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Set in London in 1870, and based on the novel by Michael Faber, this mini-series tells the story of Sugar (Romola Garai), an East End prostitute who becomes the obsession of entrepreneur William Rackham (Chris O’Dowd).  William’s wife Agnes (Amanda Hale) is suffering with her mental health, and he finds solace in Sugar’s company, to the point of paying for exclusive use of her services.  As the series progresses, William and Sugar’s relationship becomes more complicated.  Meanwhile, Agnes is desperate to escape the abuse she is suffering at home at the hands of her husband and her doctor (Richard E. Grant), and comes to believe that Sugar is her guardian angel.

I love period drama, and this one certainly did not disappoint, but be warned – Downton Abbey it isn’t!  The seedy side of Sugar’s life, where she makes her home amongst the prostitutes and drunks of London is extremely well depicted, and you can almost smell the urine and vomit.  There is also some graphic nudity (Chris O’Dowd leaves nothing to the imagination in one scene), and some fairly explicit sex scenes.

If that doesn’t bother you and you are a fan of period drama, then you should really watch this series.  The acting is wonderful – Romola Garai continues to prove her versatility, showing Sugar as tough, intelligent, and also compassionate despite her circumstances.  Chris O’Dowd turns in an unexpectedly wonderful performance (unexpected only because it is so unlike anything else I have seen him do).  Gillian Anderson is a minor character in the story, but certainly makes the most of her part as the madam of the brothel where Sugar works.  She was virtually unrecognisable, and a thousand times removed from some of her more famous roles, such as Scully in The X-Files.  As the tragic Agnes Rackham, Amanda Hale is heartbreakingly fantastic.

The story is complex with loads of twists and turns – more happens in each one hour episode than often happens in films twice the length, but it is easy to follow, and certainly never boring.  Sometimes it makes for uncomfortable viewing, but it is always compelling.

Year of release: 2011

Director: Marc Munden

Producers: Daniel Proulx, Lorraine Richard, Lucy Richer, Ed Rubin, Joanie Blaikie, Julie Clark, Greg Dummett, Martha Fernandez, Steve Lightfoot, David M. Thompson

Writers: Michael Faber (book), Lucinda Coxon

Main cast: Romola Garai, Chris O’Dowd, Amanda Hale, Shirley Henderson, Katie Lyons, Richard E. Grant, Gillian Anderson

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This four part adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, stars Romola Garai as the titular Emma, a precocious, well-meaning but interfering young woman, for whom matchmaking is a hobby.  Jonny Lee Miller plays her long-time friend, and eventual husband (and brother-in-law) George Knightley, and Michael Gambon is her worrisome father, who is so frightened for the health of those he loves that he is scared to let Emma out of his sight.

I thought this adaptation was WONDERFUL, and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.  Romola Garai – an actress who is always watchable – was absolutely a perfect choice for Emma, and captured Emma’s playfulness and personal growth exactly as I imagined it should be.  Mr Knightley, who is probably my favourite Austen hero, because of his very essence of goodness and decency, can nonetheless sometimes come across as stern or unbending, but Jonny Lee Miller made him everything that Knightley should be and more.  He clearly adored Emma – and the romantic love between them seemed far more natural and organic in this series than it has done in other adaptations – but was not afraid to stand up to her.  But Miller also showed a more playful and witty side to Knightley.  I also loved Michael Gambon who made Mr Woodhouse a sympathetic rather than a frustrating character – the affectionate relationship between him and Emma was very sweet to watch; Tamsin Greig as the silly but well-meaning Mrs Bates; and Robert Bathurst as their neighbour and friend Mr Weston.

A four hour mini-series will always be able to develop the characters and storyline at a more gradual pace than a two hour film, and it really worked here, with all the characters getting the screen time they deserved, and relationships being shown in all their stages, especially between Emma and Mr Knightley, with her realisation that she is in love with him seeming a natural development.

The series was moving at times, but also showed the wit in Austen’s writing, with several very funny scenes.  It was colourful and sweet, and for my money, probably my very favourite Austen adaptation.  Just wonderful, and all fans of the book, or good period drama should watch it!

Year of release: 2009

Director: Jim O’Hanlon

Producers: Rebecca Eaton, Phillippa Giles, George Ormond, Michas Kotz

Writers: Jane Austen (novel), Sandy Welch

Main cast: Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller, Michael Gambon, Jodhi May, Robert Bathurst, Louise Dylan, Blake Ritson, Tamsin Greig, Dan Fredenburgh, Poppy Miller, Laura Pyper, Rupert Evans

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Click here for my review of the novel.

Click here for my review of the 1996 film adaptation starring Kate Beckinsale.

Click here for my review of the 1996 film adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow.

Click here for my review of the 1972 mini series.

Click here for my review of the 1995 film Clueless (adaptation of Emma).

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This (sadly little-known) drama-comedy mockumentary follows the fortunes of a travelling theatre company, who are performing a modern and subversive adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.  It’s a behind-the-scenes look at the main players, including the egotistical and rather unpleasant Greg (Ferdy Roberts), and the heavy drinking and irresponsible, but ultimately likeable ‘Oz’ Oscar (Oliver Dimsdale), who started the company.  The characters are all too believable, with the sometimes tense and claustrophobic atmosphere that one can feel when cooped up with the same people day in, day out, clearly shown.  I liked Suzie (Sandy Foster), the understudy, who despite being the only person who had to audition to join the company, is never given her chance to shine (with Greg giving his own non-actor wife a part in the play rather than offer it to Suzie), and the other understudy Tony (Alex Avery), who is given a chance to shine, despite not being up to the part.

With actors Dominic West and Romola Garai playing themselves, giving their opinion on the company and the play, the realism is heightened.  There are moments of comedy and some moments of pathos, mainly courtesy of Oscar, and it ends on a somewhat downbeat note, although that does not detract from the general enjoyment of the film.

I would say that a basic knowledge of the play Twelfth Night would help when watching this, although it is probably not a necessity.  However, do not watch it expecting to learn what Twelfth Night is about, because it probably won’t help!

This is definitely a film for fans of Shakespeare, and even more so for fans of theatre in general, and how things operate after the curtain comes down.  I really enjoyed it, and will certainly be watching it again in the future.  (I wish it were better known; with many of the cast having acted in Shakespeare productions in real life, and all of the cast doing such a great job, it deserves more exposure.  I was not even able to find a trailer for the film to post with this review, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that it is well worth seeing.)

Year of release: 2012

Director: Simon Reade

Producers: Simon Reade, Guy de Beaujeu

Writers: Simon Reade, Guy de Beaujeu, William Shakespeare (play ‘Twelfth Night’)

Main cast: Oliver Dimsdale, Ferdy Roberts, Nicholas Tennant, Alex Avery, Sandy Foster, Poppy Miller, Victoria Moseley, Gemma Saunders

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This review refers to the 2006 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, directed by Kenneth Branagh. There are some excellent synopses of the story online, but in essence it concerns the love between Rosalind, the daughter of Duke Senior, who is usurped from his court by his brother Duke Frederick. Rosalind is forced to leave the court – accompanied by her friend Celia, daughter of Frederick – and live in the forest, where Orlando, who was lovestruck from the first moment that he met Rosalind, is trying to find her. As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, mistaken identity is a factor – Rosalind pretends to be a boy named ‘Ganymede’ and offers counsel to Orlando, to help him get over Rosalind. Around this central story are other sub-plots of love, romance, and the search for happiness and meaning.

In this version, the story is transported to Japan – this was a move which received mixed reviews. For my part, I thought it worked beautifully, affording some wonderful scenery, which was photographed beautifully. Bryce Dallas Howard was beyond stunning as Rosalind – she was luminous, and it was easy to see how Orlando became so entranced by her. Romola Garai played Celia, Rosalind’s best friend, and was great in the part, amply demonstrating why she is carving out a career as a respected actress. In truth, it is hard to select just one member of the cast as stand-out, as they were uniformly excellent. Brian Blessed starred as both Duke Senior and Duke Frederick, and made the two characters very distinctive, showing the harshness and cruelty of Frederick, and the kindly gentleness of Senior. Kevin Kline shines as a melancholy lord, and Alfred Molina puts in a great turn as Touchstone, a court fool (jester of sorts) who accompanies Rosalind and Celia when they leave the court. Other terrific performances include David Oyelowo as Orlando and Adrian Lester as Oliver (Orlando’s brother).

I also loved the epilogue in which the fourth wall is well and truly broken in a lovely way. Overall, this was a delightful, colourful, romantic adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and I highly recommend it both to fans and non-fans of the Bard.

Year of release: 2006

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Producers: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Hofflund, Simon Moseley

Writers: William Shakespeare (play), Kenneth Branagh

Main cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Romola Garai, Brian Blessed, David Oyelowo, Kevin Kline, Adrian Lester, Alfred Molina

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Click here for my review of the televised live performance of the play at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 2009.

Click here for my review of the play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in May 2013

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