say, to Martin's and the script's discredit, Sarah comes across as less worried about Robert's panic/stress-induced attack and more concerned with the fact that he wasn't stroking her ego and making a second try at their little would-be affair. Thoughts? While I really like Martin in a general way as an actress, I rather wish this storyline had allowed her to play a more mature "inspirational" teacher figure. For someone so determined to blaze a progressive trail, Sarah can be occassionally quite clueless and immature about the realities of the situations she finds herself faced with.

Christmas comes and goes and Sarah's prize pupil, Lydia (Charlie Clark), is still unable to resume her scholarship and return to school following her mother's sudden death. Sarah meets with Lydia's father, Mr. Holly (Shaun Dooley), to pressure him into finding another solution to his childcare problems so Lydia doesn't "waste" her educational potential. That scene annoyed me a bit, primarily because if Sarah is so gung-ho and insistent on getting Lydia back in classes, why isn't she doing something about the Hollys childcare issues herself? I thought Mr. Holly's initial resignation to Lydia's fate, if you will, was interesting and very realistic - he apparently holds the view that since his own opportunities for educational advancement didn't pan out, and since his request for aid was denied there is nothing more to be done. Really rather tragically pragmatic - and one would wish that since Sarah finds this viewpoint so abhorrent she would actually do something to change the situation, instead of gripe about it. All things considered, Lydia's terse response to Sarah's overtures is completely understandable - Sarah should count herself lucky that Lydia didn't bite her head off.

Mr. Holly surprised me in this episode, though upon further reflection I think his way of "fixing" the caretaking issue was really quite moving. I was reminded of pioneer stories, where people married out of necessity, and hoped for love after the vows. I really enjoyed the sparks between Holly and the widowed Mrs. Brimsley (Marie Critchley). Lydia is, of course, understandably reticent about having her mother "replaced" so quickly - and I wish as a viewer I'd been given more time to see a relationship develop between Holly and Mrs. Brimsley beyond their casual, flirtatious banter. Dooley and Critchley had a really lovely screen presence together that I would've liked to see more of - sadly a casual of the enforced three hour run-time.

When I heard that Douglas Henshall was appearing in this production, I was really hoping for a major role, i.e. that his character would be a viable love interest for Sarah - but alas that was not to be. Henshall's character, Joe, the politician and activist, was sadly for Sarah consigned to the role of "pal," since she was determined to throw her affections away on a married and unbalanced man. *sigh* I was happy to see Joe's screentime increased in this episode - especially since he finally calls Sarah out, and no longer content to play the best friend role in her life, announces he's leaving South Riding, unless Sarah gives him a reason to remain. And of course, the stupid woman lets him go. However, I have no doubt Joe is better off in the long run. :)

I was thrilled to see Mrs. Beddows (Penelope Wilton) at long last finally come into her own in this final installment, and become the critical, pivotal character I expect an actress of Wilton's caliber to play. Better late than never, I suppose. :) In Part Two it was revealed that Mrs. Beddows was present at the birth of Robert's daughter Midge (Katherine McGolpin), so it makes sense when Robert, facing finanacial ruin, asks his old friend to serve as Midge's guardian should anything happen to him. Robert's request proves eerily prescient when he turns up dead. Gossip immediately starts flying that Robert committed suicide, since he was facing total ruin when the corrupt Snaith (Peter Firth) sues him for slander.

Sarah is, predictably, crushed at the news of Robert's death. Her reaction and vocal insistence on denying Robert's suicide borders on the ridiculous. Their "relationship," such as it was, was based on a single unconsummated hook-up and a handful of friendly encounters liberally interrupted with clashes over South Riding's future. Sarah's reaction to Robert's death and the loss of their "relationship" reminded me a bit of Mary's over-the-top reaction to the death of her diplomat "lover" in Downton Abbey. Both women annoy me by their insistence at becaming so consumed by these dead-end (no pun intended) relationships that never were anything meaningful to begin with, they ignore the positive possibilities staring them in the face. Sarah's reaction is especially disappointing, because she's presented as a character you think should know better. Oh well...c'est la vie...perhaps in the book she does. (Robert's death is revealed to be an accident, and I have to admit the fact that he dies in a freaking landslide - well doesn't it just figure? Oh the dramatics...)

Midge suffers an interesting - and disturbing - fate when her maternal grandfather (Ralph Risch) shows up at Robert's funeral and essentially demands custody from Mrs. Beddows. Midge, who's done another 180 and become unnaturally (for her, anyway) calm since her father's death decides to move in with her grandfather - the man who has basically ignored her for her entire life. The girl appears consigned to a loveless future, and considering her mother's mental problems who knows what secrets her grandfather hides. Vaguely creepy and oh so sad - Midge appears destined to repeat her mother's life.

Unsurprisingly, Sarah decides to flee South Riding following Robert's death - and this leads to perhaps my favorite moment in the series, when Mrs. Beddows calls her out for cowardice and shames her for running from her grief. Joe had tried to give Sarah a reality check earlier, which she (stupidly) brushed off, but Mrs. Beddows knows the one way to reach Sarah, to get her to stop thinking about herself, is to appeal to her passion for seeing students like Lydia better themselves. And after delivering a cheer-worthy dressing-down and slap-upside-the-head reality check, Sarah (thankfully) decides not to go to London to wreck Joe's life (pure speculation on my part - HA!), and stays in South Riding - where, hopefully, she grows up.

In spite of my frustrations with some of the storylines (honestly, if you couldn't tell, the whole land-grab deal didn't interest me at all, even though it did have a direct impact on Robert) and some eye-rolling and predictable moments, South Riding ended on a better note than I expected after last week's installment. I've got to give Andrew Davies credit for scripting such a save - there's a reason the man has been one of the "go-to" writers for adapting classics for over a decade. Robert's old home is turned into a mental hospital, and the troubled Muriel (Lydia Wilson) finally gets her dearest wish - she can go "home." Since it was abundantly clear she was never going to get better, I really liked this resolution to her tragic story - and since she's back in South Riding, I like to think Mrs. Beddows will keep an eye on her. Lydia lives up to her academic promise and goes to Oxford, and Sarah gets her longed-for new school building (just don't think about the months - at least - that the show crammed into the final five minutes). And I like to think that Sarah will live up to the promise of her introduction - that, having shed some of her immaturity and naivete, she's grown into a teacher to cheer for.

I plan on watching South Riding on DVD, as I'm curious what the full three-hour program looks like. Historically the "missing" 6-10 minutes PBS trims from Masterpiece productions for ads more often than not vastly improve the tone and flow of the show. I'd also like to read the novel - since it clocks in at over 500 pages, I'm confident that there is a wealth of character and story development that, due to the budget constraints of cramming the story into three hours, were trimmed or cut beyond recognition.

While South Riding did not live up to my expectations, it was an interesting and well-filmed period piece, gorgeous to look at - full of great detail and delicious 1930s costumes. This is not a "happily ever after" for all story, and I just wish that Masterpiece viewers had been given the luxury of five or six hours to see this little-known classic brought to life - I think more time would've helped my reception of the show tremendously. If you watched South Riding, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

2011 INSPY Award nominations are open!

I am thrilled to be able to announce that nominations for the 2011 INSPY Awards are now open! About the awards:
Recognizing the need for a new kind of book award, the INSPYs were created by bloggers to discover and highlight the very best in literature that grapples with expressions of the Christian faith.
Nominations are being accepted now, through July 15, 2011. Here's how to get involved:

Once Upon a Time preview

I was thrilled to see a trailer debut today for ABC's own fairy-tale themed show coming this fall, entitled Once Upon a Time. It'll be interesting to compare this show with NBC's Grimm - while I'm intrigued by both, at this point I've got to say I'm leaning towards Once being guaranteed must-see TV for me.

Here's the press release about the show (from Daemon's TV):

Synopsis: From the inventive minds of “Lost” executive producers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis comes a bold new imagining of the world, where fairy tales and the modern-day are about to collide.

And they all lived happily ever after – or so everyone was led to believe. Emma Swan knows how to take care of herself. She’s a 28-year-old bail bonds collector who’s been on her own ever since she was abandoned as a baby. But when the son she gave up years ago finds her, everything starts to change. Henry is now 10 years old and in desperate need of Emma’s help. He believes that Emma actually comes from an alternate world and is Snow White and Prince Charming’s missing daughter. According to his book of fairytales, they sent her away to protect her from the Evil Queen’s curse, which trapped the fairytale world forever, frozen in time, and brought them into our modern world. Of course Emma doesn’t believe a word, but when she brings Henry back to Storybrooke, she finds herself drawn to this unusual boy and his strange New England town. Concerned for Henry, she decides to stay for a while, but she soon suspects that Storybrooke is more than it seems. It’s a place where magic has been forgotten, but is still powerfully close… where fairytale characters are alive, even though they don’t remember who they once were. The epic battle for the future of all worlds is beginning, but for good to win, Emma will have to accept her destiny and fight like hell.

“Once Upon a Time” stars Ginnifer Goodwin (“Big Love”) as Snow White/Sister Mary Margaret, Jennifer Morrison (“House MD”) as Emma Swan, Robert Carlyle (“The Full Monty,” “Trainspotting,” “SGU Stargate Universe”) as Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold, Lana Parrilla as Evil Queen/Regina, Jamie Dornan as Sheriff Graham, Jared Gilmore (“Mad Men”) as Henry, Josh Dallas as Prince Charming/John Doe and Raphael Sbarge as Jiminy Cricket/Archie.

“Once Upon a Time” was written by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, who are also executive producers, along with Steve Pearlman (ABC’s “V”). The pilot is directed and executive-produced by Mark Mylod (“Entourage”). “Once Upon a Time” is from ABC Studios.
And here's a trailer:

And  brief show clip (I assume from the premiere):

Thoughts? :)


That's what happened after I stumbled across the promotional poster for David Tennant and Catherine Tate in Much Ado About Nothing, currently playing at the Wyndham Theatre in London. I absolutely loved Tennant's turn in Hamlet, but to know that he's now in my absolute favorite Shakespeare comedy? What bliss. :)

Isn't he adorable? :)

Monday, May 16, 2011

Grimm Trailer

So just in case you aren't addicted to entertainment-related blogs like me (HA!!), you might not be aware that this is network upfront week, when fans learn the fate of their favorite shows and the networks announce the new series they've picked up for debut in the fall.

I am a SUCKER for re-told fairy tales, so I was immediately intrigued to read about Grimm, a "fairy tale police procedural" that NBC is going to be airing this fall. Here's a series intro (from Hitfix.com):

In this re-imagining of Grimm’s fairy tales in the 21st century, Detective Nick Burkhardt (David Giuntoli) discovers he’s a descendant of a group of elite hunters known as Grimms who are charged with stopping the proliferation of supernatural creatures in the world. Luckily, he gets a hand in sorting out this strange new (but old) world from Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), who just might be more big, bad wolf than regular guy.
And a trailer:

So whaddya think? :)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

South Riding concludes tomorrow

South Riding, and the "Classic" third of the 2011 Masterpiece season conclude tomorrow night. Here's a bit of what we have to look forward to in Part Three of this drama based on Winifred Holtby's novel:

Progress has its champions, but also its casualties when tragedy strikes Sarah Burton and her community. See the conclusion of South Riding this Sunday, May 15, 2011, on MASTERPIECE. Anna Maxwell Martin (Bleak House), David Morrissey (Sense & Sensibility), and Penelope Wilton (Downton Abbey) star in Andrew Davis' adaptation of Winifred Holtby's classic novel. 

South Riding, Part Two

South Riding continued last Sunday with Part Two of its three-part run on Masterpiece Classic, where events for all characters took a decidedly darker turn. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

With the inspiration of Joe Astell, the razing of the squalid Shacks and development of modern new housing is brought to a vote, in spite of Robert Carne's disapproval. But it comes too late for the Holly family, and the gifted student Lydia, thriving under Sarah's mentorship, must give up her talents and dreams.

For his part, Robert is unable to imagine a future for South Riding precisely because he is a prisoner of the past, as the secret agony of his guilt is revealed. Guilt also torments the lusty Methodist minister Alfred Huggins — guilt and a pair of blackmailers. He plays directly into the hands of Councilor Anthony Snaith, whose gentle prods toward investment in an area of land called the Wastes send Huggins head-first into a risky scheme. Financial woes compound Robert's troubles, and he ventures to Manchester in the hopes of heading off the bank from repossessing his ancestral home. Sarah, on her way to visit her sister, has too stopped in Manchester for the night, and their chance meeting leads to events for which neither is prepared, and an all-too-temporary respite from the messy collisions of life's complexities.
I finally got the chance to watch this episode Thursday night. I have to say, South Riding is not turning out to be quite the type of program I was expecting (i.e. a straightforward romance), based on the previews and episode information I'd managed to read online. It is much, MUCH grittier and darker than I was anticipating. I don't mind "gritty" and "dark" when it is done well (preferably shot through with rays of light) - and that is where this miniseries falters just a bit. One cannot, I think, help but get the feeling that the filmmakers are trying to do way too much in way too little time. While I applaud it for "aiming high," character-wise South Riding is suffering in my view from a lack of time for character development.

One problematic character is Midge Carne (Katharine McGolpin). It was clear from the first moment she's introduced that she is a wildy unbalanced child - the question is, how and to what degree? Father Robert (David Morrissey) is clearly incapable of helping her as she needs, since he carries around such guilt about her mother (more on that in a second) and stress about his nearly-bankrupt estate. Based on Midge's introduction in Part One, and then her subsequent appearances, I have to think she's been very ill-served by the script and pace of the show. One moment she's hysterical, the next she's eerily calm and by all appearances functional, even capable of tormenting an ill-equipped schoolteacher. There is no middle ground, but maybe that is accurate for her type of mental issues, I don't know. The way her inner "switch" flips back and forth just doesn't quite add up to me, at least how it's been presented thus far. Ultimately Midge strikes me as a tragic, ticking time bomb. Even her fascination with Sarah (Anna Maxwell Martin) feels dangerous - she seems to have the type of personality that needs to obsess, and that obsession(s) leads to wildly imbalanced emotional responses.

I haven't been overly fond of the show's decision to have Robert played in flashback by another actor, in this case Daniel West, while Muriel is portrayed by the same actress (Lydia Wilson) in both flashback and "present day" scenes. Personally I don't think David Morrissey looks so "old" that a younger version is required, but given the revelations about Robert's past in this episode I have a theory. It is revealed that upon his return home from the front in WWI, Robert found his wife flirting with three men in their home. Enraged and frustrated (which is understandable), he proceeds to rape her (UGH!), the act resulting in the pair's only daughter. This scene was not for the faint of heart - while it isn't explicit nudity-wise, it's a horrifying, emotionally charged scene, compounded by the revelation that Muriel is very cognizant of the fact that she's not "supposed" to have children (or has been advised against it in the past, that is not specified), and takes precautions to prevent pregnancy - precautions that Robert, in his jealous rage, doesn't care to make sure are in place. So my theory is that the filmmakers cast West in the role in some attempt to make the older Robert more sympathetic. I have a hard, hard time with this. Any way you slice it, rape is a heinous crime - and in films or books, even when the perpetrator expresses guilt/remorse after the fact, I have a hard time "forgiving" them - because with that act, a switch irrevocably flips in my perception of the character in question. Thoughts?

Robert has a lot on his plate, I get that. In addition to the after-effects of being gassed during the war (hence the amyl nitrate, which was apparently used as - a highly addictive? - treatment for cyanide poisoning), he's in danger of losing his anscestral home to repossession by the bank. On top of all this, there's the crippling guilt he carries that his actions - the rape - resulted in the pregnancy that completely tipped Muriel over the edge into full-blown insanity. David Morrissey is an excellent choice for playing the "post-attack" Robert, I will give the casting director that. As I mentioned in my review of Part One, Morrissey proves quite adept at playing the tortured soul. While I am disappointed that the storyline went the direction it did regarding Robert and Muriel's past, I can't think of an actor better than suited than Morrissey to play the repentant/tortured Robert, who feels so guilty and overwhelmed by life that he's on the verge of a mental breakdown himself. I just wish that this miniseries had more time to develop the consequences of the weighty issues South Riding's characters are (trying to) cope with. If as a viewer I'm supposed to somehow "look past" Robert's actions, I really need more of his backstory - perhaps that backstory is provided in Winifred Holtby's novel. Just thinking out loud here...

Anna Maxwell Martin continues to shine as Sarah, making her mark on the school and generally becoming a favorite of students. However, her character suffers in this installment of the series for lack of time to really delve into what makes Sarah "tick," if you will. In Part One, the filmmakers gave us a hint of the romantic tragedy in Sarah's past - losing her fiance in the war - and she shares a meaningful exchange with Joe Astell (Douglas Henshall), South Riding's most vocal crusader for social change. That conversation marked a spark of real connection between Sarah a Joe, a connection that I admittedly favor over Sarah's insistence to pursue a relationship with Robert. Yes, she and Robert shared that whole tremendously exciting (to be read with sarcasm) interlude in the barn with the cow giving birth, but beyond that I don't feel like I've been allowed to see why she is so invested in Robert.

Prior to the failed Robert/Sarah hook-up in Manchester (spectacularly blown up by either a PTSD attack or guilt), Sarah and Rober do share two rather nice scenes. The first occurs after Midge's goading leads the harried teacher Miss Sigglesthwaite to snap, striking her with a ruler across the face. Sarah is, of course, equal parts horrified by the act and perhaps a bit concerned how her failure to see that one of her teachers was on the brink of a nervous breakdown impacted the child of her most vocal critic. But since Robert knows a thing or two about mental strain, he's quite forgiving - Morrissey plays Robert brilliantly, with a balance of bone-tiredness and kindness. The second scene occurs in Manchester when Sarah and Robert meet for dinner - and oh, I am such a sucker for romantic dancing in film. SUCH. A. SUCKER. Sarah's dressed to the "nines" as they say and Robert is quite dashing in a tux - the whole scene is a prime example of how well this film recreates the fashion, romance, and atmosphere of the 1930s - a favorite moment.

My favorite storyline is turning out to be Lydia's (Charlie Clark), the scholarship student at Sarah's school who makes her home in "the Shacks," South Riding's slums community. Under Sarah's watchful tutelage, Lydia is thriving at school, but her future is put at risk when her family endures a shocking tragedy with the untimely death of her mother (Jennifer Hennessy), who bleeds to death - a tragic consequence of trying to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. Her father (Shaun Dooley) applies for hardship aide to the village council, and since Lydia's education is an "option," not a life-or-death necessity, the family's application is rejected, leaving Lydia no other choice than to assume her mother's role as care-taker to her younger siblings. The scene where the once-jovial Mr. Holly humbles himself before the council asking for aid and his summarily rejected just broke my heart - despite the family's hardships, Lydia's father was anxious to do anything necessary to further his daughter's dreams of a future beyond the squalid Shacks - and the blow to their efforts shakes father and daughter to the core. Lydia had quickly become Sarah's star pupil, and I loved their scenes together - but I thought it was interesting that Sarah came across as so - clueless, for lack of a better term, in regards to the harsh reality of Lydia's family situation. That's one of the things that I think fuels Lydia's anger toward Sarah at the end of the episode - coming to her with essentially platitudes instead of concrete aid must've felt like rubbing salt into an open wound.

I could touch on the whole blackmail plot involving Huggins (John Henshaw) and Bessy (Janine Mellor), as well as the land deal with shady developer Anthony Snaith (Peter Firth), but to be honest with you those story threads just weren't all that interesting to me. They felt extremely tangential to the Sarah/Robert and Lydia storylines, which were infinitely more absorbing. I have to admit to being quite disappointed by the lack of scenes involving Joe in this episode - I wonder if he receives additional screentime in the DVD cut of this miniseries? One can only hope, because Douglas Henshall is too fabulous to waste IMO. As is Penelope Wilton as councilwoman Mrs. Beddows!

If you've watched South Riding thus far, I'd love to hear your thoughts! While I thoroughly love the world of this miniseries - the clothing and period detail are superbly handled - I'm a little less enchanted with the pacing and character development in this hour of South Riding - major actions, especially between Sarah and Robert, seem to be developing without the backstory or plausibility that I'd like. The "great" Andrew Davies can only do so much with a script that only allows for three hours. *sigh* Anyways, please share your take on Part Two if you watched it Sunday, as I'd love to discuss!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: Unbridled Dreams by Stephanie Grace Whitson

Soooo...since Blogger blew up or whatever yesterday, and deleted all posts and comments (sadness!) since Wednesday, here is my review of Unbridled Dreams again, originally from 2008.

Unbridled Dreams
By: Stephanie Grace Whitson
Publisher: Bethany House
ISBN: 978-0764203275

About the book:

Irma Friedrich has everything a girl could want…but she’s miserable. To her, the perfect life includes horses and roundups and trick riding.

Willa Friedrich, haunted by disappointment and fear, thinks controlling her daughter’s future is the only way to protect Irma from dangers Willa knows all too well.

Shep Sterling, known as King of the Cowboys, leads a life that represents all Irma desires…and everything her mother fears.

Something has to give when Willa’s insistence on sending Irma to finishing school collides with Irma’s determination to audition for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West. And Shep Sterling is waiting in the wings…


Growing up, I was absolutely obsessed with all things western. I loved cowboy stories, and practically devoured Louis L'Amour novels (long live the Sacketts!). When I started reading Christian fiction, I soon found that most books with a western setting fell squarely into the "prairie romance" category (which is all well and good, but they just aren't my cup of tea). I prefer a western-set tale that's a little grittier or more adventurous. Unbridled Dreams fits the bill perfectly, delivering an adventurous, romantic, whirlwind coming-of-age tale set against the colorful backdrop of Buffalo Bill's Wild West.

By the late 19th century, the west was settled, but the "wild" west lived on in Cody's renowned traveling show. Seventeen-year-old Irma Friedrich has one burning desire - to realize her dream of becoming Liberty Belle, a trick riding Wild West star. However, her unorthodox dream is in direct opposition to her mother's desire for a ladylike daughter who could make an advantageous marriage. When Irma and her overly-indulgent father Otto go to extreme lengths to make Irma's dream come true, Irma must prove herself to the Wild West troupe and somehow repair her tense relationship with her mother without sacrificing her dreams. But when the star cowboy, Shep, begins to pay her extra special attention, to Irma's shock she begins to question her single-minded pursuit of stardom.

Irma is a wonderful, richly drawn character. She's a teenager with a lot to learn about life, and her journey from a passionate, spoiled girl to a hard-working troupe member is richly detailed and her maturation is believable. Willa and Otto's marriage is beautifully portrayed with a sometimes painful realism. Whitson's portrait of marriage shows it to be hard, sacrificial work, but when God's at the center of the relationship, the rewards are breathtakingly worthwhile. The heart of the story is Irma's growth as an individual and in coming to terms with her mother. I suspect that a lot of mothers and daughters will be able to relate to Willa and Irma's relationship. Through her characters, Whitson confronts the reader with what happens when secrets are laid bare, communication is fractured, and pride brings painful but much needed lessons. Unbridled Dreams is a fast-paced, absorbing read that takes its wonderfully real characters on a journey of forgiveness, healing, and restoration. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Review: In Sheep's Clothing by Susan May Warren

Since I'm still dealing with back issues, I thought I'd pull a review or two from the archives. I originally reviewed In Sheep's Clothing in 2008 and it remains one of my favorite Susan May Warren novels.

In Sheep's Clothing (Mission: Russia #1)
By: Susan May Warren
Publisher: Steeple Hill
ISBN: 978-0373785445

About the book:

On the run from the murderer of her best friends, missionary Gracie Benson is all alone in Siberia. What she doesn’t know is that she has in her possession a medical secret that will save millions of lives – or cost hers. Trying to keep her alive is an FSB agent, a man pursued by his own demons, including a killer who destroyed his father’s life. He and Gracie find themselves in a decades-old mystery of betrayal and Cold War Secrets. Only with the help of their friends – a group of Americans and Russians committed to freedom – can they outwit the old guard…and save Gracie’s secret, as well as her life.


Missionary Gracie Benson went to Russia seeking redemption, only to find her hopes disappointed. On the eve of her departure, she discovers the brutally murdered bodies of her colleagues. Suddenly thrust into an unfurling web of deception and lies, Gracie finds herself in a fight for her life, with precious few people to trust. Enigmatic FSB agent Viktor Shubnikov emerges as her unlikely ally - but can Gracie look past his FSB background and her own deep-rooted fears and entrust her life to a most unlikely protector? Viktor finds himself instantly attracted to Gracie's fighting spirit and vows to protect her from the killer who shattered his family years before. However, one thing stands in the way of getting as close to Gracie as he'd like - her tenacious faith. He's seen - and done - too much to deserve grace and forgiveness. When events spiral out of his control, Viktor is forced to relinquish control and entrust his future, and Gracie's, to an invisible God's guiding hand.

In Sheep's Clothing is one of my all-time favorite novels, and as such it's long overdue for an "official" review. Gracie and Viktor are classic Warren creations - they leap living and breathing from the page, fully rounded characters brimming with pain, hope, and potential. The inspiration for their story came from events surrounding a KGB plant in the church discovered during Warren's time as a missionary there. The basic issue of trust in a supposedly good God - how He could allow bad things to happen to essentially good people - is at the crux of Viktor and Gracie's respective faith journeys. Despite their divergent backgrounds, Viktor and Gracie both learn that God's forgiveness isn't something that can be earned - it's a gift, freely given. And only when that gift is received, and control is relinquished, can they rest in the knowledge that in time of need, God - Jehovah Jireh - will provide. In Sheep's Clothing delivers non-stop action and riveting romance, along with life-changing, compelling spiritual truths. Warren never "preaches" and never fails to engage the reader on a thrilling, absorbing journey. I highly recommend this book as a starting point if you've never read one of Warren's books before - you couldn't ask for a better introduction.

Hidden Affections by Delia Parr

This week, the
Christian Fiction Blog Alliance
is introducing
Hidden Affections
Bethany House (May 1, 2011)
Delia Parr


Delia Parr, pen name for Mary Lechleidner, is the author of 10 historical novels and the winner of several awards, including the Laurel Wreath Award for Historical Romance and the Aspen Gold Award for Best Inspirational Book. She is a full-time high school teacher who spends her summer vacations writing and kayaking. The mother of three grown children, she lives in Collingswood, New Jersey.


Betrayed by her husband, Annabelle Tyler wears the burden of legally being a divorcee, a difficult position for an upstanding young woman to find herself in.

While attempting to start a new life for herself, an unexpected turn of events once again has Annabelle married--this time to Harrison Graymoor, the most eligible, yet elusive, bachelor in Philadelphia. Harrison assures her that he will secure an annulment immediately, unaware that the constable has sent word of the marriage to the press in Philadelphia. And here things continue to go awry.

Harrison's past, a philanthropic cousin with his eye on Annabelle, and the appearance of Annabelle's ex-husband threaten the tentative relationship growing between Harrison and his "wife." For two individuals set against marriage, there are certainly a lot of second thoughts regarding the one forced upon them.

If you would like to read the first chapter of Hidden Affections, go HERE.