The Dawn of the 20th Century | British History Challenge 39-41

We’ve come so far from the days of the Roman era and finally we hit the home stretch. The Victorian era is over and the long days of the 20th century loom ahead. Soon we shall pass through the First and Second World Wars and into the light modernity, but first we must reach that point. And to begin… Winston Churchill.

#39: Young Winston

General Opinion: A very likeable film, though not without a few dodgy faults.

Review:

I like this film. There are some nice touches and the acting is certainly first class. It has the same person who played Vereker back in Zulu Dawn a few films back and, whilst not brilliant in that, here he rather suits the role thanks to a decent script and good direction.

What is most alarming is that in the scenes where Winston is supposed to be about twelve, somehow they’ve managed to find someone who looks exactly the same. For a while I wondered if they had used the same person as they never showed him below the waist, but after checking the credits I found that the answer was no. But still… They did well there, when most other films would just use some random kid who looked nothing like. Saying that, seven year old Winston looks nothing like the other two (Ok… maybe a bit!) Meanwhile Anthony Hopkins does a brilliant Lloyd George, although he’s only on screen for a few minutes, which is a bit of a disappointment. Although he’s had small parts in other films etc, there aren’t really that many biopics of Lloyd George… The only two film versions I could find that existed were an ancient silent one from after the first world war and one made in 1973 (again with Hopkins.) Neither of them appear to be traceable though. Mrs Robinson turns up as Churchill’s mother, but she’s kind of flat and generally the least exciting and poorest performing of all the actors. Even the seven year old Winston and a few of the horses act better than she does.

For the most part the film is accurate. It sticks mostly to Churchill’s memoirs of his early years, although with a bit of padding here and there to flesh out the story and the bits Churchill glossed over. They haven’t gone off the wall and made anything up. It’s all true, every last bit, including the bit where he escapes from a POW camp over the toilet roof and then legs it half way across South Africa (despite South Africa looking an awful lot like Wales and NOT South Africa.) All of the best scenes in this film are ones that actually happened. The two that stick out most are the bit where twelve year old Winston and his father are talking about toy soldiers and a bit in South Africa/Wales involving an attack on a train.

Despite it’s good points, this film has a few flaws that seriously detract from how good it is. Firstly is the narration. I don’t mind the narration itself, it just keeps flipping back and forth between a younger  and an older Winston and it’s most annoying. Secondly is that it’s rather jumpy in terms of structure. It begins somewhere around the middle, flips to the beginning and then moves on from there… and the bit at the beginning is just left dangling and never mentioned again. It’s out of context. And then there a points where parts of the film casually end and immediately jump to something else, like After Winston’s escape in South Africa it suddenly jumps to his entering politics without any closure for the South Africa bit.

And finally there are some annoying ‘interview’ style bits with just one character explaining thoughts/actions etc to a disembodied interviewer. Whilst this thing is ok in lame secondary school ‘drama/presentation’ kind of things, it’s not the sort of thing that works well in a feature film, and it really doesn’t work here. Not one jot.

Rating: 7.5/10- Despite being likeable, the flaws let it down.

#40: Kind Hearts and Coronets

General Opinion: A good plot hindered by poor direction and a humourless script.

Review:

Considering this is supposed to be an Ealing Comedy it’s not very good. In fact, its a bit dire. It’s not like, say, the Ladykillers which is delightfully sinister. The best two things about it are the plot and Alec Guinness. Firstly the plot is, like most of the Ealings, a work of absolute genius. A well to do Edwardian woman is disinherited from the Dukedom of Chalfont, due to the snobbery of her relations, after she marries an Italian opera singer. After her death, her son Louis takes it upon himself to massacre the Chalfonts one by one and claim back his inheritance… But for a film that should be full of dark, sinister corners and shadows and creepy music it’s just rather flat. You would expect better for a film that was made in 1947… It’s more like a very early talkie than a post war production. Even then, I think it would come across as being rather flat and old fashioned. There are a few long, lingering shots of murder scenes and some of them are just glossed over in favour of a romantic love triangle sub plot that, whilst contributing to the culmination, is rather boring and does little to advance the main story. If the film did away with this and just concentrated on the murder plot it would have worked much better. As it is the film becomes padded with much needless material and guff.

And the script is very much the same. It’s very old fashioned. It tries to be posh but it just comes across as being a bit heavy. It’s not really Edwardian at all. Think to the likes of Peter Pan, The Secret Garden and Mary Poppins, that’s how Edwardians spoke. Very much like modern folk only a bit crisper and with less swearing…

And as for the ending…  They try to be clever but by this point I had become so bored that I couldn’t wait for it to end so I didn’t really care what happened to the main character.

But despite that, the film does have it’s good points. It does well to portray the snobbishness of the Edwardian uper classes and how ignorant they are of everyday folk, and the transformation of Louis into one of them the closer he comes to his goal is done with subtlety and care, although the character is rather unlikeable to begin with, which never bodes well. If he had been played with more sympathy and as something of an anti hero he would serve the film better. As such, he doesn’t. The two women involved in the sub plot are rather forgettable, acting like they’re in some sort of melodrama and not a comedy… Meanwhile every last one of the Chalfont’s are played superbly by Alec Guinness, although he never really gets enough time as a single character to shine through thanks to the weighty sub-plot, which leaves less time for the murders.

So in short, this is a massive let down and a waste of enourmous potential in a film.

Rating: 4.5/10

#41: The Lost Prince

General Opinion: As fudged as Queen Mary’s knickers and obsessed with the Russians…

Review:

This isn’t bad as some, it’s mildly entertaining and certainly has some merit. But from a historical perspective it falls on its boney backside. It’s not that it gets the framework wrong, it doesn’t… It’s more what they add in, what they miss out and how they present the story and the characters in general.

The film is a biography of Prince John, son of George V who suffered from epileptic seizures and died young at the age of thirteen. This film purports to be about how the royal family dealt with John’s condition and how they tried to protect him from the outside world… Well you would think so, as that’s actually what history tells us happened… But here they portray John as a sort of simpleton who draws pictures and likes gardening. Granted, John did keep and tend to a garden and there is every chance he drew pictures, but there’s no evidence he was a simpleton. In fact, all the evidence points to the opposite.  He was certainly a happy child (much happier than the other royal children) who liked playing jokes on his friends (I’ll get to them) and fighting with swords. It is entirely possible that he had some form of autism as well as epilepsy, but autism doesn’t make a person a simpleton. Sometimes it can be characterised by learning difficulties, yes, but there are plenty of people in the world with learning difficulties and they aren’t simpletons.

Besides this, the film ignores a vital point… John’s size. By all accounts he grew at a rapid rate.  He was described by one playmate as a ‘monster boy.’ The film just whitewashes this completely and has some podgy kid in an ill fitting sailor suit playing him, the older him that is. The younger John does alright. He’s portrayed with sympathy as an intelligent, bright child but with an illness that is terrifying to the prim and proper royal family. This is all true and the young kid does look a bit like the real Prince John. And in this part of the film you also have Michael Gambon terrifically playing Edward VII. I can imagine Edward VII being like that and that’s in part to Gambon’s performance. But he’s not on screen much and his death happens off screen. Would it really have been to much to show his death? By all accounts it was quite dramatic, or as dramatic as Edwardian death can get (He suffered several bouts of ill health at once but he just kept going…) Unfortunately the same praise cannot be heaped upon whoever the guy is playing George V.

For a start he looks nothing like. I think they’ve just slapped a fake beard on and said ‘yeah… that’ll do…’ George V had a very distinctive, well groomed beard, that sort which makes a man envious if you know what I mean. Then he’s portrayed as a flat, two dimensional, cruel workaholic who keeps shouting all the time, with no chemistry with anybody else on screen. He may have been strict with his children (and possibly caused them all a few life-long problems along the way) but in all he was a hard working family man who was devoted to his wife and children. You don’t get any of that here at all. There’s a hint of his strict parenting regime but that’s all.

Then you have Miranda Richardson as queen Mary, a character with potential. The stern but sympathetic demeanour of the real life character is there but it never gets off the ground. And again, there is the right framework here but its just not utilised. The real Queen Mary spent more time with John than she did with any of her other children.

Ahhh yes. The royal children… George V had six children… Four of them are conspicuous in this film by their absence. There is no Prince Edward, who was notoriously unsympathetic to his brother’s plight, especially after his death in 1919. There’s none of him. There’s no Bertie, no Henry and no Princess Mary. There’s a brief glimpse of them at one point and a reference at the beginning of the film but other than that nothing. The film does accurately portray John’s close relationship with his brother George but, again, George’s character is a little lacking. He’s portrayed as being jealous of John’s isolation, hating naval college and wanting to be artsy and musical etc. I’m not sure if any of that is even remotely true. It’s certainly known that in later life he was into experimental drugs and numerous bisexual affairs, but there is no evidence for the way he is portrayed here.

And again, its not as if John was isolated. He had local friends around the farmhouse where he lived and he was present at intimate family gatherings, yet none of this is pictured. Queen Mary visits him from time to time but you never see the truth, that he was only kept away from the public for fear of his illness embarrassing the royal family. He was never as alone and cut off as he is depicted here. That only happened after he had died and he was effectively airbrushed from history and never mentioned. This is never even adhered to.

But on top of all of this you have the most stupid inclusion of all, the Romanovs. They make an appearance at the beginning and then they hang over everything else, at the expense of the film dealing with British politics, the real causes of the First World War (here the Russians are blamed.) It’s hardly necessary considering what the film is supposed to be about. Prince John would have hardly known about the Romanovs, yet here he is with an imaginary Tsar Nicholas beating carpets and living with him on his farm. Its ludicrous that they should be given such weight when they should barely feature, if at all. And later on, for some reason, we see an imaginary Kaiser sipping tea on the front lawn (Really!) In fact, the whole thing seems obsessed with the Russians. Queen Alexandra (wife of King Edward) obsesses over a picture of Tsar Nicholas and George V together and what seems like an awful lot of time is spent dealing with the fall of the Romanovs… We also see their death for goodness sake… And it’s not as if this Russian politics has any impact on the main plot… It doesn’t. It just seems to me like pointless filler material where the time could have been better spent with the stuff they missed out, like Edward VII’s death, the missing royal children and John’s farmhouse friends. I came across a reference to him watching a Zeppelin flying over his farmhouse in 1916. Why not show that?

But to quit complaining for a moment, this film is watchable. Yes it has poor acting but it’s made up for by a few good characters (Gambon’s Edward VII and John’s nanny Charlote ‘Lalla’ Bill… Whose name is inexplicably pronounced as LA-LA when I have it on good authority that it’s actually pronounced LA-LUH.) The framework of the real story is there, the embarrassment John’s illness caused the Royal family, his relationship with brother George etc… It’s just that they miss stuff out and become obsessed with Russian politics.

In short, whilst I liked it overall, I found that they fudged it in a few key areas where it really wasn’t that hard to get it right.

Rating: 6/10- Entertaining but let down in certain areas.

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