Cinema: Even Ralph and Uma can't save the day
Sunday 16 August 1998
In theory, could still work. It's different from the Bond films in that its concepts do not depend upon maintaining the macho fantasy of British geopolitical influence. In fact, the original series acted as a tacit acknowledgement that Britain had become a global backwater. Instead of indulging in 007-style posturing, it suggested that British espionage had evolved into a surreal, meaningless and none too serious game. So while Americans dealt with Cold War politics in humourless series like Mission: Impossible, our secret agents inhabited a dayglo world in which threats came from absurdly named companies. John Steed and Emma Peel did battle with DreemyKreem Milk (who wanted to flood the Home Counties with amnesia-inducing gold top), and WormDoom (who had a network of fake pillar boxes primed to release swarms of woodworm). It was hardly the Cuban missile crisis.
In this sense, Jeremiah Chechik's big-screen (12) gets it right. Steed (Ralph Fiennes) and Mrs Peel (Uma Thurman) go into action against giant teddy bears, mechanical wasps and mad scientists. Events takes place in a strange, empty England of stately homes, country lanes and Chelsea mews. There's a bogus company, Wonderland Weather, whose megalomaniac supremo, Sir August de Wynter (Sean Connery), holds the world to ransom by disrupting the weather. But where the TV series had an effortless lightness of touch, Chechik's film is overproduced, overplayed and painfully stilted.
The most obvious trouble is the bad miscasting. Thurman concentrates so hard on getting Mrs Peel's Roedean vowels correct that she forgets to act, and Fiennes looks horribly ill at ease - partly, I think, because he has chosen to play Steed as brittle and repressed, a bad misunderstanding of the character. Patrick MacNee's Steed was unflappable and well-mannered, but he also had a sleazy side. He was an ageing roister-doister who hung out with the Carnaby Street swingers, a clubroom lecher in the manner of Leslie Phillips or Terry-Thomas. There's nothing of that in Fiennes. He's too young, too skinny and too asexual. And like Thurman, he doesn't have much of a vocal range. Instead of MacNee's deep, slightly slurred whisky-and-lime-tinged tones, he plays it in a strangulated aristocratic accent that sounds like it's coming from the back of his neck. Don't directors tell actors to speak from the diaphragm any more?
Connery is also something of a disaster, and gives the impression of barely understanding his lines - which scriptwriter Don MacPherson has cruelly filled with trip-wires for that famous speech impediment. The star is made to talk about how he wants to "paralyshe and ultimately deshtroy the shitty". Beyond the top three names, however, the performances are sweetly judged. In a role created in the TV series by Patrick Newell, Jim Broadbent is perfectly cast as the wheelchair-bound Mother, the top man at the Ministry. Fiona Shaw camps it up as his colleague, Father, in dark glasses and a Nehru suit. I found her performance hysterically funny but, as it relied on that old joke of having a blind person walk into things, felt rather guilty about having laughed so much. And the Britishness of the supporting cast is wonderfully reassuring: there's something rather marvellous about seeing the name of a home-grown talent like Eileen Atkins (as a gun-toting nanny) swooping out at you from a blockbuster title sequence.
The film's smaller pleasures, however, are disrupted by Chechik's uncertain hand as a director. Some of his action sequences are atrociously edited, and I suspect that there has been some feverish re-cutting done to this film in recent months, as several scenes from the trailer are absent from the finished movie. A sequence in which Uma Thurman steps into a telephone box and utters the magic words "How Now Brown Cow" is missing - though confusingly, there is a reference to it in a later scene that has made it through to the final print.
Perhaps also the product of some more desperate re-cutting, the film fails to resolve a series of important plot points. I'm not sure why Mrs Peel was being cloned, or why Sean Connery has a portrait of her hanging over his organ. The TV series would have delighted in these non-sequiturs and moved on to the next kooky event. Disappointingly, Chechik's film can only stagger more deeply into incoherence.
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