Wednesday 20 April 2011

Review: 3 Terence Rattigan Adaptations (BFI)

To accompany their major season of Terence Rattigan-scripted films which is underway this month, BFI Southbank have added a selection of television adaptations of Rattigan’s work to the Mediatheque archive, giving viewers a rare (and free!) opportunity to see several key television productions. Over the past week I watched three of the adaptations - The Browning Version (1985) starring Ian Holm and Judi Dench; Cause Célébre (1987), with Helen Mirren and David Morrissey; and The Deep Blue Sea (1994) with Penelope Wilton and Colin Firth - and wanted to record a few thoughts on them here.

Cause Célébre (ITV 1987, dir. John Gorrie)

As an adaptation case study, the most interesting (though not the best) of the three productions is undoubtedly Cause Célébre, Rattigan’s 1977 play about the Alma Rattenbury murder trial which is currently being staged by Thea Sharrock at the Old Vic [review here]. What’s interesting about the TV adaptation is the fairly radical way in which director John Gorrie and screenwriter Ken Taylor have transformed the play. Gone is the clunky parallel plot involving the leader of the jury at the trial; instead the adaptation focuses on Alma’s developing relationship with her young lover George, her family life, the murder of her husband, and the ensuing court case. Though there are loses to this streamlining of the plot, there are also considerable gains in clarity and focus, and, for me, the adaptation made much more sense of the material than Sharrock’s Old Vic production (or indeed Rattigan’s play itself) really succeeded in doing.

The play’s structure at times felt forced, and awkward, as if Rattigan was straining to prove that he could construct a non-linear narrative. Elements that seemed frustratingly sketchy in the original are developed in the TV adaptation, and though the results are, formally, much more conventional, they’re also more emotionally insightful. Alma and George’s relationship is skilfully fleshed out, we get a much clearer sense of Alma’s conflicts as a mother, wife and lover, and Taylor has written some excellent new scenes for the minor characters. The actors benefit from this: Harry Andrews, as Alma’s ill-fated husband, registers strongly, while David Morrissey is also memorable as George, presenting the character as a film-fed fantasist capable of both tenderness and violence. And Mirren is superb, especially in the scene in which Alma finds her husband’s body. In contrast to the somewhat arch and artificial tone of Sharrock’s production, Gorrie’s adaptation grounds the play in naturalistic domestic detail, and the trial scenes (again, judiciously trimmed) are also well-handled, with excellent work from David Suchet as Alma’s shrewd lawyer and from Oliver Ford Davies as George’s defence counsel. (The production is worth seeing simply for Davies’s inimitable delivery of the line “a woman of abnormal sexual appetites.”) This Cause Célébre isn’t quite Rattigan’s Cause Célébre but it’s a worthy account of a flawed play, as well as a fascinating companion piece to the Old Vic production.

The Browning Version (BBC 1985, dir. Michael A Simpson)
In contrast to Gorrie and Taylor’s fairly free adaptation of one of Rattigan’s lesser-known dramas, Simpson’s The Browning Version and Karel Reisz’s The Deep Blue Sea are thoroughly faithful, and stylistically conservative, renderings of Rattigan’s two best-regarded plays. But both are stunningly good. Eschewing any obvious “opening out” of the action, the two productions are “filmed theatre” in the best sense, placing the emphasis firmly upon dialogue and performance, while also benefiting from the increased intimacy of the close-up and the quick shifts in perspective that the camera provides. The Browning Version has superb performances from Ian Holm as the ageing, unloved Classics schoolmaster Crocker-Harris, and from Judi Dench as his  resentful wife, Millie, who’s involved in an affair with one of her husband’s colleagues (Michael Kitchen). The role of this humourless stickler of a tutor is a challenge for an actor, but Holm plays it to perfection, presenting Crocker-Harris as a man who’s closed himself off from others through a mixture of pride and self-contempt. Dench, meanwhile, brings gusto, and a touch of glamour, to Millie's cruelty, while also making clear the disappointments that have driven her there. (What is it about Dench’s performances? They always make the viewer feel more alert and alive, somehow.) And it’s very pleasing to see the young Steven Mackintosh in an early role as the student, Taplow, whose unanticipated gift briefly succeeds in piercing Crocker-Harris’s reserve, in a scene that is a powerfully affecting highlight of the production. It can be watched on YouTube.

The Deep Blue Sea (BBC 1994, dir. Karel Reisz)

As Sir William Collyer, the unlucky Holm gets to play the cuckold again in Reisz's 1994 BBC teleplay of The Deep Blue Sea, delivering another excellent performance, one that doesn’t ask for - or inspire - much sympathy. As in The Browning Version, every shift of feeling and allegiance registers in Reisz’s production (which originated at the Almeida in 1993 and then transferred to the Apollo) and the standard of performance is extremely high. Penelope Wilton’s award-winning Hester is stunning; Wilton brings understated intensity (and a great deal of wit) to the role and powerfully conveys Hester’s emotional and sexual dependency upon Freddie. Her scenes with Holm (to whom she was really married at the time) combine tension with striking moments of complicity and connection that suggest a real history together. Colin Firth gives what I think is one of his finest-ever performances as Freddie, and there's distinguished supporting work from Stephen Tompkinson and Geraldine Sommerville as the Welches, Carmel McSharry as Mrs. Elton and Wojciech Pszoniak as Miller. Reisz truncates the crucial climactic encounter between Hester and Miller and slightly reduces the impact of the scene. But the production is compelling throughout, and comes to a graceful and moving end.

The humanity of Rattigan’s writing and the propensity of his work to give sympathetic voice to characters who are harshly judged or dismissed by others emerges strongly in all of these fine adaptations, each of which is well worth seeing. What’s slightly tormenting about the productions is that they’re a reminder of just how great British TV drama was, and how closely connected to theatre, not so very long ago.

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