DVD Review: Maigret

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Sacré bleu, ITV’s over hyped adaptation of Simenon’s Maigret novels is très boring.

Ranking alongside Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe as one of the world’s best-known fictional detectives, Jules Maigret was created by the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. First appearing in 1929’s Pietr the Latvian,75 novels featuring the pipe-smoking detective were published between 1931 and 1972.

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Staking a claim to inventing the police procedural, Simenon’s innovations also included an emphasis on the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of criminality. Transforming the genre, Simenon used its conventions to show what could push a person over the edge. Illustrating the authors belief in man’s fundamental irresponsibility the crimes featured in the Maigret novels are a response to a moment of crisis.

With Maigret Simenon didn’t just invent a new type of hero, he also created a distinct sub-genre. Standing apart from any fictional detective published up to that point, Maigret’s methods and raison d’être established the character as unlike anything published before. Equal parts secular priest and psychologist, biographers have suggested that the detective represents the person Simenon would like to have been while the criminal elements are literary representations of who he might have become had his life taken a very different turn.

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One of the novels many innovations was its rejection of tired tropes exhausted by the puzzle school of crime fiction which focused on unmasking the killer and made little attempt to dramatise his emotional backstory. Written from a humanistic perspective, the Maigret novels seem less concerned with apprehending the assailant than discovering what had tipped an ordinary person over the edge and led to them committing horrific criminal acts. Emphasising his difference from other literary detectives Maigret’s compassionate approach to policing involved offering the perpetrators one last chance of redemption before the judicial process took over.

Famously written over several days, each of the novels is an economically told stark exploration of society’s disenfranchised and dispossessed. Deliberately using a restricted vocabulary, Simenon’s atmospheric descriptions bring alive a now vanished France. Widely read, according to the UNESCO Translation Index Simenon is the seventeenth most translated author.

A number of accomplished actors have played the pipe-smoking detective on screen and radio. For a generation, the Rupert Davies starring series is the definitive version. More recently Michael Gambon and Bruno Cremer have introduced successive generations of TV viewers to Simenon’s work.

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Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, Rowan Atkinson is the latest actor to play Maigret in a series which promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver. Simenon’s work seemed to be bullet-proof and was able to withstand a mercifully now forgotten production starring Richard Harris who seemed to be under the misapprehension he was playing the then Labour leader Michael Foot. This latest heavily promoted series reaches the screen as Penguin books is issuing newly translated editions of the books.

On paper, this series should have been a sure-fire winner. Expectations were high for the lavishly budgeted production. Initial optimism soon faded when critics realised ITV had delivered a misjudged adaptation which transforms two of the twentieth century’s most notable crime writer’s novels into a tortuous yawnfest.

Rowan Atkinson reportedly devoured the novels prior to playing the part. Physically he bears very little resemblance to the stocky detective in Simenon’s novels. Previously known as a comic actor his performance is too rigid and downplays the books’ humour. Lacking the passion of Bruno Cremer’s interpretation, Atkinson’s understated portrayal occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Expanded for the small screen, Simenon’s tightly-plotted novels rich with social detail have been transformed into ponderous and unfocused period police dramas devoid of anything resembling atmosphere.

A diversion to kill a few hours, even if the slow pace will make them feel like forever, Maigret is a misguided adaptation which does a great disservice to Simenon and his most famous fictional creation. Filled with a supporting cast unsure if they should play it straight or parody the material, it is an uneven series. Bland cinematography adds to the show’s many deficiencies. Avoid and buy the books instead.

Maigret is available to buy from Amazon.

DVD Review: Callan – The Monochrome Years

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Grim and gritty espionage series.

The phenomenal success of the James Bond feature films tapped into Cold War paranoia and inspired a wave of spy films and TV series. Enticed by the allure of glamorous locations, ingenious gadgetry, and diabolical foreign agents being vanquished the public flocked to cinemas and switched on TVs to see an array of thrillers featuring secret agents. As the Bond movies drifted away from Fleming’s template and became increasingly camp its imitators started to pastiche the genre. By the mid to late 1960s the trend with films and series Our Man Flint, The Avengers and The Man from UNCLE was to throw out any pretence of seriously exploring East-West tensions and parody with a knowing wink.

Bucking the trend a play commissioned for anthology series Armchair Theatre eschewed ersatz glamour and rooted its cynical view of espionage in an all too realistic world of grimy bedsits and dilapidated office blocks. Inspired by Kim Philby and Guy Burgess defections  screenwriter James Mitchell wrote a one off play A Magnum for Schneider. Uncharacteristically gritty for the era it presented a morally ambiguous view of espionage and surveillance that predates Homeland and Spooks.

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Pleased with the public’s response to A Magnum for Schneider ITV swiftly commissioned a full series. Airing five months after the play aired ITV Callan eventually ran for four seasons. A benchmark moment in the history of spy series. Appetite for this groundbreaking programme was so strong a feature film remake of A Magnum for Schneider was released in cinemas two years after the series finished. A one off TV play broadcast in 1981 was originally intended to bring Callan’s story to a definite end but the character would be brought back for one final outing in the 2002 novel Bonfire Night.

Not broadcast since the original transmission, Network’s release contains all the surviving episodes from the first two seasons and A Magnum for Schneider.

Stark and unflinching in its depiction of how far intelligence services might be prepared to go in order to protect society the series frequently pushed the envelope in terms of levels of violence seen on screen. Despite its age many of themes explored remain all too relevant today.

Innovative in its use of story arcs decades before they became commonplace in television drama Callan threw down the gauntlet to future espionage series daring imitators to be as bold in stretching the genre’s parameters.

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Acting on stage and screen since the immediate post war period Edward Woodward had already built a solid reputation before being cast in A Magnum for Schneider. The success of the play and subsequent series transformed him from noted character actor into a household name. His portrayal of the executioner earnt him a BAFTA award.

Miles away from the comparatively lily-white James Bond and John Steed David Callan (Edward Woodward) is a retired operative recalled to active duty by a mysterious branch of intelligence services known only as The Section. Previously retired from service for fear that his ability as an executioner has been blunted by a tendency to ask too many questions about the assignment and frequent displays of emotional attachment he soon learns that discharge from duty can only ever be temporary. Full of loathing for himself, his employers, and the jobs he is made to do Callan is all too aware that refusing to accept a job will lead to another operative being assigned to assassinate him.

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A high point in the history of British TV Callan is a taut and intense thriller. Intelligent writing and nonpareil performances from Woodward and Russell Hunter as seedy petty burglar Lonely place this series in a league far  removed from any other crime series produced in the UK during the 1960s.

Truly exceptional, the surviving episodes of this arresting series demonstrate a willingness to innovate that is lost in modern TV production. The final traumatic episode of this collection demonstrates a boldness that remains unparalleled in spy series. Often copied but never equalled, Callan remains the definitive small screen hitman.

Callan – The Monochrome Years is available to order from Amazon

 

DVD Review: River

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Stellan Skarsgard delivers a career defining performance in ambitious crime drama.

Nordic Noir comes to the East End of London in the form of Swedish film star Stellan Skarsgard. Temporarily leaving behind Hollywood soundstages for a UK TV series Skarsgard plays the eponymous River, a police detective who hears voices.

Multi-layered and emotionally potent, River is an audacious series from BAFTA Award winning screenwriter Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady). Updating the detective drama Morgan has created a gritty and lyrical show that is one of the strongest dramas to debut in 2015.

A complex examination of the human psyche’s frailties, Morgan’s screenplay explores the motivations behind murder with a degree of empathy. Possibly influenced by Nordic Noir’, River focuses on criminality’s collateral damage with a strong emphasis on grief’s corrosive effects.

The latest in a long line of troubled TV police officers, River is suffering from survivor’s guilt following the death of his partner. Since childhood he has heard what he believes to be voices from beyond the grave. Convinced his recently deceased partner (Nicola Walker) is communicating with him River’s grief endures.

River’s erratic behaviour is viewed with suspicion and concern by senior officers Police Superintendent Marcus McDonald (Owen Teale) and DCI Chrissie Read (Lesley Manville). Ordered to attend a series of therapy sessions with the police psychiatrist Rosa Fallows (Georgina Rich) he must prove to be fit enough to remain on active duty.

Skarsgard’s masterful performance conveys the pain of a man haunted by guilt. A BAFTA worthy portrayal of isolation, anguish, and suppressed rage.

More than an updated Randall and Hopkirk or a The Sixth Sense imitation, River is a sharply written six-part drama. Virtually faultless, the series makes a brave attempt to create a distinct identity and not be seen to swim in Broadchurch‘s slipstream.

A series rich with an abundance of excellent performances, supreme writing, and filmic cinematography. Undeniably one of the most significant British dramas to air this year.

River is available to order from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-DVD-Stellan-Skarsg%C3%A5rd/dp/B014UZTQLY/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1448876626&sr=8-1&keywords=river

http://www.amazon.co.uk/River-Blu-Ray-Stellan-Skarsg%C3%A5rd/dp/B0171S3HR6/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1448876626&sr=8-2&keywords=river

DVD Review: Downtime

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Unofficial Doctor Who spin-off materialises on DVD

In the early 1990s Doctor Who was a battle weary Time Lord consigned to repeats on UK Gold. A combination of enemies more fiendish than the Master and Daleks had vanquished the errant science fiction hero; falling viewing figures and an indifferent BBC. Languishing in the time vortex of viewers’ memories the intergalactic vagabond would be revived for one night in a misguided TV movie starring Paul McGann and then placed back into the cryogenic freeze of development hell until Russell T Davies’ successful reinvention.

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During those long dark days when enthusiasts clamoured for fresh adventures featuring their favourite foes a group of fans turned media professionals decided to take matters into their own hands and produce an independent and unofficial straight-to-video drama. Prohibited from including the Doctor or TARDIS the producers secured rights to include cherished characters and attempted to make Doctor Who without the lead character.

Produced on a budget smaller than the notoriously low funds available for late 1980s Doctor Who, Downtime was initially released on VHS at a time when fans were enjoying the more lavishly financed visual spectacles being offered by X-Files and Babylon 5.

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A sequel to a pair of 1960s adventures, The Abominable Snowman, Web of Fear, Downtime sees Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) investigate a university which is offering personalised syllabuses without tuition. Run along the lines of a religious cult, New World University harnesses then cutting edge IT to enslave students and prepare a gateway for an evil force to enter this world.

The voice of her long dead father draws Victoria Waterfield (Deborah Watling) to a Tibetan monastery. Will the message from a man who died on an alien world bring salvation or unleash the ultimate foe?

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A forgotten slice of Doctor Who history making its debut on DVD. Downtime‘s cast features several Who stalwarts; John Leeson (voice of K-9), Jack Watling (Professor Travers), Geoffrey Beavers (Tom Baker era incarnation of the Master).

An ambitious but muddled script aims high and crashes spectacularly. Littered with plot holes, inconsistent characterisation, and absurd dialogue the screenplay exemplifies the very worst of fan productions. Foolish attempts to reference Bergman’s Seventh Seal resemble Scottish Widows commercials.

A kitsch classic? The Who-niverse’s equivalent of Plan 9 from Outer Space? Dated visuals and uneven performances from the supporting cast mean Downtime is unlikely to find favour among fans of 21st century Doctor Who.

Downtime is available to order from Amazon

DVD Review: The Saboteurs

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An epic recreation of one of World War Two’s most significant acts of sabotage.

Previously filmed as Operation Swallow: The Battle for Heavy Water and The Heroes of Telemark, The Saboteurs is a balanced re-telling of the Nazi regime’s attempts to be first in the race to create nuclear weaponry and the daring efforts of Norwegian troops to destroy a plant being used to create fission material. A supremely well-crafted series brings to the screen a turning point in the war and places events in historical context.

The Norsk Hydro plant in Telemark, Norway, had been producing heavy water in large quantities since 1934. At the outbreak of hostilities an arrangement was in place to supply the French government with heavy water for the duration of the conflict. After Nazi occupation supplies were commandeered and sent to Germany where they were used by scientists in experiments to create the first atomic bomb.

Allied governments suspected that Germany was trying to create a nuclear weapon and that heavy water may be a core ingredient in the process. Destroying the plant could change the course of the war.

Perched atop an icy ravine, the plant was protected by several layers of concrete and armed guards. To reach the facility the saboteurs had to cross a frozen river and climb a gorge. Senior officers doubted that the raid would be successful. KAMPEN_OM_TUNGTVANNETBreaking viewing records, The Saboteurs achieved the highest ratings this century when it was screened in Norway. 1.7 million viewers tuned into the series (the country’s population is 5.1 million).

Eschewing the triumphalist “boys own” tone employed by previous adaptations the series presents people on both sides of the conflict as complex emotionally driven individuals wrestling with moral dilemmas. Screenwriter Petter S. Rosenlund and Director Per-Olav Sørensen have produced a tense series that trounces all previous attempts to dramatise the mission.

Deep in the heat of Germany’s war machine, Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg (Christoph Bach) conducts experiments to build the first atomic bomb. His superiors are convinced that this weapon will ensure Germany is victorious. Heisenberg requires heavy water to control nuclear fission.

Following Germany’s occupation of Norway chemistry professor Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman-Høiner) flees to London and makes contact with Military Intelligence. Working alongside Colonel John Wilson (Pip Torrens) and Captain Julie Smith (Anna Friel), Leif plans a sabotage mission.

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Several changes have been made to the story for dramatic purposes. The on screen director of Norsk Hydro is a fictional creation that amalgamates several figures. When Leif arrived in London he was not met by Captain Julie Smith (Anna Friel). Records show that no female officer was involved in planning the mission.

Undoubtedly the definitive screen version of the mission. Per-Olav Sørensen’s cinematic direction offers up a succession of breathtaking set pieces which highlights the human drama and .communicates the dangers faced by troops as they attempted to cross a treacherous snow covered mountainous landscape.

A fitting tribute to the real-life heroes of Telemark. The Saboteurs is a complex slow burning drama that bravely tries to understand what motivated each side in this conflict. Alongside Arrow Films’ Generation War it represents a new benchmark in War drama.

The Saboteurs can be ordered from Amazon:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Saboteurs-DVD-Espen-Klouman-H%C3%B8iner/dp/B00YEBTC0A/ref=sr_1_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1439144559&sr=1-1&keywords=the+sabatours

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Saboteurs-Blu-ray-Espen-Klouman-H%C3%B8iner/dp/B0105UYJ7Y/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=dvd&ie=UTF8&qid=1439144559&sr=1-1-spell&keywords=the+sabatours