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This three part mini-series was an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ excellent novel of the same name. It tells the story of Nancy (Nan) Astley (Rachael Stirling), a Whitstable oyster girl in the 1800s, who falls in love with singer and dancer Kitty Butler (Keeley Hawes). The two women become partners on and off stage, but the path of true love does not always run smooth, and life has a lot of surprises in store for Nan.

The book was actually my least favourite of Sarah Waters’, but that is not to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it, and I did wonder if the adaptation would be as enjoyable. As it turned out, it was absolutely fantastic, and stayed very faithful to the story. Rachael Stirling was absolutely superb as Nan – utterly believable as both a young and naive girl who doesn’t really understand her feelings towards Kitty, and equally so as a mature, world-weary woman, who has to draw upon all her resources and courage to make a living in 19th century London. Keeley Hawes was fine as Kitty Butler, and the supporting cast, including (the always wonderful) Anna Chancellor, John Bowe, and Jodhi May, were also great. Hugh Bonneville made an impact, despite being in only the third instalment of the series.

Anyone who has read the book will know that there are several explicit sex scenes in the book, and these scenes are also in the series. If you do not like raunchiness on screen, then this is definitely not the show for you! However, there is FAR more to this story than just sex; there is also a compelling and wonderfully acted story, showing how Nan deals with all the problems that life can throw at her. If you like period drama and excellent acting, with added sauciness and humour, then I highly recommend this series.

Year of release: 2002

Director: Geoffrey Sax

Producers: Gareth Neame, Sally Head, Sally Woodward Gentle, Georgina Lowe

Writers: Sarah Waters (novel), Andrew Davies

Main cast: Rachael Stirling, Keeley Hawes, Jodhi May, Anna Chancellor, John Bowe, Sally Hawkins

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Harriet Beecher Stowe was a staunch advocate for the abolishment of slavery in the mid-1800s, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is her most famous book, was a novel about the evils of slavery and the slave trade.  It is said that when Beecher Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he said to her, “So you are the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war in reference to the American Civil War.  However, while is it certainly true that the two met, it has never been confirmed that Lincoln said such a thing, although I can see why the book would have caused a large stir when it was released.

The titular character starts the novel as a slave owned by Mr and Mrs Shelby.  He has lived for several years on their plantation, and has a wife and children there.  Due to financial woes, Mr Shelby sells him to a slave trader, and the novel follows Tom’s life through two more owners.  It talks about the other people he meets, some benevolent, such as Augustine St Clare, who determines to give Tom his freedom, and others not so.

Because of the historical and political significance of this book, I really really wanted to like it.  I had meant to read it for ages, and finally picked it up after a friend told me she had enjoyed it.  And the thing is…I came away a bit disappointed.  The main thing that hit me about this book was just how preachy it is.  There’s a lot of religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  A LOT.  And people are divided into one of three categories.  If you are a Christian, you are a good person.  If you are not a Christian, you are an evil person.  If you are not a Christian but are striving to be, you will probably be a good person in the end.  I understand that books have to be read in context; it’s important to remember when this novel was written, but whereas some classics age well, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has aged badly (well, it’s just my little opinion of course).  It’s overwhelming preachiness – which appears without fail on at least one out of every two pages – got somewhat tiring after a while.  It’s a shame, because when Beecher Stowe stepped away from the religious aspect, her writing could be quite enjoyable and even amusing.  I’m not a religious person, but I don’t have anything against religion.  I just don’t need it ramming down my throat quite so often, or to be told that anybody who is not a Christian is inherently bad.

Also, for a book which strives so hard to point out that slaves are just as much people as anyone else (which sounds obvious in today’s world, but again remembering when this was written – slaves were seen as commodities or possessions, nothing more), it is a shame that the slaves themselves are spoken about in broad stereotypes (several times, Beecher Stowe makes reference to a trait that is common “to their race.”), and rather patronisingly.

Although there is little characterisation, the story itself was a quite enthralling one, and would have been much more enjoyable if it had been told as a more straightforward narrative without the religious lecturing part.  My favourite part was the section of the book where Tom was living with the St Clare family, and within the confines of his situation was happy.  The ending contained a ridiculous amount of coincidence, which made the last few pages hard to take seriously, but I cannot deny that the book did make me cry on a couple of occasions.

I think I would probably recommend this book, but more because of its significance, rather than because I especially enjoyed it.  At times, it was enjoyable, but I found it hard going at times.  Nonetheless, it did help to change the widely held view that slavery was acceptable, and it’s worth reading the book that managed to do such a thing.

(For more information about Harriet Beecher Stowe, or Uncle Tom’s Cabin, please click here.)

 

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This film is not the first big-screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, but is probably one of the most talked about versions.  Having seen the show on stage years ago, I was eager to see the film, although I did approach with some caution, knowing that it was well over two hours long, and that there is virtually no spoken dialogue in it; this is a musical in the fullest sense of the word.

Briefly, the story, which is set in France in the 1800s, is about a man named Jean Valjean, who gets out of prison after serving a lengthy sentence for stealing bread for his sister’s baby.  He breaks parole and becomes a successful business man (and Mayor).  However, when he agrees to take care of a dying lady’s child, the decision changes his life forever.  He also has to deal with a policeman named Javert, who is obsessed with tracking down his former prisoner Valjean.

The main stars of this film are Hugh Jackman as Valjean, Russell Crowe as Javert, Amanda Seyfried as the adult Cosette (the young girl who becomes Valjean’s ward), and Eddie Redmayne as Marius, a young man who falls in love with Cosette.  Supporting roles are played by, amongst others, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, as Monsieur and Madame Thenardier (the cruel couple who look after the child Cosette until Valjean rescues her from their clutches); despite being unpleasant characters, they also provided a fair amount of comic relief, and Anne Hathaway, in an Oscar nominated (and deserving) performance as Fantine, Cosette’s mother.

The film is a sweeping epic, covering not just the stories of these characters, but the story of the French revolution, with the tragedy and bloodshed that it brought.  The singing, for the most part, is excellent.  Jackman and Hathaway in particular, have beautiful voices, and both brought tears to my eyes.  Jackman has been nominated for an Oscar for this role, and deservedly so.  (As I write this, the Oscars are nearly two months away, and my money is on Daniel Day Lewis winning for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln.)

As shocking as it is to me, the weakest link in this film is the usually reliable Russell Crowe.  However, that is not to say that he was not good, or that he did not play the part well – he did, but he is surrounded by people who took my breath away with their performance (In other words, the weakest link is still pretty strong!).  Crowe’s singing voice is not the best, but he holds his tunes well, and acquits himself in the role.

This is not a film for everyone – it’s sad, it requires investment from the viewer (this is not a film to kick back and relax with), and if you don’t like musicals, you should avoid it at all costs!  But I think it’s one of those films that if you like it, you will love it.For my part, I found it moving, glorious and unforgettable.

Year of release: 2012

Director: Tom Hooper

Producers: Nicholas Allott, Liza Chasin, Angela Morrison, F. Richard Pappas, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Debra Hayward, Cameron MackintoshBernard Bellew, Raphael Benoliel, Francesca Budd, Thomas Schonberg

Writers: Victor Hugo (novel), Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, William Nicholson

Main cast: Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Smaantha Barks, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Anne Hathaway

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This is the second book in the Murdoch Mysteries series, set in Toronto in the late 1800s, and featuring Detective William Murdoch.  The series spawned three movie length television films, and a five (so far) season television show.  The television show is one of my favourite programmes, and I was eager to read the books.  I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in the series, and this one is no disappointment either.

In this installment of the Murdoch Mysteries, a woman named Dolly Merishaw is found murdered in her home.  Murdoch discovers that she was a former midwife, who provided a place for unwed mothers to have their children, as well as providing drugs to aid abortion, but that her mean and greedy nature caused a lot of anger and resentment among the women whom she ‘helped’.  He quickly discovers that she is the victim of murder, and there are no shortage of suspects.  However, when one of her young foster sons is also discovered dead a week later, he has no idea whether he is looking for one murderer or two.  His investigation takes him to some surprising places, and he realises that a lot of people have secrets which they wish to remain hidden.

As with the first book, the story is pacey, and kept me guessing throughout.  (There were clues to point the reader in the right direction, but Maureen Jenning is capable of throwing in some surprises as well!)  I really like the character of Murdoch, although he is quite different from the Murdoch of the tv series.  As portrayed in the book, he comes across as less sensitive and somewhat coarser.  His faithful sidekick Constable Crabtree is as amiable and likeable as viewers of the show know him to be, although in the book, his physical description is very different, and he has a wife, whereas in the tv show, he is a bachelor.  Brackenreid barely appears in the book, and is not a very likeable character when he does(!).  This book gives the first mention of Doctor Julia Ogden – a main character in the tv show.

This particular book takes Murdoch through the upper and lower classes of Toronto, and I thought the portrayal of the city in the late 1800s was particularly evocative and enjoyable.  Clearly, the author has researched her subject extensively.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read, and would definitely recommend it, especially to fans of crime and/or historical fiction.

(Author’s website can be found here.  For more information about the television show Murdoch Mysteries, please click here.)

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Click here for my review of season 1 of the television series, Murdoch Mysteries.

Click here for my review of the first Murdoch Mysteries novel, Except The Dying.

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This is the first book in a series of seven, which are collectively known as the Murdoch Mysteries, all of which feature a Canadian Police Detective named William Murdoch, who solves crimes in the late 1800s, in Toronto.  Three of the novels were adapted into television movies, starring Peter Outerbridge as the title character, and a five season (so far) television show, with Yannick Bisson in the title role, featuring the characters from the books, but with all new storylines, has proved very successful.  The tv series is one of my favourite shows, so I was looking forward to reading the novels, and seeing where the character of William Murdoch began. 

I certainly was not disappointed.  This fascinating novel which combines crime drama and historical fiction, is quite different from the tv show – Doctor Julia Ogden does not appear in this book at all, and Inspector Brackenridge only plays a minor role, whereas both of these characters are major characters in the show.

However, I do not intend for this review to be a comparison between the show and the books, especially as both are equally enjoyable in their own right.  The story in this first Murdoch book revolves around the death of a young lady, who is found naked and frozen to death one wintery night.  As Murdoch and his colleague, Constable Crabtree investigate the murder, they find that almost everyone connected with the young girl has secrets of their own, and there seems to be no shortage of suspects for the crime.

The ending was not predictable; a few times I thought I had worked out who was responsible, but I was pleasantly surprised.  The character of Murdoch is well drawn, as is that of Constable Crabtree.  Also, the family with whom the dead girl resided were also well fleshed out.  There were no real gimmicks or twists in the story – just a very well told detective story, which showed Murdoch’s quick intelligence and dogged determination.  I also thought that life in Toronto in the late 1800s was well depicted,with the atmosophere leaping off the page.

It’s a cliche to say it, but this book really was a page turner.  I would highly recommend it to any fans of historical fiction or crime novels, and I look forward to reading the subsequent books in the series.

(Author’s website can be found here.  For more information about the television show Murdoch Mysteries, please click here.)

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Click here for my review of season 1 of the television series, Murdoch Mysteries.

Click here for my review of the second Murdoch Mysteries novel, Under the Dragon’s Tail.

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This film was directed by Julian Fellowes, who since making it, has made the hugely successful Downton Abbey tv series.  Like that series, this film stars Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, and they are joined by, amongst others, Dominic West, Pauline Collins and Timothy Spall.

Set in 1940s England, 13 year old Tolly (Alex Etel) is sent to stay with his grandmother (Maggie Smith) at her country home, which she fears she will have to sell due to money problems.  Tolly’s father is fighting in WWII, and is missing in action.  As his grandmother tells him about the history of the house, and Tolly’s ancestors, he finds that he is able to travel back in time to 1805 and discover secrets about his family’s past, which still resonate today…

This film is adapted from Lucy M Boston’s book ‘The Chimneys of Green Knowe’.  I have not read the book, so cannot compare the two, but I did really enjoy the film.  Maggie Smith is as brilliant as ever, as the elderly lady who realises that she may have lost her beloved son, and may also have to give up her lifelong home.  Alex Etel does a fine job as Tolly, and credit should also be given to the supporting cast, especially Pauline Collins and Timothy Spall, as two members of the staff at the house.  Dominic West is great (as ever), although here he plays a particularly unpleasant character – I personally prefer to see him in nicer roles!

There is a parallel storyline;  the story from 1805 – which centres around Tolly’s ancestors, the kindly Captain Oldknow (Hugh Bonneville) and his selfish wife Maria (Carice van Houten) and their children Sefton; a spoiled, selfish young man (Douglas Booth) and Susan, a kindly, blind girl (Eliza Bennett).  Into their lives comes Jacob (Kwayedza Kureya), a former slave who escapes from captivity with the help of Captain Oldknow and joins the household as a companion for Susan, much to the chagrin of Sefton.  The second storyline is of course set in 1940s, with Tolly and his grandmother worrying about what has become of Tolly’s father (and we do find out), while at the same time getting to know and understand each other.

I thought the film was incredibly well acted, and both story lines were very touching.  So much so, that I ended up in tears at the end, which is not something that happens very often when I watch a film.  This was just a lovely film, well acted, well told, and very emotive.  Highly recommended to all fans of period drama.

Year of release: 2009

Director: Julian Fellowes

Writers: Lucy M. Boston (book), Julian Fellowes

Main cast: Maggie Smith, Alex Etel, Eliza Bennett, Dominic West, Timothy Spall, Hugh Bonneville, Douglas Booth, Kwayedza Kureya

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Anne Lister (1791 – 1840) was a Yorkshire woman, who inherited Shibden Hall (the family estate) in 1826, the income from which allowed her to live a life of modest luxury.  She was a noted diarist who wrote about her financial concerns, her life in industry (coal mining) and her lesbian relationships.  When writing about her relationships, she often used a code, which she created using Greek letters and algebra symbols.  She also loved to climb mountains.

This television film, adadpted from Anne Lister’s diaries (which were only published over a century after her death) concentrates on her love life, which is perhaps a shame, as there were other interesting aspects of her life which could have been featured – the death of all four of her brothers for example.

Anne Lister lives with her aunt and uncle at Shibden Hall, and is in love with Mariana Belcombe, but due to the conventions of the day their romance is a secret to all but Anne’s close friend and former lover Isabella ‘Tib’ Norcliffe.  When Mariana marries a wealthy older widower, Anne is devastated but seeks solace elsewhere.  Her relationship with Mariana continues in fits and starts with them meeting up whenever possible, but while Anne wants to ‘marry’ Mariana and live together, Mariana fears that the nature of their relationship will be discovered and refuses to leave her husband, although the marriage is not a happy one.

Eventually, when Anne realises that Mariana is never going to commit to a relationship, she starts a relationship with a neighbour Ann Walker, with whom she remained for the rest of her life.

I thoroughly enjoyed this adaptation.  It looks sumptuous, showing off Yorkshire’s natural beauty, and really creating a sense of what life must have been like in the early 1800s.  Anne’s sexual orientation is guessed at in the village where she lives and is generally disapproved of.

Maxine Peake plays the title role, and she is superb, conveying sometimes in just one look, the pain, heartbreak or love which Anne feels.  She is a fiercely intelligent woman, sometimes calculating, sometimes incredibly vulnerable, and Peake plays every aspect of the character beautifully.  Anna Madeley and Susan Lynch are also excellent in their respective roles as Mariana and Tib, and I should mention Christine Bottomley, as Ann Walker.  Her role might not have been huge, but she embodied it totally.

My attention was held throughout this wonderful piece of period drama.  However as mentioned earlier I did think it a slight shame that more aspects of Anne Lister’s fascinating life were left out, apparently to centre on her relationships.  Nonetheless, the excellent acting and scenery made it a joy to watch, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Year of release: 2010

Director: James Kent

Writer: Jane English

Main cast: Maxine Peake, Anna Madeley, Susan Lynch, Gemma Jones, Alan David

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