Jamestown: season one review

TV

In 1610, Jamestown became the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. At first, men only. Then a few years later women came, by way of being purchased as wives. In the same way one might buy tobacco at the time.

Which is a decent idea for a TV show, if you think about it. It’s cinematic, there’s lots of vast landscapes and ideas to explore and adventures to be had. And, weirdly, it feels fresh. Especially if you come at it from a feminist perspective.

Which you’d hope that Bill Gallagher, the guy behind this show, did do. Because, among other things, he’s had a hand in Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford and The Paradise. So he can do period drama and he can do compelling characters.

Plus, he’d heard about this slice of history and thought it would make an interesting canvas upon which to showcase his skills. No matter that Terence Malick had already had a crack at it, with the film The New World in 2005. Gallagher must have figured that, with Sky Atlantic backing him, he could tell a compelling story on the small screen on a juicy budget.

After all, he had worked on Downton Abbey. And everyone loves that.

Sadly, he hasn’t replicated his past successes. At least not to the same extent. Which is baffling, because all the component parts were there for a winner. It’s a period we haven’t much seen before, it’s got Native Americans, the untapped wilderness of Virginia, hunting for gold, politicking, fights for power, lusting, and a sexy cast.

And I say sexy because that’s how Sky marketed it. Sexy, but more importantly, feminist with it. Because the advertising had my partner and I thinking it’d be a show about women fighting their corner and controlling their destiny; in a time when they were literally sold as property and shipped off to a new world.

However, after a promising first episode, our enthusiasm quickly petered out as the show failed to live up to its hype.

Because the real problem is, that NOTHING MUCH REALLY HAPPENS. Ok, there are a lot of characters to introduce but we never really stick with any of them long enough to get that invested. And each episode seems to jump between them with no clear focus as to who our main protagonist is and what the thrust of the overall story is supposed to be.

Ultimately, screenwriting should only do one of two things: reveal character or drive the story forward.

And Gallagher doesn’t do much of either. You could argue that maybe two farmers, the Sharrow brothers, are the key focus. Silas (Stuart Martin) the quiet hero, just looking for a peaceful life with his new – but questionably acquired – wife Alice (Sophie Rundle). And Henry (Max Beesley), the intense and violent older brother, laser focused on finding gold that’ll shift the balance of power in the town in his favour.

The problem is I’m reaching for these two as the clear protagonist and antagonist of the show. Both Henry and Silas’s storylines meander along and neither character has that much agency. Silas, in particular, just reacts to things, rather than driving his story forward.

It probably also won’t escape your notice that I’m talking about two male characters when I had hoped this show would be feminist. Which is another gripe, as Gallagher sets up a host of promising female characters, then seems to only give them limited screentime when they should probably be the focus throughout.

For example we have Jocelyn (Naomi Battrick), betrothed to Samuel of the Virginia Company, and in a position as a Lady of standing in the town. Immediately we mark her out as the most Machiavellian character; plotting and scheming and twisting the town’s men round her little finger. Which is great to see. (Almost Cersei-esque a la Game of Thrones.) But too often she drifts for entire episodes, hovering in the background when she should be dictating proceedings. Which is, frustratingly, down to the show’s writers rather than Battrick’s performance.

Then there’s Alice (Sophie Rundle), betrothed to Henry but suffers a sexually violent act (another one on modern TV, how original) at his hands before they wed. He goes off in search of gold and she weds his brother Silas (with whom she’s conveniently fallen in love almost straight away). And whilst she has the potential as a character to bring righteous retribution in Henry’s direction, she seems to be largely stuck in ‘wet blanket’ mode, relying on Silas to protect her, which is a shame.

There’s also Verity (Niamh Walsh), married to the town drunk. She’s the fiestiest character and seems to get the best lines in terms of defending herself and her fellow females against the town’s boorish men. But she also waxes and wanes frustratingly, never progressing or shaking things up. 

And that’s pretty much how the whole season goes. Teasing you with the glimmers of interesting storylines and complex characters, then shying away from fully realising any of them. 
Maybe it’s the fault of shows like Game of Thrones, which just set the bar too high. But I don’t buy that. I think that this show is trying to play the long game and let things unfold over many seasons. But you just can’t do that these days. With so much good TV out there you need to be grabbing the viewer straight from the off, and keep them hooked EVERY SINGLE EPISODE. 

Sadly, this show doesn’t. So, if I was marking it, I’d say 5, maybe 6 out of 10. And I’d be very surprised if it got a second season. Which is a shame, but it would be its own fault.

Far From The Madding Crowd review

Film

I must admit I’ve not read Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel, Far From The Madding Crowd. Had I done so before seeing the film I wonder if it would have affected how I interpreted the story and related to the characters?

I guess it doesn’t matter now.

I really just raise this point to say I went into this one fresh and with no knowledge. What I did know was that there hasn’t been a Carey Mulligan film (and performance) that I havent liked, from An Education to Shame to Drive, she’s never disappointed. In fact she’s often captivated and astonished me, she’s such a talent and holds the screen so well.

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Despite this story being adapted for the cinema numerous times before (1915, 1967, 1998) I’ll assume that you’re like me and don’t know it, or at least want a refresher. We start with Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan); she meets hunky shepherd Gabriel Oak (Matthius Schoenaerts) living nearby and, as must have been the way back in the 1870s, within five minutes he’s proposing to her. She knocks him back, being too much of a free spirit to be tied down to some random shepherd, however strong, silent and hunky he may appear to be.

She moves away and gets left an inheritance by an uncle, one which includes a huge farm that needs returning to former glories. Through some shoddy shepherding Gabriel loses his flock and is forced to look for new work. He stumbles on a farm on fire and helps out and lo and behold it’s Miss Everdene’s new place. And so they are reunited.

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To keep things spicy he’s not the only man after her hand in marriage and following her around like a lost puppy. Through a bit of 19th century flirting she raises the interests of wealthy neighbour Mr Boldwood (Michael Sheen), but he’s just too tame for her tastes. She also meets caddish soldier Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge) who turns her attentions for all the wrong reasons.

Plot wise it’s fairly simple, albeit a little infuriating. Bathsheba has three guys vying for her attention: one caring and loyal but beneath her social status, one wealthy and stable but a bit dull, and one wild and roguish but not a particularly nice man, to put it mildly.

I suppose I’m silently screaming inside – like no doubt many people before me down the years – that we all know which man she should go for, but we cannot always get what we want, or know what’s best for us – so she dances round and round. Even without knowing this story I knew the story, or hoped I knew how it would end.

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Ultimately, it’s not so much about that though, it’s more about performances – and director Thomas Vinterburg was spoilt for choice with his cast. Michael Sheen gets the thankless task of making Mr Boldwood seem proud and noble, but completely unsure of himself when it comes to courting Bathsheba. His performance – as Boldwood unravels – is hugely impressive and heartfelt.

I’ve yet to see Rust & Bone, the film that put Matthias Schoenaerts on the map, but he’s got to be giving Tom Hardy a run for his money in the strong and silent category. As Gabriel Oak he says so much, often without saying anything at all. A consummate performance marking him as one to watch with interest in the future.

Then there’s Mulligan.

In other actresses’ hands Bathsheba could have come across as quite annoying; constantly doing the wrong thing, too proud, too stubborn, too blind when she has a good thing going. But the wonder that is Carey Mulligan keeps us on her side. She makes her likeable, wilful, headstrong, emotional, precocious – and she gives her depth and relatability. In short, she carries the film effortlessly and beautifully and was nigh on perfect for the role.

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I suppose, if I had any issues at all, it would be that the film as whole felt a little safe at times. A little slow and sleepy – and a little sanitised. On a basic level, for example, when Bathsheba is working the fields in a few early scenes she has a small smudge of dirt on her cheek. To show she’s dirty. But it was a Hollywood smudge and I wanted more grit and realism.

This was a small indicator of a bigger problem. The film as a whole needed more fire, more blood and thunder. Being as clueless as to the original story as I am, maybe this was a faithful adaptation. But maybe – beyond the impressive performances from the leads – a bit of a modern spark was needed to really make it fizz and ignite.