Review: Poliakoff's Dickensian touch shows he deserves his privileged position at the BBC
Joe's Palace BBC1; A Real Summer BBC2; Capturing Mary BBC2; A Room With A View ITV1
Sunday 11 November 2007
If the latest trilogy of films from Stephen Poliakoff had been released unattributed, they would quickly be recognisable as his. They have the same dreamy pace and slow unravelling of secrets that we have come to expect from his recent work, the same lush score (by Adrian Johnston), the heightened colours - hell, even the same motif of flowers, peeping out of vases and printed on frocks. Some critics have taken these stylistic tics to indicate that Poliakoff is running out of steam, a pampered old talent whom the BBC supports unquestioningly. Well, some critics would moan at Seurat for using dots - again.
Yes, there is a sense of relaxation about these dramas, the faintest rustling of laurels being lain on. And that is precisely what makes them so good. Poliakoff is a mature talent, happy to leave ends hanging, to confidently present contradictions, to consider issues that are not "burning". The first film, Joe's Palace, is about inherited guilt - and gilt - in the form of a palatial London house funded, it transpires, by Nazi gold. The third, Capturing Mary (broadcast tomorrow but best reviewed here, I think, alongside the others in the trilogy), is about the vast change in society between the Fifties and the Sixties. It also masterfully handles that most recalcitrant topic, the withering of talent. Do not be misled by the superficial serenity of style and the familiar palette - Poliakoff's new films are fizzing with ideas.
The BBC produces a major work by him on average every year. When he recently told a newspaper "I still have to pitch ideas", this was considered so surprising it was used as the headline. Yes, Poliakoff enjoys an exceptionally privileged position within the Corporation. And so he should. What are these three films about? The reverberations of the past in the present. It's not a snappy pitch. Who is the starof the trilogy? An empty townhouse near Kensington Gardens. Only a trusted insider at the height of his powers could get away with it.
Joe's Palace is full of Dickensian touches, from the door keeper's hatch and the chatelaine's keys, to the way Kelly Reilly calls the humble doorkeeper "boy" with a patronising explosive consonant, like a modern-day Estella. Michael Gambon makes an excellent male Miss Havisham, cocooned in useless splendour, and prone to inviting "the boy" to share banquets of cold meats, while scimitars gleam threatening from his walls. Gambon's winning performance includes a memorable reaction shot in which he moves one part of his face in isolation: the bags under his eyes. Irons has the Jaw Clench; Gambon the Travelling Bags .
The second film, A Real Summer, is the most experimental, a tantalisingly abstruse monologue that reveals women within women, like a set of matryoshka. Ruth Wilson brings all of these characters alive with perfect modulation. As Jane Eyre she was plain and strong; here, as a talented young journalist, she flashes glamour, each eyebrow an astonishing circumflex. But her inner solidity is still there, her metabolism seemingly running on a good brass Yorkshire metronome. It's all the more affecting, then, when you see in the third film, Capturing Mary, how time and frustration have made of her a brittle, neurasthenic old lady, played by Maggie Smith. In fact the leap between the two would test credibility, if it weren't the very point of the film: the ravages of disappointment. The enemy of this woman's promise is represented not by the cliched old pram in the hall but by David Walliams, playing a sinister avatar of the Old Establishment. He does it well. Not a single catchphrase entered my head.
There are no pat conclusions here, only intimations of closure. When Maggie Smith thanks the boy Joe, we suspect she is partly thanking him for allowing her to have her illusions, her scapegoat for her ownfailure. Resonances of these mysterious films will echo round your head for days; Poliakoff makes a true echo chamber of that empty Kensington house.
ITV's A Room With A View was, by contrast, made of lead. Forster's delicate class distinctions were rendered as if with a mallet. Rafe and Timothy Spall as the Emersons pere et fils, seemed to have come to Florence on a Pearly Kings' holiday. "Why Miss Honeychurch, haven't you got a luvverly pair of mince pies? Let's have a bubble bath down Fiesole way."
The whole production was hamstrung by its Merchant-Ivory predecessor. Andrew Davies added imaginative scenes set in 1922, and in the trenches, to try to make viewers forget it was the same book. Lines delivered with relish by Judi Dench ("Look! No, no, DON'T look!" said of the naked swimmers) were thrown away joylessly. Why did they even try? There's nothing wrong with Where Angels Fear To Tread, after all.
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