There is a moment whenever I’m browsing through the movie section of Wal-Mart, Target, or whatever dumb, big-box store I’m at that I get really excited to see a big bunch of movies bundled up tightly into a cheap package. “Five movies for ten dollars,” I think. “How awesome is that?” Then I actually look at the movie titles and am always disappointed. It is a nice marketing gimmick, of course, and they usually throw three movies in that are really rather good, but then they slip a couple of other real stinkers into the mix so that the actual savings and buy-ability of the package is lessened to make the whole thing not really worth it.
Acorn Media has managed to put together a package of five films that are really rather good, and well worth the buy. These things are always grouped around a person or a theme. An actor, maybe, or a director. Or more likely it's a group of horror movies, or perhaps films that all take place on a tropical island. This set, as might be obvious from the name, collects films that are based on classic dramatic literature or plays. The films included are Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, The Woman in White, The Lady’s Not for Burning, and The Death of the Heart.
There is a constant and on-going battle in my house over the works of Jane Austen. My wife loves her, has read all her works, and seen most of the films based upon them. I find her stories rather boring. They all seem to be about rich, snobbish women who have every known luxury but can’t help but be miserable for they cannot draw the attentions of some rich, snobbish man. I’ve tried to read her books dozens of times but cannot get passed the first chapters. I’ve fallen asleep during that ridiculously long, and insufferably dull Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice more times than I can count.
Strangely enough, I’ve now seen two different versions of Emma and found them both rather acceptable. We’ll not try to understand the whys of that, but will simply let it be a known fact (“a truth universally acknowledged,” one might say). This version was made-for-television in 2006 and stars Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse. She does a nice job in the lead as do the other actors. It's not as slick or shiny as the Gwyneth Paltrow version, but that mostly comes from its TV budget. Otherwise, it's well made and lots of fun.
While I find Jane Austen’s stories to be rather tedious, I’ve always delighted in Jane Eyre. That may seem strange since both are period tales involving romantic entanglements, but I easily prefer the one over the other. Perhaps it's because Jane is not the snobbish rich girl of the typical Austen story or it might be the more gothic influences of Bronte’s story, but whatever the reason I’ve loved Jane Eyre since the first time I read it.
This version originally aired on A&E in 1997. It stars Samantha Morton as Jane and Ciaran Hinds as Mr. Rochester. At 108 minutes, they had to cut out quite a bit and shorten a lot more, but they managed to tell the story well enough, and I cried in the end so I suppose that’s a job well done. The two leads were good, but not all that memorable. The tone was not quite dark enough, and they never developed the complicated relationship between Jane and Mr. Rochester. In the book, he is tender and kind to her when they are alone but very gruff to the point of rudeness in public to maintain societal appearances. That makes the revelation of his love much more meaningful in the book that it was in this production. Still, it was a fine enough version to enjoy and make me want to read the book yet again.
Based upon the Wilkie Collins novel, The Woman in White was one of the first mystery novels ever written, and has achieved much acclaim. This 1997 TV-movie stars Tara Fitzgerald as Marian Fairlie, Justine Waddell as her sister Laura, and Andrew Lincoln as Walter Hartright. I had never heard of the book nor this movie adaptation before so everything was new to me.
The story set in Victorian England revolves around the two sisters who are caught up in terrible romantic situations and family dramas. The woman in white is a mentally ill woman who periodically escapes the asylum and seems to know a secret that may help the women find true love and happy lives.
This was my least favorite of the five movies. The story was predictable, the acting a bit too melodramatic, and it was ultimately an altogether forgettable affair. In fact, I had to have my wife remind me of what had actually happened in the film as I had completely forgotten when I sat down to write this. Still, it was fun to see a young Andrew Lincoln performing in a period drama instead of killing zombies.
The Lady’s Not for Burning is yet another story that I’d never heard of before. This 1987 TV-movie was based on the 1948 play of the same name by Christopher Fry. The playwright wrote the screenplay for this film. It is an award-winning play set in the year 1400 where a war-weary soldier tries to talk a witch-hunting cleric into hanging him. The cleric, however, is more interested in burning a beautiful woman accused of being a witch.
The movie is staged and filmed very much like a play with very few cinematic flourishes. Yet, it is so beautifully written and acted that one hardly notices. This was by far my favorite of the films in this set. It is brutally funny, amazingly timely, and wonderfully performed. It is brilliantly quotable so much so that I quickly filled my notebook with lines and eventually decided it would be easier to simply buy the script.
Lastly, we have a 1987 television adaptation of Elizabeth Bowen’s 1938 novel The Death of the Heart. The novel has been included on several top-100-novels lists and is generally considered a modern classic. This adaptation is a bit disjointed and has some clear difficulties translating the page to the screen. It tries so hard to say such big things that it sometimes forgets to actually tell its story.
The plot is about a 16-year-old girl, Portia, who was born out of wedlock and whose father divorced his wife in order to wed Portia’s mother. They lived in scandal traveling from resort motel to resort motel until both parents quickly died within weeks of each other. Portia is taken in by her half-brother and his wife who don’t have the slightest idea what to do with the child.
Portia’s world is filled with people who don’t quite understand her, and who use her innocence as a way to toy with her emotions. It is a bleak, dark, pessimistic story though certainly one with merit and artistry. When the film works, as it often does, we feel quite sorry for Portia and the life she is destined to, but when it falters, it fails pretty spectacularly. It's biggest problem is that so very little actually happens in the story that it must carry a lot of internal emotion on the faces and body language of the actors and that is so very hard to do. I’ve not read the novel but I suspect it was able get to the heart of these characters much more fully than the film is ever able to do.
I did rather enjoy it, though I don’t think I quite understood it. I suspect I will go back to again, perhaps after I’ve read the novel, and will dig in a little deeper and like it a little more.
The five films in this set are all based on very well acclaimed dramas. Despite their small TV budgets and often restrained production values, every single one is well worth watching. At a value price, the DVDS are more than worth the purchasing. The video quality is about what you would expect from relatively old television movies - decent but nothing to get excited about, nor anything that stuck out as awful either. Ditto that on the sound. There are no extras at all.
Classic Drama Collection will be available on Jun 24.