The Terror–A Chilling Northwest Passage Nightmare

 

The Terror series

Inspired by a true story and the novel by Dan Simmons, The Terror, a new AMC television series, takes the viewer into perilous territory as a 19th century Royal Navy crew attempts to discover the Northwest Passage through the Arctic Circle. A holy grail for intrepid explorers dating back to the 1700’s, the Northwest Passage is now open to cargo ships, oil tankers, and cruise ships because of climate change. That wasn’t always the case.

The Terror opens in 1846, with two crews–the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on a tandem quest to open the treacherous Northwest Passage for the British Empire and its trade mission. Faced with limited resources, an unruly crew, and fear of an unknown killing spirit, the Tuunbaq (borrowed from Inuit mythology), both ships are sailing towards the brink of extinction, isolated by the frozen tundra, and trapped at the end of the earth. Terror ensues.

HMS Terror’s Captain Francis Crozier (Mad Men’s Jared Harris) has every expectation of achieving the opening of the Northwest Passage, after replacing the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin (Game of Thrones” Ciaran HInds). Having a change of heart as he assumes command, Crozier must believe in their mission at the same time he is doubtful that they will succeed. His command and pretense at confidence are revealed through the toll that his deception takes on the man. In the first epsiode the word hubris is muttered, and it hangs over the rest of the series, a diagnosis, a rebuke, and a lesson on the profound misunderstanding of other worlds.

As winter approaches, with scurvy and starvation growing more severe, a young frightened Inuit woman (sneeringly nicknamed “Lady Silence”) is demonized.The Terror lives up to its name–not only as the name of a ship but also as the state of mind trapped in a frozen seascape.

In all the episodes we begin to understand uncomfortable truths: These men — all men — would survive, or at least find peace, if they could consider the world through someone else’s perspective. And they can’t.The Terror highlights all that can go wrong when a group of men, desperate to survive, struggle not only with the elements, but with each other and with a type of life that threatens their belief system.

Meticulous detail and painstaking reconstruction of what life on a naval ship looked like in 1846 are impressive as are the visual effects which rarely seem like a set or too many CGI special effects.

The Terror is a haunting, gripping story–not a horror flick– which will nonetheless chill you to your core. The tightness of the miniseries format certainly helps. I tore through precious food rations.  An unbelievably taut and original spin on adventure, exploration, and trespassing the boundaries of nature!

 

 

“Closed Circuit”—We’re Under Surveillance

Closed Circuit 2

“Closed Circuit” (2013), an adrenaline-pumping political thriller, portrays corrupt government forces who will stop at nothing. It’s an exciting genre. The title “Closed Circuit” is designed to raise the alarm over both the injustice of closed court hearings and the use of surveillance technology. Covert surveillance amplifies the sense that London has become a police state with ubiquitous security cameras. We don’t know who’s watching or how they’re using what they see.

The opening scene provides the hook. After a truck explodes in London’s bustling Borough Market, killling 120 people,   authorities at MI5 swiftly arrest a Muslim immigrant, Farroukh Erdogan based on closed circuit surveillance. The government assigns two separate lawyers to represent the accused, one for public sessions, the other for secret sessions. The government argues the evidence is so sensitive that national security pre-empts due process. (Think Patriot Act). Martin (played by Eric Bana) will try Erdogan’s case in public and Claudia (Rebecca Hall), will present evidence in front of the judge during the closed sessions of the trial, evidence the defendant himself is not allowed to hear. Martin and Claudia, however, are ex-lovers but fail to recuse themselves, since the case is so compelling. Moral questions on all sides begin to proliferate as Martin and Claudia dig deeper.   They soon realize that their client is not who the prosecution is making him out to be.

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The acts of terrorism depicted in “Closed Circuit” are meant to justify national security agencies’ means and methods of indicting and trying the accused. “Closed Circuit” depicts the injustice of power wielded by MI5 in secret, in contrast to the MI5 that British society permits to bend rules for their citizens’ protection. The overriding theme of “Closed Circuit”–when the powerful makes the rules, all everyone else can do is play along.

This taut film represents a style of conspiratorial “nobody-wins” storytelling seldom seen since the days of “No Way Out” and “Ides of March”.  Here, the Power is represented with chilling smarminess and ruthless insincerity by Jim Broadbent. A New York Times reporter (Julia Stiles), the MI5 administrator (Ann-Marie Duff), and solicitor (Ciaran Hinds) all add to the intrigue, with unexpected plot twists. Everyone’s allegiances are suspect, and surprise betrayals abound.

“Closed Circuit” is definitely worth seeing, if you want something more cerebral and something that will bother you a bit afterwards. This British courtroom thriller challenges the validity of policies that shield key evidence from public scrutiny.

 

‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”–Not Enough Tinkering for My Taste

This cinematic remake of the landmark mini-TV series from 1980, starring Alec Guiness, is updated with Gary Oldman in the starring role that Guiness made so famous. Based upon the John le Carré espionage thriller,  “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” dramatizes British secret intelligence–nicknamed “The Circus” –during the early 1970s Cold War.

Control (John Hurt), the chief intelligence operative, is forced into retirement because a covert operation failed to identify a double agent or “mole”. Forced into retirement along with Control, Smiley (Gary Oldman) has been ordered back into service to trap the mole, after Control dies. Alongside the young intelligence officer Peter Guillam (the ever-watchable Benedict Cumberbatch), Smiley tracks four primary suspects: Bill Haydon (Colin Firth), Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Roy Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (David Dencik).  Information Smiley obtains eventually leads him to Ricki Tarr  (TomHardy), the dirty “cleaner” for British intelligence’s most repugnant operations.

The pacing during the first half of the film–with multiple flashbacks to Budapest, Paris, and Istanbul–forces the viewer to assimilate and track approximately a dozen key characters—most of whom go by at least two names—in very slow tempo, making connecting the dots and characters more difficult than necessary.  Perhaps the director (Tomas Alfredson) thought this would build suspense, but for me the characters became confused and undeveloped.  Motivations were insufficiently revealed.  Private lives were obscured as well as loyalties and betrayals.

While I did not expect the brisk spy action or glitzy glamour of the Bourne series or even BBC’s Masterpiece Mystery, the first half of this remake is so languid I started to get drowsy. Photographed well for where and when it took place, the footage does give a sense of the Cold War in grey, drizzly tones and mood.

The film must be judged on its own merits, with the viewer given enough subtle cues to conduct an investigation along with Smiley.  Characterization wise, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” falls short.  The storyline necessary to keep the audience’s interest faltered, especially for those who are seeing this movie as a stand-alone narrative without reference to any previous work.  However, the much-better second half of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” comprises a more complex, intricately woven plot of tension, cold-war paranoia, and deception.

With a veritable dream team of the finest names in modern British cinema, – Oldman, Firth, Hinds, Cumberbatch, Hardy, Strong and Hurt–the concomitant achievement in cinematic storytelling I expected unfortunately did not happen. All of these extraordinary actors’ supporting roles at times eclipse Gary Oldman’s subdued performance but ultimately are wasted talent in this version of “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”. Without having read the book or seen the 1979 version, it will, most likely, be very difficult to fill gaps in the narrative. Important plot points and clues just aren’t there–a more tailored approach to le Carré’s work was needed, even with le Carré providing supervision of the screenplay!

“The Mayor of Casterbridge”–A Victorian Drama for Today

Victorian values seem remote — the language is obtuse, the character development Shakespearean in complexity.  However, I adore Thomas Hardy.  As the master of labyrinthine plots, Hardy surprises when the viewer least expects it.  And the BBC/A & E mini-series, “The Mayor of Casterbridge” (2003),  capitalizes on every deviant turn with brilliant acting, cinematography, and contemporary sensibility.

Hardy’s novel is immensely captivating in cinematic form.  “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is an astringent tale. The dark and mordant Michael Henchard, mayor of Casterbridge, (masterfully played by the underrated Ciaran Hinds) is deeply unlikable, a cruel, selfish drunkard who brutally humiliates his young wife and small child. But Thomas Hardy does not paint his characters in broad strokes of black and white.  His good and evil are much more complicated than that.  Personal failings morph into redemption and insight but devolve again into self-destruction and betrayal.  The pure-of-heart–Henchard’s wife Susan and her daughter Elizabeth Jane (Jodhi May)–can forgive the unforgiveable and love unconditionally. Lucette, Henchard’s mistress (the excellent Polly Walker) has a more guarded affection. Donald Farfrae (the superb James Purefoy), a young ambitious Scotsman, arrives in Casterbridge and soon is taken into Henchard’s confidence.   Wanting to achieve what Henchard has, through cooperation not competition, Farfrae introduces a revolutionary technological invention for mechanizing wheat cultivation, further enhancing Henchard’s reputation as a shrewd and successful businessman. Soon Farfrae is a more compassionate and effective manager than his employer.   When Farfrae wishes to court Elizabeth-Jane Newson, who at the time is living as Henchard’s stepdaughter, the relationship with Henchard begins to unravel, and Farfrae’s own ambitions cast a shadow over his relationship with Elizabeth Jane and Lucette.

The viewer does not expect the ending that unfolds, hoping instead for redemption, forgiveness, self-knowledge. Hardy’s study of human nature and all its failings is soul-piercing and unflinching. In spite of being loved, can the tormented soul be rescued from drowning in self-loathing? The mood of “The Mayor of Casterbridge” is wounded, ambiguous, and unforgettable.