Friday, 1 June 2007

James Martin reviews his ten favourite films, Part 5

The Secret Garden
USA/ UK 1993
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Screenwriter: Caroline Thompson
Runtime: 101 mns
Certificate: PG
DVD Distributor: Warner Home Video

Agnieszka Holland came up with a visually captivating film version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic story. At the end of the nineteenth century, after the death of her parents in colonial India, spoilt but unloved ten year-old Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is sent to her uncle's (John Lynch) gothic Yorkshire manor, under the watchful eye of strict housekeeper, Maggie Smith. Wandering through its labyrinthine halls, she encounters her bedridden cousin, Colin (Heydon Prowse) and discovers a hidden walled garden, locked after her aunt died there.

Holland took the liberty of changing one detail. Mr and Mrs Lennox originally passed away in a cholera epidemic, not in a violent earthquake, as portrayed. However, the aesthetics of this film do splendid justice to the novel. In the opening credits, still, murky shots of the Rajasthan desert at dusk beautifully conjure up a "hot, strange, mysterious land", with the palatial, ivory domed house emerging majestically from a crimson haze. The earthquake scene, depicting her mother's garden party, with a decadent visit from the maharajah on an elephant is subsequently both gripping and poignant. Such an idyllic, but arid paradise is brought crashing to the ground without warning.

Later, lingering tracking shots across the Yorkshire countryside, a well re-told story and superb performances, particularly from Kate Maberly in her first outing, ensure that the pacing is never too slow. Agnieszka Holland paints with breathtaking strokes what no other version, even the much-acclaimed 1949 film starring Margaret O'Brien, has on its canvas. Sinister Mistlethwaite Manor, as illustrated in the novel, appears in the film as a depressingly dark but stunning castle à la Bram Stoker, complete with tapestry-clad walls and mysterious hidden passages meandering through long forgotten, neglected rooms shrouded in decades of secrets. Haunting medieval harpsichord tones enhance a sense of listless nostalgia and sadness, which this lonely little girl was never before capable of feeling.

Undoubtedly the most handsome remake of the classic children's story, this wonderfully moving production captures the very essence of grief, longing and painful memories. Holland has transformed it into a superb film, aimed as much at adults as at younger viewers.

Oliver Twist
UK/ Czech Republic/ France/ Italy 2005
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriter: Ronald Harwood
Runtime: 130 mns
Certificate: PG
DVD Distributor: Sony Pictures/ TriStar

The most recent remake of Dickens' novel is a delight to behold, despite one blatant flaw. To me, it seems somewhat arrogant of Roman Polanski to mutilate one of the greatest works of English literature, by omitting its most pivotal unfolding event. The destitute young girl, who died in childbirth in the workhouse was in fact Mr Brownlow's (Edward Hardwicke) daughter, which makes Oliver his grandson. It is, after all, the most vital discovery in Dickens' plot, with several clues leading up to it, here simply trifled out.

That said, the acting and the cinematography combine to make Polanski's production visually satisfying. Filmed along the traditional cobbled streets of old Prague, the skilled camerawork catches something strikingly reminiscent of Victorian London.

Unlike Oliver!, Polanski's version succeeds in reproducing the harsh realities of life as a pauper and an orphan, without playing anything down. Dickens' gift for paying intimate attention to detail is captured with great skill by Polanski, from the incriminating book still clasped in Brownlow's hand at the magistrate's court, to the small intricacies of a handshake and the "outside chill" which Nancy (Leanne Rowe) feels "right through her".

Oliver Twist is by no means perfect, but it is as near to a rendering of Dickens' writing style as could be possible on screen. Other versions by David Lean (1948) and the 1982 production, starring George C. Scott as Fagin, cannot aesthetically hold a candle to Polanski's latest vehicle.

This concludes James Martin's Top Ten!
Thank you for reading!

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